Jun 16, 2010

The Increasingly Fine Line Between Western and Japanese Comics

People who know me expressed surprise at my putting Osamu Tezuka at the top of my top 10 most influential comics artists list. In all honesty, it surprised me too, because I don't read manga myself, nor am I an anime watcher. But recently, I started asking a bunch of questions about the nature of comics and exactly what made it different from manga, and the answer I came up with?

Not a whole lot.

I'm going to break a little bit from my usual method here and talk about animation too. I can honestly still say I'm not a manga reader, but I have watched some anime. I notice that it's easier to watch anime than read manga, which I think can be attributed to the distinct differences between Western and Oriental reading style. As a Filipino, I read intuitively in the Western style. Reading is, of course, a much more cerebral experience than watching, and it takes considerably more effort, especially when the orientation isn't something you're used to. And it's also significantly, uh, how shall I put this? Less free.

So two of my favorite games on the PS2 are the two installments of the Kingdom Hearts series. That's the one where the Final Fantasy characters meet Disney characters.

One time, I was playing it in college, and a friend who didn't like anime asked me why I was playing a game that was so clearly anime. The truth is, I didn't notice. Right beside the Disney characters, the Kingdom Hearts characters looked like they fit in - the style was completely different, but it did seem to be intentionally different in a way that it still fit with the Disney art.

And honestly, what anime? If this was anime, why didn't it do these annoying things? I mean, that's what anime is for, isn't it? Annoying things where people suddenly lost their noses?

From Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud 1993

I mean, disproportionate heads on tiny bodies? Expressive gestures and facial expressions? Funky hair? Why, call me crazy, but that just sounded like, well, a regular cartoon! So don't be silly, calling something I love anime. Pfft.

But it did stick with me, though. See, a couple of years before that, this cartoon came out.

Paul Dini's Teen Titans incorporated so many Japanese techniques, including the annoying ones above, that it fooled one of my friends into thinking it was an anime. Was it? How exactly are we making the distinctions here? And then it kept coming. Even in the Bruce Timm-helmed Justice League Unlimited, anime techniques showed up!

The proliferation was such that you have the recently canceled and improbably excellent Spectacular Spider-Man joining in on the fun too!

And then the kicker, a friend sent me a Ghost In The Shell: Stand-Alone Complex episode to watch, and it was an anime that employed none of that annoying stuff; in fact, it was an anime that was quite excellent (I actually would say that I think it's an outstanding series), and I noticed that if you made the art just a little bit angular, the lines a little bit thicker, it could easily pass as a Western cartoon.

You know, kinda like HBO's Spawn.

So I started doing some research, and I remembered some cartoons of my childhood, namely Robotech and Voltron, American cartoons with distinctly Japanese influences (in fact, Robotech was an Americanized version of Japan's Macross). I learned that Osamu Tezuka was a huge fan of Walt Disney, hence the typical expressiveness of anime characters and the big eyes. I learned that the whole Super Sentai (read: big giant robots) movement in Japan, prevalent in Voltron and Power Rangers, originated from a Japanese adaptation of Spider-Man (yes, Spider-Man had a big giant robot). So the Japanese artists were influenced by American products as well!

You even have things like Hayao Miyazaki's work (namely Spirited Away), in which American, Japanese, and European influences all come together. So there's a convergence of styles that's always been going on to some degree, which is just more palpable now.

And meanwhile, as I pointed out in the Tezuka article, the same thing was happening in comics, yes, with the Japanese influence on American comics being significantly larger than the other way around, but I can see that changing when Japanese artists get more access to colored printers and presses.

The conclusion I came to is really just the most obvious: anime is just another word for animation - in fact, it's the same exact word, in a different language. Manga is just another word for comics. Just because Jill Thompson did a manga-styled Sandman story which incorporated all the annoying techniques that annoyed me didn't mean she had to do it that way. There's good stuff out there, if you're willing to wade through Pokemon and Sailor Moon, and I realized that for me to judge anime and manga based on products such as those, which annoyed me, was akin to someone dismissing American comics based solely on their reputation as badly written superheroes and kids' stuff.

You know that annoying judgmental person who looks down on your hobby because they think it's beneath them? To the manga fans, I realized, I was that person. So no more.

Now that that's out of the way, who's got manga recommendations for me?


PIG said...

Rurouni Kenshin (Samurai X) is a good one. It's loaded with Japanese-Samurai stuff and history. Ghost in the Shell Manga is good, but not as good as the Stand Alone Complex series that you watched. I'd recommend watching the original Ghost in the Shell movie... and spot the San Miguel Beer cameo. Total win moment for SMB.

Martin said...

ooh. have i got a list of both anime and manga.

Spirited Away
Tokyo Godfathers
Millennium Actress
Grave of the Fireflies
Paranoia Agent
Howl's Moving Castle
Ponyo (great for kids)
Ninja Scroll (do not watch this in front of parents or children)
Ghost in the Shell (GitS)
GiTS: Innocence
NASU: Summer in Andalucia
Cowboy Bebop
Michiko to Hatchin

MPD Psycho
Rurouni Kenshin
Drifting Classroom
Blue Heaven
Angel's Share

Kat said...

I will have to refer Kara to this post, I'm sure she could comment with much more authority about manga and anime.

I just wanted to comment on how it really is a "what came first, the chicken or the egg" situation, because as you mentioned, Tezuka was a big fan of Disney and the style that those characters were done in, so the birth of anime was already greatly influenced by western art. Those big sparkly eyes that those characters get when they're in love... they're basically shiny Bambi eyes.

Duy Tano said...

Yep, and Disney was obviously influenced by Winsor McCay. But then the rest of manga evolved separately from the rest of comics after that, never really to merge until the 80s, and I feel like in that time, Tezuka came up with a bunch of new techniques that were innovative anyway. The big eyes is the one thing he took from the West.

Unknown said...

Oh man, I know this is an old post but you don't know how glad I am that you came around or had a more open mind towards Japanese comics and animation. Because really that's what they essentially are, although yeah statically you could discern them from comics in general cause of how similar a lot of them are stylistically (big buggy eyes, exaggerated facial expressions, black & white) but the best manga are ones that aren't slaves to those cliches and employ them conservatively or not at all.

Anyways here's some recommendations

Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike. (Very sketchy art style and reminiscent and you could tell Frank Miller was inspired by this, but it's much better than anything Miller's done. Imagie reading a manga equivalent of a kurosawa film basically).

Nausicaa of the valley of the wind (this, in my opinion, is the best comic ever (yes I believe it's better than Watchmen, although it's close) and has insane world building. It also has two of the best female characters ever written.)

Berserk (warning it is very gory, and at times can be gratuitous. It also doesn't shy away from rape, but every evil thing that happened in the world is mostly meant to illustrate how shitty the overall world is. It's kinda like the manga equivalent of Game of Thrones, Gutts is also one of the most interesting main characters ever. GORGEOUS ART, btw, probably the best I've seen in the comic medium actually)

Vagabond/Real/Slam Dunk (Anything by Inoue is worth reading, but Vagabond and REAL like the other poster are especially worth noting. Vagabond also has one of the best art I've seen as well and a fascinatingly complex character. Real is just an interesting human drama with wheelchair basketball as a backdrop)

Akira- You might have watched the movie, which is a classic in it's own right, but the manga expands on it and fleshes out the world and characters as well. The Colonel is also one of my favorite characters.

Battle Angel Alita

One Piece- I honestly think you'd love this series, it's incredibly long, but is just such unadulterated pulp and unabashadly fun that's almost reminiscent of superhero comics. The worldbuilding is insane and there's a colorful cast of wacky characters with all sorts of powers (mostly because of eating some Fruit) but yeah it harkens back to superhero comics. It's a shame it's not colored but just look at the color spreads to get a good idea of the general fun and the tone of the series.

There's more but those are the first that come to mind

As far anime

Anything by Miyazaki pretty much
Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo
Tatami Galaxy

I can't guarantee you'll like all of these, but they're all worth checking out if you're remotely interested in anime or manga.

Post a Comment

All comments on The Comics Cube need approval (mostly because of spam) and no anonymous comments are allowed. Please leave your name if you wish to leave a comment. Thanks!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.