Tsurumi Shunsuke (born 1922) is hard to pin down. In Japanese, he is generally referred to by the obnoxiously vague term “critic” (hyōronka), which, in his case, includes critique of literature, art, pop culture, etc. as well as philosophical writings and political activism. He was outspoken against the Vietnam War and, in particular, Japan’s ever increasing role in facilitating the US’s ill-conceived expedition into Indo-China. He also has the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the first manga critics, though, of course, this was not really the professional title when he began writing about comics in earnest that it now is. Despite this distinction, Tsurumi is one among the many of Japanese comics critics/historians whose work has failed to see the light of day outside their native language [EDIT – outside of the entire chapter on comics in his Cultural History of Postwar Japan; DOH!]. With Tsurumi this oversight is particularly galling, when you consider how he was educated in the US–Tsurumi graduated from Harvard in 1941 (!)–has written about American comics in addition to Japanese, and generally brings a transnational perspective to an ersatz discipline that has a remarkable tendency for quickly veering into cultural essentialism.
Because of this, in my translation below of his essay “Manga wa hangurii āto ka” (“Are Comics a Hungry Art”) from the March 1971 issue of Taiyō, I have decided to always translate his use of the word manga as “comics” or “comic” and not leave it “as is,” for that word in Japanese and especially in Tsurumi’s text is far broader than its more limited use in English. Second, a word or two needs to be said about the phrases “hungry sports” and “hungry art.” There is a large number of words/phrases in Japanese that are basically made up English or English used in a way that would seem rather odd outside of Japanese. “Hungry sport” (hangurii supōtsu) is one of them. It is used to refer to the kind of sport in which one rises from mean circumstances, after a great deal of hard work, failure, and eventually success, to a position of prominence. Boxing is considered the quintessential “hungry sport,” wherein a kid on the streets is “saved” from his upbringing by using his street smarts and brawn and what not to rise through the ranks, face ever increasingly difficult opponents, to at long last face the champion and win lasting glory. If this is starting to sound like the plot of Ashita no Joe, well then give yourself a pat on the back.
The following is from the text of “Manga wa hangurii āto ka” in the 7th volume of Tsurumi’s collected works, Manga no dokusha to shite (As a reader of comics), pp. 70-72.
“Are Comics a Hungry Art?”
It was ten years ago. As I was sitting in a hotel lobby, people came piling in and sat down in seats scattered about. I couldn’t move at all, so I just sat there quietly, as, right before my eyes, a fat man and a skinny man sat down. The press conference had begun.
The skinny man was José Medel, and the fat one was his manager.
Medel answered the questions the sports reporters surrounding me were asking, the manager for the most part explained what he had said in English, but because the translator was having a hard time keeping up, little progress was made. That’s when I noticed that Medel was looking right in my direction. Shortly thereafter, the manager too started looking my direction as he spoke. I hadn’t gotten the memo [about the press conference], and as I was listening to their conversations in English, I think they had noticed my reactions to what they were saying and seemed to have mistaken me for a reporter who spoke English. I felt bad about the incidental deception, but chairs had simply been set up about the one I had originally sat down in and so, thinking I was the organizer of the press conference, they had taken seats nearby.
That was the first time I had seen a boxer with my own eyes. His pupils moved nimbly, and he had a kind, delicate countenance. I was surprised to discover how small his hands were. His fingers were as slender as an artist’s.
A number of days later, I saw Medel’s bout on the television. I was deeply moved by the intelligence of his body in motion, because it coincided with my earlier impressions of him.
Whenever I hear the phrase “hungry sports” the first thing I think of is my impression of Medel. Boxing is, perhaps, the type of sport burdened with the hunger of youth, a hunger to make one lean like Medel. So, in a similar sense, could comics be said to be a “hungry art?”
Which is not to say that comics are, in their entirety, a hungry art. However, there is one stream of comics that functions as one, and one might say that in Japan there is a very strong stream of such comics.
It’s here and there throughout the arts, in a manner analogous to how Kuwahara Takeo called haiku a second art, because you cannot define them according to good or bad points, it is customary to rank the arts in accordance with their relative merits like the hierarchy of human relationships. Under those circumstances, classical Japanese poetry [waka], Japanese painting, calligraphy, and so forth run the gamut of those arts the estimation of whose value is unchanged. The way one strives to become a member of the arts academy, with regard to the type of person who has nearly attained that status, points to the very foundation of human relations. Their domain is one which carries the burden of those grown much fatter than Medel, like his manager; there is no room for a hungry art. This means comics are not one to be given membership in the arts academy, so they have acquired the status of a hungry art.
The extreme opposite of hungry art is a genre we should call “gluttonous art.” [manpuku geijutsu, lit. “full stomach art”]. The arts of mass communication that occupy the television for the most part could be said to be gluttonous art. The central pillar holding it all up is the commercial. Advertisements for life insurance, ads for pharmaceuticals, ads for food products, ads for housing–altogether are examples of this gluttonous art. Yet, oddly, the shows on NHK, on which there are no commercials, are overflowing with gluttonous arts. As to how this could be, because NHK is a propaganda machine of the current government, by which we learn to be people of the world of finance, it seems only natural. Even during the war, the programs on NHK radio were not as full of this gluttonous art as they are now.
Though commercials are one place where an artist might make a great deal of money, they also provide the opportunity for him to exploit a new outlet for his art. It is a place where he might innovate his techniques, so one cannot simply say it is not avant-garde. However, regrettably, no matter how avant-garde his techniques are, the thoughts underlying them are exposed as the thinking of a gluttonous art. Here, in opposition to the gluttony embodied in television programs or commercials, is the meaning of comics as a hungry art.
Comics, as something free from the relationship between boss [i.e. a Yakuza boss] and henchmen or between academics–as representative of Japanese society in its entirety–entered into a decade, the 1960s, that seemed to have forgotten about hunger. With incredible speed, they were forced into mass production and given the character of a hungry art. Beginning with Shirato Sanpei, Mizuki Shigeru, Nagashima Shinji and extending to Sasaki Maki and Tsurita Kuniko, this group of writers made Garo their home. By remaining tied directly to a form of mass communication and taking up its incredible pace of production, they were never separated from the realm of a hungry art with the likes of Tezuka Osamu, Akatsuka Fujio, or George Akiyama. These people were never embarrassed to be considered players on the team of hungry art. The works of pure art of the class of members of the arts academy continue to serve as ambassador to the facile sensibilities of American or European societies, meanwhile these creators of hungry art don’t lose sight of those in the third world suffering from hunger. In their comics, I think, is a footwork reminiscent of Medel, a boxer from that third world.
Next Week: the introduction to Tsurumi’s Thoughts on Comics in the Postwar (Manga no sengo shisō)