Naoki Urasawa has been my hero for the longest time, so seeing him talk about his own heroes was a strange experience.
Like many others, I am a huge fan of Urasawa’s manga. The 20th Century Boys and Monster author has had a career full of triumphs for the medium and continues to contribute even today. He truly is this generation’s Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Black Jack, Message to Adolf), a title I’m sure he’d be honoured to have.
What makes my connection with Urasawa’s work even more profound, however, is that we share a lot of the same influences and perspectives. He has maintained a keen interest in Japanese history and politics, coming mostly from a left-wing perspective, which has in turn added a contemporary edge to his works that not many mangaka can rival. He appreciates and frequently honours the legacy of those who built the medium of manga at it’s conception, not only Tezuka but also Shinji Nagashima (Night on the Galactic Railroad) and Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira). He is also an avid consumer of music, and it is from music that his greatest hero comes – Bob Dylan.
I haven’t had much of a chance to discuss Dylan yet, but there is so much to his life and work that becoming a ‘Dylanologist’ may end up as a key part of my future career. Urasawa’s obsession extends almost as far as mine as well, the proof of which can be found in Urasawa’s book Talkin’ About Bob Dylan (ディランを語ろう), co-authored with former Japanese new wave outfit ‘Screen’ frontman Koji Wakui.
The book follows several ‘talk sessions’ between Urasawa and Wakui as they, well, talk about Bob Dylan. What makes these sessions interesting is the way they provide a Japanese perspective on Dylan and his career, as well as further insights into Urasawa’s own career and mindset.
Contains minor spoilers for 20th Century Boys.
Unlike many Western fans, Urasawa first and foremost appreciated Dylan as ‘pop’ music, declaring that “No matter how you look at it, Dylan was pop”. Dylan’s shift from folk music in the early 1960s with albums such as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They Are A-Changin’ (1964) to rock music following Bringing It All Back Home (1965) was accompanied with a massive backlash from his western audience, who called him ‘Judas’ for betraying the folk revival.
The reasons for this backlash are numerous, but an important factor was that many of these fans had been both introduced to Dylan as a folk singer, and thus his new, rock music was an abrupt change that many weren’t able to stomach. Many of them disliked rock music because of it’s apparent artistic infidelity – after all, the rock of this era was that of Elvis Presley and The Beatles – and they also preferred the folk sound of acoustic guitars and acapella to the electric sound of rock music. Feeding into this was that many worshiped him as the king of the burgeoning folk revival scene, and therefore for him to abandon folk felt like a huge betrayal. Furthermore, for many fans who were involved in the progressive movements of the time, such as the civil rights movement and anti-war activism, Dylan’s songs became their anthems, and so for them the betrayal became not just one of folk music, but of a comrade as well.
Yet, the way that Japanese fans were introduced to Dylan meant that this feeling of betrayal wasn’t mutual. It took a while for western records to make their way over to Japan, and even when they did, it was only the popular ones. Therefore, the first real wave of Dylan records in Japan began with Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s second rock album. Of course, bootleg records existed, but even these only combined the most popular songs. Because of this, Urasawa and many other Japanese fans’ first real exposure to Dylan was through his rock music – he had heard some of Dylan’s earlier folk songs on a bootleg record previously, but couldn’t get into them with the exception of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll from The Times They Are A-Changin’. Furthermore, they were not involved with American progressive movements, and therefore couldn’t feel that particular type of betrayal either. In this sense, Urasawa’s admiration for rock-era Dylan – signified by his favourite Dylan album, Time Out of Mind (1997) – isn’t that unusual once you consider the fundamental differences between being a western Dylan fan and a Japanese Dylan fan at the time.
That’s not to say that Urasawa’s obsession with Dylan would have been remarkably different from a westerner’s – he was as passionate as anyone overseas, possibly even more so than many western fans at the time since he appreciated Dylan’s rock music and not just his folk music. The young Urasawa quickly adopted Dylan as his idol once he heard Like a Rolling Stone on late night Japanese radio in the 1970s, somehow feeling like he “had to understand”, like Dylan’s artistry had been able to transcend the language barrier and somehow take hold of Urasawa’s soul with merely one song. More concretely, Urasawa was attracted to Dylan’s “strangeness”, stemming not only from his looks (this was the era of Dylan’s huge curly afro, after all), but also from that he wasn’t afraid of “fighting alone” against his own fan base, as he did with the change from folk to rock.
When Dylan visited Japan for the first time in 1979 for his Budokan concerts, Urasawa would be confronted with this disregard for his fan base first hand. Dylan’s live concerts had, at this point, begun to grow more and more extravagant, not only incorporating a backing band (named The Band), but also backup singers, frequent usage of synthesisers, and bongos. Urasawa attended on the 28th of February, and although he got to hear all of his favourite songs, from Mr. Tambourine Man to One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below), this new, live sound left him slightly disappointed. Yet, over time Urasawa would develop an appreciate for Dylan’s somewhat selfish artistry, realising that a large part of Dylan’s appeal stemmed from the fact that he could change his image and become someone new, thus keeping his sound and image fresh. This would in turn become a key part of Urasawa’s mindset in creating manga, as he would go on to forge a career for himself with unique, auteur stories just like his heroes Dylan and Tezuka.
Urasawa’s decision to become a mangaka was even affected by Dylan’s work, as for a while he wasn’t sure whether to become a mangaka or a musician. For the young Urasawa, rock music legends such as Dylan were as cool as the manga legends of Tezuka, and although this childish understanding disregarded the huge differences between the two careers’ lifestyles – with even successful mangakas having to cope with the stressful environment of serialisation – this would go on to affect Urasawa’s future career. Obviously, he decided in the end to become a mangaka, but he did not abandoned music entirely. Rather, Urasawa continues to write and perform his own music, even releasing studio albums and performing the song Bob Lennon for his manga 20th Century Boys. In fact, 20th Century Boys in particular draws a lot of it’s identity from Urasawa’s experience with music in his childhood, particularly when it comes to the character of Endou Kenji.
Dylan was, first and foremost, a massive fan of folk music and the folk scene, particularly of Woody Guthrie. It was this passion that pushed him to make the journey to New York from Minnesota that would catapult him into the artistic arena of Greenwich Village, and eventually into the sights of John Hammond who would sign him to Columbia Records for his self-titled debut LP. Kenji’s passion for rock music also mirrors Dylan’s, and although he was never successful in his career as a musician, he still stubbornly continued to busk on street corners, and showcased a furious passion just like Dylan. Furthermore, after the events of the Bloody New Year’s Eve, music was the only thing that kept him sane as he struggled with amnesia and the oppressive Friend regime. It’s safe to say that both Dylan and Kenji owe their lives to music, something that Urasawa would also probably attest to.
Even so, both men never had a perfect relationship with their music. Dylan frequently clashed with his fanbase, not just over his change from folk to rock but also over his fans’ deification of him – the potent political message of his early work such as Blowin’ in the Wind and Only a Pawn in Their Game made him into the ‘voice of a generation’ who were involved in civil rights and anti-war activism. Dylan never wanted to be such a voice, and struggled with the idea of being one as people began to force their own political beliefs on him, beliefs that he never particularly identified with beyond a basic moral understanding. Kenji too, never wanted to participate in the fight against Friend for anything other than personal reasons, but ended up anyway becoming the figurehead of a movement which he never envisioned or particularly wanted to create. It’s important to recognise that Kenji never even engages with the anti-Friend movement in any meaningful way – it is ultimately Kanna who carries out most of the struggle against Friend.
The history of Kenji’s song Bob Lennon also mirrors that of Dylan’s song Blowin’ in the Wind. Both became songs of protest, even though they were never written as such. In Dylan’s case, he never actually wrote the song – it was merely a cover of an earlier folk song, which would, incidentally, later be recorded and released by folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary merely three weeks after the release of Dylan’s version on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to even greater commercial success. Therefore, to prescribe special meaning and status to Dylan’s version and his version alone would be to grossly misunderstanding the history of the song, and merely highlights another aspect of how problematic Dylan’s identity as a political figure was. Kenji’s song too is problematic as a protest song, since Kenji never wrote the song as a protest song, instead writing it for himself while he was performing on street corners to no one late at night. Furthermore, Kenji professes that the song is not original at all, describing it as a “rip-off of Bob Dylan and John Lennon”, much like how Dylan’s anthem was a cover of an earlier song. Yet despite the history of both songs, they were prescribed meaning and elevated beyond their original intention, catapulting both men somewhere they never intended to go.
It’s evident therefore, that Urasawa’s love and appreciation for Dylan is quite unrivalled in the manga world. From a young age, Urasawa has tried to follow in Dylan’s footsteps and understand his art. Even though many other fans were alienated when Dylan made the switch to rock, because Urasawa was Japanese he didn’t experience this. Thank God for that, since Urasawa’s adulation for Dylan has informed Urasawa’s ethos as a mangaka, as well as some of the best parts of his masterful stories, particularly the character of Endou Kenji.
This week I was able to show off some of my Dylan knowledge, most of which I owe to a fabulous teacher I had last semester. Many of the manga-style images used in this post were from Urasawa’s Dylan book which I scanned in myself, so the quality isn’t the best. You can buy the book here, but it’s only available in Japanese. Let me know what you thought by leaving a comment or via Twitter. As always, I’ll see you next week.