Sanpei Shirato (b. 1932) is a Japanese comics artist, best known for his works about classic tales of ninja heroes set in feudal Japan such as Ninja bugei-chō: Kagemaru-den (A Scroll of Martial Arts of Ninja: The Legend of Kagemaru, 1959-1962), Sasuke (1961-1966), and Kamui-den (The Legend of Kamui, 1964-1971). In addition to the primary target audience of male children and young adults, these works also became popular among college students and adults, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s when Japan witnessed a rise in political activism and counterculture. Due in major part to the mature readership, along with graphic, violent depictions of fighting scenes, Shirato’s 1960s and later works were considered gekiga (lit. “dramatic pictures”), a subgenre of manga targeted for young adults and older male readers with little to no humor. In Japanese manga history, Shirato is considered one of the most well-regarded Japanese comics artists who expanded comics expressions and is a comparable figure to Osamu Tezuka.

Sanpei Shirato was born Noboru Okamoto in 1932, a son of well-known leftist painter and activist, Tōki Okamoto, who was active in organizing a proletarian art movement during the 1920s and 1930s. In wartime Japan, to avoid persecution from the authorities, the Okamoto family frequently moved around the country to different places including Kobe, Osaka, and some rural areas where young Shirato experienced poverty and came in contact with ethnic minorities and other discriminated groups (i.e., burakumin) as a child.

Shirato debuted in 1957 with his manga, Kogarashi kenshi. Although his earlier manga were aimed at children, some of them already exhibited social concerns, including social marginalization of ethnic minorities, the struggles of people in the lower class, the socially oppressive power structure–all of which became prevalent motifs in his works. Stylistically, his earlier manga in the late 1950s inherited the postwar mainstream manga style—which consists of Tezuka-inspired, simplistic cartoony depiction of characters with large eyes. His style gradually changed throughout the 1960s, as observed in the shift of visual style in Kamui-den.

Kamui-den is Shirato’s masterpiece, serialized in Garo, which was founded in 1964 by editor and publisher Nagai Katsuichi as an outlet for featuring Kamui-den. Set in feudal Japan during the Edo period, Kamui-den is a lengthy story manga with multiple protagonists, including ronin (masterless samurai), skilled ninja heroes, and resourceful farmers, all of whom persistently resist the Edo Tokugawa oppressive ruling system. Critics often point out that Shirato’s Marxian, “dialectical materialism” is reflected in this narrative. Due to its thematic and philosophical concerns, Kamui-den attracted college students, activists, art/cultural critics, and artists in different fields. The serialization period of Kamui-den (1964-1971) coincided with a historical period when Japan witnessed the rise of political movements in which politicized students and activists were raising dissident voices against the Establishment, especially against the U.S.-Japan Security treaty that allowed the U.S. military to be stationed in Japan. Due to this, some radicalized college students/activists identified themselves with the struggling characters against the social power structure in Kamui-den.

In the mid-1970s, Shirato began to produce works about myths and legends from all over the world, based on his anthropological interests. From 1988 to 2000, Shirato also serialized the “Second Part” of The Legend of Kamui in a seinen magazine, Big Comic. The English translation of Shirato’s work The Legend of Kamui Perfect Collection, published in 1987 by Eclipse Comics and VIZ Communications is not the original serialized in Garo but an excerpt from the “Second Part” of this series.

— Shige (CJ) Suzuki

Further Reading

  • Holmberg, Ryan. “The Name Garo: Shirato Sanpei and the Indo-Manga Connection.” The Comics Journal (online). September 27, 2013. Accessed March 5, 2015. —. 2010.  Garo Manga: The First Decade, 1964–1973. New York: The Center for Book Arts.
  • Tsurumi, Shunsuke. 2011. Cultural History of Postwar Japan: 1945-1980. London, Routledge.