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Sunday, April 05, 2009

A Drifting Life -- I finished Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life yesterday, and have been wrestling with what to say about it.

I really, really enjoyed reading it, but there's almost no extraordinary moments in it at all for me to point to. Virtually the entirety of the narrative is concerned with Tatsumi's transformation from a fan to a professional comics creator and the development of his own offshoot of Manga, a genre he dubbed Gekiga ("dramatic pictures.").

In the few moments where the book is about something else, it is either Tatsumi's sometimes tense and difficult relationship with his brother, or more fascinatingly and frustratingly, a couple of truly weird sequences in which we get a glimpse of the author's awkward sexual awakening. I would have loved to learn whether Tatsumi's timid, shame-faced encounters are culturally based or came out of his own upbringing and point of view. I suspect the former, but we never find out and once the minor thread is dropped, it is never even hinted at again.

A Drifting Life's title really does define what it is about, and I realize that telling you that it's 800 pages of passivity that is really interesting to read seems like a left-handed endorsement, but it's not intended that way at all. Tatsumi has an enormous canvas upon which to paint his life story, and he uses it well. It's broken up into discreet chapters, which makes it easier to tackle from a reader's perspective, but don't come into it expecting shocking moments or artistic revelations. There is an epic feel, but its effect is cumulative rather than something that sweeps you along through the author's personal history.

Tatsumi is one hell of a draftsman, and his depictions of life in Japan are amazing to see, and give one a tactile sense of the life he has experienced. So the fact that the book really does drift, that Tatsumi has no grand statement to make (except perhaps at the very end), is not a criticism at all, merely an observation; perhaps a suitably passive one to match the author's viewpoint for much of the story told here.

As a reader born in North America and steeped in its mostly intellectually arrested comics-creating traditions, I guess I am programmed to look for the grand point, the big theme. So I admit that I spent much of my time reading A Drifting Life in perhaps the wrong mindset. Either because of a lack of knowledge of what came after the point the story stops, or maybe even differences in cultural cues I should have picked up on, the book really does feel like it just stops rather than reaching any real kind of climax or conclusion.

There's a moment of, let's say, energy near the end, followed by a strange epilogue and a final panel and statement that were more baffling than anything else. And yet despite that, I am glad I read it and think anyone interested in Manga, Tatsumi or artcomix should read A Drifting Life and will likely find it rewarding and enriching, as I did. It's possible an interview with Tatsumi (as his other works released by Drawn and Quarterly have included) might have provided better context with which to comprehend and absorb what Tatsumi shows us (and for that I highly recommend Jog's review), but you know what? It's his life, and this is how he wanted us to learn about it. It drifts, but it is profoundly worthwhile, and you ought to read it.

Buy A Drifting Life from amazon.com.

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