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Brain Diving
Lookin' for manga in all the right places

by Brian Ruh,

Browsing is both a skill and an art form. It's a technique you've got to hone when you're on the prowl for that specific something you're looking for; you may not know it until you see it, but you definitely need to find it. I've spent quite a number of hours trying to perfect my technique going through countless shelves of old books, CDs, records, and comics in too many stores and used book drives to mention.

One of the reasons I love manga is that there is always something new out there. The selection of manga is so wide and varied that it would take many lifetimes to read through it all. Although it's true that we get our fair share of manga in English, there are of course still many more that remain untranslated. I'm sure every person reading this probably has a favorite title that he or she is just dying to see come out over here. Unfortunately, for a manga to get an English version, it has to seem like it will cross a certain threshold of appeal it order to make the money back that the publisher spends translating, retouching, and printing more copies. And for the majority of the market that's out there, manga is a business not an art.

If you're like me, and YOU're a regular ANN reader, you're pretty well aware of what's already available in English. I've found that, in many ways, being well informed actually takes away from the joy of discovery. I remember going to my first anime con and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities out there – there were so many titles I had never seen that it seemed like every time I turned around I was discovering something new. These days, though, so much just seems old hat. Oh, don't get me wrong, I still get excited over certain anime or manga titles, but that spark of finding something new just isn't there so much anymore.

I guess part of the reason I feel this way is that since I already know what's out there in English, I'm pretty sure I won't happen across something unexpected. However, this isn't the case when it comes to Japanese manga. There are so many authors and titles out there that I'm unfamiliar with that there's always the chance of finding something new and different. However, there are a couple problems with this. The first is that online browsing is just not the same as looking in person. Like I said, the skill of sifting through things is a skill that you have to cultivate through long hours of dedicated practice. It's not the same as just following a few links online. The second is that if you're like me, you don't have a place near you where you can go browse through shelves of Japanese manga. I'm always envious of people who are within easy reach of a Kinokuniya or a Book-Off; if you're one of these fortunate folks, you don't know how good you have it.

So what do I do when I'm in the mood to browse and am trying to find something new? I pull out a book.  Although it's certainly no substitute for a personal visit to a Japanese bookstore, Manga Design helps to satisfy my craving when I just want to browse. It's a handy reference and even though it's a few years old and I've paged through it a number of times, I always end up finding something new as I flip through it.

I've mentioned browsing because I think that this is the best way to approach a book like Manga Design. It was published in 2004 by Taschen, a German publisher of books on art, architecture, photography, and the like. They publish books that run the gamut from easily affordable softcovers to horrendously expensive collector's editions that sell for thousands of dollars apiece. When Manga Design came out, Japanese comics seemed like the next big thing in global popular culture, so it made complete sense that such a publisher would want to wade into the fray.

Although Manga Design has the word “design” in the title, it's not about how manga is designed, nor is it about the use of manga elements in Japanese graphic design. (The editors seem to have been ambivalent about the word as well, since from the front cover the book looks like it's simply called Manga. The full name only appears on the interior title page.) Rather, it's a compilation of nearly 140 different manga artists and their works. It's a large brick of a book, printed on glossy paper and filled with color images. There's not much to be found here on the history of manga or on what someone who isn't already a fan might get out of such manga images. The little history there is in the book is provided by an introduction written by co-editor Julius Wiedemann that you can read on the Taschen website. Other than that, the images are for the most part left to stand for themselves.

Each entry for an artist follows a specific pattern. There is an initial page in orange that gives the artist's name in both Japanese and Roman letters, as well as some basic facts about their work, such as when he or she debuted, best known works, and any anime adaptations that have been made. There is also a brief summary of the artist's work in Japanese. The next page is a reproduction of a number of frames of the artist's work. The third page contains translations of the Japanese artist summary into English, French, and German, along with cover images from three tankoubon. The fourth and final page is usually a few more representative pages from the artist's body of work. This general pattern is repeated throughout with little variation, although the top manga creators like Osamu Tezuka and Fujiko Fujio get more attention. There is a great selection of artists presented here, ranging from the very popular to the relatively obscure. I'm particularly impressed with the time and effort that had to have gone into securing the rights to reproduce all of these images from their respective Japanese companies. I've only had limited experience working with Japanese rights holders, but I've heard stories of how tightly they tend to control the reproduction of their works. Someone definitely deserves a round of applause for the fact that they were able to even come out with a book like this at all.

One of the features downplayed by the book is the DVD that is included. Although it's mentioned on the cover that a DVD is included, its contents are never really made very clear, even within the book itself. And to be completely honest, this is one part of the book that I always kept forgetting about as well – I would regularly pull out the book to rifle through its pages, but I think I'd only really looked through the DVD once before I sat down to write this column. It's a shame, too, because there is some great content on there – there are interviews with three manga artists, a gallery of covers, and tours of manga bookstores in Japan.

The introduction to the book says that the interviews on the DVD are with “an underground manga artist, a traditional artist, and one currently popular artist,” who end up being Usamaru Furuya, Reiko Okano, and Naoki Urasawa, respectively. All three interviews begin by asking how they began as manga artists. Usamaru Furuya discusses his background in fine arts, how he came to be a manga artist, and his experiences working with many different types of magazines. He also discusses how he created the Palepoli manga, which is a unique take on 4-panel manga. (He says he spent a whole day on each panel, so each completed page took nearly a week.) Naoki Urasawa discusses things like his initial disenchantment with commercial manga, being inspired by Katsuhiro Ōtomo, the length of manga series, and his experiences working with editors (Takashi Nagasaki in particular, who has worked with Urasawa since his debut and who is the only editor I've heard of who has risen to the level of co-creator alongside the artist). Reiko Okano discusses the importance of music to her creative process, her use of tone, and some of the specific techniques she uses to create her manga. Each interview is between 15 and 25 minutes long, so as a whole they are fairly substantial.

Part of the reason why not much was made of these artists when the book came out might have been that there wasn't much of their work available in English yet. Usamaru Furuya just had his Short Cuts series and a few excerpts from Palepoli in Viz's Secret Comics Japan anthology. None of Naoki Urasawa's manga was available in English in 2004 (although we did have the anime adaptation of Master Keaton). Similarly, Reiko Okano had no manga releases in English to her name. Now Usamaru's Genkaku Picasso is being published by Viz and his Lychee Light Club and No Longer Human coming out later this year from Vertical. Many of Urasawa's best-known manga are available in English, including Monster, Pluto, and 20th Century Boys. And as for Reiko Okano… well, okay, there's still nothing yet. Two out of three isn't bad, though.

Another feature on the DVD are profiles of four different stores that sell manga – Junkudo Ikebukuro, Books Sanseido Comic Station Shibuya, Manga no Mori in Toshima, and Book 1st in Shibuya. The short segments cover the history of the stores, their clientele, and the types of manga and related books they carry, including the titles they recommend. This information is conveyed by a person onscreen who is presumably a staff member of the store, intercut with footage of what the inside of the store itself looks like. Each piece runs for just a few minutes, which is enough to give a flavor of the store and the types of comics they sell. However, all of the stores are fairly mainstream and located in the Tokyo area. It would have been nice to see if there's any difference between the stores in Tokyo and those in other parts of Japan, as well as a segment on a store that specialized in underground comics such as TACO che.

There are some aspects of Manga Design that are likely to frustrate the casual reader, though. The first is that the artists are organized in the book in Japanese alphabetical order. For a reader not familiar with how to look things up in this way, finding a particular artist in the sea of pages will be rather hit or miss. The second is the lack of image credits, which to me is the main drawback to the book. In other words, if you see a panel from a manga that catches your eye and would like to read more, you will know the artist, but you won't know for sure which work it's from. There's another problem that goes along with this absence of credits, since images are occasionally placed with the wrong creator. This actually occurs in the very first entry in the book – although the profile is on Kōji Aihara, one of the manga covers is by Yuji Aoki, who has the next entry. If you're not paying attention to the Japanese names or the art style, this could certainly cause confusion the few times it happens.

In spite of some of these flaws, I have held on to my copy of Manga Design for these many years and constantly refer back to it. It's a great book to have around when I want to browse or am in the mood to try to find something new. Although it's not in print any more, I found plenty of used copies available looking around online. I'd certainly recommend picking a copy up for your own browsing needs.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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