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

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

One month later, in January 1969, Sasaki published, again in Garo, “The Vietnam Debate” (Betonamu tōron), a twenty-page work that develops the formal strategies of the untitled work and its suspicions regarding verbal discourse. What was previously figured through absence – the communicative incapacity of speech – is now figured through dissolution.

In ‘The Vietnam debate’, linguistic signs proliferate. Nearly all of its speech balloons are filled with discrete legible type arranged in the standard vertical orientation of written Japanese. However, it is clear that these texts are not to be subsumed under the standard economy of representation in manga, that is, the representation of embodied speech. Thus, without a firm basis in verbal discourse, the titular reference to agonistic discourse and discussion must be regarded with suspicion. ‘Debate’ turns out to be an ironic heading for the textual operations that follow.

In the first panel of ‘The Vietnam debate’, the speech balloon to the top right reads: HISTORY HUMILIATION GUN WHIP CLOTHES RESISTANCE FOLK SORROW RULE ARMY INVASION BATTLEFIELD. This kind of concatenation of nouns is found throughout ‘The Vietnam debate’. Often they suggest adjectival-noun groupings. Moving to the next speech balloon: ‘CRUEL SOLDIER BLOOD HARDSHIP SOUTH VIETNAM’. According to the author, the entirety of the text was taken from contemporary books on the Vietnam War, though he does not remember which in particular. Sasaki’s specific logic of appropriation turns articulate discourse into a word heap. He has favored words in kanji.

Certain elementary constructions are thus out: the copula, the conjunction and verb conjugation, all of which require the syllabaries. An exception to this rule is made for words that cannot be rendered in kanji without obscuring their meaning: words of European and American origin for the most part. In a couple of panels, Sasaki also employs kana for the representation of song. The effect is ironic: lyric lightens names otherwise weighted with heavy political association. Pronouns are also eliminated despite their standard rendering in kanji. Subject positions are thus indeterminate. Address and implication are likewise confounded. Of course, each of these word heaps is appended to a drawn figure, ostensibly its enunciator. But in reading through the manga it quickly becomes clear that talking head and word chain have been linked at random. It is never clear who said what about whom or to whom.

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

Nonetheless, ‘The Vietnam debate’ is not without sense. Sequence and adjacency create associations. Associations provide the basic contours of a discourse. In the main, the Vietnam debate as it is presented in ‘The Vietnam debate’ is the Anpo debate in the age of the Vietnam War. It spans the various political and moral issues that confronted Japan with the commencement of full-scale hostilities between Vietnam and the United States. As host to the largest American military bases in Asia – bases that served as way station and launching pad for soldiers, subs, bombers, guns and napalm to Indochina – the conflict tasked Japanese national sovereignty and compromised both constitutional and civic principles of disarmament and pacifism. To detail the issues would take paragraphs. A citation should give a basic sense:


Also evoked is the specter of Japanese empire, as if to suggest links between colonial violence present and past, and to insinuate that Japanese complicity with the American war in Indochina constitutes a reneging on postwar promises of conciliation and cooperation with a continent that Japan had savaged during its modern age of empire. ‘The Vietnam debate’ narrates decades leading to the present as a history of past and pending atrocity, capitalist exploitation, reactionary state power and democracy gone wrong:


The accompanying images provide false identities for enunciating subjects. Mass media celebrities would not have spoken on these matters. The real subject of enunciation, however, might be assumed. As with most other social movements globally at the time, student protest in late-1960s Japan stood upon a firmanti-war and anti-imperialist platform. In more than one instance student groups spearheaded demonstrations against American military presence in Japan and collusion between the American and Japanese military industrial complex. Their numerous texts and tracts are articulate on the subject of the Vietnam War, although often cast in the terms of a Marxist-Leninist analysis that are rare in ‘The Vietnam debate’. To whomsoever this discourse belonged, what is most important is the nature of its representation. The building blocks of language have fallen from grammar and lay strewn. The mortar of conjunction and conjugation has disappeared.

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

Sasaki Maki, The Vietnam Debate, Garo no. 55 (January 1969).

The foundation of subject positions has been withdrawn. Collapse, however, is recent, for the words are recognizable and sit as if just fallen, still adjacent to the elements they neighbored in the original structure. The discourse can be made out. It is familiar, for it is contemporary, and so its original structure can be assumed. It is not yet in ruins. Linguistic architecture has failed too recently. What the ‘The Vietnam debate’ figures instead is a world of signification in entropy. Sasaki makes it clear that this is, for him, a matter specifically of the spoken word. After all, the word chains are situated within speech balloons. This is reinforced by a figure of reflexivity that appears toward the end of the manga. The relevant panel features two beaming white hippies. Into the speech balloon has been traced the text ‘fukidasu mono ni kibi’ – the last word is cut short, but it can easily be inferred to be the word ‘kibishii’, to be strict or rigorous, to be hard on something. ‘Fukidasu mono’, the first part of the phrase, could be understood as ‘things that are exhaled’. But given that ‘fukidashi’ (an alternative reading of the first two characters) is standard Japanese for speech balloon and the context of its inscription here – a manga of experimentation with the speech balloon and its contents – there can be little doubt about the intended referent. Put together, the text thus reads: ‘being hard on the speech balloon’. As in the untitled work, Sasaki creates here a critical figure of speech about speech. What this figure also suggests is that imperialism and the Cold War are not the main subjects of the manga. In fact, it recommends an extreme conclusion: the contents of the speech balloon do not matter. It is simply fill, the hottest topics of the day dropped into, what were one month earlier, blank spaces, ready for text, any sort of text. And one year later, with ‘The dog goes’, Sasaki made explicit what is nascent here: that the frame of speech itself, the pure possibility of utterance, is nansensu regardless of who speaks and what is said. This makes for quite a problematic statement in the case of the ‘The Vietnam debate’. After all, an anti-war platform was common to all dissenting groups in latter 1960s Japan. Sasaki presents the discourse of that political platform as if it has no foundation in articulate language. This amounts to a supremely anti-political gesture: the declaration that contemporary political culture in general is nansensu.

[2015: This is what they call “creative misreading.” While translating this manga for the Breakdown edition, I realized that the words in this balloon in “The Vietnam Deabte” were actually read “fukidemono” and “nikibi” – “boils” and “pimples.” Traced typography elsewhere in the manga includes “athlete’s foot” and “thank you for your patronage,” presumably from magazine and newspaper advertisements. Sasaki Maki’s critique of consumer culture, which runs throughout his Garo work, was something I intentionally set aside while writing this essay, trying to highlight less obvious features with regards to speech and get away from the usual discourse around Pop Art. As this “boil and pimples” mistranslation shows, I got carried away. Maybe the artist intended a double meaning?]

sasaki_maki-vietnam_debate-4If there were any doubts about the gravity of the situation, the final page of ‘The Vietnam debate’ should put them to rest. The work ends with a face beaming, pushing out a fat steak of a tongue, as if squealing some sonorous gut substance. The face belongs to Sakagami Jirō, one half of a comedy duo whose sketches made up various popular televised programs known collectively as Conte #55 (Konto 55-gō). A critical reflection on the capacities and fate of speech is thus framed as a comic sketch. The untitled work ended in a similar manner, with four smiling laughing heads following the plea and refusal of inter-subjective communication. In both cases, critical reflections on the capacities of speech are provided a laugh track. The crisis of speech circa 1970, both last pages state, is a joke. ‘The Vietnam debate’ frames this as a national matter: the beams of a rising sun radiate from Sakagami’s head. In the place of the prime symbol of the Japanese nation, particularly in its aspirations to eternal and inviolable mythic power, there stands a face of comic derision. A populace speaking nansensu, the manga seems to suggest, compose a comic nation. This nation flies a flag. Upon it, a blazing yahoo. Who vocalizes with his tongue out. Who chooses to demonstrate an organ of verbal articulation for laughs, rather than keep it in and use it for speech. Disenchantment with the word has forced the talking head to gag.

Sasaki Maki manga is one thing. Isolated, its cynicism seems a luxury, the predictable result of cultural practice removed from the urgencies of politics on the campus and in the street. However, circa 1970, segments of the student movement also took to parodying the political, their own political efforts, including the manner in which those efforts manifested within matters of verbal exchange. Against increasing police violence and further legislation restricting assembly and demonstration, contesting authority and the status quo was increasingly regarded a lost cause. The Japanese counterculture as a whole entered an age of cynicism from which it would not re-emerge. In this context, Sasaki’s ‘comics’ appear more fellow traveler than snide bystander. But they are a bit early in their cynicism, even if only by a couple of months. Though published in the winter of 1968–9, typical lags in publishing schedules mean they were created in the weeks or months just prior – significantly, before the 1969 New Year and the fall of the Tokyo University barricades, regarded as the last formidable stand of the campus struggle and a turning point in Japanese political culture.

Given this chronology, Sasaki manga appears as a kind of portent. In defeat and frustration, oppositional politics would soon take up a comparable kind of cynicism. I do not mean to suggest that manga served as a model that segments of the student movement came to emulate, although it is true that circa 1970 some appropriated manga – Akatsuka Fujio’s ‘gag’ manga, for example, and the wildly popular boxing manga Ashita no Jō – to represent their disillusionment publicly. Instead, what is at work is a process of compensation. Political engagement had provided those who dissented with a sense of hope, power and common purpose. The greater force of the state rent this community apart, to a degree great enough to disillusion the former partisan, not just with particular means but with the political itself. In this moment, the comic offers something: a prophylactic sense of humor. Cynical laughter protects the disillusioned from deepening resentment.

Garo no. 102 (February 1972), cover by Sasaki Maki.

Garo no. 102 (February 1972), cover by Sasaki Maki.

[2015: Were I to revisit these manga, I would expand the discussion to account for the visuals, the specific mode of drawing and the collage methods used to compose panel sequences. In the version of this paper I gave at the Whitney Museum in 2004, I began with a discussion of the “photographic drawing” that Sasaki Maki used to make both the 1968 untitled work and “The Vietnam Debate” – “photographic” in the general sense that it was based on the tracing of photographs and was made to resemble photographs, but also in a more literal sense of “light-based transcription” since the artist used a light box. I was intrigued at the time with this image of an artist making drawings, not just by making marks on the front of an opaque surface, but by virtue of images manifesting inside a translucent sheet of paper. I think this was the start of my thinking about forms of “photographic methods” in manga (ranging from appropriated photographs to using xerox machines to generate backgrounds and other types of light-based drawing), versus the usual discourse of “cinematic devices.”

At the time, it struck me that, given the illuminated surface, the photographic imagery, and the fact of the light box, the image of Sasaki Maki making this work kind of looked like a television set. Sasaki’s collage methods, too, were “televisual” in the way they evoked the image stream of television programming jumping from one unrelated advertisement to the next and then to a melodrama and then to a news program – an evocation that was all the stronger since the drawings look like those from a black-and-white television set. After this essay was published, I discovered that critics of Japanese television had complained about the vapid discourse of talking heads on talk shows and news programs at the time, so clearly my discussion about the politics of speech needs to be expanded beyond the esoterica of the student movement. When I wrote about Ōtomo Shōji and Shōnen Magazine for TCJ in 2012, in “An Introduction to Gekiga, 6970 A.D.”, I realized that there is a multi-faceted story to be told about “televisual devices” in manga of the 60s. As I explore the relationship between Pop and manga, music and television will be, along with American comics, my main reference points.]

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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