Alright, the last of this four part kerfuffle, and I can imagine you, dear reader, breathing a gale force sigh of relief that my month long digression through ancient history is coming to an end. The four parts of this series have delved into the roughly four levels of pre-war manga notoriety: legend, notable, who?, and today’s entry, “what on earth are you droning on about?” I promised to reveal to you the most prolific manga artist of the kindai period and likely the most prolific manga artist of all time! And this person is… unknown–or rather Unknown. At the risk of rehearsing a variation on that classic Abbott and Costello routine, I should perhaps explain what I mean.
The vast majority of comics that appear in pre-war magazines and newspapers in Japan are unsigned. More than that, we don’t know who all the artists working for print media as illustrators even are so as to guess who might have drawn what. Yet, we have the comics. We have this massive amount of material ranging from the unique to the mundane, an amount that easily dwarfs that produced by any attributable artist or all attributable artists put together. Manga historiography, reliant as it is upon “major” and “minor” figures, artists to serve as the unifying locus for an entire oeuvre (e.g. a Tezuka or an Ishinomori [who?])–nevermind much of the actual work of various manga “geniuses” having been produced by legions of nameless assistants and studio employees who will likely never be acknowledged for their contributions–doesn’t really know what to do with all this anonymous work and thus, for the most part, ignores it. One might be forgiven for thinking that this fact of kindai manga might greatly contribute to its being consistently slighted.
The Treaty Ports and Early Manga Print Culture
The first wave of periodicals published in Japan were nearly all started by foreigners and not in Japanese. You might wonder how it is that one could get away with publishing English only newspapers and magazines in a country where English was not really spoken. It has to do with a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the so-called treaty ports established throughout East Asia by a variety of Western powers, though later the Japanese themselves established a presence in both Korea (which it later “annexed”) and China. Though treaty port is the term typically used in the context of colonialism in East Asia, the phenomenon is more generally known as extraterritoriality. Extraterritoriality differs from good old fashioned colonialism in that the powers who establish treaty ports don’t actually administer the territory in which they are. So, in the case of Yokohama, which was a nowhere village outside Edo prior to the Convention of Kanagawa, the Japanese government–initially the shogunate, later the Meiji government–was “in charge,” but foreign residents were not subject to Japanese laws and regulations, at least in theory. So, a large foreign population came to reside there, until the treaty with Britain was revised in 1899, thus ending extraterritoriality in Japan.
Of the humor magazines that were published in Yokohama (and have survived), Charles Wirgman’s Japan Punch and George Bigot’s Tōbaé are the most well known, though there was also E.V. Thorn’s The Illustrated Monthly of the Box of Curios (or just Box of Curios), which Rakuten began working for in 1895. I point this out, because when you consider that the print milieu in which Rakuten began to work was 1) transnational and 2) eclectic, much of what we see in kindai manga ceases to be such a great mystery or in need of being overlooked. It explains quite clearly why Tokyo Puck was in Japanese, English, and Chinese given those were the most common languages of Yokohama as well as the world of transnational print culture in East Asia.
Most of what appears on this last page are advertisements, snippets from other magazines (like Life), and subscription information. That the primary region of distribution was Japan, China, and Korea confirms my point above, but I would like to consider the ads more closely. Notice how they do not differ visually all that much from the comics in the rest of the magazine. In fact, in many cases, the artists doing illustrations for the ads were also doing comics eerily similar to them on other pages. For instance, the smoke coming out of the gentleman with the massive collar’s mouth (about 3/4 of the way down on the left) encircles his words just as if it were a classic speech bubble. Ads are a peculiar reflection of the pre-war manga landscape: they are, by necessity, unsigned, just like many of the comics and visual paraphernalia on any given page, and they represent a visual/print culture wherein far more is unknown than known.
Consider this ad page from Puck from 1907, where the image at center in fact is a single panel comic nestled among ads for whiskey (Jameson!), cigars, spring water, and scrubbing powder. On the level of the plane of the page, there is no distinction between what is an ad, what is a comic, and what is a reprint from the Chicago Record-Herald. The comic is unsigned, and so are the ads. It’s likely far from a coincidence that we see a similar thing in the very magazine upon which Rakuten would later base his first independent venture.
The Uncanny World of Pre-war Manga
Over the past few weeks I have ascribed a great deal of the avant-garde character of kindai manga to particular artists, as if their peculiar genius might save this work from the marginalia of comics historiography. The reality is there are as many peculiar works by unknown artists as by anyone else. This chart to the left compares the price of a bushel of rice against the “price” (i.e. wages) of the various professions that might want to buy rice for their sustenance. The “joke” is that the rice is valued far more highly than any person. This is one of many illustrations by an unknown artist to poach upon another visual form in much the same way I have tried to show over the previous weeks. As it turns out, what Rakuten, Jihei, Hisao, and others were doing was not peculiar to them but part of a larger print culture in which distinctions between illustrations for ads and for comics or between comic geniuses and ordinary unknowns are not as easy to make as you might think.
For example, I made a big point of this image, of how Jihei poaches on the visual form of the rail station map, and of how he develops a form of comic reading not dependent upon the assumptions of time and narrative that are otherwise so common. But what if it weren’t as simple as Jihei gazing upon a station map for any given railway, suddenly becoming inspired, and producing an ersatz masterpiece? What if there were a more prosaic explanation of his occasional genius? What if the way had already been paved to read this other visual form as comic?
Again, my interest here is not the Jihei illustration above, but the advertisement below for Club Cosmetics, a company still in business after 110 years. You may have already noticed the “rail line” at the bottom. It too is merely a hypothetical railway, a means of getting from “makeup sequence” (okesho no junjo) on the right to “beauty” (bijin) on the left. It is entirely possible that Jihei’s mode of reading had been prepared for him by an advertisement, though it is also possible that the ad could have drawn from the comic. More likely is that both drew from something that was, in a sense, “in the air,” namely that visual forms were anything but fixed and played upon each other in a print milieu where distinctions between these forms, if any meaningful distinction were made, was more a function of readerly interpretation than a response to particular characteristics of illustration.I cannot stress this enough, because the unknown individuals (or pairs or groups) who created these advertisements were reading/mapping the print visual landscape in exactly the same way as any named manga artist of greater or lesser notoriety.
You might also recal Hisao’s landscape of life as a series of exams, in which little devils prod people along to where, if they succeed in getting to the summit, they merely fall off a cliff. A similar logic underlies the landscape above by an unknown artist. People are herded along a winding path by their desire to earn a living at the factories in the city. Notice how those in the foreground, in the village, have unique characteristics, but as you move further back toward the factories, the figures become more and more uniform in appearance, just like the factories themselves, which vary little in design.
Manga of the kindai period is nothing if not populist, and it would be remiss of me, if I were to parade before you a new canon of comic geniuses, the only thing comics historiography seems to deal well with, without mentioning 1) the most prolific artist of all time, Anonymous, and 2) the similarities between the work of the “geniuses” and those whose work survives while their names do not. This is a lesson that cannot be learned, because the record of their passing in the world does not effectively record their passing, for we have the object and not the hand that drew it. One must put forth a concerted effort to keep in mind those unnamed and unnameable hands so easily swallowed up by the “big men” of manga history, lest we start to think that the big men and their great accomplishments are much more than a convenient critical fiction.
Next week: manga historiography done right?
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