July 7th, 2017

There are many others like myself who find much to admire or even fetishize about Japanese culture. One aspect that came to be aware of decades ago is that Japanese culture is not innovative, but rather perfectionist. Given any foreign development, Japanese will work tirelessly to improve and improve and improve until perfection is achieved. That can be a blessing, or, as Anne Lamott noted in Bird By Bird, a curse:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

I learned of yet another example this week as I read artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s massive 855-page, graphic autobiography A drifting life

Acclaimed for his visionary short-story collections “The Push Man and Other Stories,” “Abandon the Old in Tokyo,” and “Good-Bye” originally created nearly forty years ago, but just as resonant now as ever the legendary Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi has come to be recognized in North America as a precursor of today’s graphic novel movement. “A Drifting Life” is his monumental memoir eleven years in the making, beginning with his experiences as a child in Osaka, growing up as part of a country burdened by the shadows of World War II.

Spanning fifteen years from August 1945 to June 1960, Tatsumi’s stand-in protagonist, Hiroshi, faces his father’s financial burdens and his parents’ failing marriage, his jealous brother’s deteriorating health, and the innumerable pitfalls that await him in the competitive manga market of mid-twentieth-century Japan. He dreams of following in the considerable footsteps of his idol, the manga artist Osamu Tezuka (“Astro Boy,” “Apollo’s Song,” “Ode to Kirihito,” “Buddha”) with whom Tatsumi eventually became a peer and, at times, a stylistic rival. As with his short-story collection, “A Drifting Life” is designed by Adrian Tomine.

In telling his story (and that of other manga legends) Tatsumi described how western film and storytelling influenced him and his peers. They spent hours in movie houses and poured over the hard-boiled detective novels like those of Mickey Spillane.

Tatsumi’s depiction of the artist’s life, his frustration with producing lesser work so that he could afford to reach for the perfection he sought, is gripping.

The key, I think, is to pick your battle carefully and learn to accept imperfection is all else.

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