Akiyama the unstoppable
A lot about George Akiyama is shrouded in mystery and myth. Fact 1: he's a veteran manga artist who's spent the last thirty years and more at the cutting edge of the art-form, and he still shows no signs of slowing down. Fact 2: he has the true artist's gift of sensing what's coming down the line. Long before they happened, both the Aum Shinrikyo death cult and the anime Evangelion are weirdly foreshadowed in his work.
As for the more mundane details of his biography, who knows? A trawl through the internet will tell you that George Akiyama was born Akiyama Yūji in Tochigi (near Tokyo) in 1943. And also that he quit high school to work at a book wholesaler's in Tokyo's Kanda district, the center of universe for bibliophiles in Japan. Some time later he kick-started his career as a manga artist with a spell as assistant in the studio of Morita Kenji. But how much of this is true? In one interview, he claimed that he came up to the big smoke to become a TV personality, and that he became Morita's assistant by pure chance. (He also insisted that he'd gotten his high-school diploma.) Whatever.
It's generally held that he debuted in 1966 in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine with 'The Skeleton Kid' (Gaikotsu Kun). In fact, he'd already put out 'The Storm Ninja' (Arashi no Ninja) the year before as a kashihon manga. From the start, Akiyama was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. His early works were light-hearted gag manga, like Patman X and Horafuki Dondon, both published in Shonen Magazine. ('Patman X' was especially well-received, and won the prestigious Kodansha Manga Prize). All very giggleworthy, and they're still great fun to read. But at the same time, in 'Marquis de Sade' (Sado Hakushaku) he showed a darker side – which would come to the fore in his later, more serious works. 'Marquis de Sade' mixes childish gags with some very dark humor indeed, as when the character Katsu Shintaro gets his eyelids stuck together with an industrial superglue. ('Marquis de Sade' came out in the magazine Bōkenō.)
Starting with Derorinman in 1969, Akiyama cracked out one scandalous manga after another for a full two years, into 1971. Then he capped things off with a hugely publicized disappearing act. Let's go through this period step by step.
Derorinman is the story of a kid whose father tries to kill himself, seriously mutilating his face and chest in the process. The event traumatizes the kid into delusions of grandeur, and he takes to the streets on a mission to save the planet. Like a latter-day Don Quixote, he's ready to pay life and limb to protect the innocent. Like Don Quixote, it all goes wildly wrong from square one. Maybe the most memorable part of the story is the series of (pretty simpleminded) philosophy q-and-a sessions with Dunce Mask – actually the hero Derorinman himself in another guise – who operates under the motto “Might is Right!” The series first appeared in the mass-circulation mag Shonen Jump in 1969. It made for surprisingly heavy-duty reading in such a tweenie/young-adolescent-oriented publication.
(True Akiyama otaku will want to note that Derorinman was republished in a slightly different version in Shonen Magazine in 1975. The hero's family gets a fresh look among other minor changes, but the series still has a more adult cast than its host mag. There was also novelization which appeared in Variety in 1979.)
Derorinman shared a lot of qualities with two other Akiyama manga that he drew around the same time, Ashura and 'The Moneygrubber' (in Shonen Magazine and Shonen Sunday respectively).
'Ashura' is set during a famine in medieval Japan. Ashura, the young hero of the story, has a serious problem with his mother: crazed with hunger, she is on the verge of cannibalizing him. The manga's full-on depictions of cannibal behavior led to public outcry, and the story got officially blacklisted as a danger to public morals in a number of prefectures (the Japanese equivalent of states) nationwide.
'The Moneygrubber'(Zenigeba) tells the tale of Gamagori Futaro, a man so poor he can't scrape five yen together to save his sick mother's life. He subsequently embarks on a warped quest for ready cash, killing his wife and kids in the process. Then he kills the detective investigating the murders. He then broadens his scope, becoming the boss of a factory and polluting the surrounding area so that hundreds more get sent to their graves. (Real-life incidents of industrial pollution like the infamous Minamata mercury poisoning case were still fresh in people's memory at the time.) Suicide is Futaro's final flourish. The story later became a movie starring Kara Juro.
Terorinman and The Moon
The late sixties saw the rise and fall of the Japan Red Army, the most violent and radical leftist group in the country's history. Their exploits gave the time a certain feeling (pleasant for some people) of decline and fall. The Red Army also reminded many of another radical group in a different age of decline and fall – the Shinsen-gumi, a doomed band of hard-core shogunate loyalists who made a last-ditch stand back in the 1860s. (Nowadays, the Shinsen-gumi is back in the public eye thanks to a year-long costume drama on the national broadcaster NHK in 2005.)
The final stages of Terorinman feature both a supercharged version of the Shinsen-gumi and the 'Army of the Moon', a group modeled on the Japan Red Army. However, the setting is neither the 1860s nor the 1960s but a sci-fi future. It's actually quite a serious look at both past and present in a space-opera style. Voyagers from the planet Vega reach earth and demand that the planet stops being a galactic hermit. (There are obvious parallels with the American Black Ships of Commodore Perry's fleet. Perry steamed into Tokyo Bay in 1853, in a terrifying display of superior technology, and demanded that Japan open up for free trade.) On earth, the (neo)Shinsen-gumi and the Army of the Moon struggle for first access to Vegan support and technology. In the three-way struggle that follows, the Vegans come to the conclusion that they'd better destroy the planet. So they unveil their ultimate doomsday device – a weapon codenamed 'The Moon'...
The same doomsday device appears in another Akiyama work in 1972, Za Mūn (or 'The Moon' as transcribed in Japanese). It appears that he lifted the no-hope ending of Terorinman and blended it into the finale of later series, which appeared in the mag Shonen Sunday. In 'The Moon', the forces of the planet Kenneru attack the earth using a flesh-eating fungus as a biological weapon. (The attack comes courtesy of a conspiracy by Kinokuniya Shoemon.)
Only a bunch of kids stands between the human race and the flesh-eating fungus from outer space. Voluntarily contaminated and already doomed, they press forward to the counterattack – love and comradeship are all they have to fall back on. Just before the big push, they celebrate the marriage of two of their number, Sansau and his lover Kateika. But then they fall, one after another. The last sound they hear as they die is the howling of The Moon. Thus endeth 'The Moon'. In Terorinman, the only difference is that the final howl goes to the eponymous hero. The tragedy stays the same.
'The Moon' is a kind of coming-of-age story disguised as a blockbusting yarn about robots. In that sense, I get the feeling that Akiyama was the forerunner of a whole swathe of later works by other writers, from Kidō Senshi Gundam (in the late seventies to Shinseiki Evangelion in the nineties, and in the new century, Bokurano. But the sad fact is that nobody save a few diehard fans remembers Akiyama's 'The Moon'. Maybe it's because the plotline was so completely OTT. Or maybe it's the way Akiyama kept pulling badly-judged visual gags in what's supposed to be a basically serious story.
Let me tell you about my life...?
Anyway, the George Akiyama story as it's unfolded so far has brought our hero a good deal of fame and fortune. It's at this point - 1971 - that he puts out a bizarre manga autobiography and stuns all and sundry by announcing his retirement.
Kokuhaku or 'Confessions' laid bare the secrets of Akiyama's soul episode after episode as it appeared in Shonen Sunday - "I was a child of mixed blood" (this was still a shocker in 1971 Japan), "I am a murderer" (which draws a gasp even today) - and so forth. And each episode carried a new confession: "Last's week's confession was a lie". Having dragged his readers through a wilderness of violence, loneliness and despair, Akiyama breaks off the series in a grand finale featuring himself in a chorus line of characters from the script, laughing and dancing off into the sunset, calling "Gooodbyeee!"
Unfuggin'believable. The only thing is, this isn't exactly like the ending of Evangelion, with the full cast of characters shouting "Congratulaaations!" It's exactly the same.
The Kid with the Eyes of a King
Did Akiyama reach some kind of Enlightenment during the time he vanished amid such huge public uproar? No - he didn't change a jot, I'm delighted to say.
After he emerged back into the spotlight, Akiyama put out yet another controversial series, in Shonen Jump in 1972. 'The Hill of Roses' (Bara no Sakamichi) tells the story of Domon Ken, a highly idealistic kid with a special gift and a special problem. The gift: he possesses 'the Eyes of a King'. The problem: his mother is insane, and he's constantly worried that some day he's going to end up the same as her.
By chance, Ken comes into a vast fortune in money and real estate. His idealism immediately takes over, and he decides to "build a utopian village for pure-hearted children to live in". And he decides to do it all alone - we see him desperately lugging huge rocks across the landscape, while his friends look on and wet their pants laughing. Ken keeps trundling on like the damned Sisyphus in the Greek legend, condemned to roll rocks around for eternity. But he doesn't give up, and he doesn't give in. And as time goes by, his friends start changing their minds, and joining the good fight.
This bald summary of the story so far might give the impression that we're dealing with a really wholesome piece of work here (though the insanity scenes are pretty unrelenting). But, at the climax of the story, abruptly - maybe the series wasn't selling well, maybe Akiyama himself wasn't happy with it - we find Ken floating lifeless in a harbor. He's pulled out and put on a respirator, but never regains consciousness. In his coma, he fantasizes about his life as it should have been but wasn't - with a mother who stayed sane, a father who didn't run off, and a marriage partner he truly loved. After three episodes of this, he dies. The series finishes off in It's a Beautiful Life mode, showing how the people he touched in his life heal their wounds and return to fulfilling everyday lives.
Akiyama's work had always had a kind of missionary touch to it, with a vague urge towards saving humanity. In 'The Hill of Roses', this impulse takes on a more concrete form - the building of a utopian community. The series is also very interested in money, and how to get maximum use out of it. It's interesting that even when planning for paradise, Akiyama maintained a cool, hard-headed realism, hidden but definite.
The road to Enlightenment
From this point on, Akiyama shifted his focus to a more adult market. Not immediately though - Shonen Jump published 'A Young Man Turned to Ash' (Hai ni naru Shonen), the story of vampire who found his calling by virtue of suffering from a blood disease. There was also the gag manga 'World's Number One Complete Loser' (Dohazure Tenka Ichi). But, on the whole, the main thrust was erotic works with lots of upskirt shots, sex scenes soaked with every fluid imaginable, incest, gay scenes etc. Pure entertainment.
With series like 'The Wandering Cloud' (Furōgumo, in Big Comic Original) and 'Frogs and Toads of the Japanese Archipelago' (Nihon Rettō Gamagaueru), Akiyama established himself at the top of the heap in the world of shonen shi - magazines aimed at young to middle-aged male audiences. His series The Pink Curtain, printed in Manga Goraku became a movie directed by Moho Jun. But for all his success, I thought that he was turning into just another porn peddler in the late seventies, and I lost interest in him for a while.
But actually, looking at his more recent work, Akiyama's blue period may have been a necessary trip to the sin bin. He later moved on to draw manga that skillfully blend the opposing themes of sexual desire and spiritual enlightenment. The best example of this is 'The Philanthropist' (Hakuai no Hito) in Big Gold. He wouldn't have been able to achieve this without the experience of drawing adult-oriented manga.
'Son of The Buddha' and Aum Shinrikyo
In the eighties, George Akiyama made his creative comeback on the pages of Shonen Jump with two works - 'Son of The Buddha' (Shaka no Musuko) and 'Gonzui the Fisherman' (Kaijin Gonzui). By now, what was known as the 'Jump System' was already in place throughout the Jump magazine conglomerate - i.e., the editors rigidly controlling the artists, with the editors making sure the plotlines and graphics followed what reader surveys told them would sell best. 'Son of the Buddha' and 'Gonzui the Fisherman' can only be read as direct assaults on the 'Jump system', carried out right in the belly of the beast. Did Akiyama turn himself into Terorinman? Or maybe something more along the lines of Don Quixote? These two anarchic series certainly tilted at one gigantic windmill.
As he drew 'Son of The Buddha', Akiyama was knight errant and prophet rolled into one. Scene after scene of the series foretells the rise of Aum Shinrikyo in uncanny detail - only the guru's face is different. Akiyama's guru first gains recruits through a dramatic ploy - launching a bio-attack, and then providing an antidote to the public. Dressed up in a Sai Baba-style getup, he spends day and night in intimate 'spiritual exercises' with three sisters belonging to his cult. Ten years down the line, reality bit even this detail - Aum also had three famous sisters among its membership (famous after the 1995 terror attack, anyway). Other details are more fantastic - the Son of The Buddha is actually a puppet for a shadowy group called Freezone, which is modeled on the Freemasons; the plot climaxes with the sudden appearance of a flotilla of UFOs.
I interviewed George Akiyama for a book I wrote earlier (Manga Jigoku Hen) and asked him about the connections between 'Son of The Buddha', Aum Shinrikyo and occultism in general. His answer was "I just drew what my editor told me to". I felt he was dodging the question for dear life. Or should I say to this day I hope he was.
It has to be said that "Son of The Buddha" suffers a severe hangover from Akiyama's porn period I mentioned earlier. There's lots of gratuitous nudity, pants, bikinis, miniskirts, mile-long legs and cetera. Granted, the hangovers hardest to cure are the ones best forgotten. Given its abrupt ending, the series probably had trouble keeping its ratings up. Still, as it faces into the twenty-first century, 'Son of The Buddha' continues to throw a multifaceted new light on the present.
The trauma of Gonzui the Fisherman
'Gonzui the Fisherman' fared even more tragically then 'Son of the Buddha'. George Akiyama has never darkened the pages of Shonen Jump since. Gonzui is an ex-slave washed up on a desert island. The story is about his fate as shared with his fellow castaways. Not that the series had much breathing space to develop - after a great opening fanfare Shonen Jump cut it in fewer than ten episodes. Maybe the way the hero was drawn was open to charges of racism, well or ill-founded (this was a persistent problem in Japanese manga throughout the eighties). Maybe the readers didn't warm to the graphic sadism on display from the word go. Anyway, it was cut.
Personally, my favorite character in the manga is Azusa, a mentally unbalanced fisherwoman who appears at the beginning of the story and takes care of Gonzui because she can't distinguish him from her dead son. So I was really disappointed by the brutal plot change in the middle of the series, where the entire adult population of the desert island was shipped off to another location, leaving the manga populated by a half-naked, strictly kids-only crowd. In other words, Akiyama was jumping on the Lolicon bandwagon - the craze for sexualized prepubescent characters was in full swing at the time. Anyway, from asking around I get the feeling that 'Gonzui the Fisherman' ranks right up there at number one or two as a trauma manga among guys in their late twenties.
A force of nature that knows no limits
Even now, George Akiyama is still on the boil. Already he has a string of entertainment works for the young male seinenshi market under his belt, like 'The Wandering Cloud', 'The Pink Curtain' and 'Kisaburō the Female Impersonator' (Onnagata Kisaburō, in Big Comic Original Zōkan). But he still keeps producing one scandalous series after another in a nicely-balanced sequence -Lovelin Monroe in Young Magazine, 'The Philanthropist' and 'The People You Can't Get Rid Of' (Sutegataki Hitobito) in Big Gold. Then there's 'Kūkai, Master Buddhist Teacher' (Kōbō Daishi Kūkai) in ALLMAN...and the list goes on.
These works are all still scandalous and brimming with anarchic spirit. George Akiyama really is the last of the titans. Other manga writers of his generation have mellowed with age; not Akiyama. He keeps pushing the envelope as hard as he can. And his lifestyle shows no sign whatsoever of any drop in his prodigious energy level. Even his addictive lying (?) is still in full throttle. He's not just a manga artist with his hands. He's a manga artist in every fiber of his body.
Growing up tramatized...
At present, two series by Akiyama are in magazine publication - 'The People You Can't Get Rid Of' and 'Kūkai, Master Buddhist Teacher'. In character, they're both continuations of the series 'The Philanthropist'. Both of them cover the life of Ninomiya Kinjiro, and his philosophy of satori (Buddhist enlightenment).
'The People You Can't Get Rid Of' is a love story between Yūsuke - a dim, unemployed truck driver who's no great hit with the ladies - and Kyōko, a bento shop worker who was traumatized when raped as a teenager. It seems as though their relationship is going to make it - or so Akiyama sets it up. Suddenly, though, Kyōko starts spouting the doctrines of "The Lake of the Godhead" (this is a fictional cult, but it could easily pass as just about any one of Japan's 'new religions' that cater to the lonely, the poor and the ignorant). Yusuke's body breaks into occult spasms, and the story as a whole plunges into a spiritual world, as Tsunoda Jiro always desicribes in his manga.
In Vol. 1 of the book version, Yūsuke refers to the vagina as 'The Sacred Portal' when accused by the "Lake of the Godhead" congregation of raping Kyōko just the night before. -In fact, he'd done no such thing. He'd just been trying to get laid in his normal way.
At one time, Akiyama enjoyed considerable commercial success with the string of works he drew for kids' shonen magazines. Even so, he must have given his young readers a fairly heavy dose of trauma with his sharp sense of wrenching controversial life problems. And then there was his graphic style, which was such a mismatch - nothing bold or dramatic, all faltering wispy lines.
Even now that they're grown up, his readers (and I'm one of them) still appreciate his particular ghastly kind of weirdness. Maybe we can do that exactly because we've grown up. I get the feeling that the kind of relationship Akiyama's fans have to his work is the best kind going.