Monday, June 25, 2012

Talking Tatsumi: A Drifting Life

Despite my interest in international comics, one of my long-time blind spots has been manga. This is for any number of reasons: the clannishness of its American fans that makes entry into manga seem impenetrable at times; the sheer amount of material; but most especially the juvenile nature of much of its subject matter. Of course, there is also a long history of adult, experimental manga, and a smattering of that is being translated for American audiences. What better place to start than with the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, one of the creators of gekiga. That word refers to comics that broke that standard rules of manga and eventually dealt with the kind of ideas and topic of everyday life that alt and underground comics would later address in the US and Europe. I'll be examining three of Tatsumi's translated comics this week: A Drifting Life, Black Blizzard and his new collection of comics, Fallen Words.

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.

There's a delightful purity in Tatsumi's obsession with reading and drawing manga, especially when he's able to meet with the great Osamu Tezuka (the most influential manga artist of all time and a standard top-five pick for greatest cartoonist ever) and gain confidence. Throughout the book, Tatsumi is a man in the right place at the right time, even if it leads to the directionless "drifting life" of the title, where one is at the whim of one's publishers. As a result, he's able to publish an astounding number of books (mostly aimed at children) in a ridiculously short period of time, even as he becomes dissatisfied with what he's doing and longs to do full-length, intelligent comics--at the very least, comics for teenagers and not pre-teens.

This book is masterful because Tatsumi is able to create a remarkable storytelling rhythm while keeping a number of scenarios in his rotation. The book is partly about his family, with his occasionally shiftless father and his older brother being the key characters. His brother, who is sick for the early part of the book, is also a manga fanatic and is jealous that his brother is making money from publishing manga and hanging out with Tezuka while he has to go to the hospital. Later, his brother joins him as an author and co-initiator of the gekiga movement. The book is also about the bizarre and colorful characters in the world of Japanese manga publishing, with the Hinomaru group being the craziest. Publishers trying to get sole custody of artists, wars between publishers, representatives tracking down artists in person and other histrionics are played both seriously and for laughs by Tatsumi. He plays up the ridiculousness of the situation in the goofy way he draws a number of these characters, giving their eyes a crazy glint. Kurodo, the hard-drinking, bitter "sensei" of Hinomaru, is an amusing figure with his beret and unshaven face. The book is also about Tatsumi's quest to develop himself as an artist, his struggles with productivity at times, his creative breakthroughs and the ways in which the money flying around for manga had an enormous impact on him and his friends. In this way, the book reminds me a bit of the three-volume The Dick Ayers Story, by the American artist whose tenure extends back to the Golden Age. He spends a lot of the book discussing his assignments, how much he makes for each one, and how that adds up at the end of each year. The book is also about the artistic community and the friendly nature of their competition as the young guns tried to one-up each other with new and more creative new techniques in making comics. Finally, the book is also about Tatsumi as a young man trying to figure out how to deal with women and how to best incorporate other cultural influences, even as Japan slowly starts to revive as a country and a culture.

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.

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