Taniguchi and the Definition of Manga

by Ed Sizemore

Hang around Twitter or manga discussion forums long enough, and you’ll see the debate about how to ‘properly’ define manga pop up. Usually this happens when a work by a non-Japanese creator (such as Svetlana Chmakova, Felipe Smith, or Adam Arnold) gets labeled as manga. However, Jiro Taniguchi provides us with a challenge to the definition of manga from the Japanese side. Is it still manga when a Japanese artist intentionally seeks to emulate Western comics?

Icaro cover
Icaro

by Moebius and Jiro Taniguchi

It’s no secret that Taniguchi modeled his own art style after Jean Giraud, better known in American as Moebius. In fact, one common comment you’ll see in reviews of Taniguchi’s books is how un-manga-like his art is. It’s not just that Taniguchi doesn’t use the stereotypical ‘big eyes, little mouth’ style people associate with manga. He also doesn’t use most of the visual shortcuts we see in manga, like the infamous large sweatdrops, nosebleeds, and snot bubbles. On a deeper level, Taniguchi tends to stay away from elaborate or innovate page constructions. He sticks mostly to a simple grid format commonly used by Western comic creators. So is Taniguchi’s work really manga?

Before we try to answer that question, let’s look at another manga creator with international connections, Kia Asamiya. He’s an accomplished manga artist that did a story called Batman: Child of Dreams. This was a DC-sanctioned comic serialized in Kodansha’s Magazine Z in Japan. DC liked it enough that they translated it and published here in America as a graphic novel. Now is this Batman story manga? DC Comics certainly thinks so. The promotional literature says, “Batman gets the manga treatment!”

But DC isn’t the only American comic company Kia Asamiya has worked for. He has also done work for Marvel. His credits include Thor: Gods on Earth, Killraven Premiere, and Avengers: World Trust. So are these books manga? I suspect both comics and manga fans would say no. Certainly, Marvel isn’t touting them as manga. So why is Asamiya’s Batman book manga and his work for Marvel not?

Let me suggest this definition for manga: comics first published in Japan by a Japanese creator. It seems to solve our Asamiya dilemma and get at the heart of what most manga readers find essential to manga.

Of course, there is the little matter of Peepo Choo. Creator Felipe Smith is an American living in Japan. Peepo Choo was written for and serialized in the manga magazine Morning Two. So it definitely meets half the requirements. Should we consider Felipe Smith a Japanese creator? Not yet.

Let me unpack what I mean by “Japanese creator”. I don’t mean simply someone born in Japan or of Japanese descent. If George Takei (best know as Star Trek’s Sulu) was to begin publishing comics in Japan, I wouldn’t consider them manga either. “Japanese creator” means someone who is part of the manga tradition in Japan. I do mean “tradition” and not style.

The mistake some people make in trying to define manga is thinking that it’s a specific art style. However, you don’t have to look far to see how absurd that idea is. Just look within the pages of the most popular manga magazine, Shonen Jump. Compare the art of Bakuman, Hunter x Hunter, Kochikame, and One Piece. You have art ranging from very detailed and realistic to simple and highly exaggerated. You won’t mistake one series for another. Yet, all these are manga.

Weekly Shonen Jump Alpha cover

Manga is defined more by the way stories are told. Visuals are as important, if not more important, than plot, dialogue, and character. You won’t see any pages of just talking heads rattling off exposition. You won’t see walls of text with just the occasional illustration. Manga wants to create all the visual excitement of a well-crafted movie. This ‘art first’ approach is what I mean by the tradition of manga. Creators spend their lifetimes trying to master it.

This is why Felipe Smith isn’t yet a Japanese creator. He is just beginning his apprenticeship in the manga tradition. Those born and raised in Japan have a big advantage. They are raised in the manga tradition, even if they aren’t manga fans. It’s as native to the country as their language. Without wanting or trying, they learn it. The creators are the ones who take the steps to study it, understand it, and become an active part of it. If Smith stays in Japan long enough, then one day he too will stop being manga-influenced and simply become manga.

So Taniguchi might have borrowed his art style from Jean Giraud and Western comics, however, his storytelling style is very much Japanese. Pick up any of his works, and you will see that he is a graphic storyteller in the truest sense of the term. He uses the art to do most of the storytelling. The narration and exposition serve visuals.

Taniguchi isn’t just a manga creator; he is a master of the tradition. His stories are for the more mature and attentive reader. Characters don’t tell us they’re mad. We see their anger. It’s in their eyes, facial expressions, and body language. Tragic moments are left silent. The lack of words adds weight and solemness to the emotion. You can’t simply skim the dialogue or narration and know what is going on. You have to actually look at the art to understand the story.

It’s creators like Taniguchi that help us see what is really significant about manga. They strip away the surface distractions of ‘big eyes and small mouths’. As the manga that get translated into English become more diverse, the greater our understanding and appreciation of the manga tradition will become, too. Perhaps one day you won’t need to live in Japan to be raised in the manga tradition.

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12 Comments

  1. Wow, I never thought of Taniguchi like that.. but reading your article.. don’t you suppose that he is writing for a global audience..meant for overseas consumption just as I hear Smith or Hiro Mashima said. While I believe that Taniguchi definitely has a “western” way of drawing his comics.. I also believe that he had influences or people he admired.

  2. If being “Manga” means “Following in the Manga Tradition”, doesn’t this simply become a Tautology? “It is Manga because it follows Manga because it is Manga”?

    And if someone who is trying to do authentic Manga is “not there yet” because they haven’t fully assimilated the tradtion, while someone who admits, even aspires to a Western influence is still Manga because they grew up with it, doesn’t it just become some sort of racist/culturist pastiche, no different than the fetishization of Japanese schoolgirl uniforms? “It is Manga because I REALLY LIKE Manga – winkwinknudgenudge – and I REALLY LIKE this!”?

    I accept that there might truly be a “Manga” way of storytelling, but I find it difficult to believe that it can be defined by such broad terms as “Silent Tragedy” and “Art tells the Story”. (American Superhero comics may be talky, but I have seen plenty of Silent, Artful Eurocomics.) I don’t know enough about any of the works – and I wish I knew more – to do it myself, but it would be interesting to see, say, “One Piece”, “Icaro”, and “Incal” side by side, to be able to say which one is more the other. Or “The Other”.

  3. “[S]weatdrops, nosebleeds, and snot bubbles”? Ed, what decade is it where you are?

    Just kidding!

    But there is a point. Those elements were once salient identifiers of “manga.” But I can’t remember the last time I saw any of those things in a popular, mainstream manga that wasn’t specifically parodying those archaic tropes. What “manga” is today is not exactly what it was twenty or thirty years ago. “Manga”–like most culture–is a slippery, nebulous thing. Trying to pin it down with a definition is like trying to nail Jell-o to a wall.

    That’s not to say that the term “manga” is meaningless. It’s like old Justice Potter said about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I have observed and been absorbed in what you call the “manga tradition” for more than a quarter century. I have seen plenty of comics by non-Japanese that have been touted by the artist as “manga,” and almost without exception, I’ve looked at it and thought, “No. Sorry. That’s not manga.”

    What I have seen are comics by non-Japanese artists that have been labelled “manga” by someone other than the artist and which I consider to be damned good comics.

    Most of the body of work out there that is unequivocally “manga” (created by a born-and-raised Japanese, published by a Japanese publisher for consumption by Japanese audiences) is not worth reading. This is of course true of virtually all creative media. 90% of everything is crap.

    What I’m trying to say (or, rather, ask) is, “Do we need a definition of manga?”

    I think not. What counts in the end is not the label, but whether I like or not. Or you like it not. Or Reader X likes it or not.

    I like good things. Some of those good things I like are what I would subjectively call “manga,” and some are not.

    There is something to everything you say, Ed, but by trying to nail this Jell-o to the wall, you are simply continuing the unresolvable and ultimately pointless debate you referred to in your very first sentence.

  4. I would sooo ready a manga by George Takei.

  5. David, Fair enough. It would take a whole other essay to better define what I mean by manga storytelling. I’m thinking manga tradition is analogous to Shaker furniture. For it to be genuine Shaker furniture, it has to be made by a genuine Shaker. You aren’t a Shaker because you live in the guest house or bought an old Shaker farm. It’s being part of community with a particular set of beliefs and practices. The furniture comes out of that community. Does that help clarify my position?

    Matt, I agree, what matters most to me is that it’s a good comic, regardless of it’s origins or designations. But I can’t help wanting to at least try to quantify that ‘intangible something’ at the core of manga. What is that itch that only manga scratches for me? It’s a personality quirk. I also don’t want to claim I’m coming up with ‘THE’ definition of manga. Simply working out my thoughts and seeing what others, like yourself, have to say. I you love calling it Jello. That’s a perfect metaphor.

    I really appreciate the critiques by David, Matt, and Mark (via Twitter). You’re all really helping me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings.

  6. James Schee

    I guess for me manga is just comics that come out of Japan. Just like American comics that come from American companies, Eurocomucs from Europe, Manwa(sp?) from Korea etc.

    I’ve seen manga that has had talking heads or all words, I’ve seen American comcs that borrow some manga artists devices, etc.

  7. James, do you remember what manga you’ve seen with pages of talking heads? I’d like to see that. I’ve read dialogue intensive manga, but never one with a page consisting of 9-12 panels of just heads talking to each other. (aka Marvel’s favorite device for exposition)

  8. Ed, I just picked Yoshinaga Fumi’s “Flower of Life,” Vol. 3, off my shelf at random and found several pages that consisted of just dialogue, with no action, spread over nine panels. Even boys’ action manga require the occasional page or three of dialogue in order to convey complex information that can’t be shown visually. My Marvel books are all in my office at school, so I can’t compare, but I think even such pages of dialogue are no longer literally a tic-tac-toe board of head shots. There’s variation in the size and shape of panels, head shots alternating with long shots, panels with no text, etc.

    In fact, looking at this volume of “Flower of Life,” I can easily imagine it being drawn by a Marvel artist (and colored, of course), using exactly the same layouts, positioning and angles, and looking like a perfectly “normal” Marvel comic. Except for the content, of course.

    Granted, Yoshinaga is a bit Old School. She uses more panels per page than younger artists generally do, and her panels are almost invariably rectangular, but she is nonetheless hugely popular and therefore, by definition, “mainstream.”

    The more you try to pin down that “intangible something,” the more it will slip through your fingers. For any “trait” you can name, I can find a dozen or more exceptions–so many that they can’t be dismissed as mere exceptions.

    What’s curious, though, is the apparent desire on the part of some people to claim the label of “manga” for a work made outside of Japan. There are plenty of North American artists who have been heavily influenced by Moebius, Pratt, Bilal, and other European artists, but I never hear these artists or their fans say, “These aren’t comics! These are B.D.!” I’ve met Japanese artists (mostly self-published, amateur artists) who strive to draw in a Marvel style, but I’ve never heard them say, “This isn’t manga! It’s comics!” “Manga” is just the Japanese word for comics, just as “bande desinée” means “illustrated strip.” There’s an odd sort of fetishism that goes on with non-Japanese fans of manga. Actually, I should probably say “Western” fans of manga, since I don’t see this sort of thing among Korean or Chinese/Taiwanese fans of Japanese manga. It almost reminds of those earnest Iranian women who claim to be ninja.

    In other words, the fact that we’re having this discussion (and that similar discussions go on all the time) is more interesting to me, as an anthropologist, than the content of the discussion itself.

  9. Matt,

    Thanks for the reference. That’s not a manga I’ve read so I’ll check it out. This is not the first time I’ve been utterly wrong. Thanks for setting me straight on that.

    Unfortunately, Marvel is still doing the tic-tac-toe pages even today. When they do big event books like Civil War they begin with 2 or 3 pages like that. It’s maddening to me.

    That’s an excellent point about BD. That gives me a lot to think about.

  10. It has been a while since I read it, and the volumes are put in storage but it seemed like Maison Ikkoku had a lot of people talking, standard panel layouts etc. I could swear Death Note also had pages of word only dialogue/narration over blank or all black colors.

  11. James,

    Thanks. I’ll go back and check.

  12. [...] I wrote a little piece trying to come up with a definition of manga. Matt Thorn gently tried to tell me I was headed down the path of folly. He, James Schee, and [...]

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