[C]aR – Intermissive 1 – Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory

[all apologies for one-week-belatedness, but earlier drafts of this simply did not cohere]

PREVIOUS: Chapter 1 – Conclusion: What We Fail to Contemplate Contemplates Us

Intermissive 1 – Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory

Allen Say's Japanese signature in both his own hand (black) and seal script (red)

Allen Say’s Japanese signature in both his own hand (black) and seal script (red)

My original intentions were to simply let the abrupt transition from chapter 1 to the rather idiosyncratic treatment of [manga] in chapter 2 stand as a loose articulation that you, dear reader, would have to decipher on your own time, but about two weeks ago fortune happened to place Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory within my immediate awareness, and, as I read it, it became increasing clear that it was something I simply had to expound upon, because it makes apparent many of my concerns that only ever remain implicit, as I meander from one topic to the next hoping you keep up.

DFM contains [manga] history, and by that I do not mean to say that it is a historiographic text–all history writing therein is incidental to its primary emphasis on memorializing how Say became an artist/writer, an autobiography as Bildungsroman, if you will–it never quite lays out a schema for understanding [manga] history, yet it nevertheless broaches a number of subjects that more schematic histories of [manga] in the 20th century often simply leave by the wayside.  DFM contains history, then, in the way Spiegelman’s father “bleeds history” in part one of Maus, idiosyncratically but also palpably and arrestingly.  Unlike Maus–to my mind at least–Say’s work both depends upon but also occasionally eschews the conventions of children’s picture books to create a mixed form textual artifact which draws upon a number of depictive styles (e.g. watercolors, line art, oil painting) and form[at]s (e.g. single photographs, [comics], sketchbooks) and draws them together in a seemingly unified book that nonetheless allows visual forms to overlap and intermingle in contradistinction to a schematic understanding of [manga] as categorically separate from other contemporaneous visual/textual forms, even when those forms are recognized as clearly influencing one another.  DFM contains [manga] history because it elides ossified distinctions and leaves such categorical determinations to its readers.

Moreover, as a Japanese immigrant to the United States, his work (and life) straddle an all-too-common and thus terribly facile distinction we tend to make between Japanese and Anglophone [comics].  Unlike, for instance, Kiyama’s Four Immigrants Manga, which concerns life in San Francisco but only ever circulated among a Japanese reading public, be they “at home” or in expat communities abroad, Say may have apprenticed under the Japanese [comic] artist Noro Shinpei, who was a student of Okamoto Ippei, but he later became known by writing stories, as he says in DFM, “in the language of the people who were bombing us,” (11) when he was a child during the second World War.  Say’s work, then, is fundamentally ambivalent in a way that Kiyama’s is not, published first in English and thereafter translated back into Japanese.  Say is even known in Japanese by a transliteration of his English name, セイ, and not by 清井 (Seii, or, as Noro mispronounces it, Kiyoi), of which Say is already simply an anglicization.  I have addressed this in-between-ness previously in the context of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, but Say’s DFM takes this between-ness to the nth degree, involving not only complicated intersections of culture but of media and representation as well.

Drawing From Memory p. 8

Drawing From Memory p. 8

Bear in mind, since I will have occasion often enough below to ignore this fact, DFM, given who has published it (Scholastic), its format (the hardbound glossy pages typical of children’s picture book), and how it came to be in my possession (a book fair at my daughter’s school [c.f. libraries in chapter 1]), that it is not entirely appropriate to call Say’s book a [comic] or [manga].  Yet it contains [manga] history… how so?

A. “So I drew.”

In Say’s own childhood, as with my own daughter’s critically conscripted experiences in chapter one, his ability to produce images was coincident with and greatly depended upon his ability to read them.  By reading images, drawing from them as the title suggests Say draws from his own memories, he also learns how to use them creatively and not by rote.  Say as a child does not simply mimic what he sees by tracing it in meticulous exactitude but rather produces a number of different kinds of images (as we see below, sketches on paper as well as crayon graffiti on the walls of his home), none of which resembles what he sees or imagines down to the minutest of details yet profoundly depends upon them.

DFM p. 9

DFM p. 9

Drawing and reading images so as to be able to create them becomes a world in itself for the young Say, his entire world, in fact, in which [comics] both play a part, as we see Say sketching with a [comic] book before him, and function as a conceptual foundation for that world, wherein Say wants nothing more than “to become a cartoonist” (8) when he grows up.  Already–in fact, from page 7, where a photograph of Say and his mother is superimposed onto a watercolor rendering of the shores of Yokohama–we see the depicted child-as-artist deploying a number of visual modes simultaneously on the single plane of the page.  Both there in the ink-on-paper materia of the book and in the ersatz world they depict, those modes are already mixed, if not non-distinct then disparate only insofar as any given reading of this book renders them as such.  This multi-modal method of rendering images is at once receptive and productive, reproducing (so as to re-present) existing photographs, most of which Say could not himself have taken, since he is often the principle subject, as well as furnishing a sometimes drawn, sometimes painted, sometimes scripted book-world–this list is by no means exhaustive–in which to situate them.

DFM p. 7

DFM p. 7

This world-in-itself is not sequestered, though, from what we might consider ordinarily (and philosophically) as the world.  This is the takeaway from Deleuze and Guattari’s rather cryptic claim in the first section of Milles Plateaux (Thousand Plateaus) that the book is synonymous with the world, namely that representations or, in this case, depictions are not aloof from the world, so as to cast an objective gaze upon them, but rather that they dwell in this world.  If they are, in fact, a world unto themselves, nevertheless they depend upon and reflect the world of our, presumably, collective experience.  In this vein, notice how the shoreline in the black and white photograph on the left, as it vanishes into the horizon, matches with the “line” figured by where the village houses open onto the nearby beach.  Now, it would be unreasonable to claim that this image functions as a kind of photographic overlay–the topography of such a real place would make little sense–and yet as a depiction, the two disparate visuals neatly align.

As memoir, there is also an uneasy but critically productive non-distinction between Allen Say as author/artist, as multi-form character in an account–none of this is likely news to those who deal regularly with the issues that attain to autobiography–but also as character within the work of Noro Shinpei, which Say includes both as reprinted in his own text and as integrated into his own depiction[s] of self.

DFM p. 39

DFM p. 39

Here we see Say (or Kiyoi, as both Noro and the text would have it) as the character Kyusuke in Noro’s [comic] strip but also as another published version of the author, from Say’s own picture books, whose juxtaposition appears to demonstrate how the author himself drew as much on how others depicted him as on his own memories and understanding of those memories.  The reproduction of received images appears in this text, then, as both the matter-of-fact reprinting of existing artifacts, for instance, of photographs or [comics] or sketches, as well as the conceptual reproduction of how those visual artifacts imagine him.  So, when Say depicts himself several pages later as Kyusuke,

DFM p. 51

DFM p. 51

we have already been primed for how to understand Say’s early life through the lens of multiple characterizations.  Moreover, we have also been primed for the profound ambivalence these character modes might be used to represent.  So, when the young Say receives a letter from his now emotionally and physically distant father asking him to emigrate to the US, the text plays [comic] expectations against/with those the boy has developed out of his own life experiences.  “What would Kyusuke do?  I asked myself.  He would grab his knapsack and go, and either a kappa or Sensei would always get him out of trouble.  But I was in the real world.  I had seen Father abandon Mother.  Why would he save me from anything?” (ibid.)  I would take Say’s [comic] vs. real world distinction here with a grain of salt, precisely because Say’s text shows just how involved the one world is with the other and, as a result, how imperfect that distinction really is, like the line of the shore meeting with the hypothetical line of the village border on p. 7: markedly different yet well-suited to each other.

Your tl;dr, then, both for this book project so far and for thinking about the treatment of Tsurumi Shunsuke and Okamoto Ippei in the subsequent chapter is this: images conceptualize realities.  They do not merely put them on display–which is what I mean, when I say in the previous chapter that any cultural artifact is in part the discourse attendant upon it, a discourse which images themselves in part conceive.  In part B, we will see how this plays out in the [comic] forms Say embeds in DFM both as reprinted and as seamlessly incorporated into Say’s “own” work.

B. The World Between Black and White

So far, I have only answered the “how so?” question with which I led off in a rather localized fashion, how one life story can itself be a [comic] history, a point rather well trod by any number of recent studies of autobiographical [comics], even if I have extrapolated larger points therefrom.  However, there is also a formal apparatus deeply inscribed in Say’s text, some of which the text overtly signals and some of which is only apparent if your knowledge of [manga] history has primed you to see it.  Thankfully, you have a curmudgeon on hand to point out the more obscure usages, but let us begin with the readily apparent.

DFM p. 24

DFM p. 24

Noro here is identified only as “cartoonist,” but the two examples of his work from Democracy-chan (Demokurashī-chan – bottom right) and Gold Mountain (Sei-gōrudo maunten – top) are themselves representative of what are now considered two distinct forms, manga ([manga]) and emonogatari (illustrated stories) respectively.  The former is generally considered to be more straightforwardly [comic]-like–and the further back one goes in [manga] history the harder and harder it becomes to make an easy visual distinction between American and Japanese [comics]–while the latter, according to a certain stereotype that in practice does not always hold, maintains a larger degree of separation between images and words and is quite often more visually detailed where [manga] is more “cartoonish.”  However, in the [manga] magazines of the postwar period, manga and emonogatari appeared side by side along with many other print media that were presumed to appeal to young readers: maps, game boards, photographs, furoku (toy inclusions), etc.  For an artist like Noro Shinpei, who worked in this milieu, the latter day distinction between [manga] and “illustrated stories” would likely carry little weight, just as for Say’s own text, these disparate media only ever appear elided into one another.

It is worth recalling, then, how, even though DFM depicts Say’s training as a burgeoning mangaka and the work he performed as Noro’s disciple, a [comic] artist is not quite what Allen Say became after moving to America, being disowned by his father, and starting his career.  He became a writer and illustrator of stories that, for the most part, recount Japanese cultural experiences from the linguistic perspective of those who preferred (and arguably still prefer) ballistic over verbal diplomacy.  As an emonogatari sakka rather than a mangaka, Say’s work can be something other to [comic] art and yet encapsulate it.  His work embodies the very non-distinction his teacher’s does in contrast to a rather rigid categorical separation that contemporary [manga] historiography would enforce, even when upon close inspection of historical examples, such a distinction does not meaningfully hold.

The non-contrast is at its most stark in DFM, when Say juxtaposes a more [manga]-like with a more emonogatari-like page immediately thereafter.  As “Kiyoi” and Tokida go out into the countryside to try out their newly acquired oil paints, the narrative starts out [comic]

DFM p. 48

DFM p. 48

but proceeds immediately into the formal milieu of the “illustrated story.”

DFM p. 49

DFM p. 49

This is not at all out of kind for children’s picture books.  For instance, in Numeroff and Bond’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the “book” the boy shows to the mouse appears at first glance to be a [comic], just as above Say-as-child reads to his classmates from his own [comic] books.  If I have up till this point perhaps over-emphasized the [comic]-ness of Say’s work, I should correct the record by noting the amenibility of this very [comic]-ness to the print milieu into which DFM is situated, namely children’s picture books published in North America.  Moreover, Say uses the typically spare and simple diction of illustrated print juvenilia for remarkably literary effect.  There is the already alluded to “[o]ne day I would write a story about him in the language of the people who were bombing us” (11) but also the closing statement “like Kyusuke, I was ready to start a new life with what I could carry on my back.” (57)  Japanese and American illustrated forms are drawn together in a manner in which the overlap is highlighted and the divisions elided.  Say’s cultural ambivalence becomes an ambivalence or, more accurately, multivalence of form whose pronounced non-distinctions and overlays bring to light the mixed media that [manga] historiography so often pushes to the side.

Some correspondences are more obscure but make DFM‘s connections to the history of [manga] all the more rooted.  Consider the layout of following page.

DFM p. 20

DFM p. 20

If you can already see where I am going with this–perhaps because you are already scrolled far enough down this very page–congratulations, but if nothing particularly interesting jumps out at you, consider also the layout of this page from Okamoto Ippei’s Heiki no Heitarō from 1931.

Okamoto Ippei, Heiki no Heitarō p. 5

Okamoto Ippei, Heiki no Heitarō p. 5

While normally I roll my eyes profusely over relationships of direct influence, because DFM the text relies so heavily on master-disciple relationships, it is worth noting the striking similarities between Say’s work here and the manga shōsetsu ([manga] novels/short stories) of Okamoto Ippei, who just so happened to be Noro’s own sensei and long time [comic] artist for the Asahi shinbun, the very newspaper Say-as-student reads at the bottom of page 20.  A similar–though not quite the same as Ippei’s–style of zigzagging images and words is used to tell the story of how Say’s friend and fellow Noro-disciple, Tokida, came be to a “boy cartoonist.”  Say captures an entire moment in [manga] history, evokes a world that [manga] historiography, as practiced at least, is too often ill-equipped to evoke for itself, a world whose [comic] reality is never quite distinct from “real” reality.

DFM p. 55

DFM p. 55

The narrative text at the top of page 55 concludes, “[s]oon all would be memories,” and the first photographic “memory” (of seven) that it depicts is of “three young cartoonists” (like Noro, one presumes?) onto whom have been doodled three pairs of cartoonish glasses.  Moving forward, it is worthwhile, dear reader, to suspend any investments you might have in the reality of the “real world” and, more importantly, in the imaging thereof.  The historian’s prejudice, to equate a greater level of detail with greater historical veracity and a cartoonish lack of detail with, at best, surreality, will, in the following chapter, be called into question and upon that prejudice may very well be scribbled the mark of revelatory buffoonery.

NEXT: Chapter 2 – [Manga]

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3 comments

  1. […] Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory and Chapter 1 – Conclusion: What We Fail to Contemplate Contemplates […]

  2. […] conceptual level of the historiographic narrative as well as the materiality of the text itself. It contains [manga] history in much the same way Allan Say’s Drawing From Memory does, by etching its many facets, if not its factual details, into the text you have before you. Unlike […]

  3. […] NEXT: Intermissive 1 – Allen Say’s Drawing From Memory […]

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