Kaze Shinobu: your guide to beyond spacetime
A natural high
As a manga artist, Kaze Shinobu has a pretty unique approach to his trans-dimensional material. He opens up his subconscious and draws what appears to him without plan or pause. It's a kind of automatic drawing. Maybe his editors press for changes later on in the process, but fundamentally that's his method. Apparently he holes himself up in a purpose-made cardboard pyramid to give the astral juices a chance to flow. With his psychedelic color sense and oddball drawing habits, you might reasonably suspect that Kaze's creative processes are chemically assisted. But that's actually not the case. His trances are naturally induced. To reach them he lives a healthy – almost monkish – existence. He's practically a vegetarian, which is very rare indeed in today's Japan (oddly enough, given its vegetarian past).
Kaze Shinobu was born in 1952 in Yokosuka, a city near Tokyo with a large US naval base. His manga-obsessed childhood was immediately followed by a spell as assistant in Dynamic Pro, a manga studio run by the artist Nagai Gō . After gophering on 'Kikkai' (Kikkai Kun) and 'The Most Boring Guy in School' (Gakuen Taikutsu Otoko), he debuted under his own name in 1970 in the mag Gekkan Shōnen Magajin with the story 'One-Dollar Hospital, Inc.' (Hyakuen Byōin). (Japanese readers of his well-known later works are stunned to find out that Kaze started off as a comic manga writer for younger kids, but 'One-Dollar Hospital' was just such a 'gag manga' (as they are locally known). The story featured lots of black humor and seems to show influences from the recently-released movie M.A.S.H. (Kaze himself claims, though, that the main influence was the TV comedian Morikawa Shun.) At any rate, there's a comic streak running through all Kaze's work right into his later, more transcendental works like Zeus.
While the young Kaze was busy creating gag manga with idiot heroes, his collaborators at Dynamic Pro were looking much further afield. In particular, they were reading the cult French graphic novelist Philippe Druillet. When he looked through Druillet's Lone Sloane, Kaze was blown away by the ultra-intense coloration and 4-D graphics. He wasn't slow to pay homage. His own work immediately started taking on Druilletesque characteristics like the Frenchman's intense sharpness of line. And as he moved away from gag manga, Kaze really started to come into his own as an artist.
In 1977, Kaze started serialization of what can be justly called his masterpiece – 'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet'(Chijō Saikyū no Otoko, Ryū). This last malign blossom of the 1970s draws on just about every aspect of the decade's countercultures and mashes them face to face in one single work.
The Antichrist roams the earth with the face and clothing of Charles Manson. 'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet' shows the continuing influence of Philippe Druillet on Kaze Shinobu, and there is homage as well to the Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha.
Other influences come from East Asia. Christ calls Bruce Lee back to life, in a reflection of the seventies Kung Fu boom. And what's really interesting is the absurd way this Kung Fu fashion is combined with the contemporary 'Spiritualist Craze' spearheaded by the real-life religious cult GLA (headed by its second leader Takahashi “Michael” Keiko) and the writer Hirai Kazumasa, author of the New Wolf Guy Series, who is supposed to be closely connected to the cult. 'Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet lampooned both. There are also logos echoing Yokō Tadanori.
'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet' followed a wayward path both before and after publication. Originally, Kaze planned for the hero and his rival Dokyo to be involved in a gay love affair. The general outline was for a blockbusting karate/sci-fi/gay/horror set of themes. But when he broached his ideas to Nagai Go and the team at Dynamic Pro, they persuaded him to abandon the gag manga style and take a more 'serious-minded' line.(Hence the story as it finally appeared.) However, the spectacular final illustration of the earth splitting in two was in Kaze's mind from the very start.
'Ryū' was first published in Shōnen Magazine in 1977. Unfortunately, the series was too occultist in tone to get enough support from the readership (as constantly surveyed by the mag) and it crashed to a premature death. However, it was later brought out in book form by the publishers Asahi Sonorama, and again in 1996 by Kadokawa Shoten, in 2002 Hutaba-sha.
Kaze's work found a ready audience among one section of the sci-fi readership. This group took its inspiration from American comics and graphic novels, and they recognized something new and exciting in what he was doing. As a result, the Japanese sci-fi scene became one of Kaze's main platforms for publishing single-episode works and short series.
The occult was big news in the late seventies, and Kaze's 'The Kid who Who Ran the Government' (Gabamento o Motta Shōnen) followed the trend. In this self-selected anthology – and his other works of the time – Kaze developed the unique essentials of his later spiritualist-occultist phase. Again and again, the plots revolve around Armageddon, the near-extinction of humankind, and the recovery of post-apocalyptic humanity in some more highly evolved state.
Kaze followed this flurry of short works with a period of inactivity. But during this time, he gained new audiences abroad for his previous work. Among others,'Being a Guy Is All True Grit' (Otoko wa Dokyō) was published in Heavy Metal, and Heart and Steel was published in Epic. Still, elaborate work like Kaze's took more time and energy than he could muster, and his productivity reflected that. What little else he managed to put together in the late seventies was put out in sympathetic and relatively undemanding sci-fi mags like SF Magazine, SF Adventure and Popcorn. The readers were bug-eyed cognoscenti to a man.
The eighties works 'Ghost Man' (Reitai Ningen), 'Love Goddess New Girl in School' (Aizen Tensei) and 'Flowerbird, Bright Moon and Cool Breezes' (Kachō Fūgetsu) were included in the anthology 'The Kid who Ran the Government'. But Kaze put out lots of other short works in this period that were never anthologized. Many of these were published in mags aimed at young girls, or shōjo zasshi. – For example Puchi Furawā, or Petit Flower, which published Kaze's 'My Scary Auntie Midori' (Midori no Obasan ga Kowai).
In this story, a young girl is knocked down at a traffic crossing. Later, she finds that her friends and family start to act weird. They're completely cold to her. Worse, her youthful aunt Midori trails her like a skirt, impossible to shake off. At the very end of the manga, it turns out that she's been dead since the accident. 'Auntie Midori' is in fact an angel, and she herself is a ghost haunting the place where she died. It's an early version of The Sixth Sense, in other words, and Kaze handles the plot very skillfully.
Another memorable Kaze work from the eighties is 'Last of the Bikers' (Saigo no Bōsozoku). Japanese bike gangs are another distinct modern subculture, with their own costumes, rites of passage and even Chinese characters. While not quite as dangerous as the classic Hell's Angels, they certainly caused a storm in urban Japan in their late-seventies heyday, before membership went into steep decline. 'Last of the Bilers' is set in a post-apocalyptic urban landscape, and features stunning graphics of bikers gunning their way through the ruins. In my opinion, Kaze helped pave the way for Akira. 'Last of the Bikers' was published in the sci-fi mag Popcorn as a full series.
'A Tale of the Moon and the Wind' (Ugetsu Monogatari) took Kaze off on a quite new tangent, since the story is set in medieval Japan. However, the graphic style owes a lot to the Art Nouveau maestro Alphonse Mucha, and the combination of style and story works up a unique atmosphere. One of Kaze's own favorites, 'The Moon and the Wind' languished for years before finally coming out under the Seiryusha imprint in 1996. It looked as fresh then as the day it was finished.
Corny and camp
During the eighties, Kaze spent a lot of time schmoozing around at sci-fi conventions in the States, investigating the goings-on and coming home laden down with merchandise. As Nakako Shinji reports in the book Violence and Peace, during this period Kaze had a major thing for low-budget American sci-fi flicks, starting with Wonder Woman. Apparently he loved their particular blend of cheapness and trashiness.
There was obviously some common ground between these movies and his own sensibility – for example, the way that he couldn't resist inserting gags into 'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet'. There's a similar style in later (but not particularly recent) movies like Ed Wood and in the rising popularity of deliberately corny styles. Kaze's work isn't exactly kitsch as such, or camp either, but definitely shares something in common with a lot of eighties camp Americana. I'm thinking along the lines of Tim Burton's Mars Attacks. For my money, Kaze was the only Japanese manga artist to nail down this kind of spoof pop-art sensibility with real finesse.
Kaze's overseas connections carry over to the way he draws his heroines, who often have a fairly exotic quality about them. They're modeled on the Haga shoten Star series. In terms of their costumes alone, Nikaido Kuniko (the heroine of 'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet') clearly looks to the risqué heroine of the American comic Vampillera for inspiration and glamour. Although Kaze never watched Barbarella, he was a major Wonder Woman fan – especially as played by Linda Carter.
He was also a fan of Japanese science fiction, especially the movies Sukeban Deka and Bishōjo Kamen Powatorin. Minamino Youko, the female lead in Sukeban Deka II, was a particular favorite, and the scene where she appears in the movie with her mask split in two was particularly stimulating for him. Kaze also drew UFO illustrations around the themes of Bishōjo Kamen Powatorin, which are worth a look.
The daily grind
In the nineties, Kaze experienced a frenetic period drawing two series for Tokyo Sports, a daily tabloid newspaper. Tiger Mask the Star and Roppongi Soldier were both scripted by Maki Hisao. Personally, I was really doubtful if Kaze could sustain the pace of producing his kind of highly-wrought graphics on a daily basis. What made the projects possible, I think, was that they lacked his normal science-fiction and multi-dimensional pyrotechnics. However, that's not to say that both series don't pack a lot of punch. They do. I'd like to think that the main reason Kaze changed his style here was that he wanted to appeal to a new readership. Anyone who reads them can see that the scripts – with their offbeat ideas and ultra-cool heroes – mesh brilliantly with Kaze's crisp graphics.
Tiger Mask the Star is set in New York. The hero, Tiger Mask, is a homeless downbeat in his normal, everyday life. The villain Tiger's Cave is really original – a cross-dressing mafia don with a penchant for S&M. There's a similar sado-masochistic streak running through 'Roppongi Soldier', the story of an ex-kickboxer private eye. The series is very detailed on Tokyo's Roppongi nightclub and entertainment district, which the scriptwriter knew very thoroughly. The fight scenes in both series are just the same as the ones in 'Ryū, Strongest Man on the Face of the Planet', and just as powerful.
The artist as prophet
In March 1995, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyō launched a deadly attack on the Tokyo subway, using the nerve gas Sarin. Under the absolute leadership of the half-blind guru Asahara Shōko, the group had attracted a large following of elite science students attracted by Asahara's distorted end-of-the-world blend of Buddhism, yoga and science fiction (Isaac Asimov was a major source of inspiration). The subway attack was planned as a prelude to an assault on the parliament building and a coup to set up an Aum Shinrikyō dictatorship. It was in many ways the most shocking event in Japan since Mishima Yukio's spectacular suicide in 1970, pointing as it did to a deeper and unexpected malaise in the entire culture, and especially among the young.
Kaze Shinobu's daring reaction to the event was his 'Aum Armageddon Plan is Go!', (Harumagedon 'Aum Keikaku' Seikō Seri!) published in the weekly tabloid Flash Zōkan and edited by Arita Yoshio. The manga was an exercise in alternative history, prophesying what Japan would have been like under an Aum dictatorship. The climax depicts Asahara – grown to monstrous proportions – smashing the parliament building in a blaze of light. The extraordinary spread won praise from Taku Hachiro, then appearing in the well-known magazine Spa!.
Maybe Kaze had finally learned to cope with the pressures of producing work for the daily newspapers and weekly mags. Whatever the reason, from 1995 his work in all genres started to show a real resurgence in spirit. Later, Kaze had a major spat with the artist Tsuji Naoki over copyright issues relating to Tiger Mask the Star. However, this did nothing to slow down his creative surge, which has continued up to the present. The ultimate reason for this surge lies in the nature of modern life in Japan. 1995 wasn't just Aum's year. It also saw the Kobe earthquake, which killed five thousand and left the city looking like Akira had jumped off the page. In other words, the boundary between modern Japan and the world of Kaze's imagination was being obliterated. Kaze Shinobu increasingly began to reveal himself in his true form – as a prophet of urban dystopia. Either that or reality was finally catching up as the millennium approached. You be the judge.
A voyage into Greek mythology
In 1996, Tokuma Shōbo published 'Zeus' (Zeos), Part One of Kaze's excursion into Greek mythology. The story: Chaos gives birth to Uranus (heaven), Gaia (earth) and Eros (love). They in turn parent many gods who form the first-generation pantheon. Uranus becomes an overbearing tyrant and is overthrown because of this by his child Chronos, but Chronos ends up just as bad an oppressor himself. He devours his own children one by one because of a prophesy that one of them will steal the throne. But there's one survivor who got away – Zeus. Zeus takes out Chronos, rescues his devoured siblings, and takes charge of the show on Olympus...And that's just the first half of the story. 'Zeus' in fact covers only as far as the eponymous hero's birth.
'Zeus' is chock-full of Kaze's science fiction style and multi-dimensional pyrotechnics . It's a fantastically enjoyable story. Kaze still has a lot of great manga left in him, and there are still lots of full-color unpublished works slumbering in the archives at Dynamic Pro.