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The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

One common complaint about akahon in their day was that they were marketed solely on the basis of their covers. Content was an afterthought. In fact, content could be given almost no thought.

Exhibit One: The Battle of the Giant. A captivating cover indeed. The vibrant colors help. It is just a facade, as you will soon see. The artist is listed on the spine as Fukui Eizō, normal sounding enough. But this is probably another ruse. There was a manga author named Fukui Ei’ichi, whose popularity in the first years of the 50s was great enough to cause even Tezuka anxiety. If you read kanji, Ei’ichi is written with the “ei” from “eigo” (English) and the “ichi” of the number one. The Eizō of this Shitgrin book uses the same “ei.” The “zō” is the kanji for the number three. It would be like publishing under the name Jack Kirbie. Misleading advertising of this sort was relentless in the lower echelons of the akahon market. But typically, a kid got at least something for being swindled. The Shitgrin Mask gave you nothing.

Open the cover and peel the sheen from that wooden nickel. Already on page one is the scam revealed. “The Battle of the Giant” the header reads. An old man with a cane says, “You’re too impatient. It’s too reckless to smash into walls. Be careful A-Bō [a boy’s name].” It’s an appropriate start. The art like the narrative is a wreck, and I wonder if in fact a kid was doing the steering.

Summary. A-Bō speeds to the city in his super sedan to battle the X Giant. The X Giant, who looks nothing like his funky brother on the cover, is out to destroy the city. A-Bō blasts with him bullets. No good. The X Giant sends his car flying, and then gets on with his task of destroying the city.

With mirth, he repositions a bridge so that a train will derail. A-Bō is able to burrow his way out of the hole his car is in, arriving in time to inform the train of its impending doom. The X Giant is angry and this time carts A-Bō and his car away to his secret hideout where he plans to play with it like a toy. Planning for this all along, A-Bō pops out and lets loose with his “Electric Pistol.” This fells the evil giant. But his caretaker, a mad scientist named simply Old Man, escapes into the air on a flying cloud.

Thus ends phase one of the book.

Phase two is no better. The Old Man travels to the Thundercloud Kingdom to recruit help. It is guarded by Japanese-style oni demons. Its leader is the Thunder King, depicted as Enma, the Buddhist King of Hell. Upon learning from Old Man Lightning (he suddenly gets a fuller name) that A-Bō is preparing to attack the Thundercloud Kingdom, the Thunder King orders his minions to prepare for battle.

As A-Bō approaches in his vehicle – the same car as earlier now fitted with wings – the oni beat on their drums, shooting lightning. Direct hit! A-Bō and his partner B plummet to earth. Happily, the vehicle’s two-way television system still works, so A-Bō calls upon his own Professor, who dispatches a new flying vehicle for the young airmen to mount: the Swallow, an open carriage with webbed wings (or are they feathered?).

This time A-Bō first tries diplomacy. He dispatches B to try to talk the Thundercloud Kingdom into stopping its attacks on earth below. Negotiations fail. The Thunder King sends B plummeting through a hole in the cloud. Naturally, A-Bō sweeps in and catches him. With his offers of peaceful coexistence refused, A-Bō begins to zap the Thundercloud Kingdom with “Melt Waves.” The clouds beneath their fortress thus disintegrated, the Thunder King and his minions fall tumbling to earth. And thus the story ends. This sort of “ding dong the witch is dead” conclusion is fairly common in akahon.

Compared to the artwork, the narration is deft. The drawing is just atrocious. It is so bad that I seriously wonder if the publisher was not hiring children to draw its books. The possibility is not so far out. After all, Kuwada Jirō was writing akahon at age thirteen, though he had talent. For a small upstart publisher, wishing to turn a quick buck, what could have been cheaper than hiring neighborhood children, or even better, recruiting your own? Misaligned color is not uncommon in akahon. But in some places in The Battle of the Giant, a reader really has to use their imagination to figure out what object a splotch belongs to. The script is likewise nearly illegible in places. Would a child have been able to decipher everything the characters are saying? Some sentences are crammed to fit in word balloons. A couple of textual mistakes have been simply scratched out. The paneling is paced in such a way that suggests a modicum of preparation. However there is one page in which it looks like the artist changed his mind after drawing the frames that he wanted one big panel rather than two smaller ones, but instead of starting over just drew the picture as if the frame was not there.

I suspect Gary Panter’s acolytes might find this art. But like I said before, such akahon manga were not produced with adult primitivists in mind. They were for children, and the Shitgrin Mask was probably experimenting with the minimal effort required to get a kid to part with their money. Clearly they succeeded enough to warrant continuing with the operation, because I still have two more manga to share.

(Continued)


14 Responses to The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

  1. Pingback: Essential Reading: Ryan Holmberg on Early Manga

  2. michael L says:

    excellent! i had a suspicion that there must be freaky work like this floating around in manga history, and i’m so glad to finally see some. please keep mining this vein!

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  4. Jesse McManus says:

    all hail the shitgrin mask!!! sugoi desu yo…these look like genuine nightmare comics of the highest order. i appreciate your digging and putting them in historical context.

  5. R. Chinen says:

    Great info and analysis, thank you for the fantastic read!

    My grandfather was in the US Army and served in Japan during the occupation. He mentioned that reading Japanese comics was one of the ways he and his friends passed the time. Well, they couldn’t actually “read” the language, just looked at the pictures. I always wondered what exactly there was to read back then, and this post solves that question that’s always been the back of my mind. Thank you so much!

  6. Thanks for such an interesting article; it was a great read! Really strange comics.

    That image you linked from “The Story of the Little Pigs” looks like the artist stole directly from the Betty Boop cartoon, “Betty Boop’s Birthday Party” (see for yourself! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTaLIIp0iv4)

    Betty Boop was surprisingly big in Japan pre WWII, even to the point that there was an episode in 1935 where Betty flies to Japan and sings a song in Japanese. Fascinating stuff. (Watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpNGcvmhuV0)

  7. ryanholmberg says:

    That’s interesting that your grandfather and co. were reading Japanese comics. The story is always that the Japanese were reading things the G.I.’s brought over, or bought at the PX then dumped. I think it unlikely that they were reading these particular books, as they are probably from the very end of the Occupation. There were plenty of comics to read that were not akahon in the Occupation, and like I said in the essay these aren’t so representative of what they looked like in general. But who knows?

  8. Thanks for another fascinating article, Ryan. Is this part of your projected book project, as well?

    I would be really surprised if the giant/flying car story is really “adapted” from another work in the same way as the cat story pictured later. Something about the drawing seems a little looser and less like a “skin” of a bad drawing sitting on top of something composed by someone who can actually draw, which is the impression I get from the last story. But who knows?

    Do you know anything about the color process that these comics display, how many plates etc? For instance, is the brown at the spread of the bottom of the second page just a screen of the orange plate overlayed with the purple plate? So a two-color process in total? Just curious if you’ve had any interest or knowledge of the technical process itself.

  9. ryanholmberg says:

    The brown is purple and orange over one another, so I believe it is two-color. I know nothing about the printing aside what one can deduce from the books themselves. There is some research on paper, since there were government controls on certain types, so often publishers used the rougher kind that wasn’t controlled, but that is mainly a late 40s issue, from what I know. This is all new stuff to me too.

    You are probably right about the Giant. I meant mainly that the story might have come from somewhere else. You are right, the drawing does not have that “skin” look. Good way to put it.

    This essay is not part of the book, but some other sort of publication will probably come out of it. The book is going to be about the origins and early development of gekiga (both Tatsumi’s brand and other varieties, like that which came out of emonogatari) in the 50s and 60s. I will be getting back on that track next time. Akahon will make an appearance, but not these akahon.

  10. ryanholmberg says:

    Aha, indeed. For this birthday, she gained a few new friends. The cover of that akahon, by the way, which I didn’t show, is a knock-off of Disney’s The Three Little Pigs.

  11. Rachel says:

    Great work on this column, it’s really something special – fascinating stuff!

    I’d love to see someone dig into the history of shōjo and josei manga. I’m really curious how (if at all) that sort of thing fits into the history of alternative manga. You could say it was mostly “alternative”, in a way, for much of its existence, haha.

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  13. kimiaki Ooyama says:

    hello from Tokyo Japan
    I am a Betty Boop collector in Japan.
    In my view Betty Boop in not related to akahon boom.
    She had big popularity among Japanese children in Prewar,
    and many comic books of her published.

  14. Jason says:

    If someone wanted to collect some of these where would you suggest to find them?

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