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Japanese Manga as an Art Form

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Introduction

Though comics have been enjoyed by the general public for decades, it was not until the first official comic book was released in 1933 that the game changed. (South Florida Reporter) Since then, the world has been graced by the presence of comics in a much more centralized form, no longer relying on daily newspapers to enjoy the paneled sources of entertainment. With each country and artist contributing something unique and personal to the comic writing scene, it is expected to see the development of a variety of unique styles that bring something new to the table each time, which in turn allows them to transcend beyond the boundaries of literature and develop their own characteristics that distinguish them among the pool of such a widely celebrated form of entertainment. This also leads them to break off into their own respective subgroups with borderline cult-like followings. I found this particularly noticeable in the case of Japanese manga.

As a person who grew up fascinated with the versatility of the art world, ranging from an obsession with literature and graphic novels to a deep appreciation of stop animation, I discovered and became obsessed with anime. Captivated by the storylines and the emotionally evocative art styles of anime such as Sayo Yamamoto’s “Yuri!!! On Ice” and Shinichirō Watanabe’s “Cowboy Bebop,” I was immediately intrigued by the beauty and versatility of the world of Japanese entertainment, particularly the seemingly infinite varieties of anime. 

This interest only deepened when I became an IB higher level art student, with this course allowing me to further explore the world of art from a much more holistic viewpoint and appreciate art beyond paintings and sculptures. Having been provided with a better understanding of visual art and its elements, I was deeply inspired by the artistic elements of anime and wanted to learn more about its origins and history, bringing me to the extensive world of manga.

Though I don’t necessarily read traditional Japanese manga that often, I can definitely say that it has heavily influenced my art style when drawing digitally, adding an expressionistic touch to my art while also adding a sense of movement and fluidity. It has also inspired me in the sense of storytelling, breaking me away from my typically verbose manner of speaking and instead enabling me to tell stories in a much more creative and succinct manner.

In this essay I will explore and define the aspects of manga determining where it lies in regards to the traditional (and non traditional) methods of categorization in the fine arts.

What is an art form?

As this essay will focus on distinguishing manga as an art form, it is necessary to identify what exactly an art form is, which, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, is “an unconventional form or medium in which impulses regarded as artistic may be expressed” or “a form or medium of expression recognized as fine art.” (Merriam Webster) This specific definition can be extended to any form of self expression thus establishing literature itself as an art form, however, I will be using the term “art form” to refer exclusively to visual arts. It is also important to note that one’s objective views and definitions of what art is are also crucial in determining what can “qualify” as art, therefore I will also be applying my own definition of an art form to determine the extent to which manga can be considered an art form in and of itself.

From my perspective, I would define an art form as an expression of something; be it emotion or any other message, through a nonverbal medium. It can serve as a way for the artist to “speak” using another voice and bring something to their audience’s attention, produce something exclusively for aesthetic purposes, or convey a powerful message. It can also serve as a tool to encourage and inspire the artist’s respective audiences and give themself or others a new voice in the face of injustice.

I believe that art can be found in all things and that it is an incredibly crucial part of both indigenous and modern cultures. This ties in especially with the manga’s pivotal role in the development and distribution of Japanese pop culture, being both easily identifiable and long-established. Though I might not be able to come up with a definitive answer, I aim to construct a more comprehensive definition of where manga stands within the art world.

Background

Manga are Japanese comics that gained popularity in Japan after World War 2 that served as a source of entertainment and comfort for the Japanese public while recovering from the war. I found that it would be beneficial to investigate the origins of manga and potentially develop a deeper understanding of its development over time and the significant figures that aided in its creation and evolution into what it is today.

Machiko Hasegawa: Respectfully deemed the “Grandmother of Manga,” Machiko Hasegawa was a Japanese cartoonist born on January 30th, 1920 in Kyushu, Japan. Initially publishing her trademark series “Sazae-San” in a newspaper in 1946, Hasegawa is known as one of the first mangaka ever, having her work serve as a lighthearted source of entertainment for the public of the still recovering post Wold War 2 Japan. Providing a unique and unusual satirical portrayal of the common Japanese housewife, Hasegawa was able to break through Japan’s societal norms at the time, both by living what was deemed as an “unconventional lifestyle” and by giving herself a voice through her art and humor. Described in her obituary by The Independent as a somewhat antisocial woman who didn’t necessarily seek the company of others, having never married (which was uncommon in and of itself at the time), it is evident that Hasegawa might have used her art as an extension of herself and as a voice to critique and challenge the workings of her society, one of the innumerable functions of art. 

Osamu Tezuka: Born in Toyonaka, Japan on November 3rd, 1928, Osamu Tezuka stands as one of, if not the most important figure in the development of manga to date. Honorably titled the “Grandfather of Manga and Anime,” Tezuka grew up as a passionately artistic person whose interests ranged from performing arts to the collection and drawing of insects. Deemed a natural storyteller from a young age, Tezuka put a lot of value on balancing a good story with good art and believed that beautiful illustration would never be able to save a terrible story, thus emphasizing their codependence. A very versatile artist, Tezuka made manga of all genres and went on to draw over 150,000 pages of manga in his lifetime. Much like Machiko Hasegawa, Tezuka started off by publishing his comics in a newspaper, however, he went beyond the scope of being published exclusively in newspapers and went on to create not only manga but fully fledged anime such as Astro Boy (1963). Due to the limited amount of frames per second, the animators had to put more emphasis on movement and emotion in the characters which is something that is still seen in both manga and anime to this day. In the present day, the manga industry is constantly expanding, ranging from iconic titles such as Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball to Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece. With interest in Japanese culture growing during the Heisei Era (January 8th, 1989 to April 30th, 2019), the creation and distribution of manga has become a very profitable business. Though it can be hard to generalize the sources of inspiration for every single mangaka, it can be assumed that a lot of the artists have influenced each other to a certain degree, with Naruto’s artist claiming that he was “completely addicted” to the popular boys’ series “Dragon Ball.” This further demonstrates the interconnectivity of the world of manga creation, something that is also present in the world of fine arts.

Manga as an art form

As was seen in Osamu Tezuka’s first full-length manga, the storytelling aspect is heavily reliant on imagery, as an overabundance in words can confuse the audience and does not necessarily construct a good story. Tying into the previously mentioned definition of an art form, this emphasizes art’s function of conveying a message to the audience through a nonverbal medium. Manga also has its defining characteristics, both aesthetic and written. One of the most notable is the art style which varies from artist to artist. Human characters in manga are typically drawn with exaggerated proportions, specifically in regards to the facial features which include larger eyes for an easier depiction of emotion. This allows for less reliance on dialogue and the voice of a narrator and creates better immersion for the audience.

Manga as literature

As was constantly asserted by Tezuka, outstanding artwork could not save a poorly written story and would instead strive for more balance within his works. This balance is further explored in terms of storytelling by providing characters with a voice through dialogue, and occasionally, narration. By doing this, the mangaka is able to create a link between literature and art to provide enjoyment for their respective audiences. It is also important to note the tradition of publishing manga as books, automatically placing it in a gray area in terms of identifying its purpose. Generally, manga serves as a form of entertainment, much like most forms of literature, and is not typically created for the audience to exclusively admire the illustrations. By creating a greater sense of coherence in terms of accurately developing storylines and character, it increasingly emphasizes the role of storytelling in manga, since without the use of words there is a level of disconnect with the audience, almost entirely eliminating the entire purpose of manga.

The role that the literature visually plays in the composition of each panel is also an important area of focus. The dialogue is often deliberately placed in negative space, thus giving the overall piece a sense of unity while simultaneously retaining enjoyability for the readers.

Critical Analysis

This analysis is to identify the artistic elements of manga and justify its categorization as an art form. For this essay, I chose to analyze page 15 of the first volume of Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto. I chose this manga specifically because I have two digital versions of the book, both with slight variations in terms of publication. One of them is a more raw, and most likely illegal, English version, and the other is an officially released copy. Though both editions effectively tell the same story using nearly identical imagery, the most notable difference is their language usage. Because one of the versions is a less refined publication that was translated directly from Japanese, the dialogue in this specific scene is a lot more direct and harsh in comparison to the official English translation. This creates a slightly different atmosphere than that of the officially published translation, further emphasizing the role of dialogue and language usage in manga’s storytelling, as the introduction of such a slight variation could possibly misinterpret the author’s original intentions.

The selected page is from the beginning of the book and is at a point where the main character, Naruto, is rejected once again in his quest to become a fully realized ninja. I used this scene in particular because of the emotional significance that it has to the main character which is further translated to the imagery that is presented to the reader. Though his failure is treated in a somewhat lighthearted manner, the audience manages to gain perspective on the main character’s struggles when pursuing his dream. This stood out to me particularly because Kishimoto’s method of expressing strong emotions within his characters in this scene heavily relied on the integrated illustration while using minimal dialogue.

In this particular panel, Kishimoto took care to integrate the words into the composition of the piece, serving as a background and not necessarily as a piece of focus for the reader. It is organized in a way that the black lettering provides balance within the piece, as the black lettering on both sides possess similar dimensions. The darker value being placed in the background also allows for more emphasis on the human figure in the foreground which is of a lighter value, creating greater contrast. Because the character is placed centrally, the black lettering frames the character in such a way that the audience can focus on the action in the foreground which is Naruto’s reaction to being failed yet again. The composition of this panel appears more balanced due to the symmetry of both the lettering and the character in the center.

The lettering featured in both versions makes use of bold and prominent lines that provide emphasis on the movement within the piece. With the depicted character being shown to have a direct impact on the movement of the rest of the setting, the artist made sure to show a variety of line and texture to both frame the character and illustrate his surroundings. Due to the somewhat simplistic art style, there is not much variation in texture demonstrated in this panel, save for the bits of debris flying up as a result of the character’s collision with the ground.

In an attempt to exclusively observe the illustrated elements of the specific scene that I selected, I removed every piece of writing on the featured panel , including those that were part of the background and was interested to see that the overall composition of the page became severely unbalanced and somewhat empty or incomplete. This emphasized the overall dependence on maintaining balance through the constant variation in values and using both words and images to tell a story. It also allowed me to see the variety of values used in the exclusively black and white piece, the black and white trademark being typical of manga due to both cheapness and efficiency when it comes to printing. Because the character is centralized, the imbalance wasn’t necessarily caused by asymmetry within the piece but it was instead caused by the lack of variation within the values of the piece. This is something that is typically provided by the differences in character design that the creator chose to add, but this was obviously absent in this panel, as there was only one character and the variation in values was instead provided by the background lettering.

Conclusion

Manga’s versatility is borderline impossible to keep track of. Ranging from box sets full of riveting plot-lines and stunning illustration to long-running series that invoke a longing sense of nostalgia, manga is undoubtedly impactful in the entertainment world. However, it is due to this versatility and impact that it is borderline impossible to define where it stands in terms of the fine arts. Undeniably, the creation and distribution of manga requires a drive and dedication that is true of all artists, only requiring an additional desire to write and tell stories. This indeed establishes at least some elements of artistic endeavor, and can, in turn, provide more clarity when it comes to categorizing it in traditional art terms.

In conclusion, though manga’s imagery cannot stand on its own in regards to its storytelling, it is still easily recognizable and can provide its narrative, in some cases even providing commentary in protest of social and political injustices. Allowing its artists to bring their contributions of beauty and creativity into the world, manga is extremely versatile with no fixed sense of what “true manga” is exactly. With the expansion of the world of manga, it is constantly being redefined by new approaches to storytelling and breaking itself away from the Western style of comic books, thus potentially allowing it to be defined as an art form in and of itself.

Works Cited

  • “Art Form.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/art%20form.
  • Jarnes, Mark. “’The 70th Anniversary of Sazae-San: The Best of Machiko Hasegawa’.” The Japan Times, The Japan Times, 16 Aug. 2016, www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/08/16/arts/openings-in-tokyo/70th-anniversary-sazae-san-best-machiko-hasegawa/#.XWRB6ZMzYWo.
  • Kirkup, James. “Obituary: Hasegawa Machiko.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 22 Oct. 2011, www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-hasegawa-machiko-1533204.html.
  • Montales, Timothy. “Machiko Hasegawa, the Godmother of Japanese Anime.” Hobby Issue, 18 June 2018, hobbyissue.com/news/view/17898.
  • Sieg, Linda. “Japan’s Peaceful Heisei Era Leaves Legacy of Change, Growth and Tragedy.” The Japan Times, 29 Apr. 2019, www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/04/29/national/japans-peaceful-heisei-era-leaves-legacy-change-growth-tragedy/#.XWw5_JMzYWo.
  • Solomon, Charles. “Interview: The Man behind ‘Naruto’.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 17 Dec. 2008, www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-etw-naruto17-2008dec17-story.html.
  • SouthFloridaReporter.com. “The First Comic Book, ‘Famous Funnies,’ Was Published In 1933.” South Florida Reporter, 25 Sept. 2017, southfloridareporter.com/first-comic-book-famous-funnies-published-1933/.
  • “Tezuka’s Life (1958 – 1964).” Tezuka In English, 30 Apr. 2017, tezukainenglish.com/wp/?page_id=342.
  • “Uzumaki Naruto!” Naruto, Vol. 1 The Tests Of The Ninja, by Masashi Kishimoto, vol. 1, VIZ Media, 1999, pp. 15–15.  

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Japanese Manga As An Art Form. (2021, November 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/japanese-manga-as-an-art-form/
“Japanese Manga As An Art Form.” GradesFixer, 10 Nov. 2021, gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/japanese-manga-as-an-art-form/
Japanese Manga As An Art Form. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/japanese-manga-as-an-art-form/> [Accessed 29 Jun. 2022].
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