A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by The Malaysian Star

“Moving memoir” / The Malaysian Star / Kitty Sensei / June 14, 2009

A DRIFTING Life is a massive piece of work, not just in terms of size – the book is over 800 pages long, and it’s as heavy as a dumbbell! – but also because of the sheer amount of knowledge contained within its pages. You’ll learn about Japan’s history, culture, and the manga industry, and what it takes to make it as a mangaka in Japan.


This manga, set in post-World War II Japan, seems to be about a young man named Hiroshi Katsumi who dreams of being a mangaka just like his hero Osamu Tezuka (the godfather of manga and creator of Astro Boy).

However, in actual fact, A Drifting Life is a biography of Yoshihiro Tatsumi-sensei, the “grandfather of Japanese alternative comics”, and Hiroshi is his “stand in”. It took Tatsumi 11 years to pen this memoir, but it only covers 15 years of his life, from 1945 to June of 1960.

If not for the introduction at Drawn & Quarterly’s website, drawnandquar terly.com, I wouldn’t have known that I was reading Tatsumi’s life story. What the author did was to treat his past self like a character in a manga, separate from his present self. It is certainly a unique memoir!

It is said that Tatsumi did this in order to be more critical of his past, and there are times when you do squirm at what you’re reading. His awkward brushes with women, for one, is astonishingly and embarrassingly frank.

(Interestingly, although the manga is mostly told in the third person, it sometimes switches to the first person – from Hiroshi’s point of view. It can get a tad confusing.)

If you’re an aspiring mangaka, there’s much you can glean from Tatsumi’s observations about the manga industry from the 1940s to 1950s.

Hiroshi has to overcome many challenges before he can achieve his dreams. Not only must he deal with his jealous brother (who also has similar dreams), he has to work very hard to be noticed in the then fledgling but competitive manga industry.

And as Hiroshi learns about the finer points of manga creation, so will you. You’ll also be inspired by his strong work ethic.

Tatsumi’s art is simple and his characters may look unsophisticated to our modern eyes, but 1940s and 1950s Japan comes to life under his pen. He takes great care to illustrate the events, architecture, and fashion of the era, and since Hiroshi loves movies, manga, and novels, we are also educated about the popular culture of that time.

Oddly, the manga ends in 1960, with a brief epilogue in 1995. That’s a gap of 35 years! The Hiroshi in the epilogue is a different man, and his features are mysteriously obscured, as if to say that he is no longer recognised.

What went on in the 35 years to bring on such a change in Hiroshi? Is this Tatsumi’s lament that despite all his hard work he feels that his contribution is not recognised? Tatsumi doesn’t give you a straightforward answer, but he does leave you thinking about your life’s work – what will you be like 30 years down the road?

A deep, complex and moving memoir. Certainly not the kind of manga you can read in one afternoon!

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