Review of Sayonara Nippon (1977)
Ōtomo Katsuhiro (writer-artist).
Read in 2021.
Read in Japanese in the eponymous 1981 collection.
A professional instructor of judo and karate has gambled his savings trying to make it in New York, but he only barely gets one disciple.
A five-issue series that doesn’t feel finished, or even planned. Perhaps the most representative panel in it comes near the end. The instructor faces off against an American giant, a speed-eater who went to Harvard, over an image from Fritz the Cat (1972). It’s not clear if the Bakshi background is a poster, or graffiti, or an extradiegetic embellishment, but it fits right into this narrative of a poor but colourful New York in the era of urban decay. The instructor and the giant are working for rival fast-food vendors and have both brought hungry homeless people into that rivalry. They do not come to blows. When tensions drop, the instructor asks why the giant can’t get a better job, and the giant gently replies “I’m a homo”.
It’s a story that could have come off of a Frank Zappa album from this era. Like Zappa, Ōtomo toys intelligently with his stereotypes and throws in edgy humour, but Ōtomo is of course more naïve about the local culture. The homeless people act like zombies, as if hunger were their main problem. The martial-arts instructor is poor but tries hard drugs, frustrating the morally superior black kid who is his only disciple. Together they fight off a gang of black rapists. Little is said about race until the instructor takes up the subject of bananas with a stranded Japanese businessman:
That’s what the blacks call us:
Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
We’re jesters to the ruling whites.
And to Americans whose families came here from Japan, you and I are tourists.
This is based in part on a misapprehension that two specific black narcs are robbers. The instructor does end up eating a lot of bananas to pay for his words, but that snippet can be taken as Ōtomo’s thesis, and it’s a dark one. It suits this dirty adult manga.