|“Japan in American Comics: A Study of Japanese Influences in American Mainstream Comic Books and their Superheroes”
Buchenberger, Stefan (Nara Women’s University)
A cursory glance at today’s Japanese popular culture may give the impression that most of it comes from the USA, like Disney with its hugely successful Disneyland franchise in Tokyo, and other American theme parks like Universal Studios in Osaka; likewise, enormously popular movie and music stars like Tom Cruise or Mariah Carey, who seem to be more popular in Japan than in their home country, or baseball, which is the most popular sport in Japan.
But as in baseball, where we’re starting to see a reverse trend with Japanese stars and cultural icons like Ichiro Suzuki1 and Hideki Matsui, there is a growing interest in the USA for maybe the most Japanese item of popular culture, the Japanese comic books, or mangas, and their animated version, the so-called anime.2 The impact of mangas on the equally vibrant American comic scene comes in many different ways, and warrants a closer look for how a typical phenomenon from Japanese popular culture influences a similarly typical phenomenon from American popular culture. It is also of great interest to see how the American comic scene handles the Japanese influence, and what kind of an image of Japan is thereby created.3
1. Translations of Japanese Mangas
First of all, there are numerous translations of Japanese mangas, the hugely popular Japanese comic books that are becoming increasingly available on the US market.4 Especially, publisher Dark Horse Comics has helped the popularity of mangas with numerous publications, like a complete edition of the canonical Astroboy series (original title Tetsuwan Atom) written by Osamu Tezuka, an ongoing event that was even advertised on the cover of Previews, the main comic book catalogue.5
Another groundbreaking manga that has been reedited in the original Japanese format of six black and white massive volumes is Akira,6 created by Katsuhiro Otomo.
Other titles published by Dark Horse Comics include Blade of the Immortal by Hiroaki Samura, Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike, and Goseki Kojima, to name but a few of an ever-increasing list.
Other than Dark Horse Comics, which also publishes non-manga titles, there are also publishers in the USA specializing solely in mangas.
To name but a few, Tokyopop publishes, amongst other offers, Cowboy Bebop by Yukata Nanten or Kodocha by Miho Obana, Viz communications publishes Dragonballz by Akira Toriyama and Mobile Suit Gundam by Kazuhisa Kondo, and Comicsone publishes Lupin III by Monkey Punch, all of them also hugely successful animated films.
For the American fan of Japanese mangas, most of them are accessible via translations. Most of the mangas that get translated into English belong to action, adventure, science fiction, or a mixture of all of these, but it seems that other genres, like mangas for girls, romantic, and even pornographic mangas, are part of this boom too.
As Japanese books and magazines are read from right to left and their Western mirror-image translations accordingly from left to right, there are quite a number of left-handed protagonists, and sometimes even fascist villains who salute with their left hands. The popularity of mangas is so great, however, that now translations are even printed in the correct Japanese format.
Nevertheless, manga itself is a kind of cultural stereotype about Japan, and so even the great variety of titles published does not necessarily mean a greater variety of images of Japan. The stereotypical use of images about Japan will be even clearer when we come to the use of Japan and Japanese characters in US comics later.
Apart from the share in the American comic market, there is also another way in with mangas influence the American comic scene, that is, with its unique style of drawing that many artists today like to copy or develop further.
2. Manga-style drawing
The drawing style of mangas7 is very distinctive, with its wide-eyed, nose-less characters that seem to lack individual traits. Many mangas are also full of action and speed, like a fast-paced action movie, given form by blurred backgrounds that are accentuated by flashy lines that generate a feeling of rapid motion.
Many projects already use the manga style of drawing in mainstream comics, like in the Marvel Mangaverse, a comic book that shows the heroes of the Marvel universe, like Spider-Man, the Hulk, or the X-Men, in manga style.
Another example is the mini-series Taskmaster about a superhuman soldier of fortune, likewise drawn in manga style by a studio called Udon, which is the name for a special kind of Japanese noodle.
Vampi by Kevin Lau shows a manga variation of the so-called ’bad girl’ comic, a category of comics with violent, scantily-clad heroines with supermodel bodies. In this case, the archetypical bad girl, the classical horror character Vampirella, gets a manga makeover.
Recently, it is no longer just American artists who draw like manga artists, but also Japanese artists who are drawing American comic books, like Asamiya Kia with a run on Uncanny X-Men.
But the influence of mangas goes even further than translations and drawing style. Japan and Japanese characters play an important role in American comics, a fact at which we are now going to take a closer look.
3. Japan and Japanese characters in US Comics
Another variation of the aforementioned bad girl comic in connection with Japan is Shi by Bill Tucci. Ana Ishikawa, alias Shi, which means ‘death’ in Japanese and uses the same Chinese character for her name, is a young woman, well versed in martial arts, who goes about dispatching her enemies with the trademark violence of this kind of comic book. Death being identified with a beautiful woman receives an added touch in the phonetical similarity between ‘Shi’, meaning ‘death’, and ‘she’ as a female pronoun in English. Portraying Death as a woman is also a theme in many other comic books, for example Lady Death from Image Comics, so a female bringer of death is not always Japanese, but Shi’s mixture of violence and eroticism with a Far Eastern touch has made her into one of the most popular independent comics in recent years.
Shi also gives us a closer look at lots of the Japanese cultural stereotypes, like ninjas (assassins), samurais (warriors), and ronins (masterless samurais), that are commonly used in American comic books in an attempt to give their stories an exotic touch.
Especially, ninjas are commonly used as helpers of various villains, and appear in fight scenes where the hero confronts a seemingly overwhelming force of those assassins only to beat them at their own game. All non-superpowered heroes, like Batman or Daredevil, are themselves masters of numerous martial arts, and, in a show of Western superiority, use these techniques to beat those with whom these fighting arts originated.
Daredevil especially, the blind lawyer whose costumed alter-ego fights evil with his other heightened senses, always seems to be involved with members of Japanese secret organizations. One of his archenemies is the so-called “Hand,” an ancient organization of ninjas that serve a demon, die willingly for their cause, and are able to bring the dead back to life. The Hand symbolizes all the Western stereotypes about ninjas. Fierce fighters who are willing to lay down their lives, and who also seem to have a pact with dark forces, the Hand reminds one of the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War, not caring for their own lives and believing in a higher power on their side, a faceless mad enemy who must be destroyed at all cost. Most of the Japanese villains in American comic books are portrayed in this way.
However, in this fight Daredevil is helped by good ninjas who wear white clothes, and the master of this organization is a blind, somewhat seedy American called Stick, an ironic variation of a classical Asian master, who also taught Daredevil martial arts. Daredevil’s former girlfriend Elektra, who meanwhile appears in her own monthly book, is likewise a martial arts master, another variation of a bad girl with Japanese traits.
The creator of all these Japanese elements in Daredevil’s adventures is the American author and artist Frank Miller, who always had a taste for using Japan in his comics, but also in some of the science fiction movies he scripted, like the Japan-bashing Robocop 3. Amongst his comics are other interesting projects like Wolverine and The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot, at which we are now going to take a closer look.
The first Wolverine mini-series, published in 1982, is another project involving Japan by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont. For the first time, a major mainstream comic book character is defined via his relationship with Japan.
Wolverine, a mutant with an animal side, who speaks Japanese and has, of course, trained under a Japanese master, goes back to Tokyo to win the heart of the woman he loves, Mariko Yoshida, a plan opposed by her crime lord father. After numerous trials, Wolverine regains his honor and wins his bride while defeating the villain.
The motif of honor lost and regained is not Japanese in itself, but Miller and Claremont try to give Wolverine more complexity and a more grueling trial by taking it to the level of the moral rigidity of the samurai’s warrior code, the bushido. Claremont claims that Wolverine’s essence is that of a failed samurai. His animal side is in constant conflict with the ideals of the samurai, like self control, honor, and a total sense of duty. Only when he overcomes this inner conflict can he reach an inner harmony (in Japan called satori), best his enemies, and win the day. This is basically an old story, used hundreds of times in comic books, but the Japanese point of view gives it a new perspective.
Meanwhile, Japan and Japanese characters have become a main part of Wolverine’s world. Amongst others is the killer cyborg Lady Deathstrike, who turned herself into a machine in order to avenge her father’s honor. This is another typical element of Japanese characters and, especially, villains, as all of them will fight until death if they perceive their honor as tarnished, however ludicrous this may seem to the Western characters and readers. This behavior, and its Western counter-reaction of incredulity and disgust, once again reminds one of the American reactions towards the kamikaze pilots in the Second World War. For the Americans, they were fighting an enemy with no regard for their own life or others’ because of a seemingly incomprehensible and outdated code of honor, and most of the Japanese characters are still portrayed in this way.
The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot
Quite another story is told by Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow in The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot from 1995, a parody on Japanese monster and giant robot movies. A giant monster which looks a lot like Godzilla, the ancestor of all Japanese monsters, is created, and the Japanese government sends Rusty the Boy Robot, who in turn looks very much like the above-mentioned Testuwan Atom, into battle. He fails, and so the American hero the Big Guy, a retro-futuristic fighting machine with grotesquely overblown American heroic traits, is called in, who finally defeats the monster.
In parody-like fashion, Miller uses elements of Japanese and American comics and science fiction, with Japan and its monsters and robots as the arena for the never-ending fight of good and evil. Japan is portrayed as it is seen in its own monster movies, but this time Miller widens the use of cultural stereotypes to include his own culture, as the Big Guy gallantly refuses to take credit for his heroic deed and flies off into the sunset in John Wayne fashion.
Tokyo Storm Warning
Tokyo Storm Warning is a kind of meta-comic by British author Warren Ellis about the Japanese Science Fiction scene with its constant battles of monsters and giant robots that destroy Tokyo on a regular basis. Using elements of Japanese Science Fiction and monster movies, and their constant battles that level Tokyo, Ellis not only offers an explanation for these terrifying events, but also a solution. Caught in a time loop after a nuclear bomb hits Tokyo, it is a little Japanese boy’s imagination that creates both monsters and heroes. This endless series of battles is solved when an American pilot comes to Tokyo to command one of the giant robotic suits, discovers the secret, and frees the boy from his prison. The US appears as both the cause of and the solution to, a fictional Japan’s greatest problem, with Ellis not just using Japanese elements but making the whole story into an American story with the Japanese elements as stage props. The Western pocketing of Japanese pop culture is especially clear in this instance, as not only stereotypical elements of it get used, but also, on a meta-level, these elements are put into an American context, as the West both causes Japan’s monster culture and also makes it go away.
Another variation of the ronin motif is Stan Sakai’s critically acclaimed and Eisner award winning Usagi Yojimbo, about the adventures of a masterless rabbit samurai in feudal Japan of the 16th century. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Yojimbo, and other of his period pieces, are a powerful intertext in this series that manages to capture the spirit of Kurosawa’s work while using animal characters and somewhat stereotypical themes like the warrior code, bushido, and all the problems of honor and obligation that come with it.
Kurosawa’s movies still more or less dominate the Western image of Japan during the 15th and 16th centuries, and were themselves hugely influential on the making of several classical westerns.
For a comic book that is seemingly well-researched, it is, however, surprising that Sakai uses the incorrect Western classification for temples, as the word ‘ji’, meaning temple in Japanese, is used together with the English word, as in Kitanoji temple.
Vertigo Pop Tokyo!
This limited series by Jonathan Vankin and Seth Fisher tries to make sense of modern Japanese pop culture in Tokyo through the eyes of a foreigner who is constantly baffled by the seeming absurdities of Japanese society and its youth culture. Mixing manga and US comic elements, Vankin, who lived in Tokyo for three years himself, tries to make sense of the often contradictory character of Japanese society with its mixture of tradition and modernity, its underworld, and glittery high-tech world. Tokyo Pop!, however, doesn’t offer any answer; it illustrates the problems of many foreigners, and repeats many stereotypes about Japanese modern society. At the end, the American protagonist leaves for the US, conveying a message that life in Japan is in the end impossible for a Westerner.
A more serious take on Japanese pop culture is shown in Kabuki, an ongoing series by David Mack. Even the title page looks very Japanese, with Japanese ink paintings and the correct use of the Chinese characters for Kabuki, a form of Japanese theatre mixing song, dance, and scenes from classical literature that originated in the 17th century.
The story itself, however, has nothing to do with Japanese theatre, but takes place in present day Japan with all its main characters being Japanese, which in itself is unusual for the work of an American author. The title heroine, Kabuki, and her female companions form the secret government organization Masks of the Noh in a fictional Japan that is a mixture of the futuristic glamour world of places like Shinjuku in Tokyo and old traditions and locations. His characters are also a mixture of reality and fantasy, between tradition and modernity in both their fight against evil and as pop icons of Mack’s Japan, blurring the line between reality and fiction just like today’s real-life Japanese pop icons, who also seem sometimes to travel between these two worlds.
Mack thus succeeds in creating a vision of Japan that is much more believable in that it is, in a fascinating way, both exotic and real for the Western reader. The Western pocketing of Japan works totally differently in Kabuki, with Mack using Japanese pop culture itself to create the kind of exotic picture of Japan that both astonishes Western readers but, in its strangeness, is also expected by them.
The Yellow Jar
A totally different look at Japan in American comics is offered by The Yellow Jar. First in a series of adaptations of Asian tales, this book by Patrick Atangnan is drawn in the ukiyo-e style of classical Japanese wood block printing. It tells two fairy tales from ancient Japan that, together with the drawing style, serve as an introduction for Western readers to classical Japanese storytelling. The title story is a fairy tale about a princess, a simple man, and the obstacles they have to surmount finally to be together, using Japanese characters, names, and settings. The second story, “Two Chrysanthemum Maidens,” is about a monk and his beautiful garden and the two maidens, both flowers and human telling a story of pride, neglect, and human relations in another Japanese setting. It is also interesting that Atangnan uses the chrysanthemum, the flower of the crest of the Japanese imperial family, which in this story derives from one of the maiden characters.
The Yellow Jar is not so much about Westernizing Japanese culture as about telling fairytales for a Western audience in a way that is seemingly authentic and well-researched, even for a Western reader with more than a passing knowledge of Japan. Wood block printing, however, was not used for storytelling, and so Atangnan uses an old technique in a new way with his comic book to give the impression of authenticity. A kind of classic Japanese comic book does exist, however, in the form of picture scrolls, the so-called emaki.
Most of the titles mentioned above create an image of Japan that is made up, in various degrees, of Western stereotypes and prejudices.
The Western interpretation of Japan is always according to how Japan supposedly is. The West is always superior, as its heroes constantly triumph over their Japanese adversaries, using their own techniques to do so. Warren Ellis is even trying to explain an element of Japanese pop culture to the Japanese on a meta-level.
As mentioned above, Japanese everyday life plays hardly any role, as the Western image of Japan is used only as an exotic background for super-heroic feats, the strangeness and incomprehensibility, by Western standards, of which, heighten their dangers, giving the hero even more dangerous adversaries in, or from, a hostile environment.
Japanese heroes are almost nonexistent, and if they are part of a Western environment, like Sunfire of Marvel Comics or Dr. Light of DC Comics, they are always hard to get along with because of their Japaneseness, and are unable to be a part of the Western team as they do not understand the Western concept of team spirit. Also, these Japanese heroes’ powers are often related to the sun as the symbol of Japan, making them even more Japanese.
Comic books, and other variations of trivial literature and texts, play an important role in how Japan and Japanese Culture, and even Asian Culture, are perceived in the West, as they are reflecting common perceptions of these cultures. They are also part of how the West shapes its image of Asia, a part of, to paraphrase Edward Said, the Orientalism of the East. Japan and Japanese characters are unanimously perceived in the way mentioned above, using, but also helping to create, the stereotypical image of Japan that is commonly used in the West. This, of course, is not on a scale with Arab countries, India, or other Asian countries during the period of colonialism, but nevertheless the images of Japan as an exotic, essentially impossible to understand country are in part shaped via comic books.
There is, however, a kind of reverse Orientalism of the West in Japanese mangas that uses nondescript Western characters or even American super-heroes like Spider-Man or Batman in a Japanese context, portraying them from a Japanese point of view, while using their own stereotypes about the West.
A prime example of this is the above-mentioned Kia Asamiya, who not only drew a story arc for Uncanny X-Men, but who also created a Japanese version of Batman with his Batman: Child of Dreams, which has since appeared also in an English translation.
However, the analysis of how Japanese comic books portray the West is a subject worth researching another time.
5. List of works cited:
Benton, Mike. The Comic Book in America: An Illustrated History. Dallas: Taylor, 1989.
Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York: Harper Design, 2004.
Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum, 2002.
Overstreet, Robert M., ed. The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. 34th ed. New York: House of Collectibles, 2004.
Previews: The Comic Shop’s Catalogue 12 (2001).
Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin, 1995.
5.1. Comics cited:
Ellis, Warren, and James Raiz. Tokyo Storm Warning. La Jolla: Wildstorm/DC Comics, 2003.
Miller, Frank, and Geoff Darrow. The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot. Milwaukee: Dark Horse Comics, 1995.
Vankin, Jonathan, and Seth Fisher. Vertigo Pop Tokyo! New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002.
Daredevil. 2 vols. to date. New York: Marvel Comics, 1964- .
Projects of special interest: Bendis, Brian Michael. Daredevil: Ninja. New York: Marvel Comics, 2000-2001.
Mack, David. Kabuki. Various (New York: Icon/Marvel Comics). 1994 (2004)- .
Sakai, Stan. Usagi Yojimbo. Various (Milwaukee: Dark Horse Comics). 1987 (1996)- .
Shi. Various (Avator), 1997 (2001)- .
First appearance: Razor Annual #1. London Night Studios, 1993.
Wolverine. 2 vols. to date. New York: Marvel Comics, 1988- .
First appearance: The Incredible Hulk #180. New York: Marvel Comics, 1974. Projects of special interest: Claremont, Chris, and Frank Miller. Wolverine. New York: Marvel Comics, 1982 and Pratt, George. Wolverine: Netsuke. New York: Marvel Comics, 2002.
Asamiya, Kia. Batman: Child of Dreams. Adapt. Max Allen Collins. New York: DC Comics, 2003.
Atagnan, Patrick. The Yellow Jar: Two Tales from Japanese Tradition. New York: NBM, 2002.