PLEASE NOTE: This is a Japanese-language book, published only in Japan, collecting the very earliest comics, including previously unpublished amateur works, by the enduringly popular mangaka Ōtomo Katsuhiro. A series of 7” x 10” softcovers published through Kōdansha, Otomo The Complete Works has followed an irregular schedule since January of 2022. Each book is numbered chronologically, but they have not been published in chronological order. This first volume, for example, was actually the 9th book to be released. Furthermore, of the ten books released to date, four of them (vols. 21-24) collect production art from the Akira animated film, which Ōtomo directed; “Complete Works” in this sense is not limited to comics.
We are presenting the below reflection by Natsume Fusanosuke as an informed perspective on what has typically been a blind spot in English-language Ōtomo studies, in that very few of his short stories have been published in translation. A longtime follower of Ōtomo and a practicing artist in the wake of Ōtomo's extraordinary impact on Japanese comics in the 1970s, Natsume offers a valuable accounting of Ōtomo in his experimental first decade, and how his transition to more commercial work in the '80s was met by his most devoted readers. This piece was originally posted in Japanese on August 31, 2023, as Episode 21 of the online column Natsume Fusanosuke’s Manga Yarns (Natsume Fusanosuke no manga yotabanashi, sono 21). It is translated here by Jon Holt & Teppei Fukuda.
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In The Complete Works 1: Jūsei (2023), Kōdansha presents a very important volume that collects Ōtomo Katsuhiro’s early period and unpublished works. It begins with “The Sea…” (“Umi ga…”), which he submitted to the Newcomer Selection Prize in the February 1970 issue of COM magazine (though COM only printed the first page of the story), then continues with other unpublished practice works like “Battleground” (“Senjō”), “A Little Match Girl” (“Macchi-uri no shōjo”) and “Louise” (“Ruiizu”); we then get his published stories, like “Gunfire” (“Jūsei”) [sometimes translated as "Gun Report"], which appeared in the Supplemental (Zōkan) 1973 issue of Weekly Manga Action, then “Night of the Poacher” (“Mitsuryō no yoru”), in 1974, again in Manga Action, and more. In total, this volume of The Complete Works contains 11 stories by the artist.
In this volume, you can see Ōtomo's experimental efforts from his earliest period. In this process of development, Ōtomo shows his change from pictures drawn solely by line to pictures that capture space with tools like kakeami (cross-hatching) and screentone. In these stories, we see his [early] tendency to create images that are photorealistic and optically realistic; we see how he liked to try to reflect everyday reality (nichijō genjitsu) just as it is. He also experiments with how to lay out the panels.
One of the articles at the end of the volume is a “Commentary,” in which Ōtomo speaks of his [cartooning] influences, including Sonoda Mitsuyoshi, Kimura Minori and Sakaguchi Hisashi (though it is not clearly stated if the text is something that Ōtomo himself wrote or not1). He also discusses further influences from overseas television and film (especially the New Hollywood), plus, of course, music’s impact on him. Of the latter, most importantly, there is a section where he talks about how he learned a lot about story and structure from Progressive Rock. This article reminds us there is a limit to analyzing manga with manga influences alone. Despite Kōdansha labeling this collection “Complete,” it is unfortunate that they don’t really mention the materials used for reference.
Around 1978, I had a scrapbook where I was collecting Ōtomo’s work as it came out. Ōtomo had perfected his world by that point. I never truly thought that this artist would have his own paperback collection, so I had been tearing out his manga short stories that caught my eye for my collection, but much to my surprise in 1979 the publisher Kisō Tengai Sha put out Ōtomo Katsuhiro: Short Peace (Artist’s Selection Part 1). Ōtomo had been an author who had had great support from a very special number of us manga maniacs. However, Ōtomo’s fine taste, the feeling of the era that he illustrated, and his new worldview, were all things that separated him from the rest of the pack of artists back then. He would amass a large group of followers, including Urasawa Naoki.
It still turns me on when I look at the two-color opening illustration page for “SO WHAT” [collected in The Complete Works 4: Sayonara Nippon] which ran in the June 10, 1978 Supplement issue of Manga Action, which I had also collected in my scrapbook. At the start of the story, there is a scene with the character playing an electric guitar that was so shocking because of its realistic and correct depiction, which marked Ōtomo as the clear successor to [the style of] Miyaya Kazuhiko. In the same story, Ōtomo faithfully depicts the everyday life patterns of a high school from the country; the protagonist, at the end, abandons his small hometown and impulsively heads off to Tokyo as a hitchhiker. It might be a reflection of the personal experiences of Ōtomo Katsuhiro himself, who moved to Tokyo from out in the country in Miyagi Prefecture after he graduated high school.
In the 1970s, when Ōtomo Katsuhiro came on the scene, manga was going through all kinds of changes; it was a period of revolution for the medium. There were those vanguard artists, the so-called “New Wave,” who would hit the scene at the end of the decade and later; this New Wave shocked that group of manga seinen (manga young men) readers of the time, and Ōtomo was the cutting-edge artist who symbolized that group for us. For that group of young men (including myself in my 20s), the people who initially recognized the innovative aspect of Ōtomo as a short story manga artist at that time, Ōtomo's “industry turn towards entertainment for seinen (young males)” starting with Dōmu [in 1980] all the way up to Akira was acceptable enough (I myself had my own about-face turn, living life after I graduated college and stated working). However, at the same time, that later shift in Ōtomo was seen by my generation as a kind of apostasy and loss, as he abandoned his cutting-edge and revolutionary aspects.
That later phase overlaps and corresponds with an overall shift in manga: the fall of the “vanguard” image due to the change of the era experienced by artists like Miyaya Kazuhiko, and then the move to “Interesting-ism” (“Omoshiro-shugi”), which was, in the 1980s, the backing of manga’s entertainment value. In other words, we see a shift to the consumer culture that this new manga and anime represented. To our eyes, this change in manga overlapped with the founding of manga’s golden age by an expanding marketplace that would encompass [Shōnen] Jump, shōjo manga and seinen manga. Perhaps I can put it more precisely like this: for my generation of “manga youth,” which consisted of the postwar baby boomers (and those that were college graduates, I suppose), who had dreamed about social rebellion and social revolution movements, the 1980s was the era in which there was no “edge” other than some post-modern (perhaps?) means of self-recognition and self-affirmation in the high-consumption culture of the new era.
As I tell these old stories, which are obviously true for myself as a member of that “manga youth,” I think of the generation of “young people” (waka-mono) born after the year 2000, now reading manga. First of all, I have suspicions about what kind of meaning my experiences have for them; I have suspicions about how stories like mine will resonate. Probably for the greater number of these “young people,” such information that I’m giving here has no connection to them, as they have no interest in it. For them, my writing may seem nothing more than a repetition, received as “old-timer stories for the mere self-satisfaction of those adults,” which was something I myself thought and had the same kind of feeling about as a young man [towards the older generation]. Such repetitions of course will happen [with each generation] as a kind of inevitable necessity, where each time “young people” sneer at the “self-satisfaction” of the previous generation, so that they feel they are superior to those the old-timers. However, through these repetitions, I actually think that each generation takes on a part of social responsibility by solving a problem of the group of their generation. We must believe that somebody will try to find a more balanced recognition.
At this point, I am 73 years old. I realize I probably cannot pretend to understand and explain the problems and things that today’s youth keenly feel. That task should be for some of their own generation, or perhaps for someone who is only a bit older than they are. So, from my point of view, what I can do, and what is meaningful, is to discover a small path that connects me to young people—although I know that there are not many such paths—and to continue to try conveying the problems that my generation had felt so keenly.
Now, I have completely digressed from my talk about Ōtomo Katsuhiro, but I had realized that any discussion of Ōtomo must connect to my own stance at this moment in time.
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