The Flipside Of Manga
Hard to believe it’s been over 15 years since Katsuhiro Otomo’s pumped-up, post-apocalyptic animated movie Akira ignited many Westerners’ passion for Japanese comics and animation. Since then, despite the escalation of manga into graphic novels and anime onto video and DVD, the popularly-held misconception persists in the West that there is a standard ‘manga style’ - big eyes, big robots, big tits and tentacles, ultra-cute and ultra-violent.
In the film Lost In Translation, Bill Murray’s culture shocks include seeing Tokyo commuters, young and old, absorbed in manga. In fact, these account for over 40% of all publications sold in Japan and are too huge a cultural phenomenon to be reduced to a set of clichés or a single genre. There have almost always been many other sides to modern Japanese comics and fortunately some of this less ‘orthodox’ output is starting to appear in English.
During the traumatic recovery after World War II, Japanese children escaped into Osamu Tezuka’s Disney-inspired manga as the perfect pre-TV entertainment. Manga books were pricey, so people took to hiring them from pay libraries. It was through demands from older customers that a very different strain of much darker, more socially engaged comics developed, inspired by new realist cinema and literature.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi was 19 when he broke into this market. Two years later he helped set up the pivotal magazine Kage [Shadow]. Eager to distinguish what he and his colleagues were producing from the sweeter, more kid-orientated manga, Tatsumi coined the term gekiga [dramatic pictures] in 1957. Founder and master of the form, he was not afraid to use his short story comics to confront the problems plaguing Japanese society: a father preys on his prostitute daughter for money; a wife stifled by her husband and mother-in-law tries to escape from her marriage; an unmarried mother is pressured by her selfish boyfriend to abort their baby into the sewers. Tatsumi’s frank unsentimental exposés and compelling realism made his manga some of the first to be put into English in 1987’s Goodbye.
In 2004, Tatsumi was discovered all over again, with a sample in the anthology Drawn & Quarterly Vol 5 and in 2005 his complete works began to be reprinted in a series of graphic novels edited by Japanese-American cartoonist Adrian Tomine.
Yoshiharu Tsuge is another gekiga artist who started in the Fifties. An intensely shy teenager, for him creating comics alone at home was a way to earn some cash and avoid dealing with others. But when his commissions dried up, Tsuge became so poor he had to sell his blood and so depressed that he could not draw, and attempted suicide. What literally saved him was an offer to experiment freely in the unconventional magazine Garo, founded in 1964.
One of the results is his landmark Nejishiki [Screw-Style], translated in The Comics Journal #250. Tsuge’s short fever-dream fable still quivers with surreal symbolism. Staring as if in shock, a shirtless boy walks ashore bleeding from a jellyfish sting on his right arm. The boy’s search for a doctor takes bizarre detours. Finally, while having sex with a gynaecologist his wound is fitted with a mechanical screw. Whatever its meanings to Tsuge, or to Japanese readers adrift in the social turmoil of 1968, Screw-Style remains timeless in its exposure of the raw nerve of alienation. Tsuge has not drawn manga since 1987, but - like a Japanese Robert Crumb - his relatively few stories are revered as treasures and constantly reprinted, analysed and adapted for TV and film.
To this day, Garo has continued to play a vital role in unearthing unique creators. Discovered in 1971, Kazuichi Hanawa acquired a cult following for his extra-ordinary rewritings of Japan’s past, interweaving historical facts and hysterical fantasies. In December 1994, Hanawa was arrested for owning replica firearms and antique weapons. Japan’s gun controls are notoriously strict and, despite a national letter-writing campaign, he was given a prison sentence; nothing more was heard from him for three years.
While inside, Hanawa attempted to keep his sanity by recording the mind-numbing rules and routines that regimented every second. Make too much noise and you lose your TV privileges; break a trivial regulation, such as smuggling a chocolate biscuit into your cell, and you get a few months in solitary confinement.
Serialised on his release in AX magazine and now in English from Fanfare/Ponent Mon, Doing Time is Hanawa’s meticulous, quietly damning 240-page journal. Part autobiography, part art therapy, its creepy fascination lies in wondering how anyone could survive these dehumanising experiences and whether you could too.
One of Garo’s most recent discoveries is Kan Takahama. Kinderbook, her first in English from Fanfare/Ponent Mon, collects ten of her quirky tales of everyday strangeness, about mermaid, suicide pacts and making a porno movie. She composes them with an ear for dialogue worthy of Eric Rohmer and a refreshing pictorial panache, blending her academic drawing with skillful computerised affects.
In April 2002, Takahama discovered the work of Frédéric Boilet, a Frenchman and bande dessinée auteur living and working in Tokyo. Meeting him was like finding a kindered spirit, both eager to explore the subtleties of the human heart in their comics.
Boilet’s graphic novel Yukiko’s Spinach is a candid love letter to Mariko, his model and muse. Praised as La Nouvelle Manga for its innovative East-meets-West fusion, it inspired Takahama to collaborate on a sequel.
Mariko Parade is their joint account of Frédéric and Mariko’s gradual break-up during a seaside vacation. Kan chooses the perfect symbol for this in the island’s Hydrangea blossoms; to the French these represent enduring love, whereas in Japan they mean love’s ending. Far from gloomy, this exquisitely funny and tender piece affirms, "A flower is never more beautiful that at the very moment it begins to fade."
For anyone who thought they knew what manga comics were like, these new translations offer a glimpse of how truly multifaceted the medium has become. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
Posted: October 15, 2006
The original version of this article appeared in 2004 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.