“Ebisu Yoshikazu likes peering in on and laughing at our nightmares as they hide in our dressers and behind our curtains,” writes Minami Shinbō in an introductory essay to the first English translation of Yoshikazu’s The Pits of Hell, which is soon to be published by Breakdown Press on 5 November. “He is a dangerous person,” Minami continues. “Ebisu Yoshikazu knows nightmares well, and he is afraid of them. Precisely because he is afraid of them, he enjoys making them his pets…”
If you have even the slightest suspicion Minami might be over-egging the pudding, think again my friend. Featuring tortured teachers who totally lose it, extreme violence at work and some incredibly deranged characters doing bad, bad shit (sometimes with crowbars), Yoshikazu’s cult comic contains more darkness, wrath and terrible weirdness than most mortals will experience in lifetime. To be fair, when an artist’s bio reads, “Television star, father of three, professional gambler, writer, cartoonist, pioneer,” you know you’re in for a fricking surreal time.
A stalwart of Tokyo’s razor-edged counterculture in the 1970s and 80s, Yoshikazu first published the nine stories that make up The Pits of Hell in 1981. He cut his teeth at the tail end of underground manga’s first golden age and was the daddy of heta-uma, the dark cousin of punk and new wave. “Heta-uma prizes immediacy, irreverence, humour, self-indulgence,” says Breakdown’s Joe Kessler, when we quiz him about the new book. Like punk or new wave it was a reaction to smoothness, slickness and polish, and allowed artists to follow their inclinations “no matter how base or basic,” Joe adds. “Heta-uma doesn’t seem to disregard skill or self-reflection, or… any particular set of values. It reappraises what drawings are and finds them to be a window into a particularly goofy part of our consciousness.”
Joe still seems genuinely shocked that The Pits of Hell has never before been published in English, and it’s clear to see why. With sophisticated storytelling and iconic characterisation, its clearly a cult classic in waiting. “There is appeal in the bizarre imagery and articulate depictions of emotional and physical extremes, but there is appeal throughout Ebisu’s drawing,” says Joe. “His work is expertly composed and solidly, clearly drawn. But most of all he has the ability to make things interesting to look at – a surfeit of personality on the page.” Given all this energy, one of the challenges Joe faced was redesigning the book, especial as the Japanese edition, designed by King Terry Johnson, sits high up in his pantheon. “I tried to get out of the way as much as possible,” he says of his approach.
With a big focus on workplace stress, instability and surreal cultural moments, The Pits of Hell feels just as relevant today as it did in the 1980s, and has a lot to say whether you’re a manga enthusiast or not. “The work seems generally relevant to anyone who has felt deranged and repressed, downtrodden and guilty, repugnant and hilarious, trapped in something beyond their control,” adds Joe. “Relatable content!”