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Proto-Gekiga: Matsumoto Masahiko’s Komaga

Matsumoto Masahiko, during high school, 1951-52.

Matsumoto Masahiko, during high school, 1951-52.

Matsumoto Masahiko was born in Osaka in 1934. In the summer of 1945, under threat from American bombers, his family evacuated to Kobe. That is the town Matsumoto called home until relocating to Tokyo in 1957 along with the other core members of the Hinomaru cohort.

Matsumoto’s father, a high school principal, hated manga. “My uncle bought a copy of Yokoyama Ryūichi’s Fuku-chan for me,” recalled Matsumoto, “and my father destroyed it right before my eyes. . . . After he died he 1943, I still kept my distance from comics.” When after the war Matsumoto subscribed to Shōnen Club, again it was not for the comics. He says he was attracted to the buoyant youth spirit of the prose fiction, the science features, and the detailed illustrations. The only manga he recalls from Shōnen Club is Yokoi Fukujirō’s Strange World Puchar (Fushigina kuni no putchaa, 1946-48), a SF manga emonogatari starring an atomic-powered robot that informed Tezuka’s Astro Boy.

Matsumoto Masahiko, in Shinsaibashi, Osaka (August 1953), around the time of his publishing debut.

Matsumoto Masahiko, in Shinsaibashi, Osaka (August 1953), around the time of his publishing debut.

Matsumoto’s interest in art grew rapidly in middle school. He copied pen illustrations from magazines, and made many regular outings with his school art teacher to sketch and paint from nature. His oil paintings were good enough to win a prize in 1949. He began taking lessons at a municipal art school in Kobe. His education there appears to have been in the classical Western mode, centered on drawing from plaster casts and quick croquis sketching of live nude models.

“And that’s when it happened,” says Matsumoto. A friend in his art class introduced Matsumoto to Tezuka’s books. And as was the case for so many other boys of his generation, the introduction turned into a love affair, and the love affair gave birth to dreams about becoming a cartoonist. Since this was in 1949-50, Matsumoto’s first contact was a mix of Tezuka’s earliest akahon (probably in hardcover reprint) and the better-drawn and better-produced, slightly later volumes from legitimate Osaka and Tokyo publishers. The titles Matsumoto recalled checking out from his local rental bookstore included The World 1000 Years Later (Issen-nen ato no sekai, 1948), Man of Tail (Yūbijin, 1949), The Wonderful Journey (Fushigi ryokōki, 1950), Next World (Kitarubeki sekai, 1951), and A Trip to the Moon (Getsu sekai shinshi, 1951).

Matsumoto Masahiko, When Worlds Collide (1952), signed with pen name Kirizuka Kenji.

Matsumoto Masahiko, When Worlds Collide (1952), original artwork, signed with pen name Kirizuka Kenji.

In 1951, Matsumoto went to the offices of Tōkōdō, one of Tezuka’s publishers in Osaka, in search of the artist’s address. He succeeded in getting it, and called on Tezuka at his studio in Takarazuka, leaving with a signed drawing and the conviction to create his own comic book. Soon after, Matsumoto drew When Worlds Collide (Chikyū no saigo, 1952), a heavily Tezuka-esque, book-length SF adventure. Like the novel and movie after which it was named, Matsumoto’s When Worlds Collide too narrates the approach of a planet on a collision course with earth and the humans’ desperate attempt to escape by rocket ship.

For a taste of the period, here is Matsumoto: “Around 1950, the postwar akahon boom had finally dropped a notch. It was a transitional period, readying to switch over to the kashihon boom. The rental bookstores I went to were mainly patronized by adults. There were few comics on the shelf. Amongst those from Tokyo publishers that I remember were works by Matsushita Ichio, Shimada Keizō, and Noro Shinpei. Akahon from Osaka publishers, meanwhile, had a cheery and anything-goes feeling, like a box of toys flipped over and dumped out. Most of those artists had been drawing since before the war, like Ōno Kiyoshi and Sakai Shichima, and their art looked it. It took about three or four years for the postwar generation to emerge on the scene. Reading cartoonists other than Tezuka only made me realize how great Tezuka was. Rather than a comic whose story goes from laugh to laugh, Tezuka was interested in the story itself. He developed stories that were not dependent on laughter.”

Matsumoto Masahiko, Space Express (Central bunko, 1958), revised version of pre-debut work When Worlds Collide.

Matsumoto Masahiko, Space Express (Central bunko, 1958), revised version of pre-debut work When Worlds Collide.

This emphasis on story versus humor became a central part of Matsumoto’s komaga theory, as it did Tatsumi’s gekiga theory. Here it’s worth noting a separate feature of Matsumoto’s rookie work. The characters of When Worlds Collide are all tall and relatively naturalistically proportioned. Tezuka, at this point, was approaching the peak of his Disney style. There are still some long-limbed characters in his work, but bodies were getting increasingly compact under the influence of Floyd Gottfredson and other Mickey Mouse comic book artists. The elongated characters of When Worlds Collide might reflect the influence of slightly earlier Tezuka manga like The Mysterious Underground Men (Chiteikoku no kaijin, 1947)or Lost World (Rosuto waarudo, 1948). They look somewhat like the human characters in Tezuka’s pre-debut work, but Matsumoto could not have known about these. They might reflect Matsumoto’s inability to caricature in an effective way, something that would contribute to his eventual usurpation by Tatsumi. But considering that Matsumoto, in his komaga work, would take this type of figuration and, instead of squashing characters and situating their center of gravity (Disney-style) in the gut, put it in their legs and feet in order to plant them more firmly within perspectival spaces where they are subject to heavy foreshortening, it is worth remembering that Matsumoto first came to drawing through naturalistic illustration and classical art lessons. Cartooning came afterwards, and thus had to contend with a competing set of artistic principles.

Matsumoto Masahiko, Botchan sensei (Tōyō shuppansha, October 1953).

Matsumoto Masahiko, Botchan sensei (Tōyō shuppansha, October 1953).

Matsumoto Masahiko, Botchan sensei (Tōyō shuppansha, October 1953), cover by Ōno Kiyoshi.

Matsumoto Masahiko, Botchan sensei (Tōyō shuppansha, October 1953), cover by Ōno Kiyoshi.

When Worlds Collide did not appeal to Osaka publishers. Matsumoto took the manuscript to Tōyō Shuppansha, a new kashihon publisher that later, after changing its name to Hakkō, would publish the seminal komaga and proto-gekiga works as part of its Hinomaru Bunko series. “Westerns and science fiction don’t sell,” Matsumoto was told abruptly, expressing how the Americanized fads of the Occupation era had passed. Tōyō was impressed enough with Matsumoto’s abilities to invite him to draw something else, something funny. He came up with a schoolhouse comedy starring two sixth graders, a beanpole named Saboten (Cactus) and a runt named Totchan, who were inspired, claimed Matsumoto, by Abbot and Costello.

Published in October 1953, Botchan Sensei was Matsumoto’s debut book. It was popular enough to warrant a sequel. A third book in the same genre, Humor School (Yūmoa gakkō) appeared in early 1954. This was Matsumoto’s first contribution of many to the famous Hinomaru Bunko series. If Matsumoto made the rejection of humor a core principle of komaga, it is important to remember that his professional career as a cartoonist began by being forced to create schoolyard slapstick. As soon as he stopped drawing in that genre, the first real portents of a new kind of art appeared.

(cont’d)


13 Responses to Proto-Gekiga: Matsumoto Masahiko’s Komaga

  1. Joe McCulloch says:

    [OBLIGATORY MENTION OF MATSUMOTO’S OWN LATTER-DAY AUTOBIO OPUS, GEKIGA FANATICS, AVAILABLE EN FRANÇAIS]

  2. Ryan Holmberg says:

    [OBLIGATORY APPEAL TO TOP SHELF TO FINALLY PUBLISH ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF MATSUMOTO’S MID-CAREER MASTERPIECE, CIGARETTE GIRL, WHICH IS ALSO AVAILABLE EN FRANCAIS.]

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  6. Grant Joon says:

    The only Matsumoto I have is his short-lived early 70s gag manga “Pandarabu”, which was reprinted by Seirinkogeisha about a decade ago. It’s pretty much an entertaining imitation of Akatsuka Fujio, right down to the supporting characters of the trigger-happy police officer and weird street sweeper. There’s a grittier feel to the strip, though – it’s definitely urban and lower-class in a way that Akatsuka wasn’t. Also more violent, as the panda hero has his teeth ripped out, a garden hose shoved up his bum, flattened by a steamroller, etc. When Sof Boy was translated in Japan, one reader described it as “the American Pandarabu”!
    The first chapter of Pandarabu was scanslated a few years back but for some reason the characters all talked in some sort of ersatz hip-hop-ese (“This fool be illin’, yo”).

  7. Zack says:

    Hey, Ryan, I made some Garo tshirts a little while ago and have one or two left, do you want one?

  8. Zack says:

    I never had any for sale, I just made a few for myself and some friends, but if you’re interested, just throw me a line.

  9. Dan A says:

    “The average reader [of A Drifting Life] is not likely to recall Matsumoto Masahiko.”

    I can only assume here that my copy of A Drifting Life must vastly differ from yours, because if there’s any one character that leaves a big impression in Tatsumi’s magnum opus it is Matsumoto. He was my favorite character by far. It is also extremely clear – at least for Japanese readers – that Tatsumi credits Matsumoto for gekiga, or at least that he feels embarrassed himself always copying Matsumoto. So when you write things such as “that is not really communicated in A Drifting Life” it just leaves me baffled, to be honest. (But you later contradict yourself by providing strong examples of the opposite…)

    I read and very much enjoyed your thoroughly crafted article on Tezuka a few months ago, but this piece really leaves me at a loss. It seems like you are creating a case for your yourself out of nothing, ironically mirroring your suggestion of how Tatsumi functionally claimed the monopoly to gekiga for himself…

    Now, you might feel inclined to brush me off as some offended Tatsumi fan, but I knew nothing about either author as I delved into A Drifting Life, where – like I said – Matsumoto was the one who came out on top anyway.

  10. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Yes, Tatsumi acknowledges Matsumoto’s influence repeatedly in a general way. On the first page of this essay, I think I did a thorough job of listing the relevant passages in A Drifting Life. But when it comes to the visuals of his work, which are most important, I think Tatsumi left much unsaid, and by doing so (intentionally or unintentionally) emphasizes his own original creative inputs over his debts to someone like Matsumoto. Maybe that’s just a function of how A Drifting Life is structured: that it narrates Tastumi’s relationship to others largely in terms of interpersonal relations, and his relationship to artwork primarily in terms of his own relationship to his own work. There are a number of exceptions, including the two images where he shows himself reading Matsumoto’s work. But they are too passing to give a sense of the art history itself. I am not saying Tatsumi obscures art history intentionally, but simply that because art history is under-communicated in A Drifting Life, the effect is one of certain formal innovations appearing as Tatsumi’s inventions, when they were not or when their parentage was mixed.

  11. Jordan Smith says:

    Just finally got around to reading The Man Next Door earlier today and came here from your essay in the back. What great stuff this is! Probably going to be reading the book again with what I’ve learned here in mind because I greatly enjoyed what I read the first time, which was also – believe it or not – the first manga I’ve read out of my short stack of books at all. Have you and Breakdown Press got plans to publish more of Matsumoto’s work? Only got Ding Dong Circus about a week ago, which is an incredible looking thing, and I know there’s two more collections of alternative manga to come out later this year – but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of this down the line.

    Cheers in any case. Quite the eye-opener, this one.

  12. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Since the risograph version of The Man Next Door is sold out, we have talked about doing an expanded edition in offset. But nothing certain yet.

  13. Jordan Smith says:

    Nice to know it’s being considered all the same. Hope it can happen.

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