Tuesday, 17 January 2017

In the Spirit of Manga Around the World

When manga infiltrated the comic book market in other parts of Asian region, many analysts and media commentators have anticipated as much since Japanese pop culture has been the rage among Asian youths in the last few decades. When manga made a splash in other continents, from Europe to North America, not only social analysts took notice but also Western comic book industries have started pondering on how to revitalize their own markets against the encroaching Japanese competition. Apparently, manga is surging in both popularity and profits in the global comic book market.

Considering manga accounts for nearly 40% of all the books and magazines published in Japan each year, it’s not surprising manga not only appeals to the Japanese but also to a global audience for its creative and versatile expression on humanity. The Japanese society embodies manga due to the cultural acceptance of manga as mainstream literature, diverse topics of interest for different gender and age groups, and the dynamic art form with fluidity of artistic expression. Manga has claimed a place among the highly respectable businesses in Japan. Even several universities in the Kansai region have offered manga courses as well as other studies on Japanese pop culture since 2000.

The success of manga in Japan has much to do with the government and corporations' attempt to connect with society in the mid-1980s — presenting their ideas to the public through the manga medium. In elevating manga to the status of national culture, Japanese government agencies and institutions accepted adult manga, including the ones linked to the political ideas of the Left-wing and various small social groups. In addition, institutions and corporations hoping to influence society with new social and cultural values turned to the arena of pop culture where they could gather insights into contemporary attitudes and experiences. By 1990s, ideas for adult manga themes started to originate with editors, reversing the traditional trend of ideas originating among upstart cartoonists. To this day, editor-centered adult manga tends to be moralistic, politically correct, and pro-establishment.

Besides the typical comic book themes, such as romance, science fiction, heroes and satire, manga explores an array of practical topics for everyone to enjoy — from sumo to cooking. The categories of shounen and shoujo manga aim specifically at adolescent boys and girls, while seinen and josei manga target adult men and women, dividing them further into groups of college students, working professionals and even homemakers.

Undoubtedly, Japanese art has been touted around the globe from fashion to the more recent Japanese anime (animation) craze. Manga artists succeed in delivering fantastic illustrations with the wildest imaginations and renown artistic flare. The most popular and recognizable feature of manga — the large eyes of a character — gives readers an overall presentation of the figure's personality. Those saucer-sized eyes express (often in exaggeration) a gamut of human emotions — desire, aspiration, euphoria, disappointment, frustrations, depression, and loneliness. Another remarkable feature of manga lies in the use of cinematic-style techniques, drawn like a movie storyboard by applying zoom, panning or cutting to scenery. The reader can feel the ‘mood’ the animator created in his/her portrayal in a series of frames — a tranquil sunset, a fast-speed pursuit, or the slow-motion depiction of a final fist blow. Packaged and sold as a compiled serial volume, manga shows sketches in detail not in color, but in black and white.

One salient point about manga followers, the readers (Japanese and foreigners alike) are not emerging from the traditional comic books sector. The most cited comments from readers about the attraction of manga are as follows:
  • stunning visuals
  • wealth of characters
  • fast-paced action story
  • deep story line
  • cultural insights to Japanese lifestyle

If one has seen any of Hayao Miyazaki’s famous internationally acclaimed animes, such as Spirited Away, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, or Howl’s Moving Castle, one would understand the magnetism of manga. In fact, manga stories that had enjoyed domestic popularity and carried an international tone are usually transformed into anime, such as the well-known Pokemon. In the highly competitive manga market — only the cream of the crop is exported.

Interestingly enough, when Japan was experiencing an economic deterioration in the 1990s (coined as the ‘lost decade’), Japanese popular culture became a major export industry. Since then, Japanese pop music, videos, clothes, accessories, including comic books, have been snapped up across the Asian region by a younger generation with money. Wealthy Japanese youngsters with a mania for new fads have become an attractive model to other Asian teens in providing an oriental dimension to popular culture in ways inconceivable to Westerners. The publications of manga have reflected this popular culture in Japanese youth scene.

Today, manga is read all over Asia, where in some countries pirated versions have been replaced with legitimate translated editions. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia, manga not only has made an impact in their comic book markets but also spurred the growth of other nation’s cultural comic books to familiarity, as seen in South Korea, Hong Kong, and China.

It appears that there is more to Japanese pop culture than just an Asian phenomenon. Manga has been gaining readership in many European countries, where a wide range of titles have sold well, particularly in Spain, Italy and France. Despite the well-established comic books sector in France, since the invasion of manga in 1989, the growing popularity among French teenagers presents a threat to traditional French comic book publishers.

Across the Pacific Ocean to the United States, manga struck gold again. Even though Hollywood has enormously profited from reproducing the American comic book superheroes — Superman, Batman, Spiderman — on screen, manga has been gaining steam with hits — Dragon Ball, Yu-Gi-Oh, Shukan Shonen Jump — on bookshelves, with sales tripling since 2002. In contrast to the U.S. comic books on superheroes, manga provides fascinating stories of ordinary characters to which a wider scale of readers can relate and enjoy.

Although the sales of manga in the West are still in the multi-million yens, the Japanese manga industry sees the potential growth into multi-billion yens, like the way it has succeeded in Asia. Evidently, the huge popularity of Japanese manga around the world signifies that it has emerged as a new type of comic books, changing the perception of traditional comic books forever.

(First published on UniOrb.com, July 1, 2005)

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