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Kei Ishiyama Interview

Cream and Sugar

A Japanese manga artist who published her graphic novels in Germany.
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	manga eye

February 2011
Flavor of the Month:

Manga

These Japanese newspaper headlines caught my eye this spring: “152 Million Copies of the Dragon Ball [comics] Series Sold;” “Naruto Becomes X-Publisher’s Fifth Manga Series to Sell Over 100 Million;” “Three Million Tankobon [bound periodical] Copies Sold of Volume 57 of One Piece—Cumulative Total of 189 Million.

These numbers are mind boggling.

In Japan manga comics are everywhere—at newsstands, commuter train kiosks, convenience stores, to say nothing of bookstores. There is manga for everyone, regardless of taste, from child to adult. In 2006 nearly 40% of all publications in Japan were manga, produced by some 4,000 professional artists. There are manga cafés, manga museums, manga internet sites, and manga newspapers. Indeed, manga has its roots deep in modern Japanese culture.

Manga is a generic term for Japanese graphic novels. Although there existed a form of manga before World War II, the kind of modern manga we know today originated with Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989), the father of the genre. A medical doctor by profession, he brought new elements into manga, such as action and motion-picture perspectives into his drawings and humanity into his stories. He also made Japan’s first animated TV series, Astroboy, in 1963, which was based on his popular manga serial. His innovative drawing skills, storytelling style, and business entrepreneurship laid the basis for a war-torn Japan to become the dominant graphic-media popular culture center of the world today.

Around 1960 manga magazines became widely available to children at prices they could afford. It may sound unbelievable, but many children in those days wanted to be manga artists. With pencil and paper, young people could let their creativity fly. In this burgeoning era, many manga artists debuted when they were 16 or 17 years old, and had the freedom to boldly explore new territories.

In the next several decades the popularity of manga exploded as Japan’s economic power increased. It attracted large readerships, and expanded into many genres catering to various age groups. Amateur manga artists flocked to comic markets. Anime—Japanese animation—grew hand-in-hand with printed manga. A majority of anime are still based on manga titles. DVDs, video games, and tie-in merchandise also grew. Music became a vital part of anime, as did voice-acting. Today nearly 60% of global TV anime is made in Japan, and an unprecedented number of manga titles are translated into foreign languages.

Visual Culture by Design

Japanese is said to be a “fun-for-the-eye” language. It has three scripts—the hiragana and katakana syllabaries, and the Sino-Japanese kanji characters—and in theory each orthography might be used to write a word. For example, manga can be written as まんが, マンガ, or 漫画 in hiragana, katakana, and kanji respectively.

Hiragana is the first system children learn and consists of 45 symbols. Katakana is the second system—mimicking hiragana—but is used for foreign words. Kanji are the Chinese characters brought into Japan about fifteen hundred years ago. As children get older, they gradually learn more and more kanji, and by the time they are 18, they will know about 2,500 kanji characters (besides the 90 symbols of the two syllabaries). Generally speaking, the older and more educated a person is, the more kanji is found in their writing. Thus, in the example of writing manga given above, まんが is intuitively associated with “childish”, マンガ as ”foreign”, and 漫画 as “formal.” If a manga character’s conversation is written all in katakana, he is a gaijin or foreigner. These writing systems, coupled with the rich onomatopoeia found in Japanese, allow manga artists to play with language to create variations and nuances. In a sense, the language itself carries a certain level of graphic expression.

Manga evolved with the visual Japanese language. For example, drawing techniques that were often found in the old ukiyoe woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries—such as disproportionate pictures to express emotions like as exertion, and effective page layouts—were adopted into manga.

Manga at a Turning Point

The manga industry grew with magazine sales. In December 1994, Shueisha published 6.53 million copies of Japan’s most popular boys’ weekly magazine Shonen Jump, which became a Guinness world record holder. Since then, publication of manga magazines has been declining. Today, less than 3 million copies of Shonen Jump are printed. The only silver lining is that sales of some very popular manga series continue in bound form.

In recent years, manga periodicals seem to act as a beacon for the media industry. If a manga title sells well, it will appear as a bound volume (tankobon), and has a good chance to be made into an anime, live-action TV show, or movie. The publisher, which holds the copyright, receives licensing fees. If these later releases do well, the sales of the tankobon will again surge.

Manga has been considered somewhat of a low-level literary art form partly because it initially catered to young audiences. The type of colloquialism used in manga—heavy use of onomatopoeia and puns—is carefully avoided in more serious writing. As the industry attempted to reach older readers, sex and violence became more common. This caused PTAs to try and boycott manga, just as comic books in America faced opposition in the 1960s. Expansion into overseas markets compensated for domestic decline in the last several years. But these days manga is having a tough time both in domestic and international markets.

Still, manga and anime’s influence in Japan and overseas is impressive. Biannual comic conventions in Tokyo attract 150,000 people a day, and anime conventions are held in many countries. These days Hollywood movies such as Street Fighters and Dragon Ball are made from manga titles. And new titles such as Death Note, Bleach, and Parasyte are on the planning board.

Some external efforts have been made to revitalize manga and associated industries in Japan, including the recent opening of the “Cool Japan Office” by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (the government agency to support and promote Japanese “cultural industries”). Educational institutes have been proactive in developing manga professionals. To date, ten universities have a dedicated manga faculty.

The manga industry has also made special efforts to reinvigorate itself. In the last decade numerous manga artists took up seemingly un-cool cultural subjects and made them into new series and titles. Examples include the ancient Japanese board games of go and shogi, classic theater arts like Kabuki and Noh, and manzai traditional stand-up comedy. Each has received its own manga titles, and these seemingly old-fashioned arts turned out to be quite popular subjects. The number of high-quality illustrated manga-style textbooks on many subjects is also growing, which parents not only approve of, but often enjoy reading themselves.

In the first issue of his ground-breaking series in the 1960s, Osamu Tezuka’s humanoid Astroboy was born on April 7, 2003. As he turned 7 this April, he attended the first day of school, and shook hands with fellow pupils. These first-graders will remember this day for a long time. Many robotics engineers of today grew up watching animated Astroboy TV shows as children. Perhaps the seed of a desire to make a real Astroboy was planted then. This is an example of manga staying-power.

Chizuko Jaggard

More about Manga at Wikipedia.


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