23c. Third World Manga, or Sazae-san Blue

I had, of course, intended to finally talk about Hasegawa Machiko this week, but I must momentarily defer yet again, for as I was laying out today’s post, it occurred to me that there were a couple of aspects of the two examples of Tsurumi Shunsuke’s manga criticism I posted last week and the week before that are not entirely obvious and could do both with a bit of clarification and also some contextualization.

In her essay “Considering Manga Discourse,” Jacqueline Berndt places Tsurumi in the first generation of manga critics, even though there are examples of manga criticism, such as Ippei’s, that precede Tsurumi and the inception of Shisō no kagaku (Science of Thought), the journal Tsurumi created along with six others, by several decades.  Of course, Ippei’s Shin manga no kakikata is as different from Tsurumi’s essays as, say, Martin Sheridan’s Comics and Their Creators is from David Kunzle’s The Early Comic Strip.  Ippei’s text introduces a rather novel theoretical conception of what comics are, yet it remains largely incidental to a text whose real purpose is to actually teach its reader how to draw the “new manga.”  Tsurumi’s works are intended first and ultimately as criticism and theory.  Therefore, it is not inappropriate to claim that Tsurumi and his ilk stand at the head of a critical discourse that has continued unabated since.

However, unlike contemporary comics critical discourse, which has become and is becoming ever increasingly academic, what Tsurumi and his collaborators envisioned in starting Shisō no kagaku was a populist intellectual journal, one which solicited and actually published articles from the general public, from people outside the closed circles that, frankly, still rule the day in Japanese intellectual life.  It is worth keeping this in mind, as you read the following.

Doodles from the Third World

When Tsurumi says that at their core comics are a form of rakugaki, he rides the double sense of raku rather hard, as both pleasant diversion or entertainment and… well… something.  That something, that I have elsewhere translated as “vulgar,” itself carries a doubled meaning.  It is vulgar in the sense of common parlance, that is “base” or merely common, but also vulgar in the sense of the Latin word vulgus, meaning ordinary people or, more pejoratively, the mob.  Manga is a “fallen” art, in the sense of the verb ochiru (落ちる), “to fall,” which uses the same Chinese character (i.e. 落) but also in the sense of the raku in buraku (部落), the hamlets into which the lowest stratum of pre-modern Japan had fallen, sequestered from ordinary society due to the unseemly jobs they performed (e.g. butchery, tanning, corpse removal, etc.) and thus thoroughly ghettoized.  Japan has only recently started to come out of the shadow of the polite social discrimination visited upon burakumin, the “people of the buraku,” since the Heian period.  For Tsurumi to make this connection between the buraku and comics in toto, in 1973 no less, is quite bold, even if it only ever remains implicit.  For, while Tsurumi never quite comes and says that manga = a buraku art, it cannot be a coincidence that the artist he valorizes most, Shirato Sanpei, sets his most popular work, Kamui-den, within the socio-political context of a buraku.

As Tsurumi says of Ninja bugeichō in A Cultural History of Postwar Japan, “[Shirato] portrays invisible organizers [Tsurumi’s rather telling translation of the word ninja] who fight to the death against the oppressive rule of the fief lords.  The cartoons take the standpoint of the peasants, the beggars, and the still more discriminated against Buraku people.  There is no single hero.” (34)  I would disagree strongly with Tsurumi’s characterization of NB as having no hero–Kagemaru figures prominently throughout, and the text is subtitled Kagemaru-den–but his point about it taking an alternative historical standpoint is apt, because it reflects both the protest culture of the 1960s as well as the oppositional nature of Tsurumi’s own critical writings.  He adds, “[Shirato’s] portrayal of facets of class strife with fine distinction between different classes and class personalities is unique, even outside Japan.  He is singular in not glorifying the oppressed.  He portrays the cruel factional strife among invisible organizers and the resulting unjust purges and executions.  In this there is a deep-seated nihilism in his view of history… [i]t was this nihilism and black rancour which attracted to him, and to him alone, many of the young live-in employees who had migrated from farming villages to the city with only the bare essentials of compulsory education.” (36)

These new denizens of Japan’s economic “prosperity” recall two survey respondents with whom Tsurumi begins his discussion of Shirato’s comics.  “Both were resident employees in cleaning shops, in their twenties, and had come from farming villages to the city.  In the holidays they did not have enough money to go to films or for other expensive pastimes.  The owner of the cleaning shop had a television set, but his family would choose the channel.  To such young men, borrowing comic books was a temporary citadel of freedom.  They read three books a day, 100 a month.  The comic books they read were gruesome and satisfied their desire to compensate for their state of alienation.”

Given these nods toward the Japanese underclass(es), both historical and current, it makes sense that he would characterize manga-as-hungry-art as coming from both a figurative and real Third World, unaligned with the major political/cultural powers yet profoundly affected by them, just as Third World countries were defined by allegiance neither to the United States nor the Soviet Union and yet were intimately involved in the geopolitical games of the old superpowers.  As a hungry art, there is in comics a struggle with the potential legitimacy offered by the powers that be, and I don’t think it would be at all out of line to understand Tsurumi’s treatment of “pure art” vis-a-vis manga as analogous to, say, the relationship between the United States and Mexico.

Likewise, Tsurumi notes how rakugaki stands in opposition to those activities that are meant to have a kind of social legitimacy: work, prayer, commerce, etc.  To doodle, then, is to take the trappings of high art and debase them, to emphasize how in themselves they are without meaning or purpose, a status only momentarily lent to them by society’s or some institution’s imprimatur.  To revel in the buraku, to draw or to write with the intent of openly flaunting the demands of social graces, to screw around, in other words, is anathema not just to Japanese society but to all societies, who rely upon people’s willing participation in and willingness to enforce society’s rules in order to exist at all.  Rakugaki is a nihilistic gesture that points to what true freedom might mean.

Beginning from rakugaki, then, is an interesting critical maneuver, because while it doesn’t deny manga an ancient history, it does so in such a way as to undermine the more staid intent of conservative critics who would locate the origins of manga in a distant past so as to institutionalize it and thereby immunize it from the various calls for censorship that pop up from time to time.  The idea of manga as a socially acceptable artform would be anathema to Tsurumi’s whole critical project.  What makes manga/comics valuable are their ability to undermine artistic, social, and political conventions.  This opens up the possibility, in theoretically constructing what comics are, that their social function is as important, if not more important than “what they look like.”  Two texts, visually similar, might fall on either side of a <manga—–art> spectrum, dependent upon their status as officially authorized aesthetic objects.

Tsurumi’s example of the doodle in the hand copied scrolls housed at Shōsō-in is emblematic of this divide.  On the one hand, you have the officially sanctioned document, the sutra, while on the other you have silly pictures, the former representative of a religious institution, the latter of a group of people whose dedication to that institution is profoundly ambivalent.  The text, then, serves as an accidental dialectic of the sacred and the profane: the sacred tedium of a holy text and the profane liveliness of monks goofing off.  The sutra, as material as well as cultural object, is really multiple texts in one, a discourse unto itself, in which distinctions are to be made according to standards other than that of formal, “graphic” particulars.  A drawing of a demon in the margins of a notebook and a rendering of the same demon on a hell screen in a Pure Land temple are fundamentally different things, even when composed by the same hand, because the social and psychological functions are different.  It is inappropriate, then, in a certain sense, to compare them, and likewise, as Tsurumi seems to argue, it may also be inappropriate to the modern spirit of rakugaki one finds in comics old-ish and new.

The Eerie World of Sazae-san

The Wonderful World of Sazae-san vol. 1 p. 28

The Wonderful World of Sazae-san vol. 1 p. 28

For better or for better, Hasegawa Machiko’s Sazae-san is inextricably linked to Japanese culture.  It’s a shame that nowadays it’s seen as old fashioned or the kind of thing that only old people like–you know, ubiquitous family fare.  But what none of this eye rolling makes clear is the melancholy that lies at the heart of what otherwise appears to be goofy family comedy.  Tsurumi sees Sazae-san as indicative of a general outlook of the Japanese public, in which there is “satisfaction with the everyday life of the family, from which point of view an excessive craving for better positions, exemplified by hard-working company clerks or children pushed to study, seems funny.” (Cultural History p. 114)  What so many understand to be the centerpiece of Japanese society is an object of ridicule.  For the longest time, the Sazae-san anime has been broadcast at the same time on Sunday, leading to what has come to be called “Sazae-san blue,” a feeling that even as they were chuckling at Sazae-san and kin’s antics, the audience knew that it signaled the end of the weekend and a return to the drudgery of a workaday existence.

Just like our heroine, Japan, at the worst of times, in the immediate postwar, wanted to put on its, if you will, Sunday best, even though the reality was one where women were forced to work outside the home just so their families could survive.  The photographer wants to capture this reality but is thwarted by the general perception that there is something unseemly about it.  Photography is supposed to be, as the Japanese shashin would have it, a “copy of reality,” and Sazae-san and her mother, knowing this without having to say it, want to tailor reality to their tastes.

ibid. p. 27

ibid. p. 27

In case you happen to be British, the MPs in question are not Members of Parliament but Military Police, more specifically the military police of the American occupation forces.  The gag is predicated on Sazae’s kid sister not quite understanding that the book isn’t what makes the phone work, but there are other subtle touches in this comic that point to things not quite being kosher in the state of Denmark.  In the second panel, there is a low-lying, broken barbed wire fence that serves as a reminder that while the war may be over, its detritus still litters the landscape and the memories are still fresh.  Likewise, though the year is 1946, the second of the Allied occupation, and it’s clear that when Sazae threatens to turn Wakame into the MPs for the horrible offence of taking a photo album out, she means the Americans, there is, to my mind, an echo of the war times, when neighbors turned each other in to the Japanese military police for trivial offences that “proved” their disloyalty.

The Sazae-san of today, colored as it is by the boom times that followed the postwar and instilled in Japanese society a kind of amnesiac entitlement to prosperity, even though, as Tsurumi tries to show, that prosperity was built upon the alienation and deferred ambitions of a generation of young, poor Japanese, doesn’t quite recall that other, seedier but in many ways more telling Japan, the Japan of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog or Dazai’s Setting Sun.  Yet, if you look closely at the accumulated anxiety of occupation, rationing, poverty, constant manual labor, unfair treatment of women–all of which serve as the premise of silly gags–that characterize Sazae-san‘s first years of serialization, you catch a glimpse, even if only a fleeting one, of what Tsurumi means by a “hungry art.”

Next week: it… came… from… the… ARCHIVES!!!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. I approve of next week’s title.


  3. […] in how the very research that supposedly challenges his place gets done.  One of the reasons I translated and discussed Tsurumi Shunsuke a few weeks back was to show that the way we think about manga now is not, in fact, ideologically neutral, an all […]

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