Oishinbo and Why You Can’t Define Manga

by Ed Sizemore

So 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 Johanna quickly pointed out that my assertion there are no talking head pages in manga was simply wrong. And via Johanna, here is the proof:

Oishinbo page 75

Oishinbo page 75; story by Tetsu Kariya; art by Akira Hanasaki

That’s page 75 of the English edition of Oishinbo Volume 1. This might not be Marvel’s infamous nine panels in a grid, but it’s still lots of dialogue and minimal art.

Johanna further pointed me to Testu Kariya’s essay “What Is Japanese Cuisine?” in volume 1 of Oishinbo (pp 111-114). Kariya is trying to figure out how to define Japanese cuisine. Let me pull a few quotes that will give you the thrust of his argument.

After having traveled all over Japan, I have come to realize that Japan culinary culture is exceedingly rich and diverse. (p113)

They’re all cooked with diverse techniques, and look and taste surprisingly different, but they’re all equally “real Japanese cuisine”. (p113)

Eventually, I realized “What is Japan?”, “What does it mean to be Japanese?”, “What is Japanese cuisine?” are all meaningless questions. It is the spirit of washoku that brings everything together as one harmony. (p114)

…I realized that what we were all eating wasn’t “Japanese food” or “Japanese cuisine”, but washoku: a cuisine that brings people together in harmony and gives them pleasure. (p114)

(An editor’s note points out that the “wa” in washoku can mean either Japan or harmony. The “shoku” means food.)

Make a few simple substitutions, and you get exactly the same point Matt Thorn was making in his comments. Now, I’m not that foolish to disregard the wisdom of both a distinguished translator and a well-established manga creator. So upon the rocks of evidence, my musings have been dashed to pieces and quickly sunk.

I do think there is a ‘spirit’ of manga, an intangible quality that people sense when they are reading it. But attempting to come up with a concrete definition of what that ‘something’ is is doomed to failure. It’s like that infamous philosophical struggle to define the word ‘knowledge’. (You should see the number of books written on that.)

So while my previous attempt failed, I did learn a few things. I don’t mind being wrong as long as I can gain some wisdom from my efforts. Thanks to David, Matt, James, and Johanna for their insight and correction.

1 Comment

  1. Wow, Ed, that is really gracious of you. I don’t know anyone else who takes correction so well. (And my finding that was a total coincidence — it was because we were talking about Lonely Gourmet as part of the MMF that I started rereading Oishinbo.) I’m not sure that I disagree with all of your previous essay, either — you make some good points about styles and artistic influences.

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