Both manga and anime are huge cultural pillars in Japan, having given rise to various types of sub and pop cultures, and are obviously equally large cultural exports. While they have a somewhat symbiotic relationship, there are very significant differences between the two mediums, and understanding these differences can lead to a deeper appreciation of both.
As simple an issue as it might seem, there are literally college courses dedicated to the topic, because it is layered and complicated. With that in mind, while this list won’t be the defining or final word on the topic, hopefully it’ll help you bring a more critical eye to your favorite anime and manga.
Webster’s Dictionary Defines…
Before we dive into it, why don’t we take a moment to clarify what it is we’re discussing. Visual arts have always been culturally significant in Japan, and short animated works were already being created throughout the early 1900s. For the sake of brevity, we’re discussing events that have shaped both manga and anime into their contemporary forms, and using definitions widely accepted by Japanese and Western audiences today.
“Manga,” of course, are essentially Japanese comic books, where “anime” refers to Japanese-style animation. Both are known for being dramatically and stylistically different from their Western counterparts, and are available in a vast variety of genres catering to different audiences and age groups. While there are certainly subcultural aspects to both genres (like otaku culture), they are widely consumed by many members of Japanese society on a daily basis.
Truncated Origin Stories
While most foreigners’ first experience with Japanese storytelling is thanks to popularized anime (or in my case, 90s JRPGs), the advent of manga overseas happened significantly earlier. It paved the way for anime’s popularity boom, and helped shape Japanese pop culture into the lovely beast it is today.
Modern manga as we know it began to take shape in the post-war period, following Japan’s defeat in World War II. Up until that point, it was considered a medium more for children (almost like Sunday Edition comic strips in Western newspapers), with a significant amount of content created by young fans and readers of manga, with small cash prizes awarded to those lucky enough to be published.
That began to change when heavy hitters like Osamu Tezuka, widely considered “the godfather of manga,” came onto the scene and proved that writers and artists could publish mature stories about complicated issues featuring fully-realized characters, and make a profit doing so. Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Mizuki Shigeru, and other huge industry names helped capture Japan’s post-war frustrations in monthly magazines, and eventually, full-length volumes about their most popular characters.
Once it boomed into a fully fledged industry, the momentum of manga in Japan only grew. With increased access to (then) modern filmmaking technology, it didn’t take long for companies to capitalize on the popularity of these beloved characters by capturing them in full-motion animation. The dynamic nature of manga made it perfect for adaptation onto screens big and small. It didn’t take long for audiences to fall in love with their favorite characters brought to life like never before.
The Chicken or the Egg?
While there is no golden rule when it comes to creation order, one significant difference between anime and manga is which iteration comes first. Often times, due to the relatively cheap nature of publishing, and the popularity of the medium, beloved stories that become perhaps best known as anime, especially to Western audiences, start off as manga. Think Dragon Ball, One Piece, or Naruto, as well as many, many others.
That doesn’t meant that the inverse isn’t also true. If an anime captures a significant fan base or performs particularly well financially, in order to keep the momentum rolling, creators and companies follow up with a manga series that parallels or continues the story of the anime. Two very popular anime that inspired manga are Neon Genesis Evangeleon and Cowboy Bebop.
And of course, there are exceptions to either of those options. Sometimes, anime and manga are released simultaneously, as a type of cross-promotion, or as supplements for each other. An example of this is Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which lead to the founding of world renowned anime producer Studio Ghibli.
This type of fluidity between mediums is incredibly unique, as both adaptations usually fair well not only commercially, but critically. Until the recent live-action “comic book boom” that hit the silver screens in the US, adaptations (especially animated) have rarely captured the commercial or critical success of their published counterparts in the West.
A Sprint or a Marathon
Another significant difference between anime and manga is pacing. Manga is serialized in magazines and published as full-length volumes later on. This is similar to Western comic book companies, who publish trade-length issues followed by anthological volumes. Because of the regularity of publishing, manga often spends more time grounding readers with lightly-paced character development, slowly building momentum in each volume with a series of rising and falling plot details. While this is probably mostly for commercial reasons, it serves the genre exceptionally well.
Which isn’t to say that anime doesn’t have those elements; it does. But because of the more dynamic nature of anime, often times plot and character development will be condensed (an art in and of itself) to better suit the length of the animated work. Anime adaptations often play with the established order of events, sometimes dropping certain plot segments completely in favor of a more focused story, or even going so far as to create new plot lines altogether.
Take Hiromu Arakawa’s series Gin no Saji (Silver Spoon), which is a popular manga series about a farming school in Hokkaido, and has recently been adapted into two seasons of anime. Each volume of the manga is about 190 pages, and details a small portion of the characters’ school life. The first season of the anime is eleven episodes, and encompasses the first three volumes, with a few details from later volumes thrown in here or there to round it out a bit. The result is an anime that captures the essence of the manga, and distills it into something that feels familiar, but new.
Read Between the Lines
Although both are visual mediums, the limitations inherent in both manga and anime have resulted in some interesting ways of expressing characterization, action, or humor in each. Anime has more direct control over how it is presented to an audience, whether it be the way leitmotifs and musical themes help evoke a certain expectation or feeling from the viewer, or visual cues such as slapstick to more clearly illustrate the tone of a particular scene, there are more tools at the disposal of creators to determine how an audience will react to the finished work.
Manga, on the other hand, relies primarily on visual cues provided by the artist, and the deft hand of the writer when it comes to the text and subtext of the work. Line work and popularized emoticons help express the feelings of particular characters without the author having to blatantly state it. There’s also a rather interesting practice when it comes to manga, as the furigana (phonetic pronunciations of Chinese characters written in kana) of certain character names, or words, function as puns or pseudonyms rather than literal pronunciations, which helps establish stronger narrative ties. And although they don’t have access to a soundtrack, manga artists and writers have an almost endless amount of Japanese onomatopoeia at their disposal to better convey the movement or sounds of any particular scene.
An important thing in any country when it comes to the consumption of a particular type of media is how easy it is to access. While I had plenty of specialty book stores and excellently curated libraries that included some of my favorite manga after moving to Chicago, I didn’t see any throughout most of my childhood. Although it was a bit of a manga desert, anime was always more or less available, and has become even more ubiquitous with the advent of anime-specific online streaming services, as well as an increasingly large presence on streaming services like Netflix (which is responsible for bringing the intriguing and brutal Knights of Sidonia to Western audiences) and Hulu.
However, the opposite seems to be true in Japan. While plenty of anime films and series’ get public attention, like the media circuit accompanying the release of Bakemono no Ko, the pure saturation of manga in daily Japanese life cannot be overstated. Go into any convenience store on any corner, or a new or used book store and you’ll find people of all walks of life camped in front of a bookshelf leafing through the latest volume of their favorite series. Take a look at your fellow passengers on your daily commute, and you’ll no doubt see several of them in their own worlds, manga in hand. Pop your head into a classroom in between periods, and you’ll see plenty of kids reading snippets before the next bell rings. Regardless of genre, manga is an important part of daily Japanese life in a way that simply can’t be matched by anime.
Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
These are only a few broadly defined differences between two incredibly complex and culturally significant visual storytelling mediums. The purpose of this article was never to emphasize the superiority of one over the other, or even to create a definitive list, but merely to consider some of the ways in which they’re different in order to better understand and appreciate each for what they are capable of accomplishing.
That said, are there any particularly significant differences you feel like I overlooked? How have those differences shaped the way you consume manga or anime? And of course, although no one has to choose one or the other, which do you prefer, and why? Sound off in the comments below, because we would love to hear from you.
Author: Nick Rich
Nick is, first and foremost, a nerd. Netflix on in the background, a drink in one hand, and a book in the other is how you'll find him most days after work. He currently works as an English teacher in Kawasaki, where he lives next to a graveyard with his girlfriend and his unnamed flying squirrel. He hopes to run into Kitaro, late one night.