Ryan Holmberg on the Early Years of Garo


Monday, April 19, 2010

I asked Ryan Holmberg, the curator of Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964-1973, (running until June 26 at The Center for Book Arts in NYC) to write something for Comics Comics about the exhibition. He came through and more. Take it away, Ryan.

Tsuge Yoshiharu page from Garo

So, Dan has asked me to write something about “Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964-1973.” Since I don’t want to completely rehash what’s in the exhibition catalogue, I think I will approach this from what I think the exhibition offers as a corrective to the dominant North American image of Garo—a venue for highly inventive and very funny, but supremely crass material, with lots of deskilled drawing, gross body humor, and non-sequitur narratives—an image informed by anthologies like Comics Underground Japan and PictureBox’s Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby that have translated work from the 1980s and ’90s. This standard image—I will call it “hetauma” (lit. “bad good,” i.e. deskilled, punk, et cetera) Garo for short—fits fairly well with contemporary ’70s-’80s underground comics in North America. The mutually adoring relationship between Gary Panter and Japan in the early ’80s is a good example of how there is a certain trans-national convergence of taste in alternative comics-making in that period which did not exist in the ’60s: Garo and Zap had little in common.

For early Garo, “alternative” meant something different. The magazine was founded with fairly clear and strong political aims. Providing space for amateur authors with unconventional formal and thematic ideas—for which Garo has been memorialized—came a slight bit later, in mid 1965, and did not bear real fruit until 1967. For the first one to two years of its publication, from September 1964 to about the end of 1965, the magazine offered itself as an antiwar, pro-direct democracy political magazine for elementary and middle school children, founded in an era when right-wing parties were making strong inroads into rolling back postwar educational reforms. The early installments of its pillar serial—Shirato Sanpei’s “The Legend of Kamuy” (1964-71)—with its stories of economic and social oppression in seventeenth-century Japan, was intended as a kind of fictional “people’s history” of pre-modern Japan, dealing with precisely the kind of issues (exploitation, discrimination, violence) that were being removed from social studies textbooks. The magazine also ran editorial essays condemning injustices ranging from the effects of corporate greed and cost-cutting measures on school lunch nutrition to the collusion of Japanese government and businesses with the Vietnam War. There were articles instructing kids in how to protest and how to petition the government. There was also a manga instructing kids in judo, which is interesting in relationship to the material on neighboring pages, a kind of multifaceted, ideological and physical training of children for martial combat against the right-wing social values, the military-industrial complex, and monopoly capitalism. The art is sometimes not so interesting, but all in all Shirato Sanpei was able to strike a good balance between strong story-telling, powerful graphics, and trenchant political statement. But for a couple of scattered and unsustained exceptions, mainly around 1970, I know of no comparable attempt to instrumentalize manga in this way in postwar Japan—to directly try to galvanize children into political activism, versus Barefoot Gen-style lamentation over the horrors of war. The closest thing is rabid right-winger Kobayashi Yoshinori’s various books from the past two decades. Garo abandoned its own pedagogical project around 1966, and while its manga from the late ’60s are often aggressively critical of the usual roster of liberal and left-wing targets—militarism, the repression of war memory and trauma, the inanities of mass media spectacle, corporatism, the arrogance of the rich—they are little committed to social change. For better or worse, art becomes more important than politics in Garo, and remain that way in alternative comics thereafter. In fact, the politics of Garo increasingly ran the other way. What I am writing about now is the regressive sexual politics of Garo, something that characterizes most of the magazine’s big names—Tsuge Yoshiharu, Tatsumi Yoshihiro, Tsuge Tadao, and Hayashi Seiichi for example—and culminates in repeated fantasies of rape in the magazine around 1970.

Hanawa Kazuichi, "Fighting Women," Garo no. 117 (May 1973)

The other thing to note about Garo in this period is its traditionalism, not evident in later “hetauma” Garo. Many of its “innovations” were rooted in earlier narrative forms: kamishibai paper theatre of the ’40s and ’50s, rental kashihon manga of the late ’50s and early ’60s, children’s illustrated fiction from the 1930s and ’40s, pre-modern travel literature and Buddhist parables, and Japanese folklore and ghost stories. The result is that a lot of the work, and a lot of the best work, is almost painfully nostalgic for a Japan that no longer existed, if it ever did at all. This summer, Top Shelf is putting out an anthology of manga from Ax (Garo’s successor), and in it you can see how these traditionalist tropes remain strong in so-called alternative manga to the present. Some of the earliest manifestations of a self-consciously deskilled drawing in Garo also comes out of this rear-viewing perspective. You find intentionally rough and loose drawing in Tsuge Tadao’s first works for Garo in the late 1960s, and it is clearly meant to evoke the hardscrabble social conditions of the 50s and the aesthetics of rental kashihon gekiga. Interestingly, Tadao’s first such work is about a young Japanese painter obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, showing how late nineteenth-century bohemianism served as a reference point for authenticity in making comics in Japan in the ’60s, as it long has and still does throughout the art world. So, another thing the exhibition got me thinking about is how “hetauma” as the hallmark of alternative comics in Japan appears very differently from the vantage of 1970 than it does from that of 1980.

The exhibition and the catalogue was a steppingstone for me. I wrote my dissertation in art history on Garo. I have started reconceptualizing and expanding it into a book, the core of which will cover the same spread as the show does, but will start in the late 1950s to show how alternative manga rose out of the tastes and crises of the rental kashihon market, and will end in the mid 70s, when Garo begins to be reconfigured as vulgarian kingdom. I hope I will be finished in two or three years’ time.

P.S. Please buy a copy of the catalogue from the Center for Book Arts. I was able to talk them into increasing the print run, and especially given that they are a non-profit, I would hate to see them stuck with unsold copies. I can promise you it’s the best thing on the subject in English. At $20, it’s a bit pricey, but it goes to a good cause.

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23 Responses to “Ryan Holmberg on the Early Years of Garo”
  1. Bill Randall says:

    I’m looking forward to that book, Ryan. Wish I could make the exhibit. Any chance they’ll be selling the catalogue online?

    I would just add that perhaps the biggest single influence on how English-speakers view alt-manga is probably Maruo Suehiro’s “Planet of the Jap.” It’s alt-manga’s “Akira.” It ties together hard-right politics & sexuality, and stood out in an anthology with a lot of mediocre work. For a lot of readers, that set the framework for looking at manga such that Tsuno Yuko or Kusunoki Shohei became invisible. A lot of grossout manga also came over with underground music, John Zorn’s Naked City… I first discovered it reading about the noise band Hanatarashi.

    & I’ve always liked this interview with Miyazaki about “Legend of Kamui.” Money quote: “I think that Japan’s famine is truly beautiful.” And for other non NYCers, my link above’s to an old Garo cover gallery.

  2. Ryan says:

    Excellent explanation and article, Ryan! I had a few people refer to the exhibit as the “Guro” exhibition, which I think might underscore the confusion/redefinition of Garo’s legacy criss-crossing with more contemporary, Americans-looking-via-the-internet conception of what GARO and “underground comics” were all about. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts of the regressive sexual politics– that aspect has always struck me as the most obvious corollary to “underground comix” in the states from the early-70s to 80s that are often named as parallels to Garo’s famous later artists.

    I just found out I’ll be in New York at the end of May so I’m excited to get to see the exhibit in person. Congrats again on the show.

    PS: It’s a separate title from this discussion, but Bill’s comment about Kamui made me think of George Akiyama’s ASHURA, which I’m reading now and loving– it’s a darkly comedic story about an orphan during famine in the Edo period, with themes of cannibalism and buddhist ascetics traveling the wretches landscape. Very much on the same wavelength in terms of that Miyazaki quote 🙂

  3. Dirk Deppey says:

    I’d love to buy the exhibition catalog, but it’s not available in the website’s bookstore section. I’m in Arizona — how do I get my hands on the thing?

  4. I’ll join Bill in hoping that the book will be made available for online purchase. I know I won’t be able to make it (NYC is a long way from Paris, especially when planes don’t fly), but there are so few works dealing with that kind of subject that I’d hate to miss an opportunity to dig in.

  5. Holmberg says:

    Thank you all for your replies. I will contact the Center for Book Arts about getting the catalogue on their website. Thank you for alerting me to the situation. So maybe wait a couple of days and check their site again, or you could email the CBA and give them your info directly: info@centerforbookarts.org

    There is no distribution for the catalogue, unfortunately, so you will have go through the CBA directly.

    For those of you within easy striking distance from New York, please come to the event at the CBA this Wednesday at 630PM. It will be a discussion between Ax-contributor Kondoh Akino and myself.

  6. […] Holmberg pens an essay on the early days of Garo magazine, in tandem with the exhibit that’s up right now at the Center for Book Arts in New […]

  7. llj says:

    I always find it interesting how alternative comic artists, both in the US and, apparently, Japan, seem to wallow in a sort of nostalgia for a world that never really existed. You look at all the big names right now in the west–Seth, Ware and even Clowes at times fall into this mode of “I wanna do comics about X period in history, even though it’s just a REIMAGINING of this period.”

    Interesting point also by ryan on the sexual politics of underground comics from the states and Garo’s big name artists.

    I think this pining for a fictional past is probably unique to comic artists, especially alt-comic artists. There must be some psychological factor at work here that isn’t evident in other people who are the forward-thinking types.

    • Holmberg says:

      Some further thoughts and clarifications: While early Garo oftentimes had a romantic relationship to past times and cultural forms, it is important to see how in many cases this was not just melancholic nostalgia. Mizuki Shigeru, for example, was a staunch anti-modernist, and his famed yokai (ghosts) first developed in Garo as warnings against over-modernization and too much faith in notions of technological progress. Shirato Sanpei turned to the sixteenth and seventeenth century as an invigorating time when peasant groups armed themselves and rose up against exploitation — though this was in large part a fantasy. Despite his reputation for detailed historical research (which in many cases holds up), he had a tendency to be anachronistic in his representation of social movements in premodern Japan — the violent “yonaoshi” millenarian uprisings that appear in the latter half of “Kamuy” are an eighteenth and nineteenth century phenomenon – and he was often criticized for having a sentimental obsession with a lost and partially fictionalized golden age of revolutionary power amongst the underclass. Hanawa Kazuichi (see image in original post) appropriated 30s-40s children’s culture to make very strong if sensationalist critiques of militaristic cults of valor, loyalty, and the body (common also in contemporary film and theatre) – not a non-issue in early 70s Japan, considering Mishima’s suicide and the actions of the Red Army. The closest thing in Garo to Ware et al. – and this is a very very loose comparison – might be Hayashi Seiichi, whose plundering of 10s-20s visual culture was very much to create a sentimental and aestheticized vision of contemporary Japan.

      On sexuality and misogyny. I agree that useful comparisons could be made on this issue between Garo and American underground comics. The resulting images, though, would be very different. In Garo, rape often appears as a kind last-ditch outlet for men, typically middle-aged, crushed by middle class life and the notorious Japanese work ethic. Tatsumi Yoshihiro was obsessed with this. Obviously, there is a parallel here with Crumb’s “Whiteman.” The differences start to emerge pretty quickly once you consider what are depicted as the root causes of sexual aggression, as well as the tone of the manga. There are not a few Garo stories that root male sexual fantasies and anxieties in war trauma. In different ways, you see this in the work of Tatsumi Yoshihiro and Tsuge Tadao. It’s also possible to read Tsuge Yoshiharu’s “Nejishiki” (Screw-style / Screw Ceremony) in this way. The most interesting work in this genre is Hayashi Seiichi’s “Red Bird Little Bird.” It starts off with a series of images of Japanese soldiers raping a woman. The images are partially traced from contemporary pornographic printed matter. The story then shifts to a 40s-50s-something man (drawn freehand) walking through the city carrying a small birdcage. The juxtaposition, as I take it, is between his violent past and his repressed present. While in most cases I think Hayashi had a pretty retrograde image of woman as pining powerless waifs, “Red Bird Little Bird” is powerful and condemning anti-pornography – though I think still one can derive pleasure from fantasies even if they are wrapped in shame. Many of Tatsumi’s works (like those in “Good-Bye” and “Abandon the Old,” some of which were initially published in Garo) seem to be all about this: a kind of pornography of impotence. As for comparisons with the American underground: There is none of the burlesque humor of Zap in any of this, and little of the prophylactic gee-whiz self-deprecation. I think the war waged against humor in the late 50s gekiga (which Tatsumi never tires of repeating) really shaped how artists in the late 60s approached various social issues. There is no “Mad” behind 60s alternative manga.

  8. […] Ryan Holmberg writes about the origins of the Japanese underground comics magazine Garo, which actually was a […]

  9. Bill Randall says:

    Ryan, what issue is “Red Bird Little Bird” in, and has it been anthologized? It’s not among the short stories in my copy of ?????? and I’d like to see it.

    @ lij, to add to Ryan’s response, I think Ware/Clowes/Crumb’s suffocating nostalgia has more in common with the otaku impulse. I would mention Japanese right wing nostalgia & Mishima’s samurai suicide after failing to restore the Emperor to power but he beat me to it. Japanese nostalgia’s in another league, good for everything from canned coffee to lost love to the days before Westernization destroyed the Japanese worldview.

    I had a point about Koi no Mon, a 2004 screwball comedy with cameos by Garo artists Kotobuki Shiriagari and Uchida Shungiku, about a “manga arteest” who makes comics from rocks and falls for a fanfic girl. But now I can’t remember it. Alas, it’s late.

    I do think Yamagami Tatsuhiko, quite mainstream, trumps anything in Zap. Scrotal parachutes etc.

  10. holmberg says:


    “Red Bird Little Bird” (an image of which Dan allowed me to add above) is in the September 1969 issue of Garo. It has not been anthologized, as far as I know, even in the older Hayashi collections.

    On Yamagami Tatsuhiko: Seirindo published a number of his books in the mid 70s and apparently was crucial to keeping the publisher and Garo afloat through the post-Kamuy pre-hetauma years.

  11. Bill Randall says:

    Thanks, I’ll track it down.

    For YT, I did not know that– I just pulled him out of a hat as hugely popular & rather risque; all that great 70s manga that’s crazy yet mainstream. Harenchi Gakuen, say.

    Still can’t remember my point for Koi no Mon!

  12. llj says:

    This is fascinating stuff. It makes me wish even more that alternative manga, especially those from the early days of Garo, would be better represented in the North American manga market.

    Bill, is there a problem with your website? I’ve been trying to access it this week and I’m not getting anywhere.

  13. Jim says:

    I bet I’m not the only one who’d second Ilj’s statement. I’d love to see more translated works of this type. I’d also like to see more work from late 70’s/80’s Garo as well. Only problem is I don’t think these titles are that viable for publishers… Then again, Drawn & Quarterly appear to be managing to release some really high quality stuff (although, I’d like to know how well their manga titles by creators other than Yoshihiro Tatsumi have done).
    Also, Top Shelf’s upcoming Ax Anthology gives fans of alternative manga another glimmer of hope.

  14. John P. says:

    My apologies if this was covered above somewhere– but can you describe the exhibition catalog? How many pages, is it b+w or color, etc? Thanks very much!

    John P.

  15. holmberg says:

    The catalogue is color and 50 pages. It contains about 30 images with a 10,000 word scholarly survey of the first decade of Garo. Again, it’s on the pricey side for what it is, but the Center for Book Arts is a non-profit, so $20 supports more than the publication. Also, the print-run was small and the copies seem to be selling at a steady rate, so if you want a copy, I would suggest not waiting. They can now be ordered online through the CBA website.

  16. […] Garo manga: la mostra Pubblicato il 09/05/2010 da matteos Una delle mostre fumettistiche più (in)attese del 2010 è quella recentemente dedicata, dal Center for Book Arts di New York, alla rivista di manga Garo. La mostra si intitola Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964-1973, ed è curata da Ryan Holmberg, che ne discute in una chiacchierata con il buon Dan Nadel su Comics Comics Mag. […]

  17. An interesting article Ryan, thanks a lot for that.

    The Ax book is now out in this months Diamond Previews, May 2010.
    Hope you all check that out too.

    Ax collection editor

  18. philip says:

    I went twice to the exhibit and was moved that there have been people involved in translating these artists here in the States. Back when I began translating Tsuge Yoshiharu and Ebisu Yoshikazu, there was just one translation of Tsuge’s work, in France.
    I was discouraged when Nagai-San passed away and Seirindo was bought out by the company run by someone named “Jun” (Tsuaito?) who showed no interest in meeting me about publishing Tsuge’s works in English, “because I don’t speak English” is what he said, even though he knew I was fluent in Japanese. I am wondering now that there is such an interest in underground Manga if Tsuge’s work would be a hit. I have been in contact with and have met several times Tsuge-San and Takano-San (Hokuto Shobo) and plan on contacting them again next month. Once, about 15 years ago I called a contact at Shogakukan in SF and the guy told me bluntly, “Tsuge Yoshiharu wouldn’t sell”. Well, now it would, for sure. Keep an eye out for some English translations in the next few years…I hope! Oh, and thanks so much for the exhibit. I am lucky to be in NYC. I enjoyed it immensely and have brought several people there already. Cheers! Work well done!

  19. […] had a nice time in NYC this weekend. I got to see my D&Q intern-pal Casey, saw the Garo exhibit at The Center for Book Arts, and met Jim Woodring at his book signing where a picture was snapped. […]

  20. Ryan Holmberg says:

    Thank you to all who posted on the Garo exhibition, which is now down, and to Dan for first asking me to write up something for Comics Comics, as well as for now selling copies of the catalogue via Picture Box.

    Since the largest amount of feedback I received came via Comics Comics, I thought this would be a good place to post “errata” in the exhibition catalogue. There are only two of a purely factual nature that I know of. If anyone spots any others (matters of interpretation aside), I would love to know about them.

    1. The image on the catalogue cover is incorrectly attributed on the credits page. It should be: Shirato Sanpei, title page of “The Legend of Kamuy,” Garo no. 32 (April 1967). My apologies to Shirato Sanpei for this careless omission.

    2. page 12, second column: Japanese literati often referred to the television as the “Braun tube”, not the “brown box,” as I have claimed.

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