Why Japan’s graphic novels have become a global phenomenon

Published April 23, 2021, 12:00 PM

by Jules Vivas

Manga madness explained, and a couple of titles to read

DEDICATE YOUR HEART A cover art from Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan manga, showing a member of the Training Corps. taking on the Colossal Titan

Art and literature converge in manga. The Japanese term refers to “cartooning” or “comics” originally published in this island country in the northwest Pacific Ocean. As a literary form, manga has significant topics, from history to social issues and politics, explained in a manner so uncomplicated, entertaining, and suitable for all kinds of readers. And yet, the consumption of manga has several layers like images, Japanese onomatopoeia, visual language such as facial expressions and gestures, and of course, words, all of which encourage multidimensional thinking. The Japanese graphic novel incorporates visuals with intriguing and meaningful storylines, which are among the main reasons it appeals to the youth.

Manga is said to originate from scrolls dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, which explains the basis to why it is read from right to left. The term came into usage in the 18th century with the publication of Santō Kyōden’spicturebook Shiji no yukikai. It has become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry in the 1950s. As a matter of fact, in the ‘60s young Japanese artists were attracted to manga for its high earning potential. In mid-20th century Japan, publishing was regarded as a high-earning, high-status occupation.

LINIAR MONOCHROME DRAWING Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga or Animal-person Caricatures is believed to the scroll where manga originated from

In the ‘90s, a notable surge in the export of manga to Europe, America, and several Asian countries took place. Its sudden popularity is tied to the rise of anime as an international phenomenon in the ‘70s. But what sustained and led to the growth and development of the manga industry is the huge domestic market. By 1995, the manga market in Japan was valued at ¥586.4 billion or $7 billion. It is currently a booming industry worth billions of dollars.

Despite the global health crisis, the manga scene is strong in a way it has never been before. Japanese comics sold well around the world last year. It is said to have broken records to chart the highest profits ever recorded since 1978.

When Lewis Caroll’s Alice asked, ‘What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’ she was clearly referring to manga.

But why is manga such a big hit? It not only appeals to the young. Japanese graphic novels delve into just about any possible topic under the sun, past, present, or future. There is something for everyone. Doctors and medical professionals would get a good laugh out of Cells at Work by Akane Shimizu as it features accurate facts about the inner workings of the body presented with wit and humor.

When Lewis Caroll’s Alice asked, ‘What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?’ she was clearly referring to manga.

Hajime no Ippo by George Morikawa has techniques and ideas based on real-life boxing for casual audiences to understand. Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma written by Yūto Tsukuda and illustrated by Shun Saeki, is about cooking battles and will have one drooling over pages with recipes sourced from Chef Yuki Morisaki.

JUST A WHITE BLOOD CELL COVERED IN… BLOOD A page from Akane Shimizu’S Cells at Work showing the personification of white blood cells

There is a genre for boys called Shonen characterized by action-filled plots. Seinen, which literally means “youth,” is for adolescent males, a genre that tends to be psychological and violent in nature. Shojo, which translates to “young girl,” centers on romance and interpersonal relationships, most of which have female leads. Josei is the counterpart of Seinen, often slice-of-life, and contains realistic interpersonal relationships. And then there is Kodomomuke or “intended for children.”

It is, however, the over-the-top titles that give manga the traction it has today.

Take, for instance, Fullmetal Alchemist (FMA), a series written and illustrated by Hirmou Arakawa. Two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, lose their bodies trying to bring their deceased mother back to life through alchemy. Military corruption and the consequences of war are tackled in this tragic story that incorporates both science and magic. Its thought-provoking dialogues, effective drama, and amazing fight sequences make FMA universally loved, so much so that it has been depicted as an equally iconic anime twice.

Fullmetal Alchemist GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

FMA is but one of the hundreds of well-received shonen mangas globally. Another familiar shonen would be Shingeki no kyojin popularly known as Attack on Titan (AoT). The dark, post-apocalyptic manga by Hajime Isayama had just concluded this month. Its anime finale is slated to screen next year.

AoT focuses on the shades of gray rather than clear-cut morality. It has a rich lore, beginning with humanity hiding within three enormous walls to escape “Titans” or giants from wiping them out. The plotline, simple as it may sound, is politically driven, filled with twists. The narrative grows into a masterpiece intertwining individual and collective perspectives complemented by meaningful characters. What draws audiences from AoT is the constant fear and tension from the Titans, and the notion that your favorite character could easily be crushed or eaten by these monsters.

There’s also the artistic element of manga. The distinct art styles of mangakas or manga artists are a defining factor to some people. Along with anime, manga is considered as one of the most important forms of artistic expression in modern Japanese culture.

KENTARO’S MASTERPIECE Griffith and the Skull Knight in the Kentaro Miura’s Berserk manga. The panel shows the legendary mangaka’s intricate art style

One of the most notable mangakas whose art styles are distinctly clever, highly original, and unique is Hirohiko Araki with his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure series that uses disproportional poses, angular lines, and dramatically drawn characters. There’s Junji Ito, who effectively creates eerie illustrations using expressive distortions for his short horrors, as well as Makoto Yukimura, who puts to paper some genuinely devastating moments, violent and haunting imagery in Vinland Saga. Kentaro Miura’s art in Berserk is a marvel to behold, best described as grandiose and harrowing.

Ultimately, it is manga’s ability to provide the shared interests over which people can socialize that makes it such a literary/art boon. When Lewis Caroll’s Alice asked, “What’s the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” she was clearly referring to manga.