When we talk about pop cultural phenomena that changed the world’s literary panorama we need to talk about Japanese manga, too. Indeed, although in western countries manga are often considered a product for children’s entertainment, they actually represent a big part of Japanese sub-culture. Those who have been in Japan at least once knows that manga can commonly be found everywhere, even in supermarkets and konbini, and are so rooted in Japanese culture that is impossible to separate one from the other. Manga are, indeed, integral part of Japanese lifestyle and their role isn’t exclusively limited to entertainment industry, but also extend to many other fields such as marketing (sponsorship of products like smartphones or advertisement for travel companies, for example).
Manga isn’t just a graphic literary genre meant for people’s fun, but an important and representative characteristic of Japanese everyday life. However, have you ever asked yourself when manga were born and when their popularity became to increase? The history of manga is actually way longer than you can imagine and the purpose of their existence has considerably changed over the years. In fact, when they were conceived for the first time, manga used to be very different from that contemporary shape we all are used to. You would be very surprised to know how old manga are, so if you are curious to find out something more about it just keep on reading!
Manga’s First Appearance.
It might seem unbelievable to many of you, but manga is even older than you think. Indeed, although modern manga as we know them were imported in Western countries for the first time only between 1945 and 1952, their origins can be traced back to the 12th century and relates to the tradition of narrative art. Narrative art in Japan consisted of storytelling scrolls (e-makimono) portraying a series of sequential images. These scrolls are thought to be the earliest examples of pre-manga works, of which the very first one has been attributed to the painter-monk Toba Sōjō. Sōjō’s work mainly consisted in animals and human beings moving in sequence, fighting each other, or drawn in different kinds of positions, and today is known as Chōjū-giga (literally “Animal Caricatures).
Even though the scrolls are believed to be the first manga in history, they were so different from modern manga that some experts disagree with this theory and think it is better to search for manga origins somewhere else. Some believe that it is more likely that kibyōshi (pictures books from the 18th century which made fun of society and mocked the rich and powerful) were the origin of manga, while others think they could have been originated from ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) and shunga (a kind of erotic art). Finally, some people think they might be born during Edo Period (1603-1867) when the Hokusai Manga drawn by the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai was created. Published in 1814 in 15 volumes, Hokusai Manga is a collection of sketches on various subjects which contains thousands of pictures. Hokusai Manga didn’t contain any text as in modern manga, but still the kind of art style utilized to complete it is considered to be that source which later artists got inspired from.
Manga During US Occupation in Japan
If experts still can’t find an origin of manga’s first appearance, ancestor, and origins, they all agree on the fact that modern manga as we know them today were born after the Second World War. During that period, Japan was occupied by the US forces which applied censorship policies prohibiting art and writing intended to glory war and militarism. However, although these policies were very strict, they didn’t include kibyōshi and other forms of art, which started to flourish and develop in this period. Also comics carried out by Europeans some years before, when Japan ports were opened up by Commodore Perry in 1853, weren’t subjected to censorship, so they could still freely circulate in Japan.
History of manga’s experts think it is during this period that modern manga have been conceived. Indeed, they believe that the western-style comics imported by foreigners and the local art tradition met and started to merge together, resulting in the rise of a unique style. Later, after the censorship policies were eased a first in 1947, artistic creativity boomed, so two manga series in the new-born Japanese style were realized and published just few years later. These two series are the famous Mighty Atom (Astro Boy, 1952) by Osamu Tezuka and Sazae-san by Machiko Hasegawa (actually started in 1946). In particular, it is important to mention Mighty Atom because it introduced the large eyes typically featured in any other later manga.
The Rise of Shōjo and Shōnen Manga: History and Sub-genres
Mighty Atom, which featured themes like adventure and sci-fi, and Sazae-san–focused on women’s universe and daily life–were the starting point of a huge phenomenon that was destined to develop more and more over the years. After their release, many other artists began to publish their own series and manga’s market increased rapidly. Manga’s audience grew wider and wider, and led to the emerging and consolidation of two different genres, which are today known as shōjo and shōnen. The first one aimed at a female audience while the second one was meant for boys.
Over the years, the two genres divided into several sub-genres. Shōnen manga became a definition for a broader category which included the shōnen genre itself aiming at boys up to 18 years old, seinen for young men between 18 and 30, and seijn for grown men. The topics covered action, fighting, sports, technology, adventure. As for shōjo, it became a term to address to redisu, redikomi and josei, which didn’t aim to a particular category of women or had a real age distinction, and mainly covered themes like romance, historical drama, superheroines, and relationships. The two streams separated more and more over the years and developed their own special features.
Shōjo Manga from the Sixties to Today
We could say that 1969 was a turning point in shōjo manga’s history. Indeed, that was the year when great artists such as Hagio Moto, Yomuko Oshima, Keiko Tamekiya started to publish their own works, marking the first major entry of women artists into manga’s world. These artists will be later addressed as the Year 24 Group and soon after their debut shōjo manga started to be conceived mainly by women for a female audience. Year 24 Group brought innovation in manga’s market because – on the wave of Hasegawa’s revolutionary Sazae-san – it started to use shōjo manga as a means of protesting against Neo-Confucian ideals and stereotypes on gender roles. In fact, Neo-Confucianism set the principles of feminine docility and obedience to the “good wife, wise mother” ideal, which was spread by the military regime before Japan was occupied by US forces.
Artists like Riyoko Ikeda challenged all those Neo-Confucian ideals related to gender role and activities by publishing immortal series such as Berusaiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles, 1971) which featured a cross-dressed woman Captain of the Queen’s Palace Guards, and There Were Eleven (1875), a shōjo sci-fi story in which the main character is a woman cadet attending a future space academy. In the Eighties, shōjo manga also discussed taboos related to women’s sexuality and developed into redikomi and josei sub-genres. But of course, romance was still a fundamental characteristic of shōjo manga then as it is now. As the expert Drazen Patrick said, “in modern shōjo manga romance, love is a major theme set into emotionally intense narratives of self-realization” and this concept was fully developed in the Nineties when Bishōjo Senshi Sailor Moon sowed the seeds for a new revolutionary vision of the women’s universe. The combination of strength and emotions proved to be a success and laid the foundation later manga such as CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth (1993) and Mia Ikumi's Tokyo Mew Mew (2000).
Shōnen Manga from the Sixties to today
In the meanwhile, shōnen manga’s artists attempted to emulate Mighty Atom’s success. Early shōnen manga’s authors focused on topics such as robots, space-travel, adventure, superheroes, with sci-fi, sport, and technology being the most popular of all themes. In 1969, a manga which had a great impact on shōnen’s history and evolution was Fujiko F. Fujio’s Doreamon, about a robot cat and his little human friend Nobita, while in the Seventies the main character in Tetsuya Chiba’s Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow’s Joe 1969-1973) became an example of strength and gentleness for all his young readers. However, differently from shōjo manga which were a means of a powerful gender role revolution, shōnen manga didn’t undergo any special content or character breakthrough, except with regard to women’s importance and presence. Indeed, in early shōnen manga, men and boys played all the most important roles in the stories, while women and girls were sidelined and just served for an auxiliary purpose.
A great change in women’s role in shōnen manga has occurred since Akira Toriyama’s Dr. Slump (1980), a sci-fi in which the main character is a crazy and incredibly powerful female robot called Arale Norimaki. Since Arale, later artists started to feature strong and independent women more in their stories, but still was hard to find a shōnen manga in which a female character dominated. On the contrary, since censorship policies were eased, new kinds of female characters started to develop in shōnen manga, such as the bishōjo (or “pretty girl”) that was completely different from the powerful bishōjo Sailor Moon and was designed to be a gentle and beautiful woman object of men’s pleasure. Contemporarily, easing censorship brought to a boom of hentai and highly erotic content stories.
As for action and supernatural shōnen manga, they had a deep turning point between the Nineties and the Twenties with the introduction of the psychological element – which features a protagonist who questions the meaning of his existence – and the failure – which features a main character who, after going through many hard challenges, miserably fails. The best examples of these kind of manga, which still represent masterpieces from which later artists got and still used as inspiration, are Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (1994), and Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s Death Note (2003).
Alright, here we are at the end of our journey between traditional art which laid the basis for manga-style artworks, fusion between western and eastern cultures, postcolonial evolution, and branching of genres which lead to our beloved modern manga. We hope you enjoyed it and will share with us your opinions by leaving a comment!