Few gag mangaka have shaped the landscape of popular culture quite like Koji Kumeta. Despite writing really quite silly stories about hockey players, paranoid students, and suicidal teachers, the author has been a constant boon to both publishers Kodansha and Shogakukan for over 30 years now and provided much of the source material that got the now-legendary Studio SHAFT off the ground. But with Kakushigoto, that might all be coming to an end.
In many ways, Kakushigoto is just another Koji Kumeta manga. It’s comedic approach, art style, and character design certainly make it seem so, at least on the surface level. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that Kumeta’s latest work is a very different beast: not least because of its cast of characters, narrative approach, and sense of industry insight. Furthermore, the way that the author weaves himself into the story – consciously or not – and makes links with his early career means that this series feels like a natural endpoint. Perhaps it would be for the better if the legend of Koji Kumeta ended here.
Given the anime’s imminent premiere and the recent announcement that the manga would be ending with its twelfth collected volume this summer, there’s never been a better time to check it out. Shall we?
Same Old, Same Old?
At first glance, Kakushigoto feels just like any other Koji Kumeta manga. The basic premise is as follows: Kakushi Gotou is a semi-successful mangaka who draws a slightly perverted series that he doesn’t want his daughter, Hime Gotou, to find out about. Most of the chapters center around Kakushi’s overriding desire to hide his true profession from his daughter, even going as far as to fake an office commute in the morning as they head off to school and work respectively.
If you’re a fan of any of Kumeta’s other series, such as Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei or Joshiraku (which Kumeta wrote alongside artist Yasu), then you’ll feel right at home with Kakushigoto. Almost every chapter is stuffed full of clever gags based on esoteric, black humor – my personal favorite so far being chapter 23, where Kakushi and his assistants realize how strange a mangaka’s workplace looks from the outside in.
Speaking of Kumeta’s other series, the character designs in Kakushigoto are so similar to those he has created in the past that, if you tried really hard, you could even imagine that it is a sequel series. More specifically, several of the characters’ designs in Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei have been brought over more or less wholesale: the only thing that sets protagonist Kakushi himself apart from Itoshiki-sensei is his goatee, while the fan-favorite Kitsu makes an appearance as one of Hime’s school friends. Ami, one of Kakushi’s assistants, also resembles the reclusive Komori to a tee, apart from the fact that she ties up her fringe.
Furthermore, in terms of paneling, Kumeta continues with more or less the same layout from his previous works. He uses relatively small panels with lots of text, typical of gag manga, but also occasionally breaks out of that format to deliver a full-body illustration of a character when they are talking. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve seen any of his stories, either in manga or anime form.
Those two previous points may make Kakushigoto sound a little unappealing, given that Kumeta is more or less resting on his laurels. But, to be honest, there isn’t much reason not to do so. Kumeta’s character designs have always been iconic and seeing them in any context, recycled or not, is a joy to behold. Kumeta’s paneling, too, has always been at the heart of what makes his stories so unique in the wider manga landscape.
Furthermore, there are several differences that make Kakushigoto distinct from Kumeta’s other works. For one, the series does not enjoy the same Showa era, retro-style aesthetic as Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei so unique, and neither are the character designs so outlandish. In this sense, dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Kumeta’s latest series is a very different beast.
Firstly, in terms of characters, Kakushigoto is much more realistic. While Zetsubou Sensei created characters that were more representations of certain traits (Itoshiki’s depression, Kitsu’s obsessiveness, etc. etc.), Kumeta fills the pages of his latest series with characters that feel a little more like real people, with real priorities and real quirks. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the manga doesn’t get outlandish every now and again – the owner of the fashion store where Kakushi changes out of his business suit and into his mangaka outfit is but an example of this – but there clearly has been a shift in priorities. That is worth mentioning.
More realistic characters help, in turn, with the series’ more realistic setting. Again, to draw on the example of Zetsubou Sensei, the adventures of Itoshiki et al. took place in a bizarre, timeless vacuum – sometimes the Showa era, sometimes the modern era – whereas Kakushigoto takes place very clearly in the modern-day, with modern technology and the modern way of life prevalent and playing a fairly large role. It even touches on the slow shift to digital-based art tools, which many in the industry are struggling with at the current moment.
Furthermore, unlike Zetsubou Sensei, Kakushigoto has a central narrative of sorts that helps keep things moving firmly forward. While most of the chapter-by-chapter narratives of the series are based around Kakushi’s overriding desire to keep his true profession hidden from his daughter, these are also placed alongside a concurrent narrative set in the future where Hime has grown up and is finding out her father’s secret for the first time.
That is not to say, of course, that Kumeta’s previous series lacked narrative integrity – Zetsubou Sensei is infamous for its final chapter, which completely changed the context of the entire series – but that the narratives sprung largely from character interactions and lacked a central throughline. In this sense, Kakushigoto is entirely unique.
Kakushi, Kumeta, and Kakushigoto
Speaking of Koji Kumeta, probably the most interesting part of Kakushigoto is trying to figure out how much of the author’s own experiences may or may not be threaded throughout. Aside from comedy, one of the series’ overriding priorities is to provide an insight into the manga industry; more specifically, into the life and times of a semi-successful gag mangaka. Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Nevertheless, speaking in an interview with Comic Natalie in 2016, Kumeta refuted the idea that this manga was somehow about him, or that Kakushi was his self-insert:
“If you say that I’ll get really pissed off. It’s not true! For one, the way that I draw [him] is really cool. I don’t want you to think that I made myself look really cool. That’s why I decided to draw all of the mangaka that appear [in the series] the same way.”
That last part refers to the other author characters that appear over the course of the series, of which there are a fair few. But what is important here is that while Kakushigoto may not be a one-to-one representation of Kumeta’s life, there are certainly similarities. Take, for instance, this moment where he talks about a certain scene in the manga where Kakushi and his assistants procrastinate by making gyoza:
“There have been plenty of times in the past where I’ve procrastinated by cooking. But now that my assistants work from home, that’s all gone away. Even so, in terms of the manga industry, I can only draw from my own experiences – I don’t have any friends.”
If we put aside that last part (which makes you feel a little sorry for him), it’s clear that Kakushigoto is just as much the story of Koji Kumeta as it is Kakushi Gotou. But we should be careful not to bend the stick too far in one direction. First of all, Kumeta doesn’t appear to have any children, so Kakushi’s relationship with his daughter is something that was more or less invented for the sake of an exciting narrative. There’s also his refutation of the self-insert idea, as outlined previously.
What’s more, Kumeta has never been the most reliable interviewee. It can sometimes hard to tell if the things that he says are true, or if they are simply comedic over-exaggerations. I suppose that can’t be helped, considering that he is a gag mangaka. Furthermore, he actually preemptively apologizes at the end of the interview for accidentally contradicting anything he has said before, so all of this should be taken with a fairly large grain of salt.
Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to see Kakushigoto as just one part of Koji Kumeta’s long, illustrious career. In many ways, it feels like the end. Kumeta has been talking for years now about how old he is and how he might keel over at any point – he started that last interview by saying that the only reason he agreed to do a new exhibition was that this might be the “last time” he gets a chance to do so. That might sound like a comedic over-exaggeration, but it’s probably truer than you might think.
Koji Kumeta is now 50 years old. Writing manga on a serialized basis, let alone a weekly basis is a young man’s game. Hence why Masashi Kishimoto recently fobbed off art duties to a collaborator, Akira Okubo, for Samurai 8 – doing both at the same time is an incredible strain on the body and mind. Given that he has more or less always been a one-man team, Kumeta’s saving grace over the years has probably been the relative simplicity of his manga, owing to its comedic nature. KochiKame author Osamu Akimoto also continued to write his series in Weekly Shonen Jump until he was over 60 years old, so perhaps there’s time yet.
Even so, the way that Kakushigoto focuses on Kumeta’s own experiences speaks volumes as to the creator’s current state of mind. In the interview, he states that it was initially his editor’s idea to do a “mangaka manga,” but he has since made that idea his own – adding in the whole father/daughter dynamic, as well as coloring the entire thing with his own experiences. Without Koji Kumeta, Kakushigoto would be nothing.
Creators always tend to shift to stories about writing stories in the twilight of their careers. In the first place, this is because doing so requires a large amount of experience to draw from, which necessarily comes from a long career. But, in many cases, this also means that they are scraping the bottom of the barrel – falling back on their immediate experiences instead of using their imagination. If they continue to write after doing so, it’s usually not nearly as good – just ask any fan of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata.
Koji Kumeta may now be more preoccupied with what he has created than what he can create, but this doesn’t mean that he can’t go out on a high note. In many ways, the similarities between Kakushigoto and his previous work only go to show how much the author has managed to boil his comedy and style down to a fine art, while the differences show that he still has some creative energy left. If Kakushigoto ends up being his last hurrah, then that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Kakushigoto: Koji Kumeta’s Self-Reflecting Swansong
Of course, the question is not what will happen if Kakushigoto comes to an end. It already is. Come the release of the series’ twelfth volume this summer, it will finish publication in Monthly Shonen Magazine, placing a huge question mark over the author’s next steps. Will he continue creating? Probably, but not in the way that you might think.
Kumeta has been drifting for years towards a less labor-intensive role in the anime and manga industry. Take, for example, his 2009 manga Joshiraku. That series was written by Kometa and drawn by artist Yasu most likely out of necessity, given that Kometa was in the middle of serializing Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei, but this is not the last we have seen of the more cooperative Koji Kumeta. In 2013, he contributed character designs for P.A. Works’ original anime series, The Eccentric Family. Could this be the pattern of Kumeta’s work going forward? I sure hope so.
Speaking of anime, we should also note that the upcoming Kakushigoto anime adaptation, directed by Yuuta Murano over at studio Ajia-Do, will bring new eyes to the series like never before. While it is a shame that Studio SHAFT and director Akiyuki Shinbou aren’t tackling this one (as has been customary in the past) veteran voice actors such as Hiroshi Kamiya and Ayane Sakura are lending their talents to the production, so hopefully, those tuning in won’t be disappointed. I’ll be covering it week by week as it comes out, so definitely keep an eye out for that.
By way of a conclusion, I’ll return to the very beginning of the first chapter of Kakushigoto. In it, Hime Gotou travels to the seaside town of Kamakura, where she discovers the true job that her father has been hiding for all these years. As Kumeta noted in the Comic Natalie interview, this sort of brings to mind the seaside setting of Go!! Southern Ice Hockey Club, which was Kumeta’s first breakout hit. In this sense, the end loops right back to the beginning.
Powerful forces are pushing the author to make Kakushigoto his final job (shigoto). Will this be the case? Only time will tell.
NB. Kumeta is also serializing Studio Pulp for publisher Hakusensha. This series started around the same time as Kakushigoto and is a sort of crossover manga between the worlds of Katte ni Kaizou and Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei but fell out of the scope of this piece, hence why it is not included.