Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Popular Culture: Manga

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Manga is one of the most popular forms of Japanese entertainment media. Phenomenally popular among both adults and children, some manga are read weekly, while others circulate widely as serials in national daily newspapers. The fact that the annual sales of manga books and magazines reach between thirty-five and forty percent of all publications in Japan shows the extent and range of audiences who relate to these materials. Manga is a powerful vehicle of influence in the youth subculture, and serves as significant cultural entertainment.

In fact, Japanese manga has a long history; it originated in the 1900s with an artist named Kitazawa Rakuten, who was first inspired by comic strips in early American newspapers. But the present popular form is a postwar phenomenon, dating from the second half of the twentieth century.

Wide marketing of weeklies and explosive circulation date back to the 1960s. Talented artists like Tezuka Osamu (the Walt Disney of Japan, and author of classics like Astro Boy, the Lion King, Fire Bird etc.), Chiba Tetsuya, and Ishinomori Shōtarō were instrumental in the early development of mass circulation manga. Many of their works remain classics today.

Tezuka's masterpieces were important in pioneering the cinematic techniques used to show emotion and action. Romance manga dominated the girls' market, and it often depicted sublimated female fantasies, and the fulfillment of romantic yearnings.

In the 1980s, manga became increasingly popular as a medium for practical education and instruction. A well-known example of so-called study manga (benkyō manga; jitsumu manga) is Ishinomori Shōtarō's Introduction to Japanese Economics (known by its translated English title: Japan Inc.), which sold one million copies. Ishinomori was a prolific artist, and produced about two hundred to three hundred pages a month. Study manga can explain almost anything, from legal problems to diseases, office etiquette, computers, travel, math, physics, history, investment, stock market, political party policies and more. In the 1990s, even political manga, espousing various ideological positions, became widely available for young adults.

So, manga encompass an enormous variety. They are funny, creative, inspirational, philosophical, artistic, trashy, and even edifying. They illustrate many themes, from romance and work to sports in schools, homes, kitchens, offices and even parliament. They depict a wide range of emotions, virtues, and vices like konjō (strong-spiritedness), success by hard work, self-denial, dedication, persistence, manliness, pluck, or unrequited love.

That manga today receives high social recognition may be surprising especially because of its beginning as children's entertainment. But it is now a literary form worthy of serious critical evaluation. There are annual literary prizes offered by major publishers like Kōdansha and Bungei shunjō« just as there are for novels and nonfiction.
There are several thousand manga artists in Japan. The best and most successful are popular as celebrities and artists. They have become rich and famous, and also appear on TV variety shows and talk shows, as panelists, moderators, commentators, and even role models.

Chibi Marukochan (Little Girl Maruko) [Fig 1]

The manga Chibi Marukochan depicts the life of a nine-year-old schoolchild called Maruko. Maruko is an ordinary girl growing up in Shizuoka with a loving, happy family. She is lovable, and she is also an underachiever, who is lazy, klutzy, and very cute-the very opposite of the stereotype of the polite, diligent, and studious Japanese schoolchild. The main characters of her stories are simply her family, friends, teachers, and neighbors. Maruko's stories are autobiographical, based on the childhood of the author Sakura Momoko, who was nicknamed Maruko due to her smallness.

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