[Ed. note: Book publishers rarely make an effort to promote new books on topics like manga. Guess leaves it up to people like me, who are interested in these kinds of books, to promote!]
Shige (CJ) Suzuki and Ronald Stewart
Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, 280 pages.
[Amazon] — [Bloomsbury USA]
This is a pre-peer review preprint of an article that has been accepted for publication in East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, 9:2, 2023.
When it comes to books that can explain manga to a non-Japanese reader, Fred Schodt’s Manga Manga: The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga are the ones that come to mind right away. But important as these two titles are, they are now more useful as historical artifacts – Manga Manga was first published in 1983, and Dreamland Japan last received an update in 2011. Japanese comics have changed a good deal even in the last decade, and how we understand Japanese comics has also changed quite a lot. And while several authors have recently written (or contributed to) in-depth studies such as Boys Love Manga and Beyond: History, Culture, and Community in Japan, Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, and Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, what we haven’t had is a general survey that would try to explain, or at least summarize “Japanese comics” in a neat and comprehensive package. And this is precisely the task that Manga: A Critical Guide sets out to accomplish – the book’s goal is to serve as both an introduction to the art form of manga, and to its impact and influence around the world, and as a summary of how critics and scholars approach manga and the questions they ask. Accordingly, its focus is on “manga” (exactly what is meant by the term is itself one of the points the book addresses) as a whole, rather than not on particular titles or creators, and while this book is not aimed purely at a scholarly audience, it’s also not designed for fast and casual reading like something like the now out-of-print The Rough Guide to Manga, or the just-released (and translated from French) A History of Modern Manga.
The book’s authors, Shige (CJ) Suzuki and Ronald Stewart are both well-known for their expertise. Prof. Suzuki, who teaches at the City University of New York, has previously published research on the manga of Mizuki Shigeru, the gekiga movement, and depictions of autism in manga, among other topics, while Prof. Stewart (Daito Bunka University, Tokyo, Japan) has focused on both modern Japanese political cartoons and on their history. And they start by setting up the stage with a particular definition. Here, manga is presented broadly as “Japanese comics”, with a reminder to readers that this definition involves asking what exactly is meant by “Japanese” and to what extent “Japanese comics” have drawn influences from other literary and artistic traditions, as well as to what exactly is meant by “comics” – “a medium that communicates through images, words, and sequence”, without any preconception about style or purpose.
They also survey the impressive “rise of manga studies” as an academic area, but point out that one of the ways English-language manga studies has been limited so far has been a tendency to treat manga as an “entry point” for approaching various topics and themes about Japanese culture and society, rather than studying manga a unique medium in of itself. The introduction also emphasizes how important it is for any kind of “guide” to manga to engage with both English and Japanese scholarship.
The first chapter – a full third of the book’s full length – is a “historical overview” of Japanese comics, from origins to the present. Shigeru and Stewart acknowledge several different “views of manga history”, such as one that draws a direct connection from 12th-century picture scrolls and even earlier temple artifacts, as well as later woodblock prints, to modern manga, and another that treats manga as emerging largely due to Osamu Tezuka’s work and influence starting in the post-World War II years. But the view they support is the one that Eike Exner also presents in Comics and the Origins of Manga: A Revisionist History, which just last year became the first book on Japanese comics to receive a Best Academic/Scholarly Work Eisner Award. The development of manga as a unique Japanese medium, they argue, is a result of a combination of what was there already, Western influences and inspirations in the form of Western comics and cartoons, rapid changes in Japanese society, and the emergence of a print industry that provided a space for content, and an audience that was hungry for it. From this, the authors trace the more than one hundred and forty years that have now passed between the appearance of the first Japanese comic strip (in a July 6, 1881 issue of a political satire magazine), and the present. Through the chapter, although they mention plenty of familiar names – Tezuka, Mizuki Shigeru, Tsuge Yoshiharu, Hagio Moto, Ikeda Ryoko, Shiroh Masamune, and Gengoroh Tagame among them – the emphasis is not really on the creators/artists, and not on their works. Rather, the point is that from those 1881 beginnings, Japanese comics developed alongside changes in Japanese society, and often because of these changes and in response to them. Purely satirical cartoons evolved into character-driven narratives aimed at children, with a potential for toys and other merchandise – and this is in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Japan’s involvement in the war in China provided ready plotlines, until the government specifically started imposing censorship restrictions on what could be depicted in children’s media, and then, paper shortages made the censorship rules moot anyways. And after Japan’s 1945 unconditional surrender to the Allies, manga went through another sequence of evolutions to respond to rising living standards and consumer interests, the emergence of a Japanese counterculture and various political and protest movements, as well as a continuing expansion of readership and manga genres. Taking this summary to the present, the authors conclude with the statement that “manga is always in flux, never in stasis.” As a concept or idea, manga has been in a state of constant change for over 140 years, and will continue to change, and understanding manga will require understanding how it is changing, and why.
From the history of manga, the authors move on to consider what they refer to as “manga’s social and cultural impact” – essentially, an overview of controversies involving manga. These include censorship (both in pre-World War II Imperial Japan and in more recent times), depictions of marginalized groups in Japanese society and foreigners and other ethnicities, and basic summaries of such relatively current issues as the debates surrounding what many fans perceived was an attempt by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to limit artistic freedom in manga and other artwork, and the uproar that followed the depiction of the effects of nuclear radiation poisoning in the manga Oishinbo. The chapter proceeds to highlight some of the other major social themes that are particularly prominent in manga – gender and sexuality, and how these themes are treated differently in shojo manga, gekiga and seinen, josei, and essay manga, and depictions of different real or imagined periods of Japanese history. It also highlights manga’s use as an educational tool, the role that manga plays in driving the Japanese “media mix” and influencing tourism, the importance of fan creators, and the ways in which Japanese cultural institutions, such as libraries, museums, and universities, and even government agencies and political parties, have come to embrace manga.
After the historical survey and the impact chapter, the book’s next part is its most theoretical and in an interesting way, practical. This “Critical Uses” chapter is a survey of different Japanese and non-Japanese interpretations of the meaning of “manga”, as well as an introduction to the question that scholars such as Casey Brienza have explored about the possibility of “Global manga” or “Manga outside Japan”. And at various points throughout it, the authors actually specifically list questions that a teacher who is looking to develop a class on manga can ask. In the same part, they return on the point much earlier about keeping in mind the unique properties of manga as a distinct visual medium, and introduce the idea of formal analysis that would specifically examine art styles, lines, character designs and postures, shapes, screen tone, and other visual elements, as well as page layouts and frame compositions – while also pointing out possible questions to ask when approaching manga as a work of literature. In addition, they also discuss biographical approaches that would consider the effects of a manga creator’s personal experiences on a particular story, as well as their particular voice, as well as approaches based in examining historical themes, questions, and issues of historical representation, and in gender and sexuality studies. And each of these approaches comes complete with a set of ready-made questions that a teacher or instructor can potentially assign to students who are studying a particular manga – or that a student can turn to for inspiration when they want to write a paper on a favorite manga – and have no idea where to start!
The book’s concluding “Key Texts” section is similarly practical. Here, the authors select about three dozen specific manga titles to represent both the diversity of Japanese comics and how unique they can be. Many of these titles are probably obvious – Phoenix as representative of Osamu Tezuka’s work and Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths for Mizuki Shigeru, Dragon Ball and Naruto as the representative shonen, Sailor Moon and Rose of Versailles as shoujo, but others may not be as well-known – this is particularly true for the several titles in this section that date to before World War II. Probably the best use for this kind of section is to help a teacher select manga to include in a class reading list, or a librarian to choose manga to buy for a new collection. And of course, a teacher, librarian, or even another fan can turn to it to recommend a title to someone who has zero familiarity at all with Japanese comics! Making Manga: A Critical Guide an even more complete package is an in-depth glossary of useful terms, and a directory of Japanese museums and libraries/archives focused on manga.
Overall, as the authors readily acknowledge, this book is what it is intended to be an – an introduction, potentially a textbook, and possibly a teaching aid, not a stand-alone research project. Its main goal is to synthesize and summarize current thinking and writing on manga, and it does a superb job of achieving it. The writing style is clear and easy to understand, without descending into academic jargon, and the illustrations, although not frequent, are engaging and appropriate. And one particular strength is the very extensive range of sources that the authors relied on – the book’s bibliography runs to 17 pages, and features quite a few sources that are only available in Japanese. Probably the only major shortcoming is that while the Critical Uses chapter goes through several potential ways of analyzing and interpreting a manga, and literally dozens of potential questions, an example of an actual analysis using one of the possible approaches would have been very useful – for a comparison, this is essentially what Christopher Bolton does in Interpreting Anime, where in several different chapters, he demonstrates using different theoretical approaches to analyze one or two specific titles each. And, somewhat frustratingly for what is notionally an introduction to Japanese comics, while the major age categories that manga is usually divided into are discussed throughout the text, it does not bring these discussions together to summarize and define their major features and characteristics, and does not elaborate on how the categories have evolved over the years. But nonetheless, even with these shortcomings in mind, it is easy to say that Manga: A Critical Guide is a valuable addition to manga studies, and will likely take its place as the standard introduction to Japanese comics for anyone interested in the medium.
+Comprehensive historical research, excellent use of English-language and Japanese-language sources, great suggested questions.
+ Relatively easy to read; avoids either jargon or over-simplification
– Does not focus on critical analysis.
– Key Texts section is limited and highly subjective