When the Japanese Army Was Welcomed as Liberators

Other people’s delusions can be revealing, especially when they have an unsettling resemblance to our own mental habits. The latest issue of the avant-garde graphic arts anthology Kramers Ergot features a brilliant and disturbing war comic book done in 1937 by master Japanese cartoonist Shuiho Tagawa (1899-1989). (A sample panel is here).

The story, which appeared in the magazine Shonen Kurabu (“Boys’ Club”), shows a band of brave and cuddly Japanese dog soldiers (the “Rabid Dog Troops”) defeating an army of cowardly Chinese pigs. The dogs are spunky and heroic (one of them shouts out during battle that “it would be an honor to be shot.”) The pigs are disorganized and quick to surrender.

As a work of art, this war comic is beguilingly alien. The colors aren’t the garishly vibrant ones we would expect. Instead, everything is pastel and pale. The dogs and pigs move with a dream-like awkwardness, as if they’re immersed in water. Even the scenes of violent battle have an oddly Zen flavor, the carnage looking static and timeless. The influence of traditional Japanese printmaking is everywhere present. Militarist and racist in message though the story is, the art has a gentleness that sets it apart from the fascist aesthetic. It is this radical tension between form and content that gives the comic its unexpected power. 

A shock of recognition comes at the end when we see a vision of life after the war, with the Chinese civilian hogs happily accepting the occupation government set up by their canine masters. “Now that the shogun has fled, we can live in harmony,” one civilians says. “With the Rabid Dog Troop’s protection, our country will finally have good politics,” another pig says.

In 1937, the Japanese invading forces expected the Chinese people to welcome them as liberators. Were their delusions any crazier than our own fantasies of benevolent global hegemony and liberal imperialism?

7 thoughts on “When the Japanese Army Was Welcomed as Liberators

  1. Great article. I definitely felt that shock of recognition you describe upon reading that story.

    I have shown the story reprinted in Kramers Ergot to a number of visitors and all have been fascinated, including people who barely ever look at a comic book or comic strip. I hope someday we see more material from this artist reprinted. Both the content and style were really something to see.

  2. I would point out that Norakuro began serialization in the magazine Shounen Kurabu (“Boys’ Club”) in January 1931, some nine months before the Mukden (Manchurian) Incident. Initially it was a simple comedy about an incompetent dog who joins the dog army and makes one absurd mistake after another. The story had no connection with the real world. The dog armies first foes were the monkey army. (Whereas in English we say two adversaries “fight like cats and dogs,” in Japan they say they “fight like dogs and monkeys.”) The series was wildly popular with elementary-school boys, though, and after Japan’s invasion of China intensified, the story was turned into a surrealistic real-time account of the invasion as you’ve described. Chinese are depicted as pigs, “Manchurians” are depicted as sheep (Get it? Sheep needing the guidance of dogs?), and Soviets are depicted, of course, as devious, interfering bears. After the “success” of the invasion, however, it became awkward trying to depict the Chinese–now ostensibly “allies”–as pigs, and the series was ended in the October issue of 1941–just a couple of months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  3. Hi Matt,
    Thanks for the interesting and useful contextual information about the Norakuro series. It makes sense that the characters weren’t originally designed to be propaganda — they don’t look like they were.

  4. I think imperialism has a kind of timeless quality—-the same dreams, the same assumptions, the same kind of mistakes, and the same inevitable fall from glory. Seems to hold good regardless of the historical particulars!

  5. Matt really hit upon the historical accuracy of Norakuro; it was meant initially for the author to make a career for himself, using his experiences in war and his connections to Japanese stage comedy as a base for his story. I would almost argue that Norakuro was a faux-first-person story at first, as both the author and main character remained jovial during times of shattered childhood. By the time 1937 came around, yes, the story became the Japan vision of war in China and was even translated into Chinese for the mainland.

    It’s a fascinating comic; I’m stunned that English-language books continue to glance o the prewar comics as being influential on the postwar creators.

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