Manga has been a significant and enduring art form since the 17th century. It is solely a Japanese art form consisting of a series of pictures telling a story. These pictures are exaggerated, simple, and often humorous. Often manga are social satires or caricatures. Although manga has been a prominent source of entertainment for centuries, the rest of the world was oblivious to it until the American occupying forces came to Japan after World War II.
Today, Japan is one of the few countries in the world where comic books are a medium of expression, rivaling novels and films, and is read by what seems to be the entire population.
A fundamental difference between manga and comics from countries, like America, is the ability to touch any theme and subject the author wants. America’s comic industry was stunted during its formative years when it became a target of Cold War moral panic, then a scapegoat for rising juvenile crime. This happened just as real life issues started becoming addressed and a larger portion of adults started becoming interested.
But in Japan, there was no government to molest and cage the industry with unjust laws during modern manga’s rise in popularity. Manga quickly became an integral part of people’s lives as time went on. Now, with the full support of the people, manga is able to spread its reach into every part of the Japanese people — from everyday life to hopes and fears manga covers everything. This freedom is what makes novels and films popular — the fact that people can relate to them.
Ironically, the western definition of manga and the Japanese definition refers to two different periods in Japan’s long history of visual art. While manga for westerners means Japanese comics, manga for the Japanese refer to the Edo-era prints –– not comics. The West uses a word that Japan no longer does.
Still, the West is not completely wrong. Manga originates from two genres of illustrations that were prominent in the Edo-era, kibyōshi and ukiyo-e. The term manga was coined during that era by an artist by the name of Katsushika Hokusai. Katsushika discovered a way to make multicolored prints and eventually published a fifteen-volume work named Hokusai Manga, which is the first time the term manga was used. Katsushika’s techniques led the way for the golden age of ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e, translated as pictures of the floating world, are folk illustrations. While the early ukiyo-e was painted the former works were predominantly woodblock prints.
On the other hand kibyōshi, translated as yellow-jacket books, were developed from children’s picture books. They used humor and satire to mock conventional mores. Often kibyōshi were a series of monochrome paintings with captions but managed to blur the distinction between text and picture by weaving the text in and around the ink brush drawings. Together, kibyōshi and ukiyo-e created the foundation for manga that would be expanded upon in the future.
Kibyōshi and ukiyo-e merged a century after Commodore Matthew Perry opened Japan’s ports in 1853. Nine years after this historic event, Charles Wirgmam created and published Japan Punch as a magazine of cartoons that illustrated the diffusion of western culture into Japan. Japan Punch famously used word balloons in its cartoon which became a convention in modern manga. Twenty years later, in 1887, the French humor magazine, Tobae, started up in a foreign settlement in Japan. Founded by George Ferdiand Bigot, the cartoons in Tobae were arranged in narrative sequence which is an integral part of manga. The influences of kibyōshi, ukiyo-e, Japan Punch, and Tobae merged together and formed the landmark Nonkina Tōsan, which was first published in the Hōchi Shumbun’s evening addition and came out immediately following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Nonkina Tōsan featured Nont and his buddy, Taishi. Both were slow and graceless and could not adapt to the urban lifestyle around them.
Sociologist and survivor of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Ito Kinko, explained, “the people sympathized with them and the characters in return gave them hope to keep living in a difficult time.” The humor made people in the Kanto area laugh and gain some much needed inner peace. Perhaps influenced by this work and World War II, Osamu Tezuka, also known as the “God of Manga”, vowed to teach peace and respect for life and humanity in his manga. Osamu introduced cinematic techniques in his manga incorporating close-ups and changing points of view.
In an interview Osamu explained that:
Until that time, most manga […] were drawn from a two-dimensional perspective, and in the style of a stage play. The interactions of actors appearing from stage left and stage right were composed as if from the viewpoint of someone seated in the audience. I came to the realization that there was no way to produce power or psychological description using this approach, so I began to introduce cinematic techniques into my composition.
The models for this were the German and French movies I saw in my days as a student. I manipulated close-ups and angles, of course, and tried using many panels or even many pages in order to capture faithfully movements and facial expressions that previously would have been taken care of with a single panel. So I would end up with long works five- or six-hundred to more than a thousand pages in length in no time at all […]
“Also, I thought the potential of manga was more than getting a laugh; using themes of tears and sorrow, anger and hatred, I made stories that didn’t always have happy endings.
Art is not a static form, it changes and evolves. Because of this art has a history. Painting had the Renaissance and Enlightenment period, and manga had the Edo-era, the time of early westernization, and Osamu Tezuka.
What is art?
Art is the arrangement of items in a way to arouse feelings in the viewer and is a form of expression. The mangaka — a writer and/or drawer of manga — Inoue Takehiko attests that, “manga is a very direct way of expression, and because of that, the artist himself is revealed easily,” and, “the most important thing [as a mangaka] is having a feeling that you want to pass along to the reader.” Mangaka have a wealth of different techniques to use in order both express themselves and incur the swelling of any emotion they choose. For instance, Inoue solely uses brush to get a darker and dirtier feeling in his manga Vagabond (see image 1 and image 2).
Some manga reflect or escape everyday life. For some, manga is their safe haven from all the ills around them. Yet some use manga as a source of ethical, political, or existential critical reflection. The mangaka Akiyama Jōji created the manga Zeni Geba, translated to Money Crazy, which revolved around an evil capitalist who would do anything for money. His obsession with money eventually led him to insanity. Zeni Geba has a harsh critique of money and questions the corporate system with its obsessive materialism and causal disregard of human values.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment any art can hope to achieve is to permanently effect its viewers. The best art in each form can accomplish just this and manga is no exception. “Like other readers, I was exposed to the moral lessons that these manga taught while I was growing up in Japan –– to persevere in any situation, and to always work hard in order to accomplish one’s goals,” Ito Kinko explains. One of the manga that Ito was referring to was Atenshon Puriizu, which is how the Japanese say English phrase: attention please. Atenshon Puriizu depicted the story of modern career women in their job as flight attendants and depicted many aspects of the job such as on the job training. The theme of a great deal of work is needed to master one’s work was taught to the readers. Manga is a great tool to transfer feelings, lessons, and express yourself.
As beautiful as manga is, it has been greatly misunderstood by western civilizations. Western critics sprout broad generalizations after focusing on a single panel or page that offends them rather than understanding it in a complete narrative context. More often than not, these critics are offended by the sex in manga. In 2002, American researchers Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog made various conclusions after reading 53,000 pages of manga. Out of all the stories they read, only eighty-seven dealt with rape or sexual assault. Out of these eighty-seven, eighty of them had women or others take revenge which was often very violent some to the point of being murderous. By the end of their research they stated:
We do not agree that depictions of female sexuality in manga are underlain by uniform anti-female ideologies. If anything, the opposite seems true –– the manga we have seen have strong but diverse pro-female qualities. Finally, we see anti-rape images of manga as arising from a sex-positive culture that nonetheless had had its history of sexual horrors.
The anti-rape images in manga are resistance to, and reaction against, rape in war and in peacetime, set into an aesthetic background in which women are beautiful. Some believe that manga is a form of pornography and to an extent pornography is not an art. Sex is not the focus of most manga but simply an event in the plot that is there because the story flows that way. Sakurazawa Erica, a mangaka, clarifies that “the main part of my manga is not sex, but in the course of events, there is sex and it’s a natural thing that’s the way I draw it.” The west has misunderstood manga but never the less manga’s popularity there has been greatly increasing.
Manga as an art form has expression and feeling. It has been an art included in Japan’s long history of visual arts. Although manga has been popular since its earliest variations, it is now popular to the point where the people who do not read manga are the minority. Even though manga is becoming more popular outside of Japan, notably in America, western critics sprout major misconceptions based on parts taken completely out of context. These critics could learn a thing or two by reading some manga.