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Regular version of the site

Exploring the Phenomenon of Manga Literature

On April 15, the IGITI Research Centre for Contemporary Culture hosted a round table on ‘Manga as Literature, Manga as Reading’. The event began with a guest lecture by Jaqueline Berndt (Professor of Japanese Language and Culture, Stockholm University).

Professor Berndt was first drawn to Japanese culture by Japanese cinema of the ‘50s and ‘60s and a love of ukiyo-e woodcut prints and Japanese painting when she was a high schooler in 1980. Now she is a professor of Japanese Language and Culture at Stockholm University. On the occasion of her talk, the professor sat down with the HSE News Service to talk about manga, Japanese culture and more.

What is Manga?

I would describe manga as entertaining graphic (i.e. drawn) narratives, although not necessarily ‘graphic novels’. The most popular and globally shared manga narratives are not bound entities, but rather serialized narratives that invite readers' imaginary and creative participation precisely by the more openly structured format of serialization. As such, manga can be compared to TV drama series or, more historically speaking, modern newspaper novels. Like them, manga is, in principle, genre fiction, characterized by conventions and tropes and precisely therefore easily shareable among those who have acquired the respective literacy.

Manga's storytelling and visual design has been fundamentally shaped by the magazine medium—that is, weekly or monthly serialization in magazines before eventual book editions—since the 1960s. While the magazine medium did not take root outside of Japan, its impact can be felt in the book editions that are circulated worldwide and feature the use of simple, non-glossy printing paper, monochromatic renderings, extended sequences that relate moods and subtle emotional changes, and extended depictions of spectacular events like battles and races, etc.

Who Reads Manga?

Manga is no longer just for young people. At least not in Japan. Since around 2005 young people have given preference to moving images, color, sound and the direct interaction that games provide.

Outside of Japan, especially in markets with a strong domestic comics culture (such as North America or Belgium and France), manga was welcomed in the 1990s and early 2000s because it filled a demographic void: it provided entertaining graphic narratives for teenagers, an overlooked demographic between children and adults. Now, however, the age issue has become less important due to the transformation of our wider media environment and the increased availability of media content.

Manga Versus European or American Comics

Given mutual exchange that has been happening between the different comic cultures in the age of digitalization and globalization, we might find differences not so much in style and storytelling but rather in (a) media (see the above magazine serialization and the related business model, which stretches from editors to subsequent book editions and the broader media mix), and (b) fandoms (fans of manga do not necessarily read other kinds of comics and vice versa). This raises the question of how manga is being understood by whom: not everyone conceives manga as reading matter; for many people the word "manga" signifies a broader taste-specific subculture that includes anime, fan creations, cosplay, and games, etc., and evolves around certain character types rather than narratives. Closely related, manga is equated with a specific illustration style.

The Global Spread of Manga

Manga is a global niche product: it has indeed spread on a global scale, but it is not popular, or even acknowledged, across generations and cultural domains within individual nations and their institutions (such as educational systems, major publishing houses, museums, funding opportunities, etc.). 

Many factors have contributed to the spread of manga, but there are two that I find particularly telling:

(1) Inclusiveness: The type of manga that has been circulating on a global scale for the last two decades or so invites participation, whereby readers copy images, develop stories further, engage in critical discussions, become active and creative in many ways. From a narrow point of view, this participation begins as readers empathize and identify with characters and immerse themselves into fictive worlds together with them rather than observing narrative events from a critical distance. Superheroes stay accessible: they have weaknesses and flaws despite their superpowers. Often, humor serves as a means to bring the heroes onto eye level with the reader (characters making fun of themselves, for example, and/or suggesting fluid identities when changing into a deformed "chibi" shape that stands in for a first-person perspective). True, there is an ‘exclusiveness’ against non-manga style comics or artistic productions, but, within the realm of popular or genre fiction, manga is a highly inclusive form.

(2) Post-modernity: Manga became known outside of Japan when younger Europeans and North Americans began to turn away from aesthetic and ethical principles of Western modern (bourgeois) culture—individualism, personal selfhood, national identity, high/low in literature and the arts, photorealism, authenticity, authorship etc. Readers who grew up with the Internet were the first to react to manga (in the broad sense) and incorporate it into their everyday cultural activities, as a kind of applied or practiced post-modernity, not necessarily conceptualized rationally. Beyond its representational contents, manga calls on us to revise naturalized assumptions about culture, literature and aesthetics.

Reading Manga in the Digital Age

The way of reading comics is changing. With respect to manga, this applies, for example, to the decreasing role of the double-page spread, or the interrelation between panel and page: if readers cannot grasp the entirety of a non-moving page space on their screen, the intricate interrelation between panel and page (a kind of zoom-in/zoo out) cannot be foregrounded anymore. The vertical scroll format of so-called Webtoons is indicative in this regard. Artists are returning to the single page as the basic unit of design, whereas magazine-based manga series leaned heavily on the double-page spread between the 1970s and 1990s.

A Worldwide Travelling Exhibition

The idea behind the exhibition, 'Manga Hokusai Manga: Approaching the Master's Compendium from the Perspective of Contemporary Comics', was to approach the famous pictorial reference books by woodblock-print artist and painter Hokusai for once not as the assumed origin of contemporary Japanese comics, but to reverse the perspective and investigate what the two kinds of ‘manga’ have in common, visibly (and invisibly). However, viewers are not asked to choose one of two positions, either affirming or rejecting the assumption of historical continuity. Rather, they are invited to make visual comparisons themselves, exploring sequences from diverse modern manga narratives which feature Hokusai as a character and juxtaposing them with Japanese prints and illustrated narratives from the early 19th century. In the ideal case they may ponder what makes something manga in particular and what makes something a comic in general: speed lines? sound words? panel sequences? drawing style? character design? a subculture of sharing?

Manga Events at HSE

Whether the exhibition will come to Russia depends on the scheduling by The Japan Foundation in Tokyo.

At HSE, however, we will also hold a closed workshop to discuss possibilities of collaboration with regard to joint research as well as ways of publicizing it at conferences and in academic collected volumes. The central subjects will be manga narratives, participatory cultures and World Literature, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.