The Attraction of Ippei Okamoto

Einstein by Okamoto

Asked about his influences, Osamu Tezuka mentioned manga creator Ippei Okamoto. Okamoto’s works, and those of his older contemporary Rakuten Kitazawa, were on the shelves of the Tezuka family home during his childhood, along with other adult manga acquired by Tezuka’s father Yutaka. They formed part of young Osamu’s reading, alongside the children’s manga Yutaka sometimes brought home from Osaka on his return from work.

But what was it about Okamoto’s work that triggered young Osamu’s imagination? Tezuka had obviously considered the matter deeply; he wrote about perceiving the differences between Okamoto’s and Kitazawa’s style and approach, even as a child.  So I began to look for information, and the more I learned about Okamoto, the more I could see how his life and work might have inspired a curious, clever little boy, growing up in a sophisticated home where images of the world beyond Japan were embraced and celebrated.

Okamoto was a twentieth-century Renaissance man, with an intellect, talent and attitude too big to be contained in a single box. He was widely travelled abroad, in Europe and the USA. He loved comics so much that he brought a clutch of them back from his travels in America, persuading the Asahi Graph (a supplement to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper) and Fujokai (Women’s World) magazine to publish works such as Mutt & Jeff and Bringing Up Father. Yet he was a classically trained artist who could paint in Asian and European styles. His first job after graduation was painting theatrical sets and decorations, giving him a link to the world of musical theatre that fascinated Tezuka from a very early age.

Kyu Sakamoto in the 1963 movie of Okamoto’s novel

He accompanied Albert Einstein on his lecture tour of Japan in 1922-23, and illustrated the collected edition of Einstein’s lectures and addresses. He interviewed participants at the National High School Baseball Championships at Koshien Stadium in 1929, and Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, for Budo magazine in November 1933.  Director Kenji Mizoguchi filmed one of his comics as Uchen-puchan (No Money, No Fight) at Nikkatsu in 1925. He wrote novels, one of which, Katana wo nuite (Pulling the Sword), was filmed three times in his lifetime, and again fifteen years after his death with Sixties singing superstar Kyu Sakamoto in the leading role.

Okamoto also incorporated film and literary techniques into his comics. His 1917 manga Onna Hyakumenso (100 Faces of Woman) is actually drawn as a film strip, with ‘perforations’ along the edges, and interpersed with short texts like intertitle frames from a silent movie. Okamoto called it an eiga shosetsu - literally, a cinema novel. To the cinema-obsessed Tezuka, already interested in cross-fertilisation between art forms themselves, and not merely their narrative content, this approach must have been attractive.

Okamoto’s political and satirical works were widely praised, and his writing was admired for its wit and elegance. He was a multimedia superstar, part of a smart literary set, contributing to influential critical magazines like Bungei Shunju and Kaizo. People said of him that you might not know the Prime Minister’s name but you’d know Ippei Okamoto. And as Tezuka became a teenager, with a teenager’s interest in a different kind of sophisticated knowledge, Okamoto’s rackety and rather scandalous life, drinking with artists and writers, living outside marriage with a poet, heiress and Buddhist scholar, must have had its own allure.

Okamoto was also a critic and theorist. He had produced an influential book, Shin manga no kakikata (How To Draw New Manga) in the year of Tezuka’s birth, 1928, differentiating past from present and proposing guidelines for future manga. He was engaged in the practical promotion of manga and manga artists, having co-founded the Tokyo Mangakai, the first manga artists’ association, in 1915, and helped to develop it into the Nihon Mangakai in 1923. In 1926 he set up his own school for aspiring manga artists, the Ippei Juku. As Natsu Onoda Power points out in her fascinating work God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga, Tezuka recounts some of Okamoto’s ideas and borrows some techniques in his later works, including his own Manga no kakikata.

Okamoto was not just a comic artist and writer, not even just a manga kisha, or illustrator-journalist. He was an accomplished, sophisticated man of the world, at home with fine art, science, sport, new media and popular culture, able to move across different disciplines with ease and style. The whole Okamoto package – cultural breadth, style, modernity, sophistication and fame – was a heady brew. There is more to inspiring a creative artist, especially one with Tezuka’s early breadth of interest, than simply producing art.

Iwanami Bunko published a book on Okamoto’s work in 1995. Okamoto Ippei Manga Manbunshu (Collection of Manga and Manbun by Ippei Okamoto) is written by Isao Shimizu. Outside Japan, fleeting references to Okamoto crop up in fine art journals, library and auction house catalogues, Swedish, French and Chinese magazines and scholarly papers from all over the world. Okamoto may be a shadowy figure to many Western fans, but with just a little research he emerges as a man whose wide interests, broad-ranging career and restless intelligence helped open the door to a more expansive, adventurous modern era of manga growing from the devastation and upheaval of the past.

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5 thoughts on “The Attraction of Ippei Okamoto

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