For most electricity consumers, where energy actually comes from and the workers behind its production are entirely unknown. Recognizing this, the late manga artist Susumu Katsumata felt the need to give voices to the hundreds of thousands of invisible janitorial workers in Japan’s nuclear plants, documenting their existence in popular comic form during the 1980s.
A new volume from Breakdown Press, Fukushima Devil Fish: Anti-Nuclear Manga, collates these comics, delineating the stories of the tedious and dangerous daily work of nuclear power plant laborers who due to poor pay, subcontracts, and migrant status were often called “nuclear gypsies.”
Translated by manga historian Ryan Holmberg, the volume is an English version of a book that came out in Japan in 2011 following the devastating earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tōhoku, and the subsequent nuclear disasters and associated evacuation zones. Alongside numerous essays, Fukushima Devil Fish includes Katsumata’s two narrative stories focusing on the labor conditions of power plants, as well as a series of folkloric stories set in the countryside where the artist grew up.
Katsumata himself knew more than the average cartoonist about nuclear power, having studied nuclear physics at graduate level at the Tokyo University of Education. He described the issue as one “I could not ignore.” While his output in the mid-70s was aimed at a popular market, as with titles like Red Snow (released in English by Drawn & Quarterly in 2009), this volume of work highlights the artist’s less populist works, which an introduction essay describes as punctured by a “quiet anger.” In these stories, Katsumata’s narrative interest is darker and harder to comprehend, driven by what he felt was a political necessity.
“Alas, nuclear power is really not that interesting a theme for manga,” Katsumata said. “It’s hard to make nuclear power interesting period. That’s no reason to ignore it, however. Patience is the best approach.”
Why Nuclear Power is Scary (1980) was Katsumata’s first anti-nuclear work. He received the commission from a progressive educational publishing house in Japan after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, one of the most significant accidents in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history. The publisher felt there was a problematic lack of information about nuclear power in Japan and wanted to communicate issues to a wide audience in a simple way. Katsumata’s drawings—which combined a popular manga style with explanatory detailing—proved accessible, and the textbook was widely consumed. These illustrations remain some of the artist’s most well known anti-nuclear works to date, especially amongst farmers and fishermen, and the activists who widely circulated the textbook. Between 1976 and 1991, the artist also drew four-panel strips for a left-wing feminist newspaper, many of which focused on issues of nuclear power and featured post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki allusions to mushroom clouds.
Katsumata visited numerous nuclear power plants as part of his research into labor conditions: in September of 1984, he visited both the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini stations, where he interviewed workers. He also spoke to people who lived near the plants, hearing stories about cancer and anencephalic children. In an article the artist later penned for an issue of magazine Comic Box themed “Manga and Radioactivity” in 1990, Katsumata said: “My impressions upon seeing a nuclear power plant? I’m a little prejudiced, since I’m against nuclear power. But while the plants look clean and nice from the outside, inside they feel like a regular factory or plant. I don’t know if cluttered is the right word, but there are exposed wires and pipes everywhere, and cables squirming across the ground. […] You don’t feel like you are in the presence of the cutting-edge of technology.”
This is precisely the juxtaposition Katsumata captures in his two manga stories focused on the life of “nuclear gypsies”: contrary to the modern, hyper-efficient, and clean scientist in a spotless white coat that peoples the PR image of power plants, he reveals the dirtied, dangerous reality that surrounds laborers. Katsumata diligently depicts hazardous work sites, as well as the laborious daily routine of dressing in layers of protective gear that barely protect the body from harmful radiation. These comic reportages communicate a charged, gruelling atmosphere that one would never experience without actually visiting a plant; they help to illustrate a structure of discrimination and oppression in a personalized manner, bringing to the forefront the lack of reparation that workers receive for life threatening afflictions.
With these manga stories, the artist didn’t simply criticize the problem of “irradiated labor,” but created a vividly human picture using the popular, accessible medium of manga.
The second half of the volume features Katsumata’s later folkloric stories, which are filled with humorous, whimsical, and energetic magical animals based on traditional Japanese legend. “He uses these folkloric animals to reveal social and economic processes,” explains Holmberg. “He situates them as co-victims of the modernization of the Japanese countryside, where industrialisation and increased movement to the cities meant the displacement of old agricultural communities.”
Although these later stories are far more fantastical, folkloric themes make their way into the two stories about “irradiated labor,” too. In The Devil Fish for example, the story ends with an octopus jammed in the water intakes; this octopus is also a victim of industrialisation, and is a metaphor for the body politic. “They say octopuses sometimes eat their own bodies, we’re kind of like that,” says one worker. “Yeah, but unlike us, its arms will grow back,” another replies.
In Deep Sea Fish, the story culminates with an illustration of a worker lying on his stomach in bed, marks blooming across his back like flowers. These could be low-level radiation spots, or, read more metaphorically, they could be cheery blossoms, a symbol for the passage of youth in Japan and therefore gesturing to how working at the power plant has robbed the worker years of his life.
With these two reportage-like manga, Katsumata attempted to capture some of “the reality of the conditions that plant laborers work in.” Yet as an essay in the volume states, the artist also acknowledged that many of the workers’ experiences are completely impossible to represent through images alone. Through borrowing from folklore, the artist captured some of the less tangible horrors of radiation, as creatures and motifs from the organic world become entangled in the same brutalities as the “nuclear gypsies.”