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A Philosophical Creator of Comic Strips
Comic Strip Writer Hiroyuki Sugahara


Hiroyuki Sugahara was born in 1959 in Fukui Prefecture. He graduated from Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, where he majored in philosophy. Securing employment with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, he was assigned to a post in Nagoya in the Radio Regulatory Bureau. About two years later he was awarded a prize for the best new writer of manga, Japan's elaborately illustrated and widely read comic magazines and books, by a manga magazine, and he went on to become a full-time comic strip writer. Today, at 41, he still resides in Nagoya with his wife and child, and he publishes his strips in weekly and monthly magazines and also writes essays. He is known for the dimension of philosophy he adds to comics.

Hiroyuki Sugahara spices up comics with a touch of philosophy. This can be seen in the titles of the comic books he has published, which often contain somewhat elusive philosophical terms. Feeling Metaphysical and Pathology of Nonexistence 101 provide examples. It is also evident in the titles of many of the strips in his books, such as "Lonely Stone Buddha" and "A Nonexistent-like Taxi." Thumbing through the pages with the sneaking suspicion that he may have chosen the medium of comics to explain philosophy to you, you enter a world filled with surreal mirth and down-to-earth jokes. The very gap between somewhat elusive titles and punch lines that make you laugh out loud is sometimes quite stunning.

"In high school I acquired a liking for the philosophical works of people like [René] Descartes and [Immanuel] Kant," Sugahara relates. "Sometimes they were really hard to figure out, and I'd spend hours just deciphering a few lines. And even after all that I'd have only a faint idea of what they were talking about. Still, for me that was quite enjoyable. So I majored in philosophy in college."

"Then, when I began thinking about becoming a comic strip writer, I saw I might be able to develop a style of my own by drawing on what I had picked up from philosophy. Mainly I do four-panel strips, and even when I don't have a real punch line but just end with some philosophical-sounding expression, readers take over from there, figuring there must be some hidden deeper meaning and setting off on a search."

The principal character in many of his strips starts off seeming just like one of the ordinary "salary men" or "office ladies" found all over Japan, but by the time you get to the fourth panel this run-of-the-mill wage earner has become a denizen of an absurd, surrealistic world of laughter.

An example is his "Man Who Became a Business Card," one of his early works. The enigmatic story starts off with a weary middle-aged office worker who one day is transformed into a business card. On seeing what has happened to himself, he grumbles, "I get it now. The individual I thought of as me didn't exist from the beginning. All that exists is my title and name as a company man." But the confrontation with his surreal self does not keep him down for long. "Put the other way around, though, won't that title and name get me anywhere I want to go? Hey, I'm an elite guy in a blue-chip corporation!"

It would appear that the genesis of this philosophical jokester who makes a motif of the pathos of the office worker was Sugahara's own experience as a civil servant. "Somewhere in there--in the emptiness of a daily life of getting to work every morning and staying until five, in the vexations of the human relations in the workplace--I sense there's something that resonates with philosophy. Maybe it makes you ask just what disillusionment with life is all about. The starting point of my strips is the idea of encapsulating in four comical panels the everyday feelings--in a sense, the philosophical feelings--of ordinary working men and women."
Four-panel strips are Sugahara's speciality.
Sugahara's hope is to keep on drawing comics targeted at and enjoyed by people of his own generation. With sales of comic magazines and books in the vicinity of ¥600 billion (US$5.6 billion) per year--roughly a quarter of all sales in the publishing business--Japan is a paradise for comics. But most are written for kids and young adults, with an eye to riding the wave of the latest fad and amusing readers with whatever happens to be trendy, and Sugahara is not satisfied with that. "There's nothing wrong in having some comics for the forty-something crowd and others for the fifty-somethings. Today, in homes for the aged, you don't see any comics lying around, but in twenty or thirty years there should be plenty of them. That's because the people in the early comic-loving generations are getting older. Who knows, maybe comics written just for old folks will start coming out. I'm in my forties now, but when I reach sixty I hope to be producing comics for people in their sixties. They won't be tied to the fashions in the world of the young."

Though not hailing from Aichi, he has now lived continuously in Nagoya for close to 20 years. The only reason he had for coming here is that this is where he got his first posting as a public official. When asked whether it would not be more convenient for a creator of comic books to live in Tokyo, where most of the big publishing houses are located, he replied, "Sure, it would be. But every time I go to Tokyo on business, I remember that there's no way I could live in an atmosphere so difficult to breathe. The people of Tokyo are basically just people who've gathered there from all parts of Japan. The people of Nagoya, by contrast, all have the same kind of air or something. It's sort of like a great big rural community, and it's very comfortable. You can take it for granted I won't be moving anywhere else." From time to time Sugahara comes up with a strip based on the habits of Nagoya's residents. This, too, may be an expression of the deep regard he has come to feel for this city.

(Photos by Tadashi Aizawa, Text by Masaki Yamada)