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Sunday, March 23, 2003

From ancient to modern

Special to The Japan Times

As quintessentially contemporary as manga may seem, the oldest extant manga-style drawings actually date from the eighth-century zare-ga (play pictures), scrawled graffiti-like in the attic of the Horyuji Temple in Nara.

After that, artists during the Heian Period (794-1185) began drawing caricatures of people and narrative picture scrolls like the satirical "Choju Jinbutsu Kigakan (Animal Scrolls)" attributed to Toba Sojo (Bishop Toba; 1053-1140), which show frogs and rabbits in situations deriding the Buddhist clergy. By the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), these graphics had evolved into illustrated scrolls of Buddhist teachings and grotesque scenes of suffering.

It was not till the early 18th century that artists like Ooka Shunboku (1680-1763) began to combine pictures and text to tell a story -- a style known as toba-e.

The term "manga" -- meaning "lackadaisical drawings" -- emerged in the late Edo Period (1603-1867), and is usually credited to the "Hokusai Manga" of woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai. However, evidence suggests it was used earlier by the popular author Santo Kyoden (1761-1816), who adopted it for the sketches he made of people passing his tobacco shop.

The graphic scenes of sex and violence for which adult manga are now best known have their roots in popular newspapers called nishiki-e shimbun (colored woodblock-print newssheets), such as the Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun, whose heyday was 1874 to '78. Forerunners of today's tabloids, these employed skilled illustrators -- among whom perhaps the most famous was Keisai Yoshiiku -- to depict lurid crimes, disasters and evil people haunted by the spirits of the dead.

However, the first vernacular newspaper comic appeared in the Nihon Boeki Shimbun in 1864. It is clear from this, and other publications, that even before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, manga were absorbing influences from abroad. In 1862, an Englishman named Charles Wirgman (1832-91), who came to Japan in 1857 as a foreign correspondent, founded Japan Punch, a monthly that was published for the next 25 years. (A detailed account of Wirgman's life appears in Burritt Sabin's new book, "A Historical Guide to Yokohama.")

Wirgman was followed by a Frenchman named George Bigot, who founded Toba-e, a satirical magazine, in 1882. Later in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), cartoonists Ippei Okamoto and Rakuten Kitazawa, who founded Tokyo Puck (Japan's first color comic magazine), popularized American-style newspaper cartoons.

In the late Meiji Era, the Japanese cartoonist Henry Kiyama took his talents to the U.S. West Coast, where he produced a fascinating illustrated account of the Asian-American immigrant experience. His work, in a classic comic-book style, was rediscovered and translated by manga historian Frederik L. Schodt and published as "The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924" (Stone Bridge Press; 1999).

The masses' hunger for so-called ero-guro nansensu (erotic and grotesque nonsense) during the Taisho Era (1912-26), encouraged artists' wildest imaginings and fantasies in the forerunners of some of today's "underground" publications. By the late 1930s, however, manga artists were being pressured to produce more "serious" content -- and just as political cartoons became propaganda vehicles, general comics took a more patriotic turn, as in the famous "Norakuro" series by Suiho Tagawa.

Taisho and Showa era artists such as Noboru Taisei, Pontaro Shika and others are now largely forgotten, but if you stumble across a prewar manga somewhere, handle it carefully as it's probably quite valuable. Indeed, for three copies of the "Boken Dankichi" series by Keizo Shimada, published by Kodansha in the mid-1930s, one Tokyo dealer is now asking 300,000 yen; while a copy of 1934's "Nagakutsu no Sanjushi (Three Musketeers in Long Boots)," published by Taisei Makino, a popular children's author, will set you back 150,000 yen.

"We understand that the largest single collection of prewar manga was in the hands of one individual, and after he passed away, his collection was sold off piecemeal," says Tomo Kawai, of the International Business Department of Mandarake, a specialty dealer in Tokyo's Nakano district. "As far as we know," he adds, "the most expensive sale of one of the rare prewar manga was 'Kasei Tanken [An Adventure to Mars]' by Noboru Ohshiro, which went for 1 million yen."

One reason for that scarcity, Kawai says, is that they tended to be purchased mainly by affluent city-dwellers. Due to wartime shortages, many were lost in paper-recycling drives; others in fire-bombings. But a new generation of artists, and readers, would soon rise from the ashes.

To see historical manga in the greater Tokyo area, visit the Manga Kaikan in Saitama City, or join other manga worshippers at the Jorakuji Temple in Kawasaki City. Completed in 1971, this has five "halls" displaying some 5,000 examples of manga art by 403 artists. The sliding doors, the walls and ceilings -- in fact, just about any flat surface -- are festooned with wonderful color reproductions of cartoons, postcards and ema (votive tablets) depicting popular culture in Japan from the 1860s through to the end of the Showa Era in 1989.

The manga-dera (cartoon temple) can be visited by appointment. (Under-15s must be accompanied by an adult.) If he's not too busy, resident priest Junwa Taniguchi will answer your questions and show some of the temple's other artifacts.

For more information on Manga Kaikan, call (048) 663-1541. To get to Jorakuji Temple (622 Miyauchi, Nakahara-ku, Kawasaki-shi; [044] 766-5068), go by bus from Musashi Kosugi (JR, Namboku and Toyoko lines) to Mizunokuchi (JR Nambu and Denen Toshi lines), alighting at the Yakushi-mae stop. From there, the temple is a 2-minute walk toward the Tama River.

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