Manga and Anime, distinctly Japanese forms of mass media, play important roles in Japanese society. These forms of media are culturally significant as they evolved from traditional art forms, reflect society and have plots that have roots in other culturally significant stories, objects and history. More than simply culturally significant, these art forms play a large role in the everyday lives of Japanese citizens due to their popularity and abundance.
What is manga? Manga cannot be compared as simply the Japanese equivalent of American comics. Comparing these is an unfair comparison as, unlike American comics, manga has a wide range of topics while being read by all ages and sexes. Furthermore, manga draws its origins from the traditional Japanese art forms, ukiyo-e and kibyōshi. Ukiyo-e is often translated as “pictures of the floating world” and is a form of folk illustrations. These illustrations were painted, although they draw roots in techniques from multicolored block prints. Interestingly, the man who discovered multicolored prints, Katsushika Hokusai, also first coined the term “manga” when he published his fifteen volume work, Hokusai Manga. Kibyōshi, translated as “yellow-jacket books”, on the other hand, stemmed from picture books. They merge humor and satire to mock social mores. Although they were but a series of a combination of captions and monochrome paintings, they were able to distort the boundaries of text and picture by sowing text in and around ink brush paintings.
Manga saw its rise during the American occupation of Japan. It was during this time that Japan was introduced to American comics, from newspapers and otherwise, and cartoons. During a time of lax government control, artists were able to pioneer this new media with no opposition. This also allowed manga to cover a wide variety of topics, from the people’s daily lives to their fears. Manga became a form of expression. Key figures among these artists quickly emerged, the most notable being the God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka is credited with bringing cinematic techniques, such as panning, camera angles and close ups to manga. Since then, manga has grown in popularity and range, as Roland Kelts relates: “…mountainous racks of manga, published weekly, greet visitors at magazine shops, bookstores, manga cafes, and train station kiosks, organized across a full spectrum of titles, series, and contents. It is difficult to imagine a topic not covered in cartoon form in Japan”.
Anime, an abbreviation of the English word “animation”, cannot be defined in simple terms; it is not Japanese cartoon but it is something more. Anime is just as broad as manga, as there are anime for children such as Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z but there are also apocalyptic fantasies such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and psychological thrillers such as Paprika. Both anime and manga include every topic imaginable. Just as Tezuka played a critical role in manga, he also did in anime. Based off his manga, Tezuka created the Japan’s first animated television series, Astro Boy. He then followed with Kimba the White Lion, which was the first colored series. Following this precedent, the majority of anime is based off manga and thus, shares the same roots as their counterparts. The first colored animated feature predated Astro Boy by five years; this was Taiji Yabushita’s Legend of the White Serpent. It was this work that inspired Hayao Miyazaki to become an animator. If Osamu Tezuka is the God of Manga, then Hayao Miyazaki is the God of Anime. As Tezuka did with manga, Miyazaki pioneered countless techniques in anime and also helped create new technology to further the process of animation, revolutionizing the field. Miyazaki is also credited with bringing anime into the theater rather than being solely a medium for the television.
Besides drawing cultural roots from traditional arts, anime and manga have cultural significance as reflections of society. Both of these mediums can be defined through their gray areas, the absence of the easily definable. Moralities, dilemmas and resolutions are not easily defined in these mediums. Gray area forms as an in-between but can be extended to dualism. Japan is somewhere between China and America culturally. This dualism is also reflected in the figures of mass media. Half-robots, half-humans and the androgynous are all an extension of this dualism. Manga is currently a mainstream media but when it was an underground art, it reacted to social issues such as Vietnam and social change. Society’s values can also be reflected on the idea of the artist being in charge of the anime, not the consumer or the producer, nor is there any prior research done to the creation to the anime. As Kelts eloquently puts it, “It lives or dies by the sword of its own merit”. Since anime first aired, there have been drastic improvements with computer generated imaging and other digital animation techniques, yet no anime uses them. Why is the industry sticking with the two-dimensional images? Perhaps this reflects the country’s past poverty in which they developed a mind frame of doing less with more. This isn’t necessarily a negative as they are simply condensing and economizing. In anime, this would be perfecting the medium through techniques and devices that honed storytelling and animation.
Anime and manga draw origins from other cultural items such as stories, objects and history. Although these origins are more often than not represented in stories and characters, they can be reflected in technique as well. Miyazaki is notable for utilizing silence and stillness in his work. These techniques create a sense of enchantment; however, they were not created by Miyazaki but simply applied to anime by him.
Silence and stillness are legendary features of Japan’s traditional arts. In Noh theater,… it may take an entire play for an actor to make it across the stage. Zen Buddhism emphasizes silence and stillness in meditation to a radical degree, and Japanese gardens are notable for their restraint and solemnity. Japanese rock gardens, of course, do not move at all, at least not visibly.
Dragon Ball, the famous manga turned anime, has roots in other objects of cultural significance. Rather than art, Dragon Ball draws origins from Monkey: A Journey West. Elements common in both include the idea of the main character being some form of a monkey, the presence of dragons, and the idea of greed driving one’s wishes. Monkey: A Journey West is a fictionalized story of a monkey that obtains power and immortality while driven by greed until he converts to Buddhism and is enlightened. The story draws from Buddhist philosophy, Taoist philosophy and Chinese religion; Tezuka’s manga, Buddha, does one better as it is the story of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism.
In contrast, many manga and anime series are also based off Shinto and local superstitions. More often than not, works in the supernatural genre draw roots from these myths and stories. A common idea referenced in works not simply of the supernatural genre is that of the yokai. Yokai are demons indigenous to Japan. In contrast to these yokai are the kami, or gods, of the Shinto religion. Kamisama Kiss is a popular manga that features both yokai and the kami of Shinto. The roots of stories are not limited to the abstract such as religion but can be as concrete as history. Perhaps the most famous in this genre is Lone Wolf and Cub, the story of which takes place during the Tokugawa era of Japanese history. Lone Wolf and Cub is credited with romanticizing the idea of the rōnin, a masterless samurai. However, ideas for a manga can be drawn from more than just stories but also objects. The ancient game of go has served as inspiration for manga as well. Hikaru’s Go is about a normal boy who finds an old go board and a spirit living inside it. The spirit teaches Hikaru go who eventually becomes a professional go player. The manga has inspired Japan’s youth to play go, which is something their parents greatly appreciate.
Manga and anime are culturally significant. Not only do they have roots in traditional arts and other pieces of culture but they reflect society as a form of expression. These forms of mass media are more than simply culturally significant but have become necessary. With their wide range of topics, they provide entertainment to the entire Japanese society. Without them, what would the Japanese do for fun, watch American television?
[Why Manga is an Art Form, Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation : Films, Themes, Artistry, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation]