16 December 2009

Review: A Drifting LIfe

The 16th of December and time for the biggest book I've reviewed in quite a while. I've been lugging it around for a few days and even though I'm sad that the story is over I'm quite happy to be able to put this massive tome back into my book shelf.

Title: A Drifting Life
By: Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Language: English (Japanese)
856 pages, b&w, softcover
Drawn & Quarterly, 2009 
ISBN: 978-1897299746

It has been quite an interersting journey, as a foreigner slowly getting to grips with the Japanese comics culture. I didn't really understand just how much I had to discover until the end of the 1990s, when I read the astonishing book Manga! Manga! by Frederic L. Schodt and realized that there was a whole cultural continent out there, marked with "Here be dragons!". For a few years I fully immersed myself in manga, travelling to Japan several times to do research, writing articles and books on the subject and most importantly reading voraciously.

At first, everything was interesting, fresh and new. After a while, though, I started to feel that manga was becoming just as repetitive as most comics from other parts of the world. I realised that I was just seeing the tip of the iceberg and started looking for older classical comics, alternative comics and so on, and ultimately discovered that what was available in English was an infitesimally small part of Japanese comics, almost all geared towards a young and, up until a few years ago, male audience.

Tatsumi is one of those artist who has made really interesting comics for a long period of time, but just wasn't deemed commersially viable for a translation into English. Now, when the manga reading generation has grown up, it is finally possible to actually publish some of his comics. I have read the collections of his early short stories, that Drawn & Quartely has published, and have been impressed if not fully convinced. Yes, Tatsumi was way ahead of his time, writing thoughtful, realistic, personal stories at a time when cartoonists in the Western world were still struggling with genre comics or making underground comics which were, let's face it, more into rebelling against things than actually saying something relevant. Still, some of Tatsumi's short stories have felt a bit empty.

Not so with A Drifting Life, which I would rank as one of the most interesting, important translated manga so far. This is a highly personal, to a high degree autobiographical story, following Tatsumi's life from the time when he as a teenager started making comics, ending with the death of his hero Osamu Tezuka. It is at the same time the story of the comics industry in Japan, which Tatsumi has been a part of for more than a half century by now; 50 years which has seen a growth commercially and artistically which is unrivalled in the world. Add to that a third layer, which is the historic development of Japan, from a defeated, occupied nation to a world leading, economic super-power, and the story gets intensely interesting.

Reading A Drifting Life is very rewarding, no matter which of these three levels you are interested in. If you, like me, are interested in all of them, it is unquestionably a tour-de force. A Drifting life is nothing short of a masterpiece.