On the eve of the British Museum’s largest exhibition of manga held outside of Japan, which runs through the summer until August 26, Nicole Rousmaniere, the museum’s IFAC Handa Curator of Japanese Arts, tells us all about this global phenomenon
Golden Kamuy, Noda Satoru
So what is manga, exactly?
Manga is a Japanese comic book or graphic novel with a twist, serialised in newspapers and magazines. Originating in Japan, it now has fans across the globe and is immersive storytelling through pictures, where the images rule supreme. The Japanese characters for “manga” translate as “pictures run riot” or “pictures unbounded”, and there is less reliance on text; the narrative is created through expressive line-drawing, along with the visual development of individual characters. It is this visually immersive quality that makes it so popular.
How did it develop?
Manga’s roots are international and can be traced back as far as 1200 CE, but the form as we know it today first emerged from serialised cartoon strips in various magazines and newspapers in the 1920s. Its popularity developed throughout the 20th century and it now boasts a global reach. The phenomenon is still expanding and includes animation (known as “anime” in Japan), art, fashion, graffiti, digital multimedia and gaming.
Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan), Nakamura Hikaru
How big is manga?
It’s a multi-billion-pound industry, fuelled by its readers and viewers. It’s immensely popular with people of every age in Japan and increasingly across the world. With hundreds of genres, from sports to love, and from horror to sexual identity, there is a manga for everyone.
A particularly popular example is One Piece, by Oda Eiichiro, which tells the adventures of a boy whose body has become rubberised after eating “gum-gum fruit” and who travels the world on a pirate ship in search of a priceless treasure: the legendary One Piece. Created for the publisher Shueisha in 1997, it’s still going strong and has filled 91 individual volumes. One Piece has more than 440 million books in circulation worldwide, making it the best-selling manga of all time and earning it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Giga Town-Album of Manga Symbols, Kōno Fumiyo
Tell us more about the business and production sides…
Many large publishers in Japan derive a significant portion of their profits from manga. It’s very big business – the turnover of the domestic manga industry in 2016 was approximately £3 billion. Four of the top publishers who control a large share of the market are Kodansha, Hakusensha, Shogakukan and Shueisha. They’re constantly competing and trying to retain popular artists. Editors are assigned by the publishing houses to specific artists and play a key role in developing stories in collaboration with them. They often help with content, managing the production schedules, overall formatting and conducting basic research for the artist on the theme or images depicted.
What’s the best way to read manga?
Manga is produced in many different formats, now including those made for mobile devices, which lets you adapt how you wish to read it. Traditionally, the books are read from back to front and from the upper-right corner to the lower-left corner of a page. Formats include the simple four-panel manga (yonkoma), mostly seen in newspapers or on mobile phones; magazine compendiums of serialised artists (the weekly shūkanshi and monthly gekkanshi); and individual books of specific manga or authors (tankōbon). There are also fanzines and independently published fan-created comics (dōjinshi).
The brilliant artist Kōno Fumiyo recently published the book Giga Town: Album of Manga Symbols in order to help us understand the grammar and symbols embedded within the medium. Drawing animals based on the 12th-century handscroll Chōjū-giga, Kōno makes the manga symbols, called manpu, come alive. Here we see her heroine, a young white rabbit named Mimi-chan, racing a turtle that could be straight out of Aesop’s Fables. They also help explain the meaning of the use of spirals in manga – namely to show something spinning, either in movement or in one’s head through dizziness.
About anime, what’s the relationship?
Originally printed in newspapers, then in magazines and single-volume books, manga is now going digital and is available in many different formats – and almost all languages. If popular, a manga may become the basis for an anime series or film.
Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime), Higashimura Akiko
Golden Kamuy is a relatively new manga that has published more than nine million copies and is now a popular anime translated into English. Written by Noda Satoru, it’s a dramatic action tale that takes place in the early 1900s on the northern island of Hokkaido. The hero, Sugimoto, teams up with a local Ainu girl named Asirpa to attempt to find gold stolen from the indigenous Ainu community in a deadly race with the Imperial Japanese 7th Division Army and other assorted (and often unsavoury) characters.
Noda, a Hokkaido native, told me how he researched all aspects of the manga, including eating the food portrayed. Both the manga and the anime are gripping, as well as beautiful and educational – you learn about Hokkaido and Ainu customs as you become absorbed in the story.
And in Japan, some manga is designed along gender lines?
Different strands have evolved for male and female audiences. Shōnen, aimed at young men, tends to focus on action and adventure, while shōjo is aimed at young women and focuses on romance and relationships. However, there is increasing crossover in the plotlines, the subject matter and the gender of protagonists. Shōjo can also include stories of male homosexual relationships, known as “boys’ love” or BL (yaoi).
Higashimura Akiko is a brilliant young shōjo artist. Heavily influenced by shōjo from the 1980s, she is known for titles aimed at young women. They include the award-winning Princess Jellyfish, which was published as a series by Kodansha as a result of demand from fans and has been turned into an anime that is currently being translated into English.
Hagio Moto is a pioneer in shōjo, and a master of emotional depth and sophistication in her storylines. Among her classics is The Poe Clan series, which continues to thrill after 40 years. The story revolves around a secret family of vampanellas (vampires) in 18th- to 20th-century Europe, with beautiful images that draw you into a hidden and dangerous reality. At the beginning of 2018, she was honoured with a rare production of this work at Takarazuka Grand Theatre, much to the delight of her large fan base. And from May 2018, the shōjo magazine Flowers, whose cover you see above, started publishing her new storyline on the theme, picking up 40 years after the series ended – watch this space!
The Poe Clan, Hagio Moto, (on the cover of Flower magazine)
Captain Tsubasa, Takahashi Yoichi
Metropolis, Tezuka Osamu
Images: ©Shogakukan Inc (Flower magazine); © Akiko Higashimura/Kodansha Ltd. (Princess Jellyfish); ©Satoru Noda/Shueisha (Golden Kamuy); ©Yoichi Takahashi/Shueisha (Captain Tsubasa); ©Tezuka Productions (Metropolis); © Fumiyo Kouno/Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc (Giga Town); © Hikaru Nakamura/Kodansha Ltd (Saint Young Men)
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