Tezuka Osamu & The Rectification of Mickey

Sugoroku gameboard (1947).

The informal circulation of Disney and other American animation characters reappeared in the early postwar period, both prominently on the face of products or hiding in their insides. Quality varies. On the well-drawn side, for example, is the following sugoroku game board from 1947 featuring an array of pilfered characters, but notably an array straight from the 30s: Betty Boop, Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck. Further down the scale are a number of tiny “bean book” manga (reportedly distributed as prizes at festival day game stalls or sold like candy for small change) starring various characters from American animation and comics, including Little Lulu, Felix the Cat, Mutt and Jeff, Heckle and Jeckle, Mickey, and “Duck.” Most manga at this time were not made for adults, but these are physically only for people with little fingers, measuring 6 x 4.25 cm, with sixteen pages of artwork folded accordion style on fragile paper glued delicately to the covers.

Bean manga (late 40s-50s).

The Mickey volumette is titled Mickey’s Fire Brigade. His name is spelled correctly in English on the cover, but on the first page of the interior it’s “Mikkiy,” an attempt to Romanize the Japanese rendering. Even words were not free from mutilation. Similarly, Mickey has his usual rodent-like snout on the inside, while on the cover he’s pug-nosed. The story: there is an alarm at the fire station, Mickey slides down the pole and races to the scene on the back of the truck, he attaches the hose after some troubles, climbs up the ladder and into a top floor of the burning building, where he first puts out the flames on his colleague’s butt before extinguishing the building fire by sucking water through the hose and filling his body like a bloated balloon and releasing it with the odd English-language sound of “JIYN.” The story ends with his fellow firemen congratulating him on a job well done.

Mickey's Fire Brigade, bean manga (late 40s-50s).
Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s ), cover.

Sometimes Mickey appears in postwar manga alongside old screen stars like Popeye or King Kong. Sometimes he is instead drafted into newer roles. A “pocket manga” (12.75 x 8.75 cm) from the late 40s titled simply Mickey Mouse puts Mickey and Minnie in the position of Jerry of Tom & Jerry. Published by one Katō Paper Company (Katō kami gyōsha), perhaps this booklet had a promotional function. At least it gives you a sense of how informal akahon publishing could be, that if you simply had access to one of the essential materials – in this case paper – you were primed to take advantage of the akahon boom.

The author clearly had seen the old black and white Mickey shorts. It begins with Mickey in his old vaudeville mood dancing on a piano. Minnie arrives and calls him to play together on a wonderful train she found in the toy room. Mickey cranks it up and they ride around before Minnie gets thrown off and into the mouth of cannon. It’s reminiscent of Mickey’s Choo Choo (1929).

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s).

Then appears the Tom character, hiding behind a corner. He tries his best to catch the mice but fails each time from their wiles. The manga ends somewhat inexplicably with the mice marching across the room carrying a flag with the insignia of crowned cat. Tom stands at attention and salutes, while Mickey and Minnie march to safety in their mouse hole.

Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s).
Mickey Mouse, pocket manga (late 40s-early 50s), back cover.

Parts of the manga recall the old Disney shorts, and the military ending Mickey’s mobilization in manga during the 30s. On the other hand, the setting – a house with a separate playroom for kids – clearly arrived with Tom. It’s a telling substitution. Instead of Disney’s outdoors, now one gets Tom & Jerry’s animated suburban home. Mickey has been domesticated, not as he was in the color films of the mid 30s by playing the role of a human homeowner, but rather as part of a child’s playroom, ostensibly a pest but acting more like a toy that has come alive. The changes seem appropriate for the period, when the American good life of suburban living was being promoted widely through movies as well as comics like Blondie. Appropriately, the back cover of this book has an image of Donald Duck with the following instruction: “Alphabet letters are hidden in this picture. Try to find them.” This akahon aimed to capitalize on the popularity of things American. Perhaps it also wished to equip the Japanese child to consort with the Occupiers.