Sailing the Seas of Manga: A Drifting Life

A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi


Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (Drawing & Quarterly, 2009) is a graphic memoir of epic proportions. It is an autobiographical work thinly veiled as fiction, which recounts the story of two brothers, Hiroshi and Okimasa Katsumi as they grow from adolescence to adulthood. Both boys are obsessed with reading and drawing manga.

The Early Years

In grade seven, one of Okimasa’s “postcard comics” is published in the monthly magazine Manga Shonen, much to Hiroshi’s chagrin. Not long afterwards, however, Hiroshi follows suit with work published in Manga Yomimono (Manga and Literature) and numerous other magazines. He begins receiving letters from other youth who are equally enthralled with manga, which leads to Hiroshi’s formation of the Children’s Manga Association with six other postcard comic creators. The association publishes the hand-drawn magazine Stars of Manga, “…likely the first national amateur manga association formed in the post-war period (41).

Okimasa is taken with illness in the form of a lung disease for much of his youth. The boys’ parents live virtually separate lives under the same roof, with their father scraping together a living at odd jobs. Hiroshi dives deeper and deeper into manga, in part as an escape from the hardships unfolding around him. He discovers the work of Osama Tezuka, acknowledged as the foremost pioneer in extended manga storytelling—a new form to Hiroshi and the broader manga audience. When a publisher offers Hiroshi the opportunity to meet Tezuka, Hiroshi jumps at the chance.

Tezuka becomes a mentor to Hiroshi, much to Okimasa’s dismay. Tezuka encourages Hiroshi to create longer extended narratives, which Hiroshi struggles to complete when he is not working on the panel comics that are beginning to appear regularly in manga.

In 1952, Hiroshi enters grade eleven. He writes “Happily Adrift,” a script that is to be drawn by Noboru Ooshiro. In addition, Hiroshi completes “Jolly Film Crew” (80 pages), “Manga Television” (96 pages), and finally, a sequel to “Happily Adrift” entitled “Children’s Island.” However, Katsumi’s collaboration with Ooshiro has yet to be published, which leads Hiroshi to doubt his worth. At this time, Hiroshi receives a letter from Ooshiro inviting him to move from Osaka to Tokyo, to work in the Ooshiro dojo.

Torn between joining the dojo and completing high school, Hiroshi finally decides to continue with his studies until school has ended. The publisher Tsuru Shobo is shown a copy of “Children’s Island” by Yoshiyashu Ootomo (a member of the Ooshiro dojo) and offers to have it published. This serves as the impetus for Hiroshi’s working on another extended narrative (96 pages), “The Adventure of the Mysterious Tree,” based on the fairy tale “Jack and the Beanstock.”

Hiroshi wins the “comic drawn by a housewife” contest, which he enters using his sister Michiko’s name. He also purchases an American 3-D comic, and after examining it closely, proceeds to draw his own 16-page 3-D comic by hand!

Now preparing for university exams, Hiroshi skips many of his classes and spends his time reading classics of literature from around the world. He is especially impressed with Shakespeare’s tragedies, and dreams of making a version of MacBeth in manga format. The western film Shane comes to Japan, and Kurosawa releases The Seven Samurai—Hiroshi is taken with them both. Finally, on exam day, Hiroshi realizes that he does not wish to pursue a university track. Instead, he begins to seek out publishers in Osaka.


Among the publishers Hiroshi meets is Enomoto Shoten, who offers to publish Hiroshi’s work, though his group is at a crossroads—it is trying to decide whether to continue publishing manga. Right after meeting Enomot Shoten, Hiroshi visits Hinomaru Bunko, a rental manga publisher, where he first encounters the ominous beret-sporting art director Masami Kuroda. Hiroshi is readily thrust into the world of rental manga with Hinomaru agreeing to publish his work “Arsene Gent,” though the title is changed within minutes of finalizing an agreement. No long afterwards, Hiroshi hears back from Enomoto, who requests the same manuscript that Hiroshi has just signed over to Hinomaru for 5 000 yen less. Hiroshi also agrees to work for Maruyama Tokodo publishing, which does not go over well with Hinomaru. Hiroshi decides to use a pseudonym for the work that he creates with Maruyama.

At this point, Hiroshi’s career takes off. In addition, Okimasa begins to create “B7-sized comics,” the Japanese equivalent of the American mini-comic—though a publishing house prints these works.

In one of the first sequences that speaks to the heart of A Drifting Life, Hiroshi reflects silently on his passion:

“Why do I make manga?”

NARRATION: Certainly, it was to make ends meet. Hiroshi began to feel, however, that there was more to it than that. For this 19-year old boy with no guarantees for his future, the only place where he felt alive was in the realm of the imagination. He gained his freedom by facing his desk in solitude and painstakingly filling the white paper with ink (361).

Among the pieces that arise from out of this prolific period is one inspired by the 1954 movies Godzilla and Them. Hiroshi decides to write about a giant cobra: “This will be an experimental work, free from the conventions of the manga format. It’ll be a manga that isn’t manga”(373; emphasis added).


Early on in A Drifting Life, incapacitated by his illness, Okimasa cannot disguise his jealousy at Hiroshi’s success. This leads to rivalry and much bitterness between the brothers. However, and, especially later on in the memoir, Okimasa serves as a foil for many of Hiroshi’s reflections on the future of manga and his belief that it can be elevated to a sophisticated artistic medium akin to film, with which Hiroshi is enchanted. While Hiroshi toils over pushing the boundaries of the medium, Okimasa is content with the production of B7-sized comics, which bring him more lucrative employment than his former full time job.

At times Okimasa encourages Hiroshi to take risks, especially in terms of communicating with publishers. At other times, Okimasa serves to bring out Hiroshi’s doubts and insecurities about his artistic abilities. The following exchange reflects Okimasa’s role as a sounding board for Hiroshi, while simultaneously criticizing Hiroshi’s drive to experiment with the manga form, and driving him in the process to stand by his convictions:


OKIMASA: The sequencing is so cinematic. This same action can be shown in two panels. Don’t you think it’s a waste of space?

HIROSHI: You think so?

OKIMASA: Stylization is the essence of manga. You have to simplify everything to not waste a single line. The same goes for the number of panels you use.

HIROSHI: But this isn’t manga. I’m using the manga methodology to articulate something entirely new. I’m not going to use any stylization that gets in the way of expression!

OKIMASA: Now you’re talking like a big shot.

HIROSHI: When Tezuka moved into magazines, his compositions became cramped, and his work was less interesting. When someone who was writing hundreds of pages is suddenly constrained to a few pages, it’s natural for that to happen. (IN DESPARATION) Book-length works allow for many pages, so it should be paced freely. Pacing can be used to create psychological effect (384-385).

In another significant exchange, Hiroshi remonstrates against the current state of manga, calling for nothing short of an artistic revolution:

OKIMASA: I hope this is the first and last story you do this way. There’s just no way to justify using almost an entire book to describe the events of half a day. I appreciate your drive, but don’t you think what you call “experimental” might simply be “self-indulgent”?

HIROSHI: Remember that film that tells its story in real time? The audience experiences the same amount of time as the characters in the film.

OKIMASA: Yeah, I remember. Rififi, right?

HIROSHI: It should be possible for manage to also progress in real time.

OKIMASA: That’s our fundamental difference. Why can’t manga just be manga? There’s no need to incorporate filmic techniques into manga. Manga is a print medium, after all. It’s not the same thing as film! It’s the techniques inherent to the manga medium that should be developed.

HIROSHI (IN ANGER): I’ve had enough of manga that concerns itself with “humor” and “punchlines”! It may be an imitation of film now, but eventually a unique anti-manga manga technique will be developed.

OKIMASA. What the hell is an “anti-manga manga”? Hahaha…it’s just manga.

HIROSHI (IN ANGER): It is and it isn’t!

OKIMASA: You mean, “it is and it isn’t anti-manga manga? Hahaha…what a mouthful!” (416-418).


Hinomaru’s brainchild Kuroda proposes a new-format volume in which the top authors working for the company would all have pieces included. The work is published as Shadow, and its sales are high by Hinomaru’s standards. However, because all of the most popular artists are working on Shadow, they are spending less time creating full-length works. Consequently, the total revenue of the company decreases, leading to Kuroda’s suggesting that the artists live in a flat together, to motivate them to produce more material. The heat of Tokyo is oppressive to the point where it is difficult to work during the day.

To make matters worse, Hiroshi is courted by “Madam,” a hostess who works downstairs from Hiroshi’s apartment. Hiroshi eventually understands that he is not the only man being courted by Madam, and steers clear of her upon the advice of Kuroda.

Early on in Hiroshi’s creative evolution, he is introduced to Kyuko, a friend of his sister Michiko, who walks to school with her. The two are obviously smitten with one another, though out of shyness they do not speak for some time to come. In the later romantic episode between Hiroshi and Madam, he remains equally innocent in the ways of women, though this is to change with Madam’s advances.

Interestingly, while doing background reading for this post, I came across the thesis “Gekiga_into_English” written by Andrew Graham Allan Wilmot as part of the Simon Fraser University Master’s in Publishing.  Wilmot, a contributing editor to A Drifting Life, comments on the editorial decision to change the Japanese name “Mama” to “Madam” in order to avoid confusion for western audiences—especially in terms of any sort of Oedipal reference that could be read into the use of the pet name. In Japan, the name “Mamasan” is commonly used to refer to the mistress of geisha houses, but is also used to address bar hostesses.

Hiroshi’s manga summer camp is reminiscent of the factory model that was also used during the Golden Age of comics in the United States, where artists would sit together two at a drawing table, pumping out substandard works at a phenomenal pace. Will Eisner, who supervised one such shop, shares a tremendous amount with Tatsumi in terms of his desire to transcend the limitations of the comics medium and bring it to a more sophisticated level of artistic expression. The parallels are somewhat uncanny, as can be seen in some of Hiroshi’s reflections included in A Drfiting Life. Take, for example, the following passage in which Hiroshi has a taste of the sublime while working on “Black Snowstorm” (1956; published in English by Drawn & Quarterly as Black Blizzard.) This work is considered one of the earliest examples of an extended comics narrative (“graphic novel”) in Japan.

NARRATION: After leaving the camp where he lived with Masahiko Matsumoto and Takao Saito for two months, Hiroshi was focused on completing his long-awaited, full-length story.

The work was proceeding smoothly. The frustrations he felt at camp were gone. For the first time in a long while, Hiroshi felt he had accomplished something big. While working on the scenes of extreme cold, Hiroshi felt so involved that he actually shivered. He’d never felt this way before.

HIROSHI: So this is the thrill of creation! I had no idea.

NARRATION: Marathon runners speak of a “runner’s high.” It’s a euphoria they only feel while running. A runner’s experience of this “high” may be influenced by his or her velocity or even the weather. They become less and less aware of the fact they are running, their bodies start to feel light, and they feel free in both body and mind.

At that moment, Hiroshi experienced his own version of a “runner’s high” (545-546).

Hinomaru Folds

Eventually, Hinomaru goes bankrupt, and the Hinomaru director is arrested and thrown in jail on counterfeiting charges. When he is released from jail, the director vows to start fresh with Shadow and asks Hiroshi to be the magazine’s managing editor.

Meanwhile, Kuroda has found work with Central bunko. Hiroshi and Okimasa both begin receiving regular work from Central, including contributing to a new magazine called City, which is being coordinated by Kuroda. Central’s president, Tateishi, offers to supply Hiroshi and other City artists with lodgings in Tokyo. Tateishi sends Kuroda to Tokyo, where he is expected to establish a new artists’ compound. However, Kuroda spends all of the money he’s been given on alcohol, without the knowledge of the rest of the group.


Similar to attacks on horror comics that took place in the United States, rental manga directed towards mature audiences in Japan were equally criticized as being detrimental to children, since both adult and kids’ manga were displayed on the same shelves. The following excerpt serves to illustrate Hiroshi’s desire to discern between the two:

NARRATION: Hiroshi felt stronger and stronger that rental manga needed to be distinguished from children’s manga.

HIROSHI (IN THOUGHT BALLOONS): I’ve been getting so much work for short story magazines lately that I haven’t had a chance to experiment with long-form stories. I wish I could establish a new expressive form.

American comics, for example, have long streams of dialogue in panels that are full of action. That means the action is paused while you read the long dialogue. Panels full of action would be better served by short dialogue to keep the reader moving along. Action-filled panels could be drawn with extremely simplified backgrounds to shorten the time it takes to read them. Readers should be able to look at close-ups of characters’ faces and quickly read their psychological state. A panel with a large image and lots of details is read from corner to corner. The image thus stands still for the duration of the time it takes to be read. The time it takes to read a panel can be calculated according to the relative size of the image and amount of dialogue in it. This is the synchronization of panel and time (624-625; my emphasis).

These observations are also very much at the heart of Will Eisner’s reflections on graphic narrative, as they are recorded in Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. The parallels between the development of visual storytelling in North America, Europe and Japan, though very different in many respects, also bear many similarities. The influence of manga artists in American comics began especially with Frank Miller’s introducing a pared-down, more visually oriented style in his works starting in the 1980s.

Hiroshi decides to adopt a new name for his comics, and settles on “gekiga,” or “dramatic pictures.” He decides to move to Tokyo sporting the gekiga banner, much to the chagrin of Hinomaru’s president, Yamomato. Kuroda explains how a similar word, “gageki,” was used in the past to refer to the “picture-story show.” By 1958 this form of entertainment had all but disappeared.

In post-war Japan up until the year 1953, as many as 10 000 performers earned a living by travelling from one neighbourhood to the next, narrating kami-shibai or “paper-plays” for children. At the end of the show, which was presented using a sort of puppet-show theatre, members of the audience were expected to buy traditional sweets as a means of payment. Companies would hire young artists to draw the illustrated sheets used for picture-story shows, which were then purchased by performers. When television was introduced in 1953, kami-shibai were left by the wayside. Some of these stories were later turned into comics, and many of the artists who worked on illustrations for kami-shibai would continue on to become manga artists.

When Hiroshi moves to Tokyo, he moves into a small flat with his colleague Saito. In another part of town, Osamu Tezuka is also living in an apartment building with other artists, and it is a magnet for aspiring creators of manga. Kuroda-sensei, now employed by Central, finds out that Hiroshi is still providing work to Hinomaru and forbids it. With multiple collaborators having shorter stories published together in volumes like Shadow and City, Kuroda is under greater pressure to coordinate each issue, and he turns once again to the drink and disappears. Hiroshi is asked by Central’s president to edit City.

Hiroshi is so busy managing City that he loses sight of his initial goal of creating extended-narrative gekiga. He is roused from distraction by the spontaneity of his telegram man, who, with the advent of the telephone realizes that his job is approaching its end. He quits and moves to Hawaii on a whim, which leads to Hiroshi’s realizing how stagnant life has become for him.

Right when Hiroshi decides to concentrate once more on creating a longer work, he is offered a job he can’t refuse from publisher Togetsu Shobo: a healthy salary, complete editorial control and the ability to select whomever he’d like as contributing artists for a new magazine. Hiroshi calls the magazine Skyscraper, and the group collaborating on the publication the Gegika Workshop. With the formation of the workshop, the Gegika Manifesto was created:

The world is changing constantly. The world of manga, created by Sojo Toba in the 12th century, is no exception. Manga is a fast-evolving field, and in the Show period, it has been bifurcated into manga for adults, and manga for children. Today, manga for adults alone comprises various genres such as political manga, realist manga, family manga, and story manga.

Children’s manga has also become diversified and it now includes different genres for different readerships. In the postwar period, the story manga rapidly rose to prominence, principally due to Osamu Tezuka’s efforts. With this new prominence, children’s manga also improved its social status and continued to develop steadily.

More recently, the story manga has been vitalized through the influence exerted by the supersonic development of other media such as film, television, and radio. This vitalization has given birth to a new genre, which we have named “gekiga.”

Manga and “gekiga” differ in methodology, but perhaps more importantly, in their readerships. The demand for manga, written for adolescents, i.e. those readers between childhood and adulthood, has never been answered, because there has never been a forum for such works. This hitherto neglected reader segment is “gekiga’s” intended target. It was, in fact, the rental book market that contributed significantly to the development of “gekiga.”

(Appendix: 852-853; translation of text appearing on page 730. panel 5).

President Yamamato at Hinomaru bunko is incensed to learn of the creation of the gekiga workshop. He perceives it as a threat and likens it to the creation of a union. Hiroshi travels to Osaka to meet Hinomaru in person and explain his reasoning for creating the workshop:

  • Increasingly, members of the public are criticizing manga because they perceive the stories being published in them as unsuited to children. The “gekiga” label will help differentiate between children’s manga and adult manga.
  • By working together as a group, artists can rest assured that they are not competing in isolation against one another.
  • Third, as part of the manga rental industry, the creation of gekiga is a means to compete against manga magazines that are sold outright.

With the growing strength of Japan as an economic force in world markets, quality of life for many Japanese citizens was also improving. With more disposable income for a greater number of people in the country, the manga rental market was being threatened by the influx of publishers offering weekly manga such as Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday directly for sale. Skyscraper paved the way for further works created by the Gekiga workshop, though not without concerns. Artists working on Skyscraper were paid more than ever before, but the publisher Togetsu Shobo was near bankruptcy.

During this period, Hiroshi manages the coordination of the various authors working on Skyscraper and also contributes to the magazine as an artist. Although he is paid for his gekiga submissions, no extra salary is provided for his editorial responsibilities. Tensions begin to surface; artists are paid by the page, but not all artists have the same number of pages in the publication. Some artists feel that they are working harder and creating better-quality stories than others. And with the increasing popularity of works being published by the Gekiga Workshop, other publishers are offering the artists more money than Skyscraper can afford. These companies capitalize on the fact that they are including Gekiga Workshop artists by printing their work front-and-centre stage, alongside lesser-known artists.

As the editor of Skyscraper, Hiroshi begins receiving more and more submissions from aspiring artists, requiring an even greater time commitment. What’s more, some artists working for the workshop begin to miss their deadlines, and Hiroshi himself begins to include substandard work, since he has so little time to work on his own pieces. In due time, Hiroshi chooses to distance himself from Skyscraper and the magazine folds.

Negative public sentiment towards gekiga runs high during this period, with “morality police” calling for a ban on rental manga in Yamanashi, due to media sensationalism. These events are uncannily similar to those that also took place in the United States in the early 1950s, in particular due to the influence of Dr. Frederick Wertham and his notorious Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that a direct correlation included between juvenile delinquency and reading comics. In A Drifting Life, the following excerpt from a newspaper called City Library captures the tone of the book renters’ executioners, who describe the comics as “evil books.” In analyzing one such volume, the article states,

“The protagonist is a juvenile delinquent. In 124 panels, on 24 pages, there are 25 scenes featuring guns, 20 showing fights, and 61 without any text. Almost all scenes depict juvenile crime. This story is immoral and lacks any sense of justice…Yamanashi book renters are cooperating with the kofu police department to eradicate “immoral books” in the prefecture…any book with pages, two thirds or more of which is without text, is immoral (815),”

In May 1960, Japan and the US are in the final stages of ratifying a security treaty that allows the US to continue exercising its military presence on bases in Japan. Hiroshi is swept into a demonstration led by the Japan federation of students with 7000 protesters. The protest became violent, with police launching tear gas canisters into the crowds. In those moments of anger and chaos, Hiroshi recalls the anger that fuelled his early work, and which somehow had been lost in his work over the years. It was a moment of recognition that rekindled his passion for gekiga, and inspired him once again to return to his calling in earnest.

In the epilogue to A Drifting Life, Hiroshi attends the seventh anniversary of the death of Osamu Tezuka. Afterwards, drinking coffee and reflecting on his lengthy career, the reader is privy to our protagonist’s closing thoughts:

HIROSHI (In thought balloons) I’ve been feeling so tired lately. Ah…the rental book days, when I was flooded with energy, are long gone.

NARRATOR: In his youth, Katsumi had poured all his passion into the spectre that was gekiga.

In retrospect, he was happy then.

HIROSHI/NARRATOR: I’ve drifted along, demanding an endless dream from gekiga. And I…probably…always will…(834)

In Short…

I am pretty much obsessed with the “graphic novel” genre, I work for an educational publishing house, and one of my responsibilities is editing writers’ work. To read A Drifting Life was fascinating for me, since it is not just Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s story of growing into adulthood, nor is it only the history of his career as a manga/gekiga artist and writer. This is also the story of the an important period in the history of the manga publishing industry in Japan, and as such it provides well-needed context for the North American reader.

A Drifting Life is situated in terms of the broader transformational events taking place in Japanese society that ran parallel to the microcosm of manga evolution. This information is welcome for anyone who is not well-versed in modern Japanese history and popular culture. For the faint at heart, A Drifting Life’s 834 pages (!) might seem a bit…long. But for the avid comics buff, Tatsumi’s story progresses at a steady clip. Covering a forty-year period, it is unsurprising that the work spans so many pages. It would be difficult to do justice to Tatsumi’s prolific creative output otherwise.

Tatsumi’s fluid lines seem far more refined in A Drifting Life than his early work. There is a consistent, steady and mature tone to the composition of his pages. His chapter splashes and stage-setting illustrations assume more the form of detailed sketches, but the two styles complement one another, and are consistent with the legacy of Tezuka’s cartoony protagonists inhabiting environments grounded in realism.

For such a voluminous work, a reader desiring to search through any of the contextually meaningful titles might have benefitted from a table of contents—but this is a minor detail, which would obviously have contributed to an even greater page count. The Appendix includes some interesting anecdotes and translations of text for which Japanese characters were kept in the original images. But most importantly, a copy of the Gekiga Manifesto can be found in the Appendix—a testament to those artists who realized an exciting new genre in manga storytelling.

My reading of A Drifting Life was infinitely enriched by having discovered Andrew Graham Allan Wilmot’s “Gekiga_into_EnglishAs mentioned earlier, this text was a project submitted as part of Wilmot’s Master of Publishing program at Simon Fraser University. Among other details, it described the intricacies and complications involved in “flopping” images, changing the sense of panels in order to account for text being read from left to right in English, and right to left in Japanese. The process is highly detail-oriented and labour-intensive, and requires skilful image and text manipulation in Photoshop.


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