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Japanese soft power: Manga

Manga, the Japanese genre of cartoon and comic book, has long held a minority appeal to non-Asians but a new publication, “Mangasia: the definitive guide to Asian comic”, indicates a growing interest in the art form.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

Superficial judgements of manga fail to acknowledge its cultural importance and influence. Korean director, Park Chan-wook, based his seminal film “Oldboy” on a Japanese manga of the same name.

Graphic novels share a family resemblance with manga but the comic art that originated in Japan has features unique to itself.

Both forms convey a narrative in sequential art but manga’s use of visual symbols to convey emotions – sweat-drops and swollen veins for example – and the characteristic use of large eyes, flowing hair and highly compressed stories distinguishes the form which has now spread throughout Asia and embraced a huge variety of subjects. Mangasia is the author’s collective term for all the comic art produced in Asia and, wow, manga is definitely on the march.

Anyone with an interest in graphic art will be enthralled by the infinite variety of colours, figures and storylines which are now finding representation in comic art. Subject matter ranges from children’s stories to no-holds-barred adult fantasy, from classic Asian mythology and horror to contemporary autobiography, poetry and politics.

The massacre of thousands of civilians on Korea’s Jeju island by right-wing vigilante groups in the late 1940s, with the backing of government forces, was the subject of a 2012 graphic novel.

A short story about a Viet Cong soldier’s determination to bring back a comb for his young daughter, “The ivory comb”, was expanded into two manga-format volumes by Vietnamese artists.

Japanese manga dealing with the experience of World War II, especially the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, continues to reverberate. But there is a reluctance to deal with war atrocities and “Mangasia” does not shy away from documenting the self-censorship of such topics in Japanese comic books. State censorship is also evident in South Korea and Taiwan

Paul Gravett’s text is as important as the lavish illustrations that generously pepper every page of his 300-page book. He examines comic books from China, India, Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan – even Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia.

Manga for adults has a pornographic dimension and 2004 saw the first obscenity trial of a manga under Japanese law.

As Gravett observes, however, this has disturbing implications for the rights of adults to see sexual fantasies in manga. He covers the role of women and attempts to go beyond the Barbie-like images of docile, weepy and wide-eyed females that for too long have monopolized comic-book tales.

The final section of “Mangasia” looks at new technologies and the world of manga. It is eight years since the first live concert took place starring a virtual pop-star projected hologram-style onto a stage. Anime and manga have a deep-rooted reciprocity and digitisation of the art form is proceeding at a rapid pace. Whether the traditional comic book will be supplanted remains to be seen.

“Mangasia: the definitive guide to Asian comic”, by Paul Gravett, is published by Thames & Hudson.

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