A huge number of manga creators are unknown, or little known, in European languages. Juzo Yamasaki is one of them. He’s a writer who creates but doesn’t draw, and works mostly in sports and humorous manga, so he’s almost invisible to fantasy-fixated, artist-led English-speaking readers. He is footnoted in some Western sources for a long-running fishing manga and movie franchise, his work with Mitsuru Adachi or his recent involvement in the protests over changes in Japan’s pornography laws, but his solid career in men’s and boys’ manga is largely unnoticed.
I picked Yamasaki’s name at random from a list of Shogakukan authors. Finding out about Ryuhei Saigan for an earlier post was interesting, and I wanted to explore some more, so I let serendipity be my guide. The deal was sealed by a search engine translation that rendered his name as “Masaki and Elephant Audio.” His is the story of a life and a body of work that highlights many negative facets of postwar Japan – the hard grind of the everyday worker, the paternalistic tyranny of big corporations, the racial tensions, the constant sense of insecurity and powerlessness – but also accentuates the positive aspects of change, the security of tradition and routine, the joy of enduring friendship, and an ability to relish whatever happiness comes to hand.
Yamasaki was born on 19 June 1941, in the town of Miyakonojo in Miyazaki prefecture, where his family owned a large stationery store. He studied drama and literature at Waseda University, where his classmates included actress Miyoko Akaza and Koshiro Matsumoto, prince of an ancient kabuki dynasty and now an international stage star. “Resident alien” Korean director and documentary-maker Deok-Soo Oh, another Waseda classmate, is still a close friend.
Moving to Tokyo after graduation, Yamasaki worked at Toei as an assistant producer and writer for ten years. As Makoto Yamasaki he wrote for shows like tokusatsu hit Captain Ultra and detective dramas Lone Wolf and Key Hunter, which starred Sonny Chiba. Oh also joined Toei after a stint as assistant director with movie genius Nagisa Oshima, and the friends both worked on Key Hunter. Like Hayao Miyazaki, who had been born in the same year and had also joined Toei on graduation, Yamasaki and Oh were active trade unionists and were laid off in the company’s long-running dispute with the unions. In 1979, Yamasaki switched to writing comics.
His best-known work, for which Kenichi Kitami provides the pictures, is Fishing Fool’s Diary (Tsuri Baka Nisshi.) It’s the story of a humble drone in Japan’s corporate machine whose life is given meaning, as well as comedy and drama, by his love of fishing. Thanks to his hobby, he often manages to resolve everyday corporate problems in unexpected, not to say absurd, ways.
Planned as a one-shot, the story proved popular with readers so the duo kept it going. It won a prize in the 28th Shogakukan Manga Awards in 1982, and is still running today. The first movie based on the series appeared in 1988. The twentieth, shot in Hokkaido, was released last year. Fishing Fool’s Diary was animated for TV in 2002, with Tetsuo Imazawa directing, and has even spawned (pardon the fishy pun) computer games.
Yamasaki loves fishing, but it isn’t his only subject. The Shogakukan website has eight close-spaced pages with 147 volumes of his work in print in various editions. He worked with Kitami on baseball comedy Satchmo and romantic comedy Beloved Chiipappa (Aishi no Chiipappa), and with him and other artists on Fuku-chan, a tale of Heisei-era politics, love and food. He and Kenji Okamura produced rugby manga This Side Up (Tenchimuyo), the story of a boy struggling to pay off his dead father’s debts, for Shonen Sunday in 1985.
A shared passion for baseball led to Mitsuri Adachi drawing several Yamasaki projects in the 1970s, including Crybaby Koshien (Nakimushi Koshien) and Gamushara. Adachi won Shogakukan’s shonen and shojo manga awards for Miyuki and Touch in the same year that Yamasaki and Kitami won the general award for Fishing Fool’s Diary.
Yamasaki has moved out of Tokyo to Urayasu, in Chiba, nearer to good fishing spots. The twentieth Fishing Fool’s Diary movie, released in 2009, is set to be the last, but his fondness for the sport that made his name in manga remains. His rich and varied creative life is a reminder of the multitude of talented and successful artists still waiting to be ‘discovered’ by manga lovers outside Japan.