Thursday, March 27, 2008

Japanese Import

You’ve probably seen them in the bookstores, the droves of young people standing around the manga section, flipping through the latest offerings. In Japan, tachiyomi, Japanese for “stand-reading,” goes beyond anything you’ve seen in an American store (and they’re rarely shooed away, as in the U.S.). If you grew up before the American manga explosion of the late 1980s, like I did, it remains a mystery. If you’re curious about art or comics or, more importantly, curious about the comics your children might be reading, Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide lifts the veil of obscurity and allows us to see manga in all its variety—the bad, the good, and the culturally bizarre. If he achieves nothing else, Thompson dispels the misconception of manga as a monolithic entity of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Manga, Thompson demonstrates, is a medium, like television, film, or literature, with a wide array of subgenres appealing to all kinds of readers. To turn a familiar phrase on its head, Thompson’s message is the medium, which he explores and maps out fully so that even the complete novice can feel comfortable in beginning to navigate the seas of manga out there today.

Legendary 19th century Japanese artist Hokusai coined the term manga, which means “whimsical sketches” or “lighthearted pictures.” Manga has existed in some form for over 100 years, but really took hold on Japanese culture after World War II, when television was uncommon in Japan and movies prohibitively expensive. Manga provided a cheap form of entertainment, first for young boys but soon branching out to fill every corner of the market. Tezuka Osamu, the “God of Manga,” became the first manga star artist with works such as Astro Boy (above), which features the round-eyed, cartoonish style most Americans associate with manga. Comics remain more widely read and respected in Japan than anywhere else in the world, thanks mainly to the power of manga. Nearly half of all books and magazines sold in Japan qualify as manga. Not until the late 1980s did translated manga come to America, riding the wave of popularity of anime. Reflecting the state of American comics more than that of Japan, manga mostly for boys (known as shônen in Japanese) and men (seinen) appeared first in American stores, with manga for girls (shôjo) and women (jôsei), still smaller audiences in the U.S., following behind. Thompson traces the popularity of manga to it’s sense of “otherness” for American readers. “We love them more than any test-marketed, focus-group products designed for us,” he argues (which, of course, doesn’t preclude the original targeting to Japanese readers). Thompson also cites how manga stories have endings (versus the never-ending franchises of American comics, such as Superman or Spiderman) and the ownership of artistic property by the artists themselves (rather than soulless corporations) as additional reasons behind manga’s popularity in America, which reached sales of $170 to 200 million in the U.S. and Canada in 2007.

After giving a detailed introduction to the world of manga, Thompson provides an exhaustive guide to the individual works and the many genres of manga, complete with a 4-star rating system, age range, and warnings for nudity, violence, etc. Listed alphabetically, these ratings provide the perfect reference for newbies standing before those intimidating racks of manga titles for the first time. Even more invaluable are the essays on the genres, which provide fascinating glimpses into the manga publishing world and Japanese culture while also listing examples of key works in that genre. Some of these genres mirror American comics, such as kazoku, i.e., “family manga,” which resembles the old-fashioned American comic strip. (Kô Kojima’s Sennin Buraku recently broke Charles Schulz’s record with Peanuts as the longest running comic strip done by a single author.) Superheroes, romance, comedy, science fiction, fantasy, and others also offer direct parallels. Manga, however, offers comics on cooking (think Iron Chef), politics, and, my personal favorite, office politics, known as salaryman manga. Kenshi Hirokane’s Division Chief Kosaku Shima (above) stands at the top of the salaryman genre, which Japanese publishers created to appeal to white-collar audiences as well as out of a sense of social responsibility. Salaryman characters think of the good of the company and of society before their own personal needs, reflecting a deeply ingrained trait of Japanese society. (Just try to imagine publishing the same material set in America!) Perhaps the most striking difference between Japanese and American comics is the treatment of sexuality, which, again, reflects the larger cultural differences. Japanese culture has long accepted homosexuality, so gay, lesbian, and even transgender manga exists. Although Japan remains a sexually repressed culture on the surface, an adult manga industry thrives, similar to the thriving American pornography business that mainstream culture prefers to ignore. “The world of adult erotic manga can seem like a print bacchanal, an omnivorous orgy in screentone and ink,” Thompson cautions, “and that’s only the material deemed palatable for Western mores [in translation].” In such adult manga lies the dark side of manga fandom. In 1989, Tsutomu Miyazaki, a 27-year-old manga addict, kidnapped, molested, and killed four little girls. The public outcry in Japan against the crime tainted the name of otaku (Japanese for manga fan) in a sinister way that goes far beyond American stereotypes of reclusive comics’ fans such as The SimpsonsComic Book Guy. (Thompson separates the reviews of gay and adult manga from the main listings in another nod towards making his guide family friendly without sacrificing completeness.)

When the day comes for me to introduce my son Alex to comics and manga, I’ll be sure to consult Thompson’s guide. Thompson’s ability to balance a desire for comprehensiveness with practical usefulness makes his guide not only complete but invaluable for the parent looking to understand his or her child’s interest in manga. Not only does Thompson warn you of the dark places of manga, but he brings you the shining lights too easily missed, such as Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s manga recounting life after the bombing of Hiroshima, which he survived. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus comics, Barefoot Gen looks at history from a wholly new imaginative perspective, bringing it alive to a new audience to be entertained and enlightened. Manga: The Complete Guide will entertain and enlighten you in a way that will make you see those kids loitering around the manga section of the bookstore in a whole new light.

[Many thanks to Del Rey for providing me with a review copy of Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide.]

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