We Westerners have become accustomed to manga’s unique weirdness over time, but some jokes still go over our heads. Why did a crow caw in the background when a character said something stupid? Why do people who are late to school/work run out of the door with toast in their mouths?
Today, we’re here to explore the ins and outs of these classic manga visual gags by digging into their histories and highlighting our favorite examples of each one. Let’s get started!
Crow of Idiocy
In Japanese, the onomatopoeia for a crow’s caw is “aho”. Coincidentally, this sounds exactly the same as a slang word for idiot, which makes it the perfect subtle jab at a character’s intelligence when they demonstrate some serious stupidity. This gag appeared in manga as early as the ‘80s in Dr. Slump, and even earlier in the ‘70s anime of Mazinger Z (where the crow itself was the idiot).
Air Gear is a big fan of this joke, since its main character is nicknamed “Crow-kun” and he has a crow as a pet. Other series have replaced the crow with a rabbit (Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple), a chicken (The Law of Ueki), and a parrot (whose speech is helpfully translated as “Asshole! Asshole!” in the English version of BECK). But no matter what creature delivers it, the message is always the same—this character isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
It’s a well-known folk belief among Japanese and Chinese people that if you sneeze, it means that someone is talking about you (and if you sneeze twice, someone is ridiculing you behind your back). So it’s a common joke in manga to show characters chatting about their absent companion, and then immediately cut to that person sneezing and wondering if they’ve caught a cold. Even serious manga use this gag sometimes, since it’s a great scene transition!
Edward Elric inflicts this on himself in Fullmetal Alchemist, when he purposefully courts attention so the city will be abuzz with his name, hoping to draw out an enemy in hiding. But our absolute favorite example has to be from Dragon Ball SD, which is a chibi retelling of the whole Dragon Ball series. During an early arc when Goku and Bulma are still young, Bulma muses that she’ll use the Dragon Balls to wish for a handsome prince to love her. Cut to Vegeta in his spaceship, sneezing and wondering who’s spreading rumors about him!
Toast of Tardiness
Bread didn’t become part of the Japanese diet until the 1900s, so the convenience of being able to quickly toast it for breakfast was seen as novel and cosmopolitan. And since toasting it was so easy, then why even sit down to eat? Thus was born the ubiquitous scene of a character running down the street with toast hanging out of their mouth.
Most standout examples of this gag are actually parodies, since playing it straight is almost impossible these days. Puella Magi Madoka Magica uses it to lure the viewer into a false sense of security before the nightmares set in, Kanako from Maria†Holic deliberately sets the situation up in hopes of meeting her true love, and Saki from Mahou Shoujo Ore ups the ante by running out of her house clutching a plate of pancakes covered in whipped cream and syrup. It’s such a staple of manga culture that it even gets satirized in Western works—the anime parody Girl-Chan in Paradise shows its main character running to school with the entire toaster in tow!
These are just a few of our favorite visual gags from manga—we’ve covered others like the sweat drop and nosebleed of arousal in other installments of this series. Next time, we’ll be taking a closer look at more tropes like chibis and referential art shifts, so be sure to check back soon! In the meantime, what are your favorite manga visual jokes? Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!
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The gags within manga are endless. From serious action shows to ecchi, comedy, and slice of life manga, there are comedic gags everywhere. Some are easy to identify, but others shoot right over your head. How many do you know? Are you planning your own manga and trying to figure out where you can work them into your story? If so, then we recommend the “Manga Drawing / Comprehensive Course” from Manabi Journey. The course has produced over 100 professional manga artists in Japan. With complete support in English while learning directly from the professionals, you can put your mind at ease and your pen to work! Check it out by clicking on the banner below!