Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s memoir, A Drifting Life, chronicles the youth and career of a prominent graphic novelist.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s stories have appeared in the U.S. these past five years in three hard-bound volumes published by Drawn and Quarterly. These collections (Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye) were put together with the assistance of Adrian Tomine and were a great discovery for me as a comics reader. Voyeuristic, perverse, psychologically taut and even violent, Tatsumi’s work has a nihilistic strain and often portray grotesque and morally ambiguous people. Each panel is drawn in a loose style that’s clean and free of affectation. The work is far ahead of its time and I read each collection straight through, loving every page.
Tatsumi’s most recent book, A Drifting Life, is a fictionalized graphic memoir which, at 840 pages, chronicles his uneventful youth in Japan, his entrance into the post-War manga scene, and his evolution as an artist. Though the artist’s name is changed, everything else in A Drifting Life is pretty much Tatsumi.
But a writer’s life—or in this case a manga artist’s life—hasn’t much to offer in and of itself. It’s an existence inside cramped rooms, scribbling stories on blank sheets of paper, occasional arguments about the nature of the art, insecurities about your lack of public recognition, and debilitating doubts about whether you’re wasting your life. It’s all there in A Drifting Life and, in a phrase, it’s kinda boring.
The recounting of a life has as much to do with the period in which one lives—from the people one knew to the major cultural/historical events—as it does about the life itself. A Moveable Feast isn’t about Ernest Hemingway writing his stories, it’s about the scene and the people, about Gertrude Stein’s fight with Alice B. Toklas, or Hemingway’s observations of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Tatsumi notes major events in the post-war era, scattering them through the book with illustrations in that same loose style, only with a touch more realism. He also recounts memorable episodes like his meeting manga godfather, Osamu Tezuka. Tatsumi was excited. His colleagues were excited. I was excited. But reading further I found fewer moments of such loving attention, many others that seemed unnecessary and too literal, like Tatsumi’s searches, on foot, for a publisher. Still other incidents are left unfinished, such as the story of a woman who had a crush on Tatsumi and came to visit him every morning. At least these interludes offering fresh breaks from the narrative, which otherwise simply drifts.
To be fair, this broken up, meandering narrative is announced in the book’s title. Life is nothing more than a parade of people who suddenly appear then disappear, and events that burst on the scene now eventually fizzle out later. It’s this aesthetic life that Tatsumi presents us in A Drifting Life, a life lived on the surface with nothing to know beyond what we see. The motives and psychology behind the decisions, the forces that propel a life forward, are inexplicable, unknowable through words, even words accompanied by graphic illustrations. Tatsumi knows this, so he doesn’t try.
Ironically, the undercurrent of dark desires missing from the memoir is exactly what is so pregnant in Tatsumi’s stories. What we have in A Drifting Life is more like reality: a long, unending stream of unrelated, unconnected events strung together by a singular person. The same book might have had greater power had it been shorter, the historical events more smoothly integrated; as is, Tatsumi’s long memoir is evenly paced, and eventually that pace begins to drag. What more is there to say about the working life except that it is endless?