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Glenn Ibbitson Sensei

The Sensei

b. about 1910   d. unknown [possibly during active war service: 1942-5]

A vigilante operating on the very edges of the law. A loner ascribed phenomenal physical prowess. A creature of the night. A man with a secret identity, which he never surrendered. This was Sensei; part skilled performer, part people’s hero, mostly myth.

What can be firmly established is that Sensei presented a touring theatrical light show. By the 19th Century the Ninja figure of the Japanese feudal history had metamorphosed into a folklore figure ascribed near superhuman properties [invisibility, walking on water]. Sensei built his reputation as a performer on this mythology. His act utilised new technology in the form of gas-filled tungsten lamps, which had became more common in the 1920s. Attached to the tip of his sword [ a curved samurai blade rather than the Ninjato] was a lamp. He employed consummate sword-play to ‘write’ a succession of Haiku. In elegant calligraphy in space, the light trace created would remain visible to his audience as a momentary optical after-image, before disappearing. After this literally dazzling display, the performer too evaporated into thin air; always evading those determined to unmask him.

Because his theatrical reputation relied to some extent on the preservation of his secret identity, a parallel reputation for vigilante activities developed around him. A mysterious spirit on the side of the powerless, many stories were fabricated around him. By the 1930’s, In response to the the growing interest in him,  Manga artists began to chronicle his exploits in print for public consumption. Sensei’s first manga outing was a cameo appearance in 1931, in “Norakuro Nitou Sotsu” (Norakuro, Private, 2nd Class ) by Suiho Tagawa. Designed for Shonen Kurabuas magazine as a year-long serial,   Sensei appeared as a mercenary saboteur in several issues across a span of ten years. The series ended in 1941 when the military government closed non-propaganda publications to conserve paper during war-waging in Manchuria. After December 7th, 1941, Japan severed all diplomatic links to the west and entered into global war. The Sensei was at that point lost to history.

However, the Sensei of the manga strips had already been duly noted by a young American cartoonist. Arthur J. Kane was a naval officer in the pre-war U.S. Pacific Fleet and had visited Japan several times in the early thirties. He collected manga magazines to fuel his nephew’s passion for cartooning. By 1939, that nephew, Robert Kane had combined elements of “Zorro”; movie criminal “The Bat” and historical figure Robert the Bruce, to create “The Batman”. What has only emerged more recently is that his creation also owed much to the Sensei. A sketchbook covering a period from spring 1937 to January1938 shows several studies of a hooded figure dressed in black and wielding a sword. To the last of these, a pair of ears has been added to the cowl. In a letter dated June 1939 and unearthed only after his death in 1988, Kane revealed to associate Bill Finger that he wished his new character’s outfit to be dark and tight fitting ” like that worn by Sensei…. to which I intend to add a scallop-edged cape..” ”

In this way, a real person who had been inspired to base his persona on a folk character stealing silently through the early 19th Century woodblocks of Hokusai, was in his turn, mythologised by his contemporaries in comic strips. This manga hero subsequently morphed across continents and cultures into the persona of The Batman. By such cultural cross-fertilisations are great cinematic franchises born.

more work at www.smokingbrushfineart.com

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