12. Are Yon-koma manga comic strips?

Before I get into today’s topic, I want to note that I will be traveling to Portland later this week to present at ICAF (International Comic Arts Forum) on Saturday.  This means I may not have a post up right away Sunday evening, as I will have to drive back to Iowa from Chicago after arriving there Sunday morning.  Ugh.  If I find time, I’ll try to post something like the gist of what I will be presenting along with some thoughts in hindsight.  Otherwise, I’ll just put up a stub and come back to it the following week.

Ye Olde Fashion’d Manga Like Yer Great Grandpappy Use Ta Make

You would think that what yon-koma (“four panel”) manga are would be an entirely straightforward question to answer: four panel comics.  While that is accurate enough, because it is a purely formal definition, it doesn’t say much about where these comics come from historically or how they became codified in this form.  In fact, the four panel framework, as I will try to argue here, represents in many ways a retrospective reading (and thus reification) of a modern construction of a manga type onto a historical field of single page or embedded manga texts that are far more varied than the yon-koma label suggests.  Consider, for instance, how Kitazawa Rakuten is credited with creating the first yon-koma manga in 1902, yet the following comic is reprinted again and again as representative of his work.

Kitazawa Rakuten, Tagosaku to Mokubē no Tōkyō kenbutsu (Tagosaku abd Mokubē's Tokyo Sightseeing), "Tekkan Biiru" ("Adam's Ale")

Kitazawa Rakuten, Tagosaku to Mokubē no Tōkyō kenbutsu (Tagosaku and Mokubē’s Tokyo Sightseeing), “Tekkan Biiru” (“Adam’s Ale”)

Here we see one of the most important elements of any yon-koma manga: the gag.  Mokubei (the bald one) and his friend Tagosaku have left the countryside to see the sights in the big city (Tokyo), and in this comic, “Adam’s Ale,” (Tekkan biiru), have stumbled upon a public water tap, from which Mokubei is trying to drink but whose hand can’t reach if he’s to catch the water coming out of the spout.  He gets Tagosaku to help him, but his friend, being a country bumpkin, doesn’t know how the thing works.  Mokubei points out that you have to turn the handle rather than pull it, so his friend turns the tap all the way on and blasts his friend in the face.  Comedy then ensues… har har har…

There are, of course, also important differences to be seen here, namely, that the comic doesn’t have four panels.  In fact, looking through my own collection of scans of Rakuten’s work, I was rather hard pressed to find any example of a comic that did have four panels.  The first one I came across was the center strip from a 1921 cover of Jiji manga (Current Manga).

Ladies' Ideas (Fujin risō)

Modern Ladies’ Ideas (Gendai fujin risō)

Reading from right to left, a man arrives to propose a business venture in textiles.  The man with the fancy mustache is unconvinced, until his wife points out that he can simply buy the material off him and turn around and sell it for a profit without needing to invest in the young man’s business.  The joke works, so it seems, because we expect the man’s wife to just sit idly by, but because OF COURSE all women are deeply invested in fashion and consumer goods, the man’s wife knows far more about the going rates than either of the gentlemen involved.  Comedy ensues… har har har…

Yet, even in finding this example of a Rakuten yon-koma manga, I’ve only further demonstrated the point that there was far greater variety in manga’s early history than the four-panel form would allow, given the presence above of an additional three panel strip at the bottom along with a rather clever series of seven bubbles representing a modern lady’s “thoughts.”  None of this should strike anyone as odd, given how within the transnational history of the comic strip, there have never been hard and fast limits on the number of panels.

Farmer Fossfate from Puck

Farmer Fossfate from Puck

Yet, oddly, in Japanese comics discourse a rather arbitrary (and to my mind absurd), ahistorical distinction is regularly made between yon-koma manga and comic strips.  This is due, in part, to the assumption of a prevalent, though by no means universal, narrative pattern, kishōtenketsu 起承転結, in which each panel has a more or less fixed sequential function, represented by each of the four characters in ki-shō-ten-ketsuKi is the introduction or setup; shō is the follow-up or development from that setup; ten is the turn or sudden shift; while ten is the result or wrap up.  This pattern originally comes from a Chinese lyric form, qiyan jueju or qijue, in which the four stages are the four lines of the poem.  A typical example:

Piinattsu by Chāruzu Shurutsu

Piinattsu by Chāruzu Shurutsu

Plopping a particular non-Western pattern down onto a comics form that developed in a clearly transnational context (Rakuten, as editor of Tokyo Puck  and later Jiji manga, regularly printed translations of American strips such as Opper’s Happy Hooligan) not only serves to obscure the formal variety of manga in its own early history as comic strip but also creates an unnecessarily narrow framework in which contemporary artists might work.  Add to that the fact that modern yon-koma manga are regularly seen to be distinct from comic strips (the very term comikku sutorippu evokes something distinctly American in Japanese), and you have a “history” of the form that seems to project onto the past the arbitrary choices of the present.

Pithy Subsection Title

Taishaku OL shinkaron vol. 1 p. 129

Taiyaku OL shinkaron vol. 1 p. 129

Akizuki Risu (real name unknown), perhaps best known for her slice-of-life manga such as Okusama shinkaron (The Evolution of the Married Woman) and OL shinkaron (The Evolution of Japanese Working Women), identifies why it’s important not to read a kind of cultural essentialism back into comics.

“I soon became a fan of [Charlie Brown], but even before that I had a surprising if naive realization, which was that ‘Americans also feel affection and sympathy for this sort of person.’  To us Japanese, Charlie Brown’s character seems ‘Japanese.’  When I think back it’s laughable, but at that time (even though I’d been a fan of American movies and listened constantly to American music since childhood) I only had a stereotyped preconception about Americans–cheerful, sociable, positive, and fair-minded, if a little rough-and-ready… [b]ut when I read Charlie Brown, ‘the scales fell from my eyes.'” (trans. Jules and Dominic Young, OL Shinkaron vol. 1 p. 7)

In the introduction to the bilingual edition of OL shinkaron Akizuki goes on to explain that she sees her own manga as capable of breaking down tried and true(-ish) distinctions between American and Japanese types.  I would also add that her manga helps break down tried and true conceptual distinctions (like kishōtenketsu above), and, if we read something like Schulz’s Peanuts back onto OL, we mind find that they share remarkably similar worldviews or, as the pair of Tagosaku/Mokubei and Farmer Fossfate above show, have always shared this purview.

p. 109

p. 109

Of course, this comic cross pollination that Akizuki identifies in her own work is just as true for those yon-koma artists who are said to exemplify the form.  It’s telling that Hasegawa Machiko, the creator of the now classic (and virtually unknown outside of Japan) yon-koma manga Sazae-san, doesn’t even use the word/phrase yon-koma but rather the term rensai or “serialized” manga.  The formal properties themselves are not nearly as important to her as the ongoing cycle, the patterns of life, rather than of the illustrated form, that span the comic’s 28 year history (1946-1974).

Taiyaku Sazae-san vol. 2 pp. 70-71, trans. Jules Young

Taiyaku Sazae-san vol. 2 pp. 70-71, trans. Jules Young

Because the history of manga in the West is very much colored by what does and does not get translated or, more to the point, what is and is not marketed to the non-Japanese fan communities that determine what manga “is” in a non-Japanese context, it’s easy to pigeonhole manga into a kind of enforced exoticism.  But a comic like Sazae-san is very much akin to something like Blondie, which, while it originated in a very specific time and place, continues to adapt to a changing culture even as the jokes, the gags, remain the same.

blondie_same_old_routineNow, I’m never one to latch onto a touchy-feely, “we’re all just human beings” erasure of cultural difference, but there comes a point where the effort to see difference where distinction strains credulity becomes genuinely self-defeating.  And yet, somehow, I imagine such distinctions will always be in play, so it’s important they we pay close attention to what’s going on around us, lest we miss it.

p. 56

p. 56

The answer, then, to the question in the title of today’s post, “Are yon-koma manga comic strips?”, is a rather uneasy yes and no.  The degree to which something appears to be distinctly Japanese depends largely upon the extent to which you read it as distinctly Japanese, for, as my example of kishōtenketsu taken from Peanuts and Akizuki’s reading of Charlie Brown as both uniquely American and uniquely Japanese should demonstrate, there is nothing in the textual objects themselves that warrants any particular reading at all.  Similarly, I’ve provided what I think is a rather clear cut case for why what some call yon-koma manga can be understood as part of the transnational history of comic strips.  And yet, in Japanese comics discourse, yon-koma and comic strips are regularly understood to be very different things.

Next week: maybe something, maybe very little, depending on how tired I am!

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] even when not pigeonholed into the “progenitor of yon-koma manga,” tends to be pounded into the equally square hole of someone who introduced recurring […]


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