Tokunan Seiichirō

Tokunan Seiichirō: the legendary manga of a legendary artist!

Waving in the morning sun
The flag of our Brigade
We pledge our lives, all for one
We are the Shogun's blade!
Our hand against the Emperor
Yet forth we boldly go
The flower of the Shogunate-
Advance, New Chosen Men!

Ringing through the noontide
Our crashing, marching feet
Stamping on the modern world
Wherever we may meet
We don't know what hell time it is
But violence is sweet
The flower of the Shogunate-
Advance, New Chosen Men!

And as for fucking rebels
We will run them through and through
And lift our swords and do the same
To you and you – and you
Our blades glint in the evening light
So gentle and so blue
The flower of the Shogunate-
Advance, New Chosen Men!


This is the 'theme song' from Tokunan Seichirō's debut work, 'The Samurai Who Cut Through Shadows' (Kage wo Kiru Samurai). It's a story of the rebel warriors who fought the dying shogunate and its group of hand-picked heavies - the Shinsen Gumi, or 'Newly Chosen Brigade'. It's just possible you might be able to guess from the lyrics whose side the artist was on. The interesting point about this work is that the main elements betray a strong influence of Tezuka Osamu. And there's something in the graphic style of 'Samurai' that calls to mind Tokunan's later breathtaking achievements.

The only thing that gets me is that 'Samurai' was produced for the kashihon rental manga market - i.e., it's pulp. Tokunan was being pretty damn precious by giving it a Theme Song, no less.


'The Samurai Who Cut Through Shadows' came out in 1955, published by Tokodo. Tokunan was the manga-crazed kid in its purest form. He was sending manuscripts to Manga Shonen magazine from his childhood. From an early age, he was also a card-carrying member of the East Japan Manga Research Association (Higashi Nihon Manga Kenkyū Kai - despite what the name might suggest, more otaku than academic). Because of this, he was strongly influenced by the cursive lines and rounded forms of artists like Walt Disney and Tezuka Osamu. Unlike Tokunan's later works, this source material was based on historically accurate research.

The drawings of costumes and settings from the dying days of the shogunate were equally well-researched. Tokunan obviously took a lot of pains to get the details just right. 'Samurai' shows a certain kind of dogged, proud craftsmanship, and you get the feeling that he hadn't changed from when he was a kid. He was still the pure article.

Ningentokei3The road to 'The Human Clock' (Ningen Tokei)

After 'Samurai', Tokunan wrote a succession of ghost stories and other period pieces published under a variety of imprints. None of them were hits. It may be because he was still too much under the spell of Tezuka Osamu, and couldn't break free of the master's grip.

Another point is that Tokunan was in a bind at this time because he couldn't break into the monthly manga magazines, which were then at the peak of their fortunes. His stage was still the pulp kashihon rental genre. In order to keep his personal ship afloat, he had no choice but to pump out one series after another in a wide range of genres. He was caught in a very specific circle of manga hell - publish or die. Literally.

The strain soon told. Before long, the typical Tokunan manga featured seriously weird characters drawn in warped compositions with slapdash lines. He was obviously cracking up. It was then that the miracle took place. His work crossed the line from soldierly craftsmanship to some form of greatness - the circumstances were ironic, to say the least.


Temperature drop

Everybody agrees that Tokunan's greatest works are 'The Human Clock' (Ningen Tokei) and 'The Cat's Mourning Suit' (Neko no Mofuku). But he was working up to these heights from long before, through a whole succession of prototypes. I get the urge to call this period 'Tokunan's early chill-out phase'.

Tokunan spent a short spell in 1960-61 churning out youth-oriented seishun gekiga under the alias 'Ichikawa Seiichi'. This was in the service of the publishers Akebono Shuppan, or rather their roster of kids' mags, such as Low Teen (i.e. tweenies) and Teen Ager. These were kashihon, pulp rental affairs published monthly or thereabouts as omnibus editions featuring multiple artists. The mainstay of the group was Kawada Mannichi, followed by Nagatani Kunio, Bonten Tarō (see separate article) and other usual suspects, all writing single-episode stories showing influences from Nikkatsu studio's action movies.

Neko no Mohuku 5But, in this rich platter of thrills and spills, there was one odd man out: Tokunan Seiichirō. He concentrated instead on dark, gloomy stories that were bound to give his teenage readers deep bouts of depression. He really stood out as the negative face of the troupe. In the process, his drawing veered suddenly towards a harsh, edgy style.
The story 'As You Like It' (O-ki ni Mesu Mama) appeared in Issue 13 of Teen Ager. True to its title, the tale carries a Shakespearean cargo of lust, revenge and betrayal. A journalist working for a scandal sheet uncovers an explosive piece of gossip - about the woman who happens to be his younger brother's lover. The journalist's boss uses the scoop to blackmail the lover's father, in a startling departure from the paternalistic style of the average Japanese company manager. He also frames the journalist and gets him arrested. It's clearly time for action.

So the journalist's younger brother storms into the newspaper office for a climactic confrontation where he will prove his elder sibling's innocence and get the girl (he's been dumped) back. This is just the kind of gung-ho scene that the Teen Ager readership lapped up in a frenzy of youthful identification - and Tokunan breezed through it in just three lackadaisical pages. Behind the slapdash approach lay a good deal of bitterness and cynicism about the whole process on the part of Tokunan Seichirō.

The hero of 'Get It Done Right!' (Kata wo Tsukero!) is a restaurant delivery boy fresh out of reform school. On his rounds, he happens to witness a hit-and-run accident, giving blackmail a chance to rear its ugly head in this story, too. His former gang boss uses the incident to pressurize the kid back into the underworld. The only thing standing between him and a wasted life of petty crime is a sympathetic police detective. And there you have the story, again a rather slapdash, cynical affair. What really brings tears to the eyes is the sub-plot that "The hit-and-run-victim hoarded bullion during the War" - it's so completely, pointlessly tacked-on.

Tokunan Seichirō's work was slovenly beyond belief. I think the reason why is that there were very clear inner tensions at work within this artist. His heart wasn't in these stories, but he had to sell out or starve. It's that simple. The result is on every page of his youth manga, set in a closely-observed, grungy rendering of downbeat urban Japan. His heroes live in surroundings of terrific squalor. The plots run like miscarried hardboiled detective thrillers. Authority figures like bosses and cops are self-centered and self-serving to the max. In fact, Tokunan's 'chill-out period' is also an abyss, dark and deep.

Neko no Mohuku 6Warped manga from a warping mind

Tokunan's later style had a strongly warped quality when he tried depicting his characters' inner worlds. But even his youth manga phase shares some points in common with the later Tokunan.

'Loitering Along' (Michikusa, in Teen Ager #15) is the story of a factory worker and a crossword puzzle. During a spell in hospital, the factory hand figured out the answers to a crossword puzzle, won the prize money and is now living off the proceeds. His ex-boss and coworkers are horrified by his slide into idleness and crossword otakuism. They decide to put him to rights and back to work. The strategy is to shame him back to the assembly line. The tactic is equally Japanese: everybody at the small-scale plant pulls together and keeps the place going, without replacing their absent colleague with a new recruit. (This behavior may seem bizarre from a western viewpoint. But, for example, a typical strike tactic in Japan during the 60s was for workers to lock their bosses out of the plant and then produce more without them. The mortified management were then putty in their hands.)

Even against this background, 'Loitering Along' rings untrue, and it's not just the idea of living off crossword-puzzle prize money. In one episode, the hero 'forgets' the answers to a puzzle because he's distracted by the jazz floating in from next door. In another, he barges into a bookstore, demanding to know if any magazines have printed his name in the 'list of finalists' for another crossword puzzle. These creepy scenes all feature the kind of skewed psychological-action drawings that show up in his later work.

Another workingman takes center stage in 'A Bare Face in the Rain' (Ame no Naka no Sugao, Teen Ager #19). His realm of endeavor is a surrealistic toy workshop, depicted pretty much along the same lines as the clockmaker's in Tokunan's meisterwerk 'The Human Clock'. Anyway, the goings-on in this toy workshop don't stay very cuddly very long. Before you know it, the hero's caught in a web of illegal gun manufacture and drug-selling. Again, the psychological inserts have the same twisted quality as we see later on in the artist's career.

Neko no Mohuku 7The masterpieces

A few years later, Tokunan Seiichirō brought out his masterpieces 'The Human Clock' and 'The Cat's Mourning Clothes'

'The Cat's Mourning Clothes' goes as follows. The hero is a high school student with the very odd name of Yubi Chizuo ('Finger Mapguy'). He lives in a cheap boarding house with a scummy river oozing by in front of it. The locals use the river as a handy place to get rid of their trash. Flies result. In abundance. The infestation gives Yubi Chizuo no end of trouble. One evening, a particularly large specimen buzzes up in front of Chizuo, and addresses him in fluent Japanese. Understandably shocked, our hero swats the six-legged prodigy flat on the spot. End of story? Not a chance. Chizuo finds himself haunted by the Ghost of the Talking Fly. And then he realizes that a mysterious black cat has started tailing him everywhere he goes...

A Buddhist nun called Kiriko moves into the room next door. That doesn't stop the Ghost of the Talking Fly (who lives in the wall between them) snoring all night and keeping Chizuo awake. And Kiriko may not be all she seems, either. Every night, the nun sneaks off somewhere into the darkness...

But the day comes when the Talking Fly takes its leave in a trail of ectoplasm, leaving Chizuo free to live life as a normal kid once more. The relief is short-lived, however. Pretty soon, the mysterious black cat is back on the scene - and somehow it's gotten itself injured. The thing is, the next time he sees Kiriko the nun, she's sporting the same injury. Chizuo decides to investigate her next nighttime foray...

Shocking sights are seen. There is blood, and the sucking of blood from live human flesh. Kiriko is of the Undead, a vampire. Enough is enough. Chizuo gets in touch with his landlord. But the neighboring room is empty, the landlord tells him, and has been for ages... And then. The ghostly Fly returns, transporting Chizuo in a flash into another dimension of spacetime!

Chizuo comes round to the landlord's voice telling him it's all been a dream. The madness is over. Except, Chizuo still has a nagging curiosity about the 'empty' neighboring room. So one day, he takes a peek. The vampire Kiriko is there. She shows herself to Chizuo in her true form, and then disappears -

And there you have it. Except that now the scene shifts to Chizuo's high school. It's a few days later, in Science class. For whatever reason, today's class is a study the morgue. And Chizuo's the only kid who's turned up for class today. He goes in. The vampire Kiriko appears before him. With her is the Ghost of the Talking Fly - her father, as it turns out, and a victim of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Kiriko and the mysterious cat are one - she took feline shape when she was stalking Chizuo.

A few days later, the corpse of a high school kid is discovered. It looked like he'd died in an accident, but nobody cared in particular...

When I talk about 'warped manga from a warping mind', I'm thinking about this kind of incoherent story. 'The Human Clock' is a lot simpler to explain. The hero is Yubi Chizuo again. He's a student like before, but this time round he's a dropout. He stays in his house, which is a family shop selling watches and clocks. He gazes and gazes at the clocks. Little by little, he turns into a clock. That is the entire story. It reminds me of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

'The Cat's Mourning Clothes' and 'The Human Clock' both crashed and burned on publication. Outsider Art a la Tokunan was nowhere on anybody's radar screen at the time. This was true even for intellectuals - let alone the blue-collar readers that formed the backbone of the kashihon pulp mag market. Tokunan's work was condemned out of hand for shoddy lines, go-nowhere plots, and all-round weirdity.

But the artist had to eat. So he had to keep going.

Neko no Mohuku 8Last work

And in order to keep body and soul together, Tokunan undertook one last group of works - a set of historical dramas about the big-name samurai commanders from Japan's Warring States period, around the 1500s. Biographical manga like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga followed the various twists and turns of these military superstars' paths to the top. These historical dramas had something of the sinuous 'Tokunan touch' evident from his debut work 'The Samurai Who Cut Through Shadows' through 'The Human Clock' and 'The Cat's Mourning Clothes'. But at times somehow I get the sense that I'm looking at a different style entirely.

The sloppiest-drawn by far of these manga is Tokunan's very last work, 'One-eyed Hero Masamune' (Dokuganryū Masamune). The plot sticks to the historical facts, following the warlord Date Masamune's life from infancy to his teenage years, but again in a very lackadaisical way, leaving out lots of important factors (like Masamune's relationship with his mother and brother. It wasn't great - Mum tried to kill Masamune, and Masamune organized a hit on his brother. He commented later that this was okay, because they could "always get along in the next life".) Also, this version just relates the bare bones of some historically important happenings (like his father's death, and Masamune's dealings with the superstar samurai Toyotomi Hideyoshi). Why? Because Tokunan didn't really care about the times or the people he was drawing.

His research was sketchy, and his battle scenes are blurred. Every page of 'One-eyed Hero Masamune' is a direct message to the reader from the artist, saying 'No, I really don't give a shit'. What stands out above all in this manga are his scratchy lines, as they wobble aimlessly across the page. Terrible stuff. The end of a genius. An empty well. A river run dry.

Goodbye and fuck you very much, everybody...

'One-eyed Hero Masamune' ends with a scene of peasant uprising engineered by Masamune against Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the warlord who unified all Japan (before losing the jackpot permanently to Tokugawa Ieyasu & Family). The final picture shows a group of scabrous yokels carrying crude flags reading 'Revolt!' and 'Toyotomi's a Wanker'.

This final flag of protest - 'Wanker(s)!' - was really directed at a different target - but who? The readers who refused to get what Tokunan was doing? Or the publishers who chained him to a desk on starvation wages? I don't know. I kind of think that Tokunan was flipping the bird at both of them, and the whole world to boot. And that's exactly why he dropped out of the manga scene the moment he finished this story. He headed back to his hometown telling people "I'm going to sell watches for a living". And he didn't keep in touch after that.

So 'One-eyed Hero Masamune' stands as a solitary farewell finger, resentfully raised in the face of a cold, cruel world.

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Human Clock Scanlation

Cheap Manga is posting a translation of Human Clock, by Tokunan Seiichirō. Only one chapter out right now, but you can check the link here: