[Editorial Tuesday] Which is Better – Anime or Manga?

Last time, we spent some time discussing the differences between two of Japan’s most iconic types of pop culture and media; anime and manga, respectively. The purpose of the previous article was simply to explore some key differences between the two mediums both in terms of what they attempt to accomplish, and the tools that are inherent in each medium for doing so. Now, it’s time to figure out which is better, analyzing the points made previously to determine which one floats more boats.

Before we get into that though, I would like to take a moment to point out that everyone’s tastes are different. Here at Honey’s Anime, we strive to create a welcoming environment for fans of all tastes and walks of life, as is evidenced by our wide, unbiased approach to all things otaku, regardless of genre, themes, etc. The same is true for this article. It’s awesome to share our opinions about the things we love with other people, even if those opinions are different, as long as they’re shared respectfully.

Now let’s get down to business.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anime

Just in case you missed the last article (which you can find here), I’ll take a quick moment to define what it is we’re actually talking about. Anime, as we know it, is Japanese-style animation (whether it’s a feature-length film or a serialized TV show), where manga refers to Japanese-style comic books.

Both are instantly recognizable to Western audiences, in large part due to their differences when compared to what readers are typically familiar with; stylistically and thematically they cater to a wide variety of audiences and tastes. Unlike their respective Western counterparts, which are often supported by relatively small pockets of feverishly dedicated fans, they are ubiquitous parts of mainstream Japanese culture.

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Create me, Senpai!

While the legacy of both anime and manga is obviously much greater than simply when it was created, it’s important to take into account which one came first, to better understand the type of impact they had on the culture, both at the time and in the present. Both mediums had inspirational iterations in the early 20th century, but came into existence proper in Japan’s post-war period.

Obviously, due to the limitations of technology, animation wasn’t something that was easily created, and was even less accessible for popular consumption until around the 70s (keep in mind that the decision to surrender during WWII wasn’t televised, but broadcast over radio). But manga was a part of everyday life, even then, as evidenced by immensely popular strips serialized in newspapers, contests that regularly published fan-made submissions, and the eventual rise of manga-specific publications that collected the work of the best and brightest around the country.

Even under the country’s post-war economic strain, these publications were money making machines, because they were cheap enough for the everyday consumer. They were so popular that they rocketed cultural icons into the stratosphere, creating legends and paving the way for continuous booms in manga, and eventually, anime. Got to give points to manga for this one. (For a more comprehensive history on the rise of the manga industry, as well as the crushing pressure on artists at the time, I highly recommend A Drifting Life, by legendary author and manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi.)

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Popularity Contest

Another important factor when trying to evaluate which medium is better is understanding where, why, and how popular they are for their respective audiences.

With the advent of online streaming services (some catering specifically to fans’ demands for easier access to quality programming), watching our favorite and latest anime is easier for Western audiences than ever before. Over the past few decades, anime has gone from specialized programming on very limited cable networks catering to very specific audiences (like Sci-Fi channel’s early dalliances with Ronin Warriors, or Cartoon Network’s initial run of Sailor Moon) to having stations dedicated to it entirely.

Movies like Akira proved anime could compete with the big dogs on the silver screen. World-renowned studios like Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli further proved that feature-length anime could be critically and commercially successful with mainstream audiences, and helped expose Westerners to the warm emotional core of the medium. The bottom line; it went from a rising star to a staple, and goes hand in hand with foreign perception of Japanese pop culture.

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The same can’t be said for manga. Despite its insane saturation into everyday Japanese life, regardless of gender, socio-economic status, or age, manga has never garnered the critical or commercial attention that anime has around the globe. Typically, when Western audiences think of Japanese cultural mainstays like Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, or Naruto, they think of them as pivotal anime series’ (I admit, I didn’t know what manga was until junior high school, at the earliest). There are a couple of factors that help contribute to this perception.

The first is that comics have never been as popular with mainstream audiences as their Japanese counterparts. They were associated with “nerd culture,” and were always more of a subculture than pop culture. However, the critical attention garnered by graphic novels and quality comic book series’ have created a bit of a sea change lately, as has commercial success of comic book film adaptations. There were also heavy-hitting publishing houses that made it incredibly hard to break into the market, especially if you were looking to publish something outside of tested genres.

The second factor is related to the first, because it was rarely financially viable for Japanese publishing houses to put forth resources to translate manga for Western audiences, due to the poor expectations of return on their investments. Incidentally, this gave way to another important facet of otaku culture amongst Western audiences in the form of fan-translations, as well as fan-subs (which you can read more about here).
But this, too, has changed over time, with increasingly large amounts of manga series’ receiving quality translation treatments that capture the essence that gave rise to their popularity in their native country, as well as entire sections of brick and mortar book stores dedicated to the genre. When it comes to matching the accessibility the Japanese audience has to manga, there’s still a long way to go.

Don’t Just Sit There, Staring!

One of the biggest factors in determining which medium you prefer is the type of participant you’re most comfortable being. Anime and manga require their respective consumers to participate in different ways.

The great thing about anime is that it creates vibrant, interesting worlds spectacularly realized; depending on art direction, sound and vocal production, and the type of animation, the final product consumed by viewers is a unique iteration of something previously trapped on a page. As such, you can participate more passively in the consumption of anime. While it is still the viewer’s job to identify crucial themes and characterizations in order to better relate to the characters and the worlds created, the biggest decision a viewer can make is to sit and watch as characters and worlds are brought to life around them.

Manga is inherently different, for obvious reasons. Even the most dynamic illustration style is static images on a page, and although there are some great tools artists can employ to give their work a sense of movement, and sound, those tools are only as effective as the imagination of the participating reader.

As such, the reader is required to meet the manga halfway; they bring the characters and world to life in ways big and small, from deciding the quality of a particular character’s voice to the color of the environment in which those characters reside (most manga, even now, is printed in black and white to help keep the cost down and reduce production time). While this can be incredibly liberating for the right type of person, it is definitely more demanding of the consumer.

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There are other considerations that come to mind as well, with special regard for pacing. Depending on how much time you want to spend investing yourself in any given story, certain iterations of a beloved series might benefit you better than another. I’ll leave it at that, as I discussed it at greater length in the previous article.

The Verdict

Now that we’ve had even more to chew on when it comes to considering both mediums, which is actually better? First, I want to emphasize the fact that when it comes to personal tastes, there is no one, right answer. That said, most people do have a preference, and I’m no different. Before I get to that though, let’s see how it’s shaping up, pound for pound.

As discussed, manga was obviously first on the scene and helped shape the way Japanese culture consumed media, arguably paving the way for animated adaptations of stories filled with characters they grew to love. In regard to how stories are first conceived, historically manga came before anime, but that has slowly changed over time, and there are plenty of popular standalone anime series’, as well as tie-ins. In terms of access to either, the Western world has myriad ways to get their hands on their favorite shows, but not as much luck as their Japanese counterparts when it comes to access to manga, with language as a barrier for most of it. They are neck and neck when it comes to storytelling, as different types of consumers prefer different types of media, and it’s just as easy to get wrapped up in a show as it is a book. With those points in mind, as well as its iconic status in the collective Western consciousness, the victory has to go to anime.

That said, when it comes to immersing myself in quality Japanese entertainment, manga is the right choice for me. Since I live in Japan, it’s cheap, it’s everywhere, and it’s a lot easier for me to consume in bite-sized chunks (like for ten minutes before I go to bed, or while waiting for a train at the station). I also control the rate at which I consume it, in a way that benefits my everyday life here. For example, if I don’t understand a word, I can stop and look it up, forcing me to actively engage the language and more effectively memorize particular words. Unless I want to re-watch scenes in a particular show or movie, or turn on subtitles (and basically cheat my brain out of having to work as hard as it normally would) there’s no real way for me to do the same with anime.

But of course, that’s just my opinion. Which do you prefer, and why? There are countless reasons to choose one over another. What are some unmentioned factors for why one particular medium is more appealing to you than the other? Sound off in the comments below, and let’s get a discussion going.

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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.

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