Manga mania

The Japanese have invented a unique genre of comic books for all ages and tastes -- and they are flying off the shelves even in the US.
Matthew Mehan | Dec 3 2005 | comment  

Comic books may be an American invention, but Japanese comic book culture has taken things to a whole new level. Manga, Japanese for “comics”, is an international growth market and a cultural phenomenon both in Japan and abroad. In Japan, not to mention South Korea and Taiwan, manga is a huge, US$4.7 billion industry with local manga rental stores set up like video rental stores. In the US, manga is showing double digit growth each year, and comic book shops are expanding the manga sections to keep up with demand from both boys and girls. In fact, you may be familiar with a few manga titles that have gone to the silver and plasma screens: Yu-Gi-Oh!, Neon Genesis: Evangelion, Cowboy Beebop, the cult classic anime movie Akira, the saccharin Sailor Moon television series, the disturbing Ghost in the Shell, and Pokemon: the Movie, cartoon, and the card game. But these comic books turned movie only scratch the surface of manga culture.

The Tokyo comic book market is very different from the US market: Comic book series launches, ad campaigns to hype the new hero, spin-off character-based comics playing off flagships like Superman and X-men are the norm in the US, but not in Japan. Instead of a major launch, complete with ad campaign, comics in Japan appear in remarkably cheap (US$2) and remarkably thick (upwards of 600 pages) paperback magazine comic compendiums sold monthly or weekly out of news stands and supermarkets. Ironic, really, that Japanese comic books never begin as a comic book. Almost all Japanese comics lack the collectors’ Holy Grail: the mint condition first issue. Rather they suddenly appear in one of these trade paperback comic compendiums, and if people like it, that comic gets a second episode. And so on and so on, until there is a demand for a stand-alone, full-colour, old-fashioned comic book series, followed by the extended graphic novel, the cartoon miniseries, the cartoon show, the movie, the T-shirt, the backpack, the lunch box, and, finally, the pyjama pattern.

The graphic novel is certainly a pop art form — Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for his, Maus—but comics are still mind candy. Every kind of mind candy has one thing in common: a seeming infinitude of options. While US comics are infinite because of the immortal characters’ infinite episodes, manga comics are infinite in type and number. There is a manga for everyone, and I mean everyone. Interested in the trials of high school girl volleyball players with hostile families, who want their daughters to give up their sport and carry on the family business? Try the sub-sub-genre of girl sports in the sub-genre shojo manga, or love manga, mostly marketed to girls. Interested in gay cops trying to make a living in Tokyo? Try yaio manga, or (mostly) non-pornographic gay manga, strangely marketed to women who want to enjoy observing a relationship in which they can’t partake—marketers claim that makes the story less threatening to women.

Ghost in the ShellBut be careful. Rating systems are hazy at best—with the notable exception of TokyoPop, a leading manga publisher—and covers can be very confusing. What looks like a harmless, family-themed comic on the outside can often have pornographic themes on the inside. Fortunately, it’s a comic, so you only need to speed flip through it to determine the “rating” for yourself. Japanese cultural cues regarding sexuality are very different from those in many other developed countries, so even very childish looking manga can have themes and images that range from racy to pornographic. Just browsing the titles gives you the distinct impression manga is not just for kids: Handmaid, Heartbroken Angels, Oh My Goddess, Sensual Phrase, Vampire Hunter D, Voyeur, Tuxedo Gin, Socrates in Love, and Steam Detectives. Overtly pornographic Japanese comics are usually referred to as hentai, but manga seems to have a spectrum of content that blends seamlessly into hentai. Even the steamy Harlequin romance novel publishers have begun releasing manga versions of their books into Japanese and Anglo markets.

For good or ill, manga is making and impact outside of Japan. Extremely kiddie manga aside, as kids are dealing with more emotional trauma and difficulty at earlier and earlier ages, market indicators show they are turning more and more to the emotionally complex, generally less heroic and more tragic plot lines of manga serial comics. The attraction to manga is not so simply explained when one considers the incredible variety of content in manga: what is it about manga that has it attracting more and more readers?

Manga, like any cultural art, has a distinct style. After brief exposure, most people can distinguish US comics from their Japanese counterparts. Manga usually features characters that are not in any recognisable way Japanese; instead, manga characters feature very large eyes, small pointed noses, lipless and tiny mouths, and simplified hair and clothes. The art is not minimalist, but there is a distinctively plastic feel to most manga art. Another dead give-away for manga, which is translated into English for most international markets, is the structure of these graphic novels, which often still conforms to Japanese right-to-left reading, so the books read from the back forward.

The father of manga is known by all comic buffs by simply his last name, Tezuka. Osamu Tezuka developed the first manga, and struck gold with Tetsuwan Atom, who later became the famous Astroboy. Tezuka was a prolific artist, with dozens of thick Astroboy volumes to complement dozens of other serial comics that he alone scripted and animated. His works include a seven-volume graphic novel (each volume is several hundred pages) of the life of Buddha to a lengthy series about an opera singer. He set and broke the mould for manga artistic form with huge eyes on most of his lead characters.

Astroboy was directly informed by Walt Disney’s drawings and animations. The plots of the Astroboy comics remind you of the Adventures of Tin Tin, only nix the dog and add super-powers. But many manga plot lines are loaded with a mishmash of childish and adult themes ranging from magic, dating, nuclear war, reincarnation (a particularly prevalent theme), abortion, gambling, making friends, alternate realities, ESP, druids, demons, slavery, romance—you name it and some manga artist has mixed it up into a cocktail and placed it in a 30-part animated series. With all the varying tastes of modern children, and not a few modern adults, it is no wonder that manga, in all of its mighty multiplicity, is flying off the shelves.

Matthew T. Mehan writes, teaches, and meddles in the affairs of the world, all from Maryland.

This article is published by Matthew Mehan and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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