I wish I knew more about Tatsumi before I started reading the book. I took it out of the library due to a few factors: 1) 2011 is my Year of the Graphic Novel; 2) I had not seen a graphic novel with as epic a page count as this (855, including the appendix--I'm a notes reader), so I thought it would be an ambitious read; 3) the scope of the book seemed interesting for a graphic novel, and ambitious writers, even if they fail in their ambitions, always appeal to me, sometimes more than safe writers; 4) it was in the same area in the library as a few other books I had been looking for, so serendipity and random selection I suppose played its part; 5) it was published by Drawn and Quarterly, who I have quickly realized are almost flawless in their book selections. Drawn and Quarterly is the graphic novel equivalent of Matador or 4AD Records: if you like one or two releases from this label/publication, chances are you will like almost everything they produce.
The book chronicles Tatsumi's (or Katsumi's, as he calls himself in the book) life starting from when he began writing four-panel comic strips as an early teen, to the point when he became a major force in the Japanese manga marketplace, and his gekiga became an accepted form. The fact that I knew so little about this author, the history of manga, and his notable place in the history and evolution of manga appealed to my omnivorous sensibilities: I am naturally drawn to the unfamiliar.
If someone is not too daunted by an 800+ page book, I highly recommend it. And since it is a graphic novel, that 800+ page count (and subsequent reading time) can be significantly reduced. However, I cannot give this bildungsroman 5 stars, though this is primarily based upon my own Western reading conventions and prejudices. There are many times where Tatsumi introduces information or a character, and tells us in an aside in the panel itself what is to happen with that character. For instance, in the beginning of the story, a young Katsumi is asked by his father, a delivery man, to make his deliveries for him to a couple of women. Katsumi does, and the women read the letters attached to the delivery. An aside in the panel says that Katsumi would not understand the role of these women in his father's life until much later. But the author then drops that thread. We never return to it, and are never told anything about those women, or what the significance of the letters to them were. There is also a small plot thread involving a young female classmate of Katsumi's sister, who accompanies her to school everyday. After a certain time the classmate comes to the house late repeatedly. It is inferred this is in order to have a 30-second interaction with Katsumi, who always answers the door. We are told in another panel aside that someone would try to play matchmaker between Katsumi and this girl four years later, but we are never shown the results of this romantic possibility. There are other instances where future information is given the reader but we never reach the point where this information is relevant.
Katsumi also provides historical, societal, and cultural information to the reader throughout the book, like a pop-up information of what was happening in Japan at the time politically, societally, and culturally. Blocks of pages are reserved every so often to let us know what films were showing, what music was popular, how Japan was recovering from WWII and becoming an industrialized power: a veritable Japanese historical encyclopedia.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the book is that it makes me want to read more about Tatsumi, and to try to find some of his early manga/gegika stories, if only to fill in the blanks of the stories he began in A Drifting Life. Perhaps, much as I found the book while rummaging through library shelves in search of something else, other books, perhaps I will discover some of Tatsumi's early works in the same manner.