Fukushima Masami: King of Fleshbomb
My face nearly burned up when I first came across a series called 'The Rapist Monk' (Nyohanbō). I was seventeen, and still in high school. It was 1974. I was browsing through a magazine whose title - Manga Erotopia - pretty much said it all. Ryusui, the powerful hero of the manga, was carrying a horse on one shoulder and penetrating a slutty princess from one end to the other at the same time. Even I was shocked.
Fukushima Masami was born in Daiseicho in 1948. Daiseicho is a fishing port on the freezing Sea of Okhotsk, and his father was a trawler man. His mother ran off with a lover when he was still a small child, and his father abandoned the family shortly after. The young Fukushima was reared by his brothers, heavy laborers. He gravitated to manga "for the money." He got his break in a monthly called COM after a frantic period of mailing work around. (COM was founded in 1967 by Tezuka Osamu as a forum for emerging experimental artists. This was partly in reaction to the success of the alternative magazine Garo).
By 1967 he was out of school and scraping a living as a sketch artist in Shinjuku, Tokyo, when the manga artist Mori Masaki took him on as an assistant. He also started getting his own work published. It a glance it looks pretty normal. But the signs of his later direction were already there, in his heroes' expressions - and heavy musculature. And in his slutty heroines. He debuted under his own name in the magazine Comic VAN, with 'March of Death' (Shi no Kōshinkyoku).
The Slasher Nun started life as the heroine of a picaresque tale of derring-do, set in the stirring days of the Meiji Period. This was a clamorous age between 1868 and 1912 when feudal Japan opened itself up to western influences, good bad and indifferent. The tale is set just north of Tokyo, in the yakuza mafia underground. The heroine, Onatsu, is abandoned by her Mafioso husband, who wants to further his nefarious career. Justifiably upset, she slashes him to death and, child in tow, embarks on a pious new career of her own - as the death-dealing Slasher Nun. The resulting heady brew graced the pages of the well-known artistic magazine Manga Comic, under the title Hitokiri Ama. (This work is technically classified as a gekiga, a hardboiled genre with higher production values and artistic input per page than a typical manga.)
However, this was just the beginning. A run-off version of the manga in book form takes things a stage further. Here, the Slasher Nun sports a three-fingered claw for a right hand, and comes from a hidden community of deformed villagers. 'Slasher Nun' is already developing what we have to hail as the Masami Touch: a forceful blend of disturbing women and grotesque villains, a twinning of beauty and cruelty. In his preface to the book, Fukushima declared: "I only went into manga to make money. The manga is all. The artist doesn't matter."
Running for three years in the magazine Manga Erotopia, this is Fukushima's longest work, drawn to the script by Takezawa Kai. The hero is a mysterious monk called Ryusui, battling the powers that be on a personal quest to break through to true Buddhism. He is Brother Ryusui, and always surrounded by many woman. Maybe he is practicing the Diamond Sutra in the true sense of the word. Because he justifies murder if it helps turn his ideals into reality.
Part I is set in the early 1800s. In Japan this was a decadent age. It was clear that the shogun's regime was starting to crumble. The monk Ryusui walks the land from one end to another spreading poison wherever he goes, in a study of the aesthetic of evil. When corrupt officials try to crush the people's sexual drives, Ryusui chants the Sutra of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy - and sends the bad guys packing with his supernatural powers.
Part II is set in a prime nerve center of the Japanese erotic imagination - O-oku, or the shogun's harem, a strictly girls-only space (except for the shogun, of course) in the bowels of Edo Castle. Time has moved on, and the government is now in a state of ever-accelerating collapse. Ryusui makes his entry and takes the fight to the shogun's chief counselor Ii Naosuke. With the collusion of the grand harem mistress Himekoji, he kills the head counselor and seizes power behind the scenes. However, his real target is Edo Castle itself, and the shogun's court.
The plot now careers from (kind of) historically accurate to wild fantasy. Two real-life characters appear as fellow-conspirators against the shogun: Saigo Takamori, a fiery samurai radical, and Katsu Kaishū, the shogun's wily naval commander. Ryusui joins their grouping. (In western terms, this would be something along the lines of the Incredible Hulk teaming up with Jimmy Hoffa and the CIA to assassinate Kennedy.) And together, they do it! The shogunate is overthrown, and the way to a New Japan is opened. At which point Ryusui is confronted with a new enemy - a savage brain-sucking barbarian by the name of Boolliver. They fight. To the death. We last glimpse the victorious Ryusui disappearing into the flaming depths of Edo Castle...
Ryusui comes back to life for Part III, which is set in the late 1800s. Japan is now open and westernizing rapidly, which gives the hero a new set of opponents. Among them is the "Merchant of Death" Iwasaki Yataro, founder of Mitsubishi, and the real-life Scottish merchant Thomas Glover, who was on the scene in Nagasaki at the same time.
The finale sees Ryusui back in Tokyo, bent on overthrowing the government yet again. Crashing a waltz gathering of Japan's new elite at the Rokumeikan dance hall, he faces the ghost of the grand harem mistress Himekoji in the ultimate showdown...
The changeover from feudal to modern Japan was a real event, and a real revolution. The fictional character Ryusui's ultimate aim is to keep the cycle of revolution spinning until it hits anarchy. Hell opens up all around him on his journey through the story. But it doesn't feel like a tragedy - more like a heart-stopping dash through great danger to a new world. Created by some earthshaking, chaotic Power.
'Pirate Ship of Hungry Slaves' (Gareisen) 1975-1976
Fukushima Masami hit the peak of his progress in the period from 1975. All of his works around this time have the same features in common - excessively muscled bodies, startling layouts, and heroes that morph in stature to something like living gods as the storylines progress. 'Pirate Ship of Hungry Slaves' is set in the Japan of the late 1800s. The hero, Shachi, starts life on land but soon runs into trouble. He is found guilty of looting cargo from a shipwreck. The local magistrate punishes him savagely by executing his wife and setting Shachi himself adrift on the open sea. He is saved by a pirate princess called Hime with a strong resemblance to the eighties cult movie star Divine, and her faithful African servant George. Together they join to take on the shogunate, but their pirate forces are put to the ocean floor by government naval squads, and the three main characters are separated. Shachi later finds the princess again, only to see her executed in front of his eyes by his nemesis the magistrate. Their child is executed next, and Shachi is force-fed its flesh in a long drawn out torture sequence. The experience drives him insane.
George, meanwhile, ends up touring with a traveling sumo troupe, and is forced to display his strength by pulling a giant wagon, etc. Finally, using some pretty unconventional methods, Shachi, George and Hime get to take their revenge on the magistrate.
'Pirate Ship' was published in Manga Hot, with a storyline by a writer, Kobori Yō, working for Studio Ship. Fukushima worked out a great many aspects of his mature style in this very strong work, featuring some excellent scenes such as the princess Hime's torture sequence and the pirate-shogunate sea battle.
Fukushima now stopped work for the young readers' magazines he was involved with, and delved into the bizarre world of his subconscious to get his own images onto the page. The graphic style of the creation myth 'Saint Muscle' showed Fukushima's strong similarities to American action comics Later this had a major influence on other extreme-action muscle manga such as 'Fist of the North Star' (Hokuto no Ken).
'Prince Shōtoku' is another tale based on a real-life historical figure, the seventh-century ruler who played a key role in making Japan a Buddhist country. Normally, Shōtoku is pictured as a kind of Yoda figure - all sweetness, light and Buddhist wisdom. This was not the Fukushima way. In his manga we go over to the dark side, to Prince Shōtoku as an avenging occult spirit. His opponents are the powerful Soga clan, originally strong opponents of Buddhism in Japan. To get even with them, the resurrected Shōtoku (who's broken the laws of the underworld) has to challenge Enma, the Buddhist Prince of Hades. The battle is joined by the Red Army of Hell - a league of dead souls seeking to liberate Hades, with backing from the Buddha himself - and turns into a three-sided free-for-all.
The manga's love interest is also triangular - Enma's wife Benten (the Goddess of Knowledge) is also Shōtoku's lover. The stakes now reach as far as the question of who will conceive a new Being transcending the space-time continuum...
As well as 'Saint Muscle' and 'Prince Shōtoku', Fukushima published a number of other works in the productive years of 1977 and 1978. As the name suggests, 'Mugen, Empress of the Yoshiwara' (Arinsu-koku Jotei Mugen) is set in the huge pleasure district of old Edo, the Yoshiwara. The storyline centers on a 'super sex contest' waged by the vengeful courtesan Mugen. Chigira is a near-future science fiction manga set in the pre-Millenium Tokyo underworld, featuring fast-growing foreign mafias, paranormal floods, drug-crazed religious sects, etc. Fighting them all is the eponymous hero Chigira, armed with his trusty 'M61' automatic. 'Beastly Baseball Legend' (Jūkyūden) chronicles the doings of a homicidal batter and a beanball pitcher as they try their luck gambling on baseball games.
To the end of century...
From 1978, Fukushima went into a severe slump. Even when his name appeared on magazine covers, there was no sign of his manga inside. Friends like the songwriter Nakanishi Rei held events like the Come On Fukushima! Party, but the creative juices just weren't flowing any more. He published a few works over the following years - 'Love-hate Sisters' (Aien Shimai) and 'Scorpion Nun' (Sasori Ama) - but they lacked his old power. Running in the magazine Young Comic, the series 'Isaac's Ark' (Isaku no Hakobune) was canceled in mid-series in 1980. This began a decade of silence for Fukushima, broken only in 1990 with the book 'Resurrection Crest' (Yomigaeru Monshō). Then the silence began again.
Such is fate. A Fleshbomb manga artist like Fukushima is pretty much bound for destruction. Drawing at the extremes he went to would warp anybody. But the manga scene without him has suffered a sharp, severe temperature drop. I first started searching for Fukushima in person in 1995. The night before I started I had a dream about him, covered in blood, screaming Pay me, if you want to know about me! I got as far as his ex-wife, a music teacher in Saitama (near Tokyo). She assured me that her ex-husband was on the verge of a comeback. I believed her, and the Fukushima Renaissance Cult was born at that moment. The mission: bringing back total manga, affirming the entire range of humanity, good and bad. It developed far beyond my imagination. As The Rapist Monk puts it "Extremism makes miracles".
To quote the man himself: it's not a hundred percent necessary for Fukushima to be morally perfect. It's all in his work, and if he starts drawing again, who can say what he'll come out with? I'd like to join his ex-wife and other fans in calling out to Fukishima Masami:
Postscript: The return of Fukushima, and beyond...
Just as I was screaming "Coooooooooome Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!" (in the 1997 edition of Manga Zombie) - whaddya know? A gaggle of publishers were thinking along the same lines. As a result, Ohta Publishing Co. brought out a reissue of 'Saint Muscle' to healthy sales. The following year, Suiseisha published my survey work Fringe Culture, which covered Fukushima Masami among others. So, interest in this artist was definitely on the rise again at this time - at least among a few offbeat sections of the media. When - gasp! - the maestro himself got in touch with Ohta Publishing, in July of 1998. Meaning I got to meet him, along with one of Ohta's editorial staff. Unfortunately, he never divulged the real reason he'd remained silent for over a decade. But he did let us know he was planning a comeback. (The interview was published in the magazine Quick Japan.)
The real push to get Fukushima's work back in print more or less coincided with his resurfacing in public. Ohta reprinted 'The Rapist Monk' in three volumes, along with 'Prince Shōtoku'. Bijutsu Shuppan chimed in with 'Gladiators, Stars of Rome' (Kakutōshi Rōma no Hoshi) and 'Mugen, Empress of the Yoshiwara'. And then in 1999 the real action started - two brand-new Fukushima series. 'The Ballman' (Gyokudan) appeared in Pachinker, a mag dedicated to the Japanese gambling game pachinko. And in a real blast from the past, the series 'Restless Breasts' (Bōnyūkyo) graced the pages of that randy old goat Manga Erotopia.
Both series covered about fifty pages in total, a good two volumes' worth of work for demanding weekly publications. (Though technically Erotopia and Pachinker were what the British call 'fortnightlies' - i.e., released every second week.) Anyway, as the clock ticked towards the millennium, Fukushuma Masami was back in a big way, a cult hero-figure in certain journalistic circles.
However, in early 2000, Fukushima went into another major slump again. His age was probably one factor. He was now in his early fifties, and writing weekly manga is physically draining. There may have been artistic differences with the scriptwriters too. But I think the main problem for Fukushima was that his new stuff didn't achieve the sales figures he'd been hoping for. The Big Comeback flopped, and he was yanked brutally offstage: the mags dropped his series. Silence fell...
Though not completely. He still commanded enough of a following to republish single-volume works like 'The Nothingness of Swordsman Musashi' (Musashi no Mu) and Chemistry. But the weeklies (and therefore commercial success) remained out of his reach. However, in 2005, he got another break - the weekly Shūkan Manga Times started running his series 'Edo Decadence' (Edo Deka). This was a major coup: Shūkan Manga Times is an imprint of the mighty publishing house Kodansha. But the series was axed after only six months.
Another Fukushima manga run by a Kodansha mag fared even worse. Comic Afternoon dropped 'Super-Citizen F' (Chō-shimin F) after a single episode. Fukushima just couldn't seem to take his chances and turn them into achievements. Why not? No doubt there are a million reasons, but the heart of the problem is that Fukushima couldn't produce anything to beat his earlier creations, like 'San Muscle' and 'The Rapist Monk'. His whole style changed after 1978 - more delicate lines, more female leads. He was trying to negate his earlier work, and if anything that was the ultimate cause of his repeated slumps afterwards. Violence and supermuscles were the whole essence of where his art was coming from.
He must have realized this himself, because 'The Rapist Monk Returns' (Nyohanbō Returns) marked a real comeback of his earlier style. The series made its abrupt appearance in Sasuperia, a porn mag not on sale in general bookstores. As the title suggests, 'The Rapist Monk Returns' follows the modern-day adventures of the resurrected hero Ryusui. The series got a lot of attention from people in the scene, but sadly the magazine itself failed to survive the year.
All is not doom and gloom in the Fukushima camp, however. The third reprint of 'San Muscle' came out at the end of 2006 to good reviews. And it seems to me that - at long last - Fukushima Masami has got a handle on what kind of work he should be drawing. As of now (2007), he's in the process of working up his next manga. I expect lots of supermuscles, lots of violence...