Social Discontent Highlighted in Manga Works of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
This is not your American-style funnies; that’s for sure.
The Honolulu Museum of Art exhibition, “The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu,” features the manga (Japanese comic book) art of two socially conscious Japanese creators, Tsuge Tadao and Katsumoto Susumu. Their works appeared in the manga periodical Garo, which was published from 1964 to 2002. In Garo’s glory years, the 1960s and 1970s, it hit a circulation of more than 80,000 readers a month. Garo was noted for its brutally realistic and oftentimes depressing comics that focused on social and psychological issues besetting post-World War II Japan.
The tone for the exhibit is set by its title, which is a play on the “Disasters of War” etchings by Francisco Goya. The etchings depicted the horrific atrocities committed by Napoleon’s army when it invaded Spain. This included graphic scenes of massacres, starvations, beheadings, castrations and torture. The tone is made even more explicit when you enter from either one of the show’s two entrances. There are copies of Goya’s etchings right next to the exhibition title.
So, it’s not going to be a happy series of anime manga prints with Pikachu or other such characters waltzing about. It is, in fact, downright depressing.
However, that is not to say that one should avoid the show. For anyone interested in Japanese culture or history, or even anyone interested in comic book and manga art, this is a show to shake your sensibilities and wake you up to the underside of the much-hyped Ja-
panese postwar economic success story.
From the immediate aftermath of World War II to the 1960s and 1970s, Japan rose from incredible devastation to widespread prosperity, or so the story goes. But its beginnings were fraught with poverty, economic dislocation and individual psychological trauma. Even as Japan rose to become a world manufacturing powerhouse, it sacrificed much. Perhaps too much.
Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu were two artists who questioned the dark underbelly of this economic “miracle.” The original black and white ink drawings are matted and framed and mounted on spare white walls, lending a sense of high art to them. But they remain energetic, even awkward in their frenetic strokes and simplified drawings, partly, perhaps, because of the monthly deadlines the artist/writers had to meet. It’s not about the artistry. Some of the pages are crudely rendered, to be even somewhat complimentary. It’s the storylines and images that draw raw emotional blood. Still, there is enough of that distinctly Japanese style of manga that pokes through: the ability to render pages in a filmic, cinematic set of panels, as if you are watching a carefully plotted film with all the right camera angles; the way individual panels are carefully laid out and composed; the way, with a few brush strokes to denote a human face, emotions are depicted.
There is a series of pages from a story about harried workers at a nuclear power plant. When there is a dangerous leak, they are ignored and their concerns about being poisoned by radiation are swept under the rug by their superiors.
Another manga, a more whimsical one, is about a kappa, a fairy tale water imp, who tries to become part of a farmer’s family, gathering cucumbers and living with the humans in their home. In time he realizes that, like nature, he cannot be tamed: His wildness wins out and he has to leave. This symbolizes how much at odds nature and industrialized human society have become.
Another set of pages is about a boy who encounters physical abuse from an old man who beats him whenever he tries to return home to a ghetto neighborhood in postwar Tökyö. He decides to hide from the abuser by staying at a brothel.
As noted earlier, this is not your happy-happy Pikachu comics. It’s not even your typical Miyazaki Hayao anime movie, even though Miyazaki’s cartoons do deal with interesting personal and social issues, albeit on a gentler, more fantasy-world level that still engenders huge numbers of anime-manga fans across the globe. These comics are anything but comical, except in the darkest, gloomiest manner.
We Americans are, therefore, left trying to figure out how to appreciate these pages because we are at somewhat of a cultural gap. The Japanese never had a Comics Code Authority, so they are used to such social-issue comics, as well as lurid sex-comics, and porno-comics and gruesome horror comics.
For the longest time, comic books in America eschewed such dark issues because of the Comics Code Authority. In the 1950s, some comic books strayed from the typical superhero and romance genres. There were horror comics that were truly horrible, “true life” crime comics and comics that strayed into lurid and sexually suggestive images and themes. A backlash occurred and there was talk in Congress of regulating and even banning comics. The American comic book industry reacted by establishing its own oversight system, the Comics Code Authority, which put its stamp on the covers of all comics that stuck to its code of ethics and morality. Although this cleaned up a bunch of very questionable comic styles — horror comics often had covers of scantily clad, very big-busted women being attacked by giant monsters with tentacles and other penile-like appendages, or gruesome depictions of murder and mayhem — the Comics Code Authority also sanitized any discussion of uncomfortable social and personal issues. Hence, comic books in America became noncontroversial and suitable for impressionable young children, with no content that questioned authority or the standing social structure.
All that changed, of course, when underground comics like those drawn by R. Crumb introduced a new generation to wild sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Marvel Comics then decided to break with the Comics Code Authority. Marvel’s Stan Lee and his stable of writers and artists worked in the ostensibly staid and sanitized genre of superhero comics to depict stories that delved into personal and social issues. DC, the other large behemoth of the American comic industry, followed suit, first with an amazing series featuring the iconic Green Lantern and Green Arrow, who went on a road trip across America to fight racism, big business monopolies and government corruption.
That set the stage for small-run specialty comic books such as “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman, which turned the Holocaust into a metaphoric comic with Jews as mice being herded into concentration camps by Nazi cats. In 1992, “Maus” became the first comic book to win a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest award.
So now, at least, we have small-print-run comics that depict social, economic and personal issues head-on, alongside the mainstream superhero and children’s comics.
But it was the Japanese artists like Tsuge and Katsumata, who, beset by the social injustice and economic dislocation they saw around them, that first pulled back the curtain of the stereotyped Japanese industrial revival to depict the raw and sordid underbelly of Japanese society at a time when American comics were sanitized, still hiding behind the Comics Code Authority. The exhibit is a troubling view of this nether side of Japan. But not all art gives us pleasure. Sometimes art has to remind us of the injustice we have to fight against, just as Goya’s art would never be placed on a living room wall because it is so disturbing.
I can appreciate the expressive strokes of the artists’ brushes and the cinematic way the panels are composed and sequenced, but the art here serves to expose a truth that is uneasy, but part of the entire Japanese experience.
Take your time with the show, reading the extensive and very informative captions that accompany the framed comic pages. If need be, you can clean your visual palate by stepping into the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Japanese woodblock print collection right next door. This will create an interesting historical counterpoint to the manga exhibition, showing how there is continuity in the style of illustrations as well as a flagrant break with the tradition of woodblock prints.
“The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu,” continues through April 15 at the Honolulu Museum of Art. For museum hours and admission information, call (808) 532-8700.
Wayne Muromoto is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer. He also spent 10 years teaching art and digital art at a private high school. For the past 15 years, he has been teaching digital art and digital photography at Leeward Community College. Wayne also continues to pursue peace through a bowl of tea as a practitioner of Urasenke tea ceremony.