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The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

Not everything the Shitgrin Mask published was unredeemable junk. Exhibit Two: Little Cheerful Kin. The artist is listed as Ishiguro Seiji. It’s clearly a different hand from The Battle of the Giant, and though still bad, it’s certainly a few grades better. Apparently, the Shitgrin Mask had a range of nubs in its bullpen.

This one begins with a frame story. Kin, a middle school boy, is a swimming champion. He has returned to his hometown after breaking a world record. The locals, especially the kids, mob him with accolades and questions. So he tells his life story.

He was once a bad kid. He didn’t do his homework. He went places he shouldn’t, often injuring himself in the process. He yanked girls’ hair and made them cry. He breaks promises made to his parents. He hides from his mother when she goes out to fetch him home for schoolwork or dinner.

Things begin to change after a trip to the sea. The goal is to see the ama, the female divers, typically looking for sea urchins, shellfish, or pearls. The rendering of one diver is surprisingly elegant, as she stands atop a rock, bucket in one hand, the other covering her bare chest. The kids ask her to teach them how to swim. Every day, they return to the sea, challenging one another to get better and better. Kin now has something to live for in life other than shenanigans. His conversion has begun.

Once matriculating into middle school, Kin and a couple of his friends join the swim club. They are taught proper kicking technique. Suspended by rope from the air, one of their seniors teaches them the crawl. He also teaches them a life lesson: “Things are not as easy as they look once you try them yourself. But just when you start thinking about quitting, try a third and a fourth time. Difficulties are what make training. Let embarrassment drive you to improve and practice more and more.” And embarrassing things do happen to Kin. He tumbles head over heels, head over heels, head over heels from the diving board, landing with a loud Zbo! He almost drowns at sea attempting the 1500 meters. But when his buddies quit, Kin sticks with it, getting better and better, good enough to enter his first competition.

The swim meet pages are drawn quite nicely. Or at least they feel that way after the preceding twenty-some of awkwardness. Kin competes well for his school, reaching the championship race in 1000 meter freestyle. Nervous, he makes a false start. He calms himself the second time. Go! It’s neck and neck. “Damn if I’m going to lose,” Kin says to himself. Actually, he curses. “Kuso!” I don't think I have ever seen anyone say “Shit!” before in a children’s manga. Anyway, it helps him win. And he does so by breaking a swim meet record. Wait . . . at the beginning of the story, it was a world record.

The last page shows Kin receiving a trophy and congratulations. Kin is so happy. He’s happy too that his dad will be happy. The head of the Board of Education is himself proud of Kin’s effort and accomplishment. Not only does this manga have a coherent narrative and its small moments of artistry, it also has a lesson. Be a brat and cause your parents pain. Be a hard-working champion and receive everyone’s love and respect.

Perhaps the Shitgrin Mask was responding to discontent about the negative influence of comics. Such concerns began to receive mainstream press coverage in 1949, when akahon publishing was at its height. A long article about “vulgar manga” in the Weekly Asahi from April of that year begins, “Comics, comics, our children pester us. After consulting our wallets, we go ahead and buy them, just to see our children dive into reading them like they were sucked into a hole. Have we adults ever stopped to think what kinds of pictures are drawn therein, or what kind of influence they have had on our children? I believe that this is an issue of great importance for our culture-state [bunka kokka].” The writer goes on to report on children gangs and runaways inspired by things they have read in akahon. The story of a comic book-inspired rape in the United States, “reported in some book,” is cited as comparative example. Meanwhile in Japan children want comics so badly they steal them. What’s inside “will make your hair stand on end.” “Instinctual desires” and “instinctual acts” take center stage, without critical commentary. Ninja and samurai gangs proliferate despite this an age in which we are supposed to uphold the values of democracy. And behind the scenes, manuscripts are sold in smoke-filled cafes filled with “three-penny artists” waiting for a “gentleman” carrying a bag filled with ten-thousand-yen notes, which he quickly disperses then leaves. To avoid the taxman, many of the books have no publisher listed. When an address is provided, oftentimes it’s false. What is the face of this underworld? The article is illustrated with two examples of “vulgar manga,” one a grotesque shape-shifting ninja (probably Sarutobi Sasuke) and the other a one-eyed ghost-fighting swordsman (Tange Zazen). Fronting the article for some reason, and printed three times the size of the others, is an image of Tip Top Comics no. 149, showing Der Captain wailing on a drum to punish the Katzenjammer Kids.

“What is to be done?” The article closes with some ideas. Adults can start by not buying the bad stuff. But why not go further and follow the lead of Switzerland, where public pressure against harmful children’s books creates checks without government control. Or the PTA groups in the United States or France. Content-wise, how about following the lead of England and France, adapting national folktales that enliven the imagination while respecting the “child’s pure spirit” (dōshin). Or the Soviet Union, where children’s books are both romantic and “philosophical” at once. There is no lack of vulgar material in America, “but what flows at the root is expressed clearly in the spirit of Crime Does Not Pay” – which the author translates as “Evil Will Die, Justice Will Shine.” L’il Abner is commended for using proper “spoken English” rather than vulgar slang. What Japan needs, in sum, is a broad commitment to “good manga” by artists, publishers, parents, teachers, and intellectuals alike.

Little Cheerful Kin was presumably made in response to such sentiments. Whoever drew it, tried for beauty, even if his hand wavered in execution. Kin is meant to be a positive role model, even if he cannot help cussing along the way. But whatever moral scruples are on exhibit here, don’t think that the men behind the Shitgrin Mask shared them. Time to turn to Exhibit Three.


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!

    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:

  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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