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Expressive Techniques of Contemporary Manga

Foreign, and particularly European readers often describe the experience of reading Japanese manga as similar to that of watching a film. This characterization was also on the lips of the young Japanese readers who would go onto become manga artists themselves when they first read Tezuka Osamu’s New Treasure Island upon its release in 1947. Postwar and contemporary manga was born with this first “cinematic” work.

And yet despite this characterization, the pictures of manga are not “moving pictures,” and unlike film, the frames are of fixed dimensions. So why is it that people persist in using this cinematic metaphor to describe Japanese manga?

The first surprise in store for readers of New Treasure Island was the scene in which the young protagonist arrives by car at a wharf, hurrying to catch his ship before it sailed. In manga prior to this one or two frames would have sufficed to convey the whole scene. But Tezuka spent eight of the 180 pages of this work to render this scene of a car arriving at a wharf. And the depiction is different from anything manga readers had seen before. From the close-up of the boy’s face the perspective pans to the driver’s seat of the car and the gradual zoom-in of the car racing along the seaside road is almost as if the artist had simply pasted successive frames from a film onto the page. This latter technique was highly cinematic and led to the characterization of this manga as “like a film.” But however much Tezuka may have been inspired by film to create these “pan-out” and “close-up” techniques, the pictures in his manga still don’t move. Furthermore, this technique was only employed in the opening scene which has little to do with the main narrative. But the fact that this work as a whole conveyed the impression of something which could only be called “cinematic” testifies to the enormous impact of Tezuka’s use of the first eight pages of this work to this opening scene with little relevance to the plot. This work had more than just a plot. It had scenic depictions and a flowing narrative development.

Narrative manga are descended from picture stories known as ‘e-monogatari’. In these picture stories, however, the accompanying text and not the images were the primary vehicle of the narrative. In narrative manga, however, it is the images themselves, the succession of and linkages between the frames that tell the story. The syntax of the frames is of particular importance. Tezuka’s New Treasure Island made this very clear. Its appearance was like the usurpation of poetry by prose, the replacement of the chivalric romance of medieval times with the modern novel. If this new manga was like a film, it is to be contrasted in the Japanese tradition by the kabuki and the noh.

Europeans see the Japanese manga as “cinematic” because frame syntax in European comics is relatively underdeveloped. While the content may be sophisticated, the technique has yet to attain the level of modern prose.

The Western Appearance of Anime/Manga Characters

Non-Japanese have often wondered at why Japanese animation is full of European-looking characters. Certainly, there is no reason that Japanese animation has to be limited to only Japanese characters. If the French can produce the beautiful animated feature Kirikou and the Sorceress, featuring only West African characters, then there is no reason why the Japanese (or any other people for that matter) can’t make cartoons about people of races other than their own. Japanese comic book artists and anime script writers often set their stories in Europe or in the European diaspora, in which case, it is appropriate for anime characters to look European. Examples include the Japanimation adaptations of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi.

What is more puzzling is that characters who are supposed to be East Asian are often given unrealistic, ‘European’ hair and eye colors. Some examples include Ranma, the red-headed Japanese girl of Ranma 1/2, Kenshin, the red-haired, violet-eyed Japanese swordsman of Samurai X (Rurouni Kenshin), and the blond Japanese schoolboy Jinpachi from Please Save My Earth. Anyone with even a very superficial exposure to anime has noticed such ‘racially-inaccurate’ characters. Some observers say that the fascination with European features and color reflects a ‘wannabe-white’ attitude among Japanese. Others simply believe it reflects the younger generation’s fascination with exotic physical attributes and has little to do with self-hatred or Asians taking on a Eurocentric standard of beauty.

The characters of Sailor Moon, Yu-gi-oh and Pokemon are understood by Japanese audiences to be Japanese, but they are also very easy for Caucasians of European descent to identify with because of their appearance. In fact, I’ve seen a US ad for Yu-gi-oh cards, which involved a human re-enactment of characters from Yu-gi-oh, featuring a white boy with blond hair as Yu-gi-oh, and a brown-haired white boy as Kaiba. Both Kaiba and Yu-gi-oh are Japanese names (Yu-gi-oh is not a proper name – it literally means King of Games) and the story is set in Japan, but the characters are most closely approximated in actual human form by white people of European descent. Maybe part of the reason the three aforementioned Japanimation series are very popular in the US is the fact that many of the characters look European.

To be fair, it should also be pointed out that the tan, black-haired, undeniably “Asian” hero is a prevalent archetype in anime, even in ‘fantasy’ settings where the characters don’t belong to any real world race – examples include the wandering Japanese warrior Jubei (Ninja Scroll), the alien scientist Shion (Please Save My Earth), the young knight Parn in the very obviously European-influenced fantasy Record of the Lodoss War. This is not surprising, considering that the target audience for many anime is the Japanese teenage boy (though it should be pointed out that Please Save My Earth is considered a girls’ comic/cartoon), and audience identification is important in any market.

Anime in which all East Asian characters have fully East Asian physical characteristics are actually quite rare. Ninja Scroll – a supernatural fantasy set in Tokugawa Japan – comes close. Ninja Scroll characters do not suffer from the typical ‘huge eyes syndrome’. They are without exception black-haired and dark-eyed, though I have to say the characters’ noses are uniformly pointy, straight and high. 3×3 Eyes does not fall into the “unnaturally high nose bridge” trap; it has an abundance of flat-nosed characters with straight black hair, but two of the female characters have ‘unrealistic’ hair colors – Pai, a Tibetan, has a reddish tinge in her hair, and Natsuko, who is Japanese, has light brown hair. Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, was praised by my European friend as “the only Japanese animation I saw where the characters actually look Japanese”. I watched it a long time ago, and I more or less concur with his opinion, though there were some minor characters with ‘unnatural’ hair colors. Generally speaking, anime targeted at more mature audiences tend to move away from the large eyes, red/blond hair syndrome.

A Manga Introduction to the Japanese Economy

The late Ishinomori Shotaro was famous as the author of A Manga Introduction to the Japanese Economy. He was also widely know abroad thanks to the English translation of the same work. Ironically, however, the success of this work has actually given rise to misunderstandings about the nature of Japanese manga.

Several years ago I was visited by a newspaper reporter from a certain developed nation in Europe who wished to discuss Japan’s thriving manga culture. The reporter’s first words to me were, “Japanese manga can be divided into three categories, economic manga, erotic manga, and violent manga. “This comment came as quite a surprise to me and I was sad to think that Europeans had such a distorted view of Japanese manga. Like the proverbial troupe of blind men who try in vain to identify the elephant, it struck me that Europeans had no concept of Japanese manga as a whole.

Needless to say, there is no such tripartite division of Japanese manga. In terms of content alone there are many other genres of manga, including sports manga, romance manga, literary manga, historical and joke manga. While there is such a thing as erotic manga, there are no established genres devoted specifically to economics or violence. As for violence, the difference is only a cultural one (Japan has a lower incidence of violent crime than the United States and Europe), and “economic manga” are just one part of the larger genre of ‘information manga” (also known as expository or textbook manga). Moreover, these information manga are not regarded very highly among manga.

Information manga exploiting the illustrative function of the manga form to serve as study aids for children have existed since before the Second World War. With the extraordinary development of manga as an expressive form during the 1970s, so-called “academic manga” began to appear in general magazines mostly read by businessmen. They do not necessarily have a narrative structure, but the protagonists are shown applying themselves to the study of the origins of and various anecdotes about food, liquor and annual festivals.

It was in this context that A Manga Introduction to the Japanese Economy appeared in 1986. Unlike most manga in Japan, this work was released not in serialization but in book form from the start. Nonetheless, its three volumes sold a million copies, and it was even read by people born before the war. In this way even those who had previously shown no interest in manga and who did not belong to the so-called “manga generation” were compelled to recognize the expressive power of the manga form.

This led to the appearance of ever more manga dealing with subject matter such as history, science, and classical literature. At the same time, manga even began to be employed as a public relations tool by governmental agencies. As a whole this new category of manga began to be referred to as “information manga,” “expository manga,” or “textbook manga.” In some cases, they were referred to, with some measure of irony, as “educational manga for grown-ups.”

Japanese Maternity Doctors. An Expat’s View.


Doctors are addressed as “Sensei” in Japanese. That’s the same term used for teacher, professor and priest. Traditionally, people with the title of “Sensei” are not questioned. They are the keepers of knowledge, and their students/followers/patients are passive recipients. Patients who ask questions may be seen as offensive or irritating. Non-Japanese patients may think their doctors are secretive or even rude. For this reason, internationals tend to identify and seek doctors who are culturally sensitive to their needs, and some clinics specialize in treating internationals. We didn’t take that route, primarily because we didn’t have a car and don’t live near to such a place.

One more thing worth understanding is that the medical profession does not have the social standing in Japan that it enjoys in some other places. In Japan, social status is determined by the group you belong to. If you are in a more solitary profession, such as doctors or dentists, you don’t have a group to belong in that gives you status. You may earn lots of money, but you don’t have the social rewards that go with it. In short, doctors may try to preserve their authority and respect in their clinics and hospitals, because they lack status outside their own environments.

Finally, the doctors we saw were incredibly busy. They were seeing and delivering babies all day. We have never been asked to schedule an appointment to see any doctor in Japan. Sometimes you could see the doctor right away. Other times the waiting room would be packed with thirty or more women. Once when we were visiting the “famous” maternity clinic, a nurse announced to a packed waiting room that the doctor would not see anyone for the next half hour, because he was delivering a baby.

When a doctor is seeing over a hundred patients a day, and delivering five or more babies in between consultations, he/she may not have time to answer questions. Our doctor didn’t even dispense basic advice. He didn’t say anything about nutrition. There was no mention of calcium intake, and he discouraged taking vitamins. His number one response to inquiries was, “Don’t worry about it.” The next doctor, in my wife’s hometown, was easier to talk to and more forthcoming. However, he also gave no substantial suggestions beyond his plans for the actual delivery. We had one appointment in which we spent about 30 minutes asking him questions. When we left there was a line of women waiting in the hallway. We felt a bit guilty, but it was a relief to finally talk with him about the process.

Japanese Maternity Hospitals. An Expat’s View.


There are many small hospitals in Japan, including maternity hospitals that specialize in nothing but childbirth. The hospital that we eventually chose was named “Nagai Maternity Hospital.” Our doctor was Dr. Nagai. His father had built the hospital, and now the son owns and operates it. This is pretty common. His hospital is a fairly large facility, so he has another doctor working with him. That makes two doctors handling the entire hospital, including pre-natal care, birth and post-natal care (the hospital did not have a pediatrician). About five babies were born every day. The doctors were assisted by a number of nurses and support staff. Compared to hospitals in the USA, this hospital seemed small. But it was considered somewhat large and modern by Japanese standards. The big teaching hospitals in Tokyo and Yokohama probably feel more familiar to Americans, which is why many Americans prefer them.

If you don’t have a car, you may have to choose from the hospitals and birth clinics near where you live. Our city hall gave us a helpful guide for our local clinics and hospitals, containing a survey of mothers describing the maternity hospitals. This would have been very useful, except the hospitals we liked most (the ones with the most natural approaches to birth) wouldn’t accept twins.

The Japanese Economic Miracle Returns. Stronger Companies.


In part 3 of our continued positive analysis of the Japanese Economy, we study what is different now from what made everything seem so bad ten years ago…

There is a striking and new postive factor in the current Japanese Econony-: Stronger Companies.

Firms have largely succeeded in tackling the excesses of the 1990s by trimming costs, reducing unused capacity, and using increased profits to reduce their indebtedness. The focus has been on the following issues:

Improved Profits.

With persistent efforts to cut labor and other costs, the exit of inefficient producers and suppliers, and stronger demand, firms of all sizes have enjoyed a surge in profitability. Indeed, the ratio of current profits to sales stands at the peak levels of the late 1980s for both the manufacturing and non-manufacturing sectors.

Improved Balance Sheets.

Strenuous efforts to reduce debt burdens have paid off, particularly for medium and large firms. The nominal value of corporate debt has been slashed by ¥125 trillion since 1996, and debt-sales ratios are back down to historical pre-bubble averages in manufacturing, with steep declines in the rest of the economy as well. As a result, firms’ cash flows have been freed to upgrade physical and human capital and to reward both employees and shareholders with higher bonuses and dividend payouts.

Elimination Of Capacity Overhang.

Along with repaying debt, corporate restructuring efforts since the mid-1990s have involved slashing new investments to deal with excess capacity. As a result, the fixed capital overhang was eliminated; by 2005, capacity utilization had returned to its 1980–89 average range.

Completion Of Adjustment In Labor Costs

Company efforts to shed surplus labor also appear to have borne fruit. After initially relying on more conventional strategies, such as cutting back on new hires and overtime work, firms have shifted to a more aggressive approach—laying off workers and beginning to replace full-time workers with part-time ones or workers on fixed-term contracts. But with sales declining in nominal terms in a deflationary environment, unit labor costs continued to rise through 1999. The labor cost burden declined thereafter, however, and by 2005 had returned to early 1990s levels. Although some further adjustment may be forthcoming, just as the success in reducing excess capacity has been supporting investment since 2003, the improved labor cost position has supported employment and wage growth since early 2005. Job-offer ratios are at an all-time high, and full-time jobs are now growing faster than part-time jobs.

Tsujigahana Textiles


Around the fifteenth century, a group of textiles called tsujigahana (literally “flowers at crossing”) became fashionable. Little is known about the makers of tsujigahana textiles, but their use of shibori processes to produce pictorial designs is remarkable. The designs were delineated with fine stitching and then capped to reserve the patterns, as the cloth was dyed in various colors. This is a major change in making patterned cloths, which previously had been embellished only by weaving or embroidery due to the limitation of liquid dyes, which tend to bleed. Tsujigahana were worn primarily by women, young men, and children; however, a sixteenth-century portrait of a famous warlord is depicted in a wraparound garment that opens in front to reveal an underlayer decorated with a tsujigahana pattern. The earliest existing examples of tsujigahana are a group of banners that were placed around Buddhist temples during special ceremonies.

Many observers believe Tsujigahana textiles are the zenith of the Japanese textile arts. These textiles which were produced between the fourteenth and the early seventeenth century for clothes, banners and other items are examples of the height of creativity and beauty. In one sense Tsujigahana textile can be seen as a reflection of Japanese historical changes. Many of the best pieces of tsujigahana reflect the decorative extravagance of the later Edo period. This comminglinging of very different artistic sensibilities produced many miracles of artistic and technical brilliance that have not yet been equaled.

Japan’s Nakamura Fears Socceroos


Japan midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura believes Australia will be the team to beat to gain second place behind Brazil in Group F.

Celtic’s Nakamura puts the Socceroos ahead of Croatia in a tough group which he expects to be dominated by World champions Brazil.

He said: “I think it will be easier for us to cope against Croatia, who play two up front and sit back a little bit. Australia are similar to us in style which makes them difficult to play.”

Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who led South Korea to the semi-finals in 2002, guided Australia through the qualifying rounds and past a play-off against Uruguay to their first World Cup finals since 1974 just a few months after taking charge.

Nakamura said: “Australian players have proven themselves to be highly skilled as they could organise themselves as soon as the new coach arrived.”

The Japanese Economic Miracle Returns. The Banking Sector.


In our ongoing look at the Japanese economy, we study what is different now from what made everything seem so bad ten years ago…

The Japanese economy of today stands in sharp contrast with that of 10 years ago in an extremely significant area- the banking sector.

By end-September 2005, the ratio of at major banks had fallen to below 2½ percent from a peak of 8½ percent in early 2002; the situation at regional banks improved as well, although more modestly.

With banks having less need to make provisions against impaired assets and bad loans, their profitability also recovered, although it still remains low by international standards.

On the whole, Japan’s banks are now less vulnerable to shocks and better able to support economic activity. Whereas corporate restructuring and the economic recovery helped reduce the overhang of bad debts, heightened government efforts in supervision and other areas has played a vital role in restoring the banking system to health.

The Japanese Economic Miracle Returns. What Happened?


We don’t often write about the more serious goings on in Japan and don’t want to be one of the newsy blogs- but for even the most casual of observers, the very nature of Japan and its culture- is tied to its economic realities, as is the case in most countries. But there is little doubt that Japan is on the move again, and it seems for real this time.

Over the past year or so, much has been written about the revival of the Japanese economy and its emergence from the ashes of the lost decade that began in the early 1990s. But for those who missed it, here is the news: the Japanese economy is heading for its longest expansion in the postwar period—one that has already lasted more than four years. In 2005, Japan grew by almost 3 percent and, over the course of the year, was the fastest-growing of the Group of Seven economies (on a fourth-quarter on fourth-quarter basis). And, although the recovery initially was driven mainly by exports, the latest phase has been led by buoyant domestic private spending, for both consumption and investment.

What happened? To answer this question, consider what the Japanese economy was like 10 years ago. During Japan’s deepest and longest postwar recession, private spending and economic activity were beset by structural problems in the banking and corporate sectors. In the aftermath of the bursting of the land and equity price bubbles in the early 1990s, persistently high nonperforming loans and a declining value of banks’ equity portfolios constrained bank credit and sapped household and business confidence. And the corporate sector was burdened by the three excesses from the bubble period: debt, capacity, and labor. These imbalances combined to hold down both investment demand and household income (and thereby consumer spending). The depth of the problems and the gradual approach to dealing with them, along with certain unforeseen external shocks, led to the vicious circle of falling demand and falling prices that persisted for so long.