Thursday, July 22, 2010
Asian Art 4: The Four Immigrants Manga
Henry Kiyama (above) came to San Francisco as an aspiring 19-year-old artist from Japan in 1904. According to writer Frederik Schodt, "Kiyama and his friends did not arrive in San Francisco at a particularly auspicious time. There has always been a cyclical component to American relations with Japan, and 1904 was the beginning of the downside of one such cycle. European and Asian civilizations were for very different reasons both expanding, and in California they met head on and clashed."
Kiyama lived in San Francisco for the next twenty-two years, studying at the San Francisco Art Institute, trying to become a professional artist while working as a houseboy, clerk and a whole host of other jobs. Some things never change. The photo above, by Gabriel Moulin, is of a life drawing class at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1910, with women and men of all races capturing the naked lady, and it just about defines the word "Bohemian."
In 1922, Kiyama went back for a visit to Japan, married, had a daughter, and when the marriage dissolved the next year, he returned to San Francisco. From 1923 until 1937, he lived and worked in both countries, finally getting stuck in his rural hometown of Japan because of World War Two, although he was still dreaming of Paris.
His artistic masterpiece turned out to be a 52-episode comic strip about four Japanese buddies in San Francisco from 1904 to 1924 trying to survive all the disasters befalling them, large and small. These range from the 1906 Great San Francisco Quake, being mugged after a night on the town, World War One, failing miserably as farmworkers, Japanese-American bank failures, the 1919 influenza epidemic, and losing all their money on The Rice of Colusa speculation market. Even with the continuous background of anti-Asian immigrant legislation being passed, the tone throughout is gently comic. However, there are a few funny jabs for every race and class, which gives the tale some of its flavor.
Kiyama's hope was that the work would be published serially on a year-long basis by one of the Japanese-American newspapers in San Francisco or out of New York, but that never happened, so he finally self-published the strips as a book in 1931 in Japan, and then distributed it in San Francisco. The work is bilingual, in a pidgin English when characters are speaking in that language, and fluent Japanese for everything else, though "handwritten in a very old style of Japanese, difficult even for native speakers to read today," according to Frederik Schodt, the San Francisco writer/translator (below right) who stumbled across a copy of the original book hidden in a university library in 1980. It wasn't until 1998 that he finally published a translation with Berkeley's Stone Bridge Press and rescued from complete obscurity one of the most interesting San Francisco documents ever created.
Schodt writes in his illuminating foreword, "Ultimately, reading the story of Henry Kiyama and his friends is like listening in on a nearly private conversation. Unlike history books written by second- or third-generation descendants of immigrants, or by historians in universities, or even unlike accounts by Japanese who went back to Japan and wrote about their experience for the Japanese market, "The Four Immigrants" is written by a first-generation Japanese immigrant for other Japanese first-generation immigrants living in California."
The only book I can think to compare it with is the early "Tales of the City" serials by Armistead Maupin, but this has the additional attraction of drawings. Its wonderful mixture of humor and sharp observation ends up as a perfectly bittersweet documentation of San Francisco and a group of friends at a moment in time. I can't recommend it highly enough.