14c. Framing the Manga Landscape – Kawamori Hisao

Given how spectacularly unread last week’s post was, I can only imagine this week’s post’s plumbing the possibility of negative pageviews.  Nevertheless, I care about these things, so, for the time being, dear reader, I suppose you have to [not] care about these things.  I promise to at some point return to manga that may have actually appeared in your lifetime.

If there is a rank just before “completely unknown” in the great manga hierarchy of notoriety, I would suggest that Kawamori Hisao, today’s subject, occupies that rank.  Again, we are dealing with a situation where his place in manga history is not unknown but rather unaccounted for.  It’s easy enough to discover that he was born in 1898, that he studied under Rakuten, and that his first job was with the Jiji shinpō company where he joined the staff of Rakuten’s newly reformatted Jiji manga in 1921.  After the sudden passing of Ogawa Jihei, Kawamori became an editor for Jiji manga in addition to drawing comics.  In 1932, he left the Jiji shinpō company and joined the Yomiuri shinbun.  He died in 1968, at the age of 70, after a prolonged illness.  I suppose if I had some time to spend in the Rakuten museum in Ōmiya, I might have more details to add, but the gist of the story would remain the same.  Much of his manga was pretty conventional and in keeping with what was popular at the time.  I have to admit that, really, it can be quite mediocre.

Kappa katarō from Yomiuri shinbun April 17, 1932

“Kappa Katarō” from the Yomiuri shinbun April 17, 1932

2 – “Everyone must study hard and become first rate kappa!” / 3 – At kappa school, the teachers are kappa; even the students are kappa / 4 – “You understand this, right?  This here…” / 5 – “Kappa 64″ / 6 – “Whose is this?  Who brought their doggy to school?” / 7 – “Sensei, my lunch is getting away!” / 8 – Tomorrow is a field trip; Kappa Katarō is so giddy he can hardly sleep!”

The joke, such as it is, is to think about what school would be like for kappa, creatures out of Japanese folklore who live in rivers, have bowl shaped depressions in their heads, and like cucumbers.  Of course, it would be just like people school only with a few silly changes: 8×8 is kappa 64 rather than regular 64–don’t worry, I don’t get it either–the pet “dog” is, in fact, a pet frog, and the kappa‘s lunch in panel 7 is a live… eel?  Sea cucumber?  In the latter half of Hisao’s career, after he went to work for Yomiuri, this is mostly what one finds, mildly amusing gags and the occasional pun: the main kappa‘s name is Katarō, but as it’s spelled here in katakana, ka-ta-ra-u, it could also be the verb katarau meaning “talk” or “chit-chat.”  Thus, the title might also be rendered “The Kappa Speaks.”  Thankfully, some of Hisao’s later work is at least marginally better than this.

"Konna e ga arimashita" ("There were pictures just like this") in Yomiuri shinbun September 11, 1933

“Konna e ga arimashita” (“There were pictures just like this”) in Yomiuri shinbun September 11, 1933

1 – [on the phone] “The picture’s finished? I wanna take it over to Ueno.” / 2 – “Do be careful with that!” / 3 – “You dropped it!” kathunk / 4 – “You have to be more careful!”  “Sorry”

A perfectly ordinary yon-koma manga for a moderately clever gag.  Yet, I chose this comic as an introduction to Hisao’s earlier, more “out there” work, because it contains at least an inkling of what he had produced during his time with Jiji manga, wherein he produced highly abstract comics that depend upon a variety of forms of reframing images, both within panels as well as within the entire page layout.  In the comic above, the artist’s own work reframes him, in a sense, as one of the nudes in his painting.  What was originally an object within the image/panel becomes part of and essential to the image plane itself.  Of course, one might simply take this as analogous to those cut-outs you stick your face into and take a picture of, but if we take a closer look at Hisao’s earlier work, we’ll find that it’s much more than that.

Landscapes with Multiple Perspectives

"Gunbu teiden" ("County-wide Blackout") panel 1; Jiji shinpō; January 21, 1923 in Manga zasshi hakubutsukan vol. 6 p. 56

“Gunbu teiden” (“County-wide Blackout”) panel 1; Jiji shinpō; January 21, 1923 in Manga zasshi hakubutsukan vol. 6 p. 56

"Blackout" panel 2 in ibid. p. 57

“Blackout” panel 2 in ibid. p. 57

Even in his early career, not all of Hisao’s manga are like the one above from 1923, but I want to focus on his more unusual work in order to address the problem of what I’m going to call “multiple perspectives:” multiple perspectives from the figures in the comic, multiple lines of visual perspective in the composition of any given image, and, ultimately, multiple historiographic perspectives.

There is a tendency, when reading comics, to break down even a “single” image into sequential moments, as if to say that time passes as your eye moves across the page between bubbles of dialogue.  Now, while this is a common convention of reading comics and is often explicitly intended by the artist, nothing about the design of the page itself necessitates the imposition of sequence and thus time onto an image that is already all there, so to speak.  Because all these bits of dialogue appear to happen in different parts of the landscape, irrespective of each other, it would be rather easy to conclude that they all occur simultaneously within the domains of their respective “frames” (i.e. the cut-aways of various buildings).  An entire neighborhood, at one time, comment upon the blackout and what it might mean for them.  The man in the house just to the left of the one with the mouse in the attic (first panel, bottom right) wonders whether he’ll be able to finish his manuscript on time and get his money.  The guy to the far left in the first panel wonders whether, with the power out, the bathhouse is still open, perhaps because he’s afraid of being seen in the nude.  The man wandering about in the upper left of the second panel takes the opportunity to wax poetic: “Electric light! / Best left unlit / Best left unlit.”  The logic, then, undergirding this kind of manga is not that of narrative sequence but of multiple perspectives on the same event.  The comic’s very structure and approach to its topic invite multiple ways of reading it.

"Jinsei wa shiken ni tsugu shiken" ("Life is one test after another") in ibid. p. 138

“Jinsei wa shiken ni tsugu shiken” (“Life is one test after another”) in ibid. p. 138

Many of Hisao’s early manga are just like this: a large, full page, single panel that lays out either an imaginary or “real” landscape.  Here we see students, and later adults, moving through life one year to the next with little devils labeled shiken (“test/exam”) hounding them as they go.  For those of you not familiar with the Japanese educational system, it is largely a high stakes affair, with student evaluation dependent upon a succession of exams.  There are exams to grade your competence using Chinese characters, exams to test your English, exams to get into college, exams to get into high school, even exams to get into some middle schools.  It’s not exactly a stretch to say that the life of a young Japanese boy or girl is lived moving from one exam to the next, often with intense preparation and study along the way.  There are the “sirens” of sake (booze) and niku (meat, i.e. food) near the center of the image over which you might notice two men falling as they stumble after graduation.  At the end of the path, in the upper right, as our dutiful worker bees drone along the path, what should they find at the peak of this arduous climb but a sheer cliff (i.e. death).

I chose this landscape in particular, because it has sequence (i.e. progress along the path), that sequence indicates time (the first through sixth years of elementary school, middle school, high school, and so forth), and yet that temporal sequence still is not a narrative.  What we see here is more analogous to Jihei’s “mappings” from last week, where, even though the comic doesn’t have the visual characteristics of what we might commonly call a map, it does lay out a particular path and the territorial relationships between various stages of life.  As with the blackout comic above, you could read a narrative sequence into it, but the comic is designed to facilitate other kinds of reading as well; because it is a landscape, it does not particularly matter how you move through it only that you move through it.

"Karada no hataraki" ("The Workings of the Human Body") in ibid. p. 108

“Karada no hataraki” (“The Workings of the Human Body”) in ibid. p. 108

To make matters even more complicated, occasionally Hisao takes these cut-aways and landscapes and embeds them in yet another frame, in this case the human body.  Here we have a caricature of the physiological relationships of various parts of the human body, recalling the juxtaposition that McCloud, for instance, considers key to the essential form of comics, and yet, again, no necessary narrative or even sequential structure.  The relationship between “panels” (various organs are equated with the cut-away buildings seen previously) is sometimes a function of physiology–the heart in the center is pumping “year round nonstop” into factories such as the gut below it, where waste is being disposed of on mine carts–yet in some cases, the comic itself disrupts that logic.  If you look closely at the two eyes, they are doing completely different things.  The one on the left has a cameraman filming the outside world, while the one on the right is projecting an image onto, one supposes, the retina.  What in any actual body would be doing much the same thing at the same time, here we have two eyes performing disparate functions.  This is another example of what I mean by multiple perspectives, as here we have two distinct views on the faculty of sight itself.

There are microcosms of narrative sequence, to be sure, such as the exchange between the fat cat executive and his lacky in the brain, but this is merely one aspect of the comic and in no way determinative of how it is to be read overall.  This layering of framing elements is one means in Hisao’s comics whereby a reader might consider his manga, and manga as a whole, from several different removes.  Manga/comic is both the visual object as such as well as an element within it.

"Bōnasu jūkei" ("Ten Bonus Scenes") in ibid. p. 147

“Bōnasu jūkei” (“Ten Bonus Scenes”) in ibid. p. 147

The “bonus scenes” here could be taken in two ways, one likely intended and the other a figment of my imagination.  The intended sense is likely that of “bonus pay,” as we see here the day on which a man expects to receive a bonus from his job.  The “bonus” scenes are framed as scroll paintings hanging on the walls of a public gallery with the “writing on the wall” between paintings functioning as ersatz intertitles–this is, after all, the era of silent film.  The man’s wife sits in the first panel/scroll putting up her hair as his freshly polished shoes shimmer in the entryway.  I don’t want to delve too deeply into the misfortunes that fall upon this young man; I would rather take about the layers of framing within this image.

It’s worth noting that the scrolls are numbered in much the same way as the panels of the very first comic in today’s post, but here the easy assignation of “comic” is undermined by it’s representation as something other to itself, as a gallery of paintings rather than a sequence of panels on a page, an “additional” element in that other sense of “bonus.”  Moreover, figures within the comic are “reading” this series of paintings-as-manga or, in some cases, are much more engaged with each other than what’s hanging on the “walls.”  In one particularly creepy instance, a figure within the comic (bottom center) stares directly “at you,” as if you, the reader, were not altogether distinct from the various figures “within” the comic.  What is and is not proper to Hisao’s manga is not entirely clear, as much of what he does with his comics helps to break down facile assumptions about them.  It is perfectly conceivable that you, dear reader, are but one of many layers, one of many perspectives both of and in a comic.

Coming back then to larger questions of writing the history of manga as narrative, in which certain historical examples are more or less amenable to an over-determinative “story” of what manga is and was, we might see just how it is that someone like Hisao might come to occupy the rank just above unknown.  From one perspective, his more conventional comics fit  neatly into stupid preconceptions of what pre-war manga was and by that standard might be judged to be, if not poor, then unremarkable.  However, from another perspective, his work for Jiji manga in particular is radically avant-garde, incredibly innovative, and deeply troubling to any purview of early manga history that takes it to be relatively simple and straightforward.  Again, multiple perspectives.

Next week: the most prolific manga artist of all time, whom, I guarantee, you do not know!

Stay tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com



  1. I enjoyed how you discussed in depth about having multiple perspectives in a single image panel. And seeing the “Life is one test after another” totally reminded me of the path to success as depicted in the third one (http://sliwainsights.com/blog/?p=41). (The first two comics just happened to be there. Consider them to be the bonus scenes. ^_^)

    But early on, you mentioned the multiple perspectives as a “problem.” I got a little confused since I saw this as a particular technique of showing all what’s happening in one scope. (One big panel, sometimes separated into smaller ones, like the buildings and organs.) Is it about the difficulty that could arise when using this technique?

    Great to be learning about the lesser-known history of manga with your analysis. So easy to pick up a manga and read it, but takes quite a task to explain its inner-workings. I’m glad that you have undertaken the latter as well.

    1. When I say that it’s a “problem,” I mean for a particular pervasive preconception of what manga is/was historically. You see something potentially familiar, but because Hisao uses framing elements like panels in a variety of ways and for a variety of non-conventional effects, then falling back on conventional readings of panel sequences as, say, moments in time or “shots” in a cinematic sense becomes increasingly problematic.

  2. These are fascinating. Especially, the “Life is one test after another” piece. It’s true that this kind of map is rarely used in narrative comics (the Family Circus maps come to mind) and is definitely more suited for broad editorial statements.
    One small mystery I can clear up is the 8 x 8 = kappa 64. The memorization of the 9 x 9 (kuku) by remembering the numbers with easy to remember combinations of number pronunciations is still used by school kids today. 5 (go) x 9 (ku) = 45 (shijuugo) as [gokkusijuugo]. 8(ha) x 8(pa) = 64 is [happarokushijuu] where happa has been punned into kappa.

    1. That’s totally awesome! Thanks! I never would have seen that in a million years.

  3. […] features, like, for instance, how many kindai manga appear in color.  This Kawamori Hisao [comic] I discussed in a post sometime ago with image scanned from the multivolume Manga zasshi […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: