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Monday, April 22, 2013

Japan's First Super-Hero Character

Yesterday I wondered aloud why the Japanese never took to, or seemed to have a superhero in their comic books, or a superhero, period.

You can read about that HERE, if you wish. To be honest it wasn't all that earth-shattering. Sometimes a culture doesn't need to copy another.

Turns out, however, that Japan did have a superhero. Yeah - that's him in the art above. He's the Golden Bat (Ōgon Bat (黄金 バット), and you can see that he isn't that golden or bat-like, or even remotely heroic in appearance. He looks like a dumb version of Timely Comics (Marvel Comics) Red Skull villain who battles Captain America from the 1940s on up to the present thanks to effects of the cosmic cube giving him a longer shelf life.

The thing is... this is not a pale imitation. This was created in 1931... some seven years prior to Superman's arrival from Krypton onto the pages of Action Comics #1 in 1938. Batman, should you be curious, appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.

Now I don't want you neophytes to comics to think that the Golden Bat was the first ever comic book hero - because there are two reasons against that.

#1 - The masked Phantom appeared in 1936. The Spider appeared in 1933 in pulp book format, The Shadow on the radio in 1930 (and in pulps just before The Spider in 1931), and even Popeye who gained super strength appeared long before them all in 1929. Yeah, that's right... Popeye and his spinach appeared in 1929 in the newspaper comic strips.

#2 - The Golden Bat did not appear in pulp magazine book format or the comic strips, or even comic books when he made his first appearance.

The Golden Bat is credited to writer Suzuki Ichiro (surname first) and artist Nagamatsu Takeo (surname first), and appeared in street theater, with images of him created by the artist to advertise his appearance making the scene at that time in 1931 Japan, as well as images of him created for the actual graphic story-telling!

Street theater in Japan, at that time was told in kamishibai (紙芝居, literally translated to mean 'paper drama'), which was a popular form of entertainment on the streets of Japan long before buskers et al made a come back these past 10 years or so in North America... you know, jugglers, clowns, pantomime artists that perform on street corners for whatever the audience wants to give.

According to Eric Nash, who wrote the book Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater, kamishibai predates both manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons) in Japan.

From his book, Nash describes the scene on the street:

It was the simple clacking of two wooden sticks on a street corner that signaled to children the start of kamishibai, a popular pastime during Depression-era Japan. … Storytellers would travel from town to town with their butai (miniature stage) on the back of a bike. The setup was reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show, but instead of puppets the narrator would slide a series of poster boards with watercolor illustrations in and out of the box. He would act out the script, which was written on cards placed on the back of a board.

Kids who also bought candy got the better seats, and could watch as the story teller told the tale, removing the art slide out as the scene passed. It was a slide show with graphic story-telling... definable a forerunner to manga/comic books.

A kamishibai man in 1930s Japan - from the Beloved Of Beasts website.
The kamishibai shows catered to everyone. A typical performance had three specific stories, each about 10 minutes long, with an adventure tale for boys; a domestic drama for girls; and a comic story that would appeal to both sexes. However, it is important to note that the writer/performer was no idiot!

He would ensure that the stories would continue, ending each performance with a serialized cliffhanger, so the audience would have to come again the next day and fork over more money to see how it ended - or, more than likely, continued again. That implies that each story would need to be riveting enough to make the audience return again and again.

When Nash read a book called Getting It Wrong In Japan, he saw the word kamishibai, but could find no modern-day reference to the term. So he decided to go to Japan and research the term, finding over 300 visual references to kamishibai in Tokyo and Osaka libraries - posters advertising the street-performing events, with images showing a popular story character to attract and entice young audience members.

As well, Nash says the kamishibai made a few contributions to the comic book genre.

"A lot of attributes seen in anime are present," Nash says, "such as giant robots and monsters from outer space."

Apparently, the artwork for the kamishibai also included the typical Japanese over-sized eyes - a form the Japanese utilized to show emotion - seen in posters for a character known as Jungle Boy - see image below:
Jungle Boy kamishibai poster.
Now, lest we believe that kamishibai be a simple Japanese form of street theater, its origins actually go back 1,000 years, when it was a form of story telling that the Japanese Buddhist monks would employ, using emakimono (picture scrolls) to tell stories to their temple audience - an effective means of teaching morals considering the majority of the populace was illiterate.

So... the Buddhists utilized a form of graphic story-telling to teach. A comic book, of sorts.

And, while this form of story-telling went on for quite a while, it did eventually die out, but was revived during the 1920s - through the 1950s, when a gaito kamishibaya (kamishibai story-teller) would ride a specially-built bicycle equipped with the means to carry the stage, was ridden between towns, with the tap-tap-tap of wooden batons (called hyoshigi) heralding the start of another performance.

As noted, the kamishibai went the way of the dodo in the 1950s - perhaps as television became a greater draw of entertainment for the youngsters. But, it has begun to make a bit of a comeback in Japan, and even in other countries, as an effective story-telling device.

From what I have been able to dig up, people do think the Golden Bat looks like the Red Skull, but say that he is more like Superman, in that both could fly, had super strength, had invulnerability, wore a red cape (I still believe capes are fashionable!) and had a secret headquarters - a Fortress of Solitude - located in the Japanese Alps.

For further information on the Golden Bat's appearances, I will note that there was a 1950 live-action movie called Ôgon bat: Matenrô no kaijin, and a another in 1966 called Ôgon batto that starred the famous Chiba Sonny (Sonny Chiba). There was also a 52-episode anime (cartoon) in 1967, and another live-action film in 1972 called Ôgon Batto ga yattekuru. Of course... I am not saying I have seen these, so I can not provide you with any details.

Andrew Joseph

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