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.
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.
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.
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.