21. Okamoto Ippei, or Another New Manga

Almost entirely by accident, I seem to be constantly running into “new manga” of late, and not simply new manga in the sense of new titles but entirely new conceptions of manga, be it the Franco-Japanese hybrid of la nouvelle manga or this week’s topic, Okamoto Ippei’s How to Draw the New Manga (Atarashiki manga no kakikata-shū).  This “collection” comprises three texts, How to Draw New Manga (Shin-manga no kakikata), How to Draw New Manga Figures (E-shin-manga no kakikata), and Easy Manga Sketches Anyone Can Draw (Dare de mo kakeru manga ryakuga no kakikata).  If this sounds like an instructional manual to you, dear reader, you would not be remiss, because, for the most part, How to Draw the New Manga is a step by step guide for how to do draw a variety of things that fall under the rubric of manga.


Three types of women in the new manga: (from right to left) a wife at home, a woman instructor, an actress; in Ippei-shū vol. 13 p. 197

However, it is also one of the earliest theoretical texts on manga, perhaps even one of the earliest examples of comics theory broadly understood.  For Ippei first attempts to establish what exactly manga is, as against other visual arts, before going into how to draw caricatures and panels and what not.  The theory of manga he presents would be quite novel and thoroughly provocative by today’s standards of “comics theory;” add to that the fact this work was first published in 1928, nearly two decades before, as so many manga historians would have it, “real” manga first came into being, and you have a work that, honestly, I am absolutely shocked has received so little attention, especially given Ippei’s status within manga history.

So Close, yet So Far Away


On the left: all you really need to know about Woodrow Wilson, ibid. p. 31

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.

Ippei begins to answer the question of what manga is by mostly avoiding it.  While he does initially claim that manga has something to with the pictorial representation of the modern day (chikagoro kaiga), ultimately he comes around to explaining what manga may be by comparing it with honga (a completed or “finished” image).  Now, to understand what honga refers to, you have to know a little bit about Japanese art instruction terminology.  In the process of working on, say, a large oil painting, one first begins by making life sketches (shasei) of things in one’s environment.  Then, from those sketches, you extract elements and create preliminary drawings (koshitazu) that lead to a mock-up drawing (ōshitazu) of the honga or “finished image.”  In this example, the honga would be an oil painting but it could just as easily be a mural or line drawing or whatever.  The point in using the term honga is to emphasize how the work of art is an idealized abstraction from elements in real life.


ibid. p. 10

[right] A woman looking at flowers in honga

[left] A woman looking at flowers in manga

Ippei’s use of this highly technical term is meant to make clear his distinction between manga and other artforms, and thereby provide at least a negative definition of what manga is.  Now, I don’t think that Ippei is trying to imply that manga is somehow not art, but rather that high art (understood in the Japanese sense of bijutsu, i.e. the “art/craft of beauty”) has a remarkably limited range that is rarely in touch with contemporary people and their concerns.  In describing the image on the right above, Ippei says that everything points towards its bi or beauty, though not without a touch of simple-minded “prettiness.”  The image on the left, though seemingly distorted, has a far greater emotional range, and he gets at this range not by stating it explicitly but by asking a series of questions: “in the manga, is the woman opposite those flowers feeling overly sentimental, or perhaps she is overwhelmed with indifference…”  Manga, then, is a kind of image susceptible to multiple, contradictory readings, because it is closely tied to the complexities of human affairs.  A honga, on the other hand, because it is merely extrapolated from human life, over a lengthy artistic/editorial process, strikes one as emotionally and semiotically flat, even if sublime and beautiful.


An “ordinary man” (futsū no ningen), ibid. 71

The distinction, then, between honga and manga is the same as the distinction between ideal and actual, which, if you’re not familiar with the intellectual history of the the 19th century, is philosophically fraught.  Suffice it to say, Ippei’s notion that manga is more actual (jitsujō) flies in the face of how comics are typically understood in popular imagination, as flights of fancy.  Moreover, it is the exaggerations of comics that make them more real, in a sense, because they put in stark relief those elements that in a honga, a mere work of art, might remain muted or function simply as one part of an idealized tableau.  In manga, these elements acquire meaning again, a meaning closely linked to the circumstances and human condition of a contemporary reader.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed…

Of course, this doesn’t really answer the question as to why Ippei would refer to this kind of illustration as new manga, so for that we again have to consider what the old manga might be to which Ippei is responding and revising.  Like many others, Ippei tackles that bête noire of Japanese comics theory, the Chōjū giga, in order to reject it, but on rather unusual grounds.  For Ippei does not reject the possibility of ancient precursors to manga, rather he asserts the mere fact of a text’s being illustrated is not sufficient reason for putting it in a tradition leading up to present day manga.  Instead, he claims it is far better to look at classical Japanese literature, in particular works such as Yoshida Kenkō‘s Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) or Sei Shōnagon‘s Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi).

Sei Shōnagon from and Edo period Hyakunin Isshu

Sei Shōnagon from an Edo period Hyakunin Isshu

If you think about it, there is something particularly apt in drawing the comparison between manga and pre-modern zuihitsu, how that genre emphasizes one’s opinions and reactions to contemporary events rather than idealized dramas of the romantic fiction common to the period.  Similarly, zuihitsu represents more clearly the emotional range and ambiguity that Ippei is looking for.  There is one especially telling example in Kenkō’s essays, where he tells the story of a group of monks at a drinking party.  Completely wasted, one of the monks sticks an iron pot on his head and begins to dance for everyone’s amusement.  However, when the monk tries to pull the pot off his head, it won’t budge.  His fellow monks join in and try to get the damn thing off to little avail.  All of this might remain the purview of slapstick if not for the fact that once they finally do manage to get the pot off, it tears off his ears and part of his nose in the process.  As Kenkō moves from the frivolity of the drunken monks, to their worry for their friend, to his very real pain and suffering, we see a far broader range of the human experience than mere comedy or tragedy alone might imply.

Likewise, in the Pillow Book, Shōnagon describes “a place where a lady lives alone, in a badly dilapidated dwelling surrounded by a crumbling earth wall, the garden pond full of water weed, and the courtyard, if not literally overrun with wormwood, at any rate with patches of green weeds showing here and there through the gravel, is a truly forlorn and moving sight.  There’s nothing more boringly unromantic than a place where the lady has got down to business and had everything repaired and smartened up, meticulously locks her gate each evening and generally keeps the place in punctilious fashion” (#170 trans. Meredith McKinney).  I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide which lady corresponds to Ippei’s manga and honga above.

A two panel page (the 9th month) from the Shiji kōka, the first text to use the term manga.

A two panel page (the 9th month) from the Shiji no yukikai, the first known text to use the term manga.

Of course, the other old manga to which Ippei might be responding is late Edo period print culture, in which the term manga originates.  Here, the exemplar is, of course, Katsushika Hokusai, whose Hokusai manga has been a touchstone for Japanese and non-Japanese comic theorists alike.  As Hashimoto Osamu notes in the introduction to The Complete Hokusai Manga Sketchbooks (Hokusai manga [zen]), it’s inappropriate to think of it formally in terms of contemporary manga, for the sketchbooks were intended more as manuals and catalogues of various objects (rendered in a manner amenable to print) rather than as texts to read for enjoyment.  This, oddly, did not stop the fifteen volumes of his manga from becoming a bestseller, with an audience well outside the narrow realm of aspiring artists.  Again, Ippei eschews the obvious, formal connection between the new and old manga, opting instead for the deeper, thematic connection, wherein manga represents a particular orientation toward the human condition and toward depiction, a how rather than a what.  For, as Hokusai himself says in the preface to the third volume of his manga“while fantastic creatures which never appear to the eye are easy to draw, to depict various kinds of people is quite difficult” (me ni mienu kishin wa egaki-yasuku, machigaki jinbutsu wa egaku koto katashi).


from Hokusai’s Ono ga baka mura muda jie-zukushi, in Hokusai no e-tehon vol. 1 p. 73

Thankfully, Hokusai has provided for us a simple way to break these images down, so that even a mere novice might produce them.  While the Hokusai manga functions more as a catalogue of images and types (and in that, its popularity is easily explained by the fascination with browsing picture catalogues in the 19th and 20th centuries), his picture handbooks (e-tehon) are more clearly intended for instruction in how to actually draw.  In the image above, he shows how to use written characters and the strokes that compose them (upper panel) in order to draw a seated monk playing a stringed instrument (bottom right).  Note how Hokusai, never without a sense of whimsy, has used the character for “mountain” (yama – 山) to draw the monk’s butt.


Ippei-shū vol. 13 p. 215

Similarly, Ippei has broken down a set of simple, cartoonish images that anyone can draw.  Both Hokusai’s and Ippei’s texts emphasize the populism inherent in their respective conceptions of manga: not only should manga depict the contemporary human condition, but contemporary human beings should also be able to draw and understand it.  Again, Ippei’s juxtaposition of manga with honga is salient, because the idea of a studied refinement has been rejected in favor of immediacy, an immediacy that, even if ugly (or perhaps especially when ugly), presents a far greater depth of meaning than a mere pretty image.

Moreover, Ippei’s thematic rather than formal conception of manga reminds us of something that comics theory has lost sight of, that content was, historically the primary determining factor in deciding what categorically was and was not a comic.  But because comics came to be associated primarily with children, they then became childish, and the “comedy” in comics came to represent a narrow range of material.  Yet this was always a gross mischaracterization of comics, for even something as seemingly simple as Peanuts was possessed of a remarkable range.  Perhaps this is the point, that there comes a time when being very very serious becomes a stereotype in itself and that the comic might serve as a means to break out of that tedious, professorial rut of the old bald head awash in theories of li’chrechur.  What Ippei reminds us of is the possibility that Charlie Chaplin says as much, if not more, about the plight of humanity that Marx ever did or could.

Next week: a manga “new to me!”

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. […] break it down here, but I do want to note, before I get into the translation, a correspondence to an earlier blog post on Okamoto Ippei and what he called the “new manga.”  You may not recall (or may not have read) that […]


  3. […] the image on the right, we see his example of honga, wherein, at the risk of plagiarizing myself, everything points towards its bi[4] or beauty, though not without a touch of simple-minded […]

  4. […] more on Ippei, c.f. my post from August 2013 or the more extensive discussion in chapter 2 of [Comics] as Reading.  In part 2, I’ll […]

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