“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
Manga are comics or graphic novels that originated in Japan during the 19th century. They combine images and words to tell stories of a whole range of genres, including action, adventure, comedy, history, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy. In Japanese, the characters that make up the word “manga” translate literally as “pictures run riot”. Whilst people would be correct in arguing manga is no different from any form of cartoon or comic, the term “manga” refers to comics originally published in Japan.
Recently, the largest exhibition of Manga outside of Japan took place at the British Museum. Attracting people of all ages and backgrounds, the museum introduced newbies to the global phenomenon and excited avid fans. Manga’s popularity in the western world grew through its expansion into anime (animation) and gaming, becoming a multi-billion-dollar industry. Today, manga are celebrated throughout the world at Comic Cons and other conventions. The Museum, however, took visitors on a journey from the distant past to the present day through original drawings and interviews with various artists who brought the art of manga to life.
The roots of manga can be traced back to the 12th or 13th century. A set of handscrolls known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga) are thought to be the foundation of modern manga. Attributed to Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), a Japanese artist and founder of the Tosa school of Japanese painting, these painted handscrolls show simple illustrations of anthropomorphic rabbits and frogs wrestling and participating in other human-like activities. These scrolls were discovered in Kōsan-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Today, there are many copies and graphic reproductions.
In the 1500s, an anonymous set of comical illustrations showing monkeys acting out human situations were produced, most likely in response to the older handscrolls. Unlike the earlier form, these drawings included the first examples of fukidashi or speech bubbles. These were not written or drawn out in the way we perceive speech bubbles today, however, they aided the narrative of the visual story. Whilst at first glance it appears there are dozens of monkeys on the scroll, there are actually only a few characters, appearing multiple times across the page, showing a visual progression and storyline.
By the 18th century, Japanese artists were combining pictures and words in illustrated novel formats (kibyōshi). These were usually produced for the rich, elite Japanese citizens and often satirised society and politics. An example of work from this era is the poet Santō Kyōden’s (1761-1816) publication Small Change from a Gem-grinding Wheel.
Those who went to the British Museum’s Manga exhibition were guided from display to display by a white rabbit named Mimi-chan. The young rabbit looks very similar to the creatures in the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals, which is where the manga artist Fumiyo Kōno (b.1968) borrowed her ideas. She has recently written and illustrated the book Giga Town: album of manga symbols (2018), which helps the reader understand how to read manga. There are many signs and symbols known as manpu that convey movement and emotion, however, there has never been an instruction manual to help people understand them. Kōno’s book is the first dictionary of manpu.
On one page of Giga Town, the heroine Mimi-chan is racing a tortoise in a retelling of Aesop’s (620 – 564 BCE) The Tortoise and the Hare. Kōno uses lots of manpu, such as spirals to express speed, dizziness or the movement of an object or character. In other frames, readers are introduced to manpu that indicate surprise, deep thinking, fear, movement, anger, sadness, tiredness and sleep. The latter two are usually shown through the use of the letter Z. This is a symbol that is also used in western comics, for example, Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts comic strip.
As well as manpu, Kōno provides other instructions on how to read manga. The most important is perhaps the reading direction. Unlike the majority of the western world who read from left to right, the Japanese read from right to left, top to bottom. Manga are divided into frames (koma), which begin in the upper right-hand corner and finish in the lower-left koma. When compiled in a book, the story begins on the back page and finishes on what we would consider the first page.
As mentioned already, speech bubbles or fukidashi are used to contain spoken words and thoughts. Whilst usually round, these change shape depending on the tone, mood and context. A daydream may be indicated by a cloud-shaped bubble, whereas an exclamation of surprise may have several jagged edges.
As well as speech, there are symbols and markings to represent other sound effects. These are called either gitaigo or giseigo and are usually embedded into the illustrations. They help the reader to comprehend the drama, mood and tone (tōn) of the scene.
Despite evidence that the idea of manga is over 800 years old, the father of manga, or at least modern manga, is often said to be Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the designer of the famous print, The Great Wave. A series of picture books titled Hokusai manga was published in 1814. The title was chosen by the artist himself in reference to the original meaning “pictures run riot” or “brush running away with itself”.
Although Hokusai’s “manga” is amusing, for instance, Buddhist’s monks partaking in all sorts of activities, there is no narrative. Nor is there any text or dialogue; the illustrations appear to be completely random, light-hearted images. Nonetheless, the manpu that Fumiyo Kōno described in her book published last year, is evident in Hokusai’s drawings. There is an atmosphere in Hokusai manga that is similar to modern manga. His characters are caught in a “freeze-frame”, mid-movement, which is a technique used by nearly all manga and comic strip artists today.
Manga first became known in the western world when Japan opened its doors to international trade in 1858. A foreign settlement began to grow in Yokohama, now the second-largest city in Japan, and it was here that Japan’s first newspaper was published. One of the first newspapers was called Japan Punch by Charles Wirgman (1832-91), which was published between 1862 and 1887. This was a satirical comic magazine based on the British weekly periodical Punch or The London Charivari established in 1841. Japan Punch included illustrations that mocked local westerners and the struggles they had in building relations with the Japanese. As the magazine’s popularity grew, the journal began to target Japanese government policies and concerns about Japan’s rapid modernisation.
Taking up seventeen metres of wall space at the British Museum’s exhibition was a curtain produced for Tokyo’s Shintomi theatre showing kabuki actors as monsters and ghosts. Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) produced this stage curtain within four hours on 30th June 1880, albeit after consuming several bottles of rice wine. The illustrations depict the Japanese folklore tale Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons). Despite the spontaneous (drunken) style, the Japanese population would have recognised the individual characters from books and paintings. Modern manga was yet to develop but it is thought this curtain provided roots and inspiration for contemporary artists.
Modern manga can be dated to around the 1880s. Modelled on the comics sections of American newspapers, Kitazawa Rakuten (1876–1955) launched the humorous newspaper Jiji manga (Topical Manga) as a supplement to the pre-existing Jiji shinpō (News of Current Affairs). After proving popular, artists began producing manga magazines for a younger audience. Shōnen manga was developed for young men, which focused on action and adventure. For young women, shōjo manga focused more on relationships and romance. Later, shōjo manga expanded to include material for homosexual males.
During the 1910s, manga magazines suitable for children became widely available. Publications such as Shōnen kurabu (Boy’s Club) and Shōjo kurabu (Girl’s Club) featured various novels and poetry. After the Second World War, there was an influx of American comics, including Disney, which had a significant impact on manga artists. Soon, Japanese children’s characters began to emerge.
Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) was one of many artists influenced by Disney and earlier Japanese manga. His first manga book, which shaped the future of manga, was titled Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island) based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) Treasure Island. This was the first manga to be produced in book (tankōbon) format. Produced in 1947 when Tezuka was only eighteen years old, it quickly sold 400,000 copies. Based on this success, he produced more books for both boys, such as The Mighty Atom (1952), and for girls, Princess Knight (1953).
Princess Knight was a unique concept at the time it was published. The main character Sapphire was born with both a male and female soul. Since Japanese princesses had no right to the throne, Sapphire was raised as a boy. The story was also unique because it was written for girls at a time when manga was predominantly a male scene.
Astro Boy, known as in Japan as Mighty Atom was one of the first mangas to be commercialised. Figurines and other merchandise were produced and continue to be produced of the main character Atom (Astro Boy). Atom is a robot boy who was created to replace the son of a scientist who had died in a car crash. The robot boy disappoints the scientist because he is not fully human and cannot grow and develop like a human child. As a result, Atom is sold to a robot circus where he is saved by Professor Ochanomizu who helps him learn how to live like a human. By striving to learn how to understand human emotion, Astro Boy became a hero amongst manga readers and has influenced the genre to this very day.
With a similar appearance to Astro Boy is the protagonist of Dragon Ball (1984-95) Son Goku. Created by Akira Toriyama (b.1955) and later turned into a Japanese anime television series produced by Toei Animation, Son Goku is on a quest to locate seven dragon balls that will summon Shenron the wish-granting dragon. Later in the series, the storyline turns to martial arts and discovering the strongest fighter in the universe. By the end of the 519 chapters, the characters are focused on protecting Earth from extraterrestrial enemies.
Another recognisable character is from Fujio Akatsuka’s (1935-2008) The End of Unagi-inu (or Eel-dog). Eel-dog is a cross between a dog and an eel. He has a canine-like head and legs but an elongated body and fishtail. The story relates the fate of this poor animal who goes into fits of hysterics after hearing something from a police officer, which ultimately leads to a heart attack and death. With minimal words, Akatsuka uses readable images and playful characters to invite the reader to wonder what the police officer could have said to Eel-dog to cause such a reaction.
Animals are popular characters in manga, particularly cats. The recent children’s manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata (b.1958) follows the adventures of a lost kitten adopted by the Yamada family. The story is told from the kitten Chi’s perspective, who expresses her frustration when humans do not hear her but eventually finds the love and attention she seeks.
“Kittens give me a great deal of pleasure every day. I began drawing them in a way that would be fun for readers to experience the energy I receive from them, in manga.” – Konami Kanata
Chi’s Sweet Home was originally drawn and printed in black and white. After it was translated into other languages, including English and French, its popularity grew and Kanata began adding colour to her illustrations. It has recently been adapted into a three-dimensional anime series and has a large following of English speaking fans on Amazon Prime.
There are many genre’s of manga in production today. Each artist has a different style of illustration and tackles different subjects, themes, ages and identities. Remaining popular in Japan, manga has rapidly spread across the world and is being enjoyed by people of all nationalities. In essence, there is a manga for everyone.
For sports fans, there are a number of different manga available. Often, sport is used as a metaphor for life; there are themes of persistence struggles, failure, defeat, triumph, strong friendships and rivalry. By including sports that are popular in western countries, there has been a rising interest in particular sports in Japan, such as football.
One of Japan’s most iconic sports manga is Tomorrow’s Joe, which was serialised in the Weekly Shônen Magazine from 1968. Produced by Tetsuya Chiba (b.1939) and Ikki Kajiwara (1936-87) under the pseudonym Asao Takamori, Tomorrow’s Joe tells the story of the orphaned ex-convict Yabuki Joe’s fight to become a champion boxer. This was a metaphorical tale of Japan’s status in the world. The nation was fighting to hold some power in a predominately western world.
“Sport” is a very loose term in Japan, whilst it includes baseball, basketball, tennis, golf and football, it also embraces ballet and karuta or traditional card playing. The latter is explored in the current best-selling manga Chihayafuru by Yuki Suetsugu (b.1975). It is about a school girl, Chihaya Ayase, who is encouraged by a new classmate to take up competitive karuta. The manga has been adapted into an anime television series, which began airing in 2011. Between 2016 and 2018, there have also been three live-action films.
Love is another broad topic that manga covers. Whilst it covers desire and sex, a lot of which is erotic, it also explores social attitudes to same-sex relationships, freedom of expression and the less explored maternal love. Moto Hagio (b.1949) is a manga artist who chose to focus on the latter. Her short story The Willow Tree (2007) tells the story of a woman standing under a willow tree, watching a young boy pass by. In each frame, the seasons change, the boy gets older and eventually becomes a man. The woman, however, remains the same. On the final page, the man approaches the woman under the tree and the reader learns that she is his mother who passed away when he was a child. She has been watching over him all this time. When her son reassures her that he is fine, the woman finally disappears.
Moto Hagio used the willow tree as a metaphor for maternal love. Although the seasons changed and the years sped by, the tree stood steadfast, sheltering the woman lovingly watching her son evolve through the passage of time.
In Japan, the main two belief systems are Buddhism and Shinto. Manga artists have explored the influence of religion in contemporary Japan, making religious figures accessible in new ways. Some artists have even explored foreign religions, such as Christianity. Imagine what would happen if Jesus and Buddha were flatmates.
Hikaru Nakamura (b.1984) began publishing her Saint Young Men gag series in the magazine Morning 2 in 2006. It explores the lives of Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ living together as flatmates in Japan. The pair are visiting Earth on vacation but are determined to keep their identities secret so that they can discover and learn to understand modern Japanese society. They try out all sorts of everyday activities, such as sightseeing, drinking beer, blogging, playing video games and even drawing manga.
Although it is meant to be a comedy, Saint Young Men contains religious facts and is not deliberately harmful to either belief. Jesus is portrayed as a passionate person, living out his Great Commandment through his love for all – a love which includes shopping. Buddha, on the other hand, has a calm and frugal persona but also visibly shines when he is excited. This is a reference to bodhi or enlightenment, which is the knowledge or wisdom of Buddha. In one comical scene, Jesus turns the water of a public bath into wine.
Other manga genres include Science-Fiction, which explores other worlds in the past present and future, Horror, including traditional Japanese ghost stories, Adventure, and Transformation. In manga, the impossible can become possible, for instance, ordinary people can transform into super-humans. Lines between good and evil can become blurred when superpowers provide people with the opportunity to save the world or become weapons of misery and destruction.
One of the most expressive examples of manga shown in the British Museum’s exhibition was Blue Giant Supreme by Shin’ichi Ishizuka (b.1971). The story follows Miyamoto Dai as he travels to Germany in the hopes of becoming one of the world’s best jazz saxophone players. On his journey, he forms a band with international musicians and the art frames reveal their experiences on tour buses, in run-down hotels and performing in clubs. As well as telling a story, the music scenes show manga at its best. Through the use of lines and symbols, we can almost hear and feel the sounds of the instruments.
Today, publishing manga is a big business and three years ago, in 2016, the estimated income of the Japanese manga industry was three billion dollars. Four of the top publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – control a large share of the market, however, they are in constant competition with other publishing companies, magazines, artists and editors. Manga has also superseded the paper format with characters becoming figurines, toys, computer games, anime, films and fancy dress costumes.
Twice a year, manga fans travel from far and wide to attend a three-day comic market in Japan. Known as Comiket, artists and publishers congregate to sell books, merchandise, fanzines and so forth. Over half-a-million people attend each event, often dressed in the outfits of their favourite characters. Comiket began in 1975 and the idea has spread across the world. In the United Kingdom and the United States, there are similar events known as Comic-Con, however, these tend to celebrate western comics rather than manga.
In 2006, the Kyoto International Manga Museum opened in Japan to preserve, display and research manga culture. The British Museum began collecting manga over a decade ago, which lead to the recent Manga exhibition. Displaying original manga drawings is a challenge because the paper is thin and the ink quickly fades when left in certain light. Often it is safer to display reproductions, therefore, it is a unique opportunity to view the originals at one-off exhibitions.
Museums have also become the subject of manga, for instance, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure (2011) by Yukinobu Hoshino (b.1954). Professor Munakata is a fictional ethnologist who is determined to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s past. Whilst conducting his research, the professor becomes entangled in a criminal plot at the British Museum. The drawings show recognisable rooms and artefacts at the museum.
Today, characters that originated in manga exist across multiple platforms. One of the greatest success stories is the Pokémon franchise. Originating in 1996, the series began as a video game for Game Boy, which involved catching and training “pocket monsters”. This was closely followed by Pokémon manga and anime. Today, the franchise covers video games, trading cards, toys, television and film series, books and comics. This year, the first live-action film premiered and in the past few years, the mobile phone game Pokémon Go took the world by storm.
The majority of the UK and Europe get their “manga-fix” through films. Japan’s Studio Ghibli has produced some of the most influential animation films, including Spirited Away (2001), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. Although people are missing out on the original manga, the Japanese publishers have benefitted greatly from multi-media.
Whether you are a manga fan or not, it is easy to appreciate the dedication the Japanese artists and publishers have for their native form of visual narrative art. The influential art form has crossed over cultures with stories covering everything from gender to adventure in both real and imagined worlds. Whatever format you are familiar with, it is both important and interesting to learn about where the roots of manga began and how it became such a global phenomenon.
The British Museum put on a wonderful exhibition. Sadly, it has now closed, so keep an eye out for future displays and events involving Japanese manga. For now, sayonara (bye-bye).