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.