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Manga’s Illuminating Underbelly


Spanish artist Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War is an influential historical record of the human toll of the Peninsular War in the early 1800’s.  The Honolulu Museum of Art’s new manga show, The Disasters of Peace, offers a rare view of Japan’s supposed post WWII “economic miracle.” HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports it’s an example of manga, or comic books, providing an important social perspective.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
(l) Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation Curator of Japanese Art, Honolulu Museum of Art and (r) Ryan Holmberg is an Academic Associate of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture. He publishes widely as a freelance art historian and critic, and has just begun a three year appointment at Tokyo University.

Visiting scholar, Ryan Holmberg speaks on the birth of alternative manga today, 5:30, at the Honolulu Museum School.  The Disasters of Peace opens tonight at the Honolulu Museum of Art and runs through April 15, 2018.   

Lecture: "Garo and the Birth of Alternative Manga" by Ryan Holmberg 
Location: Honolulu Museum of Art School, Room 101
Address: 1111 Victoria Street, Honolulu HI 96814
Date/Time: Thursday, November 30, 5:30 – 7:00 pm
Admission: Free (Seating is available on first-come, first-serve basis)

From its founding in Tokyo in 1964 to its temporary demise in 1998, the monthly Garo was a beacon for experimentalism in Japanese comics. This talk will survey the early years of the magazine, looking at its roots in the rental library "kashihon" culture of the previous decade, its relationship to contemporary political issues ranging from school curricula debates to the Vietnam War, and finally its embrace of a new generation of artists influenced by Pop Art, New Wave cinema, and the visual culture of the Japanese Empire.

Tsuge Tadao
Credit Tsuge Tadao
Tsuge Tadao (b. 1941) Trash Market, p. 2, Japan, 1972

Ryan Holmberg is an Academic Associate of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture, he has just begun a three year position at Tokyo University. As a freelance art historian and critic, he is a frequent contributor to The Comics Journal, Artforum International, and Art in America. As an editor and translator of manga, he has worked with Breakdown Press, Drawn & Quarterly, Retrofit Comics, PictureBox Inc, and New York Review Comics. He is also the author of Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964–1973 (Center for Book Arts, 2010) and No Nukes for Dinner: How One Japanese Cartoonist and His Country Learned to Distrust the Atom (forthcoming).

Manga are Japanese comics on paper, distinct from anime, the animated form.  In the Honolulu Museum’s current manga show, The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu, don’t expect eye candy.  That’s deliberate, according to Stephen Salel, curator for the show.

Stephen Salel:  I am interested in Japanese art that pushes the boundaries of our definition of the subject.  Artwork that has not received serious scholarship until recently.

Some trace contemporary manga back to 12th century Japanese scrolls, through humorous, erotic and satirical publications, including 19th century ukiyoe prints, up to the present.  Visiting manga scholar, Ryan Holmberg says until the 1950’s, manga were mostly for children, but inspired by French and American mystery, horror and hard boiled fiction, some artists branched into more serious subject matter and grittier art.

Ryan Holmberg:  Gekiga literally means dramatic pictures.  The word manga connoted comical things for children, they 

wanted a different name.  it has a similar resonance to the term “graphic novel” now.  They wanted a more serious name for manga, that name was coined in the 1950’s and the term came to encompass a wide number of things.  By the 1960’s it could mean bloody action comics for young men but it also could mean the literary manga you see in the current exhibition.

During the 50’s and 60’s, Japan was undergoing a highly touted “miracle” transforming its destitute wartime economy.  Gekiga tackled less picturesque aspects of the period, the work of Katsumata Susumu and Tsuge Tadao are featured in this show.

Salel:  Both of them talk passionately about the social ills of Japan in the aftermath of WWII, but they talk about the country from very different perspectives.  Katsumata Susumu, as a college student studied physics, and as a graduate student he studied nuclear physics so when he began to publish cartoons about the nuclear power industry and expressed his critical feelings about that industry, he was really approaching it form a scientific viewpoint.

Salel:  Tsuge Tadao deals less with political issues and talks more about a sense of despair that people in general felt in the 1950’s and ‘60’s although the country was prospering financially in some way, there were sections of the country still struggling with poverty, and broken down social infrastructure.  These are the sorts of tales Tsuge Sensei talks about in his manga.

Kind of a historical capsule?

Salel:  I think so, and a capsule not many people are sufficiently aware of.  We include in the videos in the exhibition, an Encyclopedia Britannica film that talks about how in the 1960’s Japan had become an economic miracle.  The work of Tsuge Tadao and the scenes of poverty that his work shows are an ironic counterpoint to that portrayal of post war Japan.

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa

Holmberg says manga are read by all demographics in Japan, and the tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011 was a boon to sales.  The gekiga, or graphic novel genre, most appeals to men from their 20’s to 70’s.

Holmberg:  I wouldn’t say there’s demographic that doesn’t read manga.  This material is mostly read by men in their 20’s up to their 70’s.  The reason I go up to the 70’s is a large number of readers who probably read Katsumata or work like his back when they were younger men who are rediscovering it for themselves.  I think a lot of younger Japanese now growing up in Japan during the disaster, but also growing up in Japan which has heavy issues with regard to employment issues, living in an aging society, so they’re much more attuned to Japan not being a miracle state but a potential disaster state in the coming decades.  I think they’re also more interested in reading cultural content that reflects some of these issues.  

Holmberg:  Tadao Tsuge, featured in the show, grew up in the slums in Tokyo and worked various low level blue collar jobs in the 1960’s.  While his work in Japan kid of finds a niche audience, I think you’ll find more Japanese people in the future going back and looking at the age that was supposed to have been the Japanese miracle when Japanese GDP skyrocketed and they’ll be interested in cultural content, kind of forgotten histories that Japan did always have a kind of poor underclass through the decades, even in the era of high economic growth.

Katsumata Estate
Credit Katsumata Estate
Katsumata Susumu (1947-2007), Deep Sea Fish, p. 13, Japan, 1984

Who is recording that now in manga? 

Holmberg:  I don’t know.

Salel:  This magazine Garo, it ceased publication in 2002.  Nowadays there are other magazines that focus on underground manga but are far less popular than Garo.  So I think we’ve seen the entire arc of gekiga’s popularity.  I’m hoping that we’ll see a renaissance in the future.  Certainly the topic of politics and artistic responses to those issues is never going to fade away.

Francisco Goya’s prints from the 1800’s resonate with Japanese manga of the 1960’s.  Whose work will we look to for the story behind our headlines today?   

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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