Western comics have their own classic jokes and symbols that we can understand without even thinking about them: a lightbulb above the head representing a good idea, swear words replaced by nonsense symbols, eyes popping out of their sockets from surprise, etc. But Japanese comics have an entirely different set of visual gags based in a language and culture completely unfamiliar to us. Even if you’ve learned what many of them mean over time through exposure alone, have you ever wondered what exactly a sweat drop is supposed to be or why sad characters grow mushrooms on their heads?
Today, we’re starting a series that explores the cultural significance behind the most common visual gags in manga. We’ll also go over a few of the best and most influential examples of these jokes in action. Come join us on a wild ride of Japanese humor through pictures!
In Western comics, sweating (usually represented as small droplets radiating out from the head) is associated with fatigue, nervousness, or fear. But in manga, sweat can also mean something else—exasperation. It’s fallen out of favor these days, but manga from the ‘90s or earlier would often show that a character was annoyed, embarrassed, or unamused by putting a large teardrop of sweat on their head. It’s as if the character is saying, “Ugh, not this again.”
Dragonball Z, Mahou Sensei Negima, Sailor Moon, and Ranma ½ made frequent use of the sweat drop, even putting them on serious characters and inanimate objects. The anime version of Slayers took it one step further by showing Lina grabbing her sweat drop and hitting Gourry with it for putting her in danger. Even Western shows like Totally Spies and Teen Titans caught onto the trend!
Sprouting Animal Ears
Animals are important cultural icons all around the world, so it’s no surprise that Japan would work this symbolism into its manga. Characters may suddenly gain cat ears if they’re excited or irritated, dog ears and a tail if they’re loyal or a bit dense, or fox ears if they’re mischievous or cunning. Hikaru from Magic Knight Rayearth did this so often that cat ears were included as an accessory with one of her official figures!
Fruits Basket characters would occasionally sprout the ears and tail of their respective Zodiac animal when surprised—for extra cuteness, this often happened to Kyo the cat boy and Kisa the tiger girl. Ichigo from Tokyo Mew Mew actually had to hide her ears and tail from passersby because they were real! Again, this gag is a bit less common these days, but we genuinely miss it. Bring back the cat ears!
Growing Mushrooms on Your Head
If a manga character is depressed or in despair, they might retreat to a dark corner and sulk there in the fetal position. Crona from Soul Eater once wrote a poem so dour that every single person who read it ended up like this, muttering “I wish I’d never been born...” (or, for the zombie character, “I wish I’d never been brought back to life...”). But if a mangaka wants to exaggerate the depression to ridiculous levels, they’ll show that the character has been sitting in that dark corner for so long that low light-loving mushrooms have taken root on their head.
Tamaki from Ouran High School Host Club is a master at this, to the point that he gets chastised for “growing mushrooms in people’s closets”. But our favorite example is from Zombieland Saga, where zombie idol Junko sulks for such a long time that mushrooms literally grow on her head and have to be plucked off. In such a mopey episode, this joke is the ray of sunshine that gets us through.
Be sure to check back in next time, when we discuss other classic manga visual gags like the nosebleed of arousal and souls escaping from bodies. But for now, what did you think of our overview? What are your favorite manga gags? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!
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