Gajo Sakamoto – Last Gasp – 2011 – 1 volume
I can’t help but support releases like this. This is a slipcased hardcover collecting a prewar manga for children. It’s super-unusual, and I figured it’s for people like me. Manga lovers who also like nice books.
The thing about this is… it’s interesting as one of the only examples in English of pre-war manga, and it’s also one of the only non-Tezuka manga in English that is… well, there’s not even a whole lot of manga in English that predate 1990, but this predates everything in English by Tezuka, too. It’s a great time capsule, and fascinating as an artifact of what children enjoyed compared to some later manga I’ve read.
There’s also a very interesting collection of essays in the back. One of them is by Gajo Sakamoto himself, a reflective piece that looks back at his career. Another is by his son that tells of Sakamoto’s life. Reading between the lines, the wartime government imposed harsh restrictions on publications that ended the popular Tank Tankuro, so Sakamoto went to Manchuria to find work as a journalist. Forced out when the Soviets invaded Manchuria, he fled with the clothes on his back straight into the Kim Il-Sung regime of North Korea. When he was finally allowed to return to Japan, his family’s house had been burned down, so he literally had nothing. He never drew manga again. Strangely, it reads as if the son was born after all this, when Sakamoto was over 50.
Another essay talks about the pre-war history of manga. This is the most in-depth history of pre-war manga I’ve ever seen in English, and it is fascinating. It discusses all the major artists and series, and goes in depth about the different styles and techniques of the time and how American comics and movies influenced pre-war work. Previously, I’d only ever heard of Norakuro and the works of Noboru Oshiro. It also emphasizes that the war more or less wiped out all the publication history of these works save for the most famous, so much of this history is lost (including most of Tank Tankuro). It’s interesting, and should be read before the comic itself (the essays are in the back) in order to give Tank Tankuro proper context.
But the manga itself is hard to read. Really. I may have slept through the entire thing. The main character is Tank Tankuro, who’s kind of a superhero (he predates Superman, though, and that’s kind of interesting). He’s got a chonmage hairstyle and sits inside a metal ball, and there’s a little bit of everything in this ball. He can turn it into a plane, train, automobile, or boat, and he pulls everything from guns to money out of it. He uses all these skills to beat bad guys at first. Usually the bad guys are big robbers and bandits that live down Monster Road. And by big, I mean they’re twice the size of Tank Tankuro, who’s twice the size of a regular person. He beats them by… tying bells in knots and tying them up with them, or making them exhaust themselves on his metal exterior and swooping in for the easy win, or tricking them and grabbing them unexpectedly. Tank Tankuro can also pull anything he wants There’s not much dialogue, and when they do speak, they are usually short sentences that describe what is happening in the panel. Things like this drive me crazy. Later, Tank Tankuro enters a war, though interestingly it does not seem to be an analogue to any of the Japanese conflicts before or during WWII. Tank Tankuro simply gains allies and fights against an enemy called Kuro-Kabuto and his army. The stories are the same as the bandit stories though, usually with something funny happening to Kuro-Kabuto, his army, one of Tank Tankuro’s allies, or most interestingly, sometimes Tank Tankuro himself.
A regular page of dialogue might read something like “Hey, I’m Tengu-yama, the sumo wrestler. I’m in this tree hole to avoid the rain. But you disturbed me! Take that!” “Hey, stop it!” This is a page with one panel, where we see a large man in a tree, and his leg has burst out the side to kick Tank Tankuro. Disturbingly, this story lasts for four pages, and Tank Tankuro sets the tree on fire to defeat Tengu-yama. For some reason. The last page has Tank Tankuro sitting on top of the burning tree, eating roasted birds and eggs from inside it while Tengu-yama is at the bottom exclaiming “Oh no! Tengu-yama has been barbecued! What luck!”
So… yeah, some of the stories are a little weird in that way. The dialogue is strange and halting, which I think has nothing to do with the translation. To be fair, this ran in a magazine for young children, and it was likely intended for those learning to read. Stories like the one I described above will probably keep it out of the hands of modern youngsters, though. There are also some strange dialogue choices. At one point, one of the outlaws exclaims that he’s screwed. One little boy says that being tortured by outlaws is like hell. Another story has Tank Tankuro saying “I’m borrowing your kimono, drunk man” when he finds himself at a festival and improperly attired. The essay in the back suggests this is fairly on-point as far as the Japanese dialogue goes, too, but I still find it jarring in a comic that is so mind-numbingly for children who can’t read that I’m falling asleep.
It’s not all bad, though. My favorite moment is when Tank Tankuro finds Kuro-Kabuto buried in the mud up to his helmet and decides to slash him in half with a samurai sword. When he does so, a boxing glove on a spring pops out and smashes him in the face. I don’t care that that joke is literally 100 years old, it will never not be funny. Of course, after that Kuro-Kabuto sets the field on fire to try and roast Tank Tankuro alive, but that’s a different situation entirely. I swear it doesn’t happen as frequently as I’m describing here.
One more good story: Tank Tankuro is captured, and his allies find out he is being held in a gunpowder storage facility. The monkey friend sends in 100 turtles with candles on their back which serves to both frighten Kuro-Kabuto’s men and blast Tank Tankuro out of captivity. To get back at them, Kuro-Kabuto rides in with an army on the back of elephants holding barrels of gasoline in their trunks. He orders the elephants to drink the gasoline, then spray it out their trunks. He lights this spray on fire, turning his elephants into flamethrowers.
One thing I do love about it is the art. Sakamoto’s style isn’t nearly as western-influenced as other examples of early manga I’ve seen, and he uses a wonderful cartoony eastern flavor for the series. All the characters are big, wide shapes that bounce all over the page. It’s whimsical and imaginative, and while the dialogue drove me crazy, I don’t think I could ever get tired of looking at it. It doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is in color, mostly red.
Most aren’t going to be interested in this book, especially with its high price tag ($40). But it is a beautiful book, and the essays have a lot of useful history. It’s also one of the only examples in English of pre-war manga, and it is interesting. While I didn’t enjoy it, admittedly I don’t have much patience for older comics in general, even Western ones, and there are some choice moments of lunacy to be had here. Make of it what you will, but check it out if you’re looking for a bit of history.