The Manga-verse, Vol. 1: What Is This?
Fruits Basket, Vol. 1, story and art by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop 1998).
Genshiken, Vol. 1, story and art by Kio Shimoku (Del Rey Manga 2002).
Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Vol. 3, story by Ira Ishida, art by Sena Aritou (Digital Manga Publishing 2002).
Lament of the Lambs, Vols. 1 & 2, story and art by Kei Toume (Tokyopop 2002).
Westerners are usually amused the first time they ride the Tokyo subway system and see how many Japanese adults are reading comic books. Westerners are usually less amused when they notice that the grandfatherly man next to them is reading a comic book depicting bound and gagged naked teenage girls, but one of the points of travel is to challenge cultural assumptions of what is appropriate, no?
Welcome to manga, the alternative universe of Japanese comic books. In Japan, manga -- rhymes with "kanga," hard g -- are much more popular than their counterparts in the United States, which are still predominantly read by adolescent males and geeky college guys.
Manga in Japan are read by men and women, small children and middle-aged adults and retirees, almost everybody, although manga obsessiveness is, as in the U.S., usually confined to teenage males, called otaku. (The world of the otaku is explored in the manga Genshiken, among other titles.)
Japanese manga depict an initially bewildering array of genres and stories. Some manga -- as with most Japanese nouns, the word "manga" is both singular and plural -- emphasize teenage romance, some are devoted to action, some horror, some are even about the challenges and triumphs of Japanese white-collar businessmen.
The vast universe of manga can be crudely compartmentalized into five categories, two for kids and three for adults.
Shonen manga are action and science fiction stories for boys. I've tried, and I just can't get into these. Many of the stories employ the same cookie-cutter of an earnest and blandly handsome male hero, with one great flaw or emotional wound (a dead girlfriend or an absent parent is always good), tooling around a futuristic Tokyo with some sort of cool machine or special power. When Westerners think of Japanese comics, they usually think of these boys own stories or their animated counterparts, properly called anime but crudely dubbed "Japanimation."
Shojo manga are far more varied and therefore better. Geared toward teenage girls, shojo manga are freed from the confines of the action genre to focus on relationships or realism in whatever setting the creators deem most interesting. Stories in shojo manga are as likely to occur in present-day Japan or during the Tokugawa shogunate as in the near-future, and they are as likely to depict family life or the knives-out world of high school dating as killer robots.
Fruits Basket, a hit title which became an animated television series, demonstrates the elasticity of shojo manga. Tohru Honda is an orphaned and temporarily homeless schoolgirl who moves in with two boys from her high school -- and discovers that they and their relatives are the human embodiment of the characters of the Chinese zodiac. Better: if you hug one, he turns into his corresponding animal for about ten minutes. It sounds twee, but it's pleasantly entertaining, and it's an example of how far removed shojo manga can be from Akira.
The adult manga fall into three rough categories that I've dubbed adult action, pornographic and everything else.
Ikebukuro West Gate Park is a typical adult action title, in which our hero Makoto is recruited to save a series of distressed damsels, all of whom find a reason every few pages to lose their clothes. In Volume 3, Makato and his friends must protect the comely Asumi who is being stalked by one of the men who watches her strip on a web-cam site called The Fairy's Garden. Hip detective stories with lots of skin is the general idea.
Pornographic titles are exactly that, barely plotted stories exploding with graphically drawn sex. While many manga series are flavored by the Japanese taste for sado-masochistic imagery, the straight-up pornographic titles -- sometimes called hentai -- burst with page after page of cute naked women being tied up, slapped around and generally being set upon. If you poke around, you can find English translations, but the stories are so, um, single-minded that you can follow along in the original Japanese.
And then there's everything else. Almost every aspect of Japanese life is dramatized in a manga series. For example, Division Chief Kosaku Shima is an example of "salaryman manga." In the words of publisher White Rabbit Press, this series depicts a middle manager's "attempt to improve the image of the conglomerate and his life." (Note the order of the priorities.)
Baby & Me is a variation on the universal theme of getting stuck with the job of raising someone else's kid. Yuri, or Girl Love, manga are non-pornographic tales of lesbian relationships, with a cognate genre called Boy Love. Iron Wok Jan details the behind-the-scenes politics and competition in the world of professional chefs. Everything has its manga.
The embrace of manga by Japanese of all ages is one of the islands' many achievements. The larger and more diverse the potential market, the more stories can be told and, hopefully, the more stories can be told well.
Although great strides have been made since the 1980s, comic books in the United States are still for the most part ghettoized as a children's medium. The term "comic book movie" does not bring to mind a thought-provoking adaptation of Art Spiegelman's Maus or Los Bros. Hernandez's Love & Rockets. The term does not even apply to the movies Ghost World or Road to Perdition, both of which were based on comic books.
"Comics are just words and pictures," said writer Harvey Pekar. "You can do anything with words and pictures." The Japanese agree, and their culture is immensely richer for it.