On the heels of Disasters of War—our spring exhibition of Francisco Goya prints depicting the horrors of Spain’s Peninsular Wars in the 19th century—comes an exhibition of a similar timbre: The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu. Manga, or Japanese comics, are typically viewed as cute illustrated stories geared toward children. However, with this show Robert F. Lange curator of Japanese art Stephen Salel invites visitors into the dark world of gekiga (“dramatic pictures”)—a genre of alternative manga that takes on serious social and political issues (think of graphic novels as opposed to comic books).
According to Salel and manga scholar Ryan Holmberg (that’s them pictured above, left to right), a consultant for this exhibition, gekiga gained popularity in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s through publications such as the monthly anthology magazine Garo, which featured the work of Tsuge Tadao (b. 1941) and Katsumata Susumu (1947-2007) throughout the half-century it was in print. Though Japan’s postwar period is usually characterized as a time of economic growth, the work of gekiga artists illustrates the widespread inequality of the financial boom by exposing the desperation and indignities suffered by the working class at the time. Their raw work illustrated how peace time can be as disastrous to communities as times of war.
“Katsumata Susumu was particularly focused on the use of nuclear power in Japan and he was one of the artists who was openly criticizing that industry in his work,” says Salel. “While Tsuge Tadao talks more about social and economic problems in the country. People often say that Japan had a kind of economic boom after WWII—and to some extent that’s true—but there were certain areas of the country that were dealing with a great deal of poverty, lack of social infrastructure and seething resentment from the loss of the war. These artists are kind of representing the genre of gekiga from two different angles and hopefully it offers some food for thought in this very political time that we now live in.”
Holmberg, who has a PhD in Japanese art history from Yale and is now a fellow at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures in the UK, explains that gekiga artists featured in Garo focused their expressions of discontent on depictions of “poverty, working-class life and people who are left behind or dragged behind by economic growth. A lot of that has to do with the background of these artists. Like Tsuge Tadao, he was born in 1941, he grew up poor, he always had to have blue-collar jobs.
For 12 years, Tsuge Tadao worked in a blood bank in Tokyo, what Holmberg calls an “ooze for booze” operation. This is the setting for Trash Market, a story serialized in Garo from 1968 to 1972, later translated into English by Holmberg and published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2015. The exhibition features several of Tsuge’s original hand-drawn panels and large-scale illustrations from this story. Holmberg believes this is the first time the original artworks, on loan from the artist, have been displayed publicly, inviting viewers into not only Tsuge’s creative process but also that of print production in the 1960s. “This is all original artwork but also a stage in the process,” says Holmberg. “You can see the whiteout, the marks. At this stage you had to indicate to the printer what density of halftone screen you wanted, so that’s what the blue and green patches are for.”
“I’m coming to realize that a lot of these artists are surprised that museums might want to exhibit their work,” says Salel, who worked with manga artist Takaya Miou on the 2016 exhibition Visions of Gothic Angels: Japanese Manga by Takaya Miou. “A lot of these artists see themselves as authors more than visual artists and they see their audience as being readers, not visitors at a museum.”
One of Salel’s challenges in designing the exhibition was finding a way to share the original artwork and the stories themselves while putting them in Japan’s historical context for a western audience. How do you turn comic books into an immersive environment where viewers can experience the worlds of these characters and their creators? To accomplish this Salel turned to interactive media—the exhibition features iPad displays showcasing all 426 Garo covers, projections animating the stories, and video content inviting viewers into the blood banks, labor markets, and nuclear power plants of midcentury Japan.
Hear Holmberg and Salel describe the exhibition in their own words on HPR. The Disasters of Peace: Social Discontent in the Manga of Tsuge Tadao and Katsumata Susumu is on view through April 15.