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Saitō Takao and the “Gekiga Factory”

In 1963, things began to change for Saitō Pro. Its first major magazine commission arrived that year. It was for an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s James Bond for Shōgakukan’s teen monthly Boys Life. Other magazine gigs followed, most notably a series of short adult-targeted stories for Weekly Manga, also in 1963 (perhaps gekiga’s first foray into the world of adult comics), and an adaptation of the American television program Napoleon Solo for the children’s monthly Adventure King in 1965. The work starts to get tighter, more detailed, more polished. As the magazine commissions increased, so the work ethic at Saitō Pro began to change. Ishikawa Fumiyasu, who moved directly from the dissolved Gekiga Studio to Saitō Pro, has said the following about the early days of the studio: “Until 007 for Boys Life, Saitō Pro was like a cottage industry. Takemoto [Saburō, another longtime member] would help with other people’s work when he finished his own. The whole situation was very collegial. There was even collaborative works with the entire studio cast, in which Saitō would come up with stories, and the staff would be responsible for background and the characters.”

He is referring to the so-called “omnibus” projects that appear in Gorilla Magazine in 1963 and 1965. The difference between these, created amidst increasing mass print magazine work, and the tag-team experiments of 1962 are telling. The drawing and direction is now much more integrated. The distinctive hand of Nagashima is fairly easy to pick out in the 1963 “omnibus” stories, and one is helped in identifying Saitō’s own characters by the fact that they are the leads. The rest, however, is fairly homogenous: a singular house style had begun to gel. Another two-issue “omnibus” was organized in 1965, in celebration of Gorilla Magazine’s 40th issue. As in 1962’s “Cool Dudes,” each character of the story is attributed to a different member of the studio. Saitō of course gets the lead role. Yamada naturally gets the various female ones. But there is no longer a “director,” let alone a changing one – which is to say that there is no longer even the conceit of multiple people in charge. Small stylistic differences between artists are noticeable, but the only significant ones are between the sexes. The overall image is now one of integrated “teamwork.”

Saitō Pro, “Listen Up Mountain Men,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 41 (Tokyo: Saitō Production, August 1965), with the cast getting rowdy.

In retrospect, the 1965 “omnibus” looks like an end-of-the-year company party. The employees loosen their ties and get rowdy, drunkenly flaunting a little of their individuality in one last hurrah before hunkering down for the new year. And the next year was definitely a new year for Saitō Pro. In 1966, it published the 47th and final issue of Gorilla Magazine. The decline of the kashihon market had forced Saitō to close his publishing division (it would re-open as Leed in 1974). This was ultimately a blessing in disguise, for 1966 was also the year Saitō and his studio became regulars for Shōnen Magazine, and it was through the weekly that Saitō Pro began to emerge as the highly stratified and rationalized symbol of a newly industrialized Japanese comics industry. The end of the kashihon market and the temporary halt on self-publishing helped clear the way for the studio’s full integration into the corporate world of mass publishing.

Saitō Takao and Saitō Pro, Silent World, Shōnen Magazine (February 5, 1967), title page.

Saitō Pro’s first stories for Magazine are a grab bag of shorts ranging from the standard boxing and sword-fighting themes to riffs on Gregory Peck’s Moby Dick (now it’s a very big shark) and The Lost World. His first hit serial for the magazine was Silent World (1966-67), a rewrite of a kashihon title from 1963 about a team of trainee astronauts suddenly at sea in the outer unknown of space, where they have to navigate planets with shape-shifting atmospheres and mean armored aliens that seem to have immigrated into Saitō’s universe from planet Marvel. In 1967 appear the first of Saitō’s samurai stories for Magazine, culminating in Muyōnosuke, serialized between September 1967 and May 1970, and memorialized in January of its last year in “An Introduction to Gekiga” as Magazine’s representative gekiga.

In August 1967, just before Muyōnosuke began, Magazine ran a feature on Saitō. It was one of a series of interviews with the magazine’s top artists, filled with silly jokes and aimed at children, but illuminating nonetheless. In it, Saitō is introduced as “the man of the hour who has blown the new wind of ‘gekiga’ through the publishing world. A great man, he throws himself into his work with the fierce fighting spirit of a wild beast.” Some good-natured jesting is made of his rotundity: he calls himself Gorilla but emerges from the studio “kersplash like a hippo from the water.” Asked to define gekiga, he simply explains that as motion pictures are now called movies, the name manga is too old-fashioned for the present tense of narrative comics. Asked what the future holds, Saitō says, “I would like to expand my work through integrated production methods that have never been used before.” “You mean like the movies, where everyone’s strengths are used . . .” “That’s right. Instead of having the basic idea, the sketches, the layout, and the making of the story all the work of a single genius, you collect various people to work together . . .” Then Saitō’s brother, the studio’s manager, cuts in with a blueprint for Saitō Pro’s future home, a new building in Nakano. The interviewer calls it “a great four-story gekiga factory.” He adds that “there’s no reason for you to explain what gekiga is anymore,” the superior products of this “gekiga factory” will speak for themselves. Saitō can only agree, “Exactly. They can say all they want. This is the end for boring gekiga.”

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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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