Manga: Right to Left and Everything in Between

>> Tuesday, December 13, 2005

You've seen it at the bookstore, growing like the blob. Shelves and shelves of it, reproducing at an incredible rate. No, I'm not talking about celebrity-written picture books. I'm talking about MANGA.

In Japanese, "manga" literally means "visual entertainment," but the term has come to mean simply "Japanese comics" here in America. True manga is read from right to left on a page, in the traditional Japanese format, though the word bubbles have mercifully been translated into English.

Daunted by the sheer volume of manga available (my local Borders is now devoting FIVE CASES to manga, as opposed to the one and a half required to house American graphic novels), I began by hitting the Decatur Public Library. They carry three series, all from
TokyoPop: Fruits Basket, Marmalade Boy, and Samurai Deeper Kyo (SDK).

SDK is the story of a young boy in Tokugawa Japan who learns he has trapped within him a dark, violent samurai warrior of legend. (It's like The Incredible Hulk, only different.) SDK is filled with androgynous characters, stagey dialogue, and hyperactive battle scenes that begin as quickly as they end. Overall, I was unimpressed.

Fruits Basket and Marmalade Boy win for strangest titles - and premises. In Maramalade Boy, a young girl's parents reveal that they are getting a divorce - so they can swap partners with another divorcing couple they met in Hawaii. It turns out the other family has a boy about the same age as the girl and, well, various hilarious romantic triangles and quadrangles ensue. Fruits Basket is even stranger. Here a young orphan girl is taken in by a peculiar family with a strange secret: whenever they hug a member of the opposite sex, they turn into their Chinese zodiac symbol.

Umm, okay.

Fruits Basket and Marmalade Boy fall into the category of
shoujo (or shojo), literally meaning "young woman," which is manga created for a young female audience. These books generally involve love stories and light comedy/drama. Fruits Basket, weird as it sounds, is the number one selling shojo manga in America, with book twelve due out this December. (And more coming!)

Who reads this stuff? Apparently, a ton of teenagers. And American manga publishers are actually trolling for more creators, even artless writers like myself. So, back to the drawing board, er, internet! Since my first three forays into manga didn't exactly float my boat, I decided to get smart and go online to find some that sounded more like my cup of sake.

Somehow the Japanese comics industry didn't fall into the trap that American comics did, where one genre predominates (super heroes). Instead, there is amazing diversity in manga: action, mystery, drama, romance, comedy, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, historical, and there is lots of mixing and matching of genres. Certainly I could find something more suitable to my reading tastes!

After a bit of research, I dove into the sprawling section at Borders and came out with three titles I had hand-selected: Cowboy Bebop, Immortal Rain, and Planetes. I read them in that order, as that was how I had mentally ranked them based on what I had learned. Surprisingly (and delightfully so) I would now rank them in precisely the opposite order.

Cowboy Bebop is apparently something of a manga classic. One of the things to understand about manga is that these books lead double- and triple-lives that you're probably not aware of, as video games and/or animated television shows (
anime). Lately, some manga has been introduced to the Japanese market simultaneously with the corresponding video game and animated television series, and many more established manga (like Cowboy Bebop and the aforementioned Fruits Basket) were enormously popular as anime at the same time they were being published as manga.

So, back to Cowboy Bebop. Four bounty hunters hop around a futuristic universe on a ship called the Bebop tracking big ticket criminals. The action is clean and well-drawn, but the stories are often sillier than I'd like. I had also heard rumblings that my favorite TV show,
Firefly, was a transparent rip-off of CB, but beyond the fact that they travel on a space ship and have a cutesy, genius mechanic, I don't see it. Then again, I've only read volume one, and there are many, many more books and videos out there.

Next I picked up Immortal Rain, by Kaori Ozaki. Now we're getting to stuff I like. Less silliness, more poetry. Good, clean illustration (oh, those manga girls are so pretty!), action sequences you can actually understand, and a sense of a longer story, rather than an episodic romp. Rain Jewlitt is immortal - perhaps the only one of his kind - and he's being hunted by a fourteen-year-old girl named Machika, who has taken over her grandfather's position as the bounty hunter known as Grim Reaper Zol. (Bounty hunters are big in manga.) Rain is the only quarry the elder Zol failed to bring in, and Machika vows to do what her grandfather couldn't. She ends up sympathizing with Rain (of course!) and actually becoming his friend and traveling companion. I really enjoyed this book, and I'll pick up the next volume.

Ah, and then I read Planetes by Makoto Yukimura. I guarantee you this one doesn't sell well, because I absolutely love it. (That's usually how it works. See Firefly, above.) Planetes almost defies description, but it's nominally about a space debris clean-up crew in the near future who work ceaselessly at clearing away all the now-useless junk we've launched into orbit. It has all the stillness and mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey, without the detachment and tension. The characters deal with real-life issues of loss, inadequacy and loneliness against the vast backdrop of limitless space, and without bringing out a stick to beat the moral into us, Planetes proves that companionship and purpose make us whole and give meaning to life. Can you tell I love this series? I want to run out and buy all the books. Then I found out there is an anime series, too - released on DVD here in America, with subtitles! I'm giddy with anticipation.

There are far more manga series than I will ever read, but I'm beginning to get a feel for general pacing, plot and character in these books. I've already co-opted two or three ideas I've been kicking around but never found the right home for, and I'm going to whip them into proposals for TokyoPop, who announced in the last SCBWI newsletter that they are actively seeking submissions. Perhaps I can sell one - that way I'll still have a book on the shelves when the manga section grows so big it swallows everything else . . .


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