Emonogatari in the Age of Comics, 1948-1957

Kuwada Jirō, Rocket Tarō, Omoshiro Book (September 1957), furoku cover.

Kuwada Jirō (b. 1935), who debuted as a manga author at the tadpole age of thirteen (1948), became a disciple of Oka Tomohiko in the early 1950s. He was one of the top shōnen manga artists in the late 50s and early 60s, largely on the strength of The Phantom Detective (Maboroshi tantei) (Shōnen Gahō, 1957-61) and Moonlight Mask (Gekkō kamen) (Shōnen Club, 1958-61), the former starring a boy vigilante and made into radio and television programs, the latter a manga adaptation of a popular television show. His star would probably have continued to rise had he not been arrested for illegal possession of a handgun in 1965, putting him temporarily on the shōnen magazine blacklist. Kuwada also created a number of superhero comics, riding the coattails of George Reeves’ Superman, which began broadcasting on Japanese television in 1956. His rendition of Batman for Shōnen Gahō in 1966-67 marked the end point of a decade that began in 1956 with a superhero emanga – Rocket Tarō – that probably makes the case too strongly that emonogatari changed in the 1950s under the influence of American comics.

Between 1953 and 1957, just after his apprenticeship with Oka, Kuwada drew a number of comic-ized emonogatari. Rocket Tarō was one of his last, serialized in Omoshiro Book between (I think) November 1956 and September 1957. The images shown here are from a recent collected edition. It is clearly a transitional work for the artist: a Superman emanga made on Kuwada’s way from emonogatari to superhero comics. The superhero boom that began in 1956 produced many American look-alikes. But whether manga or emonogatari, you won’t find a work from this period more imitative of American models than Rocket Tarō. Kuwada seems to have started reading American comics after moving from Kobe to Yokohama in 1949 or 1950, and thus right into the thick of the Kantō area’s heavy concentration of American bases. I don’t know his early work well enough to say if influences from American comic books manifested then, but by the time of Rocket Tarō, he’s mastered the style fairly well. It was initially scripted by one Shaku Jōsuke, a writer of prose fiction and manga scripts for youth magazines in the 1950s. By the end of its short half-year run, Kuwada himself wrote the stories.

Kuwada Jirō, Rocket Tarō, Omoshiro Book (1956-57).
Kuwada Jirō, Rocket Tarō, Omoshiro Book (1956-57).
Kuwada Jirō, Rocket Tarō, Omoshiro Book (1956-57).
Kuwada Jirō, Rocket Tarō, Omoshiro Book (1956-57).

Rocket Tarō is Superman in a Captain Marvel-like red and yellow suit. The lightning bolt emblem has been straightened out into an arrow. No cape. He is able to fly, lift falling skyscrapers, bend radio towers and airplanes, and punch out giant robots. The work’s foreword describes Rocket Tarō’s background as follows: “Fifty thousand years ago, there was a highly advanced civilization of supermen that lived on a continent in the Pacific Ocean called Mu. One day, the continent suddenly sank to the bottom of the sea. One scientist, however, foresaw the end, and so sent his son away on a flying saucer to another continent. As Rocket Tarō, that son became a champion of justice.” During the day, he works for the Japan Science Research Center as the supernaturally handsome but by-all-appearances mortal Tenma Tarō. He is aided in his activities by a boy named Isamu, a feature I think script-writer Shaku probably took from contemporary youth detective fiction, though Super Boy is also a possibility.

The first story in the series involves a gang plot to explode a dam, and while the waters are inundating the metropolis, lift all the banks’ riches. Doctor Tenma hears the news, rips off his shirt, and takes off with Isamu on a winged “jet scooter.” First he plugs the dam with a giant boulder, then subdues the tommy gun-toting criminals by bending their escape jet around into a horseshoe. The next story begins with an evil robot destroying the city, controlled by a mad bearded doctor in a secret fortress hidden at the bottom of a lake. Rocket Tarō catches a falling skyscraper, knocks out the robot, and unveils the fortress by flying in circles and sucking up the water into a cyclone.

In another episode, a nuclear scientist is kidnapped and brainwashed by Borokiren, head of a spy ring, plotting to destroy “Nation A” with “super hydrogen bombs.” Rocket Tarō rescues the abducted scientist, destroys their space station, and things turn out fine. Other episodes involve man-eating plants in Lake Ashinoko in the hot spring resort of Hakone, and a science expedition to the South Pole imperiled by flying dinosaurs and Martian-like Antarcticans. Like the original Superman stories, Rocket Tarō’s adventures are quick, breezy with explanation, and just about over before they begin, most chapters crunched into 8 pages installments.

Like Here comes Shōnen Tarzan for Shōnen Gahō, Omoshiro Book also persisted in calling Rocket Tarō an “adventure emonogatari” (“bōken emonogatari”) against all visible that this was not a traditional picture story. Going back to the pages of early Bōkatsu in the late 1940s, it’s clear that “emonogatari” covered many different things, from strictly divided panel, text, panel, text formats, to sequential illustrations with expository text inside their frames, and dynamic American-style panel layouts with exposition and speech balloons alike. While in some cases indebted to prewar illustration, stories, and kamishibai, clearly non-Japanese influences were stronger. Emonogatari rose, after all, during the Occupation, and developed during a decade (the 50s) in which publishers, film distributors, and television networks vigorously imported American entertainment.

If manga history is oftentimes narrated as if postwar Japan was a cultural island, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that American comics and things inspired by them were given a different name. When emonogatari faded from youth magazines in the late 50s, and the term itself was retired from circulation, this American heritage was also largely forgotten, giving rise to the illusion that sixties shōnen manga came out of a “Tezuka tradition” (essentially an Americanization worked through and naturalized during the Occupation), a more earthy popular culture tradition (the discourse around early Garo is paradigmatic), or a mixture of the two. When a proudly American-influenced gekiga appeared on the scene in the late 1960s, critics acted surprised and heralded the coming of American-style comics in Japan (seen as ominous by some), whereas in fact such “mixed-race” comics had existed all along. It seems to me that late stage emonogatari helped to naturalize the Americanized youth culture of the Occupation and post-Occupation period – sublimating the influences of “ten-cent comics” within a more generalized language of paneling, balloons, and action – and making it usable without obvious markers of “foreign-ness” for 60s shōnen manga and gekiga.

For those who persist in seeing emonogatari as “printed kamishibai,” they should keep in mind that less than ten years after the war, the same name meant American-type “comics.”