A Drifting Life (Gekiga Hyouryuu)

The cover. 

Hi twitties. Until now, I’ve mostly been writing posts about recently bought and consumed books. And that would exclude all the goodies I purchased before 2016, when I started this blog. So, this blogpost will be about a certain old treasure. Maybe I should be combing through my old stuff in this coming year 2022? Don’t treat it as a sign that this blog will get much more lively, though. I promise nothing.

So, somewhere around 2012, I purchased this fun tome: A Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro (originally Gekiga Hyouryuu), published by Drawn & Quarterly – an autobiographic work by an artist who proved crucial to the history of underground Japanese comics, and to the turn of the medium towards more mature audiences. The book is not only about the author’s life, but also a story running parallel to it – the history of Japanese manga. And of Japan in general. Nowadays, A Drifting Life is pretty-much unobtainable. I think I learned of it from a review on ANN (when I still was reading it everyday) and decided to buy the thing, since I’m a comix kind of guy. I remember trying to write a review of it back in the day, unsuccessfully. So, ten years later, it’s rematch time.

Year 1948 – Japan is still crawling out of post-war poverty. There, near Osaka lives Katsumi Hiroshi, a dopey-faced teenage kid. It’s fairly obvious that he’s just Tatsumi Yoshihiro. I’m guessing the author decided to change his name in the story to make his job easier – that way he can mix in some fiction into the story if need be. Hiroshi and his younger brother Okimasa are obsessed with comics – they not only read but also draw their own. Their passion is enabled by the rise of manga as a medium – although I’m pretty sure it existed even before the war, manga experienced an explosion of interest after the war, thanks to several factors A Drifting Life will tell you about.

The biggest thing that enabled the kids to become obsessed with this noble new art was the phenomenon called kashihon. After the US turned large swathes of urban Japan into burnt earth with incendiary bombs and the newly invented napalm, the country was hungry for books. That’s when the kashihon emerged to service that need. They were paid libraries, where you could read for a small charge. Soon, publishers aiming to make money via those started popping up, and among them, those specialized in comics stood out. Kashihon shops existed only until late 1950s, but their legacy could be said to be alive even now in form of the giant popularity of manga. There, Hiroshi could get to know not only the great Tezuka, but also a bunch of other, more obscure authors of the postwar period – A Drifting Life is one of the very few sources on those available in the West.

Another booming phenomenon were magazines with comics. They existed even shortly after the war, as it turns out. Among them, the most groundbreaking periodical was Manga Shounen. It didn’t exist for a long time, but it’s this magazine that started the often-imitated practice of relinquishing some pages to the readers, which soon proves to be stroke of genius. Manga Shounen would encourage its readership to draw comics, which would then be printed in the magazine. That way, this short-lived publication paved the way for growth of comics and helped raise a whole generation of artists. Hiroshi and Okimasa eventually start wanting to submit their work to it, and when Okimasa found the courage to do that (and won a prize), the event kickstarted their life of drawing comics. Hiroshi is a nerdy, wimpy kid, and out of a lack of confidence, he draws comics calmer and more serious than the ones most coveted by the mainstream – a feature that will stay with him for the rest of his career.

When questions like “how did Japanese comics become this big?” or “why don’t other nations draw comics?” come up, the often-given answer is “Tezuka”. Tezuka Osamu, the giant of Japanese comics and animation, whose work, spanning the latter half of the 20th century, continues to have a visible influence on Japanese popculture. His presence definitely contributed to the success of manga. Hiroshi practices a cult-like devotion to Tezuka, which at times borders on self-parody. His career will eventually lead him to meet his idol, and continue to visit him in times of need. Once, Tezuka shows the kid a little trick – he does a drawing starting with characters’ hands, which absolutely blows Hiroshi’s mind.

And lastly, when talking about the earliest period of manga history, I should mention the dead art of kamishibai. They were a sort of picture show, a little theatre of static images, practiced by wandering artists shortly after the war. If Gekiga Hyouryuu is to be believed, this domain of art reached its peak in 1949, when up to 50 000 kamishibai artists were active! With time, the art has practically merged with comics – its practitioners were becoming mangaka en masse. Some of the most famous kamishibai stories continued their life in the form of comics. Now it’s a bit of obscure history, and you’d be hard pressed to look for sources on it in English, excluding this book.

Katsumi Hiroshi truly was born at the exact right moment. Though it’s children’s drawings we’re talking about, submitting four-panel comics to magazines would result in being paid, and if you were a passable artist, and proactive about getting gigs, it was possible to earn decent money even before coming of age. Which Hiroshi and Okimasa did, of course. It must have been easy, living in post-war Japan – even though their home was not wealthy by any measure, Hiroshi managed to make a decent living even as a minor. Where would you be able to do that nowadays?

When Hiroshi became an adult, he decided he needs to find himself a publisher and landed under the wings of Hinomaru Bunko, a smalltime publishing house specialized in making comics for the kashihon business to buy. All this time, Hiroshi has been drawing comics for children, even after coming of age. Which shouldn’t be that strange – at this stage of history of manga, they were all made for kids. It’s Katsumi Hiroshi and his newly met friendly rivals from Hinomaru who will push manga in a more mature direction – mysteries and crime fiction start being the bread and butter of his circle of artist friends.

Eventually, the elephant in the room, which the reader has probably already noticed, will catch Hiroshi’s attention: he has no formal education in drawing and just managed to sort of lie his way to becoming a published artist. In his defense: he’s not the only one. Most of his fellow Hinomaru artists are like this: they just draw cartoony Tezuka rip-offs, correctly assuming noone will complain. The cover of Kage v8, visible on page 526, is emblematic to this phenomenon: it shows an impressively drawn, anatomically correct figure of a dude, lying as if he was pushed to the ground… except he has a goofy, Mickey Mouse-ass face. Things will get better, though.

At a point, artists from the scene of more mature comics started publishing monthly anthologies of shorter forms, allowing you to sample a whole bunch of artists in one book. Kage, published by Hinomaru, was the trailblazer in this domain. Many similar, like Machi and Matenrou followed. They were all packed with gritty stories about crime and middle school kids wearing gakuran – it looks stylish and fits the dark aesthetics of the genre. So, they were strange stories with a vaguely defined target audience, at the boundary between fiction for children and adults, clearly made by pupils of Tezuka. It’s no wonder that it attracted the attention of the “comics corrupt youth” people. With time, the divide between demographics widened and so, the keyword “gekiga” started being used more frequently. It was a designation aiming to differentiate kids’ stuff from works of adult art. Tatsumi Yoshihiro invented it, motivated by the resentment felt at the commonly believed (even among the artists) idea that comics should be funny, and non-serious.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro also mentions all sorts of events from history and history of culture, small and big, as he weaves his tale, progressing through post-war Japan, year after year. There’s the fire at Kinkakuji, the Korean War, and films he watches at a cinema in large quantities – big American productions as well as Taiyou no Kisetsu and such. At the end, in the 60s, he gets swept up in a leftwing protest against the government, exclaims “Japan, too, is adrift!”, an incomprehensible allusion to the title (and a possible hook for a sequel), and the story ends… Then there’s a short epilogue where Tatsumi Yoshihiro comes to an anniversary of Tezuka’s death.

And so concludes Gekiga Hyouryuu, a monument of gekiga, the transgressive, mature current of Japanese comic, celebrated to this day. To a Western reader, however, this book is of interest mainly because it speaks of obscure bits of history – I feel like the past of manga is known to a very small extent over here, and this book does a good job at elucidating it. Read it, and let it inspire you to do your own extra research.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s