“A Family of Ghosts,” the first Kitarō chapter, was published in early 1960. I don’t know the exact month, but it seems to be around the time of the second flush of baiketsu coverage appeared in the press.
My knowledge of the Japanese blood industry stems mainly from secondary sources – most of all, from Ikeda Fusao’s engrossing White Blood: The Arrival of AIDS and the Japanese Blood Industry (Shiroi ketsueki, 1985) – so I cannot claim a rigorous chronology of the issues. Nonetheless, my guess is that, though hepatitis contamination only became a major public concern in 1964, reports of possible viral transmission through blood banks were already circulating when Mizuki drew “A Family of Ghosts.”
Other features of the story are more commonplace. That Kitarō’s parents are described not as spirits of the dead but rather as an oppressed underclass disdained by the human world is, given the association of blood contamination with the poor, presumably not accidental. As for the rich and famous Trunk Nagai, he might have contracted his “bloodsucker tree” by being breathed upon by a stinking vagrant on a public train, more in the fashion of tuberculosis than hepatitis. But considering that his affliction is one of the circulatory system, and is in the part of the body (the arm) which blood is usually taken from or transfused into, one assumes the backdrop of blood contamination also in the first volume of Kitarō Night Tales, which anyway was created only a few months after “A Family of Ghosts.”
That the afflicted should be a celebrity, however, is, I think, a throwback to a slightly earlier time. It is possible that Mizuki was thinking about contamination in tandem with drug use, and specifically methamphetamine abuse – which was as much an icon of postwar decadence as was baiketsu.
Philopon (Hiropon), released in 1941, is Japan’s most famous methamphetamine. Its name was a combination of the Greek words for “love” (philo) and “work” (ponos), which was appropriate considering that the drug was mass-produced for soldiers, pilots, and factory laborers to keep the war machine going at full speed. When the war ended, military stores flooded the black market. Once that supply ran down, new producers mushroomed. Amphetamine and methamphetamine medicines of various names were being made by scores of pharmaceutical companies and dozens of small mom-and-pop operations.
Abuse was extensive during the hard days of the Occupation. Methamphetamines were useful in combating depression and hunger. Students and factory workers took them to keep going through the night. Heavily featured in the press was their widespread use amongst artists, writers, actors, and musicians. Tabloids often reported on show cancellations, collapses on stage, and poor performances due to drug overuse. In 1951, the government passed the Stimulant Drugs Ban (Kakuseizai torishimari hō), heavily restricting the production, distribution, possession, and use of methamphetamines. A doctor’s prescription was now required for their purchase. Yet abuse remained common throughout the 50s, leading to the name “The Philopon Age” (Hiropon no jidai) to describe the years 1952 to 1956. Reports in 1954 claimed 550,000 users nationwide, and 200,000 hospitalized, injured, or killed by overuse. A majority of users were believed to be males below the age of twenty-five, and as a result methamphetamines became closely associated in the public imagination with youth corruption and juvenile delinquency.
They also became a reliable way to signify moral degeneracy in manga. Drug cartels often appear in kashihon manga from the mid-late 50s. Usually this was simply a natural accompaniment to gangland stories, with the criminals running smuggling operations between China and Japanese ports like Yokohama and Kobe. Such settings are quite frequent in Satō Masaaki’s work, and the drug in question is usually heroine or opium. Methamphetamines belonged to a different social vector. In Matsumoto Masahiko’s stories, for example, Philopon figures alongside alcohol as a marker of individual moral collapse within the context of postwar trauma. The Ni’ichi character, the temperamental neighbor in “The Man Next Door” (“Rinshitsu no otoko,” 1956) who has been driven to the bottle by the death of his family during the war, becomes a Philopon user in “The Incident at Shiranui Village” (“Shiranui mura jiken,” 1956). “That’s Ni’iichi,” explains a rural village girl to her visiting city cousin. “You never know what he’ll do. He’s a Philopon addict. It’s some bad medicine adults inject. When they run out, they get really upset.” Ni’ichi is framed for murder when someone uses a syringe to poison a mean landowner. Ni’iichi then accidentally kills himself when shooting up with another syringe that the same shadowy someone has filled with agricultural pesticide.
As for Frank Nagai, the inspiration behind Mizuki’s Trunk Nagai, his name does not appear in the rosters of postwar celebrity addicts. As first a truck driver for the American military, then a base-side jazz club singer, and then a fast-rising star in the 50s, one nonetheless suspects ampules of Philopon crossed Nagai’s path even if they never reached his arm. At any rate, the association between drugs and early postwar entertainment was strong enough to easily suggest a connection for a social satirist like Mizuki. It was also heavy methamphetamine use amongst the urban poor and the use of contaminated needles that was identified as a major source of hepatitis within the blood banking system. With a vampire tree growing out of his upper arm at the place where access to the veins is easiest, whose roots are so deep that it cannot be removed without severing the limb, which he inherited by unwitting exposure to indigent filth, who collapses on stage from infection and is turned into gnarled deadwood – Mizuki’s Trunk Nagai neatly ties the passing Philopon Age to the coming Yellow Blood Scare.
Why was Mizuki interested in these themes? Was it the happenstance result of working in horror fantasy and reading tabloids and the daily newspaper? Or was the connection more personal?
Well, we know that Mizuki was amongst the half million Japanese who used methamphetamines after the war. While living in Kobe as a landlord and kamishibai creator in the early 50s, Mizuki was introduced to the drug by a musician to whom he rented a room. The following is from his autobiography, A Sleepy Life (Neboke jinsei, 1982).
“This is good medicine,” the bandman said to me without any ill will, and “gave me” a dose of Philopon. He was so accommodating that, me having only one arm, I stuck it out and he gave me the injection himself. After the injection, I felt so good it was like being in heaven. But then I started not being able to sleep, this despite usually being someone who often just nods off. I thought this was trouble, and quit. I hadn’t done it more than a few times, so I got off with a light addiction. At least I thought so. Other people thought I was rather heavily addicted.
Mizuki had a reputation amongst his kamishibai peers for acting a bit weird, which he suspects was not from any eccentricity of personal character, but rather because he appeared before them high.
For what it's worth, it was precisely in these years that Mizuki began creating Kitarō kamishibai stories. Not enough is known about those versions to say if drugs informed the story at that early stage. Kamishibai being for kids, probably not. But it’s not impossible, considering how frequently medical mishaps and grotesque freaks appeared in the medium.
And blood selling? It is well known that Mizuki, like many kashihon manga authors in the late 50s and early 60s, was extremely poor. His struggles to get his work published, and to get paid for work that had already been published, have become the stuff of postwar cultural legend. Nowhere in Mizuki’s many autobiographical reminisces, nor in his wife Mura Nunoe’s best-selling account of her life with the artist (Ge ge ge no nyōbō, 2008), does one find mention of the artists selling blood, at least to my knowledge. But, I ask those who are familiar with the Mizuki legend, am I the only one who feels that his scrimping on luxuries like coffee and cake, plus his multiple trips to the pawnshop, somehow doesn’t add up to a livelihood for a family of three? How did he know (in the first Kitarō story, “A Family of Ghosts”) that 500 cc was a greater loss of blood than doctors recommended, just over the 400 cc possible if one knew the first thing about finagling the baiketsu system? Had he only been reading the papers? Or could it be that the birth of Kitarō was actually supported, financially and conceptually, not just in the manga but also in real life, by his parent’s selling of blood? Given his poverty, one imagines that Mizuki at least considered the option.
But even if Mizuki hadn’t actually visited blood banks, there’s evidence to suggest that he might have been keeping abreast of the industry’s developments in the mid 60s. After spoofing the contamination crisis in “A Family of Ghosts” and in the “Bloodsucker Tree” volume of Kitarō Night Tales in 1960, the trope returned in 1964 in A Stupid Man (Aho na otoko, published by Satō Pro), the last book in the kashihon run of Kitarō’s adventures. Significantly, contamination, formerly a negative thing, is now beneficial.
The infected this time is a cranky mafia don on his deathbed. The doctor does not expect a transfusion to extend his life by more than a day or so. But after the operation, and much to their surprise, he begins asking for succulent foods: a thick steak and fatty toro sashimi on one day, a full Chinese-style roasted pig the next. His teeth start growing back in. Then his grey hair turns black. Within a few days he is discharged from the hospital as a late middle-aged man in prime health. He, like the doctors who treated him, becomes obsessed with finding the donor of this immortalizing blood – he for profit and power, the doctors of course for the advancement of science and humanity. The doctors have a theory. Protozoa, cnidarians, amoebas, sponges, and some varieties of fish only die when exposed to traumatic shock. Like these lower life forms, the mystery donor must carry in his blood some sort of immunity to death. And the rejuvenated mafia don must be one of the lucky few whose own blood type is compatible with this rare contagion.
Fortunately, the bank has the donor card on file – a fiction, recycled from “A Family of Ghosts,” that suggests that maybe Mizuki didn’t know blood banks very well, after all. The donor turns out to be the same Rat Man who infected Trunk Nagai with the bloodsucking red tree. We know from other chapters of the series that Rat Man has lived for hundreds of years, not because he is a sponge or an amoeba but rather because he is a yūrei – the same species, that is, whose blood had the exact opposite effect on humans at the beginning of the Kitarō Night Tales series. The Rat Man’s donor card lists his residence as “unknown” and his profession as “jiyūgyō,” meaning freelance or miscellaneous, but which also connotes unemployed. Were this the real world, his profile would fit the description of a Japanese migrant or day laborer, the sort from San’ya whose poorly monitored blood-selling had helped create the blood bank crisis in the first place. If the mafia don becomes greedy post transfusion, it's not because the blood hosts bad personality traits. He was like that to begin with. In the end, tired of being pestered by the don’s men, the Rat Man takes back his blood with a syringe and pump. The don immediately returns to his original geriatric state and dies. Bad people do not deserve good blood.
References to the blood trade are admittedly loose and general here. Perhaps Mizuki is simply playing on classic transfusion tropes within the horror and fantasy genres. But it is curious that blood giving and contamination should suddenly reappear in his work in 1964, the year of the Reischauer Incident and the beginning of the No More Yellow Blood Campaign. Whereas in 1960 transfusion made ghosts of men, now in 1964 donated blood makes citizens strong and bold – a happy coincidence with developments in the real world, at the very least.
Nice turns of fiction, these were, by someone looking on from outside the industry. As we will see next time, however, in the backrooms of Japan’s blood banks things were only getting more grisly. The literary appropriation of baiketsu in manga was only just beginning.