One of the best-known creatives to emerge from the turmoil of postwar Japan—a time marked by leftist resentment of capitalism as well as increasing openness with American aid and occupation—was Osamu Tezuka, who made manga into a modern product fashionable with young people. Although Japanese comics had already appeared in embryonic form before the Second World War, Tezuka established its syntax and consolidated its forms of expression. Droves of young people began to create their own manga in his wake, including Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the founder of gekiga, or the graphic novel.
Tatsumi and other like-minded manga artists drew their influences from television and film, viewing manga as a medium limited neither to young readers nor to a simple system of values. Tatsumi hoped manga could mean something more, that it might show the complexity of society, its diversity and dissatisfaction with simple narratives—that it could be psychological and experimental. This generation revolutionized manga, influencing artists like Sanpei Shirato and Yoshiharu Tsuge.
Sanpei Shirato, whose father was a proletarian painter, was heavily influenced by leftist artists and social activists. His work is thick with an evangelical disposition—utopian and idealistic. It blurs the line between reality and ideology. Early in 1959, Shirato rose to fame with Ninja Bugeichō , a story of a peasant uprising during the Sengoku period written from the perspective of the lower class in a rigid hierarchical society; it weaves a Marxist and materialist view of history, and soon became the subject of leftist praise. Its publisher, Katsuichi Nagai, was known as one of the most generous of his time: he never lagged on writers’ payments, and set a high standard for compensation. This disposition stemmed from his personal magnanimity, but was also a natural result of the profit and prestige generated for him by work like this.
Most manga publishing at the time was initially based on loaned books, earning manga the epithet of “rental comics.” Publications for loan initially consisted of slapped-together books with similar plots and, as rental comics flourished, piracy became rampant, publication times grew indefinite, and books were often hacked together with a combination of new and old material, leading to a subpar reading experience. Against this current, manga magazines proved to be a more standardized form of publication, gradually pushing out rental publications. This growth allowed Shirato to fund and set up a publishing company, Seirindo, with Katsuichi Nagai, and publish a magazine, Garo—a publication born out of the genes of leftist thought. Garo was destined to become a centerpiece of the student movements of the 1960s and early 70s, continuing manga’s expansion into new and unexplored realms. Garo’s peculiar content brought all kind of unusual material to the forefront of manga. Talk of manga had previously revolved around Osamu Tezuka and Weekly Shō nen Sunday; after Garo, no other independent platform thrived as well as it did. Other than its successor, the anthology AX, those that have tried have been fleeting and half-hearted. Garo was able to veer from common perceptions of beauty and entertain alternative tastes.
The artists Garo published came to be referred to as the Garo School, which was equal parts experimental and authorial. But the artist who really shocked was Yoshiharu Tsuge. He came from a poor family and started drawing for rental comics as a teenager, making his way into Tezuka’s apartment office. Despite this, he felt constantly frustrated and had trouble making ends meet, living in a bathroom just big enough for a single tatami mat. This experience became the basis of his work. The openness of Garo’s editorial staff allowed Tsuge free reign. Beginning with his category-defying samurai manga Uwasa no Bushi, Tsuge refined own style free of restraint, culminating with “Nejishiki,” or “Screw Style.” It was a major shock for other authors and readers alike: it broke away the pursuit of meaning and instead chose to describe absurdity. Garo’s main readership at the time was leftist students influenced by avant-garde western art attuned to and willing to accept anything that broke away from traditional molds. If Shirato made the magazine a political tastemaker, Tsuge formally linked it to the avant garde. “Neji shiki” is his defining piece, and has been mimicked and parodied across generations as a constant inspiration. This was Garo’s golden age. Even Osamu Tezuka felt pressured to found a competitor to Garo, the publication com, in order to prove his relevance.
After the 1970s, leftist student movements came to a halt and Tsuge left the publication at this time. To ease the drop in sales, younger editors at Garo published the Oshimoro Declaration, attracting Yumura Teruhiko to join the organization. The Japanese art world had begun to play with the idea of heta-uma, a skillful lack of skill, in hope of finding something outside the dualism of beautiful and ugly or good and bad. Heta-uma advocates clumsiness as technique, not conforming to traditional conceptions of beauty. It created a feeling of seeing something truly new, and Teruhiko was a leading figure. Leading artists included Nemoto Takashi, who stressed the idea of otherness. He dubbed his drawings tokusyu or peculiar manga, and styled himself “commander” of the movement. His style invaded the reader’s eyes with intense and overwhelming imagery, forcing a visceral reaction, allow readers to explore enjoyment in the face of disgust. His work became the greatest achievement of Garo in its final years.
As Japan’s financial bubble burst, it threw country into economic recession. Society took on an air of estrangement and culture trended toward light-hearted materialism—and Garo was no exception. Shirato, Tsuge, and others removed themselves from subjects of substance and experimented with a fragmented world, taking everything as a game. Usamaru Furuya and Shintaro Kago, from the guro or grotesque manga movement, sought to heat things up through the rejection of orthodoxy, and perhaps lost themselves in this pursuit. Garo kept up with the times, but had already lost its avant-garde edge; it had moved to the edge of society. All that was left was blind consumption: the end of the Shōwa Period for the country and the magazine.
In 1997, Garo invested in advertising and publicity in order to publish a new electronic edition, resulting in massive losses. Publication ceased in 2002; a few electronic editions continued to come out, but after a couple issues that stopped too. Takashi Nemoto, a noted artist, once said, “Garo’s significance … lies in promoting those artists whose genius few recognized: the bizarre, the peculiar, the heretics, the maniacs. It’s not meant to play to the tastes of the masses, but rather to change the world of manga and its artists; a precious moment of self-expression for the scoundrels and lowlifes of the genre.”
Text by Liu Xing
Translated by Nathaniel Brown