14a. Two Nations – Kitazawa Rakuten and the Problem of Kindai Manga

It seems every time I sit down to write one of these things I have to apologize for treating a particular topic at short shrift, even when going on about it at great length.  This week–rather the next several weeks are no exception.  Kindai manga (i.e. manga from 1868, the beginning of the Meiji period, to the second world war) deserves far more extensive treatment than the relative footnote it tends to be consigned to, and several volumes could be written about today’s mangaka, Kitazawa Rakuten, let alone the numerous figures in early 20th century Japanese comic history who are all too often passed over without mention.  I also feel the need to apologize for not dealing with Okamoto Ippei and his circle, but since that is an entirely different problem in manga historiography, I will have to leave it for a later time.

Rakuten's Japanese style painting

Rakuten’s Japanese style painting “Bunmei kaika/Civilization”

Rakuten (née Yasuji) was born in the city of Ōmiya in Saitama in 1876 and studied both Western (yōga) and Japanese style (nihonga) painting.  His first job as an illustrator was for The Illustrated Monthly of the Box of Curios, a humor magazine printed in Yokohama by American businessman E.V. Thorn, which Rakuten started in 1895, but his first major job as a manga artist came in 1899 when he began contributing to the comics page of Fukuzawa Yukichi‘s newspaper Jiji shinpō.  In 1902, he left the paper to create the biweekly humor magazine Tokyo Puck (after the American magazine Puck) as well as a host of offshoots: the monthly Zeiroku PuckRakuten Puck, Katei Puck, and so forth.  Rakuten stepped down as editor of Tokyo Puck  to eventually go back to Jiji shinpō.  I will return to Rakuten’s biography in a few weeks, when I consider the relationship between modern Japanese print culture and the odd cosmopolitanism of the treaty ports, but for now this should suffice.

Manga Historiography and Comics “Progress

In many ways, the position of kindai manga in general histories of the “form,” when treated at all, tends to be something of an afterthought.  This isn’t to say that the information isn’t out there; if that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to write anything nearly this extensive without the most arduous digging around in archives and private collections.  The examples and bibliographic information on Rakuten and his disciples is more or less there, but how this material gets used or, to my mind, repurposed in the writing of manga history has more to do with a pre-existing, over-determinative narrative that is projected onto a manga past than with any reasonable and inclusive estimation of what you find even as you begin to dig into this past.  It is something of a minor scandal that, of late, Rakuten’s work has been used more extensively as examples of early modern perceptions of gender and historical events than as a major moment in manga history.

“Chame’s Trick” in Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 239

Rakuten, 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 characters and series.  Again, this isn’t not true–Chame, Tagosaku, and Mokubei are some of the earliest recurring manga characters–but to limit Rakuten’s work to this is to overlook two prominent (and obvious) features of his work that I wish to consider at greater length below.

This state of affairs has arisen due in no small part to a myth of comics “progress” that, while no one history of comics manifests it perfectly, nevertheless certain features of this myth can be spotted all over the place.

McCloud, Understanding Comics p. 126

McCloud, Understanding Comics p. 126

Now, while McCloud is making a point about the relationship between line quality and the content of comics, it is based in the notion that, over time, comics have “grown up.”  In Jared Gardner’s mostly unoffensive book Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-first Century Storytelling, the progression of chapters is a clear manifestation of the development from comic strip to comic book to “graphic novel” to multimedia/digital comics that pervades a great deal of thinking about comics history.  He treats no comic strips after 1938, favoring instead to move onto the emergent format of the comic book.  Now, I don’t think Gardner would argue that comic strips ceased to exist or had diminished in importance (though I have no way of knowing this for certain), but that he reproduces this myth of development without considering the ongoing history of those formats comics seemingly developed away from reflects rather badly on what otherwise presents itself as challenging our preconceptions about comics and their relationship to other popular media.

In the Japanese context, one need look no further than Tezuka’s attempt to sequester Rakuten’s work as not quite 100% manga on purely arbitrary grounds.  This isn’t, I think, entirely his fault but rather a reflection of how so-called story manga, i.e. long-form narrative comics, is projected as a manga standard, and so when critics look at the manga past (*cough* Takeuchi *cough*) there is a tendency only to find that which will fit nicely into a largely predetermined sense of what manga is and was.

Two Nations

Christopher Hibbert, in discussing the Victorian social milieu of the Illustrated London News, makes use of Benjamin Disraeli’s claim that the Queen ruled over “two nations,” that is two social classes divided not merely by wealth and its lack but by education, food, dress, and a wide range of socio-cultural features.  The ILN, then, was a window onto these two nations and a juxtaposition thereof meant, ultimately, not to comment on “social ills” but sell as many papers as possible, and sell it did.  As a result, in its pages, a reader of the ILN would see both the extravagance of the Crystal Palace exhibition and the hardships of the working poor.  These were presented, largely without comment, as a cross section of English society in regno Victoriae Reginae.

Reduced price entry to Disneyl--err, the Crystal Palace

Reduced price entry to Disneyl–err, the Crystal Palace, from the Illustrated London News

The “two nations” over which the Meiji emperor reigned could also be defined in this way, but could also be characterized as a complex overlay of several still unresolved tensions: old/new, agrarian/industrial, Japan/West, feudal/”democratic,” etc.  The old motto of wakon yōsai (“Japanese Spirit, Western Know-how”) was meant to encapsulate the idea that a modernizing and industrializing Japan would make use of non-Japanese discoveries all the while remaining, at the core, Japanese.  This was the official line of the newly (in the 19th century) installed bourgeois aristocracy in Japan (referred to as the “peerage”) comprised mostly of the “lords” of state-sponsored monopolies (zaibatsu).  It wouldn’t be at all untoward to read the story manga-centric history of Japanese comics as analogous to this usurpation of a foreign mode (i.e. comics) rendered distinctly Japanese at its core (thus the tendency to look past the early kindai period in an attempt to find models for manga in ancient Japanese art).  Rakuten’s existence and his total oeuvre are an embarrassment, then, for both manga history and Japanese essentialism, because, if you look past the arbitrarily narrow limits of “recurring funny characters,” they undermine both.

Tokyo Puck, October 1, 1907 p. 5

Tokyo Puck, October 1, 1907 p. 5

Though occasionally mentioned, no critic (that I have read, at least, and I would be open to being proved wrong) has seriously engaged with the fact that a veritable mountain of Rakuten’s total creative output is trilingual (Japanese/English/Chinese).  These languages aren’t randomly chosen, either, for they were the linguae francae of Japan’s treaty ports, Yokohama in particular, where the humor magazines (Japan PunchTōbae, Box of Curios) that spearheaded the modern revolution in Japanese manga print culture were first published. I will have more to say about this, when I return to kindai manga in general in the fourth installment.


Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 122

The trilingualism of Rakuten’s manga is an important feature, because it means he was reflecting Japanese society not merely for the benefit of a Japanese readership but for an international audience.  Thus, his mostly anti-imperialist editorial stance was not so much a critique of the US as it was a critique directed toward the US (i.e. both for and about), meaning the message of Rakuten’s manga is fundamentally ambivalent, meant potentially to say different things to different audiences.

Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 170-1

Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 1 p. 170-1

Nowhere is Rakuten’s ambivalence more manifest than in his recurring treatment of women, particularly the changing social status of the “modern girl” (moga) and “new woman” (atarashii onna) in modern Japan.  I chose the above two page spread, because I love it, but also because it’s an excellent example of how this ambivalence works.  Here we have two large and, to my mind, sympathetic portraits of two types of Japanese woman, one, as Rakuten says, “awakened to the rights of her sex” (i.e. a suffragette), and the other “awakened to the duties of her sex” (i.e. the good wife/mother that became the feminine ideal, at least in official/authorized discourses).  Above these two women we have a comic strip displaying the domestic ineptitude of the suffragette, and below a comic depicting the obnoxious fawning of a wife overly devoted to her husband/master.  We have here, not contrasted, but juxtaposed the two types of what are not in fact the traditional and the new woman but two types of the new woman.  Each is represented sympathetically and lampooned, and the tensions between them are not resolved in any discernible way.  Rakuten assists his readers, even those who might be ideologically opposed to each other, to see these new types of women in a variety of ways, thereby destabilizing the notion that one is to be valorized over the other.

A comic like this also fundamentally undermines the myth of progression in comics: from funny to serious; from mere diversionary, entertainment product to work of literature and/or art.  Here, in the very early history of manga, Rakuten’s work is already both funny gag and serious engagement with the sociopolitical issues of the time.

Saigen no nai eiga” (“Film Without End”) in Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 2 p. 140

The second axis of undermining manga historiography is made apparent by Rakuten’s rather provocative experiments with form.  His formal deviations and their consequences for all manga is a book in itself, so I’ll limit myself to his use of film both as a medium upon which to model his comics but also as an artform whose own veiled aspects manga might be used to unconceal.  The “story” here is relatively simple: marital discord between a husband and wife (due, one presumes, to his laziness while she earns her keep) in panel 1 (upper right) results in separation in panel 3 (lower right).  In panel 4 (lower left), she realizes how she can’t make it without him, they get back together (panel 5), and the comic “ends” (upper left) with the wife calling into the other room to ask “are you doing something in there?” (sono uchi nani ka yaru deshō?)  He, of course, isn’t doing anything but reading the paper (comics page no doubt!), so one imagines the comic might continue from the beginning, thus repeating a nigh endless cycle of nagging, breaking up, and getting over it.  This comic, rather peculiarly for the time, is read clockwise and, potentially, over and over again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that it is framed as a reel of film, as if this domestic drama were playing over and over again in some nickelodeon on some busy thoroughfare.  More than that, though, it can also be read as a column of stacked pairs (i.e. panels 1 and 6 [top], 2 and 5 [middle], 3 and 4 [bottom]) as yet another manifestation of the ambivalence I noted above.  Thus the repetitive nature of a film’s many screenings is, by means of the comic form, re-integrated into a conception of film that is based in the (misleading) beginning-to-end presumption of a unitary (and as a result unifying) narrative.

“Eiga monogatari” in Rakuten manga-shū taisei vol. 2 p. 148-9

In Rakuten’s “Eiga monogatari” (“Film Story”–presumably a pun on the 11th/12th century Japanese narrative tale, The Tale of Flowering Fortunes), we have the story of Hanako, a girl separated from her parents when she was very young, who is sent to live with her uncle.  I’m not going to go too much into the melodrama (tl;dr – they treat her like shit) but would like to focus instead on how Rakuten’s manga emphasizes the materiality of film.  In the fourth panel (far left) we see a desync of the “film stock” where her uncle’s new wife is scolding her for taking toiletries from her step siblings.  Interestingly, desync in film projection is considered an aberration to be immediately corrected (i.e. invisibilized), whereas Rakuten has rendered it here, like the representation of perforations in the strip border, as an integral part of the film experience, reminding this reader, at least, that there are aspects of aesthetic experience that a certain preconception of the form wants/needs to ignore.

Likewise, I have attempted to begin (and really only begin) to pay close attention to these “aberrations” in Rakuten’s work that good ole fashioned manga historiography would simply pass over, not necessarily to deny but to render irrelevant to a predetermined historiographic narrative.  However, if anything, what these “aberrations” make clear is the need to rethink this narrative and the myth of comics progress that rears its ugly head in so many places.

Next week: Ogawa Jihei and shit gets weird!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] However, I have in the past addressed the problem of “titanic” figures, such as Rakuten, who get too easily pigeon-holed into having done only one particular thing and as such that reductive understanding of their work has the negative effect of causing so many to overlook that artist’s shear range.  Ippei is no exception, someone who, like Rakuten, because he has been relegated to the shinbun manga (newspaper comic) ghetto, has his “importance” consistently acknowledged even as his work remains largely unexamined.  This is entirely to our detriment, for even a superficial examination of his work—and you can always rely on me for cursory inspections, oh reader—could provide for us an entirely new way of thinking about what manga is and how it is situated within Japanese image culture. […]


  3. Martin de la Iglesia · · Reply

    You mean Christopher (not Charles) Hibbert, right?

    1. Um, yes… I’ll change it.

  4. […] Without End” is intentionally circuitous, and I have already discussed at some length on at least one other occasion what his reconstruction of the film strip as framing device has to say about the materiality of […]

  5. […] contradictory claims regarding modern Japanese femininity.  In the same breath, or page rather, he can both ridicule and valorize two types of women that popular discourse regards as anathema to each other.  There is reason to see that hard and […]

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