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the Complete Review
the complete review - comics / history

Manga from the Floating World

Adam L. Kern

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To purchase Manga from the Floating World

Title: Manga from the Floating World
Author: Adam L. Kern
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2006
Length: 506 pages
Availability: Manga from the Floating World - US
Manga from the Floating World - UK
Manga from the Floating World - Canada
  • Comicbook Culture and the Kibyōshi of Edo Japan
  • Second Edition, With a New Preface (2019)
  • With 118 illustrations and 10 color plates
  • With annotated translations of three kibyōshi by Santō Kyōden

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive overview of and introduction to kibyōshi, very well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harvard J. Asiatic Stud. . 68:1 (2008) Timon Screech
Intl. J. of Asian Studies . 5:1 (1/2008) Barbara Cross
The Japan Journal . 7/2007 Janine Beichman
J. of Japanese Studies . 35:2 (Summer/2009) Patrick Caddeau
Mechademia . 4:2009 C.S.Inouye
Monumenta Nipponica . 62:2 (Summer/2007) Stephan Köhn
TLS . 3/8/2007 Roz Kaveney

  From the Reviews:
  • "I first read this book in spurts over a period of a month or so, and then, to prepare for writing the review, I reread it, this time over a period of a few days. When I came up for air after that intense second reading, I felt rather like Alice after she'd been down the rabbit hole, a bit disoriented at the touch of reality and still wondering about what I had seen. Who would have guessed that just beyond my ken there was a world so full of curious and funny people and things ?" - Janine Beichman, The Japan Journal

  • "(A) delightful introduction to the genre of illustrated popular fiction known as kibyōshi" - Patrick Caddeau, Journal of Japanese Studies

  • "Adam L. Kern's stylish study demonstrates clearly the lack of any ongoing tradition; the kibyoshi were forgotten until the modern Japanese comics industry, accused of slavish imitation of America, needed to provide itself with roots, or at least with distant, childless cousins." - Roz Kaveney, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Manga from the Floating World focuses on a type of Japanese fiction that flourished for only some thirty years (from 1775 to ca. 1806), kibyōshi [黄表紙] -- meaning: "something like 'yellow-covered' booklet" (though, as Kern, points out, this turns out to have been a "retrospective designation" which only caught on after the fact, as in kibyōshi themselves such works were often called 'bluebooks' rather than 'yellowbooks'). The books combined illustration with text, making for a form of comicbook; kibyōshi can arguably be seen as a precursor of modern-day manga though Kern is at pains to note that the connection is not direct, with manga comic-strips clearly inspired by: "foreign caricature, not the native tradition". (The question and concern of how rooted manga is in kibyōshi (and other Japanese comics) does get considerable attention here, though it seems a rather academic (and, honestly, not particularly interesting) one -- but, as the framing-choice of title for the volume already suggests, manga is what contemporary audiences are familiar with and interested in, so manga is the near-be-all reference point .....)
       Kibyōshi were booklets, generally about 5 by 7 inch (smaller than US trade paperback size) with somewhere between ten to thirty pages, and colorful covers. Improvements in woodprint technology at that time made it possible to publish more, and more quickly, which contributed to the success of the genre -- and of publishing generally, as Kern also describes other popular genres of the day (and their relation to kibyōshi), including fashionbooks and mock-sermons.
       Though with a strong nod towards the juvenile, kibyōshi were aimed at a literate, adult audience. Often risqué, the stories are also noteworthy for being, as Kern puts it: "promiscuously allusional, intertextual, hybrid", alluding to: "a staggeringly wide range of literary and extra-literary material". (These range all the way to 'product placement', with leading kibyōshi-author Santō Kyōden [山東京伝] including an advertisement for his own tobacco store in one of his works.)
       The genre arose in a specific time, with advances in publishing, the rise of Edo (and urbanization in general), and political and commercial shifts all contributing to its flourishing. Very much Edo-based, Kern emphasizes how the books were a reflection of: "the Floating World of An'ei-Tenmei Edo" (the Japanese eras from 1772 through 1781 (An'ei) and 1781 through 1789 (Tenmei), when Edo was one of the most advanced and populous metropolises in the world) and how, while "playfully outrageous" in their exaggeration:

the kibyōshi are a treasure trove of dreams, delusions, rumors, urban myths, anxieties, shocking peccadilloes, erotica, exotica, and trivia that provide valuable clues to the private yet collective lives of the ordinary people of Edo during one of the peak moments in Japanese cultural history.
       Enjoying great popularity -- Kern estimates print runs of five to fifteen thousand, with multiple editions of the most popular texts -- kibyōshi did only flourish briefly, with somewhere between two and three thousand titles appearing. It: "crystallized into full-fledged mature form in 1775", with the publication of Koikawa Harumachi's [恋川春町] Master Flashgold's Splendiferous Dream [金々先生栄花夢], with a young Santō Kyōden then emerging as the leading author of the genre. (As Kern notes: "kibyōshi was written under pseudonym. This has slightly complicated investigations of authorship" (and attribution).) The very conservative Kansei Reforms (under the Kansei era (1789 to 1801), which came after the Tenmei era) impacted all of Japanese culture and also put a crimp in the freewheeling kibyōshi style: "By the end of 1791, virtually no kibyōshi author had got by unscathed" -- though Kern does note that, at least: "Not one kibyōshi author, however, seems to have been executed point blank", so there's that ..... The reforms did, however, clearly take the free-spirited air out of the kibyōshi sails and the genre collapsed fairly quickly thereafter -- a fascinating example of a very abrupt shift in literary production.
       Kern offers an impressive overview of the history of kibyōshi, as well as the contexts -- historical, cultural, and political -- in which it thrived (and then was suffocated). Richly illustrated, the text and examples range widely and give a very good impression of the times and the creative work being done in them. This alone would make Manga from the Floating World a fascinating and worthwhile study -- but there's more !
       The book is presented in unusual form. By all appearances (if one doesn't look too closely ...), it's a standard text, proceeding as one might expect any such study to. But the overview/study only takes up half the sizable volume, coming to an end on page 250 -- at which point the reference matter and index are inserted. The rest of the book starts at the end then: presented Japanese-style, where books are printed and pages turned in the reverse order of Western-style books. Here Kern presents three of Kyōden's kibyōshi in translation, complete with introductory essays and extensive annotations (endnotes, essentially).
       The turning-the-pages-the-wrong-way might take some getting used for the text parts -- the comics pages, too, perhaps, though anyone who has read manga will at least be familiar with that -- but it's not too confusing. And it is certainly well worthwhile: Kern's study of kibyōshi is thorough and informative, and touches upon an enormous variety of examples (complete with dozens of illustrations), but it is incredibly helpful -- indeed arguably necessary -- to see actual examples, in full, to really get a full and better understanding of what a work of kibyōshi is. In addition, Kyōden's kibyōshi are well worth reading on their own, and this volume would be worthwhile just for this second half alone. (Indeed, this sampler makes one wish, quite desperately, for additional collections of kibyōshi in translation.)
       Kyōden's works that are presented here -- Those Familiar Bestsellers (御存商売物; 1782), written when he was only twenty-one; Playboy, Roasted à la Edo (江戸生艶気蒲焼; 1785); and The Unseamly Silverpiped Swingers (扮接銀煙管; 1788) -- are amusing, ribald, and multi-layered comics, slyly humorous and with many levels of jokes that Kern tries to unfold in his translations and extensive annotations. With illustrated supporting material also in the introductory essays and the annotations, Kern provides both visual and textual background for the comics.
       A brief introductory essay to this section considers the issues surrounding translation of kibyōshi, specifically regarding the presentation of text. Unlike most contemporary comics, the generally full-page illustrations include a considerable amount of text, and the difficulties in re-presenting it already include simply (or not so simply ...) that of how to employ English lettering. Any solution is limited, Kern admits; he notes the possibilities of hypertext to facilitate understanding of the multiple layers and comparison with the original, but for this is page- and paper-bound. Clearly, some things go missing, even just in the (re)presentation of text in English: as he notes, the visual aspect of Japanese writing is a significant part of kibyōshi (and other Japanese literary texts), and that simply can't be conveyed in any purely textual translation. As to the words themselves -- he gets very playful in his English rendering, but that's clearly in keeping with the spirit of the genre; his solutions sometimes are very obviously addressed to modern audiences, but at least the general impression is that the gist of the humor comes across. (Helpful, too, is that this is an oversize book, the reproductions of the pages here larger than the original ones were -- which also allows for more writing-space.)
       Those Familiar Bestsellers is an insider story that features books (personified) -- the (essentially) opening scene setting the stage for the story:
A reading book, published by the Hashimonjiya, climbs out of a book lender's satchel at Edo's Yanagiwara Flea Market and approaches the stall of another out-of-towner, an illustrated book sporting a glossy cover. "Now Glossy Book, we've both come here all the way from Kamigata and struck it rich, only to be humiliated by the recent successes of those trifling upstarts, Bluebook and Fashionbook. What a pain in the spine ! There's got to be a way to smear them and those other local chapbooks !"
       As noted, kibyōshi were referred to as 'bluebooks' in kibyōshi, so the whole basis of the book is a poking fun at its own genre (as Reading Book and Glossy Book go about trying to undermine these upstarts ...). With cameos by the Tang Poetry Anthology and The Tale of Genji -- first encountered emerging from a bordello -- Those Familiar Bestsellers is an amusing skewering of the literary scene (and pretensions) of the time.
       Playboy, Roasted à la Edo features a snout-nosed playboy-wannabe, Enjirō, a spoiled only son (of the owner of the 'D.Bauchery Shop' ...) who tries to puff himself up into a playboy, hoping to gain a popular reputation as such. He has the funds and opportunities to get as much female attention as he wants, but for the life of him can't get anyone to see him as the playboy he so desperately wants to be recognized as. The opportunities for ridiculous situations are, of course, many, and Kyōden doesn't hold back.
       The Unseamly Silverpiped Swingers has the wildest premise: it's the story of co-joined identical twins -- one male, one female (something that, as Kern points out, is a: "medical impossibility"). When they mature, lust becomes a problem -- as: "In a world full of debauchery, no place is as scandalous as Edo, where even the malformed do not get by unscathed". The twins try to defer to one another, but each succumbs to their desires; at first when the other is asleep, but soon enough it's hard to hide from each other what they've been up to. They pair up, but it's not really a satisfactory solution, and they're eventually ready to go in for a double double-suicide ..... But Kyōden sees to a happy ending -- contrived, of course, like so much of this, but amusing enough (down to warnings of a potential new "double-bind" ...).
       The three kibyōshi are somewhat crude and simple, but as Kern shows in his translation and annotations, there is also quite a lot going on here that might not at first (or from a contemporary-Western perspective) seem obvious. It's clever and entertaining stuff -- maybe not all that different from the TV sit-coms of recent times, but in its quirky novelty still very enjoyable. Certainly, we could do with a few more volumes of kibyōshi in translation.

       This 2006 volume has now been re-issued in a new edition -- as, impressively, the first sold out within a year or so of its first run. It comes with a new Preface but is otherwise (essentially) unchanged. A large and elaborate book, "the cost of producing the original hardcover had exceeded the retail price", so it's great to see it being republished -- and now also in a paperback edition. It is large -- and heavy -- and, in its paperback form, a bit unwieldy-floppy, and so perusal is a bit complicated; it is a book to read rather than just coffee table-admire, but it isn't that easy to come to grips with. It is, however, worth the trouble.
       The Kyōden-trio alone is discovery enough to make the volume worthwhile, but Kern's far-ranging study -- which extends well into this fascinating period and the other cultural production of the time, along with a great deal of background -- is surely of interest to anyone curious about Japanese literature, culture, or history of the times, or Japanese comicbook traditions (all the way up to manga). (And there are tons of great pictures !) Even those who have their doubts about/issues with comicbook-type works -- and I head the list -- will find a great deal here of exceptional interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 June 2019

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Manga from the Floating World: Reviews: Adam L. Kern: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Adam L. Kern teaches at the University of Wisconsin

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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