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The Bottom of a Bottomless Barrel: Introducing Akahon Manga

Now back to the Shitgrin Mask. Exhibit Three: so-called Fujiwara Tetsuo’s Friendly Meow Kichi.

It is a highly degraded copy of Pest Island. It is just a partial copy, at thirty-six pages versus Izumi’s original ninety-two. Its page one is page nine of Pest Island, and then jumps around from there, rearranging sequences, cutting pages, recasting characters, swapping the cats for dogs and the mice for cats. Now it's the Three Woofsketeers off to Meow Island.

This makes me suspect that The Battle of the Giant, which also begins out of the blue, is also a knock-off. There the drawing is so bad, however, that aside from A-Bō’s sedan it is hard to imagine a model. The drawing in Meow Kichi might be better, but that’s because the artist is copying. But how poorly!

Not a single page is original. They were all probably traced. Most lines (meaning spoken lines) are identical. It makes an argument for concision, however, as the story holds together surprisingly well despite a third having been removed.

And then, of course, bound for art historical posterity, the copy of the copy: the New Treasure Island sequence. Some pages are better than others.

The fortunate thing about piracy in the digital age (from the consumer’s perspective) is that degradation is increasingly rare. It usually occurs only if the technology used to copy is poor. Thus the postmodern problem of the simulacrum, the indistinguishability between copy and original, copies and copies of copies, and thus also the introduction of anti-piracy mechanisms at the level of code. The world of analogue presents neither the same identity crisis with regards to the copy, nor the same internal safeguards against dissemination. Only a master forger, an artist and craftsman him or herself, can manufacture an analogue copy to challenge the original. The only protections against copying are external, taking the form of legal and ethical restrictions.

The bottom-feeders of akahon, on the other hand, seem to have embraced the analogue copy for what it was. Little attempt was made to trump the original. They celebrated degradation pretty much out in the open. Then again, I had to invent a name for this publisher. The contemporary press reported on how secret identities were used by akahon publishers to evade taxes. But I wonder if there were also other reasons to hide. There were reportedly upwards of 3000 akahon publishers nationwide in 1949, so the size of the forest alone would have provided plenty of cover. But I am sure if a victimized artist truly wished to find the perpetrator, he could have made the rounds in Asakusa, Okachimachi, or Matchyamachi. It might have not been a simple task, but the industry was not so disperse to be a labyrinth. Occupation period Japan was deep enough into the modern age for legal and moral notions of intellectual property to be widespread. Perhaps copying was not associated with theft strongly enough to drive someone to action. Probably it was just not worth their time. But who knows? Maybe the man behind the Shitgrin Mask got punched in the face. That was probably the only available form of redress.

How do the Japanese value these artworks? Don’t know. Never seen them mentioned. Never seen them reproduced. No public collection appears to own them. There is only one official scholar of postwar akahon in Japan, Nakano Haruyuki, but he only writes about the cream of the crop. The bottom of the barrel is pretty much untouched, even by collectors. For example: for this trio I spent a total of 945 yen, and that was at Mandarake, where there’s supposed to be a market for everything manga-anime related. That’s about 12 USD for three comic books whose other X999 copies could very well have ended up in the trash.

16 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?

  15. H. Asakura says:

    Try an auction site in Japan. Or Mandarake as the author suggests.

    Betty Boop collector is right — she’s very prewar. On the other hand Felix the Cat has a postwar boom thanks to becoming the face of 10 yen gum so it’s not entirely a bad guess.

    Betty Boop and friends New Year’s greeting card.

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