“Two boys have bad eye”: The Labor of Looking and Representation in The Four Immigrants Manga

Henry Kiyama’s semi-autobiographical bilingual comic strip, The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924 (1931), follows four Japanese student immigrants in the early years of the twentieth century and depicts the hardships they face as they try to settle in California, find employment, and learn to navigate the modern American metropolis. The Manga takes on contemporaneous cultural representations of East Asian immigrants, simultaneously uncovering and giving form to the affective, social, and historical processes that underlie the production of racial stereotypes. At the same time, it traces the author’s artistic development and shows him working assiduously to master traditional Western painterly techniques in order to “create some masterpieces, fusing the best of East and West.”[1] In this way, the comic strip represents and examines its own mode of production, typifying the modernist artwork’s self-conscious reflection on its own conditions of possibility. In setting up the parallel between Henry’s artistic labor and the other characters’ abortive attempts to secure jobs and make profitable investments, Kiyama’s work makes explicit the interdependence of the historically specific forms of aesthetic production at the turn of the century and the form of labor under capitalism. It gives expression to what Stewart Martin characterizes as the “antinomy of autonomous art in capitalist culture,” whereby the modernist work of art “obscures its constitution within commodity culture” by way of its formal abstraction, only to converge with the commodity form by virtue of the exchange-value it accrues, paradoxically, as a work of art.[2