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The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

Izumi Mikio, "The Battle of Pest Island" (Osaka: Osaka Mangasha, c. 1950)

If the medium is the message, or rather if the means of production are the message, then akahon certainly provided a poor moral example. That is, if children happened to notice that some of the artists were thieves. Like I mentioned in the beginning, piracy and unauthorized copying were fairly common in the akahon market. Once again, the Shitgrin Mask outdid the competition. Not only did they print garbage, but also unoriginal garbage. The only reason I know this is because by sheer accident I happen to own the “original” of one of their books. The scare quotes you will quickly comprehend.

The “original” in question is Izumi Mikio’s The Battle of Pest Island, a better than middle-of-the-road akahon. I don’t know anything about this artist. There is an illustrated story of the life of Audrey Hepburn from 1954 by an artist of the same name in the collection of the International Children’s Library in Tokyo. Though not first class, this Izumi could draw, apparently well enough to have a real name and survive the end of the akahon market.

The “pests” in question are mice. A family’s house has been infested. Mother complains that in addition to chewing holes in the wall, they have eaten the carrot she had to wait all day in food ration lines to get – a nice touch of daily life in immediate postwar Japan. The family cat is not doing its job. Out with the cat! His name is Cocktail.

Now homeless, Cocktail teams up with his friends, Beer and Brandy. They are visited by a bearded white man. “I am neither Thunder nor Santa Claus,” he proclaims. “I am the protector of all felines, the Great God Meow Purr.” In Japanese, that’s “Nyangoro Daimyōjin,” making him sound like a Buddhist or Shinto deity. He explains to Cocktail, Beer, and Brandy that the reason there are always mice no matter how many they catch is that every month tens and hundreds of thousands come over by ship from a place called Pest Island. If the mouse problem is to be solved, one must go to the source. Abracadabra Purr Purr Purr. Cocktail, Beer, and Brandy are transformed into the Three Meowsketeers. It is their mission to go to Pest Island and kill all the mice.

First, they track down the ship. They sneak on at night, beat the rodent crew with bats and their fists. Foreseeing the end, one mouse decides to hack a hole in the hull, to sink the cats along with the ship. The Meowsketeers escape, as does one of the mice. He swims to shore and runs for help, stopping a mouse on the roadway and tells him of the attack.

Any reader familiar in the least with comics will have long ago noticed that we have arrived in the realm of fuzziness regarding intellectual property. Cocktail is clearly a copy of Felix. And I imagine other characters also come from American comics and animation, perhaps also parts of the story and some of the jokes. One can also see the influence Tezuka had on his contemporaries. The legendary impact of New Treasure Island on the period’s artists and young readers is no myth. There are at least a few pages in Pest Island that are directly modeled on Tezuka and Sakai’s book, like the below driving sequence, a modified version of the famous opening scene of New Treasure Island.

The Meowsketeers’ attack on Pest Island is relentless. But the mice put up a good fight. Beer has obtained some ratsbane. The mice decide to turn the tables. While Beer is sprinkling the poison on a fish set on the ground, they switch on the fan. The ratsbane flies in his face and knocks him out. The mice tie him up and take him captive.

Then Brandy comes along. He sees the fish on the ground. Delighted, he sits down to lunch not knowing it’s been laced. Stomach pains knock him out of the battle. Cocktail proves more resilient. He escapes strangulation by rope from a mouse in a tree before accidentally finding the secret underground laboratory where the pests manufacture their germs. Pestroch, the head of the lab, almost plunges a hypodermic full of the stuff into Cocktail’s belly, but the cat grabs the doctor and slams him to the floor. He then sets a bomb to the facility. But the plan is foiled by a gang of armed mice.

The storm of bullets however pierces the lab’s gas tanks. The whole thing goes SHOO SHOO BABAAN! The story winds to a close with the Meowsketeers subduing the rodent kingdom’s leader, caught unawares while discussing with one of his ministers whether to hang or boil the captive Beer. Head Mouse tries to escape by plane, but is literally “blown” out of the air and to his death by a giant fan. Hurrah. The Meowsketeers have succeeded in carrying out the Great God Meow Purr’s mission. But, young readers, you are probably wondering why then are there still so many mice around. Perhaps somewhere there is another Pest Island??? So asks a farewell note. The End.

(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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