‘Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie’ captures postwar spirit of jazz as uniter

The cover of the first volume of “Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie” by Koukou Haida published by Kodansha

“It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” is the title of a famous Duke Ellington masterpiece, but this was apparently also his pet phrase. Come to think of it, jazz has a curious history in Japan. Even before World War II, “jazz kouta” (Japanese ballads sung in a jazz style) were popular in Japan, sung by such singers as Teiichi Futamura and Taro Shoji. After the war, jazz was one of Japan’s mainstream music genres, along with “kayokyoku,” or Japanese pop songs of the Showa era (1926-89). Yes, Japanese people do love jazz.

What is it about jazz that makes it so mesmerizing? That’s the theme of Koukou Haida’s “Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie.”

The story is set in 1951 during the Allied Occupation of Japan. The protagonist is called “Tora” (Tiger) because she was born in the Year of the Tiger, although her real name is Oto. She comes to Tokyo from Fukui Prefecture with her sister’s double bass.

Tora is looking for a double bass player named Odajima to take him back to Fukui. Odajima attempted to commit suicide with Tora’s older sister six years earlier and subsequently lost his memory. As Tora sings and plays on the street in Tokyo, Maruyama, the leader of Maruyama Band of which Odajima is a member, takes notice and scouts her for the act. Tora makes her debut with the band as the diva Tiny Tiger at a club inside sprawling Camp Drake, which extends over Saitama Prefecture and Tokyo, enthralling U.S. soldiers hungry for entertainment.

In terms of jazz-themed manga, I believe that the greatest one in recent years is the “Blue Giant” series by Shinichi Ishizuka, which is still ongoing. However, “Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie” is on a par with that series in its appeal. Kudos to Tora’s sizzling allure as she sings and swings on stage to Odajima’s bass.

The historical context is described in careful detail, giving weight to the human drama, from the dark side of the music industry soon after the war to the torment felt by U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan who are dispatched to the Korean Peninsula after the outbreak of the Korean War.

“Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie” concluded with the sixth volume in November last year. It’s short, but it’s excellent and unforgettable.

The manga is Haida’s first work serialized in a magazine. The background in each panel is heavily drawn as if it were a gekiga (serious) comic for adults from the Showa era, whereas the characters look pop- and anime-like, a striking mismatch that is not usually associated with a newcomer. Each cover of the six volumes in book form is designed to look like an old record cover, set in a playfully retro style. An accompanying CD (titled “With Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie”) is on sale, too. The disc includes “Tiger Rag” by the Mills Brothers, which Tora sings in the manga. Reading “Swingin’ Dragon & Tiger Boogie” while listening to the CD is doubly entertaining.

Above all, the most touching part is the process of how the Americans and the Japanese, recent enemies, begin to nurture a friendship as they connect through jazz. This manga reinforces my conviction that jazz is similar to modern manga in that they both were originally a “borrowed” culture from overseas that have undergone unique development in Japan and evolved into major entertainment genres that represent Japan. Let’s leave all that serious reasoning aside, though. It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing!

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer