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  • Crime and Punishment

    Posted on May 20th, 2011 keving 6 comments

    Some kids will do anything to avoid reading books. It’s understandable. Writing a book report on Oliver Twist is no fun at all; watching Oliver! on VHS is. (Voice of experience here. I think. I can’t remember the details, except that I got like a C- in the end.)

    One can therefore see why a novel like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book that tends to wind up on Japanese school summer reading lists all the time, was targeted for manga-ization. What’s perhaps more surprising is that this isn’t a recent thing — Osamu Tezuka, the original manga gentleman, did it in 1953.

     

    Raskolnikov, the hero, goes over the reasoning in his mind for killing his pawnbroker and stealing her money. These sorts of panel layouts really weren't something you saw in US comics during the '50s. That sort of expression didn't happen for a bit longer.

    Tezuka’s Tsumi to Batsu is a bit of an abridged version of the original. It’s about a third as many pages and cuts out pretty much everything except the juiciest events — the ones Tezuka was safe depicting in a book meant for little children, at least. Although it features a lot of originality in the storytelling (the climactic scene, with Raskolnikov coming to terms with himself in the midst of a hopelessly crowded Petersburg public square, is particularly memorable), the book was not a great success. It turned out to be the last one-off book Tezuka ever wrote, subsequently devoting his full attention to running manga like Jungle Emperor.

    His heart wasn’t really in it anyway, one could say. He only wrote it because Osaka-based publisher Tokodo asked him to — the second manga-ification he did after Goethe’s Faust in 1952. No, really, they tried to make Faust into a kid’s manga nearly sixty years ago.

    Faust sold surprisingly well, maybe because it was such a rare thing,” Tezuka wrote in 1978. “Crime and Punishment came next, but by that time, I was finally just beginning to get a few regular gigs at magazines and I found it hard to find the time to write one-off properties like this one any longer. The book wound up taking a year to produce, and the results didn’t sell nearly as well when published. I think that’s because the story’s main themes are too hard to encapsulate and there really just isn’t enough action. However, I don’t think I received nearly as many compliments from kids and adults for any other comic I had written at that point, which was odd to me. It’s such a poorly-drawn piece of work, but simply having Crime and Punishment in manga form was such an adventure to people. I think they were thankful for the experiment more than anything else.”

    Like with a lot of other things, it turned out Tezuka was just ahead of his time. Like with Classics Illustrated in the US, there was a major boom in late-’50s Japan for comic adaptations of classics like Tom Sawyer and The Three Musketeers, most of them of low quality done on the cheap by no-name children’s book artists. By then, though, Tezuka’s reputation as the hottest manga writer in the country was already well cemented.

     

  • Jungle Emperor

    Posted on March 24th, 2011 keving 3 comments


    Since I just finished reading the comic on my iPad, I wanted to talk a little about Jungle Emperor (ジャングル大帝), aka Kimba the White Lion, originally drawn in 1950-54 by undoubtedly my favorite comic artist of all time, Osamu Tezuka. That’s him up there, 24 years old; he drew some Kimba characters around a photograph of himself with a chimpanzee for a color opener page in Manga Shōnen (漫画少年) in 1952.

    Manga Shōnen, despite being published for only eight years (1947 to 1955), had an enormous influence on Japanese comics for years to come. It was founded by Kenichi Kato, who edited Kodansha’s Shōnen Club before and during WWII. Shōnen Club was where series like Norakuro began; it was one of the most popular boys’ magazines in both the pre- and post-war period. Kato was driven out of Kodansha immediately after the end of the war as the US occupational forces cracked down on pro-war publishers; he funded Manga Shōnen with his own money and named his wife president of the publishing house in order to avoid MacArthur’s censors. Artists like Tezuka, Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko Fujio, Kazuo Umezu, Fujio Akatsuka, Leiji Matsumoto, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi either wrote for the mag or contributed manga to the “new talent” contests Kato regularly held in the mag’s pages. (For those unfamiliar with manga, the above names are pretty much a who’s-who of brilliance that largely defined the scene’s direction from the 60s until the turn of the century.)

    Kato played host to Tezuka, back then still in medical school over in Osaka, when the artist decided to pay an impromptu visit to the Manga Shōnen offices during a stint in Tokyo. Tezuka had the story in mind for Emperor at that point, but was intending to write it out as a one-off volume called Mitsurin Taitei (密林大帝). Manga, at that time, was chiefly written either in one-volume adventures published as distinct books or very small (four pages or so) regular series in boys’ magazines. Kato convinced Tezuka to take his idea for Mitsurin Taitei and flesh it out into a regular four-page series for the monthly Manga Shōnen. Tezuka agreed, and the results were so successful that Jungle Emperor expanded to ten pages in the second month of publication.

    Leo the lion strikes a somewhat familiar pose as he announces
    the birth of his children to his late father.

    A lot has been written over the years about how much Disney’s The Lion King resembles Emperor. Frederick Schodt devotes something like seven pages to the topic in his excellent (and still relevant) 1996 book Dreamland Japan, and I don’t have much to add except that I think it’s a moot point because Bambi is plainly Tezuka’s biggest influence for this work anyway. (They’re both stories about young forest royalty adventuring with animal friends while struggling to find a way to co-exist with humans, although Emperor’s a lot more epic in scale.) He never denied the influence Walt Disney had upon his drawing style, and it’s especially plain in this early work, as a lot of the jungle animals are straight-on Disney animals, no two ways about it.

    As Schodt also notes in his book, Emperor’s main fault is Tezuka’s habit of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into his early stories in an attempt to keep kids focused month after month. “The printed manga story,” he writes, “has gags, comedy, tragedy, allusions to ancient tectonic plates and ‘supercontinents,’ and exotic medical conditions.” (That tectonic stuff was completely speculative science when Tezuka threw it into the story, not receiving mainstream scientific backing until the ’60s.) It’s true that a modern manga artist could take all the content in Emperor and stretch it out into a 10-volume series (this one is only 3) — but on the other hand, the story’s breakneck pace is welcome compared to how badly Jump manga gets stretched out these days.

    Leo loses his temper as his daughter flirts with death from a mysterious pox.
    This is one of my favorite Tezuka pages ever as it demonstrates how complete
    a knowledge he had of comic pacing and structure even at a point where the
    whole genre was still in its infancy.

    The fact I’m able to enjoy Jungle Emperor on my iPad (legally) is miraculous for a couple of reasons. For one, Tezuka lost about half of the original art in the early ’60s — he lent some of it out to the animation staff for reference as they worked on the 1965 anime version, one of them died unexpectedly in an alcohol-related incident, and the authorities cleared out his apartment before Tezuka could retrieve his art. As a result, Tezuka had to redraw approximately half of the entire series for the 1977 Complete Works edition, something he later said was extraordinarily time-consuming as he found drawing in his extremely Disney-like early-’50s style pretty difficult years after the fact. (The original Manga Shōnen pages have themselves been restored and republished, most recently in 2010.)

    The other reason why I’m lucky to be reading this: Tezuka’s depiction of African natives in Jungle Emperor was also heavily inspired by how such folk would’ve been depicted in 1930s American cartoons — jet-black, enormous white lips, occasionally pinheaded. Tezuka’s natives are not caricatures personality-wise — their depiction is very human and thoughtful, although they have a yen to skewer Leo and add him to their collection of white lion skins — but the way they’re drawn certainly are. The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks (黒人差別をなくす会), a small Osaka-based organization largely run by a single family, successfully held campaigns throughout the 1980s to remove books like Little Black Sambo and big-lipped depictions in manga like Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump from public view. This was a big problem for Tezuka — like any cartoon artist, he reveled in exaggeration with his art, and so his work is littered with that stuff throughout.

    From December 1990 to the spring of 1992, Kodansha’s Tezuka Complete Works collection was taken off of the market while the publisher figured out what the hell to do. If Tezuka was still alive (as Dreamland Japan observed), he almost certainly would’ve revised his comics as quickly as possible, but he wasn’t. The Association to Stop Racism’s aim to remove archaic caricatures from Asian media was a noble one, but removing Tezuka from the market was a bridge too far for a vast majority of Japanese readers, then and now. In the end, Kodansha (and all other publishers doing Tezuka work) decided to include a page in every volume describing the depictions as a product of their time and emphasizing the anti-racism message prevalent in a lot of Tezuka’s work — a wise move that kept the most influential manga artist ever in print through the early-’90s controversy and allows me to still enjoy them today, pinheaded natives and all.

    Is a 1950 manga worth reading today? I think so. This one is, at least — it’s an old story and one that jumps all over the place, but the ending still gets to me. Being able to access not just Emperor, but nearly all of Tezuka’s library legally for a fair price, makes me remarkably glad to be alive today.