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Brief Introduction To Gekiga By Bharath Murthy

BlueJackal, Sunday, June 25, 2017



‘Gekiga’, literally ‘dramatic pictures’ is a term coined by the great manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi in 1957. The term was explicitly coined by him to define a new approach to comics that was to be different from the ‘manga’ or ‘whimsical pictures’ that had come before. 

There’s a page on the Comix India site which has quite a few links to gekiga and its history.

The American manga historian Ryan Holmberg (who has been to India several times) is a key expert in gekiga history and has done much to help non-Japanese people understand this very important development in comics history. He has also translated some key works in tracing gekiga’s history. Same goes for his mentor, the manga researcher and editor Mitsuhiro Asakawa. I’m personally indebted to these two people for aiding my own understanding. 

Notes on Gekiga


In 2006, I chanced upon a manga title in Landmark bookshop in Bangalore. It was called ‘Abandon the Old in Tokyo’ , by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. That was my introduction to a whole world of expression in comics that forced me to change my thinking about what comics can do. That book is a collection of short stories. What was immediately striking to me was the simplicity of the artwork. The protagonist in story after story was an ‘ordinary male’, with undistinguished features, and drawn in the same way in every story. He was working class, and the narratives are very consciously about this working class everyman. We have come across such characters in literature, but this was the first time I was encountering it in comics, and in this special way. Special because of the way these narratives are structured and drawn. I was astonished that in comics, one could talk about very dark or unexpressed human emotions without drowning the readers themselves in those emotions, and with an economy of means that took me by surprise. So for me, this was gekiga- a special focus on reality and realism, a cinematic approach to drama, an art style that does not call too much attention to itself, an economy of means, and above all the depictions of deeply felt personal experience. This I see as one of the recipes of comics for adults. 


Brief history


Some names: Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Masahiko Matsumoto, Takao Saito. These were a few of the manga artists working in ‘kashihon’ or ‘rental manga’ market in the 50s. Japan was recovering from the damages of war. All of these people were greatly influenced by Osamu Tezuka to take up manga as a career. It was of course a risky career. These people had grown up in the post war years reading the children’s manga that Tezuka and others produced. Now they were adults and kids manga no longer held the same interest in them. This was also the period when the cinema of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu (Tatsumi was a fan) were very popular. Tatsumi decided to start the ‘Gekiga Studio’ a loose collective that broke up fast, but they were able to interest publishers in their new kind of manga. One of the key innovations they did was to adapt cinematic parallel cutting (for suspense) and the extensive use of close-ups to break up action into a number of composite parts on a page. The result was a heightened tension in the drama, prompting the reader to scan through the page at a much faster rate than before. The distinctive feature of manga, ‘speed lines’ was an innovation created during this period, which was necessitated by the urgency of the action. There would even be panels which were only an abstract blur of lines. Today, speed lines or force lines or action lines are most important feature of popular mainstream action manga. They have become so refined that there are many types of action lines to depict intense movement and heighten the reader’s emotional engagement with the narrative. Many of these early gekiga were crime and mystery stories. Here it must be noted that the use of ‘gekiga’ as a word for many of these works was a retroactive measure by a group of manga critics in the 70s. 

Masahiko Matsumoto, for example, called his own work ‘komaga’. Ryan Holmberg has written a wonderful article on this - 

In 1959, the first weekly manga magazines such as ‘Shonen Sunday’ and ‘Weekly Shonen’ were launched, starting the manga boom and catapulting Japanese manga into the world’s largest comics producing industry. The rental manga artists adapted and graduated to these new magazines, taking their new techniques with them. This was the first stage of manga becoming a distinct comics culture. 

In the mid 60s, gekiga techniques were firmly entrenched in popular manga, but the artists who started this thing were restless. It appeared as though the techniques were appropriated by the commercial industry, but the spirit of the narratives that these authors were drawing seemed to have been forgotten. 

Enter the great Sanpei Shirato, who had cut his teeth in rental manga and was known for samurai stories. He was instrumental in starting a new monthly magazine called ‘Garo’, which would be the new home of alternative manga, one that had brought all the disaffected gekiga authors together. Sanpei Shirato’s ‘Kamui Den’ manga was a swashbuckling ninja story set in medieval Japan, but it was a story with an outcaste hero, and depicted a working class revolution.

‘Garo’ began attracting a new generation of university students steeped in left-wing politics, and they clearly saw ‘Kamui den’ as a political allegory. ‘Garo’ continued its run till the late 90s. Osamu Tezuka was so taken by ‘Garo’’s success that he started his own magazine called COM,  as a rival mag. 

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