The things Tatsumi decides to drop in his adaptation are truly telling, probably nothing more so than how he changes the crime scene and the interpersonal dynamics of the music troupe. Shimada was into showbiz scandal. A number of his stories from the period in question pivot on some sort of bloody intrigue between B-grade starlets, their managers, their lovers, their catty competition, and someone’s jealous brother or sister. “The Balloon Demon” described at the beginning of this essay, with the aging ballet dancer taking her final curtain call suspended dead from helium balloons, is certainly one of the stranger of such Shimada stories. There’s also “Newspaper Reporter” (1949), in which the staff of the Tokyo Daily News solves the bizarre case of a murder on stage during a live performance titled “Maniac Kingdom.” The theatre company involved is named Kimenza, same as the troupe in “Black Rainbow,” which also is obviously part of this same group of stories, with its ugly battle between brother and beau over the future of a beautiful young songstress.
Since the early 1970s, one often reads that kashihon comics, especially those published by Hinomaru and its copycats after 1956, descends from Occupation era kasutori fiction. Tatsumi’s adaptation helps show how this notion is actually of limited value. One of the first things everyone says about kasutori culture is how it emphasizes carnal pleasure and moral degeneracy above all else, especially ideology and discipline. The immediate postwar milieu of drugs, strip shows, prostitution, and scandalous sex clearly informs Shimada’s writing. Only faint traces of this world can be seen in Black Blizzard. There is an obvious romantic undertone to Yamada and Setsuko’s relationship, but it’s about as clean and pure as can be: their union is for art alone. The murder, likewise, is between men arguing about the better future for a young woman, but purely as an entertainment commodity. The deadly catfight between prostitutes is turned into murderous resentment between the ringleader and the company’s boss. Yamaji gets drunk, but does not fuck. These changes are not particularly surprising. Given its younger audience, there was really no room for sexuality in this period of kashihon manga. The femme fatale only begins to appear after 1960, after hardboiled fiction becomes the dominant influence. The earlier kashihon world of youth detectives and crime thrillers only had use for sisterly friends – one indicator amongst many of just how far kashihon manga diverged in this period from its “pulp” roots.
Significant here is Tatsumi’s naming of the circus starlet: Ōzora “Big Skies” Saeko. This is clearly a riff on Misora “Beautiful Skies” Hibari (1937-89), the super popular teen balladeer and movie star. Hibari began performing on stage in 1946, at the little age of nine. She first became known for her renditions of adult songs and dances, oftentimes cross-dressing in a tuxedo or shaking her hips to “boogie-woogie.” She became better known via movies and records for her tear-drenched lyrics about loss of parents and loved ones, the bittersweet melancholy of being down and out, lonely life on the road, et cetera. Her film debut was in 1949, and her first big hit The Sad Whistle (Kanashiki kuchibue) later the same year. As a single, it’s theme song sold 450,000 copies. In 1950, she starred in Tokyo Kid about an orphan shoeshine searching for her brother, meanwhile singing in the street for change, bringing light to the life of the dockworkers with her song, and finally rising above poverty as a singer in jazz clubs. As herself the daughter of a Yokohama fishmonger, whose talents were first recognized in 1943 when she sang a send-off song for her father on his way to war, Hibari came to embody the very same values expressed in her lyrics and film roles: “working class” background (though her family’s fish business was quite successful), wartime hardship, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps in the postwar period, and a bittersweet life of dark times past and hopeful future. In 1951, Hibari was voted Japan’s top female entertainer by Heibon, Japan’s top entertainment magazine. Her success signaled just how marketable “postwar experience” was as a mass entertainment commodity.
A new Hibari movie was released about every five to six weeks throughout the fifties. The records tied to them typically sold well. She appeared frequently in newspapers and the entertainment press. She was also a darling in youth culture, featured in shojo magazines and akahon manga. Scholar Shimizu Isao reports at least eight akahon comics from the early 50s based on Hibari’s period films. Given its reputation for noir and the lugubrious, one would not expect to find Hibari in Hinomaru’s kashihon thrillers. But there she is at the center of Black Blizzard, and not just in name. Tatsumi had clearly seen some of her movies (who hadn’t?), because what he’s done is grafted bits of one of them into Shimada’s “Black Rainbow.” In 1952, Shōchiku studio released Hibari’s Circus: The Sad Little Dove (Hibari no saakasu: kanashiki kobato). It’s not one of her better-known films, but its motifs are standard Hibari. She boards at a Catholic School somewhere in the Japanese Alps. Her father comes to visit her once every month or so, but not more often because his job as a public works surveyor and foreman keeps him too busy. This is a lie. He actually works for the “Akabayashi Beast Circus” (in the awkward English of the troupe’s banners). Once a brave lion tamer, now he is in the lowly position of a clown. Hibari eventually finds out, but being the loving and understanding daughter that she is, rather than being ashamed of her father, decides to quite school and be at his side. She works for the circus as a singer, of course. She asks again and again about her mother. Her father lies again saying mom too is busy with work. In fact, dad hates mom for abandoning them years ago, and thus bars her from seeing her daughter. Eventually they do reunite, but only briefly. Hibari is committed to her hard-working, devoted father. She’s the perfect substitute – semi-motherless, from a broken family, singing sad songs about life on the road, in the end losing even her father (he gets mauled by a lion) – for Tatsumi’s desexualized revision of Shimada’s “Black Rainbow.”
These are the two songs Hibari sings in the movie, released by Columbia Records as A and B sides of a 45. The title song, “The Sad Little Dove” (“Kanashii kobato”) goes like this (in a very very rough translation): “The red dusk of a strange town / I cry listening to the wafting sounds of the circus band / Me, the singing circus girl / even my dreams are sad, my blue ribbon. / The mountain jay returns at sunset / Why doesn’t he return, the sad clown / I suppress my tears and call my father’s name / Down down comes the rain, soaking the tent. / My dear little pony, I rub my cheeks against his / goodbye my dreams, goodbye one-night town / the endless traveling of a circus girl / tomorrow let’s cry again as the day’s shadows grow long.” The flip side is “The Traveling Circus” (“Tabi no saakasu”): “The red dragonflies across the dusk sky / they go with the wind, so sadly I’m sure / I’m also lonely on this horse-cart trip / flowing on and on, life in the circus. / I cried with that girl on the outskirts of town / She comes and she goes / she sniffles like a trombone / one day she too will be become a camellia, a man’s wife. / More than the pity of a cold heart / I long for the ripped tent / the tears of the blue moon late into the night / the horse whinnies in the winds of the cold night. / The poster wet from the drizzle / the departing letter I must leave / today let’s cross that peak / the mountains and rain of life in the circus.”
One obviously wouldn’t need a lyric sheet to come up with the kinds of things a motherless Hibari character would sing at the circus. But what Saeko sings in Black Blizzard, what melts Yamaji’s heart, what inspires her audience to “tears and unending applause,” is too like the songs of The Sad Little Dove to be coincidental. Saeko’s lines are: “The rain that beats against that ripped tent / is like the tears of the circus girl / I close my eyes and think longingly / of a mother whose shadow I don’t even know.” Did Tatsumi have a record player? In the background of the Yamaji’s atelier, at the moment the pianist is about to be arrested, there is a record falling out of its jacket. On it, it says “Victor.” As publisher of Duke Ellington and Bud Powell, this is a sensible choice of record company for an aspiring jazz musician. At the very least, Tatsumi was “informed” about mass entertainment. The attention to “realistic” detail in Tatsumi’s kashihon manga that critics like Ishiko Junzō began to celebrate in the early 70s involved not just the postwar urban environment, but also the commodities of a growing entertainment industry and consumer culture.
Conclusion. The originality of Tatsumi’s contribution to the visual language of manga is indisputable. However, an act of adaptation certainly makes for a much less dramatic story than that furious November depicted in A Drifting Life. It also casts doubt on one of the central claims of orthodox gekiga theory. The idea that developed in the late 60s that kashihon gekiga was rooted in the everyday actualities of postwar Japan and especially its underclass is simply false. As is the notion, also expressed first in the 1960s, that kashihon manga was primarily a remediation of kamishibai, a defunct form of oral storytelling using picture cards typically framed as “popular” and sometimes “outsider” and thus somehow culturally more authentic than mass entertainment. One can find examples to support either of these positions – kashihon as socially motivated realism, kashihon as authentic popular culture – but they are exceptions to the rule and none of them are pure. From the beginning, kashihon gekiga like manga in general was highly mediated by mass entertainment and the world of fantasy from magazines and the movies. The case of Black Blizzard shows how utterly so. It shows how the literal adaptation of mass entertainment – magazine storylines and movie effects – was the very starting point of gekiga.
The same can be said for its supposed “postwar realism.” As mentioned above, conventional gekiga theory also holds that what made kashihon gekiga special was its direct engagement with urban social conditions and the life of everyday Japanese. The popularity of Misora Hibari shows, however, how such “postwar experience” was something readily available at the time as a pre-packaged commodity. Shimada’s “Black Rainbow” might seem to confirm gekiga’s roots in the dingy kasutori “pulps,” but Tatsumi has dropped the social referents (sex, drugs, and war) that gave that world its edge. Anyway, mystery writing can hardly be classed as subculture by the mid 50s, The Jewel coming down from a six-digit print run and its stories all over the silver screen. Hibari’s The Sad Little Dove clearly indicates that Tatsumi’s world was just as oriented toward the cleanest and most sentimental of postwar entertainment. He seems to have been happy with the canned versions of the “postwar experience” offered by the music and movie industries.
In short, Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard is essentially a late kasutori story with a Heibon heart. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then how about “Black Rainbow” sung to the tune of “Over the Rainbow.” This is not meant to be a criticism of Tatsumi. I think it’s just a more honest and accurate description of early kashihon gekiga than the reigning one trumpeting its renegade creativity and supposedly anti-mainstream worldview.