[C]aR – Chapter 2 – [Manga] pt. 2

PREVIOUS: [Manga] pt. 1

The idealism of honga as “high art” and the exaggeration of ponchi as “low art,” with which Ippei juxtaposes [manga] at one point and another, are constrained, limited forms of expression, whereas [manga] is seemingly more free in how and what it depicts and therefore more semiotically open. His definition, then, such as it is, is equally open to what might conventionally be considered a [comic] (Garfield or The Great Catsby or whatever) as to Natsume Sōseki’ Wagahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat). Ippei and Sōseki were great admirers of each other’s work, and the former produced several illustrated versions of the latter’s stories as [manga]. Likewise, though not originally illustrated, Sōseki’s I Am a Cat fits neatly with Ippei’s definition of [manga] in the way it observes Meiji era social mores and depicts them from a view askew, that of a domesticated animal.

The Tale of Genji emaki as depicted on the reverse of the old 2000 yen note

In fact, in looking for literary analogues to [manga], Ippei points to a number of texts, modern and ancient, Japanese and non-, that serve as exemplars of the perspective [manga] is meant to represent. For instance, he points to the zuihitsu or “miscellany” writings of Sei Shōnagon and Yoshida Kenkō as classical examples of something [manga]-like and not, interestingly, Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, which has been illustrated and thereby rendered one of the most famous emaki to survive to the present day. Zuihitsu (literally “as the brush goes”) emphasizes personal opinions and reactions to contemporaneous events or to one’s own self-constructed textual landscape (i.e. your own reading experiences) over the idealized romantic fiction common to the period that Murasaki’s Genji better represents. Zuihitsu arguably also better represents the semiotic range that Ippei’s definition of [manga] aspires to. For instance, one vignette in Kenkō’s Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa), in which we see a group of monks at a drinking party, moves deftly from the comedic to the deadly serious.

A farewell party was being offered for an acolyte about to become a priest, and the guests were all making merry when one of the priests, drunk and carried away by high spirits, picked up a three-legged cauldron nearby, and clamped it over his head. It caught on his nose, but he flattened it down, pulled the pot over his face, and danced out among the others, to the great amusement of everyone. (Tsurezuragusa 53, trans. Donald Keene)

The acolyte and the others try to take off the pot, but to no avail. They even take him to a doctor, who has to turn the acolyte away for fear of being unable to help him.

At this point somebody suggested, “Wouldn’t it be better at least to save his life, even if he loses his nose and ears? Let’s try pulling the pot off with all our strength.” They stuffed straw around the priest’s neck to protect it from the metal, then pulled hard enough to tear off his head. Only holes were left to show where his ears and nose had been, but the pot was removed. They barely managed to save the priest’s life, and for a long time afterwards he was gravely ill. (ibid.)

Moreover, one sees in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book (Makura no sōshi) a dissatisfaction with beauty analogous to Ippei’s characterization of honga as merely “pretty.”

[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. (Makura no sōshi 170, trans. Meredith McKinney)

For Ippei’s definition, the mere fact of illustration is insufficient to rise to the level of [manga]; even a particular kind of illustration, say, a sequence of images and text laid out on a page in panels according to a certain conventional framework, is not sufficient in itself, if it lacks the purview that he feels is key. Now, of course, we could simply lump Ippei’s definition in with the general promiscuity of definitions of [comics], but to do so would overlook a pointed, if only implicit in retrospect, critique of treatments of form as pure, discrete, or isolatable from questions of what is depicted (so-called content) and how. Yet, “observation and depiction” alone do not get us to the claim of ideology in form[alism] with which this section begins. Observation is not, mind you, a detached, speculative exercise but is grounded in and focused upon the world (that totality of inter-relations) in which we are. Thus, observation and depiction cannot help but be a response to the social, political—the altogether cultural phenomena that manifest within that world.

A textbook doodle featuring Shimazaki Tōson (left) and Natsume Sōseki (right) from morea’s blog Moe-irasuto o kakitai

As a result, it would be highly inappropriate to speak of “form” at all, what with the images that word conjures: a wire frame, a dress form, an application, a skeleton. To these are applied a number of “contents:” papier-mâché, cloth, personal histories, flesh. Yet, as any forensic anthropologist worth her salt would tell you, a surprisingly large quantum of information concerning a particular human body can be gleaned solely from its skeleton.

I take it back… “form” might not be all that inappropriate after all. For what our hypothetical anthropologist makes clear is that forms are by no means semiotically blank. The wire frame is what supports and creates the overall shape of the finished object, the dress form is a stand in for a human body to which the finished garment must be (or ought to be, at any rate) suited to the person who will wear it, and a blank form solicits a specific subset of one’s personal information on the presumption that this information will be directed toward some particular end. [Comic] form, like the dress form, may appear to be generic within the limited discursive framework of [comic] studies (or the fashion industry), but taking a step back it becomes clear that this presumed form plays to a limited range of types (e.g. the [comic] “book,” the [comic] strip, the “graphic novel,” “story [manga],” etc.) that are taken as sufficiently representative of a [comics] totality, just as, in the fashion industry, clothes are all too often designed for a limited range of body types taken to be, if not representative of the totality of human sizes and shapes, then the model [sic] to which all real body types ought to respond and aspire.[1] But I am getting ahead of myself.

A productive non-distinction between “form” and “content” can be seen in the work of a much later critic—though still quite early in the context of contemporary [manga] discourse—namely Tsurumi Shunsuke, who sees [comics][2] or, as he would say, a certain kind of [comics] as distinctly anti-establishment and therefore grounded in a manner eerily similar to Ippei’s understanding of [manga]. In Manga no sengo shisō (Thoughts on [Comics] in the Postwar), Tsurumi begins from rakugaki, “doodles,” specifically “drawings or written characters composed mischievously [itazura-gaki] where nothing ought to be written/drawn. Within this are combined the sense of an unnamed form of resistance to that which passes as socially acceptable as well as of deviating from the path one is coerced into following.” (in Manga no dokusha to shite, 90)

Tsurumi's own example from the sutras housed at Shoso-in

Tsurumi’s own example from the sutras housed at Shōsō-in

He gives several examples of doodles/graffiti that serve as the only textual remainder of a grossly under-represented populace and of a indifferent attitude toward social conventions. The most telling for my purposes here comes from copies of Buddhist sutras.

Within the handwritten copies of sutras housed in Shōsō-in, there are rakugaki. It has little to do with the feelings of stress all those who copied the sutras might have experienced. More likely they had become weary of the tedium of the job assigned to them. What we might learn from the Buddhist scriptures they were copying is that these people likely had doubts [about their faith? what they were doing?]. It was a way of keeping their spirits up as they chatted idly with their companions sitting about them. (ibid., 91)

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 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 is 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 jigokue (image of the Buddhist “hell”) 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.

So, we already have many answers to the seemingly straightforward question, “what is [manga]?”: Ippyō’s [manga] as caricature, Rakuten’s [manga] as transnational comic art, Ippei’s [manga] as critical perspective, and Tsurumi’s [manga] as creature of class struggle. It becomes clear that [manga] is a floating signifier, that you cannot take for granted what is meant when someone claims this or that to be [manga]. It is not even certain, once you do pin down an artist-writer-reader’s particular [manga] idiolect, that this understanding meaningfully applies to their own work! With that in mind, I propose to do something potentially inappropriate: to examine Kitazawa Rakuten (and others’) work in Tokyo Puck in accordance with Ippei’s understanding of [manga] as free observation and depiction with a view toward trying to understand how [manga], and perhaps, by a certain uneasy extension, [comics] as well, poach other contemporary media, both Japanese and non-.

[1] I am as yet unconvinced that my own analogy of forms is especially apt, but, even given the possibility that I have dived too far down the rabbit hole of my own metaphor, it remains thought provoking enough to pursue.

[2] Tsurumi regularly uses the term manga to mean comics in general, be they Japanese or American or European or what have you. His examples are generally taken from a distinctly Japanese milieu and applied to a Japanese sociological framework, but that fact alone does not prevent him from understanding [comics] transnationally.

NEXT: [Manga] pt. 3



  1. […] openly flouting the demands of social graces […]

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