[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 2 – [Manga] pt. 5

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The [manga] variants on the game of the goose one sees around this time retain some features (e.g. the spiral pattern, which is not specific to it, and the satire of current affairs) while discarding others (e.g. the rules of play and the 63 game spaces).  For instance, Rakuten’s Election Race Sugoroku (Senkyo kyōsō sugoroku [above]) has only 17 spaces, which causes one to wonder whether it might even possibly be played with two dice.  In fact, most sugoroku of this type use an entirely different mode of play, with one die, where the space one moves to is indicated by a table in each cell and not by the order of progression seemingly indicated by the sequence of spaces along the spiral, as with the game of the goose.  This means the player can potentially move about the board in a much less ordered or, at least, much less sequential manner.  The 1908 Business Puck Sugoroku (Jitsugyō Pakku sugoroku [below]) insert in Tokyo Puck makes clear how the sense of progression remains even when the rules dictating a movement in sequence have all but disappeared.  The governing principle of movement through the game board is based not in a set of largely arbitrary even if allegorical rules but in the life of a man (or the player) trying to make his way in the modern business world and the various conventional paths laid out for him by his particular socio-cultural context.  Therefore, where one might go from any given space is less a creature of simple numerical accident (although that peculiar random number generating cube is still in play) and more of the logical consequences of the failures and triumphs in one’s career.  Con-sequences not sequences: in either case there is a sequence constructed as a result of the movement from one space to another, but in this instance, these sequences cannot be divorced from their meaningful relationships with each other in favor of some abstract consideration of “pure form” and the “power” it possesses to produce meaning.  Meaning (or “content,” if you must) and form are so inextricably intertwined that one cannot, to my mind, reasonably be said to generate the other.

Sugoroku fold out board from Puck vol. 4 no. 36 (1908)

Sugoroku fold out board from Puck vol. 4 no. 36 (1908)

There is an important lesson here regarding the delusions all too easily generated by consideration of visual/graphic/whatever forms purely in terms of resemblance, or rather beginning from “obvious” resemblance and only thereafter moving to questions of interpretation, reading patterns, and so forth.  Of course there are examples of sugoroku that use this progression from one space to the next according to the numerical value of the dice roll, but the point of all this is to say that in layout and appearance the game boards that do function in this way differ surprisingly little from those that do not.  For it is not simply “what the game looks like” that determines how it ought to be played/read but rather how “what it looks like” is rendered amenable to a pre-existing mode of understanding, i.e. well-established rules of play in life as much as in the game.  The Business Puck Sugoroku uses a layout similar to that of the game of the goose and uses that game board form in a manner not unlike how in Europe it was adapted into a form of social commentary, yet to play it according to the rules common to games of the goose would be grossly misleading, because for that the Business Puck Sugoroku poaches on a game form common to Japan, namely the shusse or “success” (in business, life, one’s career, etc.) sugoroku that has its origins both in the classic Indian game of snakes and ladders and the later Buddhist iteration on its theme of moral or spiritual progress that was common in medieval Japan.

Takabatake Kas

Takabatake Kashō, Greater Success Amidst Life’s Ups and Downs Sugoroku (Nanakorobi yaoki kaiun shusse sugoroku), 1924

Takabatake Kashō’s Greater Success Amidst Life’s Ups and Downs Sugoroku (Nanakorobi yaoki kaiun shusse sugoroku)[1] from 1924, included as a New Year’s insert in the pop literature (taishū bungaku) magazine Kōdan kurabu, demonstrates quite clearly how the rules of play determine progression through the gamescape over and above any seemingly natural movement of the eye over the game sheet “untrained” by an a priori understanding of what it is one is looking at.

Players begin at the space labeled furidashi (bottom center) where a girl and a boy (or a boy and a girl, depending on your orthographic predilections) await their journey through life until they reach the agari or terminus at center, where a nude[?] (but conveniently concealed by the frame of the game space) beauty awaits “us.”  The table on the furidashi space lists three possible, proximal fates according to the roll of the die: to become a “clerk” (ten’in – to the immediate right) with a roll of 1, become a “secretary” (jimuin – to the immediate left) with a roll of 6, or go to “school” (just above) with a roll of 2-5.  From “school” one can “open shop” (1 – to the immediate right of “school”), make a “good match” (2 – to the immediate left) in marriage, become a “clerk” (3), become a “secretary” (4), descend into [moral] “depravity” (5 – daraku – bottom right corner), or become overwhelmed by “agony” (6 – hanmon – bottom left corner) over, so the picture seems to indicate, an unrequited love[?].  That said, one can also make a “good match” from being a secretary (roll of 1 there) and can “open shop” or descend into “depravity” from being a “clerk” (rolls of 3 and 5 respectively on that space).  I am not going to go any further in teasing out every possible permutation of progression, but even at this early stage of game play a few key points already emerge.  For example, a straightforward description of movement among the game spaces sounds suspiciously like the diffuse expectations of modern Japanese society for how adolescents are to progress through life, paths which become increasingly gendered—“secretary” and “clerk,” for instance, gendered versions of what amounts more or less to the same job—as one advances, both in “life” and in the game.

Moreover, as a player progresses, it becomes clear that s/he is locked in to moving about only one half of the gamescape, the “female” left side and the “male” right, each of which, from the purely “formal” perspective of movement among spaces according to random number generation, mirrors the other, but when overlaid onto the life events those game spaces depict is revealed a profoundly sexist social structure in which “separate but equal” paths can be read as anything but equal.  The male side of the board arrives at the agari in the center by way of success in business or politics—that is, his own success in those domains.  The female side, on the other hand, arrives there by way of association (i.e. marriage) with some man who achieves success in his life.  Though the two sides of the board may be structured as mirrors of each other, the content of each depicts a passive and active life, a life of being subject to and subject of one’s fortunes.  The male side becomes a minister, marries into a good family (near the end of his ascent), and, one imagines, acquires the beauty at the center of the game as his prize for a life well lived (according to the bourgeois presumptions of modern capitalism), while the female side marries early and rises as her hypothesized husband does until at last she arrives at the agari to, one imagines, become the beauty depicted there, the prize for the male-gendered player role.  The play here is, of course, on conventions: the gender of a player’s role in the game is dependent upon the roll of the dice and not upon her biological gender, so the gendered paths depicted are stereotypes reflective of society as a whole (or, at least, of Kōdansha, the publisher of Kōdan kurabu) and not of any given person playing the game.  As such, one and the same text is amenable to both historically appropriate (women become wives and mothers; men become salarymen) and wildly inappropriate (e.g. my own) readings.

There is also, as it turns out, a large grey area in between what might be considered in or out of line with the kind of reading the game seems to invite.  For instance, a roll of 6 on the upper left, “female” space (byōki, “sickness”) or a roll of 1 on the upper right, “male” space (shippai, “failure”) will send the player back to the furidashi or beginning.  Going back to the beginning is the only way a player can switch genders, a fact which, in and of itself seems to signify little more than a game over/ restart sequence in any game at all, be it card game, board game, video game, or what have you.  Yet, the long history of this game form, of its earlier, markedly Buddhist incarnation as well as the even older Indian game of snakes and ladders from which it descends, points to another possible reading of this move back to the beginning.  As Masukawa notes, in the Buddhist sugoroku, the furidashi starting space was synonymous with the jigoku or “hell” of the Pure Land sect, while the agari was variously represented as that sect’s Western Paradise or enlightenment or Bodhisattva-hood or some other supreme good.[2]  To return to the furidashi, then, was both to go to (an, unlike its Christian counterpart, non-eternal) hell and to continue the cycle of death and rebirth or samsara that perpetuates human suffering ad infinitum and from which the Buddhist devotee hopes to escape.  In both “sickness” and “failure” the relative passivity of the female subject and activity of the male subject—being acted upon by nature as opposed to doing something unsuccessfully—remains, though the ultimate failing of doing and being done in come to the same end, according to this Buddhist re-interpretation: death.

At this point, we could simply leave things there and pat ourselves on the pack or give copious high fives for the success [!] of this particular feat of genealogical virtuosity, but I would like to stress the contentious nature of this particular reading.  Outside of any knowledge of the history of sugoroku in Japan and how it might color a specific and otherwise banal game function, there is precious little in the Ups and Downs Sugoroku that points the reader/player toward understanding its message about success within the framework of Japanese Buddhism.  Here we have another example of how a demonstrable historical fact of a particular kind of print matter/text does not equate to a proximal reality for any given reader of one of that kind of text’s most recent manifestations, precisely because by the 20th century, the sugoroku’s Buddhist incarnations were only historical artifacts and not readily accessible to modern readers/players.  It is an open question what a religiously motivated reading of this game might look like, given Buddhism’s rejection of the very materialistic values the game seems to encourage.  In fact, a transgressive reading would be far more likely to result, one which reveals the means within the context of gameplay that lead to success—wealth and further engagement in the world—as illusory, as an enticement to play the game (of life) over and over again, when the best course of action might be not to play at all.

19th century Jain version of Snakes and Ladders

In a sense, then, this earlier mode of understanding progress in terms of spiritual development is both there and not there, dependent far more upon how or even whether a given reading brings it to bear than on any formal features of the game-as-text.  “Great, so what does this have to do with [comics]?”—I imagine you, dear reader, have been mumbling under your breath this entire time.  Well, if you recall, the point of departure for all this gamey nonsense was a [manga] sugoroku from 1908, but more than that, it is another example of the interpretive amenabilities in print periodicals that I have endeavored to identify in this chapter.  By focusing on a Japanese [comic] context with the West as its periphery, I recognize that this argument runs the risk of being perceived as too parochial, as emblematic of the curiousness of cherry-picked curiosities, but it seems to me that it is in the curiosities that a if not the how of [comics]-as-reading is most visible.


Daniel McCarthy, “The American Skyscraper is a Modern Tower of Babel,” The World, February 20 1898

Consider another curio, the cover, by Dan McCarthy, of the comic weekly section of Joseph Pulitzer’s The World from February 20, 1898.  It depicts, as Nicholson Baker notes in The World on Sunday (5), a “mighty skyscraper [as] a slapstick game of Chutes and Ladders,” in which a panoply of characters from New York’s many immigrant populations construct that icon of modern (and American) architecture, the skyscraper.  Even though Milton Bradley’s (now Hasbro’s) Chutes and Ladders was not made available in the United States until 1943, an English language version of the Indian snakes and ladders game was introduced to Britain in 1892, so Baker’s allusion to the game, though he uses the American designation, is not at all inappropriate.  The ladders by which workers ascend and the beams and girders they carry, so resemble the ladders and snakes/chutes of the transplanted Indian game that one might be forgiven for thinking of McCarthy’s [comic] in these terms, yet superficial resemblance alone tells us little about how we might read it and may even conceal how reading the [comic] as the game it resembles could be considered highly inappropriate.  Even in its most recent iterations, Milton Bradley’s adaptation of snakes and ladders retains the basic structure of moral progress and pitfalls.  On either side of a ladder we see a cartoonish child rewarded for socially acceptable behaviors (cleaning her room or holding his mother’s hand) and punished on either end of a chute for what might be considered socially unacceptable (eating too much ice cream or making a mess), and advancement in the gamescape is indicated by the sequential numbering of the 100 cells of a 10×10 board.

NEXT: [Manga] pt. 6 (fin)

[1] Or, more literally, the “Seven Falls, Eight Rises Greater Fortune Success Sugoroku,” which has the virtue of conveying the often unnecessary verbosity of Japanese titles.

[2] Sugoroku p. 210.  Of course, Masukawa continues (210f.) by demonstrating how in the mercantile culture of the Edo period (1603-1868), the agari came to represent success in business, an understanding more or less in line with latter day “success” sugoroku.  Nevertheless, the point here is that differing available hermeneutic frameworks, be they historical or contemporary, create and maintain tensions between possible readings rather than resolve them into a more perfect understanding.


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