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Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The Case of New Treasure Island

The panel layouts of New Treasure Island are highly conventional: this sort of division of the page into equal thirds is typical of long-form manga since at least the early 30s. Though I am not certain, the format seems to have been popularized by short-form “Punch” type manga for kids in the 20s. Which is to say, it was at least twenty years old in Japan when the war ended. Excepting a couple of round panels near the end of the manga, and two passages of cloud-shaped panels used for nested narratives about Bowarl and Tarzan’s past, New Treasure Island does not treat individual panel frames or the multi-frame layout as themselves objects of design. There is greater variety of layout in Pirate Gold, though mainly by a simple division of the page vertically in half to create a grid. For Barks and Hannah to operate in this fashion makes sense, considering their animation background, a field like cinema in which the size and shape of the frame is largely non-negotiable. Considering Sakai’s background in animation, and Tezuka’s cinephelia, that New Treasure Island would similarly take panel layout for granted is not surprising. The goal in both the Disney comic and the manga is to narrative and dramatize the story from within the diegesis alone, and through a series of images that often relate to one another as one key frame to the next.

Sakai Shichima & Tezuka Osamu, New Treasure Island (January 1947).

While I have not found any examples of direct sampling by Sakai and Tezuka of Pirate Gold’s most dramatic passages, there is a general resemblance between the frequent silent action sequences in New Treasure Island – those sequences which have given the work the name “cinematic” – and those done by Hannah and Barks. The only one passage that strikes me as inspired directly by Pirate Gold is the ship captain’s telling of how the infamous Bowarl lost his leg. He had been thrown from a ship, and while floating beneath the water’s surface, was suddenly attacked by a shark. The shark bites off his leg, but Bowarl counters by cutting off one of the shark’s fins. The swipe of the knife, the figures twisting and tumbling in open space: it looks like that moment in Pirate Gold when Black Pete lunges with his dagger at Donald, sending him falling against a field of solid sky blue. The scene of the struggle on the stormy ship deck between Bowarl and the ship’s captain bears really no resemblance to the fight scene in Pirate Gold. But this one pair of panels the Japanese artists did seem compelled to emulate, a pair of panels in which potentially Barks and Hannah’s rooting not just in animation storyboards but in cel animation comes out.

While the isolated motifs make the case most strongly for New Treasure Island’s relation to Pirate Gold, I suspect that the main attraction of the Disney comic was not just its dramatic perspectives and speedy tempo, but rather the combination of those “cinematic” features with strong character animation. One can easily imagine the appeal of this to Sakai, an artist with extensive experience as an animator himself, who could probably sense the storyboarding latent in Pirate Gold’s design (more about Sakai’s career another time). The appeal for Tezuka was perhaps more in the figurative style and the dynamics of movement itself, divorced from cinematic presentation. There are numerous sequences in his pre-debut juvenilia (circa 1945) with compositions derived from cinematic mise-en-scène, camera work, and editing, but very rarely do they have that distinctive key frame quality of Pirate Gold or New Treasure Island, and never their sense of mass and characterization. As mentioned before, Sakai is credited for “gensaku” and “kōsei” – script and layout – and I am inclined to think, on the basis of that credit and the circumstantial evidence cited above, that he was indeed the one responsible for the general “storyboarded” feel of the book. However, it would require another essay to show the stylistic differences between these two artists and argue this point convincingly.

For now: If indeed the famous “cinematic techniques” of New Treasure Island were inspired by Disney animation in general and the adaptation of Disney animation principles in its comics specifically, then the notion of “Disney style” in manga should be expanded from its current restricted meaning of rounded four-fingered characters to the wider field of how characters are made to move, and even to the cinematic feel that is said (a la McCloud and others) to distinguish manga from other national comics traditions. If only this could be proved with the manga’s opening sequence, the famous one with boy Pete driving his car . . . and indeed it can, which I will show next time.

The Ruptured Duck, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (MGM, 1944).

I'll close by returning to Donald Duck during World War II. It is a little ironic, from the perspective of manga history, that the most famous of military aircraft “nose art” depicting Donald should be the so-called Ruptured Duck, one of the B-25s flown in the Doolittle Raid in April 1942. The name itself originally had nothing to do with the Disney character, referring to the eagle insignia worn by discharged Air Force veterans. But thanks to Donald’s popularity, it was his quacking visage that was painted on the Doolittle bomber when so christened after scraping its tail on a practice run. Thanks to the tastes of American military men as they killed time during the Occupation reading comic books in their Japanese bunks, “thirty seconds over Tokyo” was lengthened, so to speak, to three score years and counting over Japanese comics. A secret raid indeed, thanks to Sakai and Tezuka’s silence or forgetfulness on the matter.



2 Responses to Manga Finds Pirate Gold: The Case of New Treasure Island

  1. Pingback: MangaBlog — Let’s read manga!

  2. KUMI Kaoru says:

    I’m impressed with your insightful argument. Why not try to write a book on this subject? When you decide to do it, e-mail me. — a Japanese translator/anime historian.

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