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MANGA: Sixty Years Of Japanese Comics

A Review By: The Times

The following review by Dominic Wells appeared in The Times on July 17 2004.

Where the actions speak louder

In 1990, when I was invited to Tokyo to report on the Japan festival which would annually bring Japanese culture to London, I was presented with tea ceremonies, Noh plays, Zen gravel and sumo battles. My questions about manga provoked incomprehension and, frankly, a degree of alarm. What could be culturally interesting about Japanese comic books? Ten years later, as Paul Gravett reports in Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, the new national art curriculum for junior high schools has finally included the study of manga as “one of Japan’s traditional modes of expression”.

Too right. It was Hokusai who coined the term “manga”, or “playful sketches”, to describe the caricatures he loved doing. And while he did not introduce narrative into these prints, the ukiyo-e prints and pictorial novels of the 17th to 19th centuries had done so with their tales of geishas and courtesans, as did certain monastic scrolls as far back as the 12th century. Some argue that the very nature of written Japanese — ideograms drawn as stylised pictures of the words they represent — facilitates acceptance of comic books, and Gravett adds a further practical note: in the West, using the Roman alphabet with its mere 26 characters, it was easier to print the words with moveable type and to make any illustration with a separate woodcut, with the result that illustrations were used more and more sparingly; whereas in Japan it was easier to cut the words on to the same wood block as any illustration.

However, this does not fully account for the extraordinary commercial success and creative flowering of manga in the second half of the 20th century. The books are now the dominant form of literature, for adults as much as children, accounting for 40 per cent of all books and magazines sold in Japan. There are sport comics and cookery comics, romance comics and sex comics, comics historical and hysterical, satirical and satyrical. The weekly anthology magazine Shonen Jump sells three million copies - down from its heyday of six million, but figures with which any British publisher would be delighted.

Some plausible theories are advanced. The high cost of city housing means that most workers live in suburban sprawls; typically they commute by train rather than by car, leaving time for reading. Cinemas are scarce, with only one per 68,000 citizens. Sometimes referred to as the poor man’s cinema, manga generated three times as much profit as Japan’s film industry during the 1990s. But the real answer is bedded earlier, in the postwar period.

Japan after 1945 was placed under American rule and long remained in thrall to American culture. US comics were widely disseminated, as was a backlog of previously unseen movies. But more than this, Gravett points to the influence of one man, Osamu Tezuka. He was “Walt Disney, Hergé, Will Eisner and Jack Kirby rolled into one, but even that comparison falls short”. A lifelong fan of Disney and Chaplin movies who discovered adult American cinema after the war, he resolved to create comics that matched film for storytelling technique and thematic variety. His first work, New Treasure Island (1947), published when he was just 19, sold half a million copies.

During his long career, Tezuka created a slew of memorable comics and animations that in turn were re-exported to the West, greatly influencing artists there: Astro Boy, for instance; or, most famously, Kimba the White Lion, seen by many as the inspiration three decades later for Disney’s The Lion King. Other works include his own very loose adaptation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a nine-volume life of Buddha, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the haunting wartime drama Tell Adolf. The funny papers they ain’t.

Tezuka set the pace; future generations of manga artists were more than equal to the challenge, creating, often with studios of more than 20 helpers, extraordinarily diverse sagas that could run to thousands of pages.

Gravett’s solidly researched study is, mercifully, somewhat shorter, including in its 176 pages bountiful full-colour illustrations that do not shirk the erotic and horror sides of adult manga. One thing’s for sure. If you were under the misapprehension that Pokémon represents the acme of Japanese comic culture, this book will swiftly disabuse you.

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