[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 2 – [Manga] pt. 6

PREVIOUS: [Manga] pt. 5


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

This mode of sequential progress through a number of juxtaposed frames/cells within a total page/board layout may be analogous to a common though by no means universal understanding of [comics] as, at their core, “sequential art,” yet it remains an open question whether this mode of understanding is especially useful for making sense of McCarthy’s skyscraper, for there are a number of features of this [comic] text that would openly flout such a reading. One can easily identify a number of vignettes—a worker about to walk off the edge with a beam, two men looking over plans in the “builders hut,” an inspector gazing down on the building from a winged flying machine—but the framing elements that are present, the horizontal floors and the vertical pillars, do surprisingly little to circumscribe them. This is due in no small part to the identification of any given vignette as discrete is largely a figment of interpretation, for an intense focus on any one character and his immediate environs, a close reading, if you will, can all too often be undermined by tracing back causal elements to other portions of the image that at first glance seem not immediately relevant to the situation of a given character.

For instance, the aforementioned worker (in an orange jumpsuit) about to walk over the edge appears to be distracted by a pickaxe falling above him, a pickaxe one supposes to have been dropped by the gaped mouth worker just above it, who is about to be flattened by the bearded worker just above him. This certainly seems like a kind of sequence, particularly with the causal implications of the pickaxe distracting the worker holding the beam thus causing him to fall off, but what is depicted here are a number of “about to happen” events that could just as easily be understood simultaneously as diachronically/causally, i.e. the one worker drops the pick which the one in the orange jumpsuit spies as a result of which he fails to notice that he is about to walk off the edge. The amenability here to both synchronic as well as diachronic readings runs directly counter to the logic of gameplay, which, with its system of turns and orderly progress through game spaces, enforces a through-time understanding of the gamescape. It is worth noting, then, that McCarthy’s skyscraper lacks the grid and numbered sequence of spaces that renders any chutes/snakes and ladders game amenable to a limited range of rule sets. In fact, one would be hard pressed to “play” this comic in a manner analogous to how one can quite easily play Rakuten’s [manga] sugoroku. Yet, despite all this, Baker is correct in asserting that McCarthy’s skyscraper does seem to draw upon some understanding of chutes/snakes and ladders, but what I seek to emphasize here is that the most pressing concern is not to identify that the game and [comic] have some relationship to each other, which is obvious enough, but how they relate. What, if anything, do the implications of moral progress in snakes and ladders games have to say about McCarthy’s [comic] tableau? How might McCarthy’s seeming play (according to my own, rather tortured reading) on the simultaneous and the sequential be read back on the sense of through-time a given rule set imposes on an otherwise all-already-there gamescape?

I have no interest in answering those questions, even provisionally, for my purpose in posing them is to arouse an anxiety, if not a desire, to ponder what the assumptions in our various modes of understanding texts within a particular interpretive regime are and what the potential sites of origination for those assumptions might be. Games are but one axis of interconnection, and it should not be presumed that my omission of other axes—movies, paper toy inserts/cut-outs, sheet music, exhibition catalogs, etc.—constitutes an assertion of their irrelevance. My aversion to comprehensiveness here stems solely from an acute awareness, dear reader, that I might easily wear thin your patience with a hundred pages of variation on the same theme. Nevertheless, fruitful things remain to be said about the specific ways [comics] work with and against each of those textual domains.

The reason why I feel this provocation to be necessary is because one can identify a similar mode of understanding in [comics] and another textual domain even where the superficial depictive elements (like geese or ladders or layouts) that might point to this interpretive relationship are entirely lacking. So, to close, I would like to work through the various stages of my own experiences with a particular Rakuten [comic] from 1910 titled “Vagaries of Fate” or, according to its Japanese title, “Sachiko and Rakuko” (Sachiko to Rakuko).

Kitazawa Rakuten,

Kitazawa Rakuten, “Vagaries of Fate [Sachiko to Rakuko],” Tokyo Puck, vol. 6 no. 32 (1910)

I first encountered this [comic] as a terrible black-and-white reprinting in a three volume collection of Rakuten’s work: . Even in that state, I was impressed by its highly unusual disregard (for such an old [comic]) for sequence and the construction of divergent reading paths that mapped onto the divergent fates of the two young women depicted, Sachiko, the “happy girl,” and Rakuko, the “fallen girl.” You may already see where I am going with this, dear reader, but because my own awareness of early 20th century Japanese print culture was, at the time, quite limited, I beg you to hold your peace for the time being. The [comic] sequence, like many if not most early 20th century strips, is numbered, and it is by the use of this device that Rakuten lays out multiple paths through the [comic]scape. The two women, as girls, go to school together, and so we are shown a single first panel. From there, Sachiko’s (or, as Rakuten has it, Sachi-ko’s) life progresses down the right hand side, where she marries a clerk (2a), who finds success in his career (3a), so that she makes all her purchases at Mitsukoshi (4a), a high-end department store, and is seen well-dressed in a carriage in the large center panel (5). Rakuko, on the other hand, moves down the left hand side through her job as a secretary (2b), where she experiences sexual harassment (3b) and the “glass ceiling” (4b), before running into her old friend when they are reunited both in the story and in depiction in the center panel (5). In despair over her state, Rakuko attempts to throw herself into the river but is saved, coincidentally, by Sachiko’s coachman (6).

I first presented a reading of this [comic] in the context of a persistent presentation of [comic] and [manga] histories as progressive, a movement akin to a lifecycle in which early comic texts are presented as an “infancy” which, over the course of the 20th century, “matured” into the various and, to some, more “serious” and “important” forms we have nowadays. The point was to demonstrate, especially contra how Rakuten is often only understood as an early creator of [comic] strips in the stereotypical mode, that these “early” texts were as formally innovative as anything produced within the 21st century. Like many moments in my scholarly life, the argument, which I considered important and potentially earth-shattering, fell completely flat or on deaf ears or whatever metaphor you prefer. The subsequent Q&A was cut short for lack of anyone asking a question.

Despite this demoralizing experience, I persisted in trying to work this [comic] into various other arguments, never satisfactorily, that is until I happened upon the phenomenon of [manga] sugoroku as well as [comic] game boards more generally, which I reached, coincidentally, by two seemingly divergent paths. I came to study sugoroku in depth as a result of Rakuten’s use of another Japanese game form, karuta, a range of card games which have in common a principle of matching or completion of sets. I note this, because, while this chapter might easily give the impression that how one plays sugoroku determines how this [manga] ought to be read, I myself managed to formulate a sufficiently complete understanding of it with no such knowledge of that game form. Moreover, my awareness of a European context for the use of game boards as social commentary came after that, when I was waiting for my spouse in the exhibit room of Special Collections at the University of Michigan graduate library. My curiosity was initially piqued there by an issue of Puck on display but was later drawn to a copy of the “Game of the Dreyfus Affair” lying next to it in the case, from which I worked backwards to the history of games of the goose. These winding paths, sugoroku and European game boards, came together only recently as I have been writing this chapter, whose presentation of a particular logical sequence belies the numerous revisions my understanding of this [manga] has undergone before arriving at the “more complete” interpretation of in the following paragraph. For, like any good scholarly fiction, it is as much a figment of how I have put these textual domains in play with one another as it is of any fact of historical influence.

You will note, then, dear reader, how the non-[manga] sugoroku example I have chosen to present here postdates my Rakuten examples by more than a decade. This was by design, for though I close this chapter with a reading of “Vagaries of Fate” with a mind to how its layout follows after sugoroku, bear in mind you could just as easily work back through the argument I have presented here to reflect upon how Rakuten’s [manga] might be used to revise what is signified by “success” in Takabatake’s game. The lives of Rakuten’s two “girls” maps quite readily onto the relative lives of “success” depicted in the boy/man and girl/woman of Takabatake’s gamescape. Both pairs begin their narrative lives in the same space and diverge from one another after “school.” Sachiko follows the life of the sugoroku’s girl, who achieves success and reaches her agari by way of marriage and thus affiliation with the success of another. Rakuko, then, takes on the persona of what in the game was the boy/man, whose own success is what propels him to achieve the “paradise” implicit in the game’s agari. However, because Rakuko is a woman, she is explicitly subject to the sexism that is only implicit in Takabatake’s game. It is not clear whether Rakuten’s depiction of Rakuko[1] is meant to be sympathetic, for, after all, what I characterize above as “sexual harassment” he describes as the jilting of a man who has fallen in love with her. At best, it is ambivalent, like the diptych of the woman awakened to the duties and the woman awakened to the rights of her sex above. For, after the two women encounter each other again in the fifth, central panel, it is Rakuko and not Sachiko who tries to kill herself and thus gets the worst of it. However, if you consider the respective layouts of [manga] and game, it would seem that the central, penultimate panel is analogous to the central, ultimate game space. I note earlier that, according to one reading, the female role could become the beauty depicted in the agari who is, presumably, the male role’s prize for achieving so much in life. This means that, depending on what path you take to get there, the significance of that final space changes, so, while for Sachiko that fifth panel is sign of her success, for Rakuko it is a sign of her failure. Yet, while the gamescape terminates on the agari, the fifth panel of Rakuten’s [manga] proceeds into a sixth. Something more remains to be said about the consequences of a particular social order.

Unlike our male role in the game, Rakuko is not at all satisfied with a state of affairs in which the “correct” choice in life seems to be to get married and allow someone else’s success to carry you forward. She makes the rather melodramatic decision to commit suicide, but within the framing of this [manga] as an application of a certain altered logic of the “success” sugoroku, I cannot help but wonder whether we might apply a more transgressive interpretive logic derived from sugoroku in its Buddhist incarnation, which, when applied to the materialistic predilections of Takabatake’s game and the early modern tradition it hearkens back to, points to the possibility that not playing the game is the most ethical choice. After all, Rakuten’s [manga], just like McCarthy’s [comic] sky-scraper, is not a game insofar as it would be quite difficult to play according to the rules of sugoroku (or snakes and ladders). Rakuko’s suicide, then, could be understood not as the desperate last act of an absurd (and absurdly sexist) melodrama but as the only means to escape a game whose rules (or social expectations) have stacked everything against her. Perhaps Rakuko’s fate is a reminder that reading ([manga]) is not a game. Perhaps.

NEXT: Intermissive 2

[1] The repetition of the raku– root in both Rakuten and Rakuko’s names brings to mind something Tsurumi says about the raku- in rakugaki (doodles). The Chinese character used in each is different (楽 in Rakuten and 落 in Rakuko), pleasant diversion in the former and fallen-ness in the latter, but these represent for Tsurumi the doubled sense of doodles as a precursor for [manga], a fallen or inappropriate art but as a result a profoundly pleasurable one.



  1. […] not obviously framed as such in the way those noted above are. There is precedent for this, though. The “Vagaries of Fate” [comic] also discussed in chapter 2 reflected reading patterns clearly derived from illustrated game boards (sugoroku), even though it […]

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