Sakaki Masaru: A full-on Fleshbomb Atmosphere, Overflowing with Claustrophobia
All about love...and hate
From the publication of his debut work, Sakaki Masaru's lifelong obsessions as an artist were very clear: "The love, the hate and the passion that lurk beneath the surface of everyday life." 'Tsuyuko's Grave' (Tsuyuko no Haka) is a melodramatic tale abounding in all three.
The setting is a farming village in the present day. A child's father has been murdered and his sister abducted. Now a teenager, he sets out on a journey to track down the culprit. On the chase, he ends up in a car crash and loses his memory. Fortunately, a young farm girl comes across the scene in time to save him and nurse him back to health. Before you know it, they're in love and thinking of tying the knot. However, the girl's father has other ideas. He's the killer. His 'daughter' is actually the young man's abducted sister. Everything will be revealed if the traveler regains his memory. Time for another murder – but this time the plan fails, the kid survives and the shock brings his childhood memories flooding back. The stage is set for the final catastrophe.
Remote farming villages, murderous Oedipal urges and incest – the plot is like something out of a Greek tragedy. But the really outstanding quality of 'Tsuyuko's Grave' is a sense of claustrophobia so deep it's almost impossible to describe. The seething passions and drives on display in 'Tsuyuko's Grave' were to be a feature of later, better-known works by Sakaki. But, with its gripping claustrophobia, it's no overstatement to say that 'Tsuyuko's Grave' expresses Sakaki in all his aspects.
Sakaki Masaru (real name Miyata Yukinari) was born in 1950 in Fukuoka Prefecture in the northern part of Kyushu. 'Tsuyuko's Grave' was published in 1968 by Tokyo Manga Shuppan; he followed it up with the single-volume works 'The Noodle Angel' (Rāmen Tenshi) and 'The Baby' (Akanbō).
The late sixties in Japan were a turbulent and conflicted period. Like Paris and Chicago, Tokyo saw its fair share of riots, sit-ins and student protests. However, at least some of the forces creating the drama were specifically Japanese. The economy was surging ahead at a breakneck pace, as the major Japanese corporations conquered one foreign market after another. As they graduated from school or college, more and more kids were sucked into these corporations or their sub-contractors. They were welcomed with strict regimentation, brutally long working hours and rigid discipline. While the world learned to call them 'corporate samurai'; but in most cases they were stressed-out, frustrated corporate serfs, suffering acute mental claustrophobia at the very bottom of an ironclad hierarchical pyramid. Young company employees in effect formed a new social sub-class.
One of the best-known gekiga artists who documented their emotional landscape was Miyaya Kazuhiko (also covered in this collection). He became a major influence on Sakaki Masaru. Sakaki was working in much the same mold, but his work lacked the literary style and ideological edge displayed by Miyaya. In fact, it was pretty naïve, crude stuff by comparison – which is part of its appeal. Sakaki was certainly the better artist when it came to getting raw emotion across to the reader. He belonged more to the street. Miyaya's influence was on his drawing style, especially on the way he drew the human form in muscleman mode. This had always been an area where Sakaki had his own particular strength, but he polished his skills through observing what Miyaya was doing.
Shortly after Sakaki came to Tokyo in the late sixties, he shifted his focus to seinenshi – mass-circulation mags aimed at the male teenage market. Manga Erotopia ran his series Ai to Yume (Loves and Dreams), with an erotic storyline of a sexy heroine suffering the attentions of a musclebound laborer. All stereotypical enough, but at the same time Sakaki was honing his craft as an artist to the point where he could produce a gripping, high-impact erotic graphic story. He was also starting to get inspiration from more exotic sources.
This became apparent with the appearance of a string of works in the late seventies in mags like Zōkan Young Comic, Comic King, Manga Erotopia and Manga Hunter. The human anatomy and coloration schemes are influenced by American graphic artists like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. At the same time, his graphics are becoming denser; in a sense, he's overtaking his old role model Miyaya. That said, he was a typical Fleshbomb gekiga artist – constantly missing deadlines and having series pulled by magazine editors.
The series Hero is an outstanding part of Sakaki's portfolio, and a work which allowed him to display his full range of talents in the Fleshbomb gekiga genre. Drawn to a script by Takezawa Kai, it delves deep behind the scenes of the Japanese professional wrestling world. (This is OTT costumed wrestling on American lines, about as far removed from sumo as you can possibly imagine.) The hero is a gentle giant with the requisite exaggerated physique. Once scouted, he starts training to wrestle in the bad-guy role. He gets the required moves and gimmicks beaten into him, and even gets cosmetic surgery to make him look more evil. All set, he enters the ring for his first crack at the championship. In fact it's a sure thing – which is the dilemma. The match is rigged from the start. All the hero has to do to become the champ is have sex – with the champ.
Being King of the professional wrestling circuit comes at a price, however. His girlfriend finds out about his homosexual affair and kills herself in a fit of despair. As a result, the hero decides to go straight and win under his own steam in future, but things quickly spin out of control. He finally gets thrown out of the wrestling scene, and was given very strange sanction to. He ends up spending his days washing dishes in the backroom of a drinking den, being called Good-for-nothing. His nights are spent as a slave, under the lash of an S&M dominatrix.
And there endeth the tale. The storyline has a lot in common with Miyaya Kazuhiko's works 'Wrestling Hell' (Prōresu Jigokuhen, scripted by Kajiwara Ikki) and 'Fleshbomb Life' (Nikudan Jinsei). But Sakaki's grasp of anatomy in Hero owes a lot more to American graphic conventions and artists like Frank Frazetta. Partly thanks to these influences, the density of the page gives the work a really powerful impact.
Sakaki's debt to American underground comics and graphic novels can be seen in his unfinished series Requiem. The title is a playful pun on the English word 'requiem'. The Chinese characters mean – roughly – 'A Dream Picture of Soul-Sucking Spirits'. The story, such as it is, concerns the doings of Undine, a water-spirit-cum-witch, and her faithful sidekick. The action is about present-day witches, witch-hunters, and the people who hate them and want their revenge. The plot really goes nowhere, though. The whole production is a bustier-popping fantasy epic, with strong influences from Vampirella (popular at the time and available in Japanese), and Frank Frazetta. The emphasis throughout is on graphic style, while the plot degenerates into a tangled mess.
It's easy to imagine the frustrated editor reaching out to grasp the plug, and giving it a good hard pull. (The editor in this case worked for Zōkan Young Comic.) Such is the tragedy of the whole Fleshbomb gekiga genre: the artists poured their hearts and souls into perfecting the graphics, public and plotlines be damned. At any rate, Requiem deserves kudos for transplanting the styles and techniques of the American seventies underground into the Japanese scene.
Up to this point, Sakaki's stories featured lots of sexy heroines and muscle-clad heroes. But for all the goings-on between them, it's very difficult to get any real sense of passion, love, hate or general male-female madness off the page. His productions had a weird emotional blankness about them. But in the series 'All About Love' (Renai-ron), he tried his hand at depicting a whole range of different boy-girl scenarios, and finally made a breakthrough into deeper territory. The development was mirrored in his drawing technique. His lines lost the clumsy quality they'd had in favor of a clearer, sharper style. In part, this had something to do with the quality of the script writer, Okazaki Eisei , who achieved notoriety with Kamimura Kazuo's gekiga 'The Age of Cohabitation' (Dōsei-Jidai). 'All About Love' is the novel's Fleshbomb version.
'All About Love' was published as a series of self-contained episodes. Episode 3 – 'Where To?' (Doko e?) – is the story of a young couple's descent into madness. Yoshiko is a high school student who's just given birth in a public toilet. We find her, holding the baby's corpse, walking down a street with her boyfriend Takashi. The graphic images are an impressive series of slaps across the face – the labor scene in a public toilet at Shinjuku Station, splashed across a full-page spread; the wimpy boyfriend Takashi hallucinating as he lugs the dead baby back to his house; the couple's frantic sex scene on a train when the normally tough-as-nails Yoshiko finally loses control.
'Where To?' is the highlight of the nine-part series, which appeared in Zōkan Young Comic. I have to admit that the series as a whole lacks the same flair.
As the genre went out of fashion, most of the Fleshbomb manga artists stopped publishing in the early 1980s. Like his fellows, Sakaki Masaru now entered into a prolonged Dark Ages. The Renaissance started in 1998, when Fukushima Masami resurfaced and started publishing again. Suddenly, Sakaki was back in business – his premier work 'Love and Dreams' was republished in part, and Sakaki started drawing again.
According to one version of events, Sakaki spent his personal Dark Ages running a yakitori stall. (Yakitori = getting medieval with chickens; dismembering, skewering and grilling them like heretics of old, then displaying their remains to the faithful over toasts of beer or saké.) There's no way of knowing this for sure, because Sakaki was the most self-effacing of gekiga artists. The one certain thing is that whatever he was doing, it had no connection whatsoever with gekiga.
There's a certain manga artiste who went through a similar period of trial in the 80s – I'm thinking of Azumi Hideo, prince (till he fell) of the pedophiliac Lolicon genre and prophet of today's moe boom. After alcoholism left him homeless on the streets, he was forced to give up manga. He eventually found menial work at a gas company. He told his story in the autobiographical manga Shissō Nikki (Disappearance Diary), which became a bestseller. Even after his comeback, Sasaki Masaru shied away from using his Dark Age experiences like that. I think it's because whatever he had to go through was a lot more medieval than anything Azumi Hideo found himself up against.
Right now (2007) the comeback is at a standstill because of ill health. Time will tell. Get well soon, Sakaki Masaru.