Behind the “Legend of Kamui” — Sampei Shirato

In a recent issue of Nichi Bei Weekly, I review the live action film adaptation of the “Kamui” manga series, a project that brings the work of Sanpei Shirato together with Kankuro Kudo and Yoichi Sai.

The film, which was pretty ok, will be released on dvd and bluray on Dec. 28, conveniently timed so that you cannot buy it as a Christmas gift. Between now and that date  I plan to do a quick post on each of these people, starting with this one about Shirato.

I don’t have much info that isn’t already in his wiki entry, but he’s a quick rundown of why he’s important.

Shirato’s left-wing political views led him to help found, with Katsuichi Nagai, the “Garo” comic anthology magazine in 1964. The son of an activist and artist, who was photographed with the mutilated corpse of slain political prisoner Takiji Kobayashi, Shirato initially used “Garo” as an “antiwar, pro-direct democracy political magazine for elementary and middle school children,” as Ryan Holmberg explains in this excellent piece. The anthology eventually became a place for any artist who wanted to do formally or thematically experimental work, attracting artists like Yoshihiro Tatsumi. It also became a symbol of the student counter-culture movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

“Kamui” was by far the most successful of all serials published in “Garo.” As an adventure story with adult content and themes, it filled a void in the hearts of many Japanese comic book fans who had outgrown the works Osamu Tezuka. “Kamui” was a mainstream hit, begetting a hit anime that aired Sundays at 6:30 p.m. As evidenced by the opening theme, which can be viewed on youtube, it featured graphic violence and harsh philisophical themes. In some ways, it can be seen as the work that forced manga and anime to “grow up.” Even Tezuka himself had to react, creating gritty adult manga of his own, and his own gekiga anthology magzine, COM.

For the most part, “Kamui” is not available in the U.S. Some of the manga series was  translated by Viz, becoming their first hit. The live-action film will be released on U.S. DVD. But that’s about it. Interestingly, like many anime properties, the show was broadcast dubbed in Mexico. I’ve always wondering why Mexico and other Latin American countries got anime series long before we did. I have some theories, but that’s a post for another time.

About Ben Hamamoto

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media's YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei Weekly.

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