Bonten Tarō

Bonten Tarō: a total artist on a slippry slope to perdition

She sported an eccentric hairstyle much like the lowbrow artist Rock'in Jellybean. Her leather micro-mini was topped off with a psychedelic tattoo-design t-shirt. The blurb proclaimed her to be "The Glamorous Half-breed with the Broad Leather Belt!" Her name was Rika. She was the heroine of a Bonten Tarō's premier 60s gekiga 'Half-breed Rika' (Konketsuji Rika, published in Shukan Myojo.) (Despite the fact that many children had been born to parents of mixed race in the immediate postwar period, the disgraceful term 'half-breed' or konkestuji was in general use in Japan right up to the eighties. Even today, the common name for a child of an interracial couple is a 'half'.)

Through the late 60s and early 70s, Rika and her gang took on their enemies in one fight scene after another - the yakuza were one, the mysterious millionaire another. The series overflowed with a kitschy B-Movie style, influenced by stuff like Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Tōei action flicks. I'm crazy about catfight gekiga - I can't get enough of this series.

bon_shinigami_01Kamikaze by name, kamikaze by nature

Bonten Tarō was born as Ishii Kiyomi in Tokyo in 1928. He was born with a heroic streak, and joined the air force in 1943 "because I liked the uniform. I wasn't remotely patriotic." The air force was getting ready for kamikaze defense of the home islands.

So, Bonten Tarō got stationed at Kanoya air base near Kagoshima, and flew as a pathfinder guiding kamikaze pilots towards the enemy ships in the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Though he lost a troop of friends to the war, he came out of it himself like the cat with nine lives - "Worse luck", according to himself. He came out of the experience a purged and changed man, living life from moment to moment, obsessed with his own artistic journey and uncompromising in following it through all his remaining days. You could say he'd discovered religion.

I think that's why he chose his artistic name - Bonten Tarō. A bon-jin is a nobody. This bon (meaning mediocre) became the first part of his name. Bon-ten (Vishunu) is the Hidhu-Buddhist god who created the universe. The ten (meaning heaven) became the second part of his name. And the given name Tarō is blue-collar incarnate - Jack, Mac, Horst, Jimmy. So Boten Tarō - the multi-genre artist joining the mundane to the celestial to the mundane - was born.

rika001The enfant terrible

During the heyday of 'Half-breed Rika' in the 70s, Bonten Tarō took Japan by storm. He entered pretty taboo territory when he branched out as a tattoo artist. Up until this time, tattoos were strictly yakuza style. They were applied by hand, in black and red only. Bonten created a revolution in the scene. His tattoo creations were a riot of color, and he developed and marketed mechanical instruments for applying them. He worked his art on the skins of famous actors like Charlie Sheen, and cult figures like Takenaka Rō. At the same time, he also developed a tattoo-influenced fashion line that won favorable mention from Pierre Cardin.

His greatest breakthrough came when Mohammed Ali got in touch with him personally, and asked him to design the gown he wore on the way into the ring. The resulting worldwide publicity led to fashion shows in Paris and London. He joined forces temporarily with the designer Yamamoto Kansai, sashaying down the catwalk in traditional courtesan's ultra-platform clogs and a sumo wrestler's loincloth. Audiences were breathtaken. (Bonten himself summarizes this period with the old Japanese saying 'When you're on the road, you cast off shame'.)

As if that wasn't enough, he used his experience as a band manager to break into the music business and record an album. He appeared on TV as an enka ballad singer.

And of course, he scored a huge success on his first attempt at writing a gekiga for a major weekly magazine. This was 'Half-breed Rika' in Shukan Myojo. The film version made by Tōei Studios (also titled Konketsuji Rika) starred another beautiful Rika of mixed-race parentage. Aoki Rika was the quintessential picture of 70s glamour, but she vanished without trace after a couple of movies and a single on vinyl.

rika002 rika003 rika004 rika005

Low Teen and Tokunan Seiichirō

There's a huge archive of Bonten Tarō materials at his home in Saitama Prefecture, just outside Tokyo. His wife is the curator. There are stacks of rare magazines that couldn't be found even in the Diet Library (the Japanese equivalent of the Library of Congress). I was astonished when saw the sheer range of his collection. But there's nothing at all from before 1964. That's when he met his wife.

For a look at Bonten's work before that, you have to go kashihon magazines like Low Teen. Low Teen was published during the 60s by Akebono Shuppan, and aimed at adolescent males. Each issue featured a roster of artists centered on the then-popular Kawada Mannichi. The content was heavily influenced by Nikkatsu action movies, and the stories featured clean-cut, gutsy teenagers facing life and love with pure hearts and a straight edge. Bonten Tarō was really taken aback when I showed him a copy of Low Teen featuring his 'Provoking Evil' (Aku e no Chōsen). "Did I really put out work like that?" was his comment. "I've never seen the draft of this in my life" chimed in his wife...

'Provoking Evil' came out in Low Teen #7, which also carried Tokunan Seiichirō's 'The Sky is Sometimes Blue' (Sora wa Haretari). It's a creation packed to the margins with Tokunan's 'drawing's-a-drag-and-I-couldn't-give-a-shit' sensibility. Tack on a pointless, moralistic ending (Tokunan did) and you have a perfect example of his style.

hadae inoshika001

Outstanding draftsmanship

Anyway, to get back to Bonten's 'Provoking Evil'. What really sets it apart from other kashihon pulp stories is the way the plot piles one twist on top of another right through to the final page - without leaving a single loose thread. If you've read this far, you'll have realized that resonant, well-crafted plots were very scarce on the ground in kashihon circles (or what I call 'garage gekiga'). Usually, some kind of slapdash ending is tacked on in the last five pages - and in fact I love that approach too, as such. But 'Provoking Evil' is that rare thing in the kashihon market - a piece of work with a fully realized structure. It really deserves kudos for that.

And the draftsmanship. When you compare Bonten's drawing with Tokunan's 'The Sky is Sometimes Blue' you think - were these guys on different planets or something? The sky certainly doesn't look the same...

A tattooist's gekiga

Tattooists use human skin for their canvas, and they compose skin into a unified work of art. Mistakes can happen at any time, and they can't be taken back. Bonten Tarō's gekiga have a special life and strength that stems from his experience as a tattoo artist. You can see it most clearly in his cover illustrations. The covers for 'Half-breed Rika', for example, outdid anything else in the magazine for finish and technique.
He was a multi-talented star in the seventies, but one day Bonten Tarō just walked away from it all and became a painter. Staring death in the face as a kamikaze affected him in lots of ways no doubt. But I think the main thing it did to him was make him fearless. And free.

blackace21 bonten001

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I knew Bonten in Okinawa. He

I knew Bonten in Okinawa. He was the nicest man. He took me to a Yakuza banquet(so he would'nt be bored), then we drank with the chief of police of Ginowan. Him and his wife took a stong liking to My wife, son and me. He tattood me for free and fed us dinner whenever we came over. I miss him and Tamiko Mama.