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Saitō Takao and the “Gekiga Factory”

The dominant image of Saitō Pro is one of perfect integration. But this had not always been the rule. In his autobiography from 2010, Saitō writes, “The process of dividing labor did not go smoothly at first. The young staff members all believed they were good at drawing, and the people around only affirmed that. They wanted their talents to bloom, so came to me wanting to become deshi. They weren’t satisfied in a system of divided labor, where you work only on a fixed part.” That last word is in English in the original, connoting mechanical components and assembly work. This image of studio members refusing to be “parts” befits the studio’s first years. The early issues of Gorilla Magazine in particular reveal a company that was more troupe than team.

Gorilla Magazine (1962-66)

Begun in 1962 as one of Saitō Pro’s first self-publications, Gorilla Magazine was a “magazine” in the kashihon sense: released more or less monthly, hardcover at first, an anthology of rotating authors anchored by Saitō himself. Saitō Pro had other magazines, most notably the sword-fighting Yamato Tales, but Gorilla was the studio’s showcase. In genre, it was ostensibly “action” and “detective,” but as later critics have pointed out, it had little of the grit that had been typical of those genres previously. Like the Nikkatsu Action films it was inspired by, Gorilla Magazine could be almost campy in its parading of masculinity, at times even homoerotic. The sexual register aside, this performativity also comes out in how authorship is structured. In some of the early issues of Gorilla Magazine, the individual artists appear themselves, put on different styles, and build up the comic through a kind of graphic repartee.

Saitō Takao, “Good Morning in Heaven,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 2 (Saitō Production, 1962), introduction, original in color.

The best-known example is “Good Morning in Heaven,” published in Gorilla Magazine number two. The piece begins with a photograph showing Saitō visited by Arikawa Ei’ichi and Nagashima Shinji, both established and talented artists in their own right, at the time moonlighting for Saitō Pro. As the fumetti gives way to drawing, the three artists begin to brainstorm for ideas about the next (present) issue of Gorilla Magazine. The point of departure is a drawing by Yamada Setsuko, a shojo manga author and Saitō’s wife. It shows a handsome young man in white jacket and red handkerchief. The three artists then begin to argue about which genre would best suit this character: Nagashima’s romantic “mood mystery,” Saitō’s (soft) “hardboiled,” or Arikawa’s “action.” Rather than the three coming to a compromise, each does his own separate rendition.

Saitō Takao, “Good Morning in Heaven,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 2 (Tokyo: Saitō Production, 1962), “hardboiled” chapter.

It begins with Saitō, who has the hero coolly blast his way through thugs before being downed by a better gunman. Then Nagashima, who takes him on a road trip with his sweetheart, and (if I remember correctly) later throws her off of a cliff for betraying him. Then Arikawa, who casts him amidst underworld deals and shootouts. The drawing style is appropriately modulated in each, from Saitō’s sharp speed lines and body contours, to Nagashima’s greater spaciousness and softer, rounder brushstrokes. After each rendition, the artist preens his feathers to the putdowns of his colleagues. But at the end of the repartee, a fourth challenger shows up – the shojo artist Yamada, whose character they had all appropriated – and takes the victory cake with her “My Brother,” casting the heartthrob in his home territory of shojo manga.

Someone interested in gender issues and the blurry relationships between shōnen, young adult, and shojo manga could have a field day with “Good Morning in Heaven.” The point I wish to make is simply that, at this early stage of Saitō Pro, the studio “assistant” could be treated like an artistic equal, with his or her own style and identity. There is clearly a hierarchy with Saitō in charge, and one imagines the profit structure to have privileged him. But this is not the image of a factory or a film production crew. It is more like a troupe of actors in a sort of improv. Of course, it’s all more scripted than it lets on to be, and who knows how much the boss interfered. Still, the image of studio collaboration is central, and it is no coincidence that Saitō Pro only became streamlined after the likes of Arikawa and Nagashima left.

There are two other open collaborations between the three artists in Gorilla Magazine. The third issue offers itself as an “irresponsible relay gekiga.” The conceit is that each of the three has completed only half a manuscript, so one of the others finishes it off for him, such that a “hardboiled” beginning finishes off as a romance, and a “mood mystery” turns into an action-packed thriller.

Saitō Pro, “Cool Dudes,” Gorilla Magazine, no. 4 (Tokyo: Saitō Production, 1962), part one with Nagashima Shinji as “director.”

The next such collaboration spans Gorilla Magazine numbers four and five, and at this point one catches a glimpse of the future. Each of the three artists is to “direct” one segment of a story called “Cool Dudes” in each of the two volumes. The three artists draw straws to decide who gets to go first and compose the script and layout that the other artists have to follow. Each segment opens with a long list of credits, beginning with the “director,” continuing with script, layout, effects, and finishing, and then a full roster of “cast,” detailing who in Saitō Pro drew which character. Including Saitō, Nagashima, and Arikawa, there are six different individuals named for twenty-three different slots. The repetition suggests that this is meant to be funny. For a reader of American comics, detailed credits might seem standard practice. But in Japan in 1962, it was thought odd enough for Saitō to make it familiar with a jokey reference to the movies.