The sound of cicadas echoes through the pages of A Drifting Life. It’s an electric sound, like the buzz of fluorescent lights. It is a sound with presence, and hearing it one can almost see the army of insects in the trees, on the ground. It’s not a solitary sound, but one of many voices together.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s use of the cicada song—illustrated as a series of thick lines filling the air—provides not only a soundtrack for his development as a young artist in postwar Japan, but also a metaphor for the steady flow of the creative process and the personal and professional static that can block that process.
This mammoth book, which took Tatsumi over a decade to complete, begins after the Japanese surrender in World War II. Hiroshi, Tatsumi’s alter-ego in the book, is a young school boy obsessed with manga. He and his brother Okimasu read and discuss their favorite comics as fans and, eventually, professionals.
They begin their careers while still in grade school, submitting four-panel strips to popular magazines and receiving prizes for their work. Hiroshi’s success doesn’t follow the typical trajectory of a rags-to-riches story with Hiroshi moving from the slums to the big time after a paying his dues, but Tatsumi’s narrative still moves with the ease of a biopic. Along with that comes the trapping of the genre: the jealous sibling, the damaged home life, the crises of confidence.
But if these are facts of life, can they be considered liabilities? It’s all in the presentation, of course, and Tatsumi never dwells on any of these elements long enough to succumb to cliché of mere convention. Instead, these elements serve as the groundwork for Hiroshi’s constant struggle to create art. It’s this struggle which gives Hiroshi’s life its drift.
Later, free from school and working steadily for a variety of publishers, Hiroshi tries to reconcile the artist’s life with a professional career, asking himself while stuck on a story, “What’s the appropriate metaphor for the feeling of working alone without a deadline?” Staring at his drawing board he settles on the image of a man wandering in the desert searching for “an elusive oasis”. That doesn’t quite satisfy Hiroshi—or the reader—but it’s a start.
Hiroshi’s struggle is about coming to terms with his art and finding exactly what it is he’s trying to express, not to mention trying to make a living. He’s already found his mode of expression, and though he still finds joy in reading and creating humor and adventure stories, he finds himself constrained by their conventions. “I want to write a really long story using entirely new narrative techniques,” Hiroshi says. This becomes his mantra through much of the book, but we never see the results of his ambition, at least on the page.
Familiar readers know Tatsumi as the author of Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-bye and as a pioneer of gekiga, or dramatic manga. Though the book is not some fractured, multi-linear narrative told from differing perspectives, A Drifting Life is exactly what Hiroshi/Tatsumi set out to create. The scope, detail and physical detail of the book is a massive leap forward from the four-panel gag strips with which Hiroshi began his career.
If we back up just a bit, it becomes clear this entire book is the metaphor which Hiroshi finds so elusive. It is a drifting life, the artist tethered only to his work, with that connection constantly threatened by self-doubt, treadmill-like grind of commercial work and naysayers.
Hiroshi’s older brother, Okimasu, serves as equal parts critic, rival and voice of reason. He is Hiroshi’s artistic conscience and sounding board, asking, “Don’t you think what you call experimental might be self-indulgent?” It’s perhaps the most important lesson Hiroshi learns, but Tatsumi never stops to hammer the point home with bland narration like, “... and that’s when i became an artiste!” Instead, this and every important step in Hiroshi’s development as an artist comes and goes without flash or fanfare. The book the reader holds in his or her hands is evidence of the lessons learned.
Missing from A Drifting Life are the dark elements so prevalent in much of Tatsumi’s other work. Sex and guilt and despair are present, but far removed from Hiroshi’s life. The seeds for these ideas are present, however, in Hiroshi’s infatuation with an attractive restaurant owner and his father’s failures in business. Still, moments of joy, like when Hiroshi physically experiences a snowstorm he is drawing (“The thrill of creation ... I had no idea,” he says) are relatively few. Hiroshi’s primary emotion is frustration, and Tatsumi fills nearly every page with its shadow.
This is a huge work, with dozens of people and places drifting in and out of the story, but there is surprisingly little filler. Every piece works in harmony with the others to create a passionate, moving portrait of an artist coming to terms with his desire to create. It may be just one story among many others, but A Drifting Life is alive with sights and sounds so intense, so real, one would swear they’re coming from right outside in the trees, or from the ground itself.