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?