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What is Manga?

Video: How to Read Manga

Well when you really get right down to it, manga is a Japanese word who's English translation is whimsical drawings.

Those very same whimsical drawings that we English speakers refer to as comics.  It's for this reason that you'll often find the word manga mistranslated as comics.  But don't think for a second that manga is simply Batman's adventures in Japan.

The enjoyment of whimsical drawings is a pastime that has always been around in Japan, making this perhaps the oldest out of all of our favorite activities as Otaku.  This pastime can be traced all the way back to the ancient Japanese scrolls from the 12th and 13th centuries, explaining where the whole right to left reading format comes from.

Manga Before WWII

Apparently the historians are conflicted over whether or not there is any continuity between the ancient Japanese scrolls and modern day manga.

I personally side with the guys who say there is because their side of the argument just makes more sense to me, as they can point out illustrated picture books that told stories in the same manner as the manga we're reading today.

They talk about how the art style of modern day manga is a direct descendent of the ukiyo - e and shunga woodblock prints.

They also point out the similarities that the Osaka popular novel and Kami Shibai, which was a type of theater where the artist would tell stories while scrolling pictures through a box like a television show, have with modern day manga.  Many Kami Shibai artists would go on to become manga artist themselves.

But I think the biggest one was when they pointed out that the word manga did not become associated with this activity until the publications of the picture book Shiji no Yukikai in 1798, Hyakujo in 1814, and of course the most obvious and well known of all being the Hokusai Manga books containing the collections of artwork from the ukiyo - e artist Hokusai from 1814 - 1834.

Hokusai is the very artist that was famous for the artwork known as The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.  They also pointed out kibyoshi, the very art style that gave manga the meaning of whimsical drawings by using words and pictures together to tell a story.

American cartoons and comics came to Japan in the late 1890s and led to the publication of Jiji Manga in 1900 where the word manga was first used in the way that we use it today.  It was the American comics by Wirgman that introduced the idea of speech bubbles to manga.

This was followed by Rakuten Kitazawa popularizing it in 1902 when he released the first modern day Japanese comic strip.  However the big eyes look that's become very commonplace among modern day manga is also disagreed upon by the historians.

Some say that it was the result of the Japanese seeking comfort in cute images after getting their asses handed to them in WWII, while others say it was started by a guy named Jun'ichi Nakahara who drew all of his female characters with wide eyes because he was influenced by his job as a doll creator.

Manga After WWII

The censorship laws of the allied occupation of Japan did not prevent the publication of manga.

And once article 21 of the Japanese constitution prevented all forms of censorship,  the creativity of the Japanese artists was allowed to grow into it's own style.

The two biggest results of this artistic freedom were the popular manga series Machiko Hasagawa's Sazae - san in 1946 and Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy in 1951. Both of which featured stories that rejected the laws that were forced upon the Japanese people by the previous militaristic regime.

The character Sazae - san was depicted as a strong woman as a direct rejection of the previous regime's laws that made all women weak and helpless, and the character Astro Boy was depicted as a naïve little boy as a direct rejection of the previous regime's laws of militaristic masculinity that was forced onto the men.

And in doing so, they started up the two major markets of manga known as shonen and shojo.

Hasagawa mainly focused on the aspects of daily life while Tezuka used a very cinematic technique that made reading his manga feel almost exactly like you were watching a movie in theaters.  This technique is known as subjective motion and is still used today to make the reader feel like he is a part of the action.

At first there weren't any other women in the profession, so shojo manga was being written by men who were not sexist.  But as soon as women did enter the profession, they let the women take over writing shojo manga.  Some of the most popular male made shojo manga were Princess Knight and Little Witch Sally, the latter of the two having started up the magical girl genre.

Guys were the first readers of manga after WWII.  But rather than costumed super heroes like Batman or Superman, they were more interested in normal men who never gain any superpowers as they found those characters more relatable.

Common themes in shonen manga are science fiction, sports, supernatural, and military, while common themes in shojo manga are love, romance, and superheroines.

It was during this time that the first manga magazines that would be the forerunners to Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat were published by Kodansha.

One such magazine that was a forerunner of Shonen Jump was Garo.  It wasn't very successful because it only ran for 80,000 issues, which was considered small for the time.  But Garo was one of the main magazines that helped Gekiga artists like Go Nagai get their manga careers started.

Gekiga Manga

While I'm still struggling to make sense of it, there came another type of manga in the late 50s and 60s known as Gekiga.  From what I'm understanding it was very difficult for young people to get into the profession, so they came up with this new manga style as a way to make it easier for them get in.

It apparently means "drama pictures" and is a type of aesthetic realism that focuses on the realities of life.  And it seems that this actually worked because a lot of Gekiga artists were adopted into mainstream careers.  For example, the 1988 anime film Akira was based on a Gekiga.

Manga In The States

The first attempt to bring manga to the US was Barefoot Gen, but it apparently failed because Americans didn't find manga interesting.  It wasn't until anime came to the States, mainly Akira, that Americans began to see the appeal of manga.

Another thing that made America different from Japan is that, while Shojo manga is indeed big and has a nice following and all, it's Shonen manga that's dominant.  This is mostly thanks to the huge followings for Dragonball, Bleach, Naruto, and so on.

My Manga Experiences

Now even though manga has the longest history, it has the fewest things to talk about since not very much has really happened in it's history.  So to prevent this page of my website from being too short, I'm going to include my own personal experience with manga.

The way I first found out about manga was when I picked up an issue of Smile magazine that featured the very first anime I've ever seen, Sailor Moon, on the front cover.  Looking through this magazine, I found the included chapter of the Sailor Moon manga.  It was the one where the Sailor Scouts lost the battle against Soul Hermit Zirconia.

That got my attention big time and I made sure to go looking for it the next time I was at my local book store, Waldenbooks at the time.

At that time Sailor Moon was the only manga there was in the store, at least around here where I live, and it was already up to volume 7 if I remember correctly.  So as a major Sailor Moon fan, I bought as many as I could in that one sitting.

Over time they started adding more manga titles such as Gundam Wing, and Tenchi.  Soon after Waldenbooks closed and was replaced by a huge Borders store which featured a gigantic manga section right from the very start.

So I continued enjoying the manga that I've seen the anime to up until the present day even after Borders closed and is now replaced with Books A Million.

But the .hack series was the first time that I was kind of thrown for a loop because I picked up a book in the series that did not seem right for a manga.  Even though I did enjoy A.I. Buster, it was a strange new type of manga that I'd never seen before.

Image of What is a Light Novel?
What is a Light Novel?

But I know now that A.I. Buster is not a manga at all, it's a different type of Japanese book that they call a light novel.

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