Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review; A Drifting Life

I often believe I have an almost instinctive sense of what a good English language comic is just by flicking through a copy but I need guidance when it comes to manga. In reality, my instinct for English language comics isn’t as astute as I fancy it to be while I could probably do with relaxing and relying on my manga-sense a lot more. The reason I say this is that manga has provided me with some of my most enjoyable comic reading experiences in recent years including the opening volumes of Barefoot Gen and Vertical’s translations of Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novels. Having said this, I was faintly disappointed by Drawn and Quarterly’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi first two short story collections, Abandon The Old In Tokyo and The Push Man. High quality produced hardback collections of short stories isn’t always the best way to encounter your first work by a manga artist, especially if you’re frugal like me.

Thank god then for A Drifting Life, an 856 paged, door step sized graphic novel collection of Yoshihor Tatsumi’s memoirs. Just from a format point of view, this already fits with what my idea of manga should be. (I got my copy as birthday present but it retails for £17.99 in the UK, although my clever gifter snapped it up from my Amazon Wish List for just £12.73, or thereabouts.) From the first moment I flicked through this book in a shop eighteen months ago, I just new I had to have it.

Tatsumi tells the story of Hiroshi Katsumi and his rise to fame as a manga artist during the fledgling days of the Japanese industry. Inspired by Osamu Tezuka, who he meets early in his career, Hiroshi, a pseudonym for the artist, has aspirations to tell long form stories using new and previously unused techniques. Hiroshi is a success but his art-focused headspace often gets disrupted by real life, relationship dynamics and desire.

Where Barefoot Gen that tells heart wrenching stories from post nuclear attack Hiroshima, A Drifting Life begins in 1945 and takes us to the end of the 1950s, through an era of post-war positivity for Japan. Tatsumi does a successful job of taking us out of Hiroshi’s immediate concerns and reminding us of what is happening culturally in Japan at the time. Every new creative idea and publishing move is contextualised by this technique. This is why the book works as an education; whereas English language comics were mainly short form and for children at this time, manga artists were working hard on obliterating the boundaries and expectations, usually successfully (although Hiroshi doesn’t always feel this way). The most alarming lesson learned from A Drifting Life is the rate at which Hiroshi and his peers produced artwork. They seemed to write and draw well over fifty pages a month. It’s a rate of work that makes western artists look like the fat, spoiled, lazy bastards that they are. (Only joking, western artists.)

Tatsumi’s artwork for A Drifting Life is terrific through out. Everything you need to be good at to be a strong comic artist is here. His characterisation and acting is strong, his momentum involving, his single panels engaging, his scene setting perfect, his draughtsmanship flawless. A Drifting Life took Tatsumi ten years to complete, which isn’t surprising given the quality of the book. What is surprising is that I understand he was working on other projects at the same time and this is something he did out of hours. Out of hours?! You’re joking! This is what he did to wind down at the end of the day? All of you pale imitators in the west should snap your pens and get proper jobs right now! (Only joking, pale imitators.)

I imagine if you’re Japanese and familiar with manga history, A Drifting Life could provide you with all sorts of interesting gossip and intrigues. For me, a navel gazing Englishman fundamentally ignorant about manga, I found I read A Drifting Life as if it where set in an alternative universe where comics are widely read and respected. Tatsumi’s decision to change his own name for the book and the references to manga I haven’t heard of before had me engaging with it as if it were fiction set during real events. But this manga does exist; it’s out there and it’s waiting for me to read it all up. Real or fiction, it doesn’t matter, I found A Drifting Life inspiring just the same. I’m beginning to suspect my doubts about Abandon The Old In Tokyo and The Push Man were the doubts of a fool and I’ve decided to re-read them as soon as I can.

1 comment:

  1. My manga-sense is non-existent but I loved Buddha and Ode to Kirihito by Tezuka and will make sure I look out for this one. Sounds good.

    Poor pale imitators.