Manga: Evolution

By Sheri Le, Edited by Kris Kleckner, 2002

My love affair with manga (Japanese comics) started out in typical American fashion: collect, consume, preserve. Like most foreign fans, I was first exposed to manga via anime based on popular manga series. In my particular case, it all started with Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. Inspired by the art of the film but left mystified by the patchy, incomplete feel of the story, a friend recommended that I pick up the Akira manga.

Coming from a land still largely dominated by X-Men, I ventured into a world where girl-types and "the uninitiated" fear to tread: the world of the comic shop junkie. It was there that I found the pride and joy: Akira no. 38, "The Final Chapter." (Some might call me strange for prizing this "rare" English language Japanese comic book - it's only going for $4.99 despite the seller's insistence that this is "possibly the rarest Akira comic.")

Otomo's Akira I fell in love with the beautiful art, the way that the lines flowed and scenes shifted like the still frames of a movie; it was certainly nothing I, a "newbie" to the comic book scene, had ever encountered.

Like many otaku (Japanese fans), my fascination with manga has blossomed into something far beyond the initial brief infatuation with cartooning styles. To me, reading manga has become an art of reading between the lines. Not just the lines of skillfully placed art or the rich depth of the text. Not even the lines that delineate each frame of action. But deeper still - into the lines of history, culture, and politics over which the art of manga has developed. As a genre, modern manga is historically intertwined in the socio-cultural, political, and economic dimensions of Japanese society; it is part of a larger global context, where it influences and has been influenced by other forms of art and culture worldwide.


Manga (the Japanese word is both plural and singular) can be loosely defined as Japanese comics. Contemporary manga range from episodic or sequential "anthologies" of stories published in popular magazines, to book-like volumes laid out in the fashion of a comic book or graphic novel.

In Japan, manga is by far the most popular printed media. In 1997, it was estimated that 2.3 billion manga are sold in Japan every year. According to Jeff Yang and the authors of Eastern Standard Time, the top selling manga Shonen Jump sells more than five million copies per week - five times more than the most popular non-manga periodical.

How? Unlike American comic books, manga serves a wide range of purposes and covers diverse topics. They address wider audiences including men and women of all ages and interests. Although commonly perceived as entertainment media, manga is also used to teach literature or history, to train business people, and to spread public service announcements.


Like most forms of popular media, the lines linking manga to its origins are multiple and fragmented. Lost in time, most historians believe the manga-style originated with the ukiyo-e tradition of Edo period of Japan (1600-1867).

Ukiyo-e can be loosely translated as "pictures of the floating world." It was originally a painted medium that later became strongly associated with woodblock printing. Available as scrolls, greeting cards, book illustrations or single prints, ukiyo-e depicted caricatures of people, landscapes, the uncertainty of life and sensual pleasures (often associated with the red-light district) in a familiar "Japanese" style. The aim of ukiyo-e was to capture a feeling rather than depict reality. Artists often focused less on realistic artistic elements and more on introducing humor, eroticism, puzzles, and experiments with line and design to their work.

Akin to the manga of today, ukiyo-e was part of Edo period popular culture. The art was so prolific in its day, according to Frederik L. Schodt, author of Manga! Manga!, that old ukiyo-e prints were often used as packing material for tea shipments to Europe, much as we might use old newspapers today. It was cheap to produce, widely circulated, and consistent with the spirit of play or entertainment.

From this woodblock printing tradition came the first "comic books": Kibiyoshi or "yellow-cover" booklets. Popular reading at the end of the 18th century, Kibiyoshi were monochrome comics that grew out of popular stories for children, and later came to embrace themes for a more mature audience and stronger storylines.

Ukiyo-e transcended into "manga" when ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) first used the term to describe some of his ukiyo-e sketches in 1814. The character man meaning "involuntary" or "in spite of oneself" and ga meaning "picture." In using the term "manga," some believe Hokusai was attempting to describe the whimsical or light nature of his sketches. Yet, despite the term's early existence, "manga" did not become a popular description for the medium until the beginning of the 20th century.


Having been mostly isolated (both geographically and culturally) from the Western world, Japan radically changed with the historic arrival of an American fleet captained by Commodore Perry in 1853. As social and economic relations built between Japan and the West, Westerners from the governmental, religious and popular sectors were sent to Japan to educate, develop, and report on the status of Japanese-Western affairs. With each group of people came a new influx of art, culture, and politics which eventually filtered into Japanese culture at large.

New techniques and technologies, such as copperplate printing and lithography, were introduced that provided an alternative to the traditional (but slow and expensive) woodblock printing method. This significant improvement speed and efficiency in producing the written word allowed the spread of Western cultural ideas to proliferate to the Japanese public - amongst them was the new stylizations of the Western comic art.

Intended mainly for the foreign community, the comics printed in magazines had a profound impact on Japanese artists of the era and in the late 1800s. Two men's work came to the forefront: British journalist Charles Wirgman's satire The Japan Punch (published in Yokohama); and French eccentric George Bigot's humorous Tôbaé. Not only did Wirgman and Bigot introduce social and political cartooning through their satires, but their formal training brought European artistic techniques of styles of perspective, anatomy, and shading to Japanese artists.

Japanese cartoons began to mirror the American and European political cartoons. New publications such as Marumaru Chinbun (1887) and Tokyo Puck (1905) regularly included cartoons which addressed international and domestic politics and events. In 1906, the cover of Tokyo Puck even depicted a Japanese response to the discriminatory laws (against the Japanese) being passed in America when they published a cartoon featuring a convoluted Teddy Roosevelt futilely attempting to reach an "anti-Japanese" wasp that had landed on his back.

Not all American influence on Japanese art was negative. Rakuten Kitazawa, founder of Tokyo Puck, once commented to the Asahi newspaper, "The American people love to laugh…Their laugh is an innocent one, that instantly dispels fatigue," and he referred to American comics as "an entertainment equal to baseball, motion pictures, and the presidential elections." In 1902, Kitazawa followed his love of the American style and introduced the first serialized Sunday comic strip to Japan: Tagosaku to Mokube no Tokyo Kembutsu (Tagosaku and Mokube Sightseeing in Tokyo). Additional serials were to follow in the years to come. In the 1920s and 30s, Japanese publications were actually the first to serialize two very well known comics from American artists: George McManus's Bringing Up Father and Pat Sullivan's Felix the Cat.

Pleased with the popular response to the American cartoons but craving something less foreign, Japanese editors started to hire more artists with an American-style flair, like Yukata Aso, who produced Nonki na Tosan (Easy Going Daddy) in 1924, a spin off of Bringing Up Father. At the same time, serialized comic strips for children began appearing in newspapers - most notably Shochan no Boken (The Adventures of Shochan) and Norakuro (Blackie the Stray), a series about a stray dog in the army. Like their American counterparts, these comics spawned a number of characters with lasting popularity.


As the nation moved toward World War II, the Japanese government pushed its society toward increasing solidarity and homogenization. Artists who had previously criticized the government abruptly found themselves aligned with the solidarity movement to garner favor (not to mention avoid incarceration and writing bans). Some artists took to creating 'political correct' propaganda, like erotic leaflets directed at the Allied troops, while others changed the themes of their cartoons to promote war-time goals. During this time, children's manga became a "safe zone" due largely in part to the innocent themes it explored. Ironically, another safe outlet for artists was erotic manga - a much safer alternative to being persecuted or jailed for political and social criticism.

As part of the crackdown on radical art forms, government-sponsored umbrella groups replaced the once independent cartooning groups. Only one of these groups, "The New Cartoonists Association," which circulated cartoon magazine Manga, was able to continue publication during WWII when paper was scarce.

Throughout WW II, manga began to stagnate. The scarcity of supplies (especially paper), a low of demand for cartoons, and the heavy nationalization push by the government caused manga to languish until the end of the war.


Our contemporary image of manga (what I call the "modern manga") really began to emerge in post-World War II Japan - a period centered largely on the works of a single manga artist and animator: Osamu Tezuka.

Following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II (1945), the country experienced an unprecedented flourish of manga. Magazines began to circulate to give voice to political cartoonists; children's comics reappeared; and with the post-war social and economic downturn, comics focusing on hard times became popular. With traditional hardback comic books still too expensive for most consumers, cheaper "Red Book" comics, so named for their red covers, started to appear around 1947. Among the red book comic artists was up and coming artist Osamu Tezuka, who alone drafted 37 comic books between 1947 and 1953.

Referred to as "Manga no Kami-sama" (The God of Manga) in Japan and often dubbed the "Walt Disney of Japan" by Americans, Osamu Tezuka was arguably the most influential modern comic artist in all Japan. Tezuka was born in 1928 in Toyonoka in Osaka, and raised in Takarazuka. The animated cartoons of his early youth enchanted him and had heavy influence on his later work as a manga artist and animator. Tezuka made his manga debut while still attending medical school with the short children's serial Ma-chan's Diary. Soon after, in 1947, he released his first widely popular work, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Treasure Island, called Shintakarajima (New Treasure Island).

Audiences of traditional manga were amazed at the new layout complete with visual "sound effects" and multiple-frame actions that gave Shintakarajima a cinematic feel. Prior to World War II, manga had consisted primarily of brief, 4-frame cartoons. Inspired by foreign cinematography, Tezuka had introduced a type of sequential picture book into his manga that allowed the reader to view each frame as if it were the lens of a camera. By changing the shape of the frame and arrangement of characters inside, he created "close-ups" of character's faces, "pans" of the landscapes, and "off screen" shots. For instance, a single action in Shintakarajima, such as a drive to the beach, could take up eight pages so the full effect of the drive could be captured in art just as if someone had pasted in scenes from a movie. The style was so effective that in the midst of post-war depression Japan, Shintakarajima sold over 400,000 copies - a number unheard of in any previous manga sales.

Tezuka himself said that his new style inventions grew out of his sense that the works of his time lacked the artistic capacity for high drama to draw the audience into the story. In his autobiography, he states:

"I felt [after the war] that existing comics were limiting… Most were drawn… as if seated in an audience viewing a stage, where actors emerge from the wings and interact. This made it impossible to create dramatic or psychological effects, so I began to use cinematic techniques…. French and German movies that I had seen as a schoolboy became my model."

This simple but innovative technique had a profound impact on Japanese comic books as well as later American works. As manga evolved in the 1950s and 60s, the use of cinematic style was carried to a whole new level. Artists began to use the pictures and the linkages between them to tell the story of the manga instead of relying on the traditional method of using the text to tell the story that was later illustrated with pictures.

Tezuka's Astro Boy Following Shintakarajima's success, Tezuka abandoned his career as a physician and became a professional artist. To add his new visual style, Tezuka added an innovative style and novelistic plots. His initial success was quickly followed by additional works, such as Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom) and Jungle Taitei (Jungle Emperor), published in popular boys' magazines like Manga Shonen and Shonen. Sound familiar? They should - you might recognize both of these manga titles by their later American anime names: Astro Boy and <Kimba, the White Lion. That both titles still enjoy a large fan base in both American and Japan today attest to Tezuka's great storytelling abilities.

As the animation boom began with <Astro Boy, manga also continued to gain popularity in Japan. Later in his career as a manga artist, Tezuka tried to widen the audience for the genre by producing manga for adults, like Cleopatra and The Thousand and One Nights. Many of his later works also focus on spiritual, humanistic themes, like The Buddha, Black Jack, and his life's work, Phoenix, a reincarnation story that has been referred to as Tezuka's most intellectually challenging experiment.


Tezuka's manga and animation garnered the attention of many up and coming manga artists who sought to learn and even imitate his style. His art had a profound effect on young readers, and many contemporary manga artists chose their career paths based on their love of Tezuka's manga. Often imitated, Osamu Tezuka's style sparked a new era, an unparalleled revolution in manga artistry, audience, and distribution that inspired later mangaka (manga artists) and animators such as Leiji Matsumoto (Space Cruiser Yamato, Otoko Oidan) and Fujiko-Fujio (Doraemon, still a popular children's manga) to follow in his tradition.

Tezuka once wrote, "My experience convinces me that comics, regardless of what language they are printed in, are an important form of expression that crosses all national and cultural boundaries, that comics are great fun, and that they can further peace and goodwill among nations."

When Osamu Tezuka passed away on February 9, 1989, it was estimated that he had drawn approximately 170,000 individual cartoons and created somewhere near 700 stories. It is doubtful that any other artist has had so much of an impacted the life and styles of so many generations of manga and anime artists the way his life and work have. Although the great God of Manga has passed away, his great legacy continues on as each new manga is published.