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Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

Yoshioka Ryūzaburō, Doctor Strange (1948), cover.

One thing about Mickey is that he is largely recognizable even when rendered in a fashion distant from the official Disney versions. His signature characteristics – particularly the shape of his head – enable him to circulate divorced from a particular graphic style. In akahon since the mid 1930s, Japanese comics artists had taken advantage of this situation, allowing them to use the image of Mickey without the look of Disney. I know of a few examples of this in postwar akahon, for example Yoshioka Ryūzaburō’s Doctor Strange (Kai hakasei), published in Nagoya in 1948.

The story is an Edogawa Ranpo-type “youth detective” adventure, about a precocious boy who uses his smarts and inventions to break up a criminal gang, in this case one operating a robot to rob trains and banks. The amazing invention of this manga is a potion that allows the boy to transform himself into other characters at will: a woman when he wants to walk through town un-noticed, a giant gorilla when it’s time for a fight, and Popeye for the same purpose. Trapped at one point in a room whose walls are closing in to crush him, the boy transforms into a miniature Mickey rodent – looking like the one on the cover of Manga College – and jumps out through the high barred window.

Yoshioka Ryūzaburō, Doctor Strange (1948).

Granted, a faithful rendering of Disney’s Mickey was not the artist’s goal here. Yoshioka was a solid artist with a sure hand, hired often by mainstream children’s magazines, and had he wished to make this mouse look more like the Disney version, he was certainly capable of doing so. The point is that he chose not to. For this artist, Mickey did not demand the respect of high production values. In fact, the narrative suggests that there is nothing especially special about him. He is one amongst a set of prominent but interchangeable comical Hollywood characters.

Yoshioka Ryūzaburō, Doctor Strange (1948).

Enomoto Screen Manga (early 1950s), inside front cover.

What I am showing to the right is the inside front cover of one of Enomoto Hōreikan’s “Screen Manga” books, a series the prolific Osaka publisher produced in the early 50s. As its title suggests, the series was designed to tap into the popularity of the movies, and did so by publishing work in genres like sword-fighting chanbara and the Western, but also by simulating some of the excitement of going to the theatre and seeing movies on the big screen. The series is a rich topic in itself, so just two details here. The inside front and back covers of each volume in the series are decorated with an array of movie, manga, and animation characters possibly meant to evoke the hand-painted movie-house sign or poster. Mixed in amongst them are Popeye, Olive Oil, and Mickey Mouse, who is looking the worse for wear – like a distant memory, or fan graffiti.

Enomoto Screen Manga (early 1950s), back cover.

Mickey appears a second time on the back of the books, now dressed in cowboy garb, riding a horse, smiling with a pistol, much better composed, but still a pale image of himself. Appearing below the text “Enomoto’s Screen Manga,” he is made representative of this show. Clearly Mickey had staying power as an icon of laughter and a symbol of screen entertainment. These comics, however, are not particularly well drawn. The “Screen Manga” series has some interesting flourishes, but the poverty of draftsmanship and finish mark them stereotypically "akahon." Perhaps that is what Mickey is also standing for here: an entertainment ethic that does not privilege quality.


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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