A Brief History of Japanese Comics Part 2: Early Western Influence

In my previous entry in this series, I pointed to the early Japanese ancestry of modern Japanese comics. If you have not read it yet, I suggest you do so here.

In today’s edition, I will discuss the Western heritage of this family. Many are simply unaware of the cultural mix from which modern Japanese comics have developed. I would like to provide a greater focus on the implications that cultural collisions have had on the Japanese comic style.

artist depiction of Perry’s “Black Ships”

On July 8, 1843, Commodore Perry and his swarm of “Black Ships” demanded Japan open their trading doors to the United States and Europe. An intimidated Japan complied, and reluctantly allowed in Westerners, who brought various forms of Western culture into the Japanese lifestyle [3]. Despite hostile beginnings, this adaptation eventually allowed for further development and the evolution of various aspects of culture, including comics [2].

British-born Charles Wirgman and Frenchman George Bigot were significant influences on the future of Japanese comics by introducing European-style cartoons to Japan [5]. The cartoons introduced western humor and a drawing style which “deliberately accentuate[d] facial features” [2].

Charles Wirgman was a great influence on the caricature genre and the development of the Japanese comic strip. Caricature was seen as a “minor genre” at the time, but his style differed greatly from Japanese artists, and the new methods began to flourish [2]. In 1862, Wirgman published a British-styled humor magazine based out of Yokohama entitled The Japan Punch, based on the London-based magazine, Punch. Intended for foreigners in Yokohama, and featuring Wirgman’s own cartoons, The Japan Punch provided a mix of “western innovation and Japanese tradition” to its readers, from its contents right down to the printing process [1]. The magazine inspired the term “ponchi-e”, which came to be used for the caricature styled drawings [2].

Wirgman is also known for making word bubbles popular in comic books within Japan [5]. Often finding them in western comics, including political comics, Wirgman’s inclusion of word bubbles seemed commonplace to him. To the Japanese readers however, this became an influential shift from writing within the white space amongst the drawings.

George Bigot made a living during the first part of his time in Japan as a teacher of drawing at the Military Academy in Tokyo. Once his contract was up in 1884, he established the magazine Tobae, a similar magazine to The Japan Punch. Tobae was named after the monk Tobe, who to which the aforementioned “Animal Scrolls” are attributed [2].

Bigot made his own contributions in transitioning Japanese cartoons from the initial single-image or continual image into the modern story books. He was one of the first artists to arrange his drawings into panels or squares [2]. Bigot is also known for making his own mark on Japanese comic books by providing a narrative sequence to his content [5]. Presenting this to Japan allowed for copycats and imitations, helping to make great leaps towards what we know today.

The cartoons, depicted in both The Japan Punch and Tobae, were political satire intended for the foreign community. However, the magazines had plenty of Japanese readers thanks to a translated version. Japanese readers took notice of the art and topics covered by these magazines and ended up developing cartoons and comics similar in style to these European inspirations. The euro-centered magazines even inspired the term ‘ponchi-e’,‘Punch drawings’, to replace the various Japanese terms for ‘caricature’ [4]. It wasn’t just the art style that brought about attention in Japan. In fact, most was on the cartoon’s critique on the Japanese government [5].

Far from an established free speech, Japanese artists had long been unable to attack or otherwise comment on what they may see as their government’s faults. Before the 1860s, “making caricatured likenesses of actual people or critical comments about contemporary events had been forbidden in Japan under the shogunate” [1]. With the addition of foreigners (and foreigners more accustomed to free speech, even), the new government critique was getting a mixed reception, from the Japanese government repeatedly attacking the materials to Japanese artists attempting to replicate it. The ponchi-e, “caught on with Japanese artists, who began to get up the courage to attack their leaders’ corruption” [1].

More to come…

Japanese comics like Easy-Going Daddy and Bringing up a Richman (inspired by Western counterparts), would bring about a revolutionary era of Japanese comics. Issued in Japanese newspapers and serialized magazines, Japanese artists would create cartoons that overly replicated European cartoons in their art styles and use of satire and current events (or at least the daily struggles), but still maintained Japan’s historical use of visual gags and humor [1]. Magazine “Marumaru Chinbun” shows one example of early imitation. Developed using “loaded western cartooning conventions with traditional Japanese references and puns,” artist Honda Kinkichiro delighted many readers of this period [5]. 
 We will explore these Japanese materials and more in the next issues of A Scroll in Time…
 Next time: We look at some of Japan’s most noted comic artists at this time, when Japan’s own begin taking political consignment into their own hands…

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[1]Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York, NY: Collins Design, 2003. Print. 
 [2]Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. Paris: Flammarion, 2007. Print. 
 [3]LaFeber, Walter. The Clash: U.S.-Japanese Relations throughout History. W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY. 1997. Print.
 [4]Okamoto, Rei.”Images of the Enemy in the Wartime ‘Manga’ Magazine, 1941–1945.” Illustrating Asia, John A. Lent. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’I Press, 2001. Page 204–220. Print. 
 [5]Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983. Print.

Originally published at ascrollintime.blogspot.com on October 15, 2016.

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