Manga: a medium for historical debate?

Manga: a medium for historical debate?

Scholars of Japanese manga are now beginning to look at its political messaging, how it can subvert dominant historical discourses and push for politically conservative or progressive agendas, writes Rebecca Suter

Comics in Japan were seen as a superficial form of popular entertainment aimed mostly at children, throughout the twentieth century. It was no different in other parts of the world.

This has changed significantly in the new millennium.

Changing perspectives

Things began to change with the government Educational White Paper of 2000 which praised anime and manga as valuable art forms achieving popularity and recognition abroad, and continued with the ‘Cool Japan’ campaigns of the mid-2000s.

Japan saw the rise of manga studies programs in universities, the creation of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, and the general repackaging of manga as a respected cultural product.

Manga can reinforce or subvert dominant historical discourses, and push conservative or progressive agendas

Japanese foreign policy makers saw the advantages of using manga to promote a positive image of their country.

In recent years, scholars have begun to look at manga as a medium for historical debate. Presented and perceived as both entertaining and educational, manga can either reinforce or subvert dominant discourses on historical memory, and push politically conservative or progressive agendas.

Two highly publicised, and highly controversial, examples are the comics Intro to China (Chūgoku nyūmon) and Hating the Korean Wave (Kenkanryū) that portray Chinese and Koreans as enemies of the state. These comics urge their readers to refute the alleged ‘masochist’ version of Japan’s modern history, and reject their obsession with Korean popular culture and with the cultural heritage and economic potential of China.

Manga ‘fanta-history’ can reflect on gender and social norms from a feminist perspective

Other manga, on the other hand, reveal vastly different agendas. Works like Yoshinaga Fumi’s series, Ōoku: The Inner Chambers, reimagine early modern Japan as a matriarchal society and portray the life of a female shogun’s male harem.

The ‘fanta-history’ here is a way to reflect on the gender and social norms of pre-modern and modern Japan from a feminist perspective.

How manga developed over time

The role of manga as a medium for historical debate, however, goes back much further than these recent examples.

Although there were several instances of Japanese comics in the early twentieth century, the consensus among scholars is that the medium took its specific form in the 1950s and 1960s. This is when ‘story manga’, or narrative comics, emerged, replacing single-image cartoons or comic strips.

The idea that ‘true manga’ is story manga is in large part a consequence of the popularity of Tezuka Osamu. He was hailed as the ‘god of manga’ for perfecting the distinctive visual and narrative features of postwar Japanese comics.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the genre of gekiga, comics that were written and read by teenage and young adult men from the working class. It was composed in a realistic style and focused on politically sensitive themes, and in this period, manga was perceived as politically engaged and supporting a socially progressive agenda.

Cover image, Rewriting History in Manga, by Rebecca Suter Source: supplied by author

In recent times, critics such as Yonezawa Yoshihiro have challenged the equation of manga with gekiga by expanding their focus to other genres, particularly shôjo manga, comics written by and for teenage girls.

Highlighting the sophistication of girls’ comics as a means of expression of individual emotions and interiority, Yonezawa questioned the notion that political manga alone was a valuable form of cultural production. His views have expanded the scope of manga studies to a broader range of texts and styles.

Sustained critical interest in shôjo manga, with its non-realistic style and its greater narrative and visual complexity, led to the emergence of semiotic theories of the medium. Scholars explored the expressive possibilities of the medium through formal analysis of panel structure, use of motion lines, combination of text and image, and so on.

This focus on formal analysis saw an expansion of the theoretical instruments applied to the examination of manga, and a decline of interest in its political content.

Manga and the pre-modern

In the 1980s, a growing number of critics made connections between manga and pre-modern visual cultures. They traced the origin of manga back to Heian-period picture scrolls, and/or to Hokusai manga, Edo-period woodblock prints with a satirical content.

Cool Japan campaigns were quick to capitalise on the myth of the pre-modern origins of manga, to support repackaging it as a uniquely Japanese cultural form

These two forms of visual art were considered similar to modern manga. Similar, as Jaqueline Berndt notes in her contribution to Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anima, in their frequent integration of text into images, in their occasional use of motion lines to represent dynamism in a static format, and in their recourse to comedy and caricature.

These connections were made to legitimise manga as an heir to long-standing pictorial traditions, and to present the medium as grounded in the history of Japanese art.

The institutional discourse on popular culture built on this idea. The Cool Japan campaigns of the new millennium were quick to capitalize on the myth of the pre-modern origins of Japanese comics to support their repackaging of manga as a uniquely Japanese cultural form.

Transcultural influences

Some scholars in Japan now question the historical validity of claims for continuity between pre-modern visual arts and modern manga.

In investigating the legacy of Meiji period comics such as ponchi (cartoons inspired by the British magazine Punch and its multiple international incarnations) and pakku (similarly inspired by North American magazine Puck) within postwar manga, scholars like Natsume Fusanosuke and Miyamoto Hirohito emphasised the transcultural origins of manga.

An important factor in shaping modern manga in the Meiji period was, according to Natsume, the emergence in Japan of a Western-style newspaper and magazine industry. It became the primary channel for the distribution of comics.

A single frame as the fundamental unit was radically different from pre-modern forms like pictorial scrolls

Publication within daily newspapers and weekly and monthly journals not only opened up a larger audience. It also generated a different mode of consumption, and different reading habits, that left an enduring legacy on postwar manga.

On the stylistic level, a significant import from the Euro-American Punch and Puck tradition was the introduction of the single frame as the fundamental unit of visual-verbal expression. This was radically different from pre-modern forms like pictorial scrolls, where images were not delimited by frames but extended on the scroll without solution of continuity.

Rediscovering the importance of the influence of Euro-American cartoons led manga scholarship to reconsider the dominant narrative that presented story manga as the most authentic type of manga.

What manga means to audiences

One of the most significant outcomes of this line of enquiry was Itô Gô’s volume Tezuka izu deddo (Tezuka is dead, 2005).

Itô argued that by focusing almost exclusively on story manga, at the expense of comic strips, and on stories in manga, at the expense of character and drawing, Japanese critics had become increasingly estranged from its reception by audiences that were more interested in characters or drawings than they were in stories.

Audience reading practices, arguably the last frontier in studying manga as a medium for historical debate

By proclaiming it was time to move beyond Tezuka, Itô advocated for studies that took better account of audience reading practices.

Indeed, audience reception is arguably the last frontier in studying manga as a medium for historical debate. It is crucial to reflect on manga as a site for readers to acquire information and construct their own views about history and politics, while maintaining a balanced understanding of manga’s specificity as a medium, as advocated by Itô.

Reception analysis is now one of the greatest challenges for manga studies. Whether we want to reflect on a comic’s stylistic features or its politics, its aesthetic value or its social import, investigating readers’ perception adds extremely valuable insight to the analysis.

It is also one of the most difficult tasks for scholarship. Gauging audience reception requires a combination of thorough empirical research and sophisticated interpretive instruments. A combination as time-consuming as it is exciting.

Featured image: Devils and Realist, popular manga series Source: Wikimedia Commons

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