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Brief Notes On Manga by Bharath Murthy

BlueJackal, Saturday, June 24, 2017


Hi all! This is going to be my first note for this freewheeling online chat on manga. I’ll take questions on the comments box of this note and we can continue our discussion there. 

It is a curious fact that until the 2000s, Indians had little or no idea about the world of Japanese manga. I heard nothing about it even in one of the country’s premier art schools in Baroda where I studied. I guess interactions like this can help us better appreciate and understand this amazing narrative art form so that we can learn from the Japanese experience and try to adapt those techniques and enrich the landscape of Indian comics and graphic novels. 

I will take a personal approach in talking about manga, since I’m not an art historian. My interest in manga stems entirely from my own desire to draw comics. My intention is to try and share my love of manga and also to encourage Indian comics artists to utilise and develop on the techniques that Japanese manga artists created. 

Here is a short article I wrote that was published in a newspaper: 

It is a strange fact that the world's largest comics culture both in terms of volume and readership came to western attention only in the early 1980s, when manga had already developed a sophistication over 40 years of innovation. But ever since, manga has rightfully dominated the world comics scene. There are many reasons for the extraordinary success of Japanese manga, and I will present a brief history of it.

First, one must clear a basic misconception and that is to do with the term 'Manga' itself. 'Manga' in loose English translation means 'whimsical pictures', and was used from the late 18th century by certain Ukiyo-e artists to designate humourous sketches of people. The great Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai is said to have popularised the use of this term. However, manga in its current form was a gradual development. We know that the word 'cartoon' first came into modern usage in the British satirical magazine 'Punch'. The Punch model, at the high point of colonialsim, spread all over the world, including India and Japan. The first Indian imitation was the Bengali language ‘Basantaka’ (1874) . Other magazines like the ‘Parsee Punch’ and the Urdu language 'Awadh Punch' (1877) followed soon after. The Japanese one was the 'Japan Punch' (1862).

Rakuten Kitazawa, the first great Japanese cartoonist (1876-1955), applied the term to its modern connotation. Now 'Manga' is simply the Japanese word for 'comics'. Equally popular among the Japanese is the word 'comics' itself, pronounced 'komikksu'. The popular western notion that 'manga' represents a particular style of comics is a misconception. This is due to the fact that a style of comics characters involving large eyes and cute features is currently popular in Japan, when manga has finally become global. However, this style is only one of the many developments in manga.

There are many indigenous historical precedents to manga in Japan. A form of illustrated book called 'kibyoshi' was there from the later 17th cent. Ukiyo-e the popular art of woodblock printing, was another precedent, which in fact deeply influenced European artists like Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Also important is the practise of 'kamishibai', a form of oral storytelling using a series of drawn images, similar to the Bengali 'pat-katha'.


Osamu Tezuka:

Osamu Tezuka, widely revered in the manga world as the 'God of Manga', justly deserves the title. One of the the most prolific comics author ever, his output was wide-ranging in theme and complexity. Osamu Tezuka was the one who took Japanese comics on its own unique course that differentiates it from comics in other parts of the world. Up until World War II, Japanese comics imitated the dominant Euro/American styles. Newspaper comic strips were popular, and comics were frequently printed in colour and made primarily for children, just like everywhere else in the world, including India. The first hint towards a new direction comes in the form of rental libraries that flourished in the immediate post-war years. Called 'kashibon', these were mainly text-based books, and short story manga began to circulate among them. Since they were affordable, and the network of rental libraries was huge, these short manga reached the farthest corners of Japan, and were influential in creating a widespread readership of manga.

The year 1947 was an important one for the history of manga, since it was the year that the 20 year old Osamu Tezuka, then studying to be a dentist, published his first manga 'Shin-Takarajima' ('New Treasure Island'). It was also the year when the first modern manga magazine was launched, called 'Manga Shonen' ('Manga Boys'). These two events are crucial in the divergence of the evolution of Japanese comics from its western counterparts. Osamu Tezuka brought in 2 major innovations that characterize manga. One is the Long Story comic. 'Shin-Takarajima' was the first Japanese comic to be 200 pages long. To my knowledge, it is the first comic in the world to be that long. The second innovation is in the narrative technique. Tezuka freely borrowed from animation movies like the ones from the Walt Disney company, and created sequences that stretched action over several panels, sometimes over several pages. This created a page-tuner, as one could quickly go through a page. This stretched narrative is one of the distinctive features of manga. Western comics tend to compress narrative in fewer panels, resulting in lesser number of pages and more density of imagery per page. The reading speed is slow. It is said that the average Japanese reading speed of manga is about 3 seconds per page. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, I have witnessed Japanese people reading manga magazines while going to work on the train, and the speed is indeed astonishing, compared to which western comics are rather slow. Needless to say, these innovations made Tezuka's debut a major publishing success, and demonstrated the potential of the form.

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