Takeuchi Kanko: The mystery manga artist who spawned a second Kitarō
Takeuchi Kanko had vanished into thin air a long time before. I managed to track him down by an unbelievable coincidence. It was April 28th, 1997. I was just wrapping up an interview with the manga artist Bonten Tarō. We'd been talking about all sorts of things - kami shibai (a form of storytelling ancestral to manga, with wandering artists displaying short graphic stories from handcarts), tattooing (Bonten is liberally decorated), enka ballads..."Anyway, thank you so much," I was saying, "let's call it a day."
Bonten: Actually, speaking of [Mizuki Shigeru's] Gegege no Kitarō, did you know that Takeuchi Kanko was the guy who started the series?
In 1960, Togetsu Shobō published Mizuki Shigeru's 'Kitarō, Demon of the Graveyard', from a story by Ito Masami. But when Volume 3 came out, Mizuki fell out with the publishing house over money, and jumped ship to the publisher Sanyō-sha. He went on to bring out 'Night Tales of Kitarō' (Kitarō Yawai). Meanwhile back at Togetsu, Takeuchi took over the helm of 'Kitarō, Demon of the Graveyard'. The series was a smash hit as a kashihon, and ran to a grand total of nineteen volumes. Takeuchi took over at Volume 4, and cleared the decks with a general slaughter of Mizuki Shigeru's characters. Mizuki's signature character Nezumi Otoko (the Mouseman) met an abrupt end in the opening pages, killed by Kineko (Treecat Girl). Then Kitarō takes out Treecat Girl before squaring up to the she-demon Yasha. Kitarō's victory over her completes the clean sweep.
From Volume 5, Takeuchi populated the series with fresh characters like the ghost of Dracula and his assistant, Baneaze. Kitarō teams up with a mysterious Kumo-Otoko (spider-man) against them.
Until the first half of Volume 7, Takeuchi clearly struggled under the burden of drawing characters in Mizuki's style, and there's not much in the way of originality to be found in the ghostly goings-on up to this point. And there are lots of loose threads in the plot - Dracula and Baneaze, for example, suddenly drop out of the story for no good reason. Mizuki was a past master at western-style ghosts and black magic, and a very hard act to follow. I imagine that Takeuchi had great difficulty filling his shoes.
Takeuchi finally made the series his own by overhauling the basic graphic concept, and moving it in the direction of a more traditional Japanese style. Creating afterworlds and ghosts based on indigenous myths really allowed him to show what he could do. 'Kitarō, Demon of the Graveyard' now became a true original, and truly Takeuchi on all fronts.
Ghost town Tokyo
With the villain Baneaze out of the picture, Volume 7 saw Kitarō up against a new enemy - Jigoku Baba, or 'Hell Hag'. The plotline now careened toward a climax. Takeuchi's graphic style took a complete change of direction. His drawing became far more subtle and finely done.
In the second half of Vol. 7, Hell Hag (accompanied by a demonic nine-tailed fox) hit the bright lights of Tokyo, searching for - and finding - yummy human flesh. They're also on the trail of Kitarō, who's just saved the beautiful and mysterious Kitsuko. All hell breaks loose in Vols 8 and 9. Tokyo becomes the scene of a savage, all-out supernatural war. The action takes place in two parts of Tokyo in particular - the Katsushika and Arakawa districts, lying in the north and northeast of the metropolis. Both places are distinctly untrendy. They're gritty working-class islands of old-school spit-and-sawdust Tokyo - what the locals call the shitamachi (literally 'downtown').
These were the years around the time of the Tokyo Olympics, when the city was transformed from a collection of long-lived and intimate neighborhoods into a sprawling megalopolis. And was at this particular point of change that Takeuchi's very own special scum imagination seized the poorer parts of town and morphed them into a pandemonium steeped in local lore and superstition. I get the feeling that the shitamachi of this dark fantasy is one and the same place as his childhood home.
Takeuchi was born long ago, way back in the Meiji Period, in 1907. My grandfather (now deceased) belonged to the same generation. I well remember the stories he used to tell, about the dead. Our generation would call them 'urban legends' or something, but they were far more in-your-face than that. Even when I was growing up, death was always just around the corner in the shitamachi areas. With my own eyes I saw people killed in accidents lots of times, and suicides. Some of them stand out, like the time I saw a suicide floating in the river, and the two times I saw suicides on the train tracks. Anyway, when Takeuchi was drawing blue collar Tokyo and I was growing up there in the late 50s and early 60s, death was something close. I'd be surprised if it wasn't the same for Takeuchi - and his scriptwriter, Itō Masami , who was another fan of the Katsushika area.
The final showdown
The struggle between Kitarō and Hell Hag spills over and back between the real and spirit worlds, and involves a whole roster of hellish characters. There's Itachi-Otoko, the Fire Sorcerer God, the King of the River Monsters, the Madman of Graveyard Village, the Indian ghost Neshababa- and Enma, the traditional King of Hades. A number of humans are also caught up in the mayhem - the high-ranking Buddhist monk Sainen-Osho, the beauteous Kitsuko, and a private dick by the name of Narumi Hachiro. The epic struggle continues through to Vol. 19.
By the end of the series, all traces of the original artist Mizuki Shigeru are gone. It's 100% Takeuchi Kanko.
In the final volume of the series, Kitarō comes up against the Indian ghost Neshababa, who's trying to infect the world with an ebola-type flesh-eating virus. Her victims turn into zombies, stalking around for human meat. There's one particularly shocking scene where the zombies indulge in a feeding frenzy at a graveyard - but it's drawn with a weirdly comic touch. Maybe Takeuchi was trying to fob off his own conscience? Or maybe not.
In the final scenes of the series, Kitarō triumphs over all his enemies and ends up in the hospital. Here's there for a very special operation - to get the spirit of his grandfather, a wandering legged eyeball called Medama Oyaji - inserted into his empty eye socket. So he ends up normal. It sucks beyond all belief. Here was a character you believed up till now could fly, and he ends up...normal. Uugh. Anyway. Pressed on by the force of Japanese folk tradition and the violence of his own imagination, Takeuchi Kanko took Mizuki Sigeru's masterpiece and perfected a 'Kitarō world' that only he could have possibly created.
Otaku give Takeuchi's Kitarō a hard time: the graphics are crudely done compared to Mizuki's. The storyline has Crab-nebular sized holes in it. The characters suck. It's too depressing. Too gory. And cetera. Takeuchi - weep, reader - gets zero to minus respect. All well and good. And yet...what is it about Takeuchi's art? There's something primeval at work. If you look closely, you'll start to get the uncanny sense of being pulled back in time, back beyond the birth of gekiga and manga - even back beyond the dawn of the wandering kami shibai and before, to the freak shows, peep shows and clockwork dolls of pre-war Japan, and the roving street artists who pimped them around the streets. More than a feeling of terror, you get a sense of raging disgust from his pages. Mizuki Shigeru's Kitarō had a modern, pop-art sensibility. Takeuchi's version by comparison was grungy, vile, and disgusting. Give me Takeuchi any day.
The Dark Ages of manga
Kitarō belonged to the genre of cheap rental manga books known as kashihon. Another major Takeuchi work in this format was his Sanka series. Ethnically Japanese, the Sanka were an obscure wandering people something along the lines of European gypsies. The obscurity comes from the fact that they lived outside the traditional class system. They weren't even classified as outcastes. The story goes that they lived blameless lives in the deep mountains and river valleys. But there are doubts about when Sanka culture finally died out - and to tell the truth, it's not even clear if such a group ever really existed. Of course, the mystery has only boosted their counter-cultural sex appeal. In the twentieth century, some minor writers claimed Sanka status and wrote Sanka stories. In the main they were wild-haired Geniuses with Romantic Eyes and paisley cravats.
Takeuchi authored two works that more or less belong to this bogus tradition - 'Gale Force Sanka Adventures' (Sanka Kidan Shippū) and 'Sanka Mountain Blade' (Sanka Kidan Umegai, in two volumes). They came out under the Togetsu imprint. The manga were based the novels of Misumi Kan, the exceptionally wild-haired Grand Old Man of the Sanka literature scene. For OTT charm, it's safe to say the manga beat the novels hands down. Actually, Takeuchi Kanko was just one of a team of artists working on this project. Beside him was a whole roster of old-timers with roots in kami shibai - Numa Kiichi, Nannbu Shin and Kariya Kei. Each of them dragged their particular scummy appeal to the proceedings. Takeuchi contributed the title story to 'Gale Force Sanka Adventures'. He also penned the story 'A Record of Mountain Blood Laughter' (Umegai Kesshō Ki) in 'Sanka Mountain Blade'.
'Gale Force Sanka Adventures' is set in Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's main islands and (apparently) a stronghold of Sanka culture during the middle ages. The time is the 1500s. Civil wars are raging all over the country. The setting: a group of wandering Sanka. The problem: their patriarch's seriously ill. The solution: "the fresh blood and still-quivering liver of the Princess of Red Pine Castle". This according to a wrinkled soothsaying crone from China. Who's going to snatch the unfortunate damsel? Two stalwart young Sanka, Jaroku and Haraguro, are deemed up to the task, and they have to draw lots. (Their names aren't exactly from charm school - Jaroku means 'serpent six', and Haraguro 'black-bellied, cunning and vicious'.)
Haraguro wins the toss, and Jaroku doesn't take it terribly well. In a fit of pique, he slaughters the soothsaying crone and causes the sick patriarch's death. He has bigger plans - using special powers known only to his wandering tribe, he wants to make a big splash in the civil wars and become a famous warlord. His rival Haraguro is having none of it. He accesses the occult powers of the murdered Chinese soothsayer, and from there it's game on... Misumi Kan's source fiction is flamboyant enough. When you stir in Takeuchi's ultra-in-your-face characterization, you get a paranormal blockbuster in a class of its own.
However much the message got lost among the pyrotechnics, Takeuchi and his fellow artists probably had some kind of human rights statement in mind when they took on a story about the Sanka, the classic outsiders' outsiders. The paradox is that the work is brimming with words and phrases that are now considered offensive and banned from print. Even so, it'd be a real shame to shove it under the carpet just to stay polite. Takeuchi's Sanka material is an important historical source from another age, the Dark Ages of manga.
The Private Life of a Manga Artist: Bonten Tarō testifies...
Kashihon rental manga died a death in the prosperous seventies. Takeuchi Kanko was out of a market. So, he came to Bonten Tarō for work as a chief assistant. Bonten was kind enough to fill me in on a few episodes from those days:
"Kanko-san dropped by my house one day and asked 'Is there any work going?' So I said 'How about being my general assistant?' He was a really gifted draftsman - the fact is I learned a lot from him. So he ended up working for me for a good ten years or so, in my place in Yokohama. When I say he was my main man, I really mean main."
At this time, Bonten Tarō was active on a whole range of fronts, not just gekiga. He was a tattoo artist, fashion designer and enka balladeer as well. Takeuchi was his assistant in his manifestation as a gekiga artist:
"The funny thing was, he [Takeuchi] always tied some kind of cloth around his waist and hung a bottle opener from it. I'd sometimes be holed up in a rooming house somewhere finishing a project. As soon as I got back, sure enough he'd appear - bottle opener swinging. He'd march in and start grabbing beers. I was a round-the-clock drinker myself, and so was he.
"On the other side of the bottle opener he hung a cloth bag. He always had a notebook and pencil and stuff in it. When I asked him what for, he said it took him a long time to get to my place. (I lived in Yokohama, and he was living in Katsushika, across town.) 'So use this stuff to draw on the train.' He was constantly sketching people."
Like his employer, Takeuchi had multiple sidelines apart from being Bonten's assistant. He painted movie billboards and did portraits on the street to get by. Not that Bonten knew anything about that: the only information he got from Takeuchi was 'I live in Katsushika'.
"And he was quite the ladies' man. He was always bringing some different woman to the studio. Quite the old goat. He still had it. All the kids on my staff used to say - 'Where does he get the stamina? Where does all this energy come from in such a doddering ancient?' Did he have a wife? Not that I ever heard of. He'd bring someone along pretty much every day, and hang out with her here. Then kiss her off when she went. Every so often, a new woman would appear. 'What, you've changed girlfriends again?' 'Yeah. This'un's a keeper' he'd say, or whatever." At this stage of his life, Takeuchi was already past 60. Randy old bastard..."
Could Takeuchi Kanko actually still be alive?
And finally we get to the million-dollar question. Bonten Tarō continues:
"Is he still alive? Hmm...good question. Even after I stopped doing gekiga, I still used to run across him sometimes at Kata Kōji's new year parties. But he stopped throwing them over the past couple of years. So, Takeuchi's been off the screen for a good five years or so."
Takeuchi Kanko was still alive just five years ago! Even that was major news for me.
"If he was still alive, he'd be getting really old by now. Over 80, I reckon. Because he was over 60 back then. Still, I'd have given the old bollocks good odds for living to a hundred. Short and unstoppable, total mister eager beaver, y'know?"
If Takeuchi was still living it'd be a true miracle. At least for me.
"If you wanted to trace him after he quit drawing gekiga...how about Hashimoto Shoji? They used to be in the kami shibai scene together. He just might be able to help you out." Hashimoto Shoji is the guy who drew 'Beheader Demon' (Dantōki), the manga about parasite human copulation. Like Takeuchi, he came to the cheap rental manga scene from kami shibai.
The day after I interviewed Bonten Tarō, the team at my publisher's headed up a posse to track down Takeuchi Kanko. Alive, preferably. Here's my version of their findings:
They first got in touch with Hashimoto Shoji:
"I think the last time I met Kanko-san was Kata Kōji's new year party 5 years ago. We used to hang out drinking quite a lot together around that time."
Still this 5-year event horizon.
"If you're really serious about tracking him down, there's this guy in the Katsushika district, in Aoto - he's been there all along, so you should get in touch with him. Kikuchi Yoshinori. He used to be Takeuchi's neighbor. They often used to go drinking together."
Kikuuchi Yoshinori was a colorist of kami shibai, and he worked with Takeuchi at a kami shibai production company, Dai Nippon Gageki Kaisha. After that, he drew display at a department store.
"Kanko-san phoned me during the holiday season three years ago, but that's the last I heard from him" - which still narrowed the gap by two years. "He really loved his drink. Whenever he felt like going on a binge, he'd always come over to my place. And he wasn't a bad sort, so we used to do quite a bit of boozing together." No surprises there. But Kikuchi did have another lead - "There's one person who'll know if he's still alive, and that's Honda Michiko. She was his girlfriend, he was always around at her place."
So, on to lead number three. Honda Michiko was another fixture on the kami shibai scene, and sure enough she knew the full story: "Kanko-san? He died in Osaka, in his daughter's house."
At that moment, Takeuchi Kanko's death became a reality.
The final years
Honda Michiko continued: "His wife died young, and after that Kanko-san lived in a rooming house in Katsushika. Eventually, the place got demolished and he had to move. Now, even for a guy like him it's no good being old and on your own, right? So, he called his daughter who was married and living in Osaka, and more or less forced his way into her place. That was about three years ago. And about a year after that, he dies."
So he was dead. I nearly fainted when I heard. Starting with Bonten Tarō, the first thing everyone had said about him was "He was so full of life". And I believed them. I even thought that maybe he was still holed up somewhere in Katsushika, painting movie billboards or something.
When he heard about his death, Kikuchi Yoshinori shared some other memories of Takeuchi Kanko with me. He showed me two portraits, of him and his father, drawn by Takeuchi. "See the signature here? H.T.? Those are the initials of his real name, Takeuchi Hachiro. There'd been various theories about his real name - Takeuchi Hiroyuki, Takeuchi Hiroshi, Kujira Ippei, et cetera. So this was his real name.
Bonten Tarō was down in the far south, on the island of Okinawa. When he heard that Takeuchi was dead, he'd only one thing to say: "He had a good life."
A happy ending
Takeuchi Kanko was born in 1907 in Hyogo Prefecture, near Osaka. He was a kami shibai artist in the Osaka area before the war, where he made his name. He joined Kata's company, Dai Nippon Gageki Sha, and took his talents to Tokyo. When kami shibai went out of fashion he moved into the pulp kashihon manga book genre, but he also published on occasion in magazines from 1955, e.g., 'Sword-wind Ichikawa Utaemon' (Kenpū Ichikawa Utaemon, in the mag Tsūkai Book), etc. After his time as Bonten Tarō's assistant, he supported himself drawing movie billboards into his eighties. He moved to Osaka in 1994, and passed away the following year. He was eighty-seven.