By Brooke Thompson
Have you ever picked up a book and felt guilty for reading it? Perhaps you had homework to do or maybe it was not something your peers would approve of. I felt that way about manga, especially whenever I read it on my college campus.
While some students would come up and discuss the book with me, I found others would make snide remarks about how they only read “real” literature, like classic books or adult fiction, and that reading media, like manga, comics, and YA literature was not intellectually stimulating.
There was a brief time when I believed them, but it wasn’t until I sat in my Short Story class when I had this epiphany: any work of literature has the potential of being a classic.
Regardless if it’s a novel, memoir, poem, comic, or like the aforementioned manga, each work shows an author’s perspective on a particular subject. Like stories and poetry, some time and thought have to go into the creation of the manga.
Readers can still find messages and themes throughout the story, even if it is in a different format. Therefore, regardless if someone did not find a manga to be “intellectually stimulating,” it does not negate its literary potential.
Here is an argument for why manga should be considered a work of literature. Japanese manga is brilliant.
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What is a Manga?
A manga is a Japanese comic book or graphic novel. Unlike American comics, panels are read right to left and the pictures are in black and white. The only time the pages are ever colored is when the manga is a special release.
Mangas typically begin in magazines, like Weekly Shōnen Jump or Shojo Beat, and are released in a series of chapters either monthly or weekly. If the story gets popular enough, it will be collected in a book called tankōbon volumes and will contain a few chapters of the story.
These tankōbon volumes vary in page length, due to the size of the chapters, and, depending on the amount of chapters released, determine how many manga volumes there will be available. For example, Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba has 108 chapters and is released in a span of 12 volumes, versus Millennium Snow by Bisco Hatori which has 17 chapters and is compiled into 4 volumes.
Types of Manga
There are five main types of manga: Shōnen, Shoujo, Seinen, Josei, and Kodomomuke. Each one is geared for different demographics and even separated by magazines.
For example, Kodomomuke is geared for children between the ages of 8-10 years. They tend to be more episodic rather than having arcs. Like most children’s books, this type of manga teaches lessons and morals for children. Some popular kodomomuke titles are Pokemon and Digimon.
For example, shōnen manga is normally released by the Japanese magazine Weekly Shōnen Jump (or in America Shōnen Jump) and used to describe manga that are full of action and adventure. This type of manga is typically geared for young boys between the ages of 10-15 years old. Popular shōnen titles include Dragon Ball Z, My Hero Academia, and Death Note.
Manga that is for older male audiences, typically between 16-24 years old, are classified as seinen manga. While they are still released by the same magazine, they are usually more violent and contain more adult themes. Popular titles include Tokyo Ghoul, One Punch Man, and Beastars.
Shoujo manga are targeted towards young girls between 14-18 years old and published by shoujo magazines. These stories are more dramatic, focus more romance, and are coming-of-age type tales.
Popular titles include: Ouran High School Host Club, Fruit Basket, and Say I Love You. With that being said, shoujo manga may contain action and adventure as well, like Vampire Knight and Sailor Moon. What separates these particular books from being shōnen titles are their focus on romance and drama.
Finally, shoujo manga also has an adult counterpart called Josei. It is catered to the more adult demographic of women. While the content still focuses on romance, the stories tend to be more realistic and have more sexual themes. Popular titles include: Your Name and Perfect World.
The Literary Merit of Manga
To illustrate how manga has literary merit, I will use Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note and Bisco Hatori’s Ouran Highschool Host Club as examples.
Death Note is a shōnen series that explores the ideas of justice through the perspective of both a 17-year-old student named Light Yagami and a 25-year-old, world-renowned detective named L.
When Light finds the titular Death Note, he discovers that anyone whose name is written in the notebook will die. With this newfound power, he decides to play judge, jury, and executioner with both convicted criminals and evil people in order to create a peaceful world.
However, as time passes, the Death Note corrupts him and distorts his worldview as he later perceives himself to be a god that passes righteous judgement on those who commit heinous acts. He even commits atrocious acts himself, but he justifies it by saying, “It was all for the good of the new world.”
Not to mention, his “peaceful world” instills fear in his subjects to the point where they are terrified of doing anything wrong rather than wanting to do good because it is the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this, L (yes, that is his name) is trying to discover who is murdering all these criminals and how the suspect is able to kill so many in a short amount of time. There are points in the series where he comes close to catching Light, yet he does not have any evidence to make an arrest.
Ouran High School Host Club
Ouran High School Host Club is a shoujo series that takes a satirical approach to the high school drama.
For those unfamiliar with Ouran High School Host Club, it is about a freshman named Haruhi Fujioka who joins her high school’s host club to pay off a debt after she broke their vase. Due to her androgynous looks, the members of the host club believe she is a boy, which is why she was forced into joining the club.
However, what gives the story a comedic element is that the boys begin to realize that Haruhi is, in fact, a girl. They do her best to hide her identity as a girl, so she can keep winning over clients and keep having them return to the club. Shenanigans ensue as they all try to keep up this charade.
Like most shoujo stories, romance is the main focus of the story, especially between Haruchi and the leader of the host club Tamaki Suoh. However, other elements are explored in the story, such as loss, sexuality, elitism, and friendship.
Hatori does an excellent job of treating these topics with respect all while balancing a comedic, lighthearted tone throughout the series.
The Similarities Between Death Note and Dr. Faustus
While Death Note has an interesting premise, what makes this series so appealing to me is how similar it is to Christopher Marlowe’s play, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Whether Ohba meant to write it that way, there are eerie similarities between Light and Dr. Faustus. For example, pride is both characters’ hubrises and plays a huge factor in each story.
Light is an intelligent, handsome 17-year-old, who was at the top of his class at school, yet was very bored with life. Dr. Faustus is an equally intelligent man yet was never satisfied with the knowledge he has obtained.
Both of their lives changed when they encountered a supernatural force. For Light, it came in the form of the Death Note. Its power perverts Light’s initially good intentions of making the world a better place by turning him into a power hungry sociopath whose only ambition is to be “God of the New World.”
Faustus is similar in that aspect. All he wanted was knowledge up until he summoned the demon Mephistophilis. He begs for books about the planets, how to raise spirits, and plants. He plans to utilize this knowledge to become emperor of the world. However, that does not happen.
Despite making a deal with the demon to serve him for 24 years and assist him with his ambitions, Faustus does not do anything worthwhile and instead plays pranks on people. Depending on the version of the play, Dr. Faustus is either dragged to hell by Mephistophilis or torn apart by demons.
While that does not exactly happen in Death Note, a similar scenario happens. Remember how I mentioned earlier that Light found the notebook? Well, it was actually dropped in the human world by the Shinigami (a Japanese god of death) Ryuk because, like Light, he was also bored.
He follows Light around as a form of entertainment. At the end of the series, when Light is cornered by the police, Ryuk kills him because he “didn’t want to wait around for him to die.”
With The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus being a classic and considered a well-written work of literature, Death Note, which has a similar story, should be as well.
Ouran High School Host Club is a satire of popular archetypes.
Ouran High School Host Club was intended to be a satirical story of cliché character archetypes and overused plots found in Japanese shoujo manga. However, she includes nuance to her stories that give this story depth and offers a critique on worn out tropes.
Let’s look at the main premise for example. It’s about a girl that has to pretend to be a guy in order to pay off a debt. According to Hatori, she said that you often see girls dressing up as boys for ulterior motives in shoujo manga. Her character Haruchi, on the other hand, does not as she is dressed like one because 1) she’s being forced to and 2) she enjoys being a guy.
The cross-dressing trope is often used in Shakespeare’s comedy plays, such as As You Like It and Twelfth Night. It is a great comedic tool, and, if done well, can really add a whole new layer to the story. In Shakespeare’s case, he used cross-dressing as a way of subverting traditional gender roles.
For example, in As You Like It, the main character Rosalind disguises herself as a young man named Ganymede and flees from her uncle’s wrath. She uses this disguise to give her crush Orlando love advice and also to pay for land – something unheard of in Shakespeare’s time.
While Hatori uses the cross-dressing trope to make a statement about gender roles as well, she does it differently. In a Q&A session at Anime Expo, Hatori states that she uses the cross-dressing theme as a way for characters to express themselves.
She wants some of the themes for Ouran High School Host Club to be about individuality and expressing yourself. She displays this not only with cross-dressing, but through her characters’ archetypes.
The seven members of the host club are meant to represent the different types of love interests in the media. Hatori intended to use these stereotypes to create a satirical story about a whole cast of boys falling in love with one girl, also known as a reverse harem.
These stereotypes begin with the leader of the host club Tamaki, who is the princely type while his co-founder Kyoya is the cool stereotype.
The other members include the Hitachiin twins, which are a mischievous type, in comparison to their upperclassman Mori, who represents the strong, silent type. His cousin Honey is the cute, fun loving type while Haruchi is supposed to be the “natural” type.
Hatori expanded on these tropes and gave her characters’ depth. For example, Tamaki may have an ego, but, deep down, he wants to help others be themselves, which is why he created the host club.
On the surface, Kyoya looks like he has everything – a powerful family, money, and part of one of the most popular clubs in school. However, internally, he is stressed that he will never live up to father’s expectations or surpass his brothers’ accomplishments.
The Hitachiin twins Hikaru and Karou want someone to be able to tell them apart and treat them as individuals. This is evident whenever they play the “Guess Which One Is Hikaru” game.
At first, it’s treated as a way of entertaining guests; however, several of their flashbacks reveal that the game is actually a test to see if people see them as individuals or as a single entity.
Honey is a skilled fighter but has always enjoyed sweets and childish things, like carrying around a stuffed bunny named Usa-Chan. He used to act tough and quiet, like Mori, to prove he was brave. However, when Tamaki invited him into the host club, he told him that it was braver to be yourself.
Suffice to say, through her satirical story, it sounds almost like Hatori is trying to beat you over the head with themes of being yourself and being kind to others. However, she is very subtle in this message as the audience watches the host members start off as caricatures and blossom into loveable, three-dimensional characters.
Ouran High School Host Club’s feel good story and sharing themes of cross-dressing and subverting traditional gender roles with Shakespeare, this manga series should also be considered a literary classic.
Literary Themes in Manga
A shallow interpretation of Death Note is that it’s a story about two intelligent men trying to outwit each other to achieve their goals. Upon a deeper inspection, the story explores complicated themes of justice, good versus evil, corruption, and possibly even a critique on society.
Ouran High School Host Club might sound like a silly story about a girl joining a club full of boys, but Hatori’s clever writing transforms the story into being about expressing yourself, being kind, and standing your ground.
We all desperately try to fit in, in that it’s easy to stop being ourselves and we lose sight of who we are. While we teach children to always be themselves and stand out from the crowd, this idea constantly needs to be reinforced when you’re a teen and adult.
With important lessons and complicated themes found in both Death Note and Ouran High School Host Club, I think that this provides a reason why manga should be considered a work of literature. Both stories are intellectually stimulating and without a doubt literary works of art.
Everyone interprets books differently, therefore, making literature subjective. While others may have not seen the literary merit of manga, I found Death Note, Ouran High School Host Club, and other manga series enjoyable and worthy of being called literature.
Therefore, regardless if someone did not find a manga to be “intellectually stimulating,” it does not negate its literary potential. A reader can still find messages and themes within a different format of reading, thereby making the book a classic.