Gekiga: The Other Manga

Gekiga (劇画) is Japanese for “dramatic pictures”. The term was coined by Yoshihiro Tatsumi and adopted by other more serious Japanese cartoonists who did not want their trade to be known as manga or “whimsical pictures”. It is akin to Americans who started using the term “graphic novel” as opposed to “comic book“.” -Wikipedia

‘What is Gekiga?’ That’s a question I have been trying to answer for the last few months. The above quote is the opening paragraph taken from the Wikipedia page on the topic, yet it’s found lacking any major ‘umph’, any real explanation. It surprises me that in 2017, a world where manga outsells comics, series are simultaneously published on both sides of the Pacific, and the last obscure corners of Tezuka’s opus are scavenged for KickStarter campaigns, that so little is known about the topic.

Gekiga remains obscure. We are forced to listen to decade old episodes of Anime World Order or pillage mere sentences from Helen McCarthy’s Tezuka publications if we want to know more. But hey, at least Wikipedia knows Yoshihiro Tatsumi started it. My goal in writing this is not only to demystify gekiga, but to drag the nebulous term back into the light of common vernacular. Because gekiga didn’t die in the late 70’s or 80’s – we still see it today. We just need to know how to recognize it.

There exists a tangible distinction between the terms manga and gekiga, and we see that in the actual etymology. But before that, there is one key similarity they share. Breaking down the kanji for both, we see the similar ending of ga-画  who’s literal meaning alone means picture, drawing, painting, or sketch. Part of this stems from the fact that it was not until the modern era that the pen (in any form) was introduced to the Japanese, thus the brush was used for writing, drawing, and painting. Perhaps this explains why 画 also means stroke (of the brush), as pre-pen Japan exhibited minimal distinction between art forms that utilized the same tools. Without a doubt, 画 stands all encompassing of visual two dimensional art in its usage. An example of this is seen when the character for projection is added 映画, literally ‘projected pictures’, we’d call it a motion picture. Indeed, when combined with another kanji, its usage turns to that of the visual arts.

However, that’s where the similarities end and the differences begin. The first character in manga 漫画 , or  man-漫 is typically translated as ‘cartoon’, but holds a slightly negative connotation in other uses. The immediate verb use, 漫ろ or sozoru, implies the lack of concentration, as if restless. When combined with other kanji, it infers a very lose and almost devil-may-care movement from point to point; in a very throw away fashion. We see this in 散漫 (read sanman) meaning ‘distraction’ and a vague, halfhearted element as well. English translation of manga has been along these lines of ‘whimsical pictures’ or ‘impromptu drawings’, and it hits the nail on the head. At its core, manga connotes an irresponsible desire to be entertained, and the childlike resistance to follow down the rabbit hole. Unlike gekiga.

Surprisingly, it is gekiga 劇画, that boasts the most simple definition despite its gravity. Three connotations and nuance can be derived from geki-劇: drama, play, and powerful drug. Adding the kanji of ba-場, or place, before it creates the word for ‘theater’ or ‘play house’. Conversely, affixing the kanji  kanashii-悲 (sadness, grief and regret) before geki translates to ‘disaster’ and ‘tragedy’. Thus the contrast between the two, gekiga and manga, is reflected not only in the art itself, but in the very meaning of their respective etymology. It does not allow its readers forget the world, in fact, much like a stage play, we must keep both reality and fiction in mind in order to truly enjoy it. Gekiga is an dramatic performance, addictive as it is sorrowful. Where manga is insinuated to lack depth, gekiga creates it, intoxicating the reader with its panels vs manga’s escapism. But these are just theoretical differences between words, not the actual works themselves. Unquestionably, the difference lies within the very art itself.


What you’re looking at are the first few pages of Osamu Tezuka’s Ningen Konchuuki, translated as Book of Human Insects with its release by Vertical. Although not the progenitor of the movement,  Tezuka is very much so responsible for its enduring presence. It is here, in the premier six pages of Book of Human Insects, that we see a prime example of the ‘dramatic pictures’ known as gekiga.

The opening page is a well organized and meticulously arranged salvo of panels, rhythmically transitioning from action to action, centering around a single object and event: a magazine discarded by a man as he leaves the room. It isn’t until the second page that he is established as the protagonist; we extrapolate this from the squared panel that takes over half of page, sizing him as the most important object of the scene. As if aware of his importance to the visual narrative, the man (who we will come to know as Mizuno) seats himself centered in said panel, perturbed by the contents of the magazine; Mizuno doesn’t so much as glance at it when his coworker hands it back to him. Turning the page, Mizuno’s dismay is juxtaposed with an full page applause, the prior scene of emotional distress eclipsed by the newer panel’s size.

From there, the fourth page quickly establishes a young woman as the reason of said applause before transitioning to a bearded man raising his glass full of alcohol to the occasion, drinking against the backdrop of run-down and overcrowded housing quarters. This scene with the man pays extreme detail to the shape and size of the paneling, the first of the three upper panels on page five are slightly elongated, encouraging the reader to move to the left, contrary to the instinctual downward motion of traditional written Japanese. This scene bookends with the sight of a noisy train passing overhead, reaffirming the character’s poverty before introducing us to the full page suicide in a more secluded apartment complex, the television running in the background. Who the body belongs to we are unsure, but what Tezuka has done in in six pages is introduce us to his cast, connecting them with an inciting incident, weaving them all into his grand narrative visually. It’s elegance in ink. These first six pages of Book of Human Insects serve as a sort of topic sentence for the rest of the work.

But perhaps it would be better if we called it the topic ‘image’. Contrary to the above quote on Wikipedia, what classifies Tezuka’s Book of Human Insects as gekiga is not the the era it was made in or the style of the art. What truly defines gekiga is the use of that art to express a message or meaning in a form elevated from language. Or perhaps more importantly, conveying what cannot be said with words. It establishes meaning through a very cinematic use of symbols and ‘editing’ per se. In this regard, Book of Human Insects is a prime example of how “a picture is worth 1000 words” – we understand that each character is connected despite the fact that none of them share space or communication. This plays back into the entomology of the word: all the pictures hold a drama to them.

Go back for a moment to 1950’s Japan. Only the youngest of children do not remember the horrors of the last great war, but they live in its ruble. Factories spewing angry pollutant are everywhere, holding their workers for long hours day after day; industrial prisoners in rebuilding a once great nation. Osaka, once the economic super center of all Nippon, is now a slum plagued by unemployment, and stricken by poverty. It is against this backdrop that 22-year-old Yoshihiro Tatsumi begins his career as a mangaka. Except he doesn’t call it manga.

Gekiga started in Osaka, and there’s a log history of rivalry between Osakan and Tokyo art. With Manga companies being primarily in Tokyo, when gekiga arrived on the scene, the narrative quickly became ‘gekiga vs manga’, very much in the vein of that rivalry. But as mentioned there’s a long history. Kabuki, which many scholars claim was the start of Japanese pop culture, was stated in the Kansai prefecture of which Osaka belongs. When it was brought over to Edo (modern day Tokyo), laws were quickly passed that changed portrayal of characters from only female actors to purely male actors. Ukiyo-e prints, which started in Edo, garnered a sense of realism. Ukiyo-e prints (which started in edo) was a response to kabuki, depicting actors in an idealistic style, not the actors as they actually were. This realism would be inserted when the art was practiced in Osaka circa 1800. This sense of realism was so exact, that scholars have used details in the ukiyo-e to discover exactly what play, which actor, and at what time the painting depicted. We see this in gekiga. The movement ‘gekiga’ is to depict a realism through imagery, whereas manga resembles a more romantic, and whimsical tone. Thus the entomology of the images being ‘irresponsible’ begins to make sense.

Yoshihiro Tastumi even said:

Gekiga is a term people throw around now to describe any manga with violence or eroticism or any spectacle. It’s become synonymous with spectacular. But I write manga about households and conversations, love affairs, mundane stuff that is not spectacular. I think that’s the difference.

~Publishers Weekly, Comics Week, May 19, 2009

Gekiga is first and foremost based in reality. It’s about ‘real’ people, or at least, people that could exist in the same world we live in. Absent are rubber men and clow cards, instead there are slums, and skies dark from the smoke of countless factories. That said, gekia is not a subgenere of manga. Manga is a medium. Just as there many genres within manga (usually separated by demograph, and then subdivided by story type), the same goes for gekiga – it just happens to be a sub medium. It tends to interject grim ‘slice of life’ elements that aim to share an experience of tumultuous post-war Japan.

I know a lot of the time I stress how important it is for an ‘anime analysts’ (what a cheeky term) to be familiar with the cultural context of the critiqued work, but Tatsumi agrees. In the same interview he said,  “I believe the real Japan and Japanese life began after the war. Before that, the people of Japan were slaves to the military and to the Emperor.” With that modus operandi, what Tatsumi is doing is telling a story about how “real Japan and Japanese life” started. Clearly that applies more for Tatsumi’s body of work than say Ryoichi Ikegami’s Spiderman… or does it?

Spider-Man-Manga ikigami

The interesting thing about Spiderman is that it’s an American property, but the original manga (or errm, gekiga) quickly strayed from the source matieral, becoming very much a work of it’s time and place. Spiderman starts with it’s original framework, young boy get bitten by a spider, gets powers, works for a news paper, lives with his aunt, etc. But it takes strides to incorporate the culture is was surrounded by. The story focused not on Peter Parker, but on Yu Komori, Aunt May is Aunt Mei, his girlfriend is Japanese, and the villains are redone to resemble more ‘manga-esque’ villians. The tone shifts away from does-whatever-a-spider-can and becomes more focused on melodramatic, and mature themes. Spiderman became less the webslinger of New York’s skylines and became a teen in postwar Japanese culture. Emphasis shifted away from his powers and super fights, and more onto character interactions and the miserable life of a changing society.

Again, remember that it was also a much more politically charged time in Japan as well – Gekiga starting in the 50’s and tapering off by the 80’s when its influence was eventually absorbed into ‘regular manga’. During that time, the country was rebuilding it’s national identity, freed from occupation and reentering the world stage when merely 10 years earlier they were considered the devil in the East. what started as a decade of labor disputes in new factories became student riots over Cold War hot-spots, which then moved into an attempted coup d’etat in 1970; the first Japanese McDonald’s would open in Giza only a year later. And like all social changes, some folks are left behind – it is here that gekiga draws it’s inspiration. No matter how fantastic it’s story may be, it is grounded in the very real elements of how hapless an individual is in life.

…really gekiga is more like kigeki, “tragedy” so it’s more like kigekiga, “tragedy style.” Gekiga to people means sad ending, they think that something violent or awful has to happen, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Stylistically, geki means “theater” so it’s theatrical, it’s about setting scenes up and structurally moving from frame to frame so that there is a relation between the very first frame and the very last frame. It’s like a screenplay. I’ve been influenced by film. That’s one thing that I’m sure I do well, pacing stories.

~Publishers Weekly, Comics Week, May 19, 2009

Knowing that, it’s easy to see the modern surviving embers of gekiga. Naoki Urasawa’s work is a great example. So isn’t Vagabond by Takehiko Inoue, and even In Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno. That is not to say that all these titles aren’t manga also, but they do owe a lot to the gekiga movement that elevated ‘whimsical pictures’ into an art-form that could be taken seriously by readers of all ages – more importantly, it was taken seriously because it dealt with issues that adult/mature reads could relate and understand. Manga stopped being only escapism art whimsical tales; it grew up, and met readers where they were.


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  1. Gekiga, never thought I’d see something on it here but here we are. There’s so much more to say about it, from the rise of Garo, Tezuka’s rival magazine COM, or even looking into Tatsumi’s famous works (Abandon the Old in Tokyo is a great collection of stories for instance). It feels like this isn’t even scratching the surface, there is just so much history.

    Although I wish there was a bit more in here, I still appreciate seeing someone taking a look at something so niche as Gekiga. You don’t see much manga discussion at all in the ani-sphere, so a little spotlight on what was perhaps one of manga histories most unique movements is awesome.


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