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.