Manga, or Japanese comics, have always been one of the best attractions to Japanese culture. It’s portable, entertaining and fascinating, and very easy to pass on from one person to another, especially in this day and age. Compared to Western comics, manga doesn’t just focus on superheroes. A lot of the stories portrayed in manga are coming of age stories, although the settings for these stories may vary from outer space adventures with giant robots or through the exploration of the more fantastical by using local or foreign folklore. In any case, manga is always an interesting read. The art style too, is different from most Western comics; manga characters are often described or stereotyped to having big eyes and small mouths.
In its earliest conceptions, manga was really just a bunch of animal caricatures. Monks and priests in the mid to late 17th century would draw personified animals to pass on lessons and morals. It then evolved to portrayals of daily life, such as those on woodblock paintings like the Ukiyoe, or the more comical and satirical illustrations in Tobae. Picture books depicting children’s tales then became prolific in the 18th century in the form of the akahon, literally “red book,” which later on catered to more adult-oriented stories. Kibyoshi (“yellow-jacket books”) were like the akahon, books containing humor, satire and cartoons aimed towards the adults.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the earlier forms of manga were geared towards an adult readership. Most striking is that of the shunga, which could be the earliest predecessor of contemporary adult manga. These shunga were woodblock prints that served as sex education manuals for brides-to-be, depicting highly sexual and erotic images. Quite possibly the most popular or infamous of these shunga prints is Ukiyoe artist Katsuhika Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Tako to Ama).
In the 1800s, a cartoonist teaching western-style oil painting in Japan and a correspondent to a British publication in the late 1800s called Charles Wirgman, introduced the western style of cartooning to Japan. His cartoons depicted historical events, usually focusing on international relations between Japan and the West, as well as the conflict in the Tokugawa Shogunate. He published a lot of his work in his publication, The Japan Punch. Wirgman’s work influenced many native Japanese artists and thus the evolution of what was just known as comical or satirical art to what we know as manga today started. Wirgman and the western influence in manga became proliferate in the 20’s and 30’s, when Japanese scholars and artists began to travel between the US and Japan, sharing more than just academic information. Artists such as Rakuten Kitazawa and Ippei Okamoto popularized the American style of cartooning: a sequence of events in boxes called panels, and dialogue in text bubbles. Early comic strips slowly began to infiltrate daily and weekly newspapers.
Manga even penetrated Japanese politics, published as satirical strips in critique of the Japanese government in the Meiji era, as well as a rebellion against the policing and censorship of journalism. Manga was also used as war propaganda during the First and Second World War, especially during Japan’s occupation of China. Short comic books were issued by the Japanese government themselves depicting the Manchurian Incident, glorifying the Japanese power.
In the years following the World Wars, manga genres expanded, multiplied, and thrived upon young audiences. Shounen manga for boys focus more on sports and adventures, shoujo manga for girls that dealt with girls’ dreams and fantasies, and of course, adult-oriented manga. There was even the emergence of educational or academic manga, and manga whose purpose was to give information, akin to what we would call edutainment. Manga has become so popular that there are establishments called manga cafes around Japan where people can come in and enjoy manga at their leisure.
As a girl who enjoys reading manga, I enjoy reading both shounen and shoujo manga, although my own collection leans towards the romantic manga that are often classified as shoujo, or redikomi, “ladies comics.” I fall under the typical age range of redikomi readers: 15 to 44 years old, which interestingly enough, is described as the “child-bearing ages.”
Ladies Comics in Japan actually has various ratings, ranging from the mild PG to PG-15 books, to the raunchier titles in the R and NC-17 ratings. Typically, ladies comics tend to focus on the relationships created by a female protagonist. The stories are either dramatic, romantic, and in other cases, sexually explicit.
Characters in Redikomi are always beautiful, appealing more to Japanese aesthetics, and the heroines range from high school students to predominantly women-oriented careers (although my favorite josei manga has the protagonist working as a high profile journalist in a male-dominated publishing company—there are always exceptions), which is to say that there aren’t a lot of redikomi where the heroines aren’t stereotyped. But that’s okay. These ladies comics focus more on the story of how the heroine manages to attain happiness. It’s almost self-fulfilling to the readers to finally reach the part where the heroine finally reaches her happy ever after ending. Issues usually tackled in redikomi are relationships (usually between man and woman, but there are also manga that feature homosexual partners finding love), marriage, and sex. Redikomi has actually been associated with the more adult-oriented themes since the past. If there is one thing Japan is infamous for, it is the great amount of variety in their adult-themed or XXX rated manga. Women are over sexualized, sometimes drawn with exaggerated sexual organs, and in various positions in quite possibly every kink and fetish imaginable to men.
In the end, manga is drawn and published to serve as entertainment. There are manga that caters to children, to teenagers, to adults, that are geared towards men or women or both, that have themes that are only for adult eyes and themes where everyone can enjoy. It’s up to the reader which title or genre they pick up.
Dollase, H.T. (2011). Choosing Your Family: Reconfiguring Gender and Familial Relationships in Japanese Popular Fiction. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 44 (Issue 4), 755-772.
Ito, K . A History of Manga in the Context of Japanese Culture and Society. The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 38(Issue 3), 456-475
Tamanoi, M. A. (1990). Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan, Annual Review of Anthology, Vol. 19, 17-37