An Introduction to Gekiga, 6970 A.D.

Since the beginning of his time with Magazine, Ōtomo had been interested in new and future technologies, from spacesuits and intercontinental missiles, to supersonic passenger airplanes. At the same time, his early kaijū dissections and his later behind-the-scenes installments indicate a general interest in forms of heightened seeing. In the late 60s, these two streams came together in features on what was then being called “eizō bunka,” literally “image culture,” meaning the new centrality of images in the age of television, as expressed by the proliferation of print photography and the rise of manga as a mass entertainment medium. Again, Magazine was seen as (and saw itself) at the forefront of this new hypervisual culture, with Ōtomo’s contributions leading the way. In 1998, Uchida described Ōtomo’s layouts and copy as print versions of the image stream and soundtrack of the “Braun tube.” Ōtomo himself was also clearly interested in these cross-media explorations, with his interest in new ways of showing and seeing extending to the cutting edge of visual technologies.

Ōtomo Shōji, “Total Cinema,” Shōnen Magazine (March 30, 1969): Astrorama.

This is most explicit in his feature on “Total Cinema,” published in March 1969. The piece opens with a visualization of the Astrorama, a dome theatre that was to be at the Osaka Expo the following year. It shows a space jet diving towards the audience, they horrified by the virtual reality. The next pages show the prehistory of total cinema, “the world’s first wide screen” in the form of early nineteenth century Japanese lantern projections upon a long “cinemascope” screen, made “total” with simulated motion and vocal and musical accompaniment. Then there is a brief on the Cyclorama at Tokyo’s Kōrakuen Amusement Park, a 360º wraparound movie screen using eleven projectors and twenty speakers. Then some examples of shaped and moving screens, like the mosaic Polyekran from the Czech pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Exposition, and then flight and driving simulators that allow “space travel, air travel, deep sea exploration, and a tour of the interior of a dinosaur’s body.” The following section introduces theatrical productions that mix live acting and projected imagery and the choose-your-own-adventure Kinoautomat, another Czech invention. Ōtomo’s image-essay climaxes with the ultimate gesamtkunstwerk, the coliseum-shaped “Total Scope Theatre” that puts the audience right in the midst of Moses parting the waters of the Red Sea.

Ōtomo Shōji, “Total Cinema,” Shōnen Magazine (March 30, 1969): Polyekran.

In the months that followed, Ōtomo covered the coming “information society” and the ever-increasing mediation of life by computers. Before and during the Osaka Expo, he put together around a dozen features specifically on its pavilions, technological curiosities, and multimedia spectacles. It would seem that the world of futuristic fantasy that Ōtomo had produced for Magazine in the mid 60s was on the verge of becoming reality. What was “An Introduction to Gekiga” doing amongst this company? What could warrant this paper medium’s praise when the world of visual entertainment was on the verge of complete simulation and total immersion? The official answer, according to “An Introduction,” is that gekiga is the print version of this coming post-typographic culture of the image. But to this I think we can add a few other hypotheses.

As I said before, there is a hint of technological old-fashionedness in Ōtomo’s “Introduction,” most obviously in its title page showing manual production and the premodern setting of Saitō’s Muyōnosuke – but also at is core, with its comparisons with classical rather than expanded cinema. What are the effects of a wide-angle lens in the age of the Astrorama? What is narrative construction in the era of the Kinoautomat? What are dramatic details of eyes and feet when whole panels of the Polyekran move forward to snap at your head? Ōtomo might describe gekiga as the future of entertainment, but after the demonstration one feels that it has as much (or as little) to do with those nineteenth century lantern projections as tomorrow’s total cinema. Could there be a strain of nostalgia at work in Ōtomo’s gekiga? One does find in writing from this period occasional description of certain Japanese comics, particularly those by Shirato Sanpei and more generally those in Garo, as remediations of older media, whether forms of comic storytelling or the picture card-based kamishibai. Is gekiga a paper version of the future or a cinematized version of the past? Even in Ōtomo’s futurist approach there seems a touch of indecision on how to answer this question. He might have focused on new worlds, but some of his best pieces are on lost worlds.

Second, situated amidst monsters and aliens, exposés on witch doctors and witch-hunting, and introductions to the history of toilets and fantasy architecture, it would appear that Ōtomo and Magazine regarded gekiga – yes, as the future of entertainment – but also as yet another variety of the wide world of weird shit. Imagining the future might be an adventure into the unknown, but as much science fiction suggests, it is also an opportunity to take pleasure in the strange and exotic. If one reads through gekiga of the “gekiga boom,” this is indeed the case. Its popularity derived not so much from radical new ways of seeing and showing as from a liberal use of action, violence, sex, and vulgarity. This aspect might not be emphasized in “An Introduction to Gekiga,” but considering Ōtomo’s tastes in general, it’s hard to imagine that he only saw in the genre something so clean and conceptual as McLuhan’s post-typographic man or the modernist “camera eye.”