[Editorial Tuesday] What makes a manga different from western comics?

Japan has been a very influential figure for many for decades, with their knack for creativity and abundance of innovative products. For a nation that had closed themselves off to the rest of the world for more than 200 years, it’s remarkable how they’ve used their ingenuity to come up with very practical and easy to use material that now in today’s society, has helped our world to evolve in a huge way. Much of their success can be directed to their devotion to hard work and ensuring that quality comes first well before quantity. “Simplicity is luxury” means a lot to Japan and its refined culture, and so when you travel here you’ll be amazed by just how structured things are.

Japan has always had a passion for art and using various methods to express their beliefs, such as paintings, zen gardens, bonsai clippings, and more. This passion for self expression became a staple image in Japanese culture and it has now helped to create a world full of limitless possibilities. One of these artistic ventures was the introduction of manga, which up until the more recent years was very exclusive to Japan. Manga was an extension of Japan’s past art forms, combining all of the various visual mediums into a small book that people can carry with them on the go. Japan’s obsession with the visual arts became well known around the world, and now this magical book of wonders has skyrocketed in popularity with every age group flocking to stores to pick it up. The question remains however as to what makes manga so different from that of the western comics we’ve all come to know and love? In this Editorial Tuesday piece, we’ll dive a little deeper into the topic and learn about the various differences that make both comic styles unique in their own way.

Cultural Differences

One striking difference that you’ll definitely see when looking at the two styles is that, many of the manga we read tend to emphasize a lot of the norms that most Japanese are connected to. In the west, a lot of this is taken out of context quite frequently which leads many readers to misunderstand what’s actually happening and leaves the reader disappointed. In the west, a lot of comics tend to focus more of their efforts on creating a more realistic appearance, and their culture is driven more towards creating a centerpiece around one character. Various examples include Batman, Spiderman, and Superman, all of which depict one individual who has an incredible power which they’ve gained through fate, and must now save the world from destruction.

While some manga construct their ideas around the same platform, Japan’s approach seems to be more focused on the collective rather than just one being doing all the dirty work. That isn’t to say that western comics are just all about individuality, as you do have works such as The Avengers or Justice league who work as a team to overcome adversity. This still pales in comparison to Japan’s devotion to creating manga that generally focus on various characters helping each other out to find solutions to their problems. Japan has always been a very community based nation going back to the Heian Period, or even further to the Jomon Era. Manga tends to take a lot more time and patience, and so, many mangaka ask their readers to wait, while in the west much of the comics are generally rushed out in order to generate a lot of buzz quickly. The end result is a more satisfying experience for the reader because they can truly feel the amount of passion and energy that went into every page, and can sense every ounce of emotion poured into it all.

Getting Lost in Translation

Continuing from our previous statement, Japan pours a lot of time and energy into their pieces and for that reason a lot of things can be misunderstood from a western perspective. Translation issues always play a major role with regards to the reader, and so when many manga are published to an overseas audience a lot of what’s said in the manga is totally off. This is because as stated earlier, the cultural context is far different than that of the west, and so when translating a piece of work that doesn’t entirely center itself around the same formula, it becomes a grueling task for the translator to ensure the optimum results. Thematic differences are also a big reason because for manga, a lot of topics are dealt with such as politics, sex, rape, grotesque violence and so on. Much of the west tend to generate a lot of momentum with their focus on very action oriented, superhero-based themes which do incredibly well in various parts of the world, but when that very same form reaches Japanese borders many are left scratching their heads at what’s going on.

The movie Lost in Translation starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson is a prime example of just how different Japan is from the rest of the world, even down to the mannerisms and subtle behaviors. With regards to manga, it can be very easy to slip in a few words which we might think will translate well over into English, but the true essence of the entire meaning being captured evaporates, leaving you feeling a little empty. Japan has no fear when it comes to expressing their ideas through imagery, and so the thematics which we named earlier may come off as very inappropriate or even offensive to many westerners who see the topic of rape let’s say, to be vile and inhumane. Western comics often stray away from such things to avoid scrutiny and mass hysteria which is somewhat unfortunate considering how many movies depict these very same ideals, and nothing is said.

The Various Illustration Styles

This now brings us to illustration styles and how they differ from one another. In the west, much of the style that many readers have become accustomed to is the more realistic driven, dark, and defined archetype. Japanese culture for many years has always had this obsession with looking cute and youthful, so much of their illustrations draw out characters who generally are very playful, and appeal to a wider audience. This relates back to the collective mentality that we discussed earlier, since Japan has always been a nation that focuses on bringing everyone together rather than separating them. In a manga you’ll see mainly black and white, which to many may seem off putting at first, but this allows the reader to create their own color palette in their mind which creates more excitement in the end. The use of onomatopoeia is also quite frequent throughout most manga, such as Initial D when you’ll see a string of katakana across the side of the page, which depict the sounds of the car’s engine roaring as it tears down the straightaway, or in Berserk when Guts’ sword connects with the bones of his enemy.

All of these subtleties make up for a lot in the end because it all evokes emotion from the reader, and you’re immediately absorbed in all of what’s happening. While western comics do use similar attention to detail, it isn’t truly emphasized as much which may be a bit off putting for a Japanese reader to understand clearly as to what’s happening. For manga the illustration needs to bring out the reader's imagination, and leave them with a sensation that resonates in their soul, thus bringing them right back into the fray. Going back to thematics for a moment, the human body is something that many Japanese have a fascination about and so even when it comes to sexuality, illustration is used in a variety of ways to stimulate our minds. You’ll see such things as a blank face which depict an emotionless action, or the very well known and popular fixing of one’s glasses using two fingers to depict coolness. The latter has become a part of the Japanese culture, and anywhere you go you’ll see many people fixing their glasses in a confident animated pose. Whatever the purpose, there’s always some form of illustration that depicts the emotion of the character and we don’t get to see a lot of that in western comics.

Mass Production

Japan is home to over 120 million people which is three times the size of California and four times that of Canada. This little nation has a lot of people and so when it comes to reaching out, there needs to be rules set in place to ensure everyone is entertained. Due to this large population, more ideas need to be churned out so that every demographic is reached and satisfied. Manga makes up over 40 percent of all published magazines and books all across Japan, while in America comics generally have a concentrated fanbase which are typically the more hardcore and passionate of the genre. In Japan, mass production is needed because there’s a much larger fan base, so a lot more dedication is put in to make sure most get their money’s worth. Due to this influx of manga being published and its sheer popularity throughout the nation, a lot of manga are also seen in magazines, journals, or various big volumes that you’ll typically find at convenience stores. There’s simply so much more variety to choose from which to some in the west may be a bit overwhelming, but as we evolve and grow more and more people are starting to enjoy the freedom of choice from around the world.

While the west do have their well known comic artists and even upcoming new ones, the manga genre just has so many mangaka it’s really too hard to keep count of. Every week there’s a new manga on the shelf and with Doujinshi (independently published manga) on the rise as well, there’s never a shortage of manga to choose from. Events and manga go hand in hand and one great example is Comiket in Japan, where over 500,000 people attend this one event to share their Doujinshi, as well as sell various other items. For those visiting from the west, this all may seem very daunting at first since you don’t tend to see a massive group of people like that at one event, pertaining mainly to books. This is the passion of Japan, and you see a lot of it in their various manga events spread out across the country. There aren’t too many events that really generate that big of an audience in the west, especially for comics since the demographic it reaches out to feels somewhat limited, and so only the very dedicated generally find themselves at these events. For Japan, this is a celebrated event because of how much people it brings together under one roof, for the one single thing they all know and love, which is manga.

Closing Statement

There are plenty of unique aspects to both cultures and we shouldn’t hold one over the other in any way. While there are very distinct differences in how everything is managed, the end result remains the same. Whether you call them comics or manga, they bring people together and that’s what should be the main purpose in the end anyway. We as humans must learn to accept everything that we have and not take things for granted. There will always be a uniqueness to every culture we examine or dive into, but be sure that there’s something to take away from it all. We hope that you found this article to be informative and stimulating for your mind, but also to give you an idea as to what makes each culture stand out. If you’d like to see more of these editorials, be sure to share some of your own ideas down below!

As always, if you want to know about all the latest buzz straight from the bee’s nest in Japan, be sure to keep it locked here at Honey’s Anime.

K-ON-wallpaper [Editorial Tuesday] What makes a manga different from western comics?


Author: Rob "NualphaJPN" B.

A passionate fan of gaming, writing, journalism, anime, and philosophy. I've lived in Japan for many years and consider this place to be my permanent home. I love to travel around Japan and learn about the history and culture! Leave a comment if you enjoy my articles and watch me play on twitch.tv/honeysgaming ! Take care!

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