Gaja Sakamoto. Tank Tankuro: Prewar Works, 1934-45. Presspop, Inc. 2011.
I was browsing in Jim Hanley’s Universe* a few weeks ago and saw a handsomely slipcased volume by someone I’d never heard of, Gajo Sakamoto, about a character I’d never heard of, Tank Tankoro. That I’d never heard of either means nothing, of course. The fine print on the label pasted to the cellophane wrapper indicated that this Tankoro character was “the preeminent robot superhero manga from pre-WWII Japan” and that it had somehow gotten lost even in Japan and wasn’t rediscovered there until the 1970s, at which point it was republished to much joy and acclaim.
A very convincing sales pitch and, as I said, the slipcasing was very handsome. But I didn’t buy that first time. But two weeks later . . . then I bought. I ripped off the cellophane wrapper, took the book out of its case and started leafing though. Good paper, high quality printing, I thought, and funny.
I leafed through to page 73 and noticed a bunch of guys and a canon, but no ammunition. I turned the page and saw a nice two-page spread (74-75), in four color printing (the earlier pages had been only black and red). On the right-hand page some guy had a basket stacked high with octopi while on the left-hand the guys with the canon were wondering “What’ll we do with them?”
Of course, I new exactly what they were going to do with them, and started chuckling at the notion of using octopi as canon balls (while also thinking that that wasn’t too kind to the octopi). And, yep! that’s what happened on pages 76 and 77. And then 78 and 79 formed another two page spread, which you can see on the web, here (page 78) and here (page 79). The octopi formed a chain stretching from Tankuro up there in the air down to the guys on the ground, who were trying to reel him in: “It’s like beach net fishing.”
What an utterly absurd and wonderful conception. Of course, it didn’t work. Tankuro freed himself, because he’s the hero. I was hooked.
The series was originally published in 1934 and seems mostly about war between unnamed combatants, though at the time Japan was fighting in Manchuria. Tank Tankuro and his monkey sidekick, Key-Ko, are on one side and Kuro-Kabuto and his troops are on the other side. But that doesn’t happen until after the octopi incident. Before that Tank just went up against this or that villain.
The drawing is vigorous, forceful, and simple in a way that leads you think, oh, I could do that. You couldn’t, of course. But kids reading it could and probably did think that and were not likely bothered by the difference between their imitations and Sakamoto’s original.
The story is episodic and more than a little surreal, as the octopi incident indicates. It’s worth noting that the octopus is a well-established motif in Japanese art, as well as in Japanese cuisine. So, in introducing octopi into his manga in this way Sakamoto was using a motif that had well-established meanings for his audience. But not, I suspect, as live feed canon fodder.
Then there’s Tank himself. As Sakamoto tells the story (in an essay appended to the volume) he’d been working on a strip that doesn’t seem to have been getting much response (p. ii):
The serial was a samurai story, but one day, there came a time when I had to strike out in a new direction. After much consideration, I came up with my very own superhero character. I decided to put a human inside an iron ball and make him act in amazing and unheard of ways.
Which Tankuro does. In an introductory historical essay Shunsuke Nakazawa points out (p. xiv):
Almost all other protagonists in pre-war manga were personified animals or pure human beings. These characters had a basically good nature, and could be a role model for their child readers. Tankuro was not as simple. I goes unexplained whether he was a robot, a super strong human being, or anything besides that. No one could fully explain his identity. He was not as safe and friendly as other peaceful and tamed characters of the time.
So, we have a character that’s drawn as a samurai in an iron ball and who functions as a trickster-like demi-urge, a being at once natural and mechanical who’s at home on land, in the air, on and even under water.
That’s what makes Tank Tankuro an important character in manga history, his indeterminacy. In that respect he’s more like Tezuka’s Michy, in Metropolis, than like the Mighty Atom (aka Astroboy). The Mighty Atom was quite clearly an electromechanical construction, but Michy was fashioned of synthetic cells and so straddled the distinction between organic and mechanical, as does Tankuro. It’s out of this indeterminacy that all those fantastical mange and anime creatures will grow in the post-war years.
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*A major comics store in Manhattan.