Murotani Tsunezō

Murotani Tsunezō: Trauma manga brought to you by the king of educational manga

"I don't talk about this very often, but I actually died once...Astral projection, is it? Well, I was floating in space, and all behind me it was pitch dark. It was just like being in hell." (Interview in QJ magazine #14)

After his (temporary) death, Murotani Tsunezō went on to draw a series of hellish works based on his hands-on research, the two most outstanding being 'Hell Boy' (Jigoku Kun) and 'Doll Hell' (Ningyo Jigoku). The backgrounds in 'Hell Boy' are especially striking, and they couldn't get much blacker. They really do seem to bear witness to time spent in the underworld.

Murotani Tsunezō was born in Osaka in 1934. His background was relatively comfortable, his family running a clothes store. He was manga-obsessed from childhood, and especially loved Imoto Suimei's 'Longboots Three Musketeers' (Nagakutsu Sanjūshi). These three musketeers consisted of two humans and one monkey, with their boots worn on their heads in a clear departure from original Alexander Dumas version. Anyway, their adventures were one of the things that sparked the young Murotani's imagination.

He kept drawing incessantly right through the difficult years of World War II, when he was evacuated to a rural district in the southern island of Kyushu. His schoolmates there were hard-as-nails country kids. Near the school stood 'Fight Hill'; the custom was to go there after school and slug out any little disagreements they had during class time, with an older boy refereeing. As a city slicker cast into a den of feral rednecks, Murotani was an obvious prime target for hazing. He managed to save his hide, however, by drawing caricatures for his classmates. The permanent moral of the story for him was "If you can make people laugh, you'll survive". His Kyushu years impacted his later work in other ways, too. The hero of 'Hell Boy' is based on his Kyushu school janitor's son.

Murotani1Murotani the Gag Manga writer

After the war ended, Murotani stayed involved with amateur manga circles, but his main interest had shifted to oil painting. After he graduated high school he applied to study art in Kyushu University, but his manga experience must have taken its toll. He was turned down, and now became a 'wandering samurai' - a high school graduate studying for a second shot at the college entrance exams. But he kept drawing manga, and his first break came during this period from an unexpected source - the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, which took him on as a cartoonist.

Working with the Mainichi opened up a new path for Murotani - a path with no exact equivalent for artists in the west. Regular appearances in the Mainichi stable of children's papers (Mainichi Shōgakusei Shimbun and Mainichi Chūgakusei Shimbun) led on to a flourishing career in 'educational manga'. True to their name, educational manga tackle the subject matter of school textbooks - which are very often masterpieces of crushing boredom - and try to get the goods across in a more graphic and interesting manner.

So, when Murotani finally headed for Tokyo and art school, he already had a good degree of success under his belt. His student years were spent absorbing influences from Picasso and Matisse, and painting in oils in the surrealist style. All the while he financed himself by drawing educational manga, but his horizons soon broadened. When a friend got published in a manga magazine he decided to try his luck outside the educational field. The result was 'Naughty Turbo Kid' (Wanpaku Tābō), published in 1958 in the magazine Mangaō. From this point through to the mid-sixties, Murotani put out a string of gag-filled manga series aimed at young kids. With one major exception: 'Thriller Kid: The Terrifying Fly-Man' (Surirā Kozō Kyōfū no Hae Otoko). The Fly-Man is heavily influenced by fifties pulp sci-fi. The offspring of a wartime biological weapons experiment, he wreaks his revenge in a school setting. Both the setting and the horror-story element pointed towards Murotani's future; for the time being, however, he stuck with the gag manga for kids.

Murotani2The road to 'Hell'

Apart from the fact that he'd died already, there were a couple of factors that spurred Murotani towards drawing horror manga - his experience of surrealist painting, his voracious reading of fifties sci-fi novels, and the imagery of fifties sci-fi movies all had an influence. A major shift in his work came in 1967 with the publication of SF 'Sci-fi Theater: Alternative Earth' (Gekijō Dai-ni no Chikyū) in the Mainichi Chūgakusei Shimbun, which catered to high school kids. This kicked off a series of works heavily indebted to fifties sci-fi; the most successful of them was 'Spaceman' (Supēsuman), which the Chūgakusei Shimbun ran over three years. The story - the interplanetary quest of a multiracial group of teen space crusaders - was a big success with its high school audience, thanks to its perfectly-calculated mix of horror, sci-fi and eroticism. In fact, 'Spaceman' is a plausible forerunner to Galactic Railroad 999 (Ginga Tetsudō 999). The period of 'Spaceman' was a highly productive one for Murotani; he also put out the series 'Microman' (Mikuroman: no connection to the toy by the same name produced by Takara) and 'Time Patrol' (Taimu Patrōru) among others. All were published in the Mainichi Chūgakusei Shimbun, and all bore the same imprint of fifties science fiction.

In the heavily regimented world of manga production, Murotani was unusual in being a loner; he employed no assistants. He was also a technical perfectionist who eschewed the use of screentone in his backgrounds. But when the pace got just too frantic, he had to compromise. His nephews, wife and sister-in-law pitched in as a kind of artisinal family, setting up the studio, pasting and screentoning (literally) in the background. By the late sixties, Murotani was getting a lot of name recognition, and the big time finally started to beckon. 'Flash-Bang' (Pikkari Bii) and 'Go For It, Pyūta!' (Faito Da! Pyūta). Both hit the big screen as anime, and he began publishing in the massive-circulation weekly tabloid magazines known as shūkanshi.

However, fame brought its own problems. Murotani's distaste for screentone still hadn't deserted him (he was coming from a fine arts background, after all). But drawing in background shading by hand took a tremendous amount of time given the volume of production now demanded of him, he became more and more overworked. And the major tabloids were big business. Their main content was celebrity scandal, their main concern was the bottom line, and they showed precious little consideration towards the manga artists they carried as a minor sideline. Editors kept an eagle eye on the manga artists, and they didn't hesitate to cut whole sections without consent let alone consultation.

Murotani created his masterpiece in this harsh and pressurized environment. This was the Jigoku - 'Hell' - series.

Murotani3Hell Boy the Cool

Jigoku Kun (Hell Boy) forms the first half of the 'Hell' series. It was serialized in a magazine aimed at younger readers, so Muortani laid on the gore with a fairly light touch. The hero's mission is pretty grim: "The villain gets sent to hell every single time". But even so, 'Hell Boy' is a fun piece of work with a character all its own. The hero has a strong appeal, along with surreal characters like the Undead Dad (Mannnen Totsan), the bone-marrow munching Dokurobotan, and a constantly varying cast of hellish ghouls. You get the feeling that Murotani himself had a lot of fun himself making this work, from a lot of different elements that appear: the elaborate page compositions, the ultra-realistic depictions of hell, the offbeat hero, the ultrasexy heroine, and the mixed cast of supporting characters, sometimes beautiful and sometimes cruel.

The highlight of the series is the third episode, 'Devil Fire' (Akumabi). Here, Murotani gives free rein to one aspect of Hell Boy's character: he's devilishly cool. The villain of the piece is a student who dabbles in arson in his free time. Hell Boy uses his magic powers to stick the criminal's arm onto his (the criminal's, that is) forehead. This episode also introduces the character Akutsu; he's quite the square, a good husband and father and the manager of a construction company. Yet at the same time, he's a fiend towards the evil (in this story he traps the student/arsonist/villain). In fact, 'Hell Boy' is an extremely righteous piece of work; you can feel Murotani's anger towards the villains, and his strong sense of justice - to the point where Murotani's own anger comes across as a mangaized enactment of divine wrath. And this is one of the things I really like about 'Hell Boy'. At the same time, however much Murotani's vision was based on his near-death experience, there isn't a hint of religious feeling or teaching in the series. 'Hell Boy' remains quite cool throughout.

Jigoku Kun was put out in book form by Ota Shuppann in a single-volume set along with Surirā Kozō Kyōfū no Hae Otoko (Thriller Kid: The Terrifying Fly-Man). It remains a great read.

The second half of the 'Hell' series was aimed at an older readership, and it shows. Murotani cranked up the horror level and gave stronger voice to his outrage in episodes like 'Doll Hell' (Ningyō Jigoku), 'Insect Hell' (Mushi Jigoku), 'Jirō the Ghost-Devil' (Kaiki Jirō) and 'Pavilion Hell' (Pabirion Jigoku). Among them, the strongest episodes are 'Doll Hell' and 'Pavilion Hell'. They're also quite political.

Murotani3Murotani the Modernist

'Doll Hell' is a revenge drama starring Misuzu Reika, a traditional doll-maker and atomic bomb survivor. Gifted with magic powers, she decides to take an appropriate form of revenge on the American pilots who dropped the bomb - by turning them into dolls. The pilots (one of them a woman) will remain alive, trapped inside the dolls' bodies. There is an underlying eroticism in the scenes where Reika works her magic, and in the appearance of the blond blue-eyed American character Jane, now transformed into a living doll.

In 'Pavilion Hell', a kid visiting the Osaka International Exposition of 1970 gets lost among the crowds, and somehow finds that he's wandered into hell. There are two kinds of demons, he finds - black demons and white demons - and the black ones are the masters, lording over and discriminating against the whites. Soon a war of liberation starts, with the young hero caught up in it. The plot is thickened with a trans-dimensional romance between him and a female knight of the liberation army. This aspect of 'Pavilion Hell' points forward to Takahashi Rumiko's Urusei Yatsura (Lamu, the Invader Girl).

This kind of socially aware horror manga wasn't particularly rare in this period, and it's hard to deny that Murotani was aiming for large sales when he drew the 'Hell' series. What really makes the 'Hell' series stand out from the rest is the way hell itself is depicted. Unlike other artists working on similar material, Murotani doesn't rely on local Japanese traditional art or folklore at all. If anything, his underworld and the demons who live there are drawn in a quasi-surrealist style. Here we see Murotani the modernist in action.

Murotani3Murotani in Paris

In the mid seventies, Murotani dropped out of the youth-oriented shōnen magazine scene and shifted his focus back to educational manga. The pace of work required in the weeklies is absolutely crushing, and this was partly the reason for the move. But the major factor in the move was that he left Japan for a sabbatical year in Paris towards the end of the seventies.

Murotani's Parisian year was spent cruising the major galleries, starting with the National Library, the Musée Carnavalet and the Museum of Fashion. A year is a really long time in manga, and normally it'd be unthinkable for an established artist to go a whole year without publishing anything at all. But by shifting to educational manga again, Murotani had fixed himself up with a reliable and steady source of income. Hence Paris.

Towards a complete 'Hell Boy'

Since his return from Paris to the present day, Murotani has continued to keep his main focus on educational manga. And he had remained tremendously successful in this line of work. His biographical manga like Himiko, Katsu Kaishū and Date Masamune went through anything between twenty and forty-two reprints. (Himiko was the shamanistic prophet-ruler of the Yamatai, a third-century forerunner of the Japanese state; Katsu Kaishū was the shogunate's last naval commander; and Date Masamune was a famous one-eyed feudal lord from northern Japan). He's also opened up new areas in educational manga, such as the history-of-science dramas he put out in popular Japanese science magazines like Newton and Einstein.

However, he ran into serious trouble with his 'Mohammed and Islam' (Mahometto to Isuram-kyo), which was withdrawn among protests by Muslims offended at the portrayal of the Prophet in pictures. He also had a run-in with the French government over the inclusion of his anti-nuclear poster Moon Over Mururoa in an exhibition that coincided with a state visit by the President of France to Japan. The sponsors of the exhibition, a department store called Yokohama Sogō, pulled Murotani's work from the show; this time the furious protests came from the artist himself. In both cases, Murotani stuck to an uncompromising freedom-of-speech position, and he declared that he 'absolutely refused to recognize any taboos against freedom of expression'. He still had his old unyielding sense of anger and passion for justice. I think that's why he was able to stick to his guns in the face of considerable pressure.

Murotani Tsunezō has continued to publish educational manga to this day, while also keeping active in the anti-nuclear movement. He also teaches at the Lifelong Learning Center, and plays tennis in his free time. (There are unconfirmed reports that he's practiced his volleys against a number of world-famous structures including the Parthenon and Arc de Triomphe). He still has a lot of ideas in his head, and plans further installments of 'Pavilion Hell' and other projects like 'Murotani's Grotesque Greek Mythology. He's also planning a complete, finalized version of 'Hell Boy' - in the unlikely event that the series could ever be wrestled to a halt'. In any case, Murotani Tsunezō is still an artist worth keeping an eye on.

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The Exhibition of Murotani Tsunezō in Paris 2008

Exhibition of Murotani Tsunezō in Paris 2008
Red Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji, Zen and Peace Walk
6/3 - 14, 2008
(6/2 Openning Party 17:30-20:00)
PARIS < Espace Culturel Bertin Poirée >
8-12 rue Bertin Poiree 75001 Paris FRANCE
Tel 01 44 76 06 06
Fax 01 44 76 06 13

The Exhibition of Murotani Tsunezō in Paris 2008 (French)

The Exhibition of Murotani Tsunezō in Paris 2008 (French)

Red Mount Fuji

Oeuvres originales/techniques variées
du 3 au 14 juin 2008
du lundi au vendredi de 12h à 20h
samedi jusqu'à 18h30
(le 14 juin jusqu'à 17h)
Vernissage : mardi 3 juin 2008 de 17h30 à 20h
*Un atelier de manga aura lieu le 7 juin à 17h et le 11 juin à 14h

I love Imoto Suimei's

I love Imoto Suimei's 'Longboots Three Musketeers' (Nagakutsu Sanjūshi). These three musketeers consisted of two humans and one monkey, with their boots worn on their heads in a clear departure from original Alexander Dumas version.