Creator Profile: Go Nagai by Jerry Whitworth
In the field of manga and anime, the undisputed king is and always will be Osamu Tezuka. A handful of mangaka come close to the master, likely the closest being Go Nagai. A fan of Tezuka as a young man, Nagai was born in 1945 in Wajima, Ishikawa in the Noto Peninsula overlooking the Sea of Japan the fourth of five brothers before moving to Tokyo following his father’s passing. While preparing for university following his high school graduation, Nagai suffered an illness the youth feared he would die from. Nagai was motivated to live his dream of creating comics because being sick gave him perspective into his own mortality. Surviving his ordeal, Nagai dedicated himself to creating manga, submitting his work to many publishers. Only, Nagai’s mother disapproved of his choice of career and contacted those publishers asking them to not accept his work. Despite this, Shogakukan’s publication Shonen Sunday would see promise in the young Nagai and contacted mangaka Shotaro Ishinomori to see if he would be interested in mentoring the young man. Ishinomori, a former assistant and protege of Tezuka, had created the popular comic Cyborg 009 (but would likely be best remembered later for his tokusatsu contributions) and read Nagai’s (with help from his brother Yasutaka, who introduced him to Tezuka’s work) then untitled comic Satsujinsha. A Sci-Fi ninja tale, the work would later become the basis of Nagai’s story Black Lion. Ishinomori saw some promise in Nagai and hired him as an assistant.
Around his time working and learning from Ishinomori, Go Nagai began producing his own published work predominantly for Kodansha’s Bokura magazine with short gag comedy and an adaptation of an anime series. His first big break, however, came with publisher Shueisha and their burgeoning magazine Shonen Jump. Nagai was invited to contribute to the new magazine where he produced Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless School), an erotic/comedic series set at a school, in 1968. The story was a hit, helping the magazine sell over a million copies but, more importantly, put Nagai on the map. Further, Harenchi Gakuen fundamentally altered Japanese society. Prior to the series, Japanese animation and comics were more or less aligned along with its American counterparts (perhaps with a greater emphasis on art and story development on Japan’s part, but even this is debatable) save that Japan didn’t suffer under Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency (and the Comics Code Authority that followed) or severely reduce the genres represented in its comics as in the United States. Nagai’s series tested the limits of eroticism in Japanese media opening the door for a freer culture into the acceptance of nudity and sexual situations which became a symbol of that generation. Harenchi Gakuen would spawn live action films and animated television series, see Shonen Jump sell millions of copies weekly, and made Go Nagai a household name. The series and its popularity drew an outcry from parents and conservatives that saw the comic franchise as a bad influence on youth. Admittedly, though, the type of perverted humor (panty shots and cartoon-y depictions of actual nudity, no scenes of sex) used by Nagai vastly pales in comparison with today’s standards in Japan. When PTAs in the country threatened the cancellation of the series, Nagai changed its story to one of the once comical students and teachers being murder in gory, bloody ways by the PTA. Though this appeared to be the series end, it would return under Nagai’s pen again. Nagai would parody elements of the struggle he faced in later works like The Abashiri Family and Guerrilla High.
Go Nagai’s brother Yasutaka would establish himself separate from his brother’s fame, earning awards and accolades for his novel Baptism of Blood. However, for a while he abandoned his writing to focus on running a new venture for his brother. While Go received residuals from Harenchi Gakuen, he made very little from its films, TV series, and merchandise. So he formed Dynamic Productions in 1969 with his brothers (Yasutaka as the company’s manager) to assist Go in his work and was one of the first comic companies to require contracts for work (where Dynamic would gain residuals from every level of success of Go’s creations). Beginning as a small studio business, within a year it became a stock-based company. The success of Harenchi Gakuen and The Abashiri Family started to paint Nagai into a single genre (gag comedy), though at the same time arguably the most recognized comic creator in Japan of that time, the mangaka actively began trying to alter this perception by producing a variety of work with Sci-Fi and horror culminating in the development of Demon Lord Dante in 1971. This series would in turn inspire another series which is one of the works most associated with Go Nagai.
Devilman (1972) tells the story of Akira Fudo, a timid orphan with a pure heart who becomes possessed by a demon but manages to regain control, becoming a hero protecting mankind from the demon horde. Developed for Toei Animation as a toned-down version of Demon Lord Dante for its animated adaptation, Devilman was intended as an anti-war message showing both sides of a conflict as inherently flawed at some level and, with the manga, inevitably leading to a mutual assured destruction when the Earth is obliterated, both humans and demons wiped out. The success of the series would spawn a somewhat sequel in Shin Devilman, OVAs (original video animation, generally direct-to-video animation), animated and live action films, video games, and novels (one such novel not to be confused with the earlier mentioned title, Shin Devilman, written by Yasutaka Nagai). An indirect sequel to Devilman is Violence Jack (1973), set in the post-apocalyptic world of the former series where God recreated the planet and Jack is in fact some aspect of Akira Fudo. In this series, the world is dominated by murderers and rapists as the weak suffer under their yoke. Violence Jack acts as the world’s best hope of justice. Several of Nagai’s original characters make cameo appearances in the series. More than two decades after Devilman, Nagai would produce Devil Lady which is a somewhat remake of Devilman with a woman as the lead character. Around the time Nagai was producing Devilman, he produced the other character he’s likely most associated with.
As a boy, Go Nagai was a fan of Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) and Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go (Gigantor) and had a desire to contribute to the giant robot genre. Before Nagai, giant robots either operated under their own power or were piloted by remote control. His idea was to have a giant robot being piloted directly by an operator within it. The original concept was to have the pilot ride a motorcycle and drive up the back of the robot and lock into the mecha’s cockpit in the head, but the success of Toei and Ishinomori’s Kamen Rider motivated Nagai to change this to a hovercraft. And so was born Mazinger Z in 1972 which forever changed the giant robot genre. Henceforth, the vast majority of giant robots had pilots that operated aboard the mecha including Toei’s (who produced the Mazinger Z anime) live action adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man who piloted the giant transforming robot Leopardon (which forever changed the Super Sentai, known in the US as Power Rangers, genre). In addition to changing the giant robot genre, it changed the business of anime as the show made toys, records, and a horde of merchandise marketable to children selling in millions of units (with its high ratings making advertising space a hot commodity).
The success of Mazinger Z generated Nagai’s largest franchise producing sequels/spin-offs like Great Mazinger, UFO Robot Grendizer, Mazinkaiser, and on and on and on (as well as continuations of Mazinger Z itself). Mazinger Z would be adapted for American audiences as TranZor Z and Grendizer would make its way to America as part of the Shogun Warriors toyline and in the anthology animated series Force Five as Grandizer. Great Mazinger was suppose to be part of Force Five as well but the deal fell through and Science Fiction Saiyuki Starzinger was instead adapted as Spaceketeers (though, Great Mazinger would become part of Shogun Warriors as Great Mazinga or simply Mazinga). Shogun Warriors would be adapted as a Marvel Comic series but Nagai’s properties wouldn’t be licensed for the title. Grendizer would prove to be wildly popular in the international market, especially in the Middle East and Europe (known in French-speaking countries as Goldorak and Italy as Goldrake). Mazinger Z would be popular in Spain where a statue of the giant mecha was erected in Tarragona.
Mazinger Z and its ever expanding franchise was not Go Nagai’s only contribution to the giant robot genre. Shortly after the creation of Mazinger Z, Nagai went to work producing Getter Robo (1974). An anime series for Toei again, Getter Robo was extensively the product of Ken Ishikawa who created, wrote, and drew the Getter Robo manga and its many sequels. Ishikawa joined Dynamic Productions the same year it was founded first as Nagai’s second assistant (after Mitsuru Hiruta who had been with Nagai since Harenchi Gakuen) to instead become a frequent collaborator and best friend to Nagai. A sequel series Getter Robo G would make its way to America as part of Force Five called Starvengers and would be part of the Shogun Warriors toyline (formations Getter Dragon, Getter Liger, and Getter Poseidon marketed separately as Dragun, Raider, and Poseidon, respectively). Though the public did not know for decades, Nagai also created Demon Dragon of the Heavens Gaiking for Toei. The studio didn’t want to pay the mangaka royalties and removed him from the project and credited Akio Sugino as the creator. Nagai would take Toei to court in a battle that lasted over a decade and which lead to him not collaborating with the studio for a long time. Gaiking was also part of the Shogun Warriors toyline and Force Five anthology series. Around the time just before Getter Robo, Nagai also produced Dororon Enma-kun which would do extremely well in Japan but wouldn’t be widely recognized outside the country. Nagai would remake/sequel the piece several decades later in the form of Demon Prince Enma. Just before Getter Robo, Nagai would also produce another franchise he’s closely identified with.
A fan of Bannai Tarao mysteries and the tokusatsu superhero series Rainbowman which featured disguise and transformation respectively, Go Nagai was inspired to borrow these elements in his creation of Cutie Honey in 1973. An android seeking revenge against the Panther Claw organization, Honey was installed with a device that allowed her to transform into the heroine Cutie Honey (as well as various other characters in the animated adaptation from Toei). Cutie Honey was an early entry in the genre known today as Magical Girl (a genre inspired in part by the popularity of American television series Bewitched in Japan leading Mitsuteru Yokoyama to create early Magical Girl prototype Sally the Witch in 1966) with Nagai’s twist of adding pervert comedy and lesbian content. The mature nature of Cutie Honey and Devilman placed them in the prime time evening slot (something largely unheard of, rare even today). The success of Cutie Honey would lead to numerous manga sequels, various animated adaptations, video games, and a live action film and television series. Toei would also adapt elements of Cutie Honey for its 1982 Super Sentai series Dai Sentai Goggle V starting a longstanding tradition of the Sentai Pink character being able to switch clothes in a flash. The Sentai Pink character of that season Miki Momozono coincidentally was one of the most popular characters of Super Sentai especially for that time period.
Following Cutie Honey, Go Nagai developed Oira Sukeban, known in America as Delinquent in Drag, and Kekko Kamen in 1974 as well as established the company Dynamic Planning to license the work produced by Nagai’s Dynamic Productions. Despite this, Toei exported projects collaborated with Dynamic overseas without the company’s consent. The year following these advents, Nagai produced the super robot series Steel Jeeg in 1975 for Toei. The series proved to be popular in Europe, especially Italy. In Latin America, the series would be packaged in an animated anthology series similar to Force Five called El Festival de los Robots as El Vengador along with Gaiking (El Gladiador), Starzinger (El Galáctico), and Magne Robo Gakeen (Supermagnetrón). A sequel in Steel God Jeeg would be produced several decades later. Nagai would develop another giant robot series in 1976’s Groizer X for Knack Productions which didn’t do well in Japan but was very popular in Brazil as O Pirata do Espaço. The same year, Nagai and Ishikawa developed the series Puroresu no Hoshi Aztecaser, a professional wrestling (puroresu) based tokusatsu series, for Tsuburaya Productions (famous for the Ultraman series). Also in that year came Shutendoji (which spawned novels, an anime adaptation, and a video game) and the tokusatsu series Battle Hawk (developed with Ishikawa).
Go Nagai followed his steady stream of work up in 1978 with a more traditional Magical Girl series for Toei in Majokko Tickle. Reportedly produced to capitalize on the success of pop singing duo Pink Lady, the series again didn’t perform well in Japan but would prove to be a success in several countries in Europe. The following year, Nagai produced the action adventure manga series Susano Oh which would win the mangaka the Kodansha Manga Award for Shonen. Though the series ended, Go’s brother Yasutaka produced novels based on the work whose success prompted the manga’s return. The series would be adapted for the video game Susano Oh Densetsu. Continuing to produce original work like Hanappe Bazooka, X-Bomber, Maboroshi Panty, Iron Virgin Jun, Psycho Armor Govarian, Barabanba, and Mujigen Hunter Fandora, Nagai would focus on expanding his more popular previous creations. His next creation would take on an entire life of its own outside of its inception.
Produced for Sunrise (famous for Mobile Suit Gundam) in 1989, Jushin Liger was an anime series featuring a transforming superhero teenager battling the evil forces of the Dragonite. However, Jushin Liger would gain a second life in the squared circle. New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) had licensed the rights to manga character Tiger Mask in the early 1980s and decided to do the same with Jushin Liger. Little known wrestler Keiichi Yamada assumed the identity and would become arguably the most popular and famous wrestler in puroresu, traveling the world earning a name in Mexico, America, and more. Liger became a superstar in Japan, starring in comics and television series as well as the live action film Jushin Thunder Liger: Fist of Thunder. Years later, Osaka Pro-Wrestling would contract Nagai to create a wrestling persona for them resulting in Kabuto-O Beetle who also starred in his own film in 2005 (featuring a cameo by Liger). The same year Jushin Liger first appeared on airwaves, Nagai would make a cameo appearance in the American film The Toxic Avenger Part II from Troma Entertainment when the film’s protagonist makes a trip to Japan.
Going into the 1990s, Go Nagai would largely focus on expanding his existing franchises (including CB Chara Nagai Go World featuring chibi versions of his most popular characters) as well as original works like the manga/anime Kamasutra, solo directorial debut on the live action film The Ninja Dragon (as well as producing the manga adaptation), live action films Nagai Go no Horror Gekijo: Mannequin and Kirikagami, and manga/live action films of Lovely Angel. Renewed interest in Nagai’s giant robot properties would come in 1991 with the popular video game Super Robot Wars from Banpresto crossing over the Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, and Mobile Suit Gundam franchises with an original story. With dozens of sequels (not to mention spin-offs like A.C.E.: Another Century’s Episode) across over a dozen platforms, including Super Robot Wars UX a few months ago for the Nintendo 3DS, the series shows no signs of stopping. In 1994, Dynamic Planning expanded into an international division headed up by Federico Colpi and Go Nagai’s brother Kenji, in time forming a network of companies across Asia and Europe called the Dynamic Group of Companies. Nagai continued his trend of producing work based on his properties into the 2000s with the 1997 live action film Kyuketsu Onsen e Yokoso based on his work released to video. Kodansha would establish the “Go Nagai New Talent Award” in 1999 for its publication Magazine Z. In 2001, Nagai would begin producing various historical manga based on figures like Toshusai Sharaku, Date Masamune, Houjou Souun, Maeda Toshiie, Kinshiro Burai Sakura, and Kitagawa Utamaro and in 2010 would adapt Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the series Mugen Utamaro. Sadly, Nagai’s best friend and collaborator Ken Ishikawa died suddenly in 2006 of a heart attack. His final work Getter Robo Hien: The Earth Suicide, which he finished writing before his death, was published the following year illustrated by Naoto Sushima.
In 2005, planning began to construct a museum dedicated to Go Nagai in his hometown of Wajima, Ishikawa as part of the city’s revitalization project. Constructed in 2009, the Go Nagai Wonderland Museum stands today as a monument to the comic creator adorned with a Mazinger Z statue, original pages of artwork from Nagai’s career, an extensive timeline of the mangaka’s career, and a super-deformed statue of Go Nagai himself. In many ways, the entire city pays homage to Nagai featuring his characters in many shops and stores as well as tourist signs throughout the small town. Across the street from the museum, Go’s cousin operates a clothing store that features his famous relative’s characters on various apparel. Last month, Nagai was paid tribute in Los Angeles as part of an art exhibition called “Devils & Robots” at the gallery Q Pop with sixty artists featuring Nagai-inspired art (as well as pieces of Nagai’s original art contributed via a local fan). As for Nagai himself, he continues to produce work at a steady pace. Some of his most recent projects include a crossover manga series growing out of a one-shot teaming his character Enma-kun with one of Osamu Tezuka’s most revered characters in Hyakkimaru of the series Dororo for Dororo and Enma-kun, a Devilman spin-off in Sirene-chan, and Cutey Honey vs Devilman Lady pairing two of his most recognized creations. In his career thus far, he has worked on over four hundred different manga series, almost five dozen series for television or direct-to-video, and over three dozen films (or, at least seen his work adapted as such for TV and film). Go Nagai received the Master class award at the 2011 Yamanashi Literature Cinema Awards and since 2007 has been invited around the world to give lectures and meet his fans in places like Rome, Venice, Naples, Paris, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, South Korea, and, most recently, Monaco.