Professor, Department of Asian, Middle Eastern and Turkish Studies, Stockholm University
Mangaesque (manga-teki, manga-rashii, manga-chikku) is a term that emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when Japan’s comics culture went global and the very notion of manga expanded. Since then, it has been used mainly in two ways: on the one hand, to demarcate prototypical manga, be it motivated by denigration, advocacy, or fan-culture gatekeepers’ policing; on the other hand, to mark a whole culture (often called sabukaruchā [subculture] in Japanese and “Japanese popular culture” abroad), which includes associated media such as anime, video games, light novels, figurines, J-pop music, visual-kei, and Gothic Lolita fashion, as well as fan practices like cosplay and fan-fiction/fan-art production. With respect to the second meaning, the employment of the word manga by Japanese authorities as a vague umbrella term is also noteworthy. This is exemplarily manifest in the plan to open a National Center for MANGA, joining Manga, ANime and GAmes, in 2020.
As such, the term mangaesque holds critical use value for research on both Japanese culture and Japan-derived media. With respect to the latter, this entry follows art historian W. J. T. Mitchell and media theoretician Mark B. N. Hansen, who deliberately employ the word media in the collective singular as a “term capable of bridging, or ‘mediating,’ the [traditional] binaries (empirical versus interpretive, form versus content, etc.)” (2010: loc. 41 of 5205, Kindle), going beyond technical mediums to include aesthetic forms and social contexts in equal measure. As media in this sense, manga calls for considering not only publication site and material support, textual structure or consumption type, but all these aspects together from the broader perspective of institutionalized practices of creation, circulation, and use. It is precisely this perspective that underlies articulations of manga mediality, whether specific or nonspecific, in the name of the mangaesque (Berndt 2013: 77–78). Needless to say, such articulations differ according to the speakers’ familiarity with manga and their proximity to the Japanese mediascape.
In vernacular Japanese, at least between the 1960s and 2000s, the root word of the mangaesque—manga—has been used to designate a particular form of fiction and the related publication format, namely entertaining graphic narratives serialized in special weekly or monthly magazines and targeted to age- and gender-specific reader demographics under the labels of shōnen (boys’), shōjo (girls’), seinen (youth), and josei (women’s) manga. The manga magazine gave rise to genre specificity and, closely related to this, the compartmentalization of audiences. That is to say, it facilitated not only specific narrative patterns and visual conventions but also the formation of quasi-virtual taste communities long before the spread of the internet, as the magazine editors developed several techniques to encourage reader participation, stretching from postcard questionnaires to the inclusion of fan art and letters. From the Japanese perspective of manga as magazine-based graphic narratives, newspaper caricatures and comic strips, as well as more recent applications of basic elements such as speech balloons or speed lines, and also nonpaneled character illustrations (irasuto), appear mangaesque in the sense that they may invoke manga but are not “manga proper.”
Japanese manga critics like Natsume Fusanosuke (2013) have contributed to a discourse of “manga proper” by illuminating the aesthetic, or formal, complexity arising from the affordances and constraints of the commercial manga magazine before its recession in the age of digitalization. In particular, they have highlighted: the visual devices of manga-specific storytelling, like the importance of visually guiding the reader’s gaze across pages and the means to achieve this (through characters’ viewing direction within panels, the placement of speech balloons on the page, reiteration of close-ups, etc.); the interplay between page and panel; an emphasis on visual flow and panels’ interrelatedness; the treatment of the double-page spread as a formal unit and field of vision; the richness in sound effects, especially hand-drawn onomatopoeia that form an integral part of the design; the variety of typefaces; the manifold use of screentones, and so on. Recently, linguists have drawn attention to verbal expression, such as the role of language (see Kinsui 2016), genre-specific speech patterns, or handwritten comments appearing in the blank space of the panel as characteristic of shōjo manga (Unser-Schutz 2018).
Outside of Japan, the word manga refers less to a form of fiction on a par with graphic novels such as MAUS or Persepolis than “an assemblage of conventions” (Suan 2017, 64) related mainly to a recognizable illustration style and specific character types. Consequently, sociologist Toshio Miyake focused on “the mangaesque personification of entire nations as cute sexualised girl or boy characters” (2015: 105) in his analysis of Hetalia: Axis Powers (by Himaruya Hidekaz and ongoing since 2003). Characters are a crucial element of manga mediality and are increasingly detached from narrative representation. In this regard, manga critic Itō Gō famously distinguished between round, narratively substantiated character (kyarakutā) and simply drawn, flat protocharacter (kyara, or chara). He maintained that the rise of realist “story manga” from the 1950s onward led to a “repression of the ‘mangaesque’” (Itō 2005: 219) and that the resurgence of this repressed side, the kyara, has revived traditional connotations of the mangaesque as “being ridiculous and being eccentric” (ibid.: 114–15) since the mid-1990s. Conservative dictionary entries define the mangaesque in a derogatory way, “as fulsome and overly exaggerated like a manga [. . .] figuratively also related to parody and humor.” Conversely, performing-arts scholar Fukushima Yoshiko has affirmed these attributes with regards to the allegedly apolitical, spectacular, and speedy stage productions of the 1980s. To her, the rejection of naturalism, the prevalence of nonpsychologized characters whose mood and mind are expressed through rapid movements rather than dialogue, and the not necessarily representational use of words are components of what she calls “manga discourse,” “a rule-oriented, codified discourse appealing especially to the visual and aural senses” (Fukushima 2003: 76). Arising from this discourse, nonnarrative characters—kyara—have come to the fore, with their potential to affectively involve people, to invite their participation, and to interconnect.
Manga (or more precisely, “manga proper”) are expected to unfold the power of affect (i.e., supraindividual, shareable feelings that interconnect instead of inciting critical reflection). Once firmly established, the manga magazine provided enough pages to both unfold spectacular action and depict subtle atmospheric changes between characters at length. French comics theoretician Thierry Groensteen detected a Japanese particularity in “[. . .] narrative techniques and processes that [. . .] give the reader the feeling of being immersed in the action, whereas Western comics create a more distant relation between the reader and the narrative” (2010: 28). In order to get immersed, readers need to have acquired manga literacy. This includes the ability to process the highly codified visual lexicon of manga, that is, pictograms or “visual morphemes” (Cohn 2013: 32), like nosebleed as a sign of lust, cruciform popping veins as a sign of anger, and wordless speech balloons containing only three dots as a sign of speechlessness. Skilled manga readers are further able to: construct spatial relationships out of a few given fragments, unaided by a panoramic introduction of time and place; decode the layering of various moments in one and the same panel; or cope with a change in drawing style. Characters are not only given an inner voice but occasionally also an inner (self-)image, which may differ from their outer looks to an extend that readers who are not manga literate do not even recognize the identity.
A good example in this regard—and crucial to Itō’s famous monograph Tezuka izu deddo (Tezuka is dead) (2005)—is Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no renkin jutsushi; abbr. hagaren in Japanese; hereafter, FMA), “a neo-medieval morality tale” (Birmingham 2014: 76) about two orphaned brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, in a steampunk world. They set out to regain lost body parts for their respective bodies with the help of alchemy only to arrive at the conclusion that alchemy’s Law of Equivalent Exchange, serving a dictatorial regime as well as “science (especially the science of war), capitalist growth, and colonial exploitation” (ibid.: 70), does not provide a sufficient foundation for personal and social life and that the true alchemy lies in friendship and altruism. Already the fact that the series ran from 2001 to 2010, amounting to 108 magazine installments and twenty-seven subsequent book volumes, suggests a much more multilayered narrative than can be summarized here. Serialized in Shōnen Gangan, FMA helped this monthly by game publisher Enix (renamed Square Enix in 2003) to overcome a severe economic crisis. It went down in history as an extraordinarily successful manga-induced franchise and narrative multiverse, spanning two anime series and two animated movies, light novels, video games, supplementary books, a collectible card game, action figures, and also a Japanese live-action film, which since its release in December 2017 has renewed interest in the manga itself.
FMA gives a highly mangaesque impression due to its media mix (see entry) development, fantasy setting, and attractive characters that have invited cosplay and other forms of fan participation. But FMA is also representative of “manga proper.” First of all, it “fits the mainstream style of Japanese teenage comics” (Chao 2013: 160), whose standard is male (shōnen manga), to be precise, although this manga was created by a female artist and features an unusual amount of independent female characters (Arakawa 2009: 167). While not serialized in the flagship of shōnen manga, Weekly Shōnen Jump, FMA complies to the same motto of “Friendship, Effort, Victory” (Yūjō, doryoku, shōri) and the same primary focus on battles, as well as a large number of characters, instead of intimate relationships, empathy, and romance. Yet, recent shōnen manga leans to a significant extent on female users, as Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto (2016) demonstrates, and thus it does not come as a surprise that FMA’s straightforward male protagonists have also triggered women’s sexual imaginations, taking the form of boys’ love fan works, largely indulging in homosexually pairing Edward with his military superior Roy Mustang.
FMA’s efficiency as media rests on a particular form of production. With FMA Arakawa Hiromu (b. 1973), who had worked as an assistant on a manga by Etō Hiroyuki in the magazine Shōnen Gangan, launched her very first long series. Naturally, she had to rely on manga-typical collaboration, not only with her own assistants, who are acknowledged at the end of each volume, but first of all with her editor in charge, Shimomura Yōichi. A round-shaped illustration at the end of volume ten shows Arakawa, self-portrayed as a cow, on the telephone negotiating the next installment with her editor in regard to “less comedy, more action, and keeping the boobs.” Manga like FMA do not rest on spontaneous inspiration but planning and standardization, and it is precisely these things that accommodate teamwork among the creators as well as reader participation. The latter starts with readers’ feedback, which may easily affect the course of serialization.
Gallacher points to a crucial characteristic of mangaesque reader engagement when she asserts, “to read Fullmetal Alchemist is not to interpret it, but to experiment with it” (2011: 470). This applies as much to the combination of verbal and visual fragments as to the intricate alteration between the big questions of life and comic relief. Each volume ends on humorous extras in the form of four-panel strips and single illustrations, but already, the main narrative is punctuated with funny extradiegetic (such as handwritten) commentary. For example, when announcing a duel between Roy Mustang and Edward Elric, the easily diverted Lt. Col. Hughes admits in front of the intradiegetic audience, “Okay, there aren’t a lot of pages left, so let’s go on with it!”
Even more enjoyable are the playful changes in character ontology, from standard via chibi (a cartoonish, or “super-deformed,” midget version with an oversized head) to stickman, or something like a cardboard cutout with sweat drops attached to the flat back of the head. All the main characters of FMA undergo abrupt (and abundant, especially during the first half of the series) distortions of face and body, from unnaturally gaped mouths with lots of lines instead of a tongue to ballet-like splay legs. Often more grotesque and horrific than cute, such exaggeration has been a crucial device of shōnen manga in order to visualize affective reactions like fear and fury, embarrassment, helplessness, or irritation (see Berndt 2012). In FMA, this device is employed not only to moderate the violence of the battle scenes (a major concern of Arakawa and Shimomura, see Arakawa 2009: 173), but it also hints at mutability. Characters who undergo chibi-fication also change narratively in the long run; the homunculi, the personified seven deadly sins who stay locked in their selfish instincts, do not. Thus, visual distortion affords fluid identities, up to and including the vacillation of manga personage between “round character” and free-floating kyara.
But does this fluidity include ethnicity? After all, Edward is “blonde” (as color illustrations suggest). Although FMA features some characters with a darker (screentone) skin and addresses ethnic conflicts, the narrative opens in a Victorian/German kind of setting, inhabited mainly by Caucasian-looking characters. Because it is a fantasy setting, and fans have, regardless of ethnic background, exhibited an inclination to perceive mangaesque faces as “stateless” projection screens anyway (see Antononka 2016), FMA has not been criticized on that front but rather valued for its transculturally open narrative.
As demonstrated above, the mangaesque draws attention to both the specificity of manga for different actors and the transference of manga-derived attributes to a much broader media culture. As such a broad category, manga could actually be replaced with anime. Media specifically associated with “limited” animation and the television-series format, recent anime share many of the properties that are otherwise regarded as mangaesque: the label of Made in Japan; a character design that incites fan appropriation; a recognizable cuteness in illustration style; a shared set of visual and narrative conventions; a standardization of production that accommodates transculturation; and an antirepresentational inclination, which was initially dubbed manga/anime-esque realism (manga-anime-teki riarizumu) by Ōtsuka Eiji (2000). Sociologist Zoltan Kacsuk (2016) extended the notion to “AMO (anime-manga-otaku) culture,” and in Taiwan (as well as in the People’s Republic of China), “Japanese ACG (animation, comics, games)” is the established collective term (Chao 2013: 160). Manga’s own media identity, with its base in specific practices, discourses, and conventions, does not seem to count much anymore, but whenever Japan experts attempt to assess manga’s influence on historical consciousness or national politics, they are well advised to consider the multiple notions that mediate what the media of manga is supposed to be and that articulate themselves as the mangaesque.
Quoted from Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist, vol. 3 ↑
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