An introduction to Manga

Image: An introduction to Manga

What you need to know about this global phenomenon

Note: For the sake of this article I’ll be talking about manga but referring to anime and other renditions of Japanese pop-culture under the heading of ‘manga’.

What is Manga?

To begin with, for those who don’t know, manga are simply Japanese comic books. It’s a style of drawing, a way of telling stories and a technique for arranging pictures on a page. Recently manga has become very popular and pretty mainstream. Why?

1. Its cheap – Go into any book store and compare the price of Manga to a traditional American comic book, whether Marvel, DC or an indie publisher. Whilst most Western graphic novels will set you back $15-$30, manga can be purchased for as little as $7 a book. Manga may be in grayscale and printed on crummy paper but these price cutting means it can be produced quickly and cheaply unlike Western books which are printed on glossy paper in full colour, taking twice the time to produce and costing two to three times more.

2. It covers a wide range of genres – For a long time Western comics were superhero comics with a few indie publishers experimenting but there really wasn’t great depth. In Japan there are girl manga, boy manga, humorous manga, adult manga, crime manga, cooking manga, game manga, instructional manga and more! Manga comes in all shapes, sizes and genres in Japan (and around the world) giving it a greater fan-base and helping it appeal to more people.

3. Its different – This will be the main point of this article but, to give you a summary, its Japanese and being Japanese it taps into another culture, another religion, another philosophy and another history to what Western readers are used to.

Being Japanese

Asian culture is very different from European culture, which has caused a lot of problems over the years. From geisha, samurai and ninja, tea ceremonies, temples and friendly demons to cosplay, Ikebana (a particular form of flower arrangement), baths and men entering a room before women, Japanese culture is vastly different from Western culture. In manga a lot of this is shown but this is hardly a cause for concern, mostly it is entertaining and educational to learn about different people. But there are a few things to watch out for and some other things that can get lost in translation.

Demons, Angels and the afterlife

If you were to talk to someone of an Asian orient about demons, they are likely to conjure up completely different images and concepts to a person from Western countries. There is a range of supernatural ranging from harmless to evil. Traditional ceremonies for warding off mythical beings, along with talismans, stones, seals and other ‘sacred’ things may be in the background of or feature in some manga. Although few manga preach about traditional Japanese religion, it is always advisable to be mindful when characters in series burn incense to stone idols in temples or when they offer each other ‘good luck’ charms that ward of evil oni (demons). But as long as you’re aware of various folklore undertones, these things aren’t dangerous.

The path of honor

Samurai and ninja feature predominantly in Japanese culture as an obsessive sub-culture grows up around them. Once again, this is harmless as long as we don’t adopt the philosophy of the ninja and samurai. The ninja was a ruthless (and feared) assassin and, like pirates, in modern days have been extracted from their bloody and unforgiving way of life and seen as noble warriors. Whilst real ninjas were ‘guns for hire’, popular culture (Most famously Naruto) shows them as loyal friends with big hearts usually glorifying their violent behaviour and approving it as a ‘means to an end’. Most viewers are so used to violence that the gore in such mainstream manga like Naruto will probably go unnoticed but some more sub-culture ninja stories can become really over the top. Its up to viewers to decide how much violence is ok for them but modern day ninjas don’t pose an ethical threat. Samurai can though.

Samurai were the noble warriors of old Japan, fighting ruthlessly and showing no mercy to their enemies. The way of the samurai dictated that it is noble to die in war and to surrender was the most shameful thing you could do.  This philosophy, still residing in Japan today, means Japanese soldiers to be ruthless on the battlefield and prefer suicide rather than ‘dishonor’.

The final word

Perhaps the best thing to do if you are interested in exploring more about manga is to go and check some of it out yourself. If you are a youth leader, this could lead to opportunities to talk to teens about what they think of manga. You should also check out our review of ‘Manga Messiah’, (or buy copies here) which is written to introduce the gospel to fans of Manga.

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