Manga: the best medium for storytelling?

January 18, 2009 in On Writing by pacejmiller

I think so.  Potentially, anyway.

I’m not saying that reading manga is necessarily a more enjoyable experience than say, watching a movie or reading a novel.  But it can be.

astro-boyA lot of people still don’t get manga or why it is so popular.  But as a medium of visual expression, manga is right up there, because it possesses advantageous elements of both film and literature, without some of the limitations.  In my opinion, it can be just as visually thrilling as an action movie, and as emotionally powerful as reading a good book, if not more so.  Allow me to explain.

A bit about Manga

First of all, what exactly do I mean by “manga”?doraemon

“Manga” literally just means “comics” in Japanese.  But for most people (and me in this post), manga refers to a particular style of comics popularized by Japan and originated from Japan.  It is not possible to define or categorize exactly what that style is with any degree of precision – the artistic representation is stylized, but can vary from simple and exaggerated to highly detailed and realistic; the stories can be either immersed in fantasy or grounded in reality, or a mixture; the subjects are incredibly broad, and can cover anything from adventure, romance and mystery to sports, history and erotica.   You get the point.

Typically, the 15-50 pages per issue are in black-and-white (though there are coloured manga I still prefer the powerful contrast of the old black-and-white) and are published together with a number of other titles either on a weekly or monthly basis in magazines (like Shonen Jump).  Once enough single issues of a particular title have been published, they are collated into single volumes and sold separately for fans to collect.  Furthermore, unlike traditional American comics (produced with teams comprising members with different roles), each manga title is essentially the product of a single author (with assistants), who is responsible for every aspect of the manga, including both artwork and storyline – though it is now not uncommon to see professional manga artists teaming up with a writer to co-produce a title.prince-of-tennis

Nowadays, there are manga artists all over the world and manga is drawn in many different languages, but the style, for the most part, stays true to what it was originally.  Until recent years, manga has been a phenomenon confined essentially to Japan and other parts of Asia.  According to Wikipedia’s page on manga, in 2006, manga represented a 481 billion yen market in Japan alone.  Nevertheless, for many years, manga failed to penetrate the Western market.  Most Westerners had viewed manga as largely an “Asian” thing, too weird, too culturally different.

narutoThese days, however, you can find translated versions of originally-Japanese manga in most big book stores across the US and Europe.  English-speaking fans who can’t wait for the slow distribution of officially translated versions have also been scanning and translating manga from Japan themselves and offering them for download on the Internet (they are called “scanlations“).  Together with the meteoric rise of anime on Western television, manga has begun to find a wider market in the West.  In 2006, the value of the manga market in the US was approximately $175-200 million.

Manga as a medium for storytelling

When well executed, any medium can be a wonderful form of storytelling that generates an emotional connection with its audience.

onepieceThe advantage of film is that the visual image is conveyed directly to the audience.  Images can be powerful things.  The visceral impact of an image can be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate with words.  On the other hand, even though novels don’t show you any images visually, they allow the reader to use their imagination to evoke mental images, which can sometimes be more free and exciting than actually seeing it with your eyes.  Manga has the ability to utilise the advantages of both.

While films convey their stories through images and books through words, manga conveys through still images complemented by words, either as dialogue, thoughts or narration (and even witty little side-remarks, like editor’s notes).  As such, it has the ability to combine the the power of images and words into a single medium.

Yes, it is true that as a combined medium, manga has its limitations.  As the story is conveyed in singular frames, it lacks the continuity of a film.  Moreover, as the storytelling relies predominantly on the images, the potential to use words to generate emotional impact is also limited.  However, manga also has some other qualities that are perfect for storytelling.hikaru-no-go

While it is true that manga conveys only one image at a a time, it is extremely capable of demonstrating movement.  This can be done within a single frame using a variety of artistic techniques (think of a photo which captures a moving object), or by linking several frames together (like a slide show).  Manga is also capable of displaying the thoughts of multiple characters.  You can also show one character’s speech and another’s thoughts simultaneously in a single frame.  You can even throw in an omnipresent narrator on top of that to explain things to the reader when you need to.  These are things which are extremely difficult to pull off together in other mediums.

But manga is capable of much more than just that – a character’s appearance can often be exaggerated to convey their personality or other personal characteristics.  Their expressions can be exaggerated to convey strong emotions.  Even the way a speech is drawn can indicate whether a character is whispering or shouting or speaking with a shaky voice.  The same can be said for thought bubbles.  The reader doesn’t need to be told these things – the messages conveyed by the artwork speak for themselves.

JoJo's Bizarre AdventureMost importantly, manga still maintains the potential for readers to use their imagination to link up or fill in the gaps between frames, to create the story in their minds.  Readers can apply their own colours and voices to the characters.  It’s an ideal combination of visual storytelling and reader imagination.

The majority of manga artists (and especially the great ones) develop their own unique visual flair.  Some are incredibly realistic and detailed, some are cutish or cartoonish, and some extremely unusual (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure comes to mind).  More often than not, you can instantly tell who the creator/artist of a particular manga is without even looking at the cover.  Like good film directors, great manga artists often put big personal stamps on their work – through unique artistic styles, use of humour, even the use of frame sequencing and delivery – the variety of ways to express themselves and their characters are endless.

Another amazing quality is that a manga can go on for many years – it’s not unusual for a manga series to go on for 10 or 20 years.  This equates to a lot of voluminous works.  Take the long-running hajimeno-ippoboxing series, Hajime no Ippo for example – so far it has over 830 chapters, which equates roughly to around 15,000 pages.  And it’s still going strong.  Only successful soap operas have this kind of longevity.  This also means that readers have the capacity to be a lot more emotionally attached to a manga than other mediums – because in some cases, readers have literally grown up every week with it and its characters.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a matter of personal preference.  But those who have not had the opportunity to experience the power of manga – I urge you to give it a try.  You may find it a more rewarding experience than you ever thought it would be.

What about Anime?

spirited-awayAnime to manga is like what a film is to a novel.  It has its advantages and disadvantages.  It can be easier to view than manga – you watch and listen rather than read.  It’s lively and colourful.  But conversely, the ability to use your imagination to fill in the gaps is also significantly limited.  Some people may prefer that.  Some don’t.

There are plenty of terrific original anime films out there, like most of Hayao Miyazaki’s works.  However, if an anime is based on a manga, I almost always think the original source material (ie the manga) is better.  The quality of the artwork is generally of higher quality and more consistent.  Further, anime based on manga are often modified or censored to better suit the typically younger audience.  Hence the end result tends to be a lot less gritty and more childish.  With manga, the reader gets to dictate the pace of the action with their imagination – you cannot do that with anime.

Postscript: why Manga and not Comics?

slamdunkIn this post, I refer almost exclusively to manga and not comics.  Why “manga” and not “comics”?  Is there even a difference (anymore)?

To me, manga and comics are different animals.  “Manga” refers to the Japanese-style of comics referred to in this post.  On the other hand, “comics”  tend to connote the style popularized by American publications, usually in colour – and traditionally depicting superheroes (though much more varied now).  You know the type.  These days the term also encompasses “graphic novels”.

Comic book fans will no doubt vigorously defend the superiority of the comic book (and I have such friends) – but personally, I prefer manga any day.rokudenashi-blues

I just find manga so much more creative, stylish, visually and emotionally encaptivating and intellectually satisfying than comics.  Granted, the gap has been narrowing over for quite some time – there are some genuinely original and interesting graphic novels out there which smash the old mould of superheroes, but the breadth of topics and issues covered by manga still outweighs comics quite significantly.  You’ll find manga about cooking (like Iron Wok Jan), basketball (like Slam Dunk or Dear Boys), boxing (like Hajime no Ippo), tennis (like The Prince of Tennis), detectives (like Meitantei Konan) – even high school delinquents (like my favourite, Rokudenashi Blues) and Japanese chess (like Hikaru no Go).  There’s also an abundance of highly original intellectual works, like Death Note.   Such depth and variety do not exist in the comic world.

The main reason for this disparity is probably due to the fact that comics have not received mainstream acceptance like manga has in Japan.  Comics have historically been associated with nerds and geeks in the West, and indeed has a rather niche market.  Conversely, manga is read by people of all ages and from all walks of life in the East.

death-note1I must say my bias is not unexpected – after all, I did grow up on manga and have probably learnt more from manga than any other medium.  I owe a lot to manga – reading skills, language skils, social skills, sporting skills, artistic skills, no to to mention a great deal of knowledge about everything from history to science to politics.  The list goes on and on.

What do you think about manga?