Ishihara Gōjin: an artistic genius's one-and-only samurai swordfight gekiga
Imagine Norman Rockwell drawing a manga series...about a gay love affair between Abraham Lincoln and a lean-hipped, square-jawed cowboy. That's pretty much what Ishihara ("Japan's Norman Rockwell") Gōjin created with Yagyū Jūbē, published in 1967 in the mass-circulation weekly Shūkan Sankei. The president is, of course, a shogun - Tokugawa Iemitsu to be precise; and the cowboy is the samurai Yagyū Jūbē. This swashbuckling period drama is one of Ishihara's very few gekiga, and it displays in full his uniquely subtle artistic touch. The question is - how was an artist with such a polished style able to produce work at the frantic rate the weeklies demanded?
I think one reason is that Ishihara the artist was steeled in the white-hot conditions of immediate-postwar pulp mags - kasutori zasshi. ('Kasutori' was a rotgut saké brewed from dregs and drunk by the defeated Japanese. 'Kasutori zasshi' were the lurid magazines they enjoyed during the same period.)
Basically, Ishihara worked his effects in monochrome, by drawing and shading in India ink. He didn't touch screentone. Thinned India ink is an extremely unforgiving medium, and Ishihara's technique called for an astonishing mastery of shading. His monochrome pages are so finely drawn that you sometimes have to remind yourself that they actually are done in black and white. The accuracy and sense of speed in the fight scenes, the startling layouts, and the expert way the graphics get the characters' psychology across - all of these achievements look as fresh on the page as the day they were printed.
The graphic style is a lot like the Taiwanese manga artist Chen Wen's Toshu Eiyūden (Heroes of East Zhu Dynasty). The book version was brought out by Jitsugyō no Nihonsha.
A subtle eroticism
Yagyū Jūbē is a mangaization of the TV movie, and it was produced as a tie-in with the TV series. So it goes without saying that there's not a great deal of gore or graphic sex on the page. The real-life powerplays of the historical period were extremely complex and delicate. Ishihara's fictional characters march into the action waving "Look Mom I'm in a Period Drama!" signs and hurl themselves into every nook and cranny of the times that were. They meet everybody. They're in on everything. I'd be astonished at Ishihara's nerve if I could stop laughing long enough.
In other ways, the storyline resembles the TV drama series Mitō Kōmon. This famous hardy perennial was shot over hundreds of episodes from 1969 to 1997. Plot: a disguised elderly relative of the shogun called Mitō Kōmon wanders with his sidekicks into some district to right wrongs and do good. Oppressed but virtuous locals help him without knowing who he is. Corrupt and lecherous local officials take him and his merry men on in a massive swordfight (no visible blood or injuries) after the second commercial break. His right-hand sidekick produces Mitō Kōmon's kick-ass-status shogunate seal. Everybody kneels and grovels energetically. Villainous officials are scolded, bound and carted off for punishment. Virtuous locals are rewarded. Smiles, corny joke, and roll credits. Mitō Kōmon never changes.
In Ishihara's story, the retired Jūbē heads off around Japan accompanied by Tanaka Kunie (a movie star) and his doppelganger, the pickpocket Sankurou. They expose corrupt officials and crooked merchants alike, and cut them down with Yagyū Shinkage Style swordplay. It's the same story in each episode.
So far so...Mitō Kōmon. But. Looking frame by frame at Ishihara's dense India ink illustrations, you notice that he has crafted all his main characters - men and women - as alluring, seductive presences on the page. Each and every one of them wafts across the paper trailing an extraordinary aura of eroticism. Especially their eyes. They all have the slightly vacant, drifting quality know as nagashime - 'flowing eyes'. It gives them a phantasmal, decadent sensuality. It's entirely foreign to Mitō Kōmon or anything like it.
And there's another thing about Jūbē that goes beyond just plain old sexy. Sure, there are set pieces like where the naked group of nubiles sharing Jūbē's bathtub get attacked by an assassin. Or where another naked beauty is drawn dangling from the ceiling in an S&M scene. But the really charged scenes are homoerotic drawings of pretty, nameless young samurai who just happen to crop up in the story.
There's the scene where the hero get water-tortured while disguised in a manservant's costume, with the standard white hotpants revealing a lot of thigh. His interrogator, a cherubic young samurai, makes do with a loincloth and nothing else. There's the pirate scene where the young samurai is trussed up and stabbed in the throat. And plenty of guys in hot tubs. It's not laid on with a trowel, but there's a definite appeal towards the gay readership and readers who like gay themes. In a sense, 'Japan's Norman Rockwell' was doing extremely radical work by getting material this gay on the pages of Shūkan Sankei in the late 60s.
In an even more striking episode, Jūbē sneaks into the warehouse of an Osaka merchant and stumbles across a vast throng of deformed freaks hiding out there. They look like something out of an old bestiary from the time of the shoguns. But there's nothing pathetic or miserable about Ishihara's rendering of these semi-humans. Though drawn from his imagination, they're weirdly full of life and liveliness.
At the time he did Yagyū Jūbē, Ishihara Gōjin was the renowned creator of wholesome illustrations for girls' and tweenies' magazines. What was really going through his mind?
Just trying too hard
These days, Ishihara Gōjin is known as an illustrator for gay mags under the alter ego Hayashi Gekkō. (This separate hat isn't an alias. Multiple artistic names are very common in all Japanese creative circles.) Anyway, back in the 60s, he was all about tweenies and cute drawings as far as the general public was concerned - but sometimes his natural eroticism would just overheat on the page, and he often got editorial advice to tone it down. He also got into hot water illustrating a serialized novel for the well-known suspense writer Edogawa Ranpō (the penname's a homage to Edgar Allen Poe.) Ishihara's illustrations often gave away later parts of the plot, infuriating the writer. The fact is that Ishihara was probably just trying too hard. He labored under an extreme give-it-all-you've-got-and-more mentality.
The paradoxical reason why came out in detail in an interview he did with the magazine QJ. Basically, it all boiled down to his experiences in the war. Coming under friendly fire from his comrades in the Imperial Japanese Army shattered him. (These men were all heavily indoctrinated with the idea that they were to die together in the service of the Emperor.) From there his road led - reasonably enough - to the kind of anarchism where he could proclaim "I don't believe in any form of authority at all". For Ishihara, the logical conclusion of this stance was the primacy of desire - and not just his own. "If it's consistent with my own desires, I'll do whatever it takes to fulfill the desires of other people. And I'll do it by any means necessary."
When you look at it from this angle, Yagyū Jūbē is a mindblowingly radical piece of work. So that's what he was up to, I think -. He was actually using this major, major mass-circulation magazine Shūkan Sankei...There's something wonderfully villainous about it.
I think that Ishihara Gōjin was just one of a whole group of gekiga artists following the same villainous path. They were all WWII veterans, and they all drifted into the manga-ancestral kami shibai scene after the war. Bonten Tarō (see further down) was another of them.
Ishihara Gōjin was born as Ishihara Toru in Shimane Prefecture in 1923. From childhood, he was earning money drawing caricatures of famous actors. After school, he crossed to Inner Mongolia at the age of eighteen. He trained as a linesman with the local phone company, while odd-jobbing painting scene cards for silent movies. At twenty-one he was drafted; he served in an Army Intelligence. Demobilized in China at the war's end, he spent some time in Shanghai before returning to Japan. First, he painted cinema scene cards in the local town of Matsue. Then he moved to Tokyo in 1948 and went to art school at Nihon University. At the same time, he did illustrations for the pulp magazines known as kasutori zasshi (see above). At this point he discovered Norman Rockwell and turned his attention to doing portraits. After that he worked on many fronts - magazine illustrations, kami shibai and manga.
Ishihara's golden period stretched from the mid-50s to the mid-60s. He did illustrated books with Kawauchi Kohan, illustrated for Edogawa Ranpō, and co-created full-page spreads for Shōnen Magazine with Ohotomo Shoji. As of 1997, he was still actively wearing two hats at the age of 75. As Ishihara Gōjin, he was publishing in magazines like QJ and Sekimatsu Club. As Hayashi Gekkō, he was illustrating serialized gay novels in Sub (one of the famous Gay magazine).
I think the main reason for the resurgence in interest in Ishihara Gōjin was his re-evaluation by the critic Takekuma Kentarō, who did the interview with him discussed above in issue #1 of QJ. At the same time you have to remember that the Mondo boom was in full swing in the 90s. A lot of people got interested in him again in this atmosphere. I'm thrilled to bits that his densely worked style - completely opposite to the light'n'delicate graphic en vogue in the 80s - garnered attention again in the 90s.
The two finest examples of Ishihara's work in the 90s are probably Nazotoki Bottchan, published in QJ, and his cover illustration for issue #1 of Seikimatsu Club. Nazotoki Bottchan (Botchan: the Mystery Solved) is a series of bold claims about the single most prestigious novel in the canon of modern Japanese literature - Botchan, by Natsume Sōseki. After extensive independent research, Ishihara came to the conclusion that all the major characters are gay, and he backed up his thesis with illustrations. The Seikimatsu Club cover is a trippy multinational group portrait on the theme of the Sharon Tate murder in 1968. Manson shares the spotlight with AUM Shinrikyō's Asahara Shōko, Deguchi Onisaburo, Yahowha13, Anton Ravey, Alistair Crowley and Unarius.
Even now, the dense, extreme graphic style of Yagyū Jūbē is there and in perfect shape. Long ago, Hokusai signed his work as 'An Old Man Crazy about Drawing'. Ishihara Gōjin is cut from the same cloth.