(Please Note: The Gekiga exhibition is displayed on the first floor of the museum. We regret that there is no lift to the first floor - there are 17 steps with handrails on either side.)
Over the last twenty-five years, manga and anime have been one of Japan’s greatest cultural exports, attracting fans and followers around the world. One significant and sometimes overlooked chapter in the history of how manga conquered the world is revealed in this new exhibition on alternative manga or ‘gekiga’.
In the 1950s Japan was emerging from US occupation and embarking on the economic resurgence which was to make it an economic powerhouse in the 1980s. After the horrors of the war, entertainment of all kinds – novels, films, TV and manga were in great demand. The works of Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) and Machiko Hasegawa (Sazae-San) became hugely successful and inspired millions of children to draw their own comics. But by and large manga was seen as a juvenile phenomenon.
Gekiga was the spark which, between 1956 and the early 1970s, transformed manga from being the preserve of the young into a vast industry now read by millions of children and adults around the world. This exhibition shows how a small group of young artists, initially working in the Kansai area in and around Osaka, created a new style of powerful and dramatic narratives. Drawn in a more realistic and atmospheric style with grittier story lines, gegika attracted older teenagers, university students and eventually adult readers. The exhibition includes material never before displayed in Europe, including over 50 pieces of original artwork and reproductions from rare manga.
What is Gekiga?
In the mid-1950s manga were humorous and fantastical stories drawn in a rounded and cheerful style for a children’s market. However, childhood had not been a sunny experience for the generation born between 1935 and 1940 who had experienced bombings and nuclear war and seen parents and family members killed or suffer lasting physical and psychological damage. After the war many had to leave school early to help their families get by. By their late teens and early 20s they wanted to create something different: in the words of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, ‘manga that was not manga’. In 1956 Tatsumi and his friends Masahiko Matsumoto, Takao Saito and others began creating longer stories featuring not magical heroes but everyday adult characters in action-packed stories aimed at teenagers. Many of the artists were strongly influenced by film noir and Japanese film makers such as Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) and Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story). The term gekiga – ‘dramatic pictures’ ? was coined by Tatsumi in 1957 in an attempt to differentiate the genre from children’s manga. By combining a more realistic drawing style with striking imagery and perspectives, dramatic sound effects and limited dialogue, the gekiga artists conjured up a dark and exciting alternative world of those living on the margins or with underworld connections.
Published for the rental book market, the detective, mystery and ghost stories were printed in new collections with evocative titles such as Kage (Shadow), 1956, Machi (City), 1957, Meiro (Labryinth), 1958 and Mantenr? (Skyscraper), 1959. Because the concept of ‘different manga’ was still so new they were shelved beside the children’s manga. The violence and more adult themes of some of the stories led to protests from groups such as local PTAs, and in August 1959 Masaaki Sato was blacklisted by the Yamanashi Book Renters’ Association in response to parental concerns about depictions of juvenile delinquency and the corrupting character of this new type of comic. Kage and Machi proved very popular with teenagers, prompting Tokyo publishers to start their own titles. In 1959 Tatsumi, Matsumoto, Takao Saito and five others now living in Tokyo, formed Gekiga Workshop (Gekiga Kobo) to strengthen their hand with publishers. Though the Workshop was short lived, its influence was long lasting.
By the late 1950s the Japanese economy was gathering pace. Japanese television only started in 1953 but by 1957 more than 50% of people already had a television. Manga publishers, fearing that they would be wiped out by this new form of entertainment, quickly moved from monthly to weekly publication. Many magazines followed the gekiga artists in targeting stories at an older market and some artists such as Takao Saito helped develop a production team system to help meet the rapidly increasing demand for more stories. By the 1960s America’s continued use of air bases in Japan to launch bombing raids on Vietnam, the spectre of nuclear war and the questioning of bureaucratic and consumerist Japanese norms found expression in Japanese counter-culture, including gekiga. In 1964 the magazine Garo was founded. Aimed first at older teenagers, it published the famous historical story The Legend of Kamui by Sanpei Shirato. Set amongst the outcast burakumin society, it provided a new twist on the standard samurai story. The magazine quickly gained a following amongst university students.
Garo presented stories which were visually or thematically too challenging for the mainstream market. Many stories had unresolved or ambiguous endings. It gave older gekiga artists such as Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi and Yoshiharu Tsuge a forum for experimental and unconventional work and gave opportunities to new artists. By the late 1960s gekiga was everywhere. In 1967 the ‘God of Manga’, Osamu Tesuka himself created a new experimental magazine, COM. Garo’s circulation peaked at 80,000 in 1967?68, tiny by Japanese standards, but it continued to exert a
significant influence on the world of manga and design. By the 1980s gekiga has become integrated into the many strands of manga. For some younger people the term gekiga is now consigned to the history books, but its legacy lives on. The work of Sanpei Shirato has been acknowledged as an early influence by Hayao Miyazaki, the Oscar-winning director of Spirited Away. Takao Saito’s deadly assassin Golgo 13, first published in 1968, is the longest running manga still published today. Over the last twenty years the works of artists associated with gekiga such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Shigeru Mizuki, Yoshihiro Tsuge, Masahiko Matsumoto and Takao Saito have been translated into many languages and won readers and awards around the world. Two members of the Gekiga Workshop, Masahiko Matsumoto and Yoshihiro Tatsumi have produced autobiographical accounts of the period, Gekiga Fanatics and A Drifting Life. Both works feature in the exhibition and evoke the excitement and challenges the artists faced nearly 60 years ago when manga for adults was still uncharted territory. This is the first time that original drawings of gekiga ? the underground movement that revolutionised manga ? have been exhibited in Europe.
The exhibition is supported by the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation Japan and the Japan Foundation.
One of Our Minor Wars 'Well, if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it.' Bruce Bairnsfather, Bystander, 24 November 1915