Actually, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s memoir is not at all like Knausgard’s books. A DRIFTING LIFE is not a manga equivalent of word vomit (although text dominates: in letters, movie posters, book covers) but a tight procession of 16-page chapters. The protagonist is named Hiroshino Katsumi, and we follow his youth and early adulthood as an aspiring manga-ka up to 1960.
It’s mellow and episodic but never boring — I love this employment of narrative from neo-realist and mid-century Japanese films. I could go for two more volumes of later decades: the other work by Tatsumi I know, like ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO come from the late 60s, and they are mature examples of that form gekiga that T/Katsumi is pioneering in these pages, which means “serious manga,” (manga itself meaning “whimsical comics”).
When Katsumi is starting out (and a friend pointed out to me that not once in the narrative doe he question his ability to draw and write comics), the strip form is still dominant in manga, which his sick brother specializes in. Gekiga, which is the lingua franca of manga now, I think it’s fair to say, is interested in stories of novelistic duration and dramaturgy. But moreover, even long-form manga in the 50s, we learn, is satirical and abstract, a gag a minute, simple in plot, cartoonish. Gekiga as Tatsumi develops it has a literary seriousness and tone (he wishes to adapt THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and even as he writes mainstream manga takes inspiration from Jules Verne adventure books).
Growing up in an Osaka suburb, Hiroshi actually lives near Osamu Tezuka’s house. (On the way to school Katsumi cuts through the campus where sensei Tezuka is a med student.) A relationship is struck, and in a lovely seen Katsumi is riding the train home and sees a whole cast of Tezuka characters in the car with him: the lines of two artists mingle in this big panel as fantasy and the real do.
Throughout the narrative there are expository panels filling out context with historical events in politics and culture, like the release of SEVEN SAMURAI. These are hardcore days of hoofing in wooden sandals across town to submit a manuscript to have the editor say you’re not a good fit for the house. As Katsumi moves up we see other up and coming manga writers: he gets to experience the artist household-workshop life. (Tezuka was also living with a manga collective at a time, and there was also Pizza Island in New York.) This isn’t the US workshop, but the European kind, which is part of the program experience too: sharing most of your life with other artists, keeping morale up or demoralizing each other together.
But going back to Tezuka: having finished all 8 volumes of BUDDHA some weeks back, I understand the saturation of ultra-random gags in a new way, see that such material was the bread and butter of older manga. Maybe it’s Tezuka’s genius, or his embracing of the gekiga form in this late period of his work revealed this, but his gags do some sophisticated self-conscious work. Tezuka had a star-system: a set of character designs who would be cast as characters in all of his stories. So the tutor in ASTRO BOY is the detective in METROPOLIS (he has a brief appearance as an ancient world police detective in BUDDHA). Moreover, each as a “real life” name and salary!
This is why in BUDDHA, a character feverish with an infected wound (I could be misremembering) hallucinates Ananda into Black Jack. (Buddha himself becomes Black Jack in a single hilarious panel, highlighting his role as a healer.) This hyperawareness of the fictiveness in Tezuka’s entire ouvre creates this delightful cycle of inflating and puncturing your own imaginative bliss.
I suspect I gravitate toward surreal/modernist literature because I’m chasing after the balls-out imaginations captured in the anime/manga and science fiction of my youth.