Book Reviews: A Drifting Life, The Push Man and Other Stories, by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

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A Drifting Life
by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn & Quarterly, 2009, 856 pages.

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Anyone considering going to school in the arts should first read Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s memoir A Drifting Life. This opus by a pioneer of the Japanese comic form manga is a masterclass in creativity and and the craft of storytelling. Written over ten years, the memoir traces Yoshihiro’s early development as a manga artist from the late 1940s to the late 60s.

This review picks up where my article about Tatsumi from the PEN World Voices Festival ended.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is perhaps best known for having developed a form of manga called gekiga. Gekiga is notoriously difficult to define, even for its adherents. It roughly describes the depiction of more realistic subject matter — with workaday protagonists — and innovations in style. Panels on the page may contain a mix of realism and the abstract, allowing external shapes to dictate a character’s mood. Text was often limited to move the reader’s eye rapidly across the page. “If you talk too much about gekiga or try to define it,” Tatsumi has said, “it is like hanging ourselves.” Whatever gekiga meant, Tatsumi invented the term and it emerged from a group of passionate young Japanese manga artists writing in the 50s and 60s.

Tatsumi penned A Drifting Life in the third person so as to enable himself a more critical view of his own life. The result is magical. His hopes, jealousies, and fears come to the fore. You delight in his shared passion for manga with his disease stricken brother, or smart at the strained marriage of his parents. Yet Tatusumi maintains a sense of the larger perspective, juxtaposing global events such as the close of World War II with his own life. His intense debates with fellow artists over coffee are often punctuated by observations of the trends at the time. Here, the artists attempt to learn how to draw 3-D comics, there, they relax in singing halls, where young Japanese would sing folk songs in Russian — antedating the rise of the karaoke club.


Tatsumi and Picasso

But the reason A Drifting Life is such a pleasure is that the work is a product of a master at the height of his craft. Tatsumi has the uncanny ability to reproduce not only his own comics from early in his life, but also the work of other manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka. There is something unbelievably precious in this. Tatsumi has developed as an artist over decades, yet he can remember his earlier style. The closest example that I can give is the Bull Series by Pablo Picasso. In that series of lithographs, Picasso methodically demonstrates how a bull can be reduced from a realistic portrait to a picture of a bull in its purest abstract form. This is where Picasso has been, his Bull Series seems to say, and this is where Picasso is now. Picasso takes you on a visual journey through his development as a fine artist.


Tatsumi’s work distinguishes itself from Picasso’s because he not only reproduces his development as a manga artist, he immerses you in his personal story. You identify strongly with Tatsumi, rooting him on as he attempts to navigate the brutal publishing world of manga and his adolescence. The mixture of text and image is especially engaging. It has the feel of a film storyboard, allowing you to linger on each frame.

I mentioned at the outset that A Drifting Life is also a school itself. As the young Tatsumi learns about the finer points of inking techniques and storytelling, you do too. The reason why you can trust that he knows how to tell a story? Because you always want to turn the next page.

Focusing and Socializing

Tatsumi evidently maintained tremendous focus to maintain his output, but he was not a recluse. He socialized regularly with his peers, surrounded himself with fellow manga lovers, and grew professionally as a result. He also seems to have regularly consulted other manga leaders for advice during his development. He read a great deal of hard-boiled fiction by the author Mickey Spillane, and watched films at a furious pace. True innovation is rarely hatched in a vacuum, it seems, and Tatsumi established a fragile balance between socializing and intense focus.

A Drifting Life finishes in the late 1960s, after Tatsumi had begun to split away from mainstream publishers. This means that a lot is left out. It would have been great to learn more about his brother Oki’s own work as a manga artist. The memoir is also cut short just when Tatsumi begins to explore sex. But this makes for even more exciting reading later on, as you will soon see.

The Pushman and Other Stories

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Drawn & Quarterly, 2005. 204 pages.

Coincidences excite me, and when they are truly thrilling I like to call them synchronicity. Here is one: right about the time Tatsumi’s memoir A Drifting Life ends, his story collection The Pushman and Other Stories begins. This is an unusual experience. For you move from the realm of autobiography into the realm of fiction at the moment the memoir ends. In other words, you stop reading about the writer himself and enter the world of his creations. Instead of seeing inked panels of the young Tatsumi drawing manga, you see what he begins drawing when his memoir concludes. It is as if you are privy to his creative mind. (Both are works are edited by the American author Adrian Tomine, so an editorial decision may have played a role — but still!)

Here There is Sex

Now, I mentioned that Tatsumi concludes A Drifting Life just as sex enters his life. This makes it all the more striking that the short stories in The Push Man so often hinge upon sexual themes. There are steamy affairs, escort girls, abortions, and even sex slaves. Sex also does not occur without some awful, frequently fatal consequence. Tatsumi the man is creatively exploring a world that he ignored as a boy.

Other themes emerge in A Push Man. Feelings of entrenched powerlessness can only be subverted in immoral ways: through murder, theft, or love affairs with colleagues. Frustration, marked by ellipses (……..), is often all that a protagonist can articulate in his voice bubble, and frequently the protagonists say nothing at all. A marked feeling of isolation from city crowds also permeates the stories. The characters, although similar in appearance, come from blue collar backgrounds and work as stevedores or automechanics. The women invariably seem to be hostesses or call girls.

That is not to say that the collection is lurid or prurient. The stories are tightly written, often concluding with the kind of ambiguous short story ending that only the best writers can capture. Tatsumi’s drawings are not as refined as those in A Drifting Life, with heavier inked lines, but they strongly capture the grime of back alleys.

There is a danger in cheap psychologizing. “I myself am a very normal person,” Tatsumi said about the collection. “Please do not interpret these stories as representative of the author’s personality.” But it is hard not to notice the somewhat lighter tone of a A Drifting Life compared to the macabre sewage drains of The Push Man (you won’t believe what he puts in those drains!) Perhaps what is striking is the absence of such grit from Tatsumi’s memoirs of his early life, compared to their omnipresence in his later collection. It is also easy to make the comparison because the main character of A Push Man is drawn exactly the same as Tatsumi draws himself in A Drifting Life.

If you have to choose…

If you have to make a choice between A Drifting Life and The Push Man, his memoir is by far the more interesting work. It is the product of a decade of introspection by an innovator of a craft and it shows. Indeed, I feel lucky to have bought and read it. But reading A Drifting Life in isolation ignores the fact that Tatsumi spent the bulk of his career writing manga to entertain. The subject matter of this manga wasn’t about writing advances or publishing houses, but about life as the author imagined it to be.

–Deji Olukotun

Images taken from Drawn & Quarterly and Princeton University’s modern art blog.

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