By Victoria Garcia
If you spend any time on social media, you have probably seen the recent skyrocketing popularity of manga. From manga wall trends on Tiktok to clothing with your favorite manga characters on Instagram to accounts dedicated to translating manga panels from Japanese to English, manga is internationally known. But that brings up the question: what is manga?
Introduction to Manga
Manga is an umbrella term for diverse, black and white comic books and graphic novels published and produced in Japan. Manga fits in the broader category of anime, which refers to Japanese cartoons. It is a literary art form with many different styles, genres, and themes, and is usually read from right to left.
International manga shares some similarities with Japanese manga, but also has many differences. Before 2019, manga could be found in magazines sold in stores all over Japan. These magazines, such as Weekly Shonen Jump Magazine, published and released the manga in the form of chapters. Every new chapter for a series was released in a magazine; after the entire series was released and published, the chapters were collected into volumes and sold as books. In comparison, volumes of manga published internationally can only be purchased in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble. After Weekly Shonen Jump Magazine moved to online-only in 2018, anyone could get the newest releases of their favorite manga, instead of waiting for spoilers on social media or the next volume.
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History of Manga
While many are familiar with modern manga, that cannot be said for the history of manga as an art form. Throughout history, we have seen different forms of art in various cultures, from the ancient Romans to the ancient Egyptians, and manga has its own place in the history of art and literature.
The origins of manga are debated. While some argue that the progression of Japanese art to the current manga began with the first-ever novel, The Tale of Genji, a book covering the work of Japanese women, many argue that manga began around the year 1200 AD with The Tale of the Monkeys. According to a British Museum blog post, an unknown artist produced amusing hand-painted scrolls that portrayed animals behaving as humans. Monkeys, for example, are anthropomorphized and are wearing articles of clothing. The Tale of the Monkeys also includes early examples of speech bubbles, and features characters who appear multiple times in one scene, visual progression of the plot, and a reliance on graphics rather than text. This piece of artwork is considered fundamental to modern manga. The concept of The Tale of the Monkeys, despite its antiquity, can be seen in contemporary manga with stories such as Beastars by Itagaki Paru, a story that centers around assorted animals living together as in a human society.
By the late 17th century, artists were creating novels of artwork. These novels discussed society, were sometimes satirical, and were produced in large amounts for the upper classes. This shows that manga could engage with political themes—a trend that continues in modern manga such as the popular series Boku No Hero Academia (My Hero Academia) by Horikoshi Kohei. This story takes place in a world where eighty percent of the population is born with special powers. The plot follows a powerless boy who wants to become a hero and realizes along the way that he is ultimately trying to save a flawed society and system.
While The Tale of the Monkeys is considered the foundation for modern manga, the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai brought the word ‘manga’ to public attention. Katsushika is the artist who created the famous piece The Great Wave off Kanagawa; he selected ‘manga’ as part of the title for a collection of illustrations—Hokusai Manga—which was a series of different sketches with no overarching story. Though Katsushika introduced the word ‘manga’ into popular use, it is not the manga he is associated with today.
Blueprint for Manga
While manga is unarguably Japanese in culture, history, and context, its ascension to the modern manga we know has its roots in a British publication. A few years after Japan reopened its borders to the world in 1861 after 200 years of self-isolation, a new magazine chain was opened in Yokohama. Published by journalist Charles Wirgman, Japan Punch, which was modeled after the British Punch magazine, featured satirical cartoons. After Japan Punch, the Japanese published their own cartoon magazine, Eshibun Nipponchi, by Robun Kanagaki and Kyosuke Kawanabe. Soon after, more magazines began popping up.
In 1902, artist and political cartoonist Kitazawa Rakuten published Tagosaku & Mokube’s Tokyo Trip; a story where two people visit the capital. Kitazawa became the first person to use the term ‘manga’ as it is known today.
Some argue that Japan Punch, despite having British origins, led to the best-selling manga magazine in Japan: Jump comics created by Shueisha. Many make this assumption based on the similarity of the names. Jump magazine, later renamed Weekly Shonen Jump, has serialized some of the most popular manga such as Dragon Ball, Naruto, Boku no Hero Academia, and Hunter x Hunter.
Manga today, like Tagosaku & Mokube’s Tokyo Trip, is inspired by the people, places, and culture the artist is exposed to. Many manga panels have real-life settings such as schools, attractions, and temples. While manga is inspired by what the artist sees, it is also created by the artist’s imagination, resulting in unique worlds. New authors pop up every day, creating manga based on the current media and social environment, which leads to newer manga becoming more inclusive and starring LGBTQ+ characters and stories. Manga today, like past manga, continues to speak on social issues and politics, but also showcases unique viewpoints that are not usually portrayed in Japanese media.
Final Thoughts on the Story of Manga
With the explosion in popularity of manga due to manga like Haikyu!! and Attack on Titan, it is impossible to not be curious about this literary art form. It might be intimidating to pick up manga due to cultural differences like reading right to left, honorifics, and waiting till chapters are translated, but if you enjoy reading media such as graphic novels and comics, give manga a try!