Tokyo’s manga man makes you sweat

Tokyo’s manga man makes you sweat

Once an unemployed recluse, Rikimaru Toho now performs manga in Tokyo's clubs, theaters and on its streets. It's storytelling, but not as you know it
Rikimaru Toho manga man

It's 10 p.m. in Shimokitazawa, a neighborhood of circuitous alleyways 10 minutes or so west of central Tokyo by train. Think Long Island City or Williamsburg in Brooklyn, early 1990s. Three separate bands busk on street corners at the bottom of a hill. Above them looms a giant McDonald’s and several closet-sized ramen shops. Three cops appear, batons in hands, nodding sternly, and the bands crumple their gear into canvas sacks and disappear. A few minutes later one of the bands, a hyper-speed blues trio, reappears and plays two more numbers in front of applauding passers-by. Then they fold it all up again.


Rikimaru Toho manga man was once a recluse

Manga is music to the ears

Just past 10:30 p.m. Rikimaru Toho bounds down the station stairs with plastic bags in both hands and a plastic washbasin under one arm. Toho is a professional manga reader. He has been out here every Saturday night since five years ago, when he moved to the city from the seaside village of Chigasaki. On Sunday afternoons, he’s at nearby Inokashira Park, only a few stations away. 

“My job is bringing manga to the streets. When I was younger, I loved folk songs. I played guitar and sang. I discovered that I could hit all the high notes when I sang. So I thought, if I twist my voice around a little, I’ll sound like a high-pitched anime character. Childlike. I wanted to be an anime voice actor. I thought I’d practice for the job by reading manga out loud. Suddenly, I realized my guitar had turned into a manga book. It was my new instrument.

“I was a classic hikikomori  (recluse) and NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) type of person. I couldn’t fit in. Now I get offers to perform on stages in clubs and theaters. Media people in Japan are interested in me. But the best thing about my manga performances is when audience members are sweating when they thank me after a reading. I’m the one who performed -- but they’re the ones sweating!”

Rikimaru Toho manga man now reads as a performer

No genre out of bounds

Toho holds up a Kazuo Umezu horror manga and opens it to page one. He is growling out the dialogue, his eyes bouncing. A 20-something couple stops to listen. The boy laughs and hugs his girl closer. Like American kids at a county fair, they choose another story, a romance, and settle in. 

In this short clip from Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, the Manga Man reads from "Slam Dunk," Takehiko Inoue’s hit manga series about competing high school basketball teams. The scene depicts a crucial moment in the story when the hero, a newbie, manages to steal the ball from a veteran captain. Toho starts with streams of onomatopoeia, evoking mayhem on the court. At around the 50-second mark, the hero says: “Heh-heh. I got the ball!” and at 57 seconds, the crowd roars: “Amazing! He finally got it! He got the ball away from the captain!” Finally, at 1:05, Toho impersonates a young female fan featured in close-up gushing “He’s so awesome. And now everyone understands how great he really is. Yes!”

All images courtesy of 4connection.

*Manga man Rikimaru Toho performs on Saturday nights under the railway tracks at Shimikitazawa station, and on Sunday afternoons/evenings in Inokashira Park. More info can be found at his website (Japanese only)

Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US.

Roland Nozomu Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, essayist and lecturer who divides his time between New York and Tokyo. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US" and the forthcoming novel, "Access."

He is also a columnist and National Public Radio Radio guest whose work appears in numerous publications in the United States, Japan and Europe.

Read more about Roland Kelts