Garo Exhibit at the Center for Book Arts

April 23rd, 2010

Garo was an experimental, independent manga magazine that ran from 1964-2002. The Center for Book Arts Exhibit covers the first decade of publication.

I attended the exhibit with manga artist Rica Takashima, who provided some interesting perspective on this influential magazine during it’s first decade of existence.

To understand where we are, it’s important to see where we’ve been. The Garo exhibit allows one to see and experience the turbulence of the 1960s and early 70s through the eyes of young Japanese artists. Intensely personally narratives, side-by-side with historical drama and tales of the eerie, provide a fascinating insight into a formative period of independent Japanese manga art.

Rica and I spoke about the magazine and about our lives as we walked around the space.

ELF: What are your impressions of Garo?

RT: I first encountered Garo when I was about 10 years old, in a book store. Manga artist Tsuge Yoshiharu was very popoular at the time, so I wanted to try it. It was very strange and weird – which was attractive to me. I tried to read it, but I couldn’t understand it. I decided to try again in a few years. When I was in middle school, I bought a few issues, but again, I really couldn’t understand it. I tried again in high school, but at that time June magazine was beginning to be published, and I ended up reading that instead. At that time, there was a New Wave in music and also in manga. Punk and New Wave music magazines were strongly linked with manga. Like Nagai Go’s work in Heavy Metal magazine, it shifted the focus of manga into new territory.”

Standing in front of a case that showed covers of the “Legend of Kamui,” we realized that, as groundbreaking as Garo was, we had no idea that it featured “Legend of Kamui” and some of Mizuki Shigeru’s “Kitaro” stories as well as the more well-known gekiga artists like Tatsumi Yoshihiro.

“Because I was so young when I tried to read Garo,” Rica said, as we observed many pages that showed violence against women, “I didn’t understand it, but it scared me.” Even though these manga stories were meant to be seen as non-pori – non-political – as adults we couldn’t fail to see the gender politics built into them.

We looked at stories that chronicled the Vietnam War protests in universities across Japan. “Something always blew the protests up into riots. At the time, I wondered why people couldn’t just calm down a little, but there were riots all the time in the news,” Rica said, pointing out an image that an American might think showed riot police, but in Japan represented the student forces, armed with a sword and wearing a helmet with a face shield. “To me the protests seemed so weird, since the college students were angry about different things, like Vietnam and the American presence in Okinanwa, but they would become the same thing.” We agreed that it’s human nature to conflate issues and anger at change becomes anger at many other things.

There were few women who contributed to Garo and only one regular contributor who was a woman. Both Rica and I noted that sex was a prominent theme – not surprising for a magazine created by young men. But the boy’s club atmosphere began to wear on us, as we realized that stories of female experience were mostly absent. Even in scenes where pro- and anti-Vietnam arguments were presented, the absence of women in the conversation was pretty noticeable. Curator Ryan Holmgren mentions “how, despite its commitment to political activism between 1964 and 1966, its continuing sympathies with the left until about 1970, and its experimentation with form and theme, Garo was highly regressive when it came to gender and sexuality issues, more and more so in the early 70s. “

As Rica and I walked the room for the second time, we talked about how Garo was chronicling what I think of as my “shadow childhood.” These events were all happening, I said as I pointed to a copy of Abandon the Old in Tokyo, while you and I were alive. Watergate, Vietnam….but we were very young, and so while it was always there, we weren’t old enough to understand. These are the stories of the shadows behind our youth. She agreed.

Surrounded by the past, we both are of a mind that that this is the best of all possible times to live – we still have access to the roots of manga, we can enjoy the present and we can look forward to a future of new stories that have yet to be told.

The Garo exhibit was small – but the conversation we had there was huge. If you are at all interested in manga, in independent art, in the way that past and present connect through books, printing and/or art, this exhibit comes highly recommended.

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2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this perspective on the Garo exhibit, Erica — I know it’s one I won’t see elsewhere, even though the folks involved in putting the show together are clearly aware of the absence of female voices. Having Rica’s comments, too, gave me a better understanding of the show’s themes… and makes me feel like less of a hick for finding certain kinds of alt-manga too weird or male to really engage me. Great piece!

  2. @Kate – You should never feel like a hick because something doesn’t touch you. I always adhere to Sturgeon’s law and assume that less than 10% of what I read/see will engage me and the other 90%+ will be filtered out of my brain as “crap.” :-)

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