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What Was Alternative Manga? What Was Alternative Manga?

Saitō Takao and the “Gekiga Factory”

This passage from Gekiga kōbō to gekiga kōjō – from the Gekiga Studio to Saitō’s “gekiga factory” – will be precisely what the artists and critics of the “alternative” will speak out against. But it was fascinating enough for Osabe to kick off his piece with it two years later in 1969, and just the sort of thing for Magazine with its commitments to fast production, quality standards, and increasing print-run, as well as its delight in the strange and new. For the issue just prior to the one with Saitō’s interview, Kawasaki Noboru is paid a visit. At the time, he was drawing Hoshi of the Giants, the bildungsroman baseball serial that, more than any other title, made Magazine Japan’s top-selling periodical. Another ex-kashihon author retrofitted for the magazine industry, Kawasaki also had his own studio, Kawasaki Pro, at the time employing three assistants and occupying a floor of a building in the Tokyo suburbs. He says a few things about how he wishes when he was young he had been a little more manly like Hyūma from Hoshi of the Giants, and later in the conversation he picks up a keyword from the comic: “konjō,” essentially the “guts and determination” to know what you want and work however hard you must to get it. He talks about his early struggles as an artist, working the day in a tiny factory making camera flashes, and staying up until the middle of the night drawing. He explains how young aspiring manga authors come to his studio begging for work but then quit as soon as they realize the sleepless nights involved. Their problem: no konjō. One accompanying drawing shows Kawasaki plugged with cigarettes, suffering athlete’s foot, hat holey, and with the telltale sign of round-the-clock labor, scars on his arm from injections of vitamins – not quite the same as Hyūma’s athletic version of “determination.”

Kawasaki Noboru’s “Manga Factory of the Future,” Shōnen Magazine (August 1967), drawing by Konomi Hikaru.

A second drawing offers the dream solution to this beleaguered state of affairs: “The Manga Factory of the Future.” Kawasaki is wearing a thinking cap plugged into an “automatic drawing machine.” The machine spits out layouts. Three “robot assistants” (doppelgangers of himself) ink the pages. A topless female fourth erases the pencil lines and feathers away the droppings. And finally an editor waits at the end of the assembly line delighted at the product. In the next issue of Magazine, Saitō’s “gekiga factory” would be introduced, presumably as the realization of this fantasy. Kawasaki represented venerable “hard work,” but also unsustainable pre-industrial practices. Saitō Pro was their proper modernization.

Saitō Pro floor plan, Shōnen Magazine (c. 1968-69).

Sometime in late 1968 or early 1969, Magazine would run another feature on Saitō Pro. It shows a floor plan of the studio in the new building in Nakano, occupied in November 1967. From the layout, one can get a sense of how Saitō Pro functioned. At top right is Saitō’s desk, neighbored by the stereo. In addition to scripting and basic layout, apparently the boss also controlled the music. Further to the right is the desk of Koike Kazuo, who joined the studio in 1968 as the industry’s first, full-time, “pure” scriptwriter – the “pure” is a distinction Japanese writers often make to distinguish Koike from earlier scriptwriters like Fukuda Kazuya and Kajiwara Ikki who were originally prose writers. At this point, Koike was writing Muyōnosuke and Golgo 13, a serial for the new adult manga magazine Big Comic, founded by Shōgakukan in 1968 after it failed to buy Garo. On the left side, the desks are largely grouped into three units of four. These are the work teams, with the head of each sitting top left: Takemoto Saburō, Kōra Mikijirō, and Ishikawa Fumiyasu. The inset in the middle shows Saitō dressed like Muyōnosuke. Behind him is a plaque that reads “No Need for Overtime.” The studio was proud of its efficiency. Accompanying the illustration was a list of Saitō’s “Guiding Principles” for his production division. They include “Do not haste, do no laze, but forge ahead,” “Make up for failure with success,” “Don’t pander to the reader, don’t ignore the reader, rather imagine that you the reader,” and “Effort before genius.” In his report a half year later, Osabe says the walls of the studio’s meeting room were decorated with a Paul Klee (presumably a reproduction) and, in Saitō’s own hand, a calligraphy of (what else) the characters “konjō.”

Saitō Pro had incorporated in 1964, but now it was beginning to walk, talk, and dress like a corporation. There’re the inspirational wall hangings, the employee guidelines, the division into work units, a strict division of labor, and a hierarchy of seating. Other sources tell of “company trips.” Its manager, Saitō’s brother, had a degree in management and experience at a car manufacturer. Like the stereotypical figure of the loyal Japanese “company man” with lifetime employment, Ishikawa and Takemoto joined the studio soon after its formation and remained with it for decades. It is said that Saitō was able to command this sort of commitment with salaries much higher than anybody else in the industry. As cited earlier, he told Osabe he paid his top brass like “section heads at a big company.” And the company was growing. Though it only depicts the production floor, the Magazine plan shows a staff of eighteen. In late summer of 1969, Osabe reported an operation of thirty, including management and kitchen help. Even as rough estimates they mean that in the span of six months Saitō Pro had increased by about fifty percent, and according to Osabe, Saitō was envisioning twenty head more. Behind this rapid expansion were work orders for serials from at least three weeklies, two monthlies, and one bi-weekly, in addition to various one-offs for both the same and different publications – totaling (if Osabe was correct) approximately 360 pages a month. The “gekiga factory” was operating at full tilt.

The problem with Saitō for the “alternative” is just what you would expect. They say he was cranking out soulless entertainment. They say his characters are stereotypical and his drawings repetitive. They say he had abandoned pride in personal authorship. The guardians of kashihon history say he uprooted gekiga from the hardscrabble world of the ’50s and sold it out to the corporate ideology of high economic growth. They could also say, on the basis of an odd detail in the Magazine illustration, that he was a firm believer in that era’s rising beat of economic nationalism. A little map locates Saitō Pro near the Nakano subway station. It says that the building can be recognized by the logo on its face and the Japanese national flag, the hinomaru, flying on the roof. Apparently it really stood out, for on his visit Osabe also noticed the flag and asked Saitō about it. He responded, “Oh, the hinomaru. People often ask if I’m not rightwing, but there’s no deep meaning behind it. Y’know, it’s just, let’s be proud that we’re Japanese and work hard, that kind of thing. It’d be trouble if Japanese forgot about the hinomaru.” Osabe feels compelled to add that it was economics not patriotism that led Saitō to say no to his American guests, who rudely presumed Japan was still the country of cheap tin toys. But by the late ’60s, it’s hard to separate the one from the other in mainstream Japan, where the pride in the nation had everything to do with “growth” and “competitiveness.”

The irony is that no one since Tezuka had been so influenced by American comics; but that’s another story.

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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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