Manga Zombie - Preface
By Udagawa Takeo
The artists I've covered in my book Manga Zombie all went against the grain of manga as just a commercial product - whether they realized it or not. They're something different. They shine. Especially set against manga made for sales purposes only. These are forgotten artists who worked in pulp genres and got pushed out of the scene when the massive-sales weekly magazines took over. They were monomaniacs, possessed muscleheads, spinning worlds of ultraviolence and eroticism...all of them now forgotten in the brave new shiny world of commercialized manga. A lot of readers will not like what they see here. Some will be truly outraged. But these works are the real thing - scabrous, scandalous, a danger to all comers. They're what manga is all about.
These artists may even have the power to help the manga genre to smash out of the commercial cellblock it's been locked into. That's what I hope. That's why I wrote Manga Zombie.
There are lots of different theories about when manga started - at least as a commercial art form - and we won't go into them here in any great detail. Some have put manga Year Zero right back in the middle ages. Other people trace the art form to the woodblock artist Hokusai in the mid 1800s. Still, it's going a bit far to say that the manga form is really so old. For a true manga scene, you need two things - printing technology good enough to accurately reproduce manga artists' drawings, and a large-scale white-collar readership to buy the stuff.
It goes without saying that you can't have 'manga as an art form' without top-rate, creative manga artists. But at the same time, you can't have 'manga as a product' without a developed middle-class readership and modern printing technology. That's the point - manga are works of art and commercial products at one and the same time. Manga's been a schizophrenic, conflicted business from the word go.
Anyway, a quick tour of modern manga history will look something like this: first, Japan opened up to western influences in the late 1800s. Western-style newspapers and magazines started up, and they ran single-frame political cartoons, just like you can see in western papers today. A big middle-class readership developed after World War I, and the magazine market diversified to cater to these new readers. Then their kids started buying magazines of their own. Along with serialized novels and illustrated stories, these early kids' mags carried manga. Single-volume manga books arrived on the scene in the twenties. Famous early titles included Norakuro, Bōken Dankichi and Tanku-tankurō. Basically, Japanese manga followed the same development path as western comics up to this point. The big break came with World War II.
To the sixties
The war effectively wiped out the existing manga community completely. A lot of artists were forced into open support for the war effort, along the same lines as Hergé, the creator of Tintin. But unlike Hergé, they didn't bounce back to popularity after hostilities ceased. The post-war scene was fundamentally different in every way - the artists, the graphic styles, the size of the market and the way it was structured. (One minor note, though - it's now becoming clear that at least some of the pre-war artists were already using the cinematographic style made famous after the war by Tezuka Osamu.)
As soon as the war ended in 1945, two types of manga boomed - akahon and kashibon. There was also the closely related theatrical style of kami shibai. Let's take them one by one.
Akahon means 'red books'. These were cheap manga churned out by small, fly-by-night publishers. They weren't sold in regular bookstores, but on racks at the magazine stalls. Kashihon means 'rental books'. As the name implies, they were displayed for rent at commercial lending libraries. The format was a bit larger than akahon. Kami shibai ('paper drama') was a cross between manga, theater and peddling. Wandering artists would push carts around the country, with manga-style pictures mounted on the back. When they stopped on the street and gathered a crowd of kids, they'd read out the manga story off the back of the pictures, displaying them one by one. Then they'd try to offload candy and trinkets.
The various scenes often overlapped. Many artists were involved in two of them (or all three) at some stages of their careers. Some of them went on to become superstar manga artists, but most of them were nameless nobodies and stayed that way. TV killed off kami shibai completely by the mid 1960s, but this semi-theatrical art-form had a big influence on manga. A lot of the traveling artists found work in the kashihon rental genre, which somehow survived to the late 60s (outliving the pulp 'red book' trade by a few years).
As the economy began to take off in earnest, during the 60s, the scene shifted to monthly manga magazines published for kids by major firms. Tezuka Osamu shot to fame in this kind of environment. But this youth-oriented mass market wasn't the only scene developing at that time. Another genre - known as gekiga (literally 'drama comics') - sprang up, with Osaka rental-manga artists forming the core group. Gekiga took a much more hardboiled approach. The graphic style was heavily influenced by the realism of American comics, and the good guys didn't always come out on top at the end of the story. The main players like Saitō Takao and Satō Masaaki developed gekiga as a Japanese version of the crime-thriller comic. Other artists like Mizuki Shigeru and Shirato Sanpei were also loosely associated with the scene.
So, the manga scene as a whole split into two camps in the sixties. There was the mainstream, headed by Tezuka Osamu and other artists influenced by him - Ishinomori Shōtarō, Fujiko Fujio (of Doraemon fame) and Akatsuka Fujio. And then there was gekiga.
The manga system
The late sixties were a period of explosive growth in manga sales. Growing baby boomers and economic growth pushed up the numbers of readers and the amounts they could afford to spend. In late 1968, sales of the manga weekly Shonen Magazine topped the million mark.
A lot of factors went into Shonen Magazine's success. The main one was the huge popularity of the baseball epic 'Star of the Giants' (Kyojin no Hoshi). Even more to the point was the expert marketing of the anime version, made all the more potent by the commercial tie-in with the massively popular Tokyo Giants baseball team. But any account of Shonen Magazine's breakthrough has to include Kajiwara Ikki, the original scriptwriter of 'Star of the Giants'. His story perfectly tapped into the conflicted mentality of sixties Japan. This was a country launching itself headlong into the economic big time, but unnerved by the sheer pace of change, and haunted by the past. The hero of 'Star of the Giants' personifies the issues. He breaks through near-impossible odds to realize his dream of baseball stardom. When he gets there, he crushes his rivals with displays of incredible guts and willpower. And yet he finally ends up alone, unloved, and beaten.*1
By the sixties, manga were being churned out in industrial quantities for weekly publications. So, the artists' work practices had to evolve to keep pace. There was no way a one-person operation could cope anymore. Instead, teams of artists came together, splitting the workload between the main artist, junior graphic artists, colorists and scenario writers. Or - to put it more accurately - the sheer volume of output demanded by the weeklies drove artists who wanted to work alone to extinction, no matter how talented or popular they were.
The sad fact is that underlings like junior artists and colorists got no kudos at all in the Japanese manga system. They slaved away like serfs in some Renaissance print shop, while their Maestros got the fame and the glory. Time and time again, the more talented of these 'assistants' (as they're known) have tried to go independent and set up studios as in their own right. They often find that it's an uphill struggle, thanks to the years they spent forced to produce work that mimicked their employer's style.
But things were different for the scenario writers. Writers like Kajiwara Ikki, Koike Kazuo and Takizawa Kai all emerged as independent artists during this period. They created far more complex plots than ever seen before in Japanese manga, stories that could appeal to an older readership. In this sense, there was a change in quality as well as quantity in the growth of the manga market to mass-production scale. A lot of these writers had backgrounds as novelists, playwrights and editors. Their effect on Japanese manga history was something along the same lines as Alexandro Jodorowsky's on French bandes dessinées.
Alexandro Jodorowsky, of course, was the writer who teamed up with Jean Giraud to create L'Incal under the name Moebius. The Moebius pseudonym, which Giraud came to use for his science fiction and fantasy work, was born in 1963. In a satire magazine called Hara Kiri, Moebius did 21 strips in 1963-4, and then disappeared for almost a decade. In 1975, Métal Hurlant (a magazine which he co-created) brought it back and in 1981 he started his famous L'Incal series in collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky. Until then, Giraud's output had just consisted of riproarin' Westerns. But together, they made a lasting impact on French graphic art.
In much the same way, writers like Kajiwara Ikki got together with artists from pulp rental manga and illustrator backgrounds - Kamimura Kazuo is maybe the best example - and achieved extraordinary things. Together, they helped create a much bigger readership - and not just for kids' comics. There was also a whole range of gekiga mags for teenagers and young adults during these years.
The roots and rise of gekiga
Where did the hardboiled gekiga style originate? Printing presses were up and running again very quickly in the bombed-out cities of post-1945 Japan. A lot of them published cheap scandal sheets known as kasutori magazines. Kasutori is a kind of swill left over from sake brewing. It was nobody's drink of choice, but in the mafia-run marketplaces nestled among the ruins, it was certainly a necessity for many. In a similar vein, kasutori mags offered a reliable mix of tits, ass and scandal. They were known as 'manga for adults', but in fact the main content was the articles. The late-sixties teenage gekiga scene sank its roots into this rich compost. (Caricature manga from the late 1800s formed another, deeper layer of mulch.)
The gekiga scene teamed pulp artists and up-and-coming writers as the central force driving publications like Manga Action, Manga Goraku, Manga Sunday, Young Comic and Play Comic. These mags were equivalent to the French Barbarella and L'Écho des Savanes, and to the Italian porn genre generally known as 'fumette neri'. The graphic style was gritty and realistic, and the storylines - produced by dedicated scenario writers - meshed seamlessly with the pictures on the page. The sex scenes either subverted or just demolished all the going rules on graphic content. When you grew out of manga for small kids, what was the next stop? Gekiga. Of course.
The late sixties and early seventies were the golden age of the Japanese counterculture. It was also an age of great diversity in manga. No doubt this was a reflection of the times, whether by chance or design. Most kids born after the war had their heads buried in manga from even before they could read. Now they were growing up and going their separate ways. At the same time, every year of explosive economic growth racked up the pressure one notch more in every area of their lives. Politically, this was a great age of student radicalism, but change was at work everywhere - in the arts, in how people worked, in people's family lives and in their sex lives.
In terms of graphic art, this wave twin-peaked with the magazines Garo and COM, Japanese counterparts to the American alternative and underground 'zines. Garo, published by the tiny independent Seirindō, was an experimental gekiga mag. COM, founded by Tezuka Osamu, was manga-oriented but also experimental in tone. (Garo, for example, published Shirato Sanpei's meisterwerk Kamuiden, while COM featured Tezuka's unfinished series Phoenix (Hi no Tori). Dozens of other artists, old and new, manga-oriented and gekiga-oriented, penned innovative works for these publications. A lot of the leading lights were already involved with the gekiga mags mentioned above. And a lot of them went on to become major stars.
Shojo manga and Fleshbomb gekiga
The other area of major change in the manga scene during the seventies was shojo manga, manga for tweenie girls. From their base in the magazine Shojo Comic (published by the major company Shogakkan), artists like Hagio Moto and Takemiya Keiko tackled themes like gay love and female sexuality that had previously been considered taboo. Where they led, others like Yamagishi Ryōko and Ohshima Yumiko followed. And although she produced very little work in total, another artist who can't be ignored in this transition is Uchida Yoshimi. She used ultra-fine lines to create extremely delicate atmospherics in her stories.
The late seventies also saw the flowering of gekiga at its most extreme, even as the genre was losing ground as a whole within the manga world. In a crazed quest to plumb the darkest depths of the human subconscious, artists like Miyaya Kazuhiko, Fukushima Masami and Sakaki Masaru created worlds of extreme claustrophobia peopled by supermuscled action heroes. Their gekiga were so extreme that I like to call them by the separate name of Fleshbomb gekiga (nikudan gekiga).
It may not be immediately obvious to the eye, but the Fleshbomb crew was involved in a parallel project to the shojo manga artists. Both groups of artists were trying to look into the deepest recesses of their heroes' psychologies. At the same time, the Fleshbombers pioneered a new combination of traditional Japanese graphics with the sensibility of American comics. And even though Fleshbomb was gekiga at its most extreme, there was an equally extreme lyricism in the work of Miyaya Kazuhiko, for example. Again, this links up with artists like Nijūyonen Gumi in the shojo manga scene. But when the chill winds of commercialism really started blowing in the eighties, artists like these were too uncompromising to survive the cold.
About the money: manga in the eighties
The political thrills'n'spills of the sixties and seventies were now over. The original manga generation was all grown up and moving onto more serious fare. The major manga publications all suffered declining sales.
But magazines that were willing to target a slightly younger readership instead started to grow fast. Shonen Jump was the star of this trend. Eventually - by the mid nineties - it was selling four million copies a week, and the mag's sales then rose to a mind-boggling five million. From the start, Shonen Jump's strength lay in what was known as its 'Great Two' system. Pillar One was watertight contracts binding artists exclusively to the publication. Pillar Two was comprehensive reader surveys; the artists had to keep high ratings in them or face the ax.
The traditional manga system was a much more hit-and-miss affair than the 'Great Two' style of business. But this is where I'd like to nail my colors to the mast. Shonen Jump succeeded - in selling manga as a commercial product. And that's all. Their system has leeched the art out of manga. The artists are interchangeable, like spare parts in a machine. But the 'Great Two' system offers publishers stability, and all the major companies have adopted it.
So for manga, the seventies were all about quality, and the eighties were all about quantity. Exclusively binding artists' contracts and dictatorial reader surveys spread right through the industry. At the same time, the major houses crafted carefully-balanced multimedia strategies, tying in their products with anime spin-offs and merchandising drives. The individualistic, demented side of manga got knocked on the head in the process. The loners and eccentrics lost their forum.
The only expertise publishers now cared about was how to sell manga in greater volumes. The plotline and graphics were now a secondary issue. What mattered was the pressing the readers' buttons with pinpoint accuracy. The marketing cybernetics took over, and manga became consumer information circulating within a cybernetic system of pleasure...
By the late 1990s, the manga market was saturated, and shrinking. Best-selling manga were still being published to wide public acclaim. But the market was now so fragmented it was almost impossible to even grasp it as a whole. The real difference from the seventies is that there is no-one trying - or capable of trying - to produce work that appeals to a broad section of the public, or appeals to a broader understanding. The artists, the manga and the readers are now all locked into separate micro-markets. Publishers and artists battle for dominance in each of them, but know little or nothing about what's happening elsewhere. It looks like 'manga' as such is dissolving into thin air on its gentle slide into extinction. You hear lots of reasons for the decline of manga - the fragmentation of the market, the rise of computer games and other non-manga media. But you don't hear any clear-cut solution.
But wait - what about the rise of otaku culture? What about the spread of manga and anime in France and across Asia? What about the way Japanese manga and anime are influencing the arts and media of so many cultures worldwide? On this showing, it looks like Japanese manga/anime is enjoying its greatest success ever, and doing so on the strength of its graphic and narrative content.
But I wonder am I the only person who thinks that manga is going down a creative cul-de-sac abroad, just like it has in Japan?
Postscript: Ladies' Comics and Lolicon
Even as the manga market shrank through the eighties, there were some major new developments afoot beneath the surface. I'd like to cover them quickly here.
One was the emergence of 'Ladies Comics' for adult women. A decade earlier, shojo manga had broken a lot of ground on taboos against recognizing and depicting female sexuality on the page. Basically, ladies' comics took over where shojo manga left off. The readers lapped it up and clamored for more graphic content.
At the other extreme, the otaku subculture started surfacing in the early eighties. The otaku libido found its forum in Lolicon (Lolita Complex) manga. Sex between equal partners is, of course, the very last thing on the Lolicon mind. The genre is heavily into master-slave fantasies, drawn with a pedophiliac slant. What's more, the movement didn't start in the major publishing houses, but right down at the grass roots level. From the late seventies, Lolicon was being produced and sold in the dōjinshi (amateur fanzine) scene. 1979 saw the arrival of fanzines like Shibēru (Cybele) and Ningyō Hime (Doll Princess). They featured a lot of body modification and necrophiliac fantasies that tied them in with Goth culture when it later emerged.
You have to give these amateur fanzines something for their cultural foresight. But they did carry scenes featuring minors being raped - and they invited their readers to get off on this as a thrill. Kubo Shoten produced the first professionally-printed Lolicon magazine, Lemon People, which stuck to the same lines. From there, Lolicon sensibility spread out through the whole industry in diluted form. Voices of protest calling for some form of control over this content started being raised in 1989, when a manga-crazed student called Miyazaki Tsutomu went on a necrophiliac/cannibalistic killing spree of little girls in suburban Tokyo. Protests erupted again every time some similar atrocity happened.
Otaku culture is overwhelmingly male, and its take on sexuality contrasts strongly with the more liberated, human approach of 'Ladies' Comics'. The difference is another indicator of how fragmented and compartmentalized the manga world has become. These issues of sexuality and sexual expression are sure to trigger more culture wars in Japan about 'socially harmful manga' in the future.
*1: Hailed as 'the Don of gekiga', Kjiwara Ikki kept his finger on the pulse through the seventies with a string of similar hits like the 'Star of the Giants' series (drawn by Kawasaki Noboru), 'Tomorrow's Joe' (Ashita no Joe, drawn by Chiba Tetsuya), 'Ai and Makoto' (Ai to Makoto, drawn by Nagayasu Takumi). But the times changed sharply in the eighties, and he stopped selling. His last years were shrouded in sickness and scandal. He died in 1987 at the age of 49. His work only started being revalued in the late nineties.