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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: The Four Immigrants Manga

by Jason Thompson,

Episode VI: The Four Immigrants Manga

Manga, the way we know it today, has always been influenced by TV and film. Canadian underground comic artist Seth, in a speech at the 2009 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, may have dismissed "cinematic" comics for "reducing comic creators to mere storyboard artists," but many of the post-WWII innovations in manga came from imitating the techniques of moving pictures on the printed page. The early works of Osamu Tezuka, such as Lostworld (1948), Metropolis (1949) and Nextworld (1951), are heavily influenced by science fiction films and by the cartoon aesthetics of Walt Disney. Yoshihiro Tatsumi's early suspense manga Black Blizzard (1956) is basically a frame-by-frame film noir in manga form. When weekly manga magazines arose in the late '50s—Weekly Manga Times in 1956 and Shonen Sunday, Manga Sunday and Shonen Magazine in 1959—they were designed to compete with (and generate properties for) the then-new medium of television, by providing long-running, serial stories which readers tuned in to every week, just like TV shows.

But before World War II, there was a totally different tradition of manga, one influenced by Western newspaper comic strips. I mean comic strips, not books; American servicemen may have brought a few Western comic books to postwar Japan, but the Golden Age of Western Comic Books, 1938 to 1954, was not an era when Japan was disposed, or able, to absorb American comics in high numbers. Instead, Japanese comic creators, like artists around the world, were influenced by the American newspaper strips that arose the 1890s and, by the 1930s, had become a major pop culture phenomenon. In a time when newspapers were a widely read mass medium, comic strips—then including gag strips such as Blondie but also serialized adventure strips such as Li'l Abner, Dick Tracy, and Little Orphan Annie—were read by vast numbers of people and made millions of dollars for their creators. American newspaper strips were translated into Japanese, and developed domestic imitations, such as Machiko Hasegawa's Sazae-san (1946). Out of such things, modern-day yon-koma (four-panel) manga was born. Blondie is the great-grandmother of Azumanga Daioh and Sunshine Sketch.

Before the first appearance of comic books in 1938, a comic artist could aim no higher than to have a super-popular newspaper comic. Yet the newspaper comics medium, even in that Golden Age, had both great promise and frustrating limitations.  The promise included the fact that newspaper comic artists (more or less) owned the copyrights to their own work, unlike most of the creators of today's classic superheroes. The limitations included the fact that, despite their popularity, comic strips were still thought of as a children's medium. In Reinventing Comics Scott McCloud describes an encounter at a party between Will Eisner (1917-2005), a pioneering graphic novel creator, and Rube Goldberg (1904-1970), one of the most famous early newspaper comic artists. According to the story, Eisner started going on about the artistic potential of the comics medium, only for Goldberg to scoff at him and cut him off with "Cartoonists aren't artists! We're vaudevillians!" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaudeville) Some newspaper strip artists, like George Herriman and Winsor McCay, clearly thought of themselves as fine artists and not just entertainers, but almost no artists told lengthy, ongoing stories with real character development, beginnings and endings. Generally, they were not designed to be read for more than a few weeks at a time. There was no way for readers to go back and read a story from the beginning; even at the height of newspaper comics' popularity, very few of them were repackaged in book form. A comic strip might have ongoing storylines for a few weeks like a radio/movie serial, but almost never (except in Frank King's Gasoline Alley) would characters age, almost never would major characters die, and never, never, never would a strip have a real buildup, a climax and an ending. The syndicates who distributed newspaper strips were covetous of their spots on the comics page, and to end a strip would have been to give newspapers an opportunity to replace it with a strip from another syndicate—unthinkable! And so newspaper comics, long before the slow decline of newspapers themselves, entered a limbo where a strip was expected to be passed on to the creator's children, assistants, or just anyone, where a strip was eternal and unchanging and cobwebbby, where the characters never grew old. In Japan they call it "Sazae-san time," and yet Sazae-san only ran from 1946 to 1974, an eyeblink compared to Bringing Up Father or Hagar the Horrible.

So it's surprising when an artist in 1931—a Japanese artist, no less—tried to use the newspaper format for something more ambitious, a self-contained, graphic-novel-like work. That artist was Yoshitaka "Henry" Kiyama, whose own story is as interesting as the comic he wrote—since in fact, it's an autobiographical comic, a genre which wouldn't be seen again until the underground comics of the late 1960s. His 104-page book, The Four Immigrants manga, was published in a limited edition in San Francisco in 1931, and later reprinted by Stone Bridge Press in 1999, after being rediscovered and translated by Frederik Schodt, the grandmaster of all manga experts, who had found it while searching for the word "manga" in the University of California's library catalog.

The Four Immigrants Manga, originally titled Manga Yonin Shosei ("The Four Students Manga"), is the story of four college-age friends who travel from Japan to America to strike it rich and pursue their dreams. The year is 1904, a time when Japan was rapidly industrializing, and lower-middle-class Japanese (the ones rich enough to travel, but poor enough to want to leave) were emigrating overseas to start families, found businesses and carve out a place in the world. Many came to San Francisco, where they were detained at the immigration station on Angel Island (the West Coast's equivalent of Ellis Island) before being admitted to the mainland. After immigration, the four friends have a big dinner at a Chinese restaurant, where they give themselves "American" names and announce their plans. Hardworking Fred wants to become a successful California farmer. Frank, who has a big face and a wide grin, wants to get rich and send money back home. Charlie, in the first of many bold proclamations, announces, "I'm tired of Japan's old ways, so I came here to study the democratic systems of this republic." And meek little Henry, the author's stand-in, has come to study Western art. An old man from the local Buddhist church, who is helping the four boys find work, tells them "It's a great pleasure to welcome you lads to California. Never forget the old country, or the religion of your ancestors." And they welcome each other to America with a rousing cheer.

So begins their adventures. The book is told in 52 two-page "comic strips," each one about as long as a Sunday comic used to be before newspapers started shrinking their comics sections, first due to paper shortages during World War II. Each strip has sort of a punchline, but also tells a story; it's not so different from reading a yon-koma manga in which the story is broken up for gags every four panels. Interestingly, once the first English-speaking character appears, we see that the book is written in both Japanese and English; the white characters speak in passable but crude handwritten English ("I go out to the grocery. You clean the stove very nice"), while the Japanese characters speak in good Japanese. Frederik Schodt's translation leaves the English bits as Kiyama wrote them, but translates the Japanese into natural-sounding English, giving the reader the experience of hearing English from an outsider's perspective. As Schodt says in his introduction, it's "like listening in on a nearly private conversation." The Japanese characters occasionally call white people "ketô whiteys," an ethnic slur which, according to Schodt, was politely omitted from most dictionaries of the time. The white people call every Asian "Charlie," can't tell Chinese from Japanese, and frequently commit more blatant acts of racism. On the other hand, the stereotype of Japanese people as a finer, nobler class of Asian was already in place; as one white woman says, "Oh! My! They have nice musical voice—just like Madam Tamaki at opera house."

The story is a mixture of comedy, daily life, and commentary on the events of the time. The four friends start out doing housework to fund their schooling (leading to lots of dishes getting broken), and end up on very different paths. Fred achieves his dreams, becomes a millionaire in the rice market to the awe of his poor friends, and eventually gets an arranged marriage to a "picture bride" from Japan. Henry, sort of a background character in his own story, diligently practices his art. Frank works as a servant and a farmer. But the true star of the story is Charlie, a lazy but endearing idealist who drinks and gambles his money away in Chinatown, works as a short-order cook, farmer and grocer, and delivers impassioned speeches about life and politics. In one story, when Charlie's Japanese boss demands that Charlie address him formally, Charlie gets mad and quits ("I didn't travel 5,000 miles to America to address my equals as 'honorable' anything!") When the 1906 earthquake destroys most of San Francisco, it's Charlie who sleeps on the streets and end up conscripted by the National Guard into digging latrines. When the city hosts the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in 1915, to show that it's rebounded from the earthquake, it's Charlie who blows all his money flirting with girls in the teahouse. And in 1921, when racist whites expel Japanese farmers at gunpoint from Turlock, California, it's Charlie who protests the most furiously. And it's Charlie who makes all the dirty jokes, which couldn't have been published in any English newspaper of the period. The story ends in 1924 in a mirror image of the beginning, with two of the friends returning to Japan, while the others remain in America with their new wives and children.

The Four Immigrants Manga is, basically, a window into the experiences of early Japanese-Americans. Parts of it draw from cartooning conventions of the time—domestic comedy in the kitchen, bumbling cops and talking parrots, strips which end with characters falling out of bed saying, "It was all a dream!" But the characters are real, not caricatures, and their joy and sorrow feels real. In and around their lives, there are jokes about snot-nosed kids, jokes about bad food, jokes about race, and jokes about the strangeness and silliness of American (and Japanese) culture of the time.

Kiyama primarily worked as a painter and fine artist, and The Four Immigrants Manga was a side project for him. He submitted it to Japanese-language newspapers, but could not get it published, so he showed some of it at a 1927 gallery exhibit, and later self-published it in a small print run. He later moved back to Japan, where he worked on another small manga which was never completed. It's tempting to imagine an alternate universe in which Kiyama went on to do more works in the same vein, contributing to the early history of graphic novels in the U.S. and Japan. Or, perhaps he might have become a newspaper strip artist. But as the story itself continually reminds us (in incidents played for tragic humor), it was a time period when it was very difficult for non-whites to make any impression on American culture. Racism against Asians, in particular, increased and increased in the early 20th century; in 1906 the California school board segregated Asian and white children; in 1924 Japanese immigrants were barred from becoming citizens; and in the crowning moment of anti-Japanese racism, in World War II, hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps. This disruption uprooted and destroyed the Japanese-American community in most of the U.S., and with its intended audience of Japanese-Americans so scattered, Kiyama's little newspaper-strip-style dôjinshi became more of a period piece than ever before. Frozen in time with diligent documentary-style realism, with cynical humor and cartoony cheer, it is a charming work that could not have been produced by anyone other than Henry Kiyama. There is really nothing else like it.

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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