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.