Manga creator Ryohei Saigan, 62, is among those honoured in the Government’s spring decorations list this year. Alongside a singer, a kabuki actor, a physicist and 20 others, he received the Medal with Purple Ribbon, given in recognition of contributions to the arts, sports and academic life. Takao Saito, creator of Golgo 13, received the Order of the Rising Sun in the same list.
These tributes to two lives in manga reminded me how little most of us know about the huge majority of manga artists. Our comics industry tends to focus on a narrow demographic, and just as many British comedians never achieve name recognition in the USA, so many successful manga artists and writers remain almost unknown in the English speaking world.
Unless you followed the recent manga creators’ protest against proposed lolicon manga legislation very closely, this may be the first time you’ve heard of Saigan. Unless you read Japanese and have wide-ranging tastes in manga, it’s unlikely that you know his work.
If you went to grade school in Illinois in the late 1980s, you may be an exception. In 1985, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Center for East Asian and Pacific Studies, published Glimpses of Japan Through Comics, Caron Allen’s curriculum unit for grades 4-9, illustrated with Saigan’s comics. His manga are characterised by keen observation of ordinary life and a sense of nostalgia for the Showa era of his youth. This made his work, like that of Sazae-san creator Machiko Hasegawa, an invaluable source of information on the everyday realities of Japanese life and language, at a time when American children were more likely to experience Japan through animated sci-fi fantasies like Force Five, Robotech and Voltron.
Most Western sources list Saigan’s nostalgic slice-of-life series Sanchome no Yuhi – Yuyake no Uta (Sunset on Third Street) and its animated and movie spinoffs. A few have mentioned his mystery series Kamakura Monogatari (Tales of Kamakura) which won the Grand Prize at the 38th Japan Cartoonist Awards in 2009 – but of titles like Polar Lady, Mysterian, Red Cloud, Dandelion’s Poetry or Judgement Day, I found no trace except in Japanese and Chinese sources.
He was born in 1947 in Setagaya, Toyko, and went to Rikkyo Niiza high school and Rikkyo University, where he joined the Cartoon Research Group. One of his classmates was musical innovator and sometime James Brown collaborator Haruomi “Harry” Hosono. In 1972 he won an award in a contest in Big Comic and launched the professional career that still continues today, eight series and several one-shots and short stories later. In 1974 he began Sunset on Third Street. It’s his biggest hit; it was animated for TV in 27 half hour episodes in 1990, and inspired two live action films. But it’s not the sum total of his career.
There are wonderful things beyond the fields we know.