What Was Alternative Manga? What Was Alternative Manga?

Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s “Black Rainbow”

Egawa Susumu, The Balloon Demon (Osaka: Hinomaru bunko, 1955), cover. Gendai Manga Library, Naiki Collection, Tokyo.

If one digs, such examples do indeed turn up. It’s not an adaptation per se, but Egawa Susumu’s The Balloon Demon (Fūsenma) for Hinomaru bunko in late 1955 takes both its title and its central spectacle from a Shimada story first published in Omoshiro Club in 1950, then reprinted in The Jewel in 1954. The original version is about a ballet company about to put on a performance called “Carmen’s Lovers,” starring the half-Japanese half-Spanish Nicolo and the sexy Fumie. As the reporters of the Tokyo Daily News are talking about Fumie’s man-eating reputation, there she goes floating outside the window, hanging from red, blue, white, and yellow balloons, with a dagger stuck in her chest. The manga opens with the same scene, but the lady is now a baby carriage, and the perpetrator a kidnapper demanding diamonds as ransom, rather than Shimada’s jealous husband – missing an arm and an eye since battle in Burma – and resentful sister-in-law. Egawa’s book, starring a tall strapping detective and his young crime-busting sidekick, is a standard Edogawa Ranpo-esque “youth detective league” story. Shimada’s erotic brand of scandal would have no place in manga until the 60s.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Black Blizzard (Osaka: Hinomaru bunko, 1956), cover.

Egawa does not mention Shimada, but then again the debt is small. This was not always the case. Following leads in A Drifting Life and elsewhere, it turns out that Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Black Blizzard, that famous first full-blown work in the burgeoning language of gekiga from 1956, is an uncredited and unauthorized adaptation of Shimada's above-described “Black Rainbow.” It drops the war and the sex, and adds a few dramatic passages, but otherwise the adaptation is near total. Of course, this is not how the history of gekiga has been told. Tatsumi only first admitted being inspired by “some Shimada story” in the early '00s in A Drifting Life. And with every telling of gekiga’s genesis, the originality of Black Blizzard seems to get magnified, such that today the mise-en-scène of the book’s creation is composed like the worst romantic cliché. However, the fact of the matter goes so far beyond influence that this picture is not only trite but false. When I introduced “Black Rainbow” to Tatsumi this past February, he seemed genuinely surprised as well as grateful. I do not doubt that he simply forgot. Still, for such an important moment in the artist’s life, one does wish his memory to have been less imperfect. Shimada died in 1996 without ever knowing how central a role he played in the history of Japanese comics. And were it not for some breadcrumbs dropped in A Drifting Life, that contribution would remain unknown.

So, traditionally how has the story been told?

The publication of Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard in November 1956 is an important moment in the history of manga. It is all the more so in the history of rental kashihon manga, in which it is often upheld as the first full-blown work in the burgeoning language of gekiga. It is said to mark a revolutionary turn in Japanese comics, toward something darker, freer in line and brushwork, more expansive in the handling of space, more carefully paced to create a sense of suspense and dramatic tension, more purely visual versus the text and image balance of comics prior.

The first published claims of this sort date back to the late 60s, at the time when Tatsumi and his immediate supporters had begun to wage a small defensive battle against the rising “gekiga boom” – which had lifted a number of former kashihon authors into the riches of mainstream publication, but not Tatsumi, who was for the time left to struggle with self-publishing. The first shot fired was Tatsumi’s own Gekiga College, a manifesto of sorts on the aesthetics and history of gekiga self-published by the artist in late 1967. It has been a highly influential book, serving as the basis for most gekiga theory since soon after it appeared, up to the present. It has probably been too influential, for only recently can one find diverging theories of the gekiga aesthetic and histories of its making.

The treatment of Black Blizzard in Gekiga College goes like this. In the summer of 1956, Tatsumi shared with Matsumoto Masahiko and Saitō Takao an apartment and workspace in Saikudani, Osaka. The arrangement had been sponsored by their publisher, Hinomaru bunko, with the idea that cohabitation would facilitate work on the new detective and thriller anthology Shadow, founded in March of that year. While little work got done, a lot of talk happened, increasing Tatsumi’s confidence in his ideas regarding the new expressive language of gekiga, which he had begun to explore in works from late 1955 and early 1956. By September, the three artists had gone their separate ways. Soon after returning home, Tatsumi began work on Black Blizzard. It was his first book since February.

Tatsumi completed Black Blizzard in about half a month. Later he would specify twenty days, which he described as about half the time it usually took for a 128-page book. This is how he described his feelings after completing it.

I was confident that this was a new kind of manga. But since to create impact I used a bold ‘pen touch,’ with many pages in a row without speech balloons (dialogue), I thought my publisher would accuse me of laziness and tell me to redraw it. When I took it to the publisher’s office, luckily the boss was out on business, so I left the manuscript on a desk and fled. After that, I avoided the publisher until the book came out.

The immediate response was small, he writes, contrary to his expectations, but four or five years later, Arikawa Ei’ichi (who could have been working at the time for Saitō Pro) told him how “fresh” Black Blizzard had seemed when it first came out. He also provides the following anecdote:

Recently, Asaoka Kōji [an action gekiga author of the 60s, a middle school student in the mid 50s] told me that he was living in Hokkaido at the time, and when he read Black Blizzard he was really impressed. One snowy night, he took the book to a friend’s house and they talked about the appearance of a new type of manga the whole night through. When I heard this, it made me really happy.

In an amusing side note, Tatsumi explains that the most immediate impact seems to have been on the book’s printer. He said to Tatsumi, “That manga of yours, it really ate up ink. It made all kinda noise. Sheez.” – a sidelong recognition of its novel emphasis on blacks. No mention is made of Black Blizzard’s sources. One might forgive lapses in memory forty-some years later, at the time of A Drifting Life. But already in 1967, the fact of adaptation has been ignored.

This basic story was imported pretty much whole into Sakurai Shōichi’s “The Tale of Gekiga” (“Gekiga fūunroku”), the first full-length narrative history of kashihon manga and the early development of gekiga, serialized in Garo between December 1971 and November 1972. It was revised and republished as a book in 1978. As Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s older brother (née Tatsumi Yoshikazu), it is probably not too surprising that, when it comes to Yoshihiro’s work, Sakurai closely follows Gekiga College, sometimes to the word.

That year, Black Blizzard was the only book to Tatsumi’s name. Within our circle of colleagues, it was highly regarded as the work in which the expressive techniques of gekiga had been perfected. . . What was striking about the manga was its rough touch, its heavy use of black fill, its bold composition, and its page after page without speech, as if the panels just flowed. . . .

As for its impact, Sakurai writes, “Black Blizzard was popular not just amongst those of us at Hakkō [the parent company of publisher Hinomaru bunko], but it also seems to have influenced many aspiring manga authors. From the mouths of those now professionally active, I hear from time to time of the impact that Black Blizzard made.” Then he recites the Gekiga College anecdote about Asaoka’s snowy night of passionate debate. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

As far as I know, for twenty-some years after, there is not much written on Tatsumi and Black Blizzard. In Ishiko Junzō’s Notes for a History of Postwar Manga (1975), the first survey of the subject to fully emphasize the importance of kashihon manga, Black Blizzard is not even mentioned, even in the back matter chronology. In his own autobiography-plus-gekiga history of 1996, Satō Masaaki upholds Black Blizzard as the breakthrough work of gekiga, situating it within Tatsumi’s novel elaboration of cinematic techniques and his heavy inkiness, and drawing attention to the work’s rhythmic use of sound. Satō adds that the story is really nothing. What’s important is its “thrilling dramatic composition.” He assumes the story is based on Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, which it’s not, since the movie came out in 1958. I suspect that Tatsumi began to divulge Black Blizzard’s sources partially in response to Satō’s error.

Tatsumi began serializing his autobiography in comics form, A Drifting Life, in Mandarake’s auction catalogue in 1995, continuing until 2006. In the afterword to the collected Japanese edition, Tatsumi says his story is based in large part on his brother’s “The Tale of Gekiga,” so much so that he promised to credit his brother and pay him a fee for its use. Not surprisingly then that the basic story of the making of Black Blizzard remains basically the same. Once again, Tatsumi felt frustrated with his work in Shadow, never quite being able in that context to fully render the dramatic effects he knew possible for the medium. The main constraint, he claimed, was page-count, contributions for Shadow being no more than a couple dozen pages apiece. Also debilitating was the shared living and working arrangement with Matsumoto and Saitō. The salubrious effects of fresh air after returning home in September were immediate. The following month, in the quick course of 20 days, Tatsumi finished Black Blizzard. Again, the trepidation when he took the manuscript to the publishers. Again, the anecdote about the younger artists in Hokkaido shivering with excitement when they first read it.

Tatsumi Yoshihiro, A Drifting Life (2009), p. 545, showing “Hiroshi” creating Black Blizzard.

The real difference between A Drifting Life and its predecessors is the tone of the telling. As a künstlerroman, the book shares that genre’s focus on personal growth through artistic struggle, ping-pong-ing between angst and inspiration. In Gekiga College, Tatsumi certainly appears excited and nervous about the book, but now thirty years later the scene of creation has grown into a full-blown drama of an artist possessed by creative daemons. It is the only work that gets this sort of treatment.

The two months living with Matsumoto Masahiko and Saitō Takao had come to an end. Hiroshi immersed himself in his long-awaited, new full-length work. His pen moved without difficulty. The frustrations of the past two months vanished. For the first time in a long time, Hiroshi felt like he was doing something big.

The sharp winter winds blow down over the manga’s protagonists and across Tatsumi’s worktable. “While working on the scenes of extreme cold, Hiroshi felt so involved that he actually shivered. He’d never felt this way before.” He thinks to himself, “So this is the thrill of creation. I had no idea.” And then on the next page,

Marathon runners speak of a ‘runner’s high.’ It’s a euphoria they only feel while running. A runner’s experience of this ‘high’ may be influenced by his or her speed or even the weather. They become less and less aware of the fact they are running, their bodies start to feel light, they feel liberated in both body and mind, and so completely overjoyed. It makes your body feel like it’s flying. Maybe what Hiroshi felt at that time was something like a runner’s high.

Finished, young Tatsumi lies spent on the floor.

If the trailer on YouTube is representative, the new animated film about Tatsumi’s work and early life, “TATSUMI” by Eric Khoo, seems to have taken this episode and made it even stormier, even more the stuff of romantic cliché. Perhaps it’s an honest representation of how Tatsumi remembers feeling when he made the work, but the drama is missing an important, sobering detail: that a little angel named “Black Rainbow” was sitting on his shoulder, telling him what to draw.



6 Responses to Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s “Black Rainbow”

  1. Patrick Markfort says:

    Wow. This is an extraordinary work of comics scholarship.

  2. Tom Gill says:

    Yes indeed, Ryan, this is a fine piece of scholarship. I also noticed Tatsumi’s oddly faulty memory in my piece on him at the Hooded Utilitarian, entitled Fetuses in the Sewer, where I find he appears to have overlooked some debts to Yoshiharu Tsuge. Obviously you have done a much, much more thorough job on Black Blizzard, and destroyed any claim it might have for originality of story.

    I suppose the obvious question is why Tatsumi left so many obvious clues as to his influences, and then attempted to deny them. Why write such a very similar story, even using the same name as in Shimada’s story for one of the protagonists, if you are not planning on acknowledging the debt? It would appear to be a casual, cynical and not very clever approach. We know plenty of other manga artists at this period borrowed freely from each other and from others, but why does he have to be so coy about it?

    You say you have met Tatsumi. Did you get some hint as what makes the man tick?

  3. ryanholmberg says:

    Since I’m not including the footnotes in the TCJ version of these essays, I just want to credit here a book I found useful in thinking about Shimada Kazuo and “repatriation.” My understanding of “red repatriates” comes largely from: Lori Watt, “When empire comes home : repatriation and reintegration in postwar Japan” (Harvard, 2009)

  4. Mike Hunter says:

    Indeed an amazing piece of detective work! And the plethora of information regarding Japanese pop culture and crime fiction is a delight as well…

    About “kamishibai, a defunct form of oral storytelling using picture cards,” two threads from the old TCJ message board:

    “Kamishibai: Pictorial Storytelling in old Japan”:
    “…In many cases, obscure kamishibai practitioners took the drawing and narrative skills they acquired and later applied them with great success as Manga cartoonists…Mizuki Shigeru, author of the enormously popular GeGeGe no Kitaro series about goblins from a graveyard, and Shirato Sampei, author of the Kamui the Ninja series, both got their start as kamishibai artists…”

    In “Cartoons, Etc. from WW II-era Japanese Magazine,” a photojournalistic article follows a kamishibai practitioner at work:

  5. Mike Hunter says:

    Darn, I just saw a lot of the links posted in ““Kamishibai: Pictorial Storytelling in old Japan” are now defunct; sorry!

  6. ryanholmberg says:

    In response to Tom. As I said in the essay, Tatsumi told me that he did not remember the original story. I have no reason not to believe him. At what point he forgot, I don’t know. But I trust that now, and in A Drifting Life, he is not trying to hide anything. I don’t think one scatters clues if the ultimate goal is secrecy. I gave him a copy of the original story, but I don’t know if he read it, and if he did, how it might have jogged his memory. My sense is that the fact of adaptation was not so important for him then, nor is it now. That Black Blizzard was an adaptation might be a new finding itself, but like you say the general fact that a kashihon artist was adapting without crediting will surprise no one familiar with that world — though I don’t know off-hand of any uncredited adaptations that are quite as extensive.

    To get at this matter more deeply, one has to address the understanding of authorship, copyright, and adaptation for this period of manga, and more specifically in Osaka kashihon publishing. I might write a follow-up essay on the subject (especially if people are interested), although it’s a tricky topic to research. What I wanted to do here was provide the evidence of adaptation, set the adaptation next to the original, and offer some brief thoughts as to what the contrast tells us about mid-50s kashihon manga on the level of content. As soon as one brings up the issue of copyright, the question arises of how one judges the act of borrowing or copying. I wanted to avoid ethical and legal issues here, because I know even a whiff of such things tends to make objective research sound motivated by other (unattractive) interests. Tatsumi was a little less creative than A Drifting Life suggests — that’s about as far as I would go for now.

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