Japanese manga is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, and has influenced many other art forms to various degrees. The word ‘manga’ itself translates to ‘comics’ or ‘cartoons,’ but outside of Japan it’s used to describe the particular style of graphic novel the country is famous for. Not only has manga been the source of inspiration for many of the biggest anime series on television, it has also spawned imitations in places like China, Taiwan, South Korea, and even France. While there is some disagreement as to the true origins of the art form, most agree that modern manga originated after World War II, during the U.S. Occupation of Japan (from 1945-1952) and the years that followed the occupation (1952 to the early 1960s). As such, what is today known as manga took a lot of influence from the culture and art of the United States.
During this period many American soldiers brought over U.S. comics to Japan, and the country was exposed to an onslaught of western images, films and cartoon shows; this left quite an impression. One of the earliest pioneers of modern manga was Osamu Tezuka, and even he admitted his love and admiration for the works of Walt Disney. In fact, Tezuka’s style of drawing characters with large eyes—which has become so synonymous with Japanese animation—took heavy inspiration from American sources like Betty Boop and Disney’s own Mickey Mouse and Bambi. Tezuka would go on to become prolific in the field, creating popular works like Astro Boy, Metropolis, and Kimba the White Lion. But while Disney’s animation style remained largely family friendly and static for decades, manga continued to evolve.
Tezuka would go on release more mature and serious works like Message to Adolf, Black Jack, Buddha, and Phoenix. More recent works like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster and 20th Century Boys, Kentaro Miura’s Berserk, and Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond, all portray stories and themes aimed at much older (usually male) audiences. That’s not to say the manga is exclusively aimed at boys (shonen) and young men (seinen). Thanks to the manga revolution that consumed Japan during the 50’s and 60’s, women and girls also got stories aimed squarely at them. One of the earliest mangaka (comic artist) that tried to appeal to the gender was Machiko Hasegawa, who created the extremely popular comic stripp Sazae-san. Hasegawa focused her work on portraying the daily lives and experiences of women, which would later become hallmarks of the shojo genre. That particular genre ended up spawning works that easily rival their male counterparts.
Classics include Tezuka’s Princess Knight, which set up many of the characteristics of shojo like placing glittering stars in the pupils of the girls and enlarging their eyes. It also was the prototype for the ‘magical girl’ sub-genre which would be redefined by later works like Naoko Takeuchi’s highly popular Sailor Moon series. Princess Knight would go on to inspire Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, which in turn heavily influenced Chiho Saito’s Revolutionary Girl Utena years later. Other notable examples of the shojo genre include the many works by the all female artist group CLAMP, such as Cardcaptor Sakura and Magic Knight Rayearth. It’s easy to the appeal of manga to both genders and various age groups throughout Japan, but it’s influence abroad in places like the United States didn’t grow at the same pace. It wasn’t until anime hit it big in the west in the 80’s and 90’s that manga was able to come along for the ride.
After many animated shows like Dragon Ball, Robotech, Pokemon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and films like Akira became huge hits in the U.S., there was a huge increase in popularity in manga and Japanese culture in general. Taking a look today at the popular anime shows that dominate ratings in Japan, the United States, and the rest of the world, it’s hard to find a series that wasn’t directly adapted or inspired by a manga. Long running shows like One Piece, Naruto and Bleach wouldn’t exist without the success of the original manga that spawned them. Even shows that have recently become fan favorites like Attack on Titan, also began on paper. Add in the countless other ways these original works are adapted, such as video games, radio dramas, films, and even novels, and you can see how far this Japanese art form has spread since its humble beginnings. Even western comic artists have taken note, incorporating many of the techniques refined by mangaka for years.
Some of these are minor, such as using a black background behind a panel to indicate a flashback, or having panels devoid of art and instead simply showing a thought or idea through text. However, such techniques are now more widely accepted in the American comic book industry and no longer seen as strange thanks to the popularity of manga. One of my favorite examples of this East meets West philosophy is Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series, which was meant to be his interpretation of shonen titles like Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 (a huge influence on him). In Scott Pilgrim, O’Malley embraced the aesthetic of Japanese manga like the paneling style and black and white art, and combined it with a style entirely his own. The result was a unique hybrid that went on to sell millions of copies and even led to a feature film and a video game.
In summary, manga today is a worldwide phenomenon which continues to excite and delight readers daily. While influenced by the West initially, Japan has taken the art form to heights that many never dreamed of, and through it they have told stories and crafted characters that are remembered for decades. Its popularity is constantly growing, as well as its acceptance among fans of traditional Western comics. Manga is a force to be reckoned with, and it has proven its worth as an art form many times over. And the best part of it all? There are still so many unique stories and worlds that have yet to be put to ink and paper.