Manga: The Hidden Treasure in America
When you walk into a Barnes & Noble, you expect to find mostly books, not really graphic novels or comics. If you look carefully, you’ll come across a section that catches your eye immediately. Here, you see shelves of small books with colorful spines that expand all the way to the end of the aisle. Above this great stretch you read out not ‘Comic Books’, but ‘Manga’. It’s a Japanese product; a type of comic that is unlike the ones that are made in America. For instance, a typical American comic is tall and thin in size, whereas manga is small and compact. Then if you were to pick up one of each and compare their covers and content, they are very different. While an American comic has a colorful cover and polychrome pages, manga catches one’s attention with the ploy of color, only to find the pages to be completely monochrome. Manga is a unique art form that has taken America’s young female readers by storm, even though it originally came from another country.
Though it has its origins dating back to caricatures found in Buddhist temples, the manga that we see these days was due to foreign influences, including America. After the unanimous surrender at the hands of Fat Man and Little Boy, the allies had a much stronger occupation in Japan than before, beginning with taking away the countries’ own military. However, out of this terrible event came a burst of artistic expression because of certain liberties given by the allies. There was also a great deal of American imports that were coming into Japan by this time, including Disney films and comic books like Superman. These comics inspired a number of manga artists, including a man named Osamu Tezuka, also known as the “Godfather of Manga”.
At a young age, his father exposed him to a number of imported French and German films. Then World War II happened when he was just a teenager, and it was after the atomic catastrophes that Osamu Tezuka decided to become a full-time cartoonist in order to promote peace. But instead of merely copying his American counterparts, he created something that was completely new at the time. For instance, his narratives appealed to people of all ages and genders because of their Disney-like appearance with strong themes about humanity that were clearly influenced by the bombs. Plus, his panel layouts are similar to that of cinema.
This change alone became one of the major differences between manga and American comics. Unlike the stagnant, simple arrangement of square-shaped panels you see in Superman comics where the hero is confined inside his own space and posed in a picture-like moment (see Fig. 1), Tezuka used the same techniques in the films he saw and put them down on paper. What this new style creates is an endless flow of various angles, close-ups, perspectives, and so on (see Fig. 2). You also notice an obvious contrast in the art if you looked at them side by side. While most comics tend to feature superheroes with perfect bodies drawn to anatomic perfection, manga is simpler, and yet dynamic in its portrayal of extreme emotions on the character’s faces and actions.
It is from these pictures (see Figs. 1 and 2) that we see a distinct preference between manga and American comics based on gender. The main reader group of American comics, for example, is typically male because most superheroes tend to be square-jawed and extremely muscular men. Of course, there are exceptional female comic book readers as well, but not very many due to the tight circle the comics market has created around itself by focusing on the current readers only. Meanwhile, the main readership of manga is female. The main reason for this preference is that manga includes more genres, which range from comedy to educational, whereas American comics tend to focus more on superhero stories. Also, there is the format to consider. Because boys don’t read as many books as girls do, the book-like format of the manga isn’t very appealing, whereas it’s the opposite for girls.
But unlike teen novels, which are written for all young adults, manga in Japan is strictly divided between Shōnen (Boys) and Shōjo (Girls). Each type has their own array of genres, but the stories have distinctive elements that appeal to the gender it’s written for. For example, Shōnen manga likes to stress the values of friendship and competitive struggle, which refers to sports; a typical pastime for boys. Such examples include Naruto, Hikaru no Go, and Bakuman. On the other hand, Shōjo manga likes to focus on teenage romance narratives that feature a protagonist who has some kind of limitation to confront in their interactions with friends and love-interests. Nana, Kitchen Princess, and Sailor Moon are just a sample of the titles in this genre. The reason for this goes back to Japan’s views on gender.
In a Confucian society, the men are placed above the women. Of course, as democracy wove its way into Japan after World War II, women were given more liberties, but in manga, they are still regarded as submissive, sexual objects. For this reason, the majority of males who read manga are typically interested in stories where the hero finds himself surrounded by gorgeous women, also known as Harem manga, or gritty action-packed tales with a beautiful woman as the goal. However, this demographic is very small compared to the number of female manga readers, who are typically interested in a wider range of stories compared to the limited ones the boys read.
Now ironically, one of the big demographics in the audience of Shōnen manga is female readers, even though the manga is specifically targeting males. This phenomenon is due to the narrative progression of manga in general, which applies to both Shōjo and Shōnen manga. While American comics tend to have heroes that deal with external problems, manga’s heroes and heroines not only have to overcome physical obstacles but they also change internally. Girls can relate to characters who change, because they themselves are going through changes, whereas boys are more interested in fulfilling their inner “manly” urges, namely violence and sex, by reading stories with that kind of content in it, which is more present in comic books than manga. Also, you typically find more girls in Shōnen who make up for their sexy appearances by having strong personalities and they are usually equal to the men. On the other hand, the heroines in Shōjo are usually weak and dependent, which doesn’t suit the mind of a modern female reader due to its sexist implications.
Another popular manga among girls is Yaoi (Boy Love) manga, which basically involves a romance between two boys who are both trying to accept their love for each other, often resulting in sex. While this may seem like cheap porn to some, Yaoi is actually an exploration into the different kinds of love that are possible, which the Japanese are more open to than Westerners. For instance, the love that the two men share in these manga is similar to a heterosexual relationship, because often one of the pair is considered more ‘masculine’, while the other acts very ‘feminine’ as he tries to understand his sexual nature. So in its own way, Yaoi breaks the social norm about sexual behavior.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to just Yaoi. Manga in general goes against the Western traditions when it comes to sex and violence, which may help explain why some people don’t read manga despite its sub-cultural popularity. Take Sailor Moon for example (see fig. 3), a story about an average girl named Usagi who transforms into Sailor Moon, the Soldier of Love and Justice, when the forces of evil threaten humanity. Read by young girls all over the world, Sailor Moon breaks the gender stereotypes by having a female play the role of the hero. It also includes brief nudity, androgynous male antagonists, a cross-dresser, and two potential homosexual couples on both the enemies’ side and the heroines’ side.
In Western media, we would never see the kinds of things that are in Sailor Moon, or any other manga for that matter. If that is the case, then why is manga widely accepted in America? The answer lies in “Soft Power”. “Soft Power” is an economic term used to describe Japan’s approach to the global market. Instead of being upfront about its nation like America’s McDonalds™ enterprise, Japan’s exports are authentically Japanese, but it integrates other cultures into it, and that’s what makes their exports effective, including manga. The characters are supposed to be Japanese, but judging from their physical features, some of them don’t even look Japanese. Prior to the arrival of Westerners, Japanese artists depicted themselves with Asian features, then afterward, a sudden shift occurred which resulted in the creation of Japanese characters with ideal Western features, like Sailor Moon (see fig. 3).
This way, Japan can compete with America on equal ground, while subtlety expressing its bitter hatred through cleverly disguised media that contains strong character development and breaks the stereotypes of romance. For these reasons, manga has created a strong readership behind it. However, this cultural phenomenon would not have been possible without American influence and Japan’s “Soft Power” as the country opened up to the world during the 1970s and 80s. But instead of openly confronting American culture, Japan wants to embrace all cultures, absorbing their ideals and story archetypes, all while staying true to its own traditions.
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