Manga: A Brief Breakdown of Style and Form Nehszriah

Author's Note: I wrote this for my English term paper for the Fall 2007 semester, much to the fascination of my non-geeky professor. Only recently with the article on the history of anime, did I think about posting this. I'm not saying the other article is wrong by posting mine, but I only mean to post something of a complimentary topic.

Manga: A Brief Breakdown of Style and Form

Hand-drawn images have long been a part of the human experience. From cavemen to modern man, every generation in between have developed their stories with pictures as either the main form of the story or accompaniment. Although the exact date of their origin must be approximated, hand-drawn images as important storytelling tools have been vital to all cultures, even after the creation of written language. As Westerners living in the United States of America, many of us as of late have the tendency to think of drawn pictures as merely entertainment for children and the childish. That is not true in all schools of thought, however. In the country of Japan, their version of comic books, or “manga,” are a commonplace part of life. A target audience can be young or old, male or female, and come from any number of genres such as romance, action, fantasy, science-fiction, sports, historical fiction and more. As a whole, manga in its native culture is generally accepted by the population as a legitimate storytelling form. Even though the “style” and “feel” of manga can be difficult for some Americans to initially accept, the manga in its modern form has become a critical piece in written entertainment, having molded and adapted with American and other Western influences throughout the twentieth century and becoming an international phenomena.

Manga as it appears today did not surface until directly after World War II, when the level of artistic freedom was heightened to levels previously unseen. Before then, the art of ukiyo-e, or woodblock print drawings, and the variations of the art form set the stage for the modern manga. While some have claimed that the first manga may have appeared in the late eighteenth century as some of the world’s first comic books made of collected ukiyo-e (Kern), it can be definitively argued that the artistic movements, popularity, and current motifs did not begin until the American occupation of Japan. Brought over by the American soldiers, works by Western artists, Walt Disney in particular, had a tremendous impact on the manga industry. The fan-proclaimed “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka, was influenced by drawings of the iconic Mickey Mouse when developing the large, expressive eyes that are now virtually a signature characteristic of the art. Western art professors, coupled with a newfound ban on censorship, also helped to create a movement in art where manga drawings became minimalist in nature; fewer lines were used in order to convey exaggerated emotions and actions in an effective manner previously lost within the fine detail of ukiyo-e prints. Also an innovation spearheaded by Tezuka and his contemporaries was a more visual style of telling stories. “Decompression,” as it is called in American comic books, focuses on character interaction, panning angles, and dynamic action shots rather than words in narration boxes and dialogue. This technique provided a near cinematic feel to the new style compared to the previous, blandly focused shots that were merely illustrations of narration. Later, most––if not all––manga artists adopted this style to their works. Some Western readers deem such plot as sluggish, yet others regard decompression for the overall richness of character depth and is still a hot topic of debate between fans of both American comic book and manga.

One of the most important concepts in writing fiction is “the story.” Manga artists have taken all sorts of inspiration for their works; some from real-life and others from fantasy, and even pre-existing work. One of the most common motifs is the “everyday life” scenario, where the actions of the characters take place in a world in close relation to our own. Others can take place in fantasy worlds, all with varying degrees of similarity to Earth. Folktales and legends are often explored with varied results. The Chinese folktale “Journey to the West” is one tale often built upon, following the tale of a Buddhist monk and his three demon companions as they trek across China to stop an evil force in Shangri-La. Tales of warrior samurai battling oni (Japanese demons) also pepper the scene as much as vampires, giant fighting robots and magic-users. The samurai class is also an important historical figure in manga, right alongside more modern figures that include Adolf Hitler and the presence of the Atomic Bomb. Pre-existing novels and films are also liable to become fodder for manga artists. Manga adaptations of Japanese novels spurred series like the sword-and-sorcery-roleplaying spoof “Slayers.” Western novels, plays, and classic films are being adapted into the manga format, the films most recently coming with a DVD of the original work. “Casablanca” and “Wuthering Heights” have both been published and other works in consideration include “Roman Holiday” and “Gone With the Wind” (Len). This hodgepodge of sources make manga some of the most diverse and interestingly far-reaching entertainment around, nearly to the level of pure text novels.

No matter how a story is told, however, one must know the audience in which the manga is marketed to. In the 1950's and 60's, a more defined set of demographics were developing (Schodt 1983). The groups at first were simple; instead of the general audience of before, the two prevailing categorization of manga fell under the titles of shounen and shoujo. The word shounen is a Japanese term for “boy” or “young boy,” with shoujo being the female equivalent. Both categories quickly developed signature characteristics and icons. Shounen manga quickly became known as boy’s stories, often filled with adventure, more crude slapstick comedy, and oftentimes violence in varying degrees, as displayed in such works as Shotaro Ishinomori’s work “Cyborg 009 and the more recent “Dragonball” series by Akira Toriyama. In predicable fashion, shoujo manga pertains to stories for girls where there is a strong heroine, oftentimes attempting to overcome adversity, as well as other “girl topics” such as romance, self-realization due to emotional turmoil and, amazingly enough, plots involving girls cross-dressing and masquerading as men. Much of the earlier work still only lies in the original Japanese versions, yet others such as “Princess Knight,” by the prolific Osamu Tezuka (who wrote few shoujo series yet left a profound impact on the genre,) down to the cult-phenomenon work of Naoko Takeuchi’s––“Sailor Moon.” Subgenera, such as mystery, science-fiction, drama, historical, etc, can cross over into both the shounen and shoujo demographic and even more interestingly enough, into a darker version of these two groups known as seinen, or adult manga. Contrary to the term “adult,” seinen manga usually just has a darker overtone to the story, sometimes accompanied with more instances of blood, cursing and sensuality. (Schodt 1996) Hentai is the real “adult manga,” being mainly pornographic and a good majority of what Western anti-manga advocates base their arguments off of when attempting to ban manga from libraries and schools. In reality, hentai is only a small percentage of the manga community, overblown by the fans’ zeal in the genre, not unlike the enthusiasm of Western porn addicts. Newcomers to manga quickly learn the characteristics of each manga demographic, resulting in more precise targeting of manga to a preferred audience with similar likes and dislikes in plot, art, and literary conventions.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that manga as an art form and a piece of literature is surely sound in its groundings. The fan-base under which manga operates from is broad and large, directly reflecting the intense variety it can bring. Manga novels and magazines are one of the fastest-growing markets in America, quickly finding a niche in the book market. The stories may seem strange and unique, but they actually convey the same level of entertainment American comics often have, sometimes even more. Without influence from the outside, manga would have never been able to express so much, let alone be as long-lasting as it is today.

Date Published
04/29/08 (Originally Created: 04/29/08)
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