“Manga” comics are ubiquitous in Japan and have become one of the country’s most powerful cultural exports worldwide.
But when and why did this country, known for its long-standing and extremely high literacy rate, become the kingdom of cartoons?
One can possibly start by pointing to 1947, when a work that revolutionized manga was published and became a huge best-seller.
The masterpiece, copies of which now fetch more than ¥1 million among collectors, is being reprinted in February in a version true to the original, prompted by numerous manga enthusiasts who have kept debating the secret of the birth of the genre.
The work is the 192-page “Shin-Takarajima” (“New Treasure Island”) by the late Osamu Tezuka, which is said to mark the start of story-manga — cartoons that cover hundreds of pages with dramatic drawings and a long, complex and often serious story. In the West these have come to be known as graphic novels.
“I think you can say Japanese story-manga started with ‘Shin-Takarajima,’ ” said Minoru Kotoku, publishing department chief at Tezuka Production, which manages the copyright of Tezuka’s works.
“Shin-Takarajima” is believed to have sold 400,000 to 800,000 copies, even though it came out only two years after the end of World War II, which had left the country poverty-stricken.
The work shocked, fascinated and inspired hundreds of thousands of children, sparking a manga boom in the ’40s and ’50s.
The readers included children who later became key cartoonists and created the golden age of manga in the ’70s and ’80s, including Fujio Fujiko, the pseudonym of a pair of authors who created Doraemon, the cat-type robot that has become a cartoon superstar in Asia and farther afield.
” ‘Shin-Takarajima’ was a breathtaking eye-opener. I immediately became a fan, crazily seeking out only Tezuka’s works,” manga giant Shotaro Ishinomori wrote in a 1965 book. He was 9 when “Shin-Takarajima” was published.
What was particularly new about the manga, in addition to the sheer length of the adventure of a boy fighting pirates, were drawings that depicted sequences of dramatic action as if they were stills from a movie.
Before “Shin-Takarajima,” most Japanese cartoons were simple drawings covering only a few pages, with a fixed, flat viewpoint right in front of the cartoon characters.
But as the story in “Shin-Takarajima” plays out, the viewpoint varies and often zooms in and out. “This is a still cartoon printed on paper, but this car seems to be moving at great speed. It’s like watching a movie!” wrote Fujio Fujiko in 1977.
However, Hiroshi Kawamura, who is in charge of the reprinting project at publisher Shogakukan Creative Inc., cautions that the method used in “Shin-Takarajima” probably does not look particularly new or exciting to contemporary readers because the style has been much refined over the past 60 years and is now conventional.
“The value of ‘Shin-Takarajima’ is historic,” Kawamura said.
But the legendary book still holds great attraction for manga lovers, one of the reasons that prompted Kawamura’s firm to publish the reprint.
An original first edition fetches around ¥1 million, and those in mint condition go for ¥3 million to ¥5 million, said Shinya Yamamoto, from the public relations department of Mandarake Inc., a major secondhand manga chain.
A major reason they garner such high prices is that Tezuka, who died in 1989, refused to allow publishers to reprint the original version.
Tezuka, who was only 19 when “Shin-Takarajima” was published, drew it based on an original proposal by Shichima Sakai, a popular cartoonist at the time.
Sakai forced Tezuka to omit dozens of pages from his draft and to change the faces of some characters, according to Tezuka’s account.
Tezuka was therefore not entirely happy with the original version.
When Kodansha Ltd. published a complete collection of Tezuka’s works, he refused to reprint the original version and even redrew the entire work solely for the sake of the collection.
Respecting Tezuka’s intentions, Tezuka Production had not previously allowed any reprint of the original, even after Tezuka’s death.
The company, however, decided to grant the rights to reprint the work to Shogakukan Creative partly because of recent heated debate by manga critics over Sakai’s role and influence over the legendary manga, Kotoku said.
“When you study works of an author, you will usually examine from their maiden work to the latest work,” said Kawamura of Shogakukan Creative.
But until now, that has been impossible for Tezuka’s works — except for a handful of collectors who could afford to shell out millions of yen for a copy of “Shin-Takarajima” — even though Tezuka is considered the most important cartoonist in the history of manga, Kawamura said.