More Manga Mayhem

April 21, 2008 at 2:52 am (Manga)

Unless my schedule forbids it, I usually say yes to going somewhere and talking to groups about things that I feel passionate about.  My basic philosophy in these regards is that if I find something interesting and dig into it to discover lots of things about it, I should share freely the stuff that I’ve learned.  I enjoy gleaning through the oddities and ephemera of a subject to root out the core necessities for understanding it.  Many of the topics I explore are subjects which don’t have a clear guide, either because they are new, or because the interest for that subject hasn’t been high in our profession, so there isn’t anything written in the professional literature.

This is bringing me back around to Manga, trust me.  It’s mostly because I’m giving this talk on manga readers advisory that I’m writing so much on the topic here.  There might be materials out there that explain all this, but in order for me to prepare, I need to write things down in a coherent fashion at least once.  Putting words in order on a topic takes me many steps toward being able to articulate it later.

Why is manga a difficult topic?  I don’t find it difficult, because I’ve been reading it for about a year, and generally enjoying myself.  I’m fascinated by Japanese culture, and manga seems like a great way to get a broad sense of the culture and values of Japan without reading a textbook about it.  In manga there are heroes and villains, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and the many shades between.  Every character has conflict, and often the protagonist and antagonist are neither good nor evil – they simply act in opposition to each other towards conflicting goals.  Sometimes toward the same goal, but with opposite methods.

If you look at Miyazaki, the mastermind behind Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totorro, and Nausicca, and compare his films with the major Disney films, you can see what I mean.  If you look at Disney animated movies, particularly from before around 2000 (I don’t count any since then because they were so awful that I haven’t bothered to think about them), you can see some major trends – Often, someone dies in the first few minutes.  Often, the protagonist has only one or no parents.  Often, the protagonist and antagonist confront each other in a fight, and the antagonist is killed because of his/her own treachery.   Good and evil show their true colors, and it’s easy to tell who the hero is and who the villain is because of what they say, how they act, and ultimately how they die.

In Miyazaki’s films, there is rarely an antagonist that is not sympathetic.  “Castle In The Sky,” has one example, with the character of Muska.  “Castle Of Cagliostro” has the evil Count.  But in the rest of the movies, if there are antagonists, they are revealed to have a great depth that makes them hard to hate or kill.  For example, in Naussica, the antagonist might be the woman general of the Tolmekia, but as the film progresses it becomes clear that she isn’t as bad as we’d like her to be.  Instead of killing her, Miyazaki liberates her and opens her eyes – and not in a cheesy way, but in a beautiful and understandable way.  It’s a freaking masterpiece.  Princess Mononoke is very similar, in that the major players all feel very strongly about what they are doing, and are at great odds with each other, because the world is in a state of change.  When the world is in flux, our concepts of good and evil are often in flux as well.  Some characters fight to maintain the old ways, and others fight for new ways, because in the new ways they find freedom and liberation from tyranny.  It’s hard to hate any of the characters in Princess Mononoke once the final credits roll.  They’re just human, and they act like humans.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point – even in anime and manga that is accessible to younger audiences, the work often has conflict and depth that appeals to readers of all ages.  “Hikaru No Go” is an example of a manga that has absolutely nothing in it that anyone could complain about in terms of content.  It’s about a middle-school student that plays Go, and works toward becoming the best in the world.  He has a ghostly companion that helps him along the way.  If this was just for children, it would be cute and fluffy, but it’s full of complex issues and emotions, and can be a good read for any age reader.  In America, too often things that are accessible to children are dumbed down and cutesy-fied to the point that as an adult i’d rather hit myself in the head with a bat than watch or read them for another moment.

It could be that with the popularity of manga, as well as trends in literature for younger readers, that we might see more “all ages” type offerings that actually appeal to adults and children alike.  I hope so.  Time to go.



  1. volpeculus said,

    I agree entirely… especially once I realized once some of the fiction I wrote had themes and genre combinations typical in manga. If I had something whimsically fantastical and philosophically important both present in the same work, I quickly felt as though I had stepped on some people’s toes… 🙂

  2. Volpeculus said,

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