A Drifting Life (劇画漂流)

A Drifting Life (劇画漂流) is the English translation of a monster 850-page manga written by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The author is the pioneer of the Gekiga style of manga, which focused on hard boiled stories for a mature audience, back in the initial years of manga when it was aimed mostly at children. It is an autobiographical work where the author appears as the manga artist character Hiroshi Katsumi and covers 15 years (1945-1960) of his life.

Manga was an entirely new literary medium created in Japan after its defeat in WWII in 1945. Inspired by the dynamic scenes, pacing and angles of Hollywood action movies, Osamu Tezuka, a medical student (!) prolifically created the world of manga for children. This was also the period when Japan miraculously rebuilt itself at a frenetic pace into the world’s second largest economy. Arriving at such a time of drastic social change, manga grew immensely popular garnering tens of millions of regular readers.

Hiroshi and his elder brother Okimasa are hooked to this new literary medium while in high school. They start drawing, submitting and winning contests in manga magazines. Seeing success this early in life, they become independent manga artists after finishing school, slowly moving from working for Osaka publishers to the national-level publishers in the Tokyo megalopolis. In Tokyo, Hiroshi and a group of manga artists create the Gekiga Workshop, a creative collaboration that starts giving manga darker and deeper themes and an adult audience.

There are three key threads in this book for the reader. First is the early life of Yoshihiro, as portrayed by Hiroshi, where we see his family struggles and how he comes to create Gekiga. Second is the early history of manga and the life of an manga artist. 1945-1960 were the initial years of manga, when Tezuka (aka the God of Manga) and other pioneers created an entirely new audience for monthly publication of millions of magazines and books in this new medium. In the book we see the covers and creation of all the major new works in this era. Through Hiroshi and his artist friends, we see the deadline-driven and stressful life of a manga artist. Finally, this book also covers the post-war era of Japan where we get to see the effects of its miraculous transformation from the point-of-view of its citizens.

I read this book over the past two weeks. Being manga, it is a fast read and the high page count really does not matter. This book has won many awards and comes from one of the Gods of manga itself. However, I found the nitty-gritty details of the manga artist life in this book to be quite unnecessarily repetitive. I felt that this thread is better portrayed in the manga/anime Bakuman, which is the story of two high-school friends becoming manga artists. The book goes in detail into the early years of manga. For a wider and more comprehensive history I highly recommend Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Finally, by stopping the story at 1960, we do not get to see the later and more productive years in the life of Yoshihiro-san. All in all, I think A Drifting Life is a good read for folks interested in manga history and the life of manga artists.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9781897299746

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The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology is one from the many in the manga series by No Starch Press. For a while now, I have had my eye on these English translations of works by and from Japanese. This particular manga on molecular biology is written and illustrated by Masaharu Takemura. The motivation is to use the story-telling, action-oriented and illustrative powers of the manga to introduce a science that is quite hard to grok.

Though weak and laughable, there is a story and a few principal characters here to support the cause of the manga. Ami and Rin are two students of molecular biology who have not been attending classes regularly. In order to help them, their Professor, named Moro, brings them to his private island where he has a lab. Over the next few days, his assistant Marcus uses the virtual reality machine in their lab to help these two students understand this science.

There are 5 important entities of molecular biology that the manga sets out to explain: cell, protein, DNA, RNA and gene. These entities are present in every cell of our body and are constantly in action. In every being on this planet, cells are working hard producing a myriad of proteins and are reproducing all the time. By literally taking the students (and the reader) on a trip inside the human cell, employing the virtual reality machine, the manga quite successfully brings the world of a cell to life.

I liked this manga maybe due to the fact that I did not study biology after class 10. There are a few compelling reasons why I think this manga was really good. The author has a real intuitive understanding of the science. Cells are not static, but are composed of molecules moving around and accomplishing work. The reader gets to view this action, both at the atomic-molecular level and the cellular level. Almost all textbooks restrict themselves to boring 2D figures. In this manga, we get to see how everything is organized and working in 3D. And finally, all of this content is nicely organized so that the reader is gently taken to complex concepts like DNA replication, DNA-RNA transcription and RNA-protein translation.

You might be wondering that you already know many of these concepts. So, why pick this manga? I thought so too. Here are a few tit-bits to titillate you. The cell has a cell wall. If it is a wall, how do proteins and other molecules move in and out of cells? DNA is a double-helix string. If you peek into the nucleus of a cell, will you see DNA strings floating in goo like seaweeds in water? The answer is no! Chromosomes are typically drawn as X-shaped entities. Why? During cell division, DNA replicates by making a copy of itself. If you were to zoom down to the DNA-level during replication, what would you actually see in action in front of your eyes? What is the factory-robot-like molecular machinery that is holding a DNA string, like a person holding a beaded string and methodically copying over every bead (alphabet) over to a new string? The answers to this and more will literally blow your mind!

Manga is typically read very fast. I have seen manga readers on Tokyo trains flipping a page per second. Here though, every page takes time for the mind to visualize and to imagine how the machinery moves and interacts in 3D. This manga of ~256 pages took me 2 days to read. I must also warn that the drawings, while sufficient, are not as fantastic as what is in popular manga series. Given that Takemura is a lecturer, I think this is easily forgiveable.

In conclusion, the concepts in this manga might be rudimentary for a person knowing molecular biology. But for me, it was so revealing that I had to, yet again, question the origin, the why and how of life itself. Inside every cell on this planet, is an incredibly complex molecular machinery whose working is nothing short of amazing. Pick up the manga and dive into this tiny cosmos!

Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga

Rating: 4/4 (A delicious followup to Manga! Manga! and a must read for Manga fans)

Well entertained and educated by Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, I picked up Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, the 1996 sequel to that book. Written by Frederick L. Schodt, this book gives a much needed update to the earlier book which was published way back in 1983. Dreamland Japan is not as organized as the earlier book, and is a loosely arranged set of essays on Manga.

The first 2 parts of the book give a brief introduction to the world of Manga, essential for the reader who has not read Manga! Manga!. An interesting addition here is an essay on Dōjinshi, the Manga artwork produced by fans. These copy the characters from actual Manga and put them in scenarios that the creators could not think of. This amateur market is wildly popular with large exhibitions dedicated to them. Manga creators and publishers allow this huge grey market to live and thrive, this is something that cannot be imagined in copyright-crazed USA!

Part 3 is a huge section that looks at the various genres of Manga magazines by describing a few popular titles from each. Kids are hooked to CoroCoro Comic, which publishes the mega-hit Doraemon. Young boys read Weekly Shonen Jump, the most popular Manga magazine which sometimes has a readership of 6 million per week! Japanese are addicts to gambling games like Mahjong and Pachinko and magazines aimed at them are popular too. Finally, magazines like June and Comic Amour provide the erotic fare that Manga is (in)famous for.

In part 4, Schodt introduces his favorite Manga artists and editors, their style, history and works. Oddly, a lot of his choice seem to be purveyors of gore or sex! The artists who stands out here are Fujiko Fujio, the creator duo behind Doraemon, the all-time smash-hit Manga about a robot cat. By 1996 itself, Doraemon books had sold a stupendous 108 million copies! Another interesting essay here shows just how much freedom Manga magazines have in Japan. This is about Aum Comics, published by the notorious Aum cult, which was behind the deadly sarin gas attacks in 1995.

The entire of part 5 is dedicated to just one person, Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga himself! The author knew Osamu well, having acted as his manager and translator on his visits to USA. Sadly, Osamu passed away in 1989 at the age of 60. Osamu is frequently compared to Walt Disney, but Tezuka is more an artist and less a businessman. Over his lifetime, Osamu firmly shaped the world of Manga with 150,000 pages of artwork spread over 500 titles. Most notable among his works are Astro Boy, Adolf, Black Jack, Buddha and Phoenix. Phoenix deals with the search for immortality and reincarnation and was called by Osamu as his raifu waaku (life’s work). Tezuka was also the creator of Jungle Emperor, whose artwork Disney shamelessly stole for their Lion King franchise without ever crediting him.

The last part of the book looks at where Manga is headed in the future. The author was optimistic about the English market (USA) and the Internet. Both of his predictions have become true in the decade since. Manga is all over the Internet, with countless fans involved in scanlating and sharing them. Comparatively, growth in Manga USA had a tough time, but has now caught on with regular publications coming from publishers like Dark Horse Comics. Though Manga sales have started to decline in Japan (how many decades can they rise?), it has now gained a strong foothold across East Asia and is spreading across USA and other English markets.

Well researched and written, filled with artwork and personal anecdotes, Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga is a delicious followup to Manga! Manga!. I highly recommend both books for anyone interested to discover the world of Manga.

Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics

Rating: 4/4 (A cracker of a book that gives insights into the Manga culture of Japan)

I admit to having a quite a bit of enamour for Japan, its culture, food, language and technology. So, my travel around Japan last year was very exciting and I came away all the more impressed and influenced. A major part of Japanese culture is Manga (Japanese comics) and Anime (Japanese animation). In the months following my Japanese trip, I have been slowly, but surely, getting into reading and enjoying Manga. Due to the availability of thousands of Manga series in every genre imaginable, it soon became inevitable that I would pick up a book to learn more about these comics itself. Browsing the many shelves of books on Manga in the university library, I picked the 1986 paperback edition of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics by Frederick L. Schodt.

Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is an incredibly informative and fun filled read! Frederick writes for an audience who have a taste of American superhero comics, but know nothing about Japanese comics. The origins of comic art lie deep inside Japanese history and reading about Manga gave me deep insights into Japanese culture. Japan was quick to master the art of making paper and later woodblock printing. Thus, the Japanese masses have had access to art and comic art in particular for a long time. It also helps that all kinds of humour, self deprecating, sexual and body, are acceptable and enjoyed by the Japanese public. Manga really took off after the end of World War II, when after witnessing decades of intense violence, Japanese were disgusted with war. With a strict culture at school and workplace, the masses found the perfect outlet for their emotions in reading comics.

Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) is clearly the pioneer of modern Manga. He took inspiration from the framing, camera angles and screenplay of Western movies. These comics were initially aimed at kids and were serialized in weekly comic magazines. The magazine format gave Manga creators freedom to write long stories, which their Western counterparts could not. Manga soon captured the hearts and minds of teens and adults, both men and women. This lead to an explosion of comics of every kind, comedy, slice-of-life, romance, science fiction, historical, sexual, sports and even educational. Manga is today the world’s most popular comics, with Manga magazine production in the millions every week! The Manga industry is growing even today, garnering new fans outside Japan. Manga series which are hits are compiled and released as volumes. With the advent of animation, now they are also converted to anime series for TV and movies.

This book is not mere text, thankfully, every page is peppered with relevant Manga art, covers and photos. The book has a foreword from Osamu Tezuka himself, who in Japan is called Manga no Kamisama (The God of Comics). The book ends with a delicious 96-page appetizer of the best Manga ever produced, translated into English. This includes Hi no Tori (Phoenix) by Osamu Tezuka (popularly referred to as his life’s work), Borei Senshi (Ghost Warrior) by Reiji Matsumoto, Berusaiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles) by Riyoko Ikeda and Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa. I found Phoenix and Ghost Warrior deeply intellectual and thoughtful. Though a bit dated, since it was published in 1983, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is a cracker of a book and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know about Manga and its influence in Japanese culture.