When future scholars come to study late 20th century Japanese society, their source material should certainly include pulpy comic books. Children's comics of several hundred pages first became popular in the late 1950s. But many of those early readers have not lost their enthusiasm for larger-than-life characters that speak in balloons.
Today briefcase-toting businessmen see nothing incongruous in occupying the journey home from the office with their noses buried in "adult" comic books.
The "jumbo" strips are packed with the adventures of snarling gangsters, nimble samurai swordsmen, brave sportsmen such as baseball players and pro wrestlers. Some are also liberally larded with explicit sexual drawings.
"Japanese comic book culture will continue to grow in the future until it has overcome all age barriers, and we have comics designed for every generation," predicts Yoshiya Soeda, a sociology professor who has studied the phenomenon.
The present cult began in 1959 with the appearance of "Boys' Magazine" and "Boys' Sunday," both of which are still going strong. Together they claim a weekly print run of about 3.5 million copies.
There are four main comics with a combined circulation of 8 million, and the industry reckons that 2 out of 3 Japanese boys under 18 currently read of one or more of them. About 20 percent of girls are regular comic readers.
These weekly publications run up to 360 pages. They contain 10 to 20 serialized comics, plus occasional short strips. Popular series often run for many months. They become subjects of animated television series, and their characters heroes of popular songs and television commercials.
There also has been a phenomenal growth of books featuring the complete story of a single comic first serialized in the weeklies.
One of these, "Dokaben," a baseball story, has sold an estimated 25 million copies. "Star of the Giants," another baseball tale, has surpassed 7 million. And a girls' story of the French Revolution, "Rose of Versailles" -- also a successful movie, television series, and stage musical -- has sold more than 12 million copies.
In the late 1960s, the first generation of comic readers reached adulthood with interest undiminished. Thus emerged "adult" comics. There are now about 50 of them, with a total circulation in the millions.
Japanese girls tend to lose their interest in comics before adulthood, although comic strips are a regular (though small) feature of women's weekly magazines.
Feminists argue that this fall-off in interest is due to Japan's male-dominated society, which feeds the idea that by their late teens girls should push dreams of Prince Charming aside in favor of boosting knowledge about good recipes.
Comics aimed at boys mainly deal with school life, science fiction, childhood pranks, and sports as well as friendly ghosts and robots. Girls' stories normally feature school life, love, and the rise to stardom in the entertainment world.
Many males, however, are developing a greater interest in girls' comics because of the trend toward realism that has crept into previously bland romantic stories, sometimes including sexual themes.
Professor Soeda also points out that although comic books usually denote comic or melodramatic themes that cater to the "most commonplace interests of the masses," in recent years some of the picture stories have begun to reflect a strong narrative sense. They have, he says, come "extremely close in character to a form of pure literature."
Much of the credit for this goes to Osamu Tezuka, a hospital-intern-turned-artist with a rich background in literature and music. Tezuka, author of a comic-book version of Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," has incorporated many Hollywood film-editing techniques into his drawings and has inspired a generation of artists.
The work is really continuing an old Japanese tradition -- that a kami shibai (paper plays) in which colorful drawings were used to accompany the narration of children's stories.
Because the more pulpy to today's comics emphasize violence and bizarre sex, the entire genre has gotten a bad name in some quarters. But Professor Soeda spiritedly defends them. He says critics have ignored the work of Tezuka and other artists who have developed characters portrayal and the expression of emotions through line drawings to a fine art.
Either way, comics now hold a definite place in Japanese life. After years of opposition from some parents and teachers, they have just been given official recognition by the Education Ministry. Its latest textbook revisions include some comic strips.