by Gajo Sakamoto; adapted by Maki Hakui and Sunsuke Nakazawa
published by Presspop; $29.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
According to translator Sunsuke Nakazawa’s essay, Tank Tankuro is “still one of the best known characters of pre-war manga.” The purpose of making Tank Tankuro available in English was to show American fans that manga was a vibrant, evolving art form before Tezuka. While Tezuka may have given shape and direction to manga after World War II, he did not create the medium ex nihilo. The god of manga was building upon a foundation laid by pioneers like Gajo Sakamoto.
Most modern fans will find both the Tank Tankuro manga and its eponymous main character to be odd creatures. Sakamoto describes Tank as “a human inside an iron ball”, and that’s exactly what he looks like. The iron ball surrounding Tank has many holes, and from them, he can produce hands, legs, propellers, airplane wings, guns, bombs, etc. Like Bugs Bunny, Tank seems to have any item at his disposal. The only requirement is his desire to call it forth.
The manga was written for pre-school children. However, like many kids’ stories from earlier generations (e.g. the Grimm brothers), there is no shortage of violence. Tank loves to fight. The first two stories have Tank fighting monsters and villains he encounters on his travels. The rest of the book is Tank fighting in the Great War. There are lots of bloodless battle scenes, but it’s clear that people and animals are dying. By today’s standards, this book is clearly PG-13.
Another word of warning to modern readers: Sakamoto was a Japanese nationalist. Tank Tankuro is filled with racist stereotypes of Chinese soldiers. The ‘official’ nationality of the Tank’s enemies is never mentioned, but the designs of their uniforms and clothes makes it clear they are Chinese. There is also a lot of flag waving and shouts of “Banzai!” Students of history that know about the horrors of Japan’s occupation of China will find this unsettling, to say the least.
To say Sakamoto is highly imaginative as a storyteller is putting it mildly. It’s not hard to see the appeal of Tank Tankuro for kids. The manga has a maniac energy that draws the reader in. Tank might enjoy a good brawl, but he is fighting for the good guys. The battles are chaotic, with enemies and weapons appearing randomly. You can’t really describe the plot; it will only make sense within the context of the story. Needless to say, you’re never bored.
The art is deceptively crude. The characters look like they were designed by a five-year-old. However, the visual storytelling is highly effective. Sakamoto’s drawings are kinetic; each page is bursting with action. The art is also very upbeat. Tank and his friends are always smiling regardless of what is going on. It’s done mostly in black, white, and red with other colors occasionally showing up as highlights.
Presspop has included two works in this single-volume release. The first is the only collection of Tank Tankuro stories printed in Japan. It’s essentially the first two years of the manga. The second work is a special supplemental booklet that appeared in the April 1935 issue of the magazine Tank Tankuro was serialized in, Yonen Club.
Presspop has done a wonderful job with the packaging of Tank Tankuro. It’s a beautiful hardcover book that comes in a thick pressboard slipcase. The cream-colored pages give the book the appropriate time-aged feel. The presentation and price point tells you that Presspop knows this manga is only going to appeal to the most hardcore manga fans and libraries.
Thankfully, Presspop has included three excellent essays in the back of the book. The first is by Sakamoto himself about how he created Tank Tankuro. The second is by Sakamoto’s son and talks about his father’s life and his memories of his father. The most shocking comment is, “As his son, I never found him to have a sense of humor.” You would never guess that from Tank Tankuro. The final essay is a brief history of the pre-World War II era by Nakazawa. This essay is essential for understanding the manga within its original historical context. I began the book by reading these first, and it helped me appreciate the manga much more as I was reading it. I recommend everyone do the same.
Tank Tankuro is going to have a very limited appeal. Only manga fans deeply interested in the history of the form are going to want to read this book. Fans of classic comic strips also might enjoy this book, since you can tell that Sakamoto was influenced by comic strips from the 1920s. For this limited readership, Presspop has done us a great service by giving a taste of the great diversity of manga. I can only fervently pray this does well enough to encourage them to translate more pre-World War II manga. You can read an eight page preview of Tank Tankuro at The Comics Journal website.