Manga Studies #4: Traversing Art and Manga: Ishiko Junzō’s Writings on Manga/Gekiga by Shige (CJ) Suzuki

11 Aug

I. Who is Ishiko Junzō?[1]

Arguably, one of the first Japanese critics to discuss graphic narratives (story manga) for mature audiences is Ishiko Junzō (1928 – 1977).[2]  Initially active as an art critic who explored a wide range of contemporaneous artistic and popular movements, he began to publish writings more specifically on manga between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. To many English-language readers his name might be obscure, perhaps even more so than his contemporary, philosopher and cultural critic Tsurumi Shunsuke, whose book Sengo Nihon no taishū bunkashi (A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980)—a chapter of which is devoted to postwar manga—is available in English. Yet, in present-day Japanese-language manga research, Ishiko is repeatedly referenced, especially in relation to his media-specific discussion of manga. This article shall introduce art critic Ishiko Junzō and his scholarship, concentrating on his contribution to Japanese comics criticism and manga studies.

II. Manga as The People’s Culture

Ishiko’s debut as a full-fledged manga critic was through his book, Manga geijutsu-ron (Manga Art) published in 1967. As the title of this book suggests, Ishiko argues that manga is art but not in a conventional sense. In this book, Ishiko denounces the common perception that disregards manga, separating it from other visual art such as painting, illustration, satirical drawing, design, etc.[3] For him, the claim “manga is not art” derived from the modern, authoritative idea of Art, which elevates art into the domain of the “highbrow” (Ishiko 1967: 22). Being critical of institutionalized forms of Art, Ishiko contends that in modernity art lost its meaningful relationship with the everyday lives of the people in the (misguided) pursuit of the independent mind and autonomous agency.[4] Such a critical view of Ishiko on art was concurrent with “anti-art” movements of his time practiced by Japanese avant-garde groups such as Neo-Dada, Gutai, and High-Red-Center.[5] Their experimental works and public performances pushed the boundaries of what had been accepted as “art,” either problematizing or rejecting institutionalized or authoritative notions of Art. In this tide of protesting against the Establishment, Ishiko proposed his theory of manga as a cultural text that has the potential of (re-)connecting art and life.

Ishiko’s first book was also a response to a changed perception of manga in the 1960s. Until around the mid-1950s, manga, or more precisely, story-manga largely remained an entertainment aimed at children.[6] Because of this, previous manga criticisms were written mainly by professionals and researchers in the fields of education, psychology, and children’s literature, all concerned with the impact of this media on children (Takeuchi 2009: 9). While some defended manga against criticism, many others made meticulous attempts to identify “harmful” elements in manga. At that time, Japanese comics were under pressure, facing calls for censorship—analogous to the social climate of comics censorship in North America—and often attacked by conservative sectors in society for an assumed negative impact on children.[7] From the mid-1950s to the 1960s, however, postwar story-manga had gradually evolved to also cater to young men and adults, not just children. Responding to this newly gained status of manga, Ishiko formulated his theory of manga, locating it as part of popular culture (taishū bunka).

Throughout his writings on manga, Ishiko considered manga as a modern product: mass-produced via reproduction technology, thus disavowing the uncritically repeated contention of previous scholarship that regarded manga as an extension of traditional pictorial art (Ishiko 1967: 21). As targeted to a mass audience, Ishiko argues, manga manifests, beyond its surface, the people’s collective lived experiences, their mentalities, desires, and thoughts. In Ishiko’s theory, the real agent of creating manga is not an individual author but the ordinary people (taishū)—an “anonymous, middle-class mass” (Ishiko 1967: 34)—who call on and invent their own specific form of manga for themselves. With this view, he explored manga in a multidirectional way including themes, the relation between content and form, media, readership, production, circulation, and consumption, though not necessarily in a rigorous academic manner.

III. Ishiko on Gekiga

In Japanese-language manga criticism, Ishiko was also known for his discussion on gekiga (“dramatic pictures”), a newly emergent form of graphic narrative at that time. Originally initiated by comics artist Tatsumi Yoshihiro in 1957, gekiga developed as a distinct subgenre of Japanese comics within a decade. Some gekiga in this period assumed the nature of alternative comics, as exemplified by unorthodox gekiga featured in the monthly magazine Garo.[8] Responding to the prominence of gekiga with unconventional themes and styles, Ishiko, along with other critics such as Gondō Suzumu (aka Takano Shinzō), Kajii Jun and Kikuchi Asajirō (aka Yamane Sadao), founded a dōjinshi (fanzine) for manga criticism titled Mangashugi (Mangaism) in 1967.[9] In this magazine, he and other contributors often discussed the works of gekiga creators such as Shirato Sanpei (The Legend of Kamui), Mizuki Shigeru (Gegege no Kitarō and NonNonBā), Tsuge Yoshiharu (“The Screw Style”), Tatsumi Yoshihiro (Abandon the Old in Tokyo) and other Garo-oriented creators.

When discussing gekiga, Ishiko paid attention to its publication format, readership, and the mode of consumption (including the physical sites involved in accessing gekiga). From its beginning until around the late-60s, gekiga were published in book format and rented from or read at kashihon-ya (rental bookstores).[10] According to Ishiko, the majority of kashion gekiga readers were young blue-collar workers (Ishiko 1994: 114).[11] In his writings about gekiga, he reasons that the growth of gekiga had its foundation in the interests of these workers (a group with very little disposable income); and that in turn, gekiga creators were catering especially to them. This mutual relationship along with the interplay of the industry, media form, consumption pattern, he argues, played a significant role in shaping gekiga as a specific genre. Ishiko’s approach here is similar to comics scholar Charles Hatfield’s discussion of the rise of alternative comics in North America: Hatfield relates his analysis to the function of comics specialty shops that fostered sophisticated readers, which then served the development of alternative comics (Hatfield 2008: 24-25).

In retrospect, the limit of Ishiko’s criticism was his concomitant engagement with dynamically changing comics industry and culture. From the late 1960s, gekiga began to be coopted into weekly manga magazines issued by major publishing houses. Famously, Weekly Shōnen Magazine began to serialize several gekiga works from the late 1960s.[12] Around the same time, new manga magazines for young men and adults (seinen manga) were founded by these large publishers to feature gekiga works.[13] For Ishiko, such industrially coopted gekiga seemed a “transformation” of gekiga, losing its connection with the people. Ishiko attempted in vain to differentiate those gekiga works in manga weeklies from his “ideal” gekiga in kashihon book format by calling the former “gekiga-like manga” (gekiga-chō manga).[14] In the early 1970s, he witnessed the increasing prominence of an innovative type of girls’ comics (shōjo manga) by young female creators–later called the Magnificent 49ers (Hana no 24nen gumi)–and anticipated their critical potential, stating that they exhibit the “embryotic stirrings of something new” (quoted in Hyuga 2012: 322). However, Ishiko failed to fully address its potential and he wrote less on shōjo manga than on gekiga. During the last years of his short life, Ishiko’s interest shifted to other popular cultural productions, kitsch, bathhouse paintings, lullabies and plastic food replicas, while still maintaining his interest in manga.

IV. Criticism and Re-evaluation of Ishiko’s Discussion on Manga

1990s manga criticism witnessed the rise of the approach called “manga hyōgen-ron”–which Jaqueline Berndt identifies as “stylistics” or “aesthetics” (Berndt 2014: n.p)–that marginalized, if not deliberately disregarded, Ishiko’s media-specific discussion on manga.[15] Similar to formalism, though often tinged with impressionistic criticism, the hyōgen-ron critics asserted the autonomy of manga, thereby attempting to legitimize its cultural value. They also favored the works of Tezuka and other representative, often male manga artists over gekiga and shōjo manga, celebrating their technical “craftsmanship” or “mastery” at the expense of the narratives’ socio-critical implications (Natsume 1995; Natsume and Takekuma 1995). As distinct from Ishiko, the hyōgen-ron summoned romanticized ideas of artist and art’s “autonomy.” As for its impact on manga criticism, Berndt rightly recapitulates “manga hyōgen-ron unwittingly inherited the modern notion of art with its claim of autonomy despite the pursuit of analyses of form that is unique to the manga medium” (Berndt 2008: 19-20). It should be noted here that this is the very view that Ishiko once problematized in his writings a couple of decades earlier. Yet, the prominence of the hyōgen-ron approach in Japanese language manga criticism had a similar impact to that of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in North America: that is, it invited academics into the study of manga, setting the scene for what we call now “manga studies.”

After 2000, Ishiko’s works have been re-evaluated in Japanese-language manga research with the rise of methodologically-conscious young academics. In his essay, sociologist Uryū Yoshimitsu attempted to recuperate the critical potential of Ishiko’s writings. While criticizing the hyōgen-ron critics who played down socio-historical or media-specific discussion, Uryū historicized the genealogy of manga criticism to reveal the discursive formation, which allowed for the plausibility of the hyōgen-ron approach. In his earlier essay, Uryū already employed and expanded Ishiko’s “media theory,” which examines the correlation between the characteristics of media (e.g. newspaper, magazine, or kashihon book) and that of manga content/format when tracing the rise of the gekiga genre and its transformation (Uryū 1996). Art historian Kajiya Kenji also re-examines Ishiko’s writings in his 2011 essay, tracing his shift of interest in manga from thematics to formalism, and then to structuralism.[16] According to Kajiya, Ishiko theorized manga (à la Walter Benjamin) as a cultural text created through “perceptional convention” (“chikaku no narai”), a sort of “perceptional, cognitive and aesthetic convention,” that is socially and historically constituted within a given society (Kajiya 2011: 107). For Ishiko, seeing is not merely a biological process, rather it is a constructed, institutionalized, and embodied one. According to Ishiko, Kajiya argues, this “perceptional convention” went beyond the “affect or consciousness” which a comics artist uses in creating manga. In Kajiya’s reading, Ishiko’s work was an attempt to capture this “perceptional convention” manifested in manga (mainly as gekiga) as well as other mass-produced kitsch objects in the Japanese context. More recently, young scholar Miwa Kentarō tries to mediate both hyōgen-ron formalism and Ishiko’s approach in his 2014 book Manga to eiga (Manga and Film), suggesting that the latter’s approach can be applied to a discussion of fan-produced manga due to the nature of direct communication and interaction between fan creators and their readers (Miwa 2014: 394). These recent cases illustrate the ongoing impact of Ishiko’s approach on manga studies, inspiring scholars and researchers in their searches for new methodologies.

V. Ishiko on Intermediality of Manga

Recently in North America, Ishiko’s name has begun to appear in the field of art criticism, especially in the context of Japan’s postwar avant-gardism and radical art experimentalism. For instance, Doryun Chong et al. edited From Postwar to Postmodern (2012), an anthology of critical essays and selected documents on postwar radical art for instance, featured Ishiko’s short essay, “Painting as A Theory of Painting” (1968). In her essay published in the MOMA catalogue Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, media art scholar Miryam Sas quotes Ishiko’s understanding of the term “intermedia”–one of the key terms popularized in the 1960s in North America by Dick Higgins and other Fluxus group artists–in the Japanese context:

I [Ishiko] understood that the composite term intermedia . . . designated an AND [to], not only between one genre of art and another but across various conjunctions, for example, between art AND technology, or environment AND art, everyday life AND art, medium AND message, aspiring to totalize the relational structure of perception and cognition. (quoted in Sas 2012: 140)

Ishiko’s multidirectional, interdisciplinary interests in a cultural text with its “relational structure” existed from his early writings. For Ishiko, manga is never self-contained or autonomous, but always in relation to something else (e.g. readership, medium, publication site, technology, consumption site, etc.). This relational view is deeply linked to Ishiko’s persistent interest in the “intemediality” of manga as a cultural text that is always and already in relation to something other than itself.

Ishiko’s interdisciplinary research on his contemporaneous visual culture was responding to the turbulently shifting media ecology in mid-20th century Japan.[17] Given the current new environment where digital media are increasingly changing our mode of interaction and communication in everyday life, Ishiko’s work continues to be a very relevant and fertile resource for manga studies.

Works Cited:

Berndt, Jaqueline.

—— 2008. “Considering Manga Discourse: Location, Ambiguity, Historicity,” in MacWilliams, Mark W. ed., Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, pp. 295-334.

——2014. “Manga Studies #1: Introduction,” in Comics Forum, May 11, 2014. Accessed June 10, 2014,

Hatfield, Charles, 2005. Alternative Comics: an Emerging Literature, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Hyuga, Akiko, 2012. “From Literary Media to Image Media,” in Doryun Chong et al., eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 321-324.

Holmberg, Ryan, 2010. Garo Manga: The First Decade 1964-1973, New York: Center for Book Arts.

Ishiko, Junzō.

——1967. Manga geijustu-ron: Gendai nihon-jin no sensu to yūmoa no kōzai (Manga Art: The Merits and Demerits of Contemporary Japanese Sense and Humor). Tokyo: Fuji shoin.

——1970. Gendai manga no shisō. Tokyo: Taihei shuppansha

——1994. Sengo mangashi nōto. Tokyo: Kinokuniya shoten.

——2012 “Painting as A Theory of Painting” in Doryun Chong et al., eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: From Postwar to Postmodern: Art in Japan 1945-1989: Primary Documents, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 210-213.

Ishiko, Junzō, Asajirō Kikuchi, and Susumu Gondō, 1973. Gekiga no shisō, Tokyo: Taihei Shuppansha.

Itō, Go, 2005. Tezuka izu deddo: Hirakareta hyogenron e, Tokyo: NTT shuppan.

Kajiya, Kenji, 2011 “Ishiko Junzō no chikakuron teki tenkai,” in Bijitsu Forum 21, (24): 104-112.

Miwa, Kentarō, 2014. Manga to eiga: koma to jikan no riron, Tokyo: NTT shuppan.

Natsume, Fusanosuke.

——1992. Tezuka Osamu wa doko ni iru, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——1995. Tezuka Osamu no bōken, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——2002. “Manga hyōgen-ron no genkai o megutte,” in Jaqueline Berndt, ed., Manga no bi/gakuteki na jigen e no sekkin, Kyoto: Daigo shobō, pp.1-22.

Natsume, Fusanosuke, Takekuma, Kentarō et. al., 1995. Manga no yomikata, Tokyo: Takarajima-sha.

Sas, Myryam, 2012. “Intermedia, 1955-1970,” in Doryun Chong et al eds., Tokyo: 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde, New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Suzuki, S, 2013. “Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Gekiga and the Global Sixties: Aspiring for an Alternative”, in Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümerling-Meibauer, eds., Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, New York: Routledge, pp. 48-62

Takeuchi, Osamu.

——2002. Manga hyōgengaku nyūmon, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

——2009. Honryū manga-gaku: Manga kenkyū hando bukku, Kyoto, Japan: Kōyō shobō.

Tezuka Osamu, 1999. Tezuka Osamu: Boku wa mangaka, Tokyo: Nihon tosho sentā.

Tomii, Reiko, 2007. “Geijutsu on Their Minds: Memorable Words on Anti-Art,” in Reiko Tomii and Bert Winther-Tamaki, eds., Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan: 1950-1970, Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute.

Tsurumi, Shunsuke, 1984. A Cultural History of Postwar Japan 1945-1980, London: KPI.

Yomota, Inuhiko, 1994. Manga gen-ron, Tokyo: Chikuma shobō.

Uryū, Yoshimitsu.

——1996. “‘Gekiga’ janru no seiritsu to henyō: media teki shiza ni yoru “shōnen-mono” janru no jirei kenkyū,” in Tokyo daigaku shakai jōhō kenkyū jo, 52, pp. 89-107.

——. 2000. “Manga o kataru koto no genzai,” in Yoshimi Shunya, ed., Media sutadīzu. Tokyo: Serika shobō, pp. 128-139.

Shige (CJ) Suzuki is Assistant Professor of Modern Languages and Comparative Literature at Baruch College, The City University of New York (CUNY). He received his Ph.D. in Literature from University of California at Santa Cruz in 2008. His research interests are comparative literature, film, critical theory, and popular culture. Recent published articles on comics include “Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Gekiga and the Global Sixties: Aspiring for an Alternative” in Manga’s Cultural Crossroads, edited by Jaqueline Berndt and Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (2013) and “Autism and Manga: Comics for Women, Disability, and Tobe Keiko’s With the Light” in International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: The Influence of Girl Culture, edited by Masami Toku (will be published in 2015).

[1] – Japanese names in this essay are presented in the Japanese style: Surname first, given name last (e.g. Tezuka Osamu).

[2] – Ishiko Junzō should not be confused with another manga critic and historian Ishiko Jun.

[3] Ishiko’s first book discusses these visual/cultural texts, including animation (anime), generally referred to as “manga eiga” (manga film) in this period.

[4] See Tomii (2007: 53) for Ishiko’s idea about “art in modernity.”

[5] For these avant-garde groups, see Reiko Tomii and Bert Winther-Tamaki, eds., (2007) and Doryun Chong and et al, eds. (2012).

[6] I should note that this view is valid only excluding other types of manga such as newspaper cartoons and 4-frame panel comic strips (yonkoma manga), many of which have existed for the general public.

[7] In his autobiography, Tezuka reminisces that the book, The Game of Death: Effects of the Cold War on Our Children (1953), by American journalist Albert E. Kahn–which shares the same criticism with Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent–was introduced to Japan in 1955 giving further impetus for the censorship on manga (1999: 191).

[8] Garo was founded by gekiga creator Shirato Sanpei and editor/publisher Nagai Katsuichi in 1964. For more detail, see Ryan Holmberg’s Garo Manga.

[9] The term dōjinshi might be associated with fan-created manga or fan fiction, but it signifies any self-published works including literary magazines, novels, video games, etc. among participants who share the same taste or interests (dōjin).

[10] Kashihon-ya refers a rental bookstore or lending library where a customer can borrow or read books at the store for a small charge. Kashihon-ya was one of the places to access manga up until the late 1960s before manga magazines from Tokyo-centered publishers occupied the manga market. See Suzuki (2013) for more detailed discussion about the earlier development of gekiga.

[11] Presumably, gekiga works were also read by students and adults, including, for instance, Ishiko himself.

[12] While the name of this weekly manga magazine carries “shōnen” (boys), it began to serialize gekiga from the late-1960s. Sociologist Uryū Yoshimitsu identifies the year 1970 as the year when this magazine set forth its gekiga-centric policy (Uryū 1996).

[13] For instance, Futabasha’s Weekly Manga Action founded in 1967 and Shōgakkan’s Big Comic founded in 1958.

[14] See Ishiko (1994: 138-142)

[15] The hyōgen-ron approach is closely associated with the works of Natsume Fusanosuke (1992; 1995), Yomota Inuhiko (1994), Takeuchi Osamu (2005) and Itō Go (2005). Also see Natume’s self-critical reflection on his writings of the 1990s (Natsume 2002).

[16] Kajiya’s essay appeared as a part of a special issue in Bijitsu Forum 21 (2011) edited by Jaqueline Berndt. In the introductory essay, Berndt states that after the 1980s, manga criticism had no longer consulted “art.” The issue was intended to bridge the gap by cross-referencing recent manga criticism and art/art theory.

[17] For instance, the advent of television, the change of manga format from kashihon book to manga magazine, and the rise of television animation (anime), etc.

To read more from Comics Forum’s Manga Studies column, click here.


Posted by on 2014/08/11 in Guest Writers, Manga Studies


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4 responses to “Manga Studies #4: Traversing Art and Manga: Ishiko Junzō’s Writings on Manga/Gekiga by Shige (CJ) Suzuki

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