Why does the world like Japanese manga?
Posted by ampontan on Sunday, December 19, 2010
Fighting evil by moonlight,
Winning love by daylight,
Never running from a real fight,
She is the one named Sailor Moon.
- The first verse of the Sailor Moon theme song in English
JAPAN was once known as the land of the rising sun, but it might be more appropriate to say that more people know it today as the land of manga and animations. Here’s yet another example: An annual exhibition titled the Manga Day Commemorative Four-Panel Cartoon Awards is underway until 20 February at the Yokoyama Memorial Manga Museum (English-language website) in Kochi City, Kochi. It will run until 20 February.
The museum established the awards to recognize contributions to the development of manga culture, and this is the sixth exhibit. In October, judges at the museum selected 15 works from among the 1,197 four-panel strips submitted by 878 artists in 42 prefectures and the United States. The current exhibition presents the prize winners and the 139 works that made it past the first round of judging. There’s also an exhibit of 430 manga created by children of primary school age or younger that have been deemed to have promise.
The exhibit just began, so I’m not sure about the connection with Manga Day, which is 3 November in Japan. The museum was built to honor Kochi native Yokoyama Ryuichi, a famous manga artist who in 1961 created Japan’s first televised cartoon show, Instant History. He is also the first manga artist to have been named a Person of Cultural Merit.
Why have Japanese manga captured the imagination of young people around the world? Makino Keiichi, head of the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, thinks their popularity originates in two aspects of Japanese culture: kanji and Yaoyorozu no Kamigami. The latter expression is literally “eight million kami” (divinity, divine essence), but what that eight million really means is “a heck of a lot”. In other words, the divine essence resides in all things.
Mr. Makino uses the kanji 重 as an example of the first aspect. He says that depending on the context, Japanese will immediately determine its meanings from among the possibilities of “overlapping”, “heavy”, “-fold” (as in three-fold), or “piled up”, and its reading from among the possibilities of kasanaru, omoi, e, ju, or cho.
“Manga are the same as kanji. When the readers see one panel of a comic, they immediately understand the meaning and freely interpret the image. That culture is the backdrop for manga, so Japanese manga artists don’t draw anything into the background that isn’t necessary. They only include the content necessary to convey the information. That results in creations with communicative power which can be understood at a glance by foreigners and children.”
As for the second aspect, he explains that the Japanese believe the divine essence resides in everything, and this sense of spirituality underlies the rich story content of Japanese manga.
“It’s different from the monotheism that forbids idolatry. In Japan, the divinities and spiritual creatures take a multiplicity of forms and become anthropomorphic. I suspect that openness is what enables the free expression of stories and characters.”
Mr. Makino adds that in the West, the Devil is a frightening creature, but that demons and Tengu in Japan are depicted with human characteristics.
“Even that which is frightening is not rejected, but made into an engaging character.”
As demonstrated by the worship of the eight million divinities, a characteristic of Japanese culture is its acceptance of and openness to things foreign, which he cites as one reason for the diversity of storylines.
“Before they’re aware of what’s happening, people throughout the world become captivated by the spiritual culture of Japan.”
Now you know how the Sailor Moon girls got their magical powers!
Makino Keiichi has his own Japanese-language website that’s still under construction, but you can see some of his unusual creations on one part of it. Kyoto Seika University and the city of Kyoto operate the Kyoto International Manga Museum, which has the world’s largest collection of comics.
It’s not just the visual art or the stories, either. Listen to where this music from the Seek the Full Moon animation takes you in 80 seconds.
One final note: If you think Mr. Makino is off base with his Yaoyorozu no Kamigami idea, consider that today at the Museum of Art, Kochi–in the same city as the manga exhibition–a pop art exhibit opened showing the works of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, among others. Kochi City has a population of about 340,000 and is somewhat isolated on the island of Shikoku, where it is one of the primary cities.