California Dreaming

Immigrant Song: Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama illustrates the difficulty of the Japanese-American experience in his 1931 comic

Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama
The Four Immigrants Manga
Stone Bridge Press

In the beginning of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's The Four Immigrants Manga, none of the main characters can hold down a job. The cartoon book's Japanese immigrants come to San Francisco at the turn of the century seeking work as household servants, but a series of misadventures scuttles their plans. "Frank"--as he's called in the West--takes apart a stove when asked to clean it, while "Henry" is fired after teaching profanity to a parrot. Back in Japan they were ambitious, intelligent young men, but in the States, race, language, and cultural barriers have forced them into menial labor. That's funny, right?

Remarkably enough, some of it is, even though humor typically ages poorly (walk through the comedy section of any video store for proof). Much of Kiyama's book, which was first published in 1931, is no exception to that rule. But what's more remarkable is that the book exists at all. The comic, which has been translated and reprinted by Stone Bridge Press, was written in a mixture of Japanese and English and delves further into documentary than perhaps any other comic of its time, making it a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Japanese immigrants.

In 1904, Kiyama came to San Francisco at the age of 19, and studied art in the U.S. for 25 years. Like all Japanese Americans of the time, he had to endure vicious bigotry. His response was to use the highs and lows of immigrant life as the backdrop for 52 cartoon strips, many of which end in familiar gags. Kiyama was only one of a number of Japanese artists who absorbed the visual grammar of modern American comics--most notable the use of panels and word balloons--and brought the new techniques back to Japan.

But if The Four Immigrants Manga starts from established foundations, it explores radically new territory with its strong interest in historical accuracy and personal introspection. The book pays meticulous attention to period detail, including references to the Industrial Workers of the World, the Japanese Expulsion League, and even specific buildings in San Francisco. And at a time when cartooning was firmly entrenched in fantastic stories and insubstantial gags, Kiyama's intensely personal tragicomic focus--one strip involves "Charlie" learning of his father's death back in Japan; another, the protagonists' despair when their bank becomes insolvent--must have seemed brashly intimate.

The intensity of the narrative, however, is tempered by Kiyama's light visual touch. The characters are rendered with a fluid line that makes them appear charmingly expressive, if a bit rubbery. (Unfortunately, Kiyama seems to have emulated his American colleagues too much: Although he depicts his Japanese countrymen with a wide range of facial characteristics, he draws Chinese immigrants as slant-eyed coolies and African Americans as thick-lipped Sambos.)

Kiyama's narrative style is usually more endearing: He ridicules his characters, but the historical context renders their acts more bittersweet than slapstick. In one strip, Charlie lies to a pretty Japanese girl, telling her that he has a cushy job in his father's company. This kind of insecure boasting would be well-suited to the frantic overcompensation of a sitcom character, but in this case it's informed by the fact that Japanese immigrant men had to confront terrible odds in courtship: At the turn of the century, the ratio of adult Japanese men to adult Japanese women was roughly 8-to-1, and marrying whites was illegal. Mixing the historical dynamic of unrelenting oppression with the eternal theme of the infatuated beau invigorates a standard gag, adding anxiety and poignancy. After all, Charlie's lies are only going to come back to bite him in his poverty-stricken ass, but this clown's suffering isn't due to vanity or sloth as much as circumstance. He has the desperation of a fool but the dignity of the righteous; the joke is never completely on him.

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