Comics fans sometimes think of the Japanese modern comics industry as a creation culminating in the now familiar style born in the late 1950s. Actually, the influence goes way further back than that, back to the late 1890s. Since Kitazawa Rakuten is widely considered the creator of manga (even if there was some use of the term, possibly first by Hokusai almost 100 years earlier), he is an inductee into the Pop Culture Hall of Fame as a Legend for 2023.
After a career in editorial and political cartoons, in 1895, he joined the staff of Box of Curios, an English-language magazine published in Tokyo. There he rubbed elbows with Frederick Burr Opper and Richard Outcault of Yellow Kid fame.
Rokuten became a pioneer in tossing the dialogue in a comic panel around at different angles to achieve more dynamic sound and movement where they had not existed as such before. He was a master of using establishing panels to convey a lot of information, then working in empty places assuming the reader was smart enough to fill in the blanks.
He would go on to work for numerous publications in both languages over the years, often free to fill a complete page however he wished. In 1905 he founded the satirical magazine Tokyo Puck, a Japanese version of the American Puck, also published in English and Chinese. Kitazawa contributed to this magazine until 1911. In 1912, he launched the two-weekly Rakuta Puck, of which he remained the driving force until his departure from Jiji Shinpou in 1932. In 1918, he founded the Manga Kourakukia, an association of Japanese illustrators.
In 1929, Rakuten held a private exhibition in Paris on the recommendation of the French ambassador. The French really love cartoonists, and he was awarded the Legion of Honour. He also toured the U.S. around that time, absorbing as much culture as he was sharing with others.
His influence on cartoonists in his country went far beyond readers devouring and mimicking his work. In 1934, he founded a school of caricature, comics, and painting, and taught until his retirement in 1948. During World War II, he painted portraits of soldiers who died at the front .
In the mid-fifties, just before his death, he helped curate and develop what is believed to be the first museum in the world devoted to comic arts, the Saitama Municipal Cartoon Art Museum in Omiya. The history maker becomes the historian. Its library contains thousands of works by influential Japanese comics creators and many rare pieces of his work.
Considering the soaring popularity of manga and anime in Western culture, his influence reaches a lot of American cartoonists and beyond. It would be nice if more people could dig into his prolific work. Many of his creations have not been translated into English, but the lively artwork gives most readers a good idea of the important parts of the story. For his historic contributions to comics around the world, Kitazawa Rakuten is an inductee in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame for 2023.