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

The logoclasm of nansensu was the product of a political crisis that emerged in full with the beginning of the 1960s. The political culture of that decade in Japan is indissociable from a crisis in the ideals and institutions of liberal democracy.

Centrally implicated was the status of the spoken word. The fundamental importance of verbal deliberation within liberal democracy is a commonplace of political theory (Habermas 1989; Mouffe 2000; Schmitt 1985). In that context, secrecy of opinion and in decision-making is understood as the path to despotism. In that darkness, truth and the common good will languish. The remedy, it is held, is to be found in the openness of the public, and the reasoned debate of opinion in its light. From the free competition of opinion, truth will emerge, justice will be established and the common good decided. Various assemblies of private individuals aimed to accord with these ideals. Parliament represents their institutionalization at the level of state. It is, as Carl Schmitt put it, ‘the place where one deliberates, that is, where a relative truth is achieved through discourse, in the discussion of argument and counterargument’ (1985: 46).

1960 Anpo Protests, protestors in front of the Diet, Tokyo

1960 Anpo Protests, protestors in front of the Diet building, Tokyo.

Political institutions in postwar Japan were founded on similar ideals. The postwar constitution guarantees basic liberties of speech, association and assembly, as well as equal access to education and government – all necessary preconditions for a viable democratic public sphere. The bylaws of various civic and political organizations stipulate open and equal deliberation as the sole legitimate means for decision-making. The Diet, Japan’s parliament, is constitutionally legislated as the highest organ of state and its exclusive law-making body. Its members can consist only of elected individuals, who together, as Article 43 states, are ‘representative of all the people’. By extension, the open and rational deliberations of the elected few in parliament are understood to be a legitimate representation and condensation of the multitudinous contentions of interest and common good among the many. But, as is often pointed out, the liberal ideals of deliberation that found parliamentary democracy are in marked contrast to realities of power often exercised speciously in their name. In all cases, parliament has become, despite its stated principles, the means to legislate private and partial interests. For those who stand against those interests, norms of deliberation operate, more often than not, as means to disarm and marginalize their opposition. From the outside, the concession of dissenting parliamentarians to endless discussion renders them portraits of ineffectuality and inaction.

The 1960s dawned in Japan with instruction in just these matters. The violence that erupted during the renewal and revision of the US-Japan Mutual Security (Anpo) in 1960 was foundational in this regard. First signed in 1951 on the day after the San Francisco Peace Treaty, Anpo formally ended hostilities between Japan and the United States and allowed for the legal maintenance of American military bases throughout the Japanese archipelago after the end of the American Occupation. In exchange, the United States was to provide protection to Japan in the event of outside military threat or attack. Anpo was dated to expire in 1960. Large popular protests against both revision and renewal began to amass in the summer of 1959, filling the streets around the Japanese Diet and attempting to block the arrival of American envoys into Japan for the signing of the treaty. Combat between protestors and the combined force of the police and right-wing thugs broke out on numerous occasions. The formal ratification of the treaty on the Diet floor in June of 1960 provoked even more protest and violence.

1960 Anpo Protests, forced ratification inside the Diet building, Tokyo.

1960 Anpo Protests, forced ratification inside the Diet building, Tokyo.

What is important for the present discussion is the irruption of force within the Diet, that Japanese monument to government by reasoned discussion. From the outside, demonstrators intent on delivering a direct verbal appeal on the Diet floor attempted to penetrate the gates of parliament. The inner doors were never breached, but nonetheless violence had erupted independently on the inside. Dissenting parliamentary representatives – in particular, the Socialists – had subjected supporters of the treaty to intense interrogation over a number of weeks regarding its terms and overall desirability, but to no avail, as the deadline for ratification arrived without a change in the language of the treaty or the ruling parties’ determination to pass it. Fisticuffs broke out on the floor of parliament. Police forcibly removed dissenting parliamentarians staging a sit-in. And before midnight on 19 June, Anpo was ratified with almost half of the Japanese parliament absent or blocked from vote.

The lessons of Anpo 60 were stark. No observer of the events could state that the Japanese parliament was governed by deliberation through the reasoned spoken word. The rule of force had shown itself within the institutional heart of postwar government, and many thought parliamentary democracy in crisis, if not in ruin. Liberal ideals of discussion likewise suffered in the wake of these events. At best, open and rational debate was a desirable but impossible notion. At worst, it was a fiction used to mask the realities of power. New emphases on direct action and participatory democracy developed within this disillusionment with the political capacities of the spoken word.

Tokyo University, after the riot police forced students from campus, January 1970.

Tokyo University, after the riot police forced students from campus, January 1970.

These beliefs were reinforced by conflicts later in the decade, with the cresting of the radical student movement in 1968 and 1969. Protest actions against the Vietnam War, imperialism and capitalism – which on every occasion called forth the riot police – all taught lessons on state force. Instruction in the decadence of liberal institutions, on the other hand, was better had through the experiences of the so called ‘campus struggle’ (gakuen tōsō), the fight against injustices more or less specific to the university campus.

Two of the most inflammatory incidents – inciting protests, strikes, sit-ins and barricades – involved the expulsion of medical students for demonstration against low wages and poor working conditions (Tokyo University) and the suspected embezzlement of public education funds (Nihon University). Lack of accountability among faculty and administration was the source of a more general and widespread frustration, all of which was aggravated by the unwillingness of campus administration to engage in effectual dialogue with students in the name of just resolution of these issues (Nakashima 1968; Shima 2005).

A central term in this crisis was hanashiau, ‘to discuss’. As of spring 1968, bullhorns, political placards, mass demonstrations, strikes and barricades had become the norm of campus life. Administrations attempted to end these actions with appeals to hanashiau, ‘to talk things through’. For students, this call to hanashiau represented a deliberative process set solely on the terms of the administration, within which there was felt to be no real room for instituting student demands. ‘To discuss’ was, by the fall of 1968, a verb of appeasement, and represented the normative designs of authority within speech. This was especially so for the Zenkyōtō and its factions. Student groups aligned with the Japanese Communist Party and those of a less politicized orientation were more inclined to advocate the continuation of collective bargaining as it had so far been conducted. The main context is the taishū dankō (mass bargaining) that became the student chosen means to voice and deliberate grievances. One sees derogatory reference to hanashiau (almost always set off in quotes) in a fair number of the pamphlets, leaflets and other agitational pronouncements made by student radicals from the summer through the winter of 1968 (Tōdai zenkyōtō kaigi 1969). Contemporary accounts and analyses of the events that led to demonstration, barricading and conflict with the riot police place the breakdown of communication between student body and university administration front and center (Takahashi 1971). While the disenchantment with institutional forms of political discussion became a fixture of the postwar Left with the 1960 Anpo crisis, as of 1968 the late-1960s student movement also had its own reasons to disdain equations of deliberation with democracy.

[2015: Note, in the below photograph, the long lines of emphatic kanji. This was typical in placards and banners during the late 60s campus struggles, and brings to mind Sasaki Maki's experiments in "The Vietnam Debate," discussed below.]

Kobe University, negotiations between students and administration (July 12, 1969).

Kobe University, "mass bargaining" negotiations between students and administration (July 12, 1969).

Sasaki Maki was ambivalent about this state of affairs. Born in 1946 and thus 22 in 1968, Sasaki Maki was peer to the participants of the late-1960s student movement. But he was not their colleague, having dropped out of art school in 1966 in order to pursue a career in manga. Nor did sympathy or solidarity compel him to participate in street protest. His manga likewise suggest having been made from the sidelines. They thematize various issues within the contemporary crisis of the spoken word, but their regard for those denied discourse is conflicted. And, while perusal of his work might suggest tragedies of oppression, closer consideration reveals that, despite their obvious condemnations of the spectacle and authority, what Sasaki staged most of all in his manga were comedies of resistance. He made of the crisis of the spoken word an occasion for farce.

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

In late 1968, Sasaki filled an entire work – but for one page – with blank speech balloons. Untitled, it is twenty pages long and was published in the December 1968 issue of Garo, that is, in the same magazine, one month prior, as Katsumata’s four-panel parody of student declarations of nansensu. Sasaki’s untitled work clearly relates to the problematics of nansensu, even if the term itself appears nowhere in its pages. The manga is composed of images traced from photographs found in mass print media. A few show war and disaster. Dominant, however, are celebrities and advertising models, some foreign, some domestic and most of which I think would have been recognizable at the time of the manga’s publication.

At the level of the image, the manga thus presents the banality of the spectacle. Figures laugh. Figures leap. Figures do silly things. To most of these figures is appended a blank speech balloon. The work is filled with utterances without linguistic sign. In other words, it is filled with figures of nansensu. This is doubled at the level of the panel frame. Panel frames in the manga accord to conventions of composition and sequencing. Randomness and difference in their content, however, work against any suggestion of consistent narrative. Nansensu is given narrative form.

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

There is an exception. It occurs in the second to last of the work’s twenty pages. For the brief span of three panels and four balloons there is a narrative representation of speaking activity. It reads as follows:

Taiwa shimashō (Let’s talk)

Hanashiai mashō!! (Let’s discuss!!)

Taiwa shimashō . . . (Let’s talk. . . )

Mashō . . . (Let’s . . . )

Used here, of course, is that verb of disillusionment, hanashiau. It is no coincidence that in the next panel, following these utterances, there appears a suit, standing before a student body, saying nothing.

The passage is reflexive. To talk and to discuss are inscribed within a speech balloon. The speech balloon, in addition to being a design element and a vehicle for narrative, is a frame for the representation of speech. Within this frame for the representation of speech is inserted the word ‘discussion’. In other words, within the frame for the representation of speech is inserted a verb for speech. This is a figure of speech speaking of speech. This is speech naming itself, but doing so in particular modes of inter-subjective communication. Two forms of the verb to discuss are given: taiwa and hanashiau. The first connotes discussion at a more colloquial and informal level, as in to talk about something. The second connotes discussion at a more formal level, in the form of negotiation and deliberation. In either case, the form of speech here named is speech addressed to another, speech that asks for a response and speech as mutual discourse on a particular topic. The verbal conjugation of mashō – the ‘let us’ of let’s talk, let’s discuss – further emphasizes the modality of this figure. This is speech pleading for further speech, and specifically the speech of the other. It is speech in search of an interlocutor. In this manner, the untitled work offers a speech holding out for a speech to come.

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

Sasaki Maki, untitled, Garo no. 54 (December 1968).

That speech does not come. The remaining seven panels and sixteen speech balloons are all blank. The reason that speech does not come is to be found within the first panel and first speech balloon following this plea for speech. A suit stands before a student body refusing the calls to interlocution. The many balloons preceding this page seemed not so much mute or silent as just plain blank. Repeated as a design motif and occasionally appended to things like sheet music and golf clubs that are inanimate and unable to exhale or vocalize, Sasaki emphasizes the formal qualities of the speech balloon over its conventional semiotic qualities. But, once juxtaposed with linguistic signs, the blank fills with a meaningful emptiness. At the moment it introduces text, the untitled work of 1968 submits the speech balloon to a standard economy of expression: the speech balloon is a frame for vocal utterances, performed by the figure at the end of the balloon’s tail. But the surface is broken only once in the untitled work, only here, and then only to suggest that speech and writing are corrupt and untenable. Speaking will get you nowhere. Nor will writing, its representational vehicle in this case. Writing as a space for the representation of rational spoken discourse – this type of writing has no viable life in Sasaki Maki’s practice.


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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