Japanese Elements in Hong Kong Comics: History, Art and Industry
Japanese comics (manga) are extremely popular and influential in Asia. Asian editions of Japanese comics have dominated the comic market and many Asian comic artists draw comics in the Japanese fashion (Ng, 2002: 30-33; Ng 2000: 44-56). Hong Kong is one of the few places in Asia that has developed its own comic tradition. In particular, its kung fu (Chinese martial arts) comics are very popular among Chinese readers in Asia. Although Hong Kong comics are quite different from their Japanese counterparts, they have long used Japanese comics as main references in terms of story and plot, character design as well as drawing. In the making of their Hong Kong-style comics, Hong Kong comic artists have incorporated Japanese elements in their works. Japanese comics also have an impact on the production and consumption of Hong Kong comics. This article investigates the impact of Japanese comics on the art and industry of Hong Kong comics from historical and cultural perspectives.
Japanese Influence on Hong Kong Spy and Sci-fi Comics in the 1960s
Comics became popularized in Hong Kong in the 1960s (Cheng, 1992). Early Hong Kong comic artists were under very strong Chinese influence in style and format. They had limited access to Japanese comics and thus Japanese influence on their works was indirect and superficial. In the late 1960s, some Hong Kong comic artists used pirated Taiwanese editions of Japanese comics and Japanese children programs (e.g., Utltraman and Astroboy) broadcast on Hong Kong television as references. Inspired by Japanese comics, they began to construct longer stories, use cinematic angels more often and add Japanese cartoon characters in their comics.
The two most popular genres in Hong Kong comics in the 1960s were spy stories and sci-fi adventures about anti-Japanese or anti-gang heroes. Uncle Cai (Caishu by Xu Quanwen), a story about an anti-Japanese spy, was the best-selling title in the 1960s. It is said that the portrait of Uncle Cai as a spy who used most advanced weapons was inspired by Japanese spy comics and James Bond movies (Wong, 2002: 111). Xu Qiang, the younger brother of Xu Quanwen, was also famous for drawing spy comics. His popular works published in the late 1960s (such as The Mighty Pen [Shenbi] and The Mighty Dog [Shenquan]) demonstrate stronger Japanese favor than his brother’s. Like many Japanese comics and children programs, the protagonist of his works is usually a boy who fights against the evils with the help from a superhero. Interestingly enough, the superhero in Xu Qiang’s comics is Ultraman, a popular character in Japanese children programs and comics. Hong Kong experienced an Ultraman craze in the late 1960s. Ultraman became the most popular children program on Hong Kong television and some cinemas featured Ultraman movies every weekend morning. In order to boost sales, many Hong Kong comics added Ultraman to their stories. Since the concept of copyright was not established in the 1960s, the use of popular foreign characters (such as Ultraman, Superman and Batman) in Hong Kong comics was very common.
Like spy comics, many early sci-fi comics in Hong Kong featured Japanese characters. Huang Yulang used Japanese characters in his two popular sci-fi comics, The Son of Ultraman (Chaoren zhi zi, 1969) and The Junior Mighty Fighter (Xiaomoshen, 1969). The former was a relatively faithful Hong Kong comic edition of the Ultraman television drama, whereas the latter was influenced by Japanese animated series [such as The Iron Robot #28 (Tetsujin 28, by Yokoyama Mitsuteru)], children programs and samurai dramas. (Figure 1) Likewise, Dong Fangyong’s Scientific Robot Boy (Kexue xiaojinggang, 1966) borrows heavily from Astroboy (Tetsuwan Atomu, by Tetsuka Osamu) and Big Iron Robot #28 in character design and storyline (Wong 1999: 103). Another sci-fi comic artist, He Rijun, created a number of comics (such as The Atomic Seven and The Space Seven) about seven heroes fighting against the evils. This formula was obviously influenced by the Japanese movie, The Seven Samurai (1954, by Kurosawa Akira) and the Japanese comic, The Wild Seven (1969, by Mochizuki Mikiya).
Figure 1: Hong Kong comics of the late 1960s frequently used Japanese character.
Girls’ comics (shojo manga) also appeared in Hong Kong in the late 1960s. Li Huizhen created a very popular humorous comic for females, Miss. 13 Dots (Shisandain, 1969). Her drawings of big eyes, long legs and trendy fashion were influenced by Japanese girls’ comics. Li was a big fan of Japanese girls’ comics and fashion dolls by which she was inspired (Wong 2003).
Japanese Impact on Hong Kong Kung Fu Comics, 1970s-1980s
Huang Yulang, who achieved some success in sci-fi comics in the late 1960s, became the most dominant figure in Hong Kong comic industry in the 1970s. Regarded as the “Godfather of Hong Kong Comics,” Huang is credited for forging the Hong Kong-style kung fu comics which are different from Japanese, American or Chinese comics (Lent, 1999: 108-114). His Little Rascals (Siulauman, 1971-1975) set the model for Hong Kong-style kung fu comics. Its story is about a group of seven unemployed youngsters from the bottom of the society who use their martial arts to fight against gangsters in different districts in Hong Kong. The rise of kung fu comics was triggered by Bruce Lee and the worldwide kung fu craze. In terms of storyline and style, it is likely that Huang used Mochizuki Mikiya’s Wild 7 as a major reference. Wild 7 tells the story of seven young convicts in the death row who were released by the government to become special forces to destroy evil organizations. Unlike the Little Rascals, Wild 7 is a James Bond-like story in which people use modern weapons and most of the heroes sacrifice their lives for the cause. Mochizuki’s another work, Secret Detective JA, also had an impact on Wong’s Little Rascals. Mochizuki’s realistic style, in particular his drawing of violence scenes, inspired Huang (Wong, 1999: 21).
In 1975, the Hong Kong government issued the Indecent Publication Law to regulate excessive violence and sex in publications. Little Rascals was renamed School of Dragon and Tiger (Longfumen, 1975-present) to have a new start. The background of the story became increasingly internationalized. Having swept out bad elements in Hong Kong, the heroes find Japanese yakuza (gangsters), samurai, ninja and right-wing organizations their new enemies. The “righteous Chinese versus evil Japanese” scenario became the formula for Hong Kong kung fu comics. School of Dragon and Tiger had been the most popular Hong Kong comic in the late 1970s and early 1980s until the publication of The Chinese Hero (Zhonghua yingxiong, 1983-present) in 1983 by Ma Yingcheng, another prominent comic master who defined Hong Kong-style kung fu comic along with Huang.
Ma was the most popular comic artist in Hong Kong in the 1980s. His Chinese Hero sold 200,000 copies per issue in its heydays which is still the highest sale record in the history of Hong Kong comics. Following the kung fu comic formula set by Huang, the main storyline of Chinese Hero is about Chinese martial arts heroes against evil Japanese organizations. (Figure 2)
Figure 2: “Chinese Vs. Japanese” formula in Hong Kong kung fu comics
Ma was a big fan of Japanese comics and learned from Japanese comics in his creation of Hong Kong-style kung fu comics. In the last pages of each issue of Chinese Hero, he usually introduced the techniques and characteristics of his favorite Japanese comic artists. Chinese Hero, a work that revolutionized Hong Kong kung fu comics in terms of drawing and storyline, was under strong Japanese influence. Ma was indebted to Ikegami Ryoichi and Matsumori Tadashi for drawing and to Koike Kazuo for story and plot. Ikegami is Ma’s favorite comic artist. The realistic and delicate drawing of Asian faces and fighting scenes as well as the use of colors and shading in Ikegami’s Crying Freeman and Men’s Gang (Otokugumi) have had an impact on Chinese Hero. In his autobiography, Ma expresses his admiration for Ikegami over the pages. He said: “When I first joined the comic business, I admired one Japanese comic artist, Ikegami Ryoichi. Many of my works have been under his influence. My wish since my childhood was to shake hand and discuss comics freely with him. I sent almost all my published works to Japan to Ikegami (Ma, 1990: 39, 95).” When Ma visited Japan, he made a trip to meet Ikegami. Another Japanese comic artist who influenced Ma is Matsumori Tadashi, Ikegami’s close friend and partner. Ma learned from Matsumori’s Kenshin (God of Fist) in drawing fist fighting. Ma also admitted that in his early years, he used Matsumori’s works as references in constructing a story and drawing the background and action (Ma, 1990: 45). In storytelling and character development, Ma was deeply influenced by Koike Kazuo, the scriptwriter for Ikegami and Matsumori and the mentor of Hara Tetsuo and Takahashi Rumiko. Koike is skillful in controlling the pace, creating climaxes and adding humanistic and philosophical dimensions to fighting stories. Influenced by Koike, unlike most Hong Kong comic artists who develop the story while drawing, Ma had the entire story and details of Chinese Hero in mind before he drew. He even hired a scriptwriter, Liu Dingjian, to help him construct the story and plot. Like Koike, Ma adds humanistic touches to fighting stories and creates a climax at the end of each episode.
Huang and Ma founded two of the largest comic production companies in Hong Kong, namely Dynasty and Jonesky (Tianxia). Huang and Ma, together with a large number of contracted comic artists under them, have become the main force in producing kung fu comics.
Japanization of New-Generation Hong Kong
Comics,1990s to Early 2000s
New-generation comic artists in Hong Kong grow up with Japanese comics and animation and thus have received more Japanese influence than their predecessors like Huang and Ma. Situ Jianqiao and Li Zhida, the two most promising young comic artists in Hong Kong since the 1990s, are indebted to Japanese comics. Situ is perhaps the most Japanese of all young comic artists in Hong Kong. He successfully mixes Japanese sci-fi comics with Hong Kong kung fu comics. He is a big fan of two Japanese sci-fi comic artists, Shiro Masamune (the artist of Ghost in the Shell) and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu (the artist of Gundam). Seeing himself as a student of Shiro and Yasuhiro’s, Situ has sent most of his comics to Japan for their comments. Influenced by Japanese sci-fi comics, Situ creates characters with a cool personality who live in a postmodern, futuristic, anachronistic or virtual world. Passion and romance are subtly depicted. He said: “I am drawing sci-fi pieces and therefore I do not focus on romance. Perhaps I have been so deeply influenced by the Japanese animation, Gundam and as a result my depiction of romance is very subtle (Xie, 2002: 56).” Situ’s early work, The Legend of the God of Gambling (Dusheng zhuanzi) borrows heavily from Dragonball and Ultraman in character design and ideas. Its protagonist looks like the Money King (Son Goku) in Dragonball. Like the Dragonball and Ultraman, the protagonist in The Legend of the God of Gambling can transform or upgrade himself to a more powerful stage to combat. His most famous works, Supergod Z: Cyber Weapon (Chaoshen Z, 1993) and King of Fighters Z (Quanhuang Z, 1996) are adapted from popular Japanese video games such as King of Fighters and Street Fighters (Dai Ajia kyoei domin, 1996: 253-254). His recent works such as Heavenly Book of the Six Ways (Liudao tianshu, 1998) and Legend of the Eight Deities (Baxian dao, since 2001) mix Chinese martial arts stories with Taoist and Buddhist folklores. Their stories and presentations are inspired by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu’s Gundam and Arion. Influenced by recent Japanese popular comics [like The Extreme Journey to the West (Saiyuki) and The Legend of Chinese Deities (Fujin engi)] that turn Chinese classics into modern or surrealistic stories, all Chinese deities in Situ’s two works are drawn like modern bishonen (beautiful young boys) with slim body and trendy fashion.
Li Zhida is perhaps the most creative Hong Kong comic artist in recent years. His comic style is very unique. Unlike other Hong Kong comic artists, he usually draws his comics in black and white. Influenced by Japanese comics and novels, his comics are the combination of Otomo Katsuhiro’s drawings and post-modern feel, Mochizuki Minetaro’s and Murakami Haruki’s imaginative, unconventional and discursive plots as well as Maruo Suehiro’s sense of craziness.
While Situ and Li have skillfully incorporated Japanese elements into their works, not a few Hong Kong comic artists copy from popular Japanese comics. For example, a considerable number of Hong Kong comics about car racing (e.g., GT Racing), soccer (e.g., Monk Soccer) and yoyo (e.g., The King of Yoyo and The Star of Yoyo) published since 2000 are modified from the best-selling Japanese comics, Initial D, Captain Tsubasa and Beyblade respectively. Hot Japanese video games are particularly popular for adaptation. The two fighting games, Street Fighters and King of Fighters, have been adapted into more than ten comics in Hong Kong in the past few years. Some even have acquired the copyrights from Japan. Other Japanese games such as Biohazard and Gouki also have been adapted into Hong Kong comics. (Figure 3)
Figure 3: Hong Kong comics adapted from Japanese video games
With the decline of Hong Kong comics (in particular the kung fu genre) since the mid-1990s, Hong Kong comic artists have begun to experiment new genres, such as shojo (girls’) comics (e.g., Feel 100%), erotic comics (e.g., Haunted Nightclub) and scatological comics (e.g., Goal! Invincible!) during the past few years. Since Japanese comics are strong in these genres and naturally have become the models for Hong Kong artists. (Figure 4)
Figure 4: New genres in Hong Kong comics
Many Japanese methods in drawing and presentation have become clichés in Hong Kong comics. Here are some Japanese methods used widely in Hong Kong comics. First, balloons are used for dialogue. Different shapes show the loudness and the emotion of the speaker. A round and smooth balloon represents a peaceful mind, whereas an angled balloon implies that the speaker get excited or angry. Second, the size of the protagonist suddenly turn small and distorted (such as big head and small body), a technique used for humorous effects, the so-called “cute version or Q version,” is applied in Hong Kong comics. Third, the use of sound to depict activities and emotions is a characteristic of Japanese comics. Katakana is used for sounds in Japanese comics, whereas a single Chinese character or sometime an English pronunciation is often used in Hong Kong comics. Fourth, in drawing the facial expression, Japanese methods are applied. For instance, few drops of sweat on one’s face express anxiety and black lines on the head show embarrassment.
Elements of Japanese comics penetrate different forms of comic industry and culture in Hong Kong. In the comic business, Japanese influence is strong in character goods, comic rental and publication.
Japanese cartoon characters are extremely popular. Many Hong Kong companies have acquired the copyright from Japan to use Japanese cartoon characters in their products. For example, Maxim’s Cakes and Bakery uses Hello Kitty in its cakes and mooncakes. Its rival, Saint Honore Cake Shop, uses Sailormoon and Digimon, in its mooncakes. The success of Japanese character goods companies, such as Sanrio and San-X, has stimulated Hong Kong businessmen to establish their own brands. McMug, Pork Chop and Friends, Kawaii Tenkoku (Lovely Paradise) and Codebar are such examples. To a certain extent, they are all under Japanese influence. For example, Kawaii Tenkoku sees Sanrio its model and it presents itself like a Japanese company. In addition to the Japanized company name, the characters created by Kawaii Tenkoku carry Japanese names and their designs are very Japanese. No wonder some people mistake it for a Japanese company.
The publication of Hong Kong comics also sees Japanese influence. Hong Kong comics are usually published once a week, about 30-40 pages printed colorfully on B5 size papers. In recent years, some Hong Kong comics have adopted the Japanese comic book format, published once a month about 200 pages black and white on B6 size papers (about half the size of a B5 paper). For example, the Freeman Publisher published most of its Hong Kong comics in the Japanese format. Many other Hong Kong publishers use the Japanese format in the publication of special collectors’ editions of Hong Kong comics.
Various forms of Japanese comic culture, such as book rental, dojinshi (amateur comic publications) and cosplay (costume play or dressing up like comic characters), have also been introduced to Hong Kong. Comic rental business emerged in the 1980s and now Hong Kong has more than 200 comic rental shops that carry mostly Japanese comics. Some of these shops are comic cafes (where customers can have a drink while reading their comics) and comic internet bar (where customers can read comics on the web or engage in on-line entertainment). Dojinshi and cosplay appeared in Hong Kong in the 1980s and early 1990s respectively and they have become popular activities among comic lovers. Every year, hundreds of dojinshi artists and cosplayers participate in comic conventions and festivals such as Comic World (twice a year by SE Co. Ltd, a Japanese company) and Comic Market (annually by the Hong Kong Comics Association). Most universities in Hong Kong have comic groups to promote dojinshi and cosplay. Like Japanese publishers, Hong Kong publishers also look for talents in dojinshi. For example, Sun Junwei, a rising star in Hong Kong comics, was discovered in dojinshi by Citicomics, the largest comic publisher in Hong Kong. He was even sent to Japan for training before his debut.
To conclude, this study shows that Hong Kong comics are not immune to Japanese influence. In fact, the history, art, industry and culture of Hong Kong comics have all been under the spell of the Japanese. Instead of blindly coping from Japanese comics, most Hong Kong comic artists skillfully and selectively incorporate some Japanese elements into their works. Japanese elements have enriched but not replaced local elements in Hong Kong comics. Hong Kong comics still have a lot of things to learn from the Japanese. In particular, when Hong Kong artists want to draw something beyond the kung fu genre, Japanese comics can provide valuable references. Heretoforth, the relationship between Japanese comics and Hong Kong comics has been largely one-way traffic. However, we expect more interactions and even collaborations in the future. In recent years, works of several Hong Kong comic artists have drawn the attention of the Japanese. For example, Li Zhiqing, Li Zhida and Situ Jianqian were invited to publish their works in Japan. The application of traditional Chinese ink painting techniques by Li Zhiqing is particularly well received in Japan. His Sanguozhi (Legend of the Three Kingdom, 1992), jointly published by Citicomics in Hong Kong and Scholars in Japan, is the first Hong Kong-Japan collaboration in comics. The famous Japanese comic scriptwriter, Terashima Yu, provides the story and plot for it. Li’s Sanguozhi has been a big business success in both Japan and Hong Kong. (Figure 5) He has also been commissioned to draw the jackets and illustrations for comics and novels in Japan.
Figure 5 : Sanguozhi, a work of Hong Kong-Japan collaboration
This kind of collaboration benefits both parties and generates new ideas, techniques and business opportunities. Nowadays, Japanese comic industry is at the crossroad and is in need of stimulation and innovation. Perhaps the Japanese can find inspiration from foreign comics. Hopefully, more and more Hong Kong comics can be introduced to Japan and one day we will talk about Hong Kong elements in Japanese comics.