Thursday, 9 August 2012

Kamui-Den, by Shirato Sanpei (1964-1970)

Shirato Sanpei is often dubbed as the first Marxist mangaka. It is true that his masterpiece, Kamui-Den, whose publication began in the since then very famous magazine Garo in 1964, can be read as a long (6,000 pages) story of class struggle in feudal Japan. All the layers of the Japanese society of the Edo period (1603-1868) are depicted and the numerous injustices of this society are heavily criticised. The social movements of the Edo period are described with much precision and accuracy. We understand quite well the numerous and complex mechanisms in place to maintain an oppressive society: how the Shogun oppresses the warriors (they are obliged to spend every two year in Edo, the capital, so that the Shogun can easily keep an eye on them); how the warriors oppresses the peasants and the pariahs (they do all what they can to increase the division and the hate between peasants and pariahs lest these two classes of poor people join their strengths to overthrow the ruling classes); how the merchants develop their wealth thanks to the weaknesses of this feudal society. Furthermore Kamui-Den was considered by Japanese students in the 1960s as a perfect flagship for the numerous revolts of the time. All this is true.

True but not enough. Kamui-Den and Shirato Sanpei are much more than this. Kamui-Den is a breathtaking, beautifully drawn epic and Shirato Sanpei id one of the greatest manga artist I have ever read.

Kamui-Den is the story of a rural Japanese region during the Edo period (1603-1868). Many characters are involved, from various social classes. The three main ones are Kamui, the pariah, Shôsuke, the very clever son of a domestic in a peasant village and Ryûnishin, the samurai, whose family will be killed as the aftermath of complicated clan struggle. The three of them discover progressively the complexity of the Japanese feudal society and all the injustice it includes. They will have to fight the a prioris of the whole society, including their friends and families, to live the lives they want.

The art is absolutely gorgeous. From magnificent landscapes to various animal scenes, from face-to-face discussions to demonstration scenes, Shirato Sanpei looks very good at drawing absolutely any kind of scenes. Many panels, especially those of fights, are really breathtaking.

In a nutshell, Shirato Sanpei can be considered as a Marxist mangaka. His criticism of social oppression and his description of class struggle are powerful and interesting. But he is much more than this. His art is incredibly good and his storytelling is complex and captivating.


  1. Don't overlook the fact that Shirato had a lot of assistants working with him (the Kana volumes are sadly lacking on context). It's not just him drawing all that. Goseki Kojima (of Lone Wolf & Cub) was one of them. But, I do agree that the art is great, often very classical (Chinese/Japanese) in its appearance, especially in the backgrounds.

    (Also, it's "feudal" in English.)

    1. Thanks for the remark about "feudal".
      It's true that in many mangas such as Kamui-Den, the art is often a collective work.
      I did not know that Goseji Kojima was involved in it but I am not surprised at all.

  2. You're right, Kamui Den is a great manga indeed. The art is gorgeous, like you said, and it changes gradually through the story, becoming more and more realistic (although, I have to say, I like the simplicity of the first volumes better).
    I wrote a short review of Kamui Den on my blog, if you'd like to have a look.