Wait…is that a guy or a girl? Do I care? Manga and all its fun, if confusing, qualities

At long last I’m posting a new piece of “news” here, and it’s on a topic I’ve been considering for some while now. As promised, long ago, I have finally delved into the world of manga, or Japanese print comics, and as predicted by many far and wide, I am now a full-fledged fan of the sub-format (it’s not really a subgenre, is it?). Teens, we know, love them. Many many adults love them. Piles of people watch anime on both the Cartoon Network and the newer Anime Network (which I am now addicted to due to sneaky Comcast Cable’s On Demand feature…argh!).

However, working as a librarian, there are a number of things about manga that are just different from Western comics, and these are things we should all pay attention to when selecting them for our friends or our community (if you’re a librarian or teacher).

One caveat before I go — this is in NO WAY meant to discourage people from buying manga! It’s wonderful, complicated, beautiful stuff, and I would be very disappointed if this column makes anyone so anxious about them that they won’t buy any. That is not the point. The point for me is to fill you all in on some prevalent differences in these comics from Western ones so you can make informed buying decisions.

Why is there an eye in the middle of my fight scene?
One of the most interesting visual aspects to manga, for me, and why I really love it’s style, is that in manga, emotion is key. Realism, not so much. So, while in an American comic, if the two leads of a story are having an intense conversation, this might be shown by expressions, the progression of position through panels, and mood-signalling colors. In manga, they instead break apart the panels into a star-like formation, with the central image focused on the two speakers while on one side is a close up of a glaring eye and the other shows a clenched fist in someone’s lap. These close-ups, very like when a director in a film cuts to something to let you know its important, signal emotional beats within a scene. This can be true even in establishing a setting — while in Batman they might give you a two page spread of a room, in manga they’ll give you one general shot and a lot of little varied views of objects and furniture to show you how it all fits together as well as to provide movement on the page. This kind of progression can be really confusing for the first-time reader — especially when you’re also starting to read right to left in traditionally printed books. Take the time to savor it — it’s a unique way of telling a story, much more cinematic, and can make the story that much deeper.

Dinners on one side and Pickles and Eggs on the other
Pardon my bad euphemisms, but one of the biggest cultural differences between manga and Western comics is the attitude toward nudity. Basically, no one in Japanese comics seems to particularly give a hoot, whereas Western creators and audiences are more prudish. In comics aimed at teens, if the situation would logically produce nudity — taking a bath, changing your clothes, or even (gasp!) groping and making out — in manga there will be nudity. In Western comics there will be convenient drapery and ferns. Unless a manga is specifically intended for adults (and sometimes not even then), it will not have genitalia of either variety — the same goes for Western adult comics. One of the more popular series for teenage girls, Mars, is a melodrama focusing on the relationship between bad boy Rei and good girl Kira. When I began reading the series, everyone kept asking me with copious winks and nudges, “Have you gotten to volume 10!?” When I finally got there — yup, they has sex. Nudity galore, but none of it gratuitous, and all of it extremely sweet, in keeping with the romance of the book. It was quite obvious what was going on, but in the spirit of great YA romances, it was all about the sensation and emotion, not the graphic depiction.

Wow, that guy is really hot! Or is…she?
As many have observed from simply glancing through manga, it has its own visual style. Known stereotypically for disproportionately huge eyes and the similar beauty of both male and female characters, manga is in fact fairly varied though certain visual cues remain the same. One of the more intriguing aspects, to a Western audience, is the extreme fluidity of gender and thus gender roles. Boys may magically become girls, girls may disguise themselves as boys (and vice versa), and boys may play up their girly side to spook a friend. A lot of this gender play comes under the heading of humor — embarrasment and physical slapstick are favorite devices of comedy in manga, and thus if people are switching gender, the embarrasment (say of being in a fight and, poof!, you’re a girl, as in Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2) is racheted up a notch. In the comedic strain, these gender switches usually don’t affect sexuality and are more frustrating giggle moments than serious sexuality issues. You’re a lot more likely in manga to spend an entire story believing someone is one gender and then suddenly finding out they’re the other (or even that they have no gender). The style of manga blurs the distinctions between the genders more or less depending on the art — protagonists tend to be beautiful, and in some comics more than others, the only difference between the girls and boys may be hairstyle. Although, as anyone who’s read them knows, hairstyles are extremely important in identifying characters in manga and anime anyway.

On the other hand, the definitions of sexuality are much more free, and so there are a number of same-sex crushes, some of which actually become relationships and some of which don’t. You’re much more likely to run into a gay, lesbian, or bisexual character in manga, and drag queens seem to pop up left and right. These characters are particularly present in shoujo manga, which to some readers (like me) is refreshing.

You’re also more likely to find characters acting gay in order to prove something — i.e. the main hearthrob’s best friend may pretend to have a crush on him, and go through hinting and confessing, just to test the main lead’s devotion to his girl. It’s difficult to picture American teens going to quite those lengths, and so you can see the patterns of departure from our expectations.

On a related note, I’ve noticed that recently one of the popular manga subgenres in Japan is now breaking in to the U.S. market, though I wonder if many librarians or parents know what it is they’re looking at. There is a large section of shoujo manga that is considered shonen-ai, which literally translates as “boys’ love”. Yup, these comics feature romances between teenage boys or men, in various levels of explicitness, and they’re written by women for women and girls. There are various theories as to why these titles are created and appeal to their target audiences (see the article at the end of this post), but in the end these stories are a homoerotic version of the straight teen romances such as Mars and Kare Kano. Also note, though, that these titles also often include the wilting flower/dominant hero set-up that is common in straight romances (see the section below) — so that one half of the couple needs to be convinced to start a relationship while the other half can be forceful (to put it mildly) in their pursuit of love and sex. As with any genre, some are better than others, and some are aimed at teens while others go a bit further and are more appropriate for adults. Some common titles you might hear talk of include Demon Diary, a Korean title, FAKE, and Pet Shop of Horrors.

You’d never see Jean Grey take that!
One of the odder, and more subtle, issues that appears in manga is the relative passivity of girls. Now, don’t get me wrong — the comics coming out of Japan are well known for casting girls in wonderful hero roles (like in Sailor Moon, Inu-Yasha, etc.), and these same heroines don’t wilt away when a man walks by, losing all their power and good sense, nor are they uber-sexual vixens who titilate with their skimpy outfits and posed fights. This is still (sadly) often more than could be said for Western superhero comics. On the other hand, in comics aimed at girls, known as shoujo manga, the girls, while on the surface very strong, do often end up the weaker-willed, swoony type who need to be rescued by the pretty boys populating these stories. These stories are often romances, and as we all know from romance novels, it’s not like this isn’t a common trope. Most of the time, this is done as a character trait and not in an offensively ninny-esque way, but occasionally it does blend over into a more frightening message for girls, especially when it turns to matters of harrassment and consent. Girls are subjected to some fairly intense (to Western audiences) sexual harassment, and more often than not, they’re told to shrug it off, and they do. Sometimes it’s just teasing, which we all know happens among American teens, but sometimes it also goes a bit farther toward assault and even the threat of rape. For a lot of female readers wanting the empowerment many of these comics promise, this kind of incident can sour the feeling, and the story. This is another simple difference in Japanese culture — harrassment is perceived and treated differently there, and this is reflected in the comics, so be aware that this kind of “let it slide” message may appear from time to time. There are some great titles out there — like Boys Over Flowers — that happily buck the meek-girl trend and have a truly strong heroine at the center of a romantic story, so make sure you seek those out if you’re curious.

To me, all these issues illuminate why teens seem to prefer manga to Western comics — they’re more complicated, often with deeper questions at their hearts. In terms of shoujo manga, they echo teen romance truthfully and don’t shy away from actual issues (like sex, peer pressure, and sexual intimidation). All of these differences make them appealing to teens, and Western comics writers would do well to learn from the appeal (and many creators already have).For more info on these topics, check out the following great articles that illuminated a lot of this stuff for me:

Why do Anime and Manga characters look the way they do?
from Sequential Tart

Why Are Japanese Girls’ Comics full of Boys Bonking?
from Cult Media — this article is a bit more academic, but sheds some light on where shonen-ai trends come from

And, as always, check out Gilles Poitras’ fabulous site about everything related to manga and anime: http://www.koyagi.com/

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