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Back to the Avant-Garde: Sasaki Maki’s Nonsense

“Hear No, Speak No: Sasaki Maki Manga and Nansensu, circa 1970,” Japan Forum 21 (1) 2009.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970).

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970).

In the spring of 1969, the manga author Sasaki Maki (b. 1946) was invited to publish work in the gravure pages of the Asahi Journal, a popular weekly of leftwing orientation. The commission lasted for forty-one issues between June 1969 and March 1970, resulting in a series of three-page works – most manga, some photocollage, some of mixed media – that provided coded comments on recent political history through the experimental use of the representational conventions of manga. An art of the sequential panel frame, manga is also a medium in which the speech balloon and the graphic representation of speaking bodies are central.

It is thus not altogether surprising that a number of manga artists, particularly those who did not take representational convention for granted, came to thematize in their work of the latter 1960s and early 1970s a widespread crisis of the spoken word. The work of Sasaki Maki was at the center of this inquiry. [2015: This was a central theme of my dissertation, and was treated in an essay I published in IJOCA in 2006 about Shirato Sanpei.]

One work from his Asahi Journal series sets out the core issues in an interesting if elaborate manner. It is titled ‘The dog goes’ (Inu ga yuku), published in January 1970. In the last panel of this short, three-page work, a dog dies, expiring a speech balloon. No graphic content is placed inside. An arrow designates this blank speech balloon as ‘nansensu’, the Japanese transliteration of the English ‘nonsense’, but a word with a different semantic compass than that from which it was derived. The proposition is thus: this, the indicated thing, is or has the qualities of nansensu. The blank speech balloon is nansensu.

The manga is split into two sections, each of five panels. The two sections are identical in pictorial content and internal composition. Each follows a dog passing through five landscapes of largely arbitrary content: a lit perimeter partitioned by barbed wire, possibly a nightscape cohabitated by a bicycle and a large can of Bodhisattva consommé, an urbanscape suffering material degeneration, a countryscape of rushing orthogonals which subject the dog to quasi-anamorphic distortion and finally a divided road upon which the dog lies dying. The second section, subtitled ‘Interpretative version’ (Kaisetsu-hen), differs in its provision of proper names to the graphic forms it shares with the first. The named forms are various in semiotic kind. The dog in reflection is ‘the myth of cyclical time’. A typographical character for dog is, in syllabic script, ‘dog’. A panel frame is ‘the pathos of life heading toward silence’.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 2.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 2.

Sasaki Maki was known for producing manga of obscure, if not arbitrary, narrative and metaphorical intention, inspiring a small but healthy body of amateur interpretative literature. Much of this writing appeared in the readers’ column of Garo, a monthly manga journal known in the period for its dual commitment to political and artistic progressivism and the magazine in which Sasaki most often published. ‘The dog goes’ thematizes this culture of amateur reading, particularly its concern for symbolic meaning. Here, Sasaki enacts interpretation on his own work, not for the purpose of achieving clarity in the various registers of meaning, but rather to parody the act of interpretation. Accordingly, the glosses he provides to these graphic forms fall, in large part, into two general categories. They are either literal, even tautological, as is the case in the bottom right of the final panel of Figure 3, with the indication that the panel frame is a panel frame. Or they are abstract to the point of absurd, as in the top panel of Figure 3, where a crumbling building is labeled ‘erosion outline 32’, a falling chunk of it ‘question’, the panel frame ‘non-substantive directness’ and two umbrellas, one ‘loneliness’, the other ‘madness’.

At either pole, literal or arbitrary, this is exegesis from the perspective of the philistine, one who envisions interpretation as either unnecessary, the significance of the work being manifest and common sense, or a load of bull, involving the arbitrary application of inflated profundities. In a sense, I the interpreter am figured here, and not in a flattering manner. Sasaki sees me coming and has decided, before I speak, that my speech is nonsense. He meets a discourse that is not his own with comic dismissal. But, in so doing, Sasaki also dismisses himself. For to state a priori that interpretation is nonsense implies, not so much that the work exceeds all interpretation, but that it is without any interpretable signs. In other words, Sasaki holds that interpretation does not fit the work, because the work is not fit for interpretation. The interpreter is made to speak nonsense as a sign that he or she speaks of nonsense.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 3.

Sasaki Maki, The Dog Goes, Asahi Journal (January 18, 1970), page 3.

The blank speech balloon at the end of the manga assumes the role of cipher. It figures the manga itself in its regard for discourse. It is not uncommon for Sasaki to use the final panel frames of his manga for a reflexive judgment on the work that it concludes. Often, this judgment is self-deprecatory, as is the case here with his suggestion that authorial presence, in the form of the signature, shares qualities with dog excrement. The alphabetic variables appended to the dog’s upturned limbs also have, as a set, the quality of a meta-representation. They are placeholders, to be filled with labels as one sees fits, a diagrammed ‘et cetera’ in the interpretative chain. As for the proposition of the blank speech balloon – that it is nansensu – it suggests the same prejudice that the manga as a whole harbors. The presumption shared by both is this: that the frame of speech, the possibility of utterance, is itself, regardless of linguistic content, nonsense. This was a common prejudice in circa 1970 Japan. The result: a wide circuit of cynicism that encompasses both enunciator and one who receives an utterance, or, in the local case of art, both the author and the reader. The speech of the other is nansensu. The speech of the author is nansensu. Reading and writing, making and interpreting, are all nansensu.

If the blank speech balloon is nonsense, what sort of speech balloon is common sense? Conventionally, the speech balloon is a representation of a vocal utterance with semantically well-defined units of meaning. To achieve this representation, the speech balloon contains signs for the signification of speech. In a number of panels, Sasaki diagrams the common sense of the speech balloon. It is notable that, in a manga abounding in mad glosses, the speech balloon is treated, in all cases, with flat consistency. In all but the last panel, the dog names himself. His balloon contains the kanji (Sino-Japanese logograph) for dog. In all such cases in the second section, the kanji receives a gloss in kana (syllabic characters) that spell ‘dog’. The graphics of writing are, for each speech balloon, substantially different, ranging from hand-drawn simulation of standard typography to inscription upon a checkered cube.

Despite this graphic emphasis, each kanji receives the same phonetic glossing – as if to suggest that what is most essential to the speech balloon is phonetic articulation. In the top panel of Figure 3, this is trebled, with two separate hiragana glosses, one of which is further glossed with katakana, in case the phonetic emphasis was missed on the first pass. In this manner, the graphics of writing are repeatedly subsumed within the phonemics of speech. Where the graphics of writing are most excessive – the checkered cube in the middle panel of Figure 3 – and thus the phonetic gloss most reductive, a telling designation is given to its frame, the speech balloon. It is named ‘fukidashi’, Japanese for speech balloon, which means literally ‘thing blown out’. A definition has been diagrammed. It is thus: this, the speech balloon with linguistic signs understood first of all as representations of vocal articulation, is what can be called a speech balloon. As stated above, this common sense is reiterated to a greater or lesser degree in all but the final panel of the manga. Reiteration of this common sense makes all the more emphatic what nonsense is not. Phonetic glossing upon phonetic glossing foregrounds the absence of phone and sign within the final blank. A speech without sign. Expiration without articulation. To speak and say nothing. This is nansensu.


8 Responses to Back to the Avant-Garde: Sasaki Maki’s Nonsense

  1. Chris V. says:

    I’ve been waiting years to read this article (seriously – I remember coming across the abstract “back when” but could never afford/justify the price for an individual article).

    Sasaki Maki was one of my first “art manga” loves. To say I was obsessed would be an understatement. However, I couldn’t actually get hold of his manga at the time (this was late 90s; I don’t think much of it was available outside some anthologies of ‘60s manga, until O(h)ta Shuppan came out with that doorstop a few years back – which incidentally seems to have been their swan song as far as retro publications goes). It was rather through the children’s books he illustrated and often wrote, especially that one with his shadow-wolf character (“Yappari okami”?). Was struck by how unexpectedly melancholy it was (“Ke!”). And his illustrations for Murakami of course.

    Definitely think this book is (or should be) an event.

  2. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Thanks for this personal and informed response. I am very happy to hear that me reprinting this essay has reached at least one right person.

    As you said, the Ota Shuppan book was a big deal in Japan. Apparently, it sold four or five times the amount expected. Sasaki Maki has done very well for himself as an author of children’s books. But the success of the Ota Shuppan volume was a real surprise, I am told, by everyone involved. Like you said, Sasaki Maki’s manga was a real pain to find before that. You either had to buy the original Garo issues, or hunt down this anthology Seirindo published in 1969 I think and shell out about 10,000 yen for it. I always thought it bizarre that no one had done an edition since then, unless I overlooked something.

    The forthcoming Breakdown volume is based on the Ota Shuppan book, as you might have guessed. If this Garo volume does decently, I’d like to do a follow-up of the truly opaque material from Asahi Journal, and then some of the cute Crumb-esque stuff from the late 70s.

  3. Rik Spanjers says:

    This is very impressive. Keep up the good work!

  4. I saw this book on the breakdown press tumblr and instantly ordered it. Looks amazing; reminds me of this comic I have in an old issue of Heavy Metal by Nicole Claveloux.

  5. Michael Gale says:

    thank you for this, was looking for a comic that would blow my mind, not usually into manga (bit too bubblegum for me) I was pleasently surprised by Sasaki Maki. Cheers and also great essay

  6. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Readers of this article may also be interested in my “Anti-Manga: Sasaki Maki, Ishiko Junzō, and the Image,” in Anti-Museum: An Anthology, ed. Mathieu Copeland and Balthazar Lovay (Fri Art & Koenig Books, 2017).

  7. Mads Johansen says:

    Thanks for this inspiring article! This is actually what got me into learning japanese and into Garo. Currently I’m writing my bachelor’s thesis in Comparative Literature on Sasaki Maki’s work.

    Just a quick question about your reading of the untitled work. I’m simply wondering why you chose to translate the nonsensical suffix「マセウ」as volitional mashō. It does not read 「マショウ」right? It appears to me as a very ambiguous form where it could be interpreted as volitional “mashō” as you do. It could also be simply “mase” as a demand. However, it could also simply be nonsense which would enforce your reading and the impossibility of utterance.

  8. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Hmmm . . . didn’t think about this deeply. I just assumed it was an anachronistic way of rendering “mashō.” But who says “mase” outside of an extremely formal and pre-set context (like greeting at a store)? I doubt it’s nonsense. I feel like you see “maseu” in prewar texts. Not sure off the top of my head.

    Bachelor’s thesis on Sasaki Maki! No shit? Where?

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