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Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

Since the 1930s, pirated Mickeys had circulated in abundance, used as advertising for comic troupes, caramels, and cigarettes, fabricated into porcelain and tin dolls, appearing in textile patterns. He was extremely popular in children’s books, including a fair number of Mickey manga from the 30s.

The most famous is Shaka Bontarō’s Mickey’s Show (Mikkii no katsuyaku, literally “Mickey’s Activities” or “Mickey’s Performances”) from the respected Nakamura Shoten in 1934. It is a book of which Tezuka spoke fondly in later years. Indeed it was exceptional. Shaka’s Mickey might not have been licensed, but it demonstrated that appropriation could be conducted with respect. Shaka even allows Mickey to introduce himself at the beginning of the book. He says, “I was born in America and my father is Walt Disney. Having jumped out of those popular United Artists films, now begins my wonderful adventures with my Japanese friends.” Most subsequent Mickey manga would ignore this affirmation of paternity. Some will even deny Mickey’s nationality. Until Tezuka came along, Shaka was largely alone in his propriety.

Shaka Bontarō, Mickey's Show (1934).

Mickey’s Show is special amongst prewar Mickey manga, first of all, because the drawing is pristine. This is definitely not Disney’s Mickey. But the draftsmanship of not just Mickey but also Pluto, Clarabelle, Horace, Pete, and Minnie is so sharp, and their movements so fluid, that, had licensing been pursued, one can imagine that Shaka might have been an acceptable representative of Disney in Japan. He was an impeccably dressed and behaved pirate. Not only does the drawing express deference. Shaka has reviewed Mickey’s resume and employs him largely in the roles for which he was trained: stage performer and circus act. After work, the sorts of activities he engages in likewise fit his official persona: some golf, some horse racing, a Sunday drive, a stop at the bar, cleaning chimney. He even gets to be the little man’s hero, knocking out a hippopotamus three times his size in the boxing ring. Though in Japan, Mickey is right at home.

Shaka Bontarō, Mickey's Show (1934).

For most of the manga, in fact, there are few markers even suggesting that the episodes are set outside the United States. And some of those that do signify place, indicate the desert of the Middle East (though in a dream) and a saloon of a Mexican border town. Two sword-fighting sequences are perhaps the only definitely local activity in which Mickey engages during his stay, but here too he gets to be the little hero, slicing through the wolves with a swoop of his blade and downing a big gorilla with a thunk of a scabbard.

Shaka Bontarō, Mickey's Show (1934).

Like I said, the stylization and the layout are certainly not Disney Studio, but by and large Mickey is himself.

Little did Mickey know what awaited him in other manga once he stepped off that boat.

(Continued)


15 Responses to Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

  1. Dash Shaw says:

    More evidence to support my crackpot theory that Floyd Gottfredson is the true father of Tezuka’s comics work — Fred Patten in “Watching Anime, Reading Manga” wrote Tezuka was really into Gottfredson. Look at those Gottfredson Mickey pages next to early Tezuka! He’s clinging to the Mickey character (like in that Cartoon College cover) specifically because of Gottfredson’s work here I think… Anyway, I’m nuts — great post as always!

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  3. Fascinating stuff. The Katō Paper Company’s Mickey Mouse with Tom (of Tom and Jerry) is actually a partial redraw of John Stanley’s Tom and Jerry in Dell’s Our Gang 17 (1945), with Mickey and Minnie inserted into the Jerry and Tuffy roles.

  4. ryanholmberg says:

    Thanks for the comments.

    @Dash. Gottfredson certainly, working on the specifics now of what Tezuka was looking at (which I am sure anyone reading TCJ could do better and faster than I will be able to). Pretty sure he owned a copy of the Japanese edition of the Better Little Book “Mickey Mouse and the Stolen Jewels.” But also evidence that he was reading and taking from Disney Four Color titles regardless of the artist. Got a Barks & Tezuka essay in the oven (July?). Maybe I can get your eye for style on specific Tezuka images in future posts.
    @ David. Thank you for that identification. Trying to create a picture of the types of comics floating around in Japan after the war — and more generally a non-isolationist history of mid-century manga — so every little piece helps.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Ryan Holmberg. Have your read John Dower’s Embracing Defeat (about post-war Japan). There’s an interesting discussion there about how the American occupying forces used comics to reshape Japanese culture.

  6. ryanholmberg says:

    I have read Dower. I will re-check, but I seem to remember that being mainly about Blondie and the “American way of life.” In addition to that kind of formal and directed importations, what I want to also try to capture is the more random, amorphous, and relatively non-ideological (or accidentally ideological) channel of the comic book-reading GI stationed in Japan during the Occupation, and also after (I have seen evidence of post-1952 Dick Sprang Batman and 3D comics in early Tatsumi Yoshihiro and Saito Takao).

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  9. Kumi Kaoru says:

    Hello, Mr. Holmberg. I’m sorry I didn’t join your lecture last Wednesday since I’m living in a town 500 km away from Tokyo. I deeply regretted I should have when I read a report about your wonderful talk in Natsume’s blog.

    BTW
    >Is it significant that just the previous year, Daiei Film Co. President Nagata Masaichi had signed a personal deal with Walt Disney to be the studio’s sole licensing agent in Japan, thereby bringing to Japan the first official Mickeys in bulk in well over a decade?

    This is quoted from my humble talk last year in Natsume’s course, right? I remeber someone Gaijin boy asked me why Nagata was allowed to claim him to be the agent of Walt Disney Company for merchandising in Japan instead of claiming his company Daiei to be so. I suppose ‘personal deal’ is not an adequate term in this context. After all, he succeeded in making contracts with Disney Co *on behalf of Daiei*. the largest film studio (at least he claimed so in Hollywood) in Japan.

    I read your astounding essays in Comic Journal. Are there any plans for future translation of them into Japanese? I’m quite interested since I knew you’re going to write a studing book on Japanese comics in the future. For your information, I’m now translating a book by a former Walt Disney animator…

  10. Kumi Kaoru says:

    P.S. I heard Ono-sensei questioned one of your theories; he said it is questionable Disney comics published American domestically in 1942 has been circlated in Osaka soon after the war. I think it is very high possibility, because Tezuka had got acquainted with an American solder by chance in 1946 when he was a student in Osaka University and the GI (African American) provided the young Japanese with a pile of American comics when he found him skilful in portrait drawing. (See Tezuka’s essay _Watashi no Mozart_) Hope this helps.

  11. Sandra Battle says:

    I wanted know if this was Prof. Holmberg who taught Art History at CSI. If so, just wanted to say howdy!

  12. Lorna says:

    This is a very interesting article; it has inspired me to write my third year manga coursework on how America influenced Japanese Manga. I was wondering if anyone might be able to help me out with any further resources regarding ‘Mickey-like’ characters in early manga?
    Thanks!

  13. Ryan Holmberg says:

    If you read Japanese, see Otsuka Eiji, Mikkii no shoshiki (2013). See also the New Treasure Island articles on TCJ by me, and my article on the same in the forthcoming Phantom Blot volume in Fantagraphics’ Gottfredson series. Beyond that, I think you will have to do some serious collecting and archival research of your own. I will hopefully be writing more on the subject down the line.

  14. Lorna says:

    Thankyou very much. I am afraid I do not speak Japanese; which does make the research a little harder. But, I will have a look at the other articles that you suggest.
    Thankyou very much for getting back to me.
    All the best!

  15. Ryan Holmberg says:

    If you don’t read Japanese, a few of Otsuka Eiji’s essays have been translated in Mechademia. Recently out, and most relevant for the present topic, is “An Unholy Alliance of Eisenstein and Disney” (Mechademia vol. 8, 2013), which I think has major flaws as far as manga history goes but will get you thinking on the subject. You might also want to look in Frederik Schodt’s Astro Boy Essays and Marc Steinberg’s Anime’s Media Mix. I also forgot to mention the two Ten Cent Manga books I did: Sugiura Shigeru’s Last of the Mohicans, and Tezuka’s The Mysterious Underground Men. There’s some “how America influenced Japanese Manga” in the Hayashi Seiichi Gold Pollen book as well.

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