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Sugiura Shigeru’s Sense of Humor

Even in Japan, there is as much confusion as curiosity regarding the roots of Sugiura Shigeru’s art and sense of humor. It has been called many things – nonsensical, surrealistic, psychedelic, avant-garde – but these are mainly just descriptions casting around for real ground.

Shin Seinen (May 1927), special Nonsense issue, cover by Matsuno Kazuo

The graduate students at the Tokyo university I am now affiliated with (Gakushuin University) are putting together a zine on the topic of Sugiura. I asked to be part of it. After reading through Sugiura’s interviews, it seemed to me the wise place to start was at the beginning, with Shin SeinenNew Youth – the famous monthly men’s magazine that the artist avidly read as a young man in the late 1920s and 30s.

Shin Seinen is typically remembered as the home to Edogawa Ranpo, Yokomizo Seishi, and Unno Jūzō’s early stories, and the main vehicle for translated mystery fiction from primarily the English-speaking world. However, it was also a major arbiter of modern and especially American fashion and entertainment, with large sections dedicated to men’s clothing, sports, and especially Hollywood.

It was also one of the leading introducers of American and European cartoons of the New Yorker, Life, and Vanity Fair variety. It proffered an urbane and decidedly middle-class sense of humor, this despite the magazine’s usual association with the lugubrious world of crime film and fiction.

Sugiura read voraciously and widely in his youth. Considering his many ninja spoofs, a Japanese reader probably thinks first of the Tachikawa Kōdan – the oral stories transcribed and published as cheap popular fiction in the Meiji and Taishō periods. One assumes so just from the manga, but Sugiura is also on record for saying that he read these kōdan in his youth. But he was an equally big fan of Shin Seinen’s cartoons, as he was of American silent comedies, especially those of Roscoe Arbuckle and Ben Turpin.

Sugiura Shigeru, "The Surprise Lifeboat," Shōnen Club (July 1933)

The history of comedy is a notoriously nebulous and difficult subject. Especially when the laughs are half in a foreign tradition. At any rate, it’s more than I can handle competently just now. So what I put together instead was a “visual essay” on Sugiura and Shin Seinen’s cartoons. What follows on the next pages is the result of combing the magazine from 1929 to 1937, at which point it turned strongly pro-war and increasingly anti-Western. This period overlaps with Sugiura’s debut (1932) and early work for Kōdansha’s major youth periodicals (particularly Shōnen Club, Shōjo Club, and the Picture Book series beginning in 1937) as well as his occasional work for Shin Seinen’s junior edition, Shin Shōnen, as well as Shōnen Shōjo Tankai, published by the same Hakubunkan. Some of the comparisons I make are specific, with exact cases of swiping. Others are more general. You can tell me if you find them convincing or not.

You might want to read the last page first. There I have translated sections of an interview with Sugiura from 1988 in which he professes his love for Shin Seinen.

This is a rough draft, design-wise and information-wise. Since Shin Seinen printed these cartoons without attribution, there are a couple artists I have been unable to identify. If you can, please help. As I will be putting words to these visual connections for an essay sometime in the future, any general comments would also be good: like where these sorts of cartoons might have first appeared, and thus what magazines Shin Seinen was splicing together, or what kind of humorist you think Sugiura was in these early years. Keep in mind that he is adapting adult cartoons for kids.

The zine in which this montage will appear will be published in July. Which is to say, any useful comments can be incorporated. Which is also to say, if you read Japanese and want a copy (there will be other pieces on Sugiura in it), it will be for sale at the big Comiket in Tokyo in late July and then at various specialty bookstores in Tokyo. Look for the title Sankaku Boshi, “Triangular Star,” named apparently after a later Sugiura character.

For detail, click on the spreads and then again on the "Full size" pixel-size.

That's Sugiura in 1933 on the next page. Flanking him are characters from two Shin Seinen ads, the left for hair pomade, the right for Polydor gramophones. They were not drawn by Sugiura.


11 Responses to Sugiura Shigeru’s Sense of Humor

  1. Matthew Thurber says:

    Are there any plans for future translation of his work into English? -Krazy for Sugiura

  2. Are you only concerned with formative/submerged influences, or those sources from which he actively sampled?

    I think another important “zubari” artist for Sugiura was Carl Anderson. His comic strip “Henry” debuted in 1932, and Sugiura uses this character several times in his own work. Here’s a reference from Apple Jam:

    I know he borrows directly from John Stanley’s take on Little Lulu, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was influenced by the original Marge Buell strips as well. Little Lulu superseded Henry in the Saturday Evening Post in 1934 when the latter was picked up for syndication.

  3. Brendt Rioux says:

    More Sugiura please. The “Yellow Man” 2009 collection of his later work is one of my favorite books ever and I can’t even read it.

  4. ryanholmberg says:

    I am interested in both, submerged and direct sampling. To keep things focused, just interested in the 1930s material right now. Most immediately, I want to know who are those two cartoonists marked with a ?? on pages 5 and 7 above.

    As you hint with the “Apple Jam” example, citation becomes rampant in his postwar work. The first work I think in that vein is the 1938 “Blackie Black” introduced on the Storm P. page above. Henry appears there as well. And in another panel, Dirks.

    I don’t know what to make of this material yet, or why there should be a shift in 1938. I had previously been under the impression that his comical citation of American comics and movies was purely a response to the American Occupation and the flood of American entertainment during and after. Certainly the increased intensity of the references after 1945 stemmed from that new situation, but one thing I learned in this mini-exercise was that it also has roots in the obsession with American mass culture in the 1920s and 1930s. Since he most likely did not know who these cartoonists were, I imagine that it is possible that he accepted them all generally as American. He liked some of the jokes. He seems to have been drawn to the “clear line” style. He accepted the racism without question. . . otherwise, not sure yet where to go with this material.

    Down the road, I hope to write about the arrival of Hollywood in the 1920s and how it shaped notions of humor and “butteriness” (see earlier post), and hopefully that will bring some of the meaning of this array into focus.

    I welcome any thoughts, however provisional, in the meantime.

  5. L.J. Holton looks as if he was an American. He was doing cover illustrations for the Oakland Tribune and the Times-Picayune in the late 1920’s/early 1930’s, as well as cartoons for Life Magazine. There are no entries definitive entries on him in the historical census records, or in the Catalog of Copyright Clearances. You might want to ask Allan Holtz, who is putting together a reference work on American newspaper cartoonists.

    I’ve also started to notice quite a few parallels between his work and that of Niizeki Kennosuke (新関健之助) although I haven’t seen any of his pre-war work. But by the time he’s doing the stuff in the NDL collection, he’s approaching 50, so I imagine that the style/characters he’s using pre-date this period.

  6. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for the info and leads.

    Had a gander at those Niizeki (also read Shinzeki, I believe, at least in the prewar period) manga at the NDL. Not sure I see a specific relation to Sugiura’s work, in fact I think the figurative styles and interior arrangement of figures in the panels are quite different. Maybe what you are seeing is a sharpness of line and use of color and shape that are common to pretty much all authors of children’s manga from the prewar period? If you could be more specific . . .

    Here is an example of Niizeki’s prewar work, from 1937, from the same Kodansha Picture Book series for which Sugiura was writing.

    As you probably know, Sugiura was an assistant to Tagawa Suiho in the early-mid 30s, and there are clearly similarities between the two in how they drew figures and placed them inside the panels. Tagawa was probably the single strongest stylistic influence on Sugiura’s debut period.

    As for foreign cartoonists, in various interviews and texts from 1970s and 80s Sugiura mentions Soglow as the most memorable of the “American nonsense” cartoons he read in his youth, but aside from that “Mouse Brigade” cartoon above, I haven’t seen any really convincing evidence of Soglow’s influence – aside from general things like simplified, geometric backgrounds, like in that “Lifeboat” page included above in the introduction. Paperback editions of Little King appeared in Japan in the early 70s, so Soglow may have been just the only name the aging Sugiura knew. There was an Al Frueh cartoon from Shin Seinen in 1931 that has a similar composition to that “Lifeboat” cartoon, so even in the case of backgrounds Soglow’s influence is questionable.

    Considering that “Blackie Black” work and how Sugiura’s drawings loosen up after the war, I am inclined to think that Storm P. (who was probably nameless to Sugiura, since his autograph is either absent or near-illegible in Shin Seinen) was more decisive in the long run, at least as far as the influence of Western cartoons go.

    Probably what this “visual essay” / “slide comparison” exercise needs to be effective is inclusion of comparisons with Japanese artists, and then extension at least into the 1950s.

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  9. Adam Buttrick says:

    I found what appear to be a couple of swipes, although may be coincidences. Most notably this one from Shonen Jiraiya. While a pumpkin-headed character is perhaps unremarkable, the use of wavy lines and circular eyes/mouth seem unique choices. I had just discovered Niizeki , but was looking at the comic and thought it looked familiar for some reason. Then I remembered Sugiura’s character.

    Framing himself as the opposite of Tezuka also led me to believe that he might have been interested in Niizeki’s work. I tend to view these statements as the product of envy more than anything else, and thus demonstrative of a competition over idols. After all, Tezuka and Sugiura both sample widely from American works, love to interject moments of non-sequitur humor, and loosely adapt traditional stories (Saiyuki). Stylistically, they’re world’s apart, but structurally they share a great deal in common. And who does Tezuka bring Shin Takarajima to when he arrives in Tokyo? Niizeki Kennosuke.

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