The Fukui Ei’ichi Incident and the Prehistory of Komaga-Gekiga

Tezuka Osamu, The Destroyer of the World (October 1954).
Tezuka Osamu, The Destroyer of the World (October 1954).

In another furoku premium for Adventure King, the World War III comic The Destroyer of the World (Sekai o horobosu otoko, October 1954), Tezuka’s peers cameo once again. As two futuristic jets zoom about in a dogfight – in a sequence of easy-to-draw FX panels that far exceeds anything in Fukui’s work – first Baba’s face appears in the clouds, then Fukui’s. The latter has not only the pudgy mug and bushy hair common to all of Tezuka’s caricatures of the artist. He also wears a halo.

A few months prior, on June 26, 1954, Fukui Ei’ichi had suddenly and unexpectedly died. The purported cause was karōshi, that notorious samurai salary man affliction of “death by overwork.” He was only thirty-three.

It is useful, in closing, to consider how the causes of the artist’s death might have also shaped his aesthetic. Tezuka suggests as much in “New Forms of Expression,” where he shows the Professor desperately churning out comics pages with an assistant looking on anxiously over one shoulder and a magazine editor over the other. This is a portrait of something known as “kanzume.”

Tezuka Osamu, Manga Classroom (circa autumn 1953), showing kanzume.
Tezuka Osamu, Manga Classroom (circa autumn 1953), showing kanzume.

In postwar manga history, one often comes across this term, pronounced kahn-zoo-meh. Meaning “canned” as in canned food, the Japanese is quite graphic if read literally: “can-crammed” or “can-stuffed.” It emphasizes canning as a process not for facilitating transportation and preservation, but rather for the capture and pressurized reduction of an object inside an unnaturally small space. Indeed, when used metaphorically, typically to describe labor conditions, kanzume expresses incarceration of a maximally stressful kind.

Actual canned food became popular in Japan in the 1920s. The technology had been used since the 1870s to package fish mainly for export, as well as for use as Japanese military rations. But it was only after canned foods were distributed by the United States in a relief effort after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake that the average Japanese became familiar with this now ubiquitous variety of industrialized food.

Kobayashi Takiji (story) and Fujio Gō (drawing), Manga Crab Cannery Ship (Higashi ginza shuppansha, 2006).
Kobayashi Takiji (story) and Fujio Gō (drawing), Manga Crab Cannery Ship (Higashi ginza shuppansha, 2006).

In modern Japanese culture, the symbolism of canning is particularly dark, thanks in large part to Kobayashi Takiji’s The Crab Cannery Ship (Kanikōsen, 1929), a classic of proletarian literature. It takes place on a Japanese cannery ship in the icy seas near Kamchatka. While the laborers on the ship suffer brutal treatment at the hands of the weather and their ruthless bosses, fat military men come aboard to gorge themselves on crab meat that is worth more in monetary terms than the workers that fish and package it. Eventually, after contact with Russians on shore, a struggle is successfully organized on the ship, only to be broken in the end by the Imperial Navy. The link between kanzume and poor labor conditions is twofold in the novel. It is not only that canning itself is a grueling job. The cannery ship, the epitome of a workplace under exploitative capitalist conditions, itself is an oppressively crammed and inescapable metal vessel. The canner, in other words, is also canned.

In the early 50s, Japanese cartooning faced its own problems of canning. Juvenile publishing was growing rapidly at the time on the coattails of national economic recovery. Leading the charge was comics, which claimed an ever-greater percentage of children’s book titles and, more importantly, of the pages of periodicals. The magazine alone, however, was not enough. Akita Shoten, the publisher of Adventure King, in which Igaguri kun was serialized, began stuffing its publications with insert premiums, the 32 to 128-page bessatsu furoku upon which Tezuka blamed the overuse of gimmicks and degraded quality in comics-making. Many magazines followed suit. Successful cartoonists were not only pressured to produce more work for more venues, but also more quickly to keep up with the double demand of monthly serialization and semi-monthly furoku inserts.

Understand what a violent shift this was. When Tezuka began drawing for Tokyo magazines in 1950, serials were typically 8 pages per month, before climbing to 16 for the top artists. He, like others, also had commissions with book publishers. But these typically had flexible deadlines. With the rise of furoku, one had to create an entire book or booklet in the same time dictated for a monthly serial, though it could be anywhere from four to fourteen times the length. Needless to say, this was a real challenge, especially for Tokyo artists whose experience had mainly been in short serials and short children’s booklets, versus book-length akahon. What had been a fairly relaxed bohemian sphere was transformed, in the matter of three or four years, into a fast-paced, proto-industrial field. Tezuka probably set a bad example, in that now everyone was expected to produce at his superhuman speed while still maintaining quality. Eventually a studio system developed to absorb and disperse the impact of these changes (on that topic, read this). But that was still a few years off.

In the meantime, publishers resorted to “canning” their artists. This was not a pleasant experience. A publisher rented a room from a local inn or designated one within the publishing house’s building for the purpose of sequestering the artist inside. He or she was provided with whatever food and refreshment required, but was not allowed to leave the room until the job was complete. Though a canned artist typically worked alone, kanzume was not strictly speaking a form of solitary confinement, as an editor would often sit by the artist’s side to make sure he kept working. If sleep was required, the editor saw to it that it lasted no longer than ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes the editor expedited work by filling in the solid blacks (betanuri). Sometimes a helping hand in the form of a younger acolyte would be called in. But generally, canning was employed as a means to force a single artist to do a multi-day job in a single sitting. And as popular cartoonists worked for multiple magazines simultaneously, being released from one can oftentimes only meant being stuffed into another. It was only natural that artists should seek ways to ease their burden by devising methods to fill pages more easily.

Canned fish, early Shōwa period.
Canned fish and whale, early Shōwa period.

Kanzume killed Fukui. It did not help that he was overweight and a heavy drinker. According to colleague Ushio Sōji, the tragedy transpired like this. “On June 26, 1954, right after completing a night of canned work, Fukui went out drinking with an editor until morning. After returning briefly to his home, he went back into the can. His head started hurting, so he called a doctor and had himself checked out. ‘It’s probably from working too much and drinking until morning,’ the doctor said and then left. He died suddenly just after that.” Ushio remembers Fukui’s face, some days before his death, looking “the ugly color of cadmium yellow mixed with permanent green pale.” Tezuka recalls him “growing more gaunt by the day, looking as harrowed as a portrait of Van Gogh.”

Fukui’s death was a shock to his friends and colleagues, but its cause had been a source of contention in the industry for some years. Not long before, a number of cartoonists had petitioned publishers to increase the pay for furoku so that they could make a living without taking on so much work. The response: nothing. It would take a tragedy to get publishers to budge.

Ten days after Fukui’s death, a meeting was held at Baba Noboru’s house by the members of the Tokyo Children’s Manga Society (Tokyo jidō manga kai), which included many of the leadings cartoonists of the day in Tokyo, including Tezuka. Kanzume was the topic of discussion. According to Ushio, one attendee compared publishers’ policing to the scene from John Houston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) in which Humphrey Bogart refuses to sleep while guarding his money. The cartoonists’ collective decision was not to force a reduction of work, but simply to reiterate the demand of higher pay. Formerly receiving 80,000 yen for a furoku of anywhere from 64 to 120 pages, they now wanted 120,000 yen, an increase of fifty percent. Under the shadow of Fukui’s death, the publishers quickly agreed.

One might ask, since kanzume was a function of too much work in too little time, why cartoonists didn’t simply refuse jobs they couldn’t handle? One explanation might be construed from something Ishinomori Shōtarō wrote in his autobiography while looking back at the subsequent stage of mass production in comics, the advent of the weeklies at the end of the 50s. Though I do not have the book on hand to quote directly, Ishinomori says something to the effect that he and others made a point of always saying yes to new commissions out of a sense of responsibility to the industry, which needed their contributions to keep growing, satisfy its readership, and support a future generation of cartoonists. But one cannot discount simple greed. “On the train ride home [from the Tokyo Children’s Manga Society meeting],” recalled Ushio, “I couldn’t help thinking that linking Fukui Ei’ichi’s death with the 120,000 yen bessatsu premium issue was an arbitrary and self-serving matter. Fukui might have been used as a tool, but since that had the positive effect of helping future cartoonists, I too came to accept it.”

Ushio fails to note that the reason more money was important in the long-term was not that it better compensated cartoonists for being overworked. It also enabled them to hire help. It was only in the mid-late 50s, with the increase in pay and the ability to hire fulltime assistants, that an alternate solution presented itself: to have many hands do the work of one. Hence the studio system, which effectively put an end to kanzume as a practice for the industry at large, though it was not uncommon for taskmaster editors to now conduct sit-ins at the studios themselves, as they sometimes had before at artists’ homes (until the late 60s, homes and studios were often one in the same). Kanzume also lived on in spirit through the common practice of listing the studio head’s name first on a title page, sometimes without acknowledging even the existence of assistants. This changed in the 60s to some extent, but only temporarily. Most manga today are published under a single author’s name no matter how many people are involved in its creation. The former reality of a lone herculean canner was turned into the fiction of a one-man drawing factory.

With a view to komaga-gekiga, let me note that kashihon artists, for the most part, did not experience canning. There was of course heavy pressure to create quickly and voluminously. Matsumoto describes being “chained to his desk” to meet Hinomaru Bunko’s demands. But this was simply to maintain a high rate of turnover and a constant stream of new product on the rental bookstore’s shelf. Without monthly serialization and responsibilities to advertisers, schedules were far more malleable. Even when kashihon publishers began mimicking the newsstand with their own monthly anthologies, beginning with Shadow in 1956, still there seems to have been room for play. Upon commencing Shadow, Hinomaru Bunko rented an apartment for its three leading cartoonists (Matsumoto, Tatsumi, and Saitō Takao) to guarantee a steady stream of product. Yet judging from A Drifting Life, there was ample time to gallivant. Magazine furoku makers could only dream of such a spacious and loosely sealed can.

Of course, this is all very different from the sweatshops of American comics history. There the reigning image is of a Midtown office full of sweaty men in rolled-up shirtsleeves getting paid crap for crap art while the editor and publisher raked in the profits. One might think that manga studios in the age of the weekly, with its fulltime employees and production line methods, offered something similar by way of labor conditions. But I cannot recall a single serious complaint in print. Whether that is due to actually happy working conditions or to respectful silence for the masters, the truth will probably die with the assistants. Studio practice had essentially freed the artist from canning at the hands of publishers, and in so doing established factory conditions themselves as the norm in comics-making. But never did 50s-style kanzume turn into a comics cannery ship.

Akasegawa Genpei, The Canning of the Universe (1964, recreated 1994).
Akasegawa Genpei, The Canning of the Universe (1964, recreated 1994).

This makes me think of artist, writer, and cartoonist Akasegawa Genpei’s The Canning of the Universe (Uchū no kanzume, 1964). It is a conceptual artwork in which a can of crab has been opened and emptied, and the label removed and replaced on the inside. Drawing on Akasegawa’s interests in both surrealism and lefty politics, now the entire universe is minced and mechanically packaged. The only nominally un-canned space is ironically that which is inside the can. Thus, for those who choose to live in the cannery, the whole universe is their field. For those who wish to escape the cannery, they are forced to live trapped and isolated inside the most narrow of spaces. Consider the fate of kashihon artists like Tsuge Yoshiharu who, in the early 60s, after their livelihood had been demolished by rise of the weeklies and demise of the kashihon market, and before a viable independent market supported their bohemian auteurism, had to live in the most squalid and narrowest of apartment spaces. Akasegawa’s inverted kanzume might thus serve as a symbol for Garo in the age of the Gekiga Factory. But that’s another era.

With a view to this series’ next installment, something else is important to remember. As industrial canning changed food, so too did kanzume transform the aesthetics of manga. The simplified parts and expandable assembly that characterized gekiga in the 60s correspond neatly to the studio system’s division of labor and standardized quality control. Yet many of the basic techniques employed therein – a focus on breakdowns and easy-to-draw details at the expense of complex cartooning – originated in a previous generation’s struggle with the rigors of kanzume. Contrary to the romantic imagery of artistic creation in A Drifting Life, the “new modes of expression” employed by Matsumoto and Tatsumi were in fact the stepchildren of poor labor conditions within the mainstream market. Their experiments built directly on the economization required in any modern industry based on standardization and speed. Manga history has immortalized these techniques as the aesthetic ingredients of “dramatic pictures” (gekiga, in the literal sense), but in the early 50s they were also more simply a way for an artist to keep his or her head above water and stay alive in a rapidly accelerating industry.

Though the so-called Fukui Ei’ichi Incident is well known amongst fans of manga history, the fact that one cartoonist’s death by canning set the stage for the emergence of the post-Tezuka mode of cartooning that we know as komaga-gekiga is not adequately appreciated. What I want to look at next time is how two artists working in the judo genre, Takano Yoshiteru and Matsumoto Masahiko (the first working for mainstream magazines, the second for the kashihon market), pushed this shift forward by making full and tasty meals out of Fukui’s kanzume comics. Tatsumi Yoshihiro followed hot on their apron strings.