Osaka, 1956. The seminal kashihon (book rental) publisher Hinomaru Bunko arranged for three of its young artists to cohabitate over the summer, in hopes that they would be more productive. Masahiko Matsumoto, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Takao Saitō moved in together, but only a month later, Matsumoto returned home to Kobe. By September that same year, he had begun to refer to his work as ‘komaga’ (literally: ‘panel pictures’) to distinguish it from the mainstream. Directly inspired by Matsumoto – he describes the experience of reading the 1956 short story The Man Next Door as “a blow [being] delivered to his head” – Tatsumi coined his own term: gekiga.
Meaning ‘dramatic pictures’, gekiga is the umbrella term for Japanese comics created as an alternative to ‘whimsical pictures’ (or, ‘manga’). Despite reading and being influenced by Osamu Tezuka, who at the time worked exclusively in children’s comics, gekiga artists wanted to challenge what had become conventional. With a gritty, cinematic style that explored mature topics and themes, as well as sexual and political content, gekiga became a very popular genre. When Weekly Shōnen Sunday and Weekly Shōnen Magazine launched in 1959, kashihon artists submitted their work, bringing techniques popularised in gekiga with them.
In 1964, Katsuichi Nagai and Sanpei Shirato founded Garo, a monthly anthology magazine that hosted artists (unpaid) who produced alternative and avant-garde manga, bringing gekiga artists together. The first series published in Garo was Shirato’s own Kamui den, a ninja story set in the Edo period. Shirato’s work garnered a fan base of left-wing student activists, and indeed gekiga often explores anti-capitalist or proletarian themes. As the genre is heavily male-dominated – Garo had only one regular female contributor until the late 1970s (see below) – stories frequently revolve around disaffected misogynists. However, there are some feminist voices to be found, artists who are sensitive to the ways in which women also suffer under capitalism.
Cigarette Girl by Masahiko Matsumoto
A lovely little volume published by Top Shelf Productions, Cigarette Girl collects eleven of Matsumoto’s stories from 1972-1974, and unlike many gekiga collections, it is positively endearing. As Yoshihiro Tatsumi notes in his foreword, magazines for adults “were filled with violence and eroticism,” something that Matsumoto “with his good-natured personality” was unable to emulate. From ‘Naruko Tsurumaki’s Love’, about a young woman’s unemployed boyfriend who finds a new lease of life when a dog follows him home, to the title story, chronicling an awkward young man’s attempts to court the titular cigarette girl, Matsumoto’s work feels more positive than his contemporaries’. A story like ‘Slither’ could become seedy and discomfiting (it is one of the stories that explores some of that aforementioned eroticism), but Matsumoto treats it with a light, humorous touch. His character designs are distinctive, with perpetually pursed lips and body proportions that land just this side of cartoonish. His stories begin in media res and often end on wistful notes (the final panel of ‘The Tobacco Shop Side Street’ is particularly striking). Some stories are downright romantic. Cigarette Girl is a fabulous anthology and the perfect first step into the genre.
Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi
Originally serialised in Garo between 1970-71, Red Colored Elegy helped popularise dōsei stories – that is, stories which revolve around young unmarried couples cohabiting, something which at the time was rather scandalous. Here, Hayashi presents two struggling artists, Ichiro and Sachiko, and the strain professional woes and familial responsibilities place on their relationship. Sachiko works in the animation industry as a tracer; this role was often given to women who, it was assumed, would soon be abandoning their careers in favour of becoming housewives. Ichiro has a slightly more senior role, but wants more than anything to be drawing comics. He pitches to Garo but is rejected, as Hayashi himself was originally, in a scene which is deliberately reminiscent of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s surreal masterwork Screw Style. While many assumed that this was a work of shishōsetsu (also known as ‘autofiction’ or ‘I-novel’), in the afterword to the 1976 edition, which has been reprinted in this Drawn & Quarterly release, Hayashi admitted that he had never experienced dōsei himself, but wanted to write about cohabitation “as something demonic.” Hayashi probably drew on his experiences of living with and, eventually, caring for his mother when depicting the lovers’ respective fathers: one is suicidal, and the other relies on his family for care. In any case, the lovers’ suffering under the weight of societal expectations and, in general, capitalism (Ichiro walks with a decapitated Disneyesque character at the story’s opening) is presented with an elegiac air.
The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita
As one of a few (and for a while the only) regular female contributors to Garo, Kuniko Tsurita’s importance cannot be overstated. Making her debut when she was still a teenager, she produced work that cements her as arguably the most fascinating voice in the genre. Drawn & Quarterly’s anthology comprises 18 stories from 1966-1981. From the prehistoric setting of ‘Woman’ to an ambiguous future of nuclear anxiety in the title story, Tsurita’s work covers themes of gender, sexuality, politics and death. This last is not surprising; Tsurita died tragically young after suffering with chronic illness. In ‘Yuko’s Days’ the young protagonist languishes in a hospital which, we discover, exists in a liminal space. One half of the lesbian couple in ‘Occupants’ sees her own corpse floating in the ocean. The androgynous protagonist of the title story rides their motorcycle towards a mushroom cloud. There is a terrible, inexorable certainty of death here, and of people trapped in circumstances beyond their control. The book’s essay (by Ryan Holmberg and Mitsuhiro Asakawa) notes that despite Tsurita’s broad talent and skill, she was originally told to “draw about girls instead.” At Garo, Katsuichi Nagai respected her but admitted he was “surprised that a girl could draw such manga.” The Sky is Blue… is a staggering work of art, made all the more tragic by the premature loss of its artist.
Ding Dong Circus and Other Stories by Maki Sasaki
In his blurb for this Breakdown Press release, Haruki Murakami notes that seeing a new work from Maki Sasaki “felt like opening a door onto another world.” Sasaki’s absurdist work has in the past been called ‘anti-manga’. Firmly avant-garde and certainly Pop Art, this collection comprises 15 stories from 1967-1974, all but one of which originally appeared in Garo. These may not be the most accessible stories – compared to the other books on this list, Ding Dong Circus is positively abstruse – but they are certainly fascinating. From the patent yet somehow mystifying political discourse of noun- and adjective-heavy conversations in ‘The Vietnam Debate’ to the psychedelic imagery in the rest of the book, Sasaki expertly deconstructs and reconstructs the medium on every page. He knows when to make panels busy with monochromatic vibrancy, and when to let blank space breathe, or dialogue spill from speech bubbles. At the end of the book, Sasaki states that the Beatles (whose influence is clear) “gave [him] this tormented yet gentle feeling.” The same can be said for many of the stories here; there is a dreamlike quality to them, even when the imagery is something from a nightmare.
The Pits of Hell by Yoshikazu Ebisu
“Finally published!! The horrible infamous most ridiculous work in the history of manga!!” So proclaims the back cover of Breakdown Press’ 2019 release which collects nine strange, twisted and gleefully angry stories from 1974-1981. Yoshikazu Ebisu’s work falls under the ‘heta-uma’ umbrella. Literally meaning ‘bad-good’, heta-uma is essentially the Japanese punk and new wave movement, and it covers work that revels in morally bankrupt themes and characters, from rapists to capitalists. The Pits of Hell showcases Ebisu’s more refined style for some of his title pages (greatly inspired by the avant-garde graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo), and his rougher, malleable imagery: heads are beaten and crumpled and torn from bodies like paper. The book drips with dark humour, anger, and bodily fluids. Amusingly, in his short commentaries included in this volume, Ebisu – who is also famous for his television work alongside Takeshi Kitano, another Japanese creative with diametrically opposed personae – criticises his ‘atrocious’ and ‘embarrassing’ artwork, and in particular one of the more (in his view) ‘perverted’ stories. Of course, atrocious, embarrassing and perverted tales are always worth telling.
A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Last but not least, we would be remiss not to mention Drawn & Quarterly’s release of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical tome. The volume follows Hiroshi (Tatsumi’s surrogate) from his life-changing encounters with Osamu Tezuka and his early passion for creating comics, to the later struggles and stagnations he faced. Not only is it a fascinating look at the development of Tatsumi’s alternative manga, but it also serves as a deeply evocative window into post-war Japan. Hiroshi’s relationship and sometime rivalry with his brother and collaborator, mangaka Shōichi Sakurai (here named Okimasa), serves as the emotional core for at least the first half of the book; one of the most affecting scenes is the discovery that Okimasa, whose poor physical health caused him to divide much of his time between hospital visits and resting at home, has destroyed Hiroshi’s work in a fit of jealous rage. Of course, 800+ pages is a huge commitment. A Drifting Life is absolutely worth the work, but another equally valid and fascinating way to explore this story is through the animated film from Singaporean director Eric Khoo. Tatsumi follows the mangaka’s early life and career and animates a number of his stories, making it an excellent introduction to one of the fathers of gekiga.
Gekiga and other alternative manga demonstrably changed the trajectory of the industry. In 1963, work began on the undeniably influential but widely lamented anime adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s manga Astro Boy, and the effects it had on TV animation in Japan are still clear today. However, despite initially steering clear of gekiga, Tezuka began to see how profitable it could be over the children’s comics he had preferred. Thus, in 1967, he opened COM, a magazine to rival Garo, and began producing his own gekiga. Tezuka said that upon reading Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro, his ‘competitive’ nature pushed him to produce a manga that would rival it: Dororo. Following this, his work skewed darker and more adult than it had before.
The above list of recommendations is only the beginning: Susumu Katsumata (Red Snow, Fukushima Devil Fish) and Yoshiharu Tsuge (The Man Without Talent, The Swamp); Tadao Tsuge (Slum Wolf, Trash Market) and Shigeru Mizuki (Showa: A History of Japan, NonNonBa). These few only scratch the surface. The aforementioned Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf Productions, and Breakdown Press have been instrumental in bringing gekiga to the west, but other publishers are also in the business of releasing alternative manga. Vertical licenced some of Tezuka’s gekiga (as well as some of his classic manga); Landmark Books picked up some stories of Tatsumi’s that D&Q missed; and Dark Horse Comics brought over Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, among others.
Whichever pictures you prefer – dramatic or whimsical – alternative manga is a fascinating movement, pioneered by people who grew up with, but never out of, comics. These works often exhibit realistic struggles in suburban or rural Japan (usually personal struggles the artists fictionalise), and others still are fantastic genre pieces, exploring contemporary themes through a historical or speculative lens. Without artists like Matsumoto and magazines like Garo, it is impossible to predict where manga would be today.