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Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

The Extraordinary Human Bombs (1930s).

The norm was mediocre. Mickey was usually flat, a geometric abstraction devoid of any plasmatic animation, who toddled around like a stack of blocks. The material is interesting, and I will save it for a different essay on Hollywood in prewar manga, but here is one example that shows just how depraved Mickey could be during Tezuka’s youth. Like the Shitgrin Mask in the postwar period, this manga is not representative of akahon of its era. It is the most poorly drawn children’s manga I have seen from the prewar period, Mickey material or otherwise. No publishing data whatsoever. No publisher name. No author. No date. I have another Mickey manga similar in print quality and color and possibly by the same publisher. It is dated 1934, from a place called Kanei Hakkō in Tokyo. This one could be from the same time and publisher, though the quality of the art suggests a different house and the content maybe a slightly later date.

The Extraordinary Brave Soldiers of the Bomb (Bakudan chinyūshi). Its title is a riff on “Bakudan san yūshi,” “The Three Brave Soldiers of the Bomb” – sometimes translated as “The Three Human Bombs” – a famous military episode during the so-called “January 28 Incident” of 1932 in which Japanese forces attacked Shanghai in response to the destruction of Japanese business holdings in the city by Chinese residents. In a battle on February 22, three Japanese infantrymen stormed through a rain of bullets to ram an explosive charge against the enemy’s barbed wire fences, clearing a path for their regiment but blowing themselves up in the process. Based in fact, the episode was quickly mythologized, covered widely in the Japanese press with 100-plus pt. headlines, and retold in books, a movie, and kabuki, bunraku, and shinpa plays with more than a little embroidering. It was made into a song and sold well on record. It became standard in children’s picture books and school textbooks, standing forth as a lesson in the nobility of soldier bravery and sacrifice. It appears a few times in manga, like this one, where the soldiers are now animals, probably monkeys, their outfits and bodies modeled on Mickey, with different faces and no mouse ears. There are not one but three teams of three that blow themselves up.

The Extraordinary Human Bombs (1930s).

The last of the soldiers is blown out of the battlefield and into the chimney of the enemy’s camp. He finds there the enemy chief sleeping at his desk. It is Mickey. It is not enough to kill or capture the enemy. He puts magnifying glasses on Mickey’s face and kicks him in the snout. “Ooooh. . . how frightening, a giant enemy soldier,” he says upon waking, seeing the little monkey blown up to Kong size. The frightened Mickey is tied up. The rope is fed up through the chimney. The other end is tied to a plane passing by. Mickey is dragged up and out into the sky. The brave monkey is commended for his good work.

The Extraordinary Human Bombs (1930s).

This is just one episode in the book. The others are equally cruel and ugly. In another, Mickey after Mickey gets bashed in the head with a club. The last gets his head slammed in a door. Another gets stabbed in the stomach. Another gets speared in the head. Others get bombed from the air. One gets thrown from his plane. One gets a spinning propeller to his face.

The Extraordinary Human Bombs (1930s).

In one of his pre-debut works, The Day of Victory (1945), Tezuka casts Mickey similarly in the role of enemy fighter pilot. In that case, he is grouped with other American cartoon and animation characters. That Mickey should belong to an American enemy seems natural given his country of origin. Extraordinary Brave Soldiers, however, was probably made before Pearl Harbor. Therefore, like the pigs in Norakuro, Mickey must logically be Chinese. His thrashing cannot be read simply as symbolic violence against Amerika. More important is that he is foreign and funny. Because he is foreign, he can be cast in practically any role. Shaka likewise recognized Mickey as flexible – his range as a performer – but did not force him into overly alien scenarios. But here he plays the stupid and hapless Chinese soldier. Also exploited is Mickey’s comic status. As hero of the little man, there was a limit to which Mickey at home could be beaten, always coming out on top in the end. Now he makes Japanese laugh as an object of abuse and ridicule. Shaka shows him surrounded by admirers upon arrival in Japan, suggesting he might be accorded the same respect beyond America’s borders. But if that scene were in this akahon, it would have to show instead the mouse promptly stripped of his honor, stripped of his rights, rolled up rudely into the red carpet laid out for him, and thrown into the ring of cartoon cruelty and beaten over and over again with a Japanese slapstick. That Mickey should be drawn so badly here is thus appropriate. Commanding little respect as a character, he demands even less as a design or as a property. Fanfare around the Disney Studio as the vanguard of innovation and quality offered no protection. Popcorn hands and doodle face? Marks of a bad artist, of course. But also signs that Mickey was free to be manhandled.

It’s not that the artist or publisher didn’t know what Mickey should look like. After all, there he is on the bottom corner of every page, made to dance through a flip-book element, recalling his origins in Disney’s animation. The Japanese knew what he looked like and where he came from. They simply did not care. For the publisher and artist at least, laughs were sought precisely in Mickey’s degradation. Akahon regarded him as little more than a funny rodent to be exploited for his popularity.


16 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.

    >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?

  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.

  16. Ryan Wasson says:

    @RyanHolmberg, we spoke once before briefly about your Rockabilly Pomp Skull. I asked if you’d be willing to draw another one for me, I thought I rememebred you saying you would. Do you recall this? I do leatherwork. Please email. Thanks so much, I’ve been trying to find your contact I hope you see this!

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