Yoshihiro Tatsumi is one of the most respected manga artists in Japan, a living legend whose work has included The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, and Good-Bye. He spent 11 years creating this gigantic bildungsroman, over 800 pages long and worth every minute spent on it (for both the creator and the reader).
A Drifting Life is richly rewarding in its attempts to piece together the life of its author through the lens of an invented protagonist, Hiroshi. Hiroshi is just a child when we first meet him, in the aftermath of World War II. Growing up in Osaka, he struggles to find himself and to grow amidst the troubled marriage of his parents and his poor surroundings. It's during this time that young Hiroshi begins to draw manga and aspires to reach greater heights with it, despite the odds against him and despite manga's reputation as a childish endeavour.
It's hardly ruining the surprise to tell you that indeed Hiroshi does eventually make it in the business, but how he does so, the issues he faces, the ridiculous fights he must overcome, and the general disregard for his work (both from the general public and from family members) hits home solidly. In a book this size, the reader might reasonably expect to read about all of Tatsumi's life, not just one relatively brief period. But this slice is all we get, the 15 years from 1945 to 1960. How does that fill up 800 pages, you might ask? It just does, and it does so with a lot of nuance and charm. Perhaps one of the best compliments I could give is that Tatsumi is not self-indulgent in this book. The length works for it, allows him time to spread out and allow the images and story to take shape fully. Moreover, Tatsumi dispenses with any sentimentality or faux emotion, keeping the feelings genuine and authentic throughout.
Tatsumi has done his fans a great service in A Drifting Life, bringing them into his troubled youth in ways that are surprising and at times uplifting. Perhaps the biggest surprise is in the title, because the work itself is not at all drifting; it's focused to a fine point. It's a memoir that provides a truly cathartic experience.
Spanning fifteen years from August of 1945 to June of 1960, Tatsumi's stand-in protagonist, Hiroshi, faces his father's financial burdens and his parents' failing marriage, his jealous brother's deteriorating health, and the innumerable pitfalls that await him in the competitive manga market of mid-twentieth-century Japan. He dreams of following in the considerable footsteps of his idol, manga artist Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Apollo's Song, Ode to Kirihito, Buddha), with whom Tatsumi eventually became peers and, at times, stylistic rivals.
Reviewed by John Hogan on July 2, 2012
A Drifting Life