An Introduction to Gekiga, 6970 A.D.

Returning to “An Introduction.” The middle pages are the least exciting. There the narrative and formal attributes of gekiga are detailed, with frequent comparisons to cinema. These pages tend to confirm that the piece is what most people say it is: a representative thesis on “cinematic techniques” in manga. But at the very end, this formalistic demonstration is again mixed with futuristic themes. The final two-page spread is titled “The Human has a Thousand Eyes,” with the caption: “Gekiga would become monotonous if it were drawn only as our eyes see things. With lenses and film our vision is infinitely multiplied.” Shown are photographic images and drawn versions of zooming, panning, “high-speed photography,” and the visual effects of telescopic, fisheye, and wide-angle lenses. What is notable here is the title and main caption’s suggestion that gekiga’s “cinematics” are not only visually stimulating, but capable of transcending the limits of natural human vision and perceiving things more comprehensively, more minutely, and generally more intensely. It calls to mind the classic modernist trope of the expanded “camera eye.”

Ōtomo Shōji and Saitō Takao, “An Introduction to Gekiga,” Shōnen Magazine (January 1, 1970): “A Human has a Thousand Eyes.”

This futuristic depiction of gekiga did not come out of the blue. Oftentimes in the late 60s, in the numerous articles on the “gekiga boom,” one finds similar sorts of claims about gekiga in particular and manga in general as being part of a audiovisual revolution in mass entertainment. Magazine was widely perceived as the leader in this revolution. In 1965, a series of misfortunes left the magazine in the lurch. Tezuka Osamu canceled his series W3 over a copyright dispute. Chiba Tetsuya left on an extended honeymoon. Author of the popular 8 Man, Kuwada Jirō was arrested for illegal possession of a handgun. Faced with the sudden loss of its three top authors and the need for a new identity, a new head editor was appointed, Uchida Masaru. The Uchida-era was Magazine’s golden age, when it went from a popular but second-place children’s magazine of sports and action comics to an “multimedia visual magazine” with fans ranging from boys in their teens to college students in their twenties and family men above. Under Uchida, Magazine made a number of essential changes in editorial principle. One was the commissioning of gekiga authors who had theretofore mainly worked for the rental kashihon market, including Saitō as well as other stalwarts like Kawasaki Noboru and Mizuki Shigeru (who is commonly referred to as a gekiga artist in the 60s even though he came out of a different tradition). Also important was its investment in new models of comics production, from Saitō Pro’s factory-like production line system to the coordination of drawing studios with independent scriptwriters. I will discuss these phenomena in upcoming posts. What interests me here is the final product, what respected critic Tachibana Takashi described in an essay from September 1969 as “the world’s greatest sōgō zasshi,” a term meaning something like “omnibus magazine” that is used in Japan to describe periodicals that aim at integrating news, opinion, and entertainment, and covering the range of topics from economics to culture. With the news and opinion quotient of Magazine being so low, however, one can now see this as an exaggeration. Nonetheless it gives a sense of how contemporaries saw the publication.

One of Uchida’s guiding editorial principles was, in his words, shaping the magazine as “television as print media,” or “television on paper.” Since their founding in 1959, the manga weeklies had looked upon television with both hope and anxiety. Some in the manga industry feared that television would steal its market, while others saw promise in putting magazines roughly on the same schedule as television programming, enabling them to stay abreast with the fast turnover of news and trends. This had immediate commercial benefits: more frequent and of-the-moment advertising, and commercial tie-ins with the weekly programming cycle. Far more than Shōnen Sunday, its only real competitor in the '60s, Magazine pursued merchandising tie-ins with toy manufacturers and television studios. The main fruit of the latter was the adaptation of a number of its manga titles into television animation series. Baby boomer generation fans like to think that the popularity of Magazine in their youth had to do purely with the excellence of its comics, but the legendary seven digit print runs would not have been possible without turning on T.V. viewers. One can also make the following observation, from a more purely media theory perspective: with this cross platform presence, Magazine’s top titles and characters were not just paper entities, leading a life that was multidimensional because multimedia. Saitō’s Muyōnosuke had this quality, as did the genre as a whole as more and more gekiga were turned into television programs and feature films in the 70s.

Important for Magazine’s project of “paper television” were not just comics and their cross-platform commerce, but also the magazine’s duotone and color gravure spreads. In the early '60s, capitalizing on the contemporary “war boom” in boy’s culture, features in this section focused on war, weapons, and military technology. In 1965, science fiction writer and editor Ōtomo Shōji took over. His first contributions covered the television shows Space Family Robinson and Ultraman. Then he started spreads on kaijū monsters, offering behind-the-scenes look at their special effects and diagrammatic explanations of how they did things like shoot electricity from their tongues and beams of freezing liquid from bladders buried in their claws. Over the next years, his photomontage spreads became as much part of Magazine’s identity as its comics. In late 1969, there were features on robot animals, robot nations, Japanese ghosts, lost civilizations of stone like those at Palenque and Angkor Thom, and compulsory group suicide during World War II. In early 1970, African witch doctors, the future of high speed travel, Palestinian guerillas, and the history of toilets. The most mundane he gets are behind-the-scenes looks at the making of television commercials or radio programs, or how things are kept flowing at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Situated amidst this visual encyclopedia of the strange but true or possible was “An Introduction to Gekiga,” conceived by Uchida and Ōtomo, designed and written by the latter.