Monday, June 25, 2012
Talking Tatsumi: A Drifting Life
A Drifting Life is a slightly autobiography, detailing Tatsumi's entry into doing manga as an amateur and ending with his continuing allegiance to the style he pioneered. For a book that's 800+ pages, it's quite a breezy read, with Tatsumi breaking up his personal narrative with chapter breaks, complete with splash-page illustrations for each new chapter. He also makes a point of ending each chapter either with a cliffhanger, a concluding panel or an allusion to how current events might affect the future. For Tatsumi, who started getting his work published as a teenager (along with his brother), the personal and professional are entirely intertwined. Telling the story of how he became an artist meant not only talking about his family and personal life, it meant talking about the cultural and political history of Japan in the postwar era and the 1950s. It's a story that begins with deprivation and a family beset by sickness and an undependable father, with any number of ups and downs as Japan slowly rebuilt itself into an international economic power. During a time when there weren't necessarily a lot of great jobs available, it was perhaps less of a big deal for young "Hiroshi Katsumi" (Tatsumi's name altered for the book) to be a manga fanatic.
Tatsumi's portrayal of himself is fascinating. He draws himself wide-eyed and goofy as if to emphasize his naivete', with a cartoony block head and slightly bulbous nose. He's hopelessly earnest about his art and hopelessly clueless about business, until he starts to grow up a bit and puts his artistic interests ahead of everything else. He also doesn't spare himself for criticism when he goes to Tokyo and starts to act irresponsibly. It's a bit distracting at times to read about this goofy-looking character who takes himself and his ideas so seriously, but Tatsumi makes it work with his overall light touch and stunning talent for caricature. His understanding of body language, gesture, and the ways in which bodies relate to each other in space is surpassed only by Jaime Hernandez, and this is why A Drifting Life is such a compelling read, despite the occasional dryness of its subject matter. Tatsumi uses his instincts as a former detective story writer to keep the reader in suspense, plays up the crazy nature of publishing in the 1950s, and when in doubt, uses himself as comic relief. The result is a memoir that's less about the author than it is about the author's ideas and a particular era. For this reader, it served as both as a powerful narrative and a much-appreciated introduction to an underdiscussed aspect of manga history.