A DRIFTING LIFE reviewed by The Honolulu Star Bulletin

“Anime pioneer still packs punch” / The Honolulu Star Bulletin / Gary C.W. Chun / July 21, 2009

Every month, we set aside a column specifically for our staff manga and anime enthusiasts Jason Yadao and Wilma Jandoc to chime in on the dizzying world of Japanese comics and animation.

But before Jason offers up his musings next week, allow me to introduce you to the works of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the so-called grandfather of Japanese alternative manga, who took the comic book form to a more adult narrative and cinematic level. With the help of one of the U.S.'s leading alternative creators, Adrian Tomine, Tatsumi's singular work has been gathered in English-language collections by the publisher Drawn and Quarterly. "The Push Man and Other Stories," "Abandon the Old in Tokyo" and "Good-Bye" collect the best of Tatsumi from 1969 to '72, and his epic graphic memoir "A Drifting Life" -- a decade in the making and 850-plus pages -- was released three months ago to wide acclaim.

Surprisingly enough, it was the book that finally brought him overdue recognition in his own home country -- it was awarded the Osama Tezuka Cultural Prize in the grand-prize category. The prizes are handed out on annual basis to manga artists worthy of recognition by the national daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

If you're at all a comic book fan, you owe it to yourself to check out these books. To better familiarize yourself with Tatsumi's work, start with any of the collections. They're filled with dark vignettes that usually pit ordinary if troubled men against the crowded and alienating society that was early postwar Japan.

Tatsumi called the realistic work he was doing "gekiga" to differentiate it from the usual run-of-the-mill manga. In his introduction to the "Push Man" book, Tomine wrote that he first discovered Tatsumi's "stories' focus alternated between stretches of mundane daily life and moments of surprising violence and sexuality, and both extremes were equally refreshing and unsettling to me."

The stories are certainly bracing stuff and still pack a punch these many years later. For example, in the story "Occupied," which leads the "Abandon" book, a children's book illustrator coping with a creative block finds newfound inspiration in, of all places, the walls of public restrooms scrawled with sexually crude graffiti.

One of Tatsumi's strongest pieces can be found in "Good-Bye." "Hell" tells the story of a former military photographer who is hailed as a national hero for one shot he took soon after the devastation of Hiroshima. The photo looks like the atomic-blast silhouettes of a young man comforting his mother -- only it's not. He's confronted by a man wracked with lung disease who tells him that it actually depicts a murder, one that he orchestrated. The man threatens the photographer with blackmail to expose the truth. The photographer, in turn, contemplates keeping the potential blackmailer quiet by killing him himself.

In another story in the book, "Just a Man," virility is the overriding theme as an office worker who was a soldier in the war is on the verge of retirement. Because of his infatuation with a younger and attractive co-worker, he's inspired to cheat on his mistrustful wife by first blowing his retirement savings on an equally young bathhouse attendant.

AFTER YOU read these collections, then you're ready to delve into "A Drifting Life." Covering the years just after Japan's wartime surrender in 1945 through the mass student political movement in mid-1960 (including an epilogue set in '95 on the seventh anniversary of the death of, coincidentally enough, Osamu Tezuka), it's a pretty thorough documentation of Tatsumi's life and development as a manga creator.

Tatsumi chooses to call himself Hiroshi in the book, and while "A Drifting Life" works also as a first-person history of manga, the story includes important moments in Japanese culture during that time, as well as his relationship with his older, sickly brother, who also was a manga cartoonist.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly to promote his new book, Tatsumi described gekiga as now being "synonymous with spectacular."

"But I write manga about households and conversations, love affairs, mundane stuff that is not spectacular. I think that's the difference. The term gets used, but really gekiga is more like 'kigeki,' 'tragedy,' so it's more like 'kigekiga,' 'tragedy style.'

"Gekiga to people means sad ending, they think that something violent or awful has to happen, but it doesn't have to be like that. Stylistically, 'geki' means 'theater,' so it's theatrical. It's about setting scenes up and structurally moving from frame to frame so that there is a relation between the very first frame and the very last frame. It's like a screenplay. I've been influenced by film. That's one thing that I'm sure I do well, pacing stories."

And apparently there will be a second volume to "A Drifting Life" somewhere down the line. When asked whether his wife, whom he started dating at the end of the autobiography, will make her appearance in the second volume, Tatsumi said, "Well, of course, there are a lot of fights I can write about."


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