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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Comics Underground Japan

by Jason Thompson,

Episode VIII: Comics Underground Japan

One of the interesting things about the state of translated manga in 2010 is that, as mainstream tween-oriented manga publishing declines, underground and art manga is making a comeback. Drawn & Quarterly has established Yoshihiro Tatsumi, a 75-year-old veteran of the gekiga movement, as a global indy-comix artist on par with Joe Sacco and Adrine Tomine. Fantagraphics Books is publishing A Drunken Dream, an anthology of stories by pioneering shojo artist Moto Hagio. Dark Horse and Vertical's dark and artsy manga sales are climbing, or at least holding steady, while parent-friendly Viz has massive layoffs. (Viz's attempt at an indy line, the SigIkki books, haven't exactly burned up the sales charts, perhaps because big companies like Viz just aren't as good at selling indy manga. No matter how much the editors may love Children of the Sea, a typical marketing and sales executive at a big publishing firm would much rather spend their time selling Bleach and Naruto than pumping money into something more risky.)

From 1964 to 1996, the premier Japanese magazine of underground comics was the monthly magazine Garo. Although underground manga never sold very well (except for a brief period in the late '60s and early '70s), it attracted some big-name artists and provided an alternative to the formulaic, soap-opera stories published in big manga magazines like Shonen Jump. Eventually Garo died due to money issues and internal disputes after the death of its founder Katsuichi Nagai. Several magazines sprang up to fill the gap, of which the most successful was Ax (reason for title: it's like an axe destroying the world of boring mainstream manga!). The indy comics publisher Top Shelf released a beautiful anthology of Ax manga earlier this year—from densely detailed to art-naive simple, from horrifically dark to whimsically sweet, a glimpse of the tremendous variety that manga is capable of when the artists aren't busy licensing TV shows and cranking out 80 pages a month. But before Ax, Garo was the place to be for Japanese indy artists, and in sheer consistency and output (once a month for 30 years!), it completely trumped the infrequently published underground comics of America, like Robert Crumb's Zap!. In the early 1980s, creators from Garo were among the first mangaka to be published in English, in the pages of Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly's experimental comics magazine Raw.

In 1996, the same year that it was dying in Japan, Garo hit the American comics consciousness in two books. First, Frederik Schodt wrote a lengthy and glowing profile of Garo in his 1996 book Dreamland Japan. Second, Blast Books published Comics Underground Japan, which, until Ax came out, was the best Japanese underground comics anthology available in English. (It wasn't the first; Fantagraphics' relatively flimsy anthology Sake Jock came out the previous year.) Blast Books, a small New York-based publisher, briefly tried out manga publishing in the mid-'90s, publishing shocking and bizarre books by authors like Suehiro Maruo and Hideshi Hino. Comics Underground Japan was their most ambitious Japanese release, a 224-page anthology of weird and fabulous underground manga. Like all their releases, it was published right to left, at a time when no mainstream manga publisher dared do this. Blast Books couldn't care less the way Dark Horse or Viz did things; their books were aimed at a totally different audience, one that was interested in experimental things, so reading "backwards" was hardly a problem. American underground comics luminaries like Gary Panter and S. Clay Wilson provided cover blurbs. This was a book proving that Japanese comics were Art.

Dark Art, to be sure. Blast Books mostly publishes intentionally edgy, subculture books—coffee-table books of medical oddities and dissection photos, translations of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs—and their manga selecons were likewise centered around horror, guro and the grotesque. Thus, Comics Underground Japan focuses on the transgressive and shocking, although it does include some more whimsical stories. It's not just the sex and violence that makes it shocking—as the introduction points out, in Japan, "All of that is to be found in the most popular boys' weekly anthologies." According to Kevin Quigley, the editor of the book, it's more of an attitude. "What distinguishes the underground is a deeply personal vision, often coupled with a delight in subversion.…more often than not, underground mangaka express a Swiftian horror and disgust with the world.…Pulsing in the veins of even the most lighthearted of these artists is a strong current of cynicism and – that ever-popular world among Japanese youth – nihilism." Interestingly, there is considerably less of this sense of "transgression" in Top Shelf's Ax anthology, published 14 years later. Ax has grotesque and disturbing stories, but it also has lots of mellowness and whimsy—fairy tales and stories about rainy-day gardens, happy stories, glimpses of surrealism in everyday life. (The closest thing in Comics Underground Japan is Pan Migawa's story, in which a woman becomes fascinated by specks of dust sparkling in the sunlight.) One could argue that this expresses a difference between Japanese underground comics then and now, from the political Garo era to the apolitical Ax era. When the manga industry was at its most monolithic, when the Japanese economy was at its peak, the outwardly rosy nature of society encouraged furious rebellion in the underground. Today, with Big Business and Big Manga at the end of a 15+ year down period, and Big Media fragmenting into thousands of subgenres and sub-audiences, there may seem to be less to rebel against. On the other hand, perhaps this dark tone simply reflects the preferences of Blast Books and Kevin Quigley.

Regardless of whether he intentionally chose darker, more political content, Quigley's introduction lays out the history of Japanese underground comics, and does a good job of explaining how they are different from mainstream manga. "The business of mainstream manga publishing is saddled by a Byzantine editorial process…in every office YOU will find a sea of editors waiting to have their say… One thing is certain: the work of the underground artists is completely their own." The first artist in the book is Yoshikazu Ebisu, who was also profiled in Schodt's Dreamland Japan. Ebisu's surrealist stories depict salarymen in absurd and grim situations, his simplistic art adding to the sense of wrongness. "Hell's Angel," in which an exhausted salaryman hitches a ride from a helpful young lady, is one of the most disturbing stories in the book. In the second story, "It's All Right if You Don't Understand," sweating salarymen ride around on one another's backs to build character ("Mr. Nakamura has no guts, so he needs to be toughened. That's how it's always been with him, and he never gets promoted.") Both stories take abrupt left-turn endings, with an effect of either comedy or terror. Muddy Wehara's stories also make fun of salarymen, depicting them riding snakes and frogs through surreal landscapes of naked women and monsters. Yasuji Tanioka contributes a pair of dark, crudely drawn gag manga, such as the one in which a talking cockroach visits a condemned prisoner to tell him what he knows about death by hanging.

Masakazu Tōma's "Steel Pipe Melancholia," a story with a more conventional narrative, opens with a shadowy figure standing in a devastated industrial landscape. The main character finds himself assigned to hold a patch of cloth over a leaking gas pipe, waiting for someone to relieve him, as a parade of strange characters passes by offering unhelpful advice. The story reads like the transcript of a dream, and the protagonist's pointless duty echoes the work of Franz Kafka.

"Dreamlike" would also describe the work of Kazuichi Hinawa, who is best known in English for Doing Time, his autobiographical manga about his time spent in prison for gun possession. Prior to his arrest, most of his manga were weird fantasies set in East Asian historical settings, and "Jiniku," his piece in Comics Underground Japan, is similar to (but better than) his fantasy story in Ax. It's a story about a poor girl who tends Buddhas, which in this world are animalistic, speechless creatures, like many-armed Buddhist statues come to life and covered in coarse hair. Rich people trap the Buddhas in cages for their holy powers, but the girl is the one who has to feed them rice, clean up their messes, and become a sort of human sacrifice to lure more Buddhas into the cage. Hinawa's art is great, his detail is exquisite, but it's the strangeness of the concept—and the fact that it works together as a story—which really stands out. Another complete story is Hideshi Hino's "Laughing Ball." Hino's work ranges from Shōjo Manga to underground manga, but all of it is horror, and this story about a deformed sideshow attraction in a circus of monsters is one of the most conventional stories in the book. Still, it's a satisfying example of Hino's creepy-cute, Family Circus of Hell art style. 

Then there are the World War II satires. Takashi Nemoto also appears in Ax; his work is loaded with penises, vaginas and gore, often all of them mixed together, and drawn in what's known in Japan as a heta-uma ("good-bad", or intentionally bad-looking) art style.  It's what Deb Aoki called the "Look at my poo/Look at my dick" style of underground comics. His dirty, slime-coated story "Future Sperm Brazil," an excerpt from a longer untranslated work, is set in a forgotten Japanese colony in Brazil where the deranged inhabitants think World War II is still being fought. They send their boys off to war, swimming across the Pacific Ocean, where they die one by one from starvation, exposure and various tortures they inflict on one another. When they encounter a Brazilian freighter, they strap one of their members to some sticks of dynamite and send him on a kamikaze attack. Everything goes horribly wrong and ends even more disgustingly than it started. Deeper into the book, Suehiro Maruo's "Planet of the Jap" is more polished but equally nihilistic. This short, exquisitely drawn story retells World War II, as Japan defeats and invades the U.S.. Japan bombs Los Angeles and San Francisco. Japanese soldiers rape and murder Americans, and General Douglas MacArthur is executed as a war criminal. Like Nemoto, Maruo emphasizes the darkly sexual appeal of militarism and fascism, but while Nemoto's crudely drawn soldier walks around with a huge erection, in Maruo's lavishly decadent art you have to look closely beneath the cherry blossoms and purehearted young faces to notice the suggestively positioned tank cannon with white substance dribbling from the tip.

But although it lacks gore, penises or bodily fluids (well, mostly), the best story in the book may be "Cat Noodle Soup," drawn by the artist Nekojiru and written by her boyfriend, Hajime Yamano. In this dark dream fantasy drawn with cats for the main characters, a young cat is sick in bed with a fever when she is visited by a mysterious genie-like figure. The mysterious figure offers him a cool glass of water to ease his pain, and she gets up to take the water, then looks back to see that her body is still lying in the bed. Things proceed from there, as the kitty's soul is pulled away from her body and heads off on new, metaphysical adventures. This story was one of the ones adapted into the Cat Soup anime. Carol Shimada contributes pop-culture parodies of romance comics/manga of the 1960s, and Pan Migawa tells one of Comics Underground Japan's few Tales of Magic and wonder. Lastly, there is Hanako Yamada's "Mary's Asshole," a series of caustically misanthropic manga about a young office lady who is sick of the hypocrisy of the people around her. Talking to a coworker, she muses "If I were to grab this bitch's cigarette and jam it in her eye…what would happen?" Going out to eat with her coworkers, she is struck by a sudden disgust at the biological processes of humanity, and imagines them all as a group of grunting pigs, clamoring for food. When a creepy coworker confesses his love for her, she takes the gift he made for her and urinates on it in front of him. These self-destructive stories are made all the more disturbing by the artist's bio at the end of the book, which explains that the creator, Hanako Yamada, committed suicide in 1993. Nekojiru also killed herself in 1998, after Comics Underground Japan was published, giving the book the disturbing distinction that half its female contributors committed suicide.

But they left behind wonderful, horrible stories of dreams, and doom, and individuals tragically struggling against the world. For those who won't run in fear from its underground excesses, Comics Underground Japan is an outstanding collection of Japanese comics. If you've checked out Top Shelf's Ax (and YOU should) and liked it, this is a book you shouldn't miss.  

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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