Brain Diving The Age of Manga
by Brian Ruh, Oct 5th 2010
Comics and cartoons seem to naturally go hand in hand; the comics I read have always depended on the cartoons I watched. When I was growing up, I loved Star Trek, Transformers and G.I. Joe, so most of the comics I bought were in those franchises. Even though I would look around when I was at comic stores, I didn't branch out very often. Sure, I'd pick up the odd superhero comic here and there, but since I didn't really watch such cartoons or play with superhero toys, they didn't do much for me. I think one of the reasons is that a lot of comics feature long-running storylines that require a lot of previous knowledge to really get what's going on – from the few times I picked up an interesting-looking comic at random, I realized it's not something that you can just jump right into. I learned the hard way that this can be true even if it's a franchise you think you'll know. (In the very first issue of the G.I. Joe comic that I ever bought, it seemed that Snake Eyes stepped on a landmine and was killed, which upset my little mind greatly until I discovered in later issues that it was all a ruse and he had faked his death.)
It was the same way with manga for me when I was getting into the anime scene. When I studied abroad in Japan as an undergrad, I was inundated with the varieties of manga that were available at the average bookstore. I just didn't know where to begin, so I stuck with what was safe and, as my first manga purchase, bought the first four volumes of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although it probably wasn't the most inspired choice, when confronted with so much choice I just went with what I knew.
This week's featured Read This! article is “How Manga Reinvented Comics” by Paul Gravett, and it caught my eye precisely because of these experiences I had with comics. As Gravett writes, “one of anime's roles outside Japan has been as an ambassador for their comics.” I know it may not be like this for everyone, but for me animation always provided an easier point of entry for getting into a particular franchise. Indeed, it wasn't until anime had established a commercial beachhead in North America in the 1990s that we began seeing more manga coming out over here. Gravett suggests that this might be a more general trait of manga. Since it has its own way of telling a story that may not be immediately obvious to those with little experience reading such comics, manga were slower than anime to be adapted in many English-speaking countries.
When you stop to think about it, it's really kind of strange that we've only had manga in English since the 1970s, and it's only really gotten popular in the last decade or two. As I'll be discussing later in this column, some scholars have asserted that manga and its roots go back for centuries. Although anime is much more recent (it began in the twentieth century) when Japan began producing manga films and television shows after World War II, it wasn't unheard of them to show up in English versions within a year or two. So why has manga in English been so late to the game?
Gravett asserts that while “despite cultural references and stylistic traits, anime was broadly not so different from drawn animation enjoyed worldwide.” In other words, anime was a variation on a theme – it may have looked and sounded a bit different at times, but we could still understand anime as being like the cartoons that we were used to. Make a few edits for content, slap a new dub track on, and voilà, you've got a new product ready for export. Manga, as Gravett explains, was a more complicated case, owing to the “arsenal of narrative devices and techniques which cumulative generations of mangaka or comics authors have refined or introduced to expand the expressive capabilities of the medium.” In many ways, from their beginnings, film and television were global media – when Japan was first developing its film industry, it first looked to the West for examples of how to use the new cinematic technologies to tell stories. This made moving images more or less universal. I'm sure we have all had the experience of watching a movie or TV show in a language we didn't fully understand. But, more often than not, we are able to follow along with what is going on by piecing together the expressions of the characters and how the onscreen action is shown to us. What Gravett is saying is that unlike anime, manga often doesn't have a common global language to fall back on. Sure many countries have different types of comics, but the forms they take can vary greatly from country to country. In the case of Japan, as Gravett points out, the way their publishing system functioned gave manga authors many more pages to work with than US comics authors got. This meant that while US comics could be dense and rather text-heavy, manga had more room to decompress and show actions across multiple panels or pages. (Of course I'm just generalizing here.) This meant that manga came up with its own way of showing what was going on in a story, which makes perfect sense if you know what you're looking at, but isn't always readily apparent to those on the outside.
In addition to this article, Gravett wrote the book Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, which I hope to get to in a future column. But I wanted to mention the title of his book because it makes for an intriguing contrast with the book I'll be focusing on this week.
One Thousand Years of Manga by Brigitte Koyama-Richard
Okay, at this point you may be wondering to yourself, “Wait, just how old is manga anyway? One book says sixty years, one says a thousand years. Surely one of those has got to be wrong.” My response is that it all depends on what you consider manga.
In the 1990s and 2000s, people in Japan began noticing that the stuff like comics, animation, and video games they had been producing were starting to attract a following overseas. Popular culture was becoming the public face of Japan to the rest of the world. Although these things were once mere throwaway products of no importance, they were now being reclaimed and reincorporated back into Japanese culture. Part of this meant that things like manga needed to have a good long history attached to them, something that would add weight and heft.
Many centuries ago, artists in Japan produced scrolls that were very much like comics or caricature. The most famous scroll of this type still in existence is called “Frolicking Animals and People” by Bishop Toba. When people talk about manga being “a thousand” years old, stuff like this is usually what they're referring to. Although it could certainly be called comics or “sequential art,” I'm not so sure that I'd call it manga. As mentioned above and in last week's column, some of the most distinguishing features of manga are how it tells its stories across panels and pages. These early scrolls do often tell a story, but it's on one long piece of paper without breaking things up. (The idea of publishing manga in a book or magazine format with the art divided into panels is actually a relatively modern one.) I think these scrolls could be considered ancestors or precursors of manga, but it's not manga itself.
This isn't to say that everyone who tried to look back to see the origins or manga is necessarily a Japanese nationalist trying to give such comics a centuries-old lineage it doesn't deserve. There's certainly value to be gained in looking back that far historically. Obviously, such scrolls mean that people in Japan have been creating comic pictures for many hundreds of years. It's worth thinking about the reasons why and how someone like Toba would have created “Frolicking Animals and People” as well as why someone more contemporary might make comics.
Koyama-Richard's book provides a roughly chronological look at how manga came into being. Other than the caveat above about how old this thing called “manga” is, I quite enjoyed how it presented the material and it is very informative in places. The book begins by looking at the early Japanese scrolls I mentioned above. However, even here it's hard to definitively trace back manga's origins for a thousand years. There are a few from the eleventh or twelfth century, but many of the examples, even in early chapters, are of fairly recent vintage – nineteenth century and more recent. The second chapter discusses the Edo period (1603-1868), but even the majority of these selections are selected from the latter part of the time period.
The main strength of the book is the part that covers the late nineteenth century, just after Japan opened itself to more foreign influences. Koyama-Richard spends a few paragraphs on the works of Charles Wirgman and Georges Bigot, two Western caricaturists who ended up having a strong impact on the development of manga. She also discusses the illustrated postcards of Gaikotsu Miyatake that were popular in the early twentieth century and which served as a bridge between Japanese prints and Western comic styles. Other artists she focuses on include Rakuten and Ippei Okamoto. In the many reproductions of the art featured in the book from around this time, we can see how what we now think of as manga began to evolve into a recognizable form.
However, there are some definite pieces missing in the chronology of manga. If you weren't reading carefully, you might miss that World War II happened at all – there is a paragraph on how the government began taking away the freedom of the press in the 1920s, and that even manga was pressed into service for the good of the nation. Little is said about how this worked and the impact it had on manga's future development, although Koyama-Richard mentions that there a postwar “renaissance” in manga once Japan began to rebuild. And of course there is a chapter devoted to the works of Osamu Tezuka, who is used as the main representative of post-World War II manga.
Surprisingly, for a book with “manga” in the title, its weakest part is where it discusses contemporary Japanese comics. Within a few pages, it moves from Tezuka, to gekiga, to the 1960s, to what manga is like today. The book succumbs to the temptation of trying to provide a glimpse at the breadth of all of the different kinds of manga that are out there, but since Koyama-Richard casts her net so widely she ends up saying little of consequence about manga these days. In a move reminiscent of what Schodt did in Dreamland Japan, Koyama-Richard then highlight specific manga artists – usually just for a paragraph or two. The artists she focuses on are Ryoko Ikeda, Hinako Sugiura, Leiji Matsumoto, Jiro Taniguchi, and Shigeru Mizuki. To me, the focus of Mizuki is almost worth the price of the book itself. Although Mizuki is one of the biggest names in manga, very little of his work has been released in English. (A few of his titles have been announced for future English publication, but I'm still waiting for Gegege no Kitaro, his most famous work.) Tying manga back to the Japanese prints she had previously discussed, Koyama-Richard spends a number of pages detailing Mizuki's process of creating the prints he recently made for his “Fifty-three Stations of the Youkaidou” series, in which he took the prints in Hiroshige's “Fifty-three Stations of the Toukaidou” (created in the 1830s) and re-created them with his own unique twist, incorporating Kitaro and other youkai (Japanese monsters) from his manga series. As fascinating as this is, though, such prints aren't really “manga,” per se, but they again point to the fact that contemporary manga artists reference and draw from the art of the past.
One of the highlights of the book is the wonderful images that are reproduced throughout. Much like Helen McCarthy's book on Tezuka that I discussed a few columns ago, one of the goals of One Thousand Years of Manga seems to be to show off the original artwork in the best possible light. Each image comes across very crisply, and shows off the level of detail present in even some of the very early works. The color of some of the nineteenth century prints really pop off the page – I keep coming back to “The Battle of Nanba” by Kyousai Kawanabe, which is so forceful and dynamic here it just pops right off the page.
Overall I have to recommend One Thousand Years of Manga. There are definite peaks and valleys in the timeline that Koyama-Richard's book tries to cover. The strong points are its gorgeous reproductions and history of manga's roots from the last century or so. Unfortunately, you may be disappointed if you're interested in learning more about what manga is like today. That points to one of the inherent difficulties in a book like this – it's nearly impossible to cover everything. And I don't think you should have to. In fact, I'd love it if we started getting fewer of these general “history of manga as a whole” books, and more works that concentrated on specific topics within manga, such as gekiga or the history of manga magazines.
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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