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.