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Thursday, June 8, 2006

Preserving the art of the editorial cartoon

First doctor of 'manga' studies teaches nothing should be safe from satire

Staff writer

KYOTO — In one sketch, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, dressed as a maid to U.S. President George W. Bush, smiles as he deposits the Constitution's Article 9 in a trash bin.

News photo
Chung In Kyung shows one of her cartoons at Kyoto Seika University in Sakyo Ward, Kyoto, last week.

In another, Liberal Democratic Party politicians vying to be the next prime minister race toward the finish line beneath the torii at Yasukuni Shrine.

In Japan, where sarcasm and irony rarely translate into humor, the political cartoon is a disappearing art form. But that's not stopping Chung In Kyung, 32, art professor and cartoonist.

Chung spends half her waking time drawing political cartoons. Most of the other half is spent teaching her students at Kyoto Seika University to inject satire into their "manga" cartoons.

"Your drawing skills are going to improve over time," the holder of Japan's first doctorate in manga studies tells her students. "Now is the time to hone your critical thinking skills."

So far, however, getting thought-provoking cartoons out of college kids has been an uphill battle.

"Students in Japan are very pure," said Chung, who has won numerous awards, including one this year from the Japan Cartoonists Association and the grand prize at the 2004 Kyoto International Manga Festival.

She compares her students with a clean slate, open to any and all information. But their often unquestioning stance is disturbing to Chung, who came to Japan from South Korea to study Japanese and manga in 1996.

When Chung asks her students to draw a political cartoon, they usually reflect a day's worth of news, straight from TV and the newspapers. No background story.

Because students don't regularly watch the news, they can't put the news into a historical context and often parrot the news agency's interpretation of events, Chung said.

"(North Korean leader) Kim Jong Il is always scary looking — evil-incarnate; Koizumi is always the triumphant hero," she said. "Satire just doesn't work if you're all gung-ho about the status quo."

The irony is that Japan has a history of satire dating back to the ukiyo-e artists of the late Edo Period (1603-1868), culminating in the turn-of-the-century works of Rakuten Kitazawa and the publication of Tokyo Puck in 1905.

But the culture of political cartoons quickly went underground in the years leading to the war and shrank to a whisper in the '50s, when Japan was caught up in its economic growth spurt.

"I believe taboos about poking fun at certain subjects — like anything to do with the Imperial family — slowly ate away at the spirit of satire," Chung said. "I think many Japanese artists lost the gumption to fight against the powers that be."

Half a century later, artists both in South Korea and Japan have become soft, she said.

Chung, who wields a killer brush as well as a sweet smile, looks over at her cartoon showing Bush in the middle of a flattened Iraq, shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Oh, I guess they weren't there after all."

While it's important to keep drawing about issues like Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destruction, Chung also said it may be time for China and South Korea to focus on important issues other than Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

Most importantly, however, it might be time for all Asians to lighten up and laugh at themselves by using manga.

"When you laugh, you admit how crazy you've let things become, and you can start to change things," she said.

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