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What Was Alternative Manga? What Was Alternative Manga?

Saitō Takao and the “Gekiga Factory”

The dominant image of Saitō Pro is one of perfect integration. But this had not always been the rule. In his autobiography from 2010, Saitō writes, “The process of dividing labor did not go smoothly at first. The young staff members all believed they were good at drawing, and the people around only affirmed that. They wanted their talents to bloom, so came to me wanting to become deshi. They weren’t satisfied in a system of divided labor, where you work only on a fixed part.” That last word is in English in the original, connoting mechanical components and assembly work. This image of studio members refusing to be “parts” befits the studio’s first years. The early issues of Gorilla Magazine in particular reveal a company that was more troupe than team.

Gorilla Magazine (1962-66)

Begun in 1962 as one of Saitō Pro’s first self-publications, Gorilla Magazine was a “magazine” in the kashihon sense: released more or less monthly, hardcover at first, an anthology of rotating authors anchored by Saitō himself. Saitō Pro had other magazines, most notably the sword-fighting Yamato Tales, but Gorilla was the studio’s showcase. In genre, it was ostensibly “action” and “detective,” but as later critics have pointed out, it had little of the grit that had been typical of those genres previously. Like the Nikkatsu Action films it was inspired by, Gorilla Magazine could be almost campy in its parading of masculinity, at times even homoerotic. The sexual register aside, this performativity also comes out in how authorship is structured. In some of the early issues of Gorilla Magazine, the individual artists appear themselves, put on different styles, and build up the comic through a kind of graphic repartee.

Saitō Takao, “Good Morning in Heaven,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 2 (Saitō Production, 1962), introduction, original in color.

The best-known example is “Good Morning in Heaven,” published in Gorilla Magazine number two. The piece begins with a photograph showing Saitō visited by Arikawa Ei’ichi and Nagashima Shinji, both established and talented artists in their own right, at the time moonlighting for Saitō Pro. As the fumetti gives way to drawing, the three artists begin to brainstorm for ideas about the next (present) issue of Gorilla Magazine. The point of departure is a drawing by Yamada Setsuko, a shojo manga author and Saitō’s wife. It shows a handsome young man in white jacket and red handkerchief. The three artists then begin to argue about which genre would best suit this character: Nagashima’s romantic “mood mystery,” Saitō’s (soft) “hardboiled,” or Arikawa’s “action.” Rather than the three coming to a compromise, each does his own separate rendition.

Saitō Takao, “Good Morning in Heaven,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 2 (Tokyo: Saitō Production, 1962), “hardboiled” chapter.

It begins with Saitō, who has the hero coolly blast his way through thugs before being downed by a better gunman. Then Nagashima, who takes him on a road trip with his sweetheart, and (if I remember correctly) later throws her off of a cliff for betraying him. Then Arikawa, who casts him amidst underworld deals and shootouts. The drawing style is appropriately modulated in each, from Saitō’s sharp speed lines and body contours, to Nagashima’s greater spaciousness and softer, rounder brushstrokes. After each rendition, the artist preens his feathers to the putdowns of his colleagues. But at the end of the repartee, a fourth challenger shows up – the shojo artist Yamada, whose character they had all appropriated – and takes the victory cake with her “My Brother,” casting the heartthrob in his home territory of shojo manga.

Someone interested in gender issues and the blurry relationships between shōnen, young adult, and shojo manga could have a field day with “Good Morning in Heaven.” The point I wish to make is simply that, at this early stage of Saitō Pro, the studio “assistant” could be treated like an artistic equal, with his or her own style and identity. There is clearly a hierarchy with Saitō in charge, and one imagines the profit structure to have privileged him. But this is not the image of a factory or a film production crew. It is more like a troupe of actors in a sort of improv. Of course, it’s all more scripted than it lets on to be, and who knows how much the boss interfered. Still, the image of studio collaboration is central, and it is no coincidence that Saitō Pro only became streamlined after the likes of Arikawa and Nagashima left.

There are two other open collaborations between the three artists in Gorilla Magazine. The third issue offers itself as an “irresponsible relay gekiga.” The conceit is that each of the three has completed only half a manuscript, so one of the others finishes it off for him, such that a “hardboiled” beginning finishes off as a romance, and a “mood mystery” turns into an action-packed thriller.

Saitō Pro, “Cool Dudes,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 4 (Tokyo: Saitō Production, 1962), part one with Nagashima Shinji as “director.”

The next such collaboration spans Gorilla Magazine numbers four and five, and at this point one catches a glimpse of the future. Each of the three artists is to “direct” one segment of a story called “Cool Dudes” in each of the two volumes. The three artists draw straws to decide who gets to go first and compose the script and layout that the other artists have to follow. Each segment opens with a long list of credits, beginning with the “director,” continuing with script, layout, effects, and finishing, and then a full roster of “cast,” detailing who in Saitō Pro drew which character. Including Saitō, Nagashima, and Arikawa, there are six different individuals named for twenty-three different slots. The repetition suggests that this is meant to be funny. For a reader of American comics, detailed credits might seem standard practice. But in Japan in 1962, it was thought odd enough for Saitō to make it familiar with a jokey reference to the movies.

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5 Responses to Saitō Takao and the “Gekiga Factory”

  1. xguilbert says:

    "Before the weeklies appeared in 1959, even the most popular artists usually got by on their own. Those working for the monthlies only had to hunker down at the end of the month."
    Just to nuance this particular point: I think it is fairly documented that high-profile kashihon artists often resorted to less-known (aspiring) artists to meet impending deadlines. For instance, Tsuge's story "Yoshio no Seishun" (1974) involves such a situation as its premise.

    Another thing that strikes me in this article, is the way the actual idea of "gekiga" had changed when Saitô moved to a more industrial production. This profound change in the concept covered by the term should relativize the usual conception that gekiga artists eventually were absorbed/welcomed in the mainstream magazines — thus integrating gekiga in the overall manga landscape. True, some of the artists who used to produce gekiga were integrated, but obviously made significant adjustments in the way they conceived the genre. Which means that rather than still considering the gekiga authors and production as a coherent whole, it would be more valid to introduce some nuance (and maybe terminology) to account for those differences.

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  3. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for the comment and sorry for the late reply. I wanted to re-read “Yoshio no seishun” before writing back, and finally got around to it.

    You’re right, that’s a good source – to the extent that it’s non-fictional. The picture there is pretty grim, with very informal and very tenuous work relationships, lasting in that case for a day and a night. There’s also an interesting depiction of family members helping out like a true cottage industry. Still, I don’t know how pervasive any of these things were. I know many kashihon artists especially in Tokyo worked for other manga authors when just starting out, but being Tokyo it’s possible that these “apprenticeships” were with magazine authors not kashihon ones. It gets case by case, ultimately. But I take your point that description of production in the 50s needs to be more nuanced and varied.

    As for the name gekiga, I agree that it had come to mean something different between 1957 and a decade later. At that point, it’s meaning becomes so general – basically something like “comics for adolescents and young adults” – to be almost meaningless, little more than a marketing buzzword (like it is now). In the late 60s, it even gets applied to people like Ishinomori Shotaro and Mizuki Shigeru who in my mind really have little to do with gekiga of the 50s. Some people were proposing instead terms like “gendai komikku” (“modern comics”) as a catchall, but its suggestion that manga was becoming like American comics did not sit well, and thus did not survive.

    Anyway, because there’s so much difference between one artist and the next, I am not sure how helpful it would be come up with new or finer terminology. There’s different genres, different personal styles, but everyone is working in the same medium. There are also different readerships, but by the late 60s there’s so much crossover, it’s not even reliable in most cases to say this is for young adults and this is for children. I think the best solution is just to call everything manga or comics, specify by genre or venue when necessary, and then use a word like gekiga when the Japanese discourse makes it a specific issue.

    The position that one often hears that Saito and his mainstream move somehow adulterated gekiga is, I think, unfair and (when made by artists from the time) disingenuous. If you read the statements-of-purpose of the Gekiga Studio and the work by its authors from that period, it’s pretty straightforward that they wanted to make mass entertainment, Tatsumi included. From that perspective, Saito becomes (contrary to what one usually reads) the legitimate heir to the Gekiga Studio mantle, while Tatsumi’s inward turn in the late 60s appears as the heretical move, something different from what gekiga was in the late 50s. So I would disagree and say that it IS accurate to say that gekiga itself was received into the mainstream in the mid 60s — that is what it aimed for and what it was designed for. Those that went major raised production values, but crappy drawing was never part of the original dream of gekiga anyway. They might have changed genres somewhat, but gekiga was never supposed to be just for thrillers. For me, the person who made the significant change was ironically Tatsumi. What he started doing in the late 60s has links to the psychological themes and storytelling techniques of the late 50s, but it was ultimately something new for him, inspired by the model of certain authors in Garo, not the Gekiga Studio. It’s at this point that gekiga starts getting associated with notions of the “alternative,” essentially a defensive move, and striking because what its practitioners wanted in the late 50s was a mass audience and the big time. Tatsumi has made major contributions to both manga making and manga writing, but his attempt to claim sole proprietorship over that word has I think skewed manga history.

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