Manga has arguably become one of the most influential and widely loved pieces of Japanese art and culture of today’s generation. You see it on graphic tees, on leading social media platforms, in memes, and in other art styles and genres. It has become part of a certain quirky “aesthetic” weaving into other intersectionally evolving trends, such as the marketability of popular characters in the Shonen Jump series to the supernatural and unhinged women depicted in sketch-like images—see the popularity of Junji Ito’s Tomie (富江), Homura Kawamoto and Tōru Naomura’s Kakegurui–Compulsive Gambler (賭ケグルイ Hepburn: Kakegurui), etc.
There’s no doubt about the cultural impact of manga and its complex interactions with other elements of pop culture will continue to reverberate years down the road. But what of the origins from which this road branches? How many avid enthusiasts, artists, and casual profile picture users of manga know about its roots and history in Japan, beyond viewing it as “Japanese comics”?
Pre-Modern Origins: The 18th and 19th Centuries
The word “manga” was originally written in Sino-Japanese characters. While these characters literally translate into “funny, spontaneously drawn pictures”, the word “manga” has actually been speculated by some such as manga historian Shimizu Isao to be an abbreviation for “manpitsu-ga”. The term, being derived from the existing Chinese term “manpitsu”, generally refers to a writing style characterized by rambling and digressing.
On the other hand, the modern notion of manga as the convergence of plotline writing with visual art instead of just solely essay-like writing seemingly originates purely from Japanese society, given their apparent natural inclination towards ocularly perceptible narration and communication. Come the 18th and 19th centuries, “manga” started to be understood and viewed as “random sketches”, which overlaps greatly with the aforementioned literal translation of the Sino-Japanese characters.
In the randomness of these sketches came alive their power for storytelling. Interestingly, the Sino-Japanese characters for “picture” (が ga) and “to write” (書くkaku, sho) originate from the same scripts. This Japanese concept of visual storytelling was as opposed to countries such as China, wherein it was customary to document culture and traditions as written literature rather than illustrated. As such, we come to form an understanding of manga (as defined before Japan’s globalization) as not so much a distinct art style with rigidly defined boundaries of what type of brushes, lines, shapes, and colors to use, but as free actions of expression and creation that result in drawn art of various subjects and various styles.
Perhaps the prime manifestation of manga as this boundless and liberating art form is Hokusai Manga, whose first volume was started in a publication by ukiyo-e master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) back in 1814. A total of 17 original volumes were published up until 1878, with the last three being produced by others in tribute to the late ukiyo-e master. In its entirety, the volumes of Hokusai Manga embodied the pinnacle of what manga represented at that point in time, as it was created as a sort of visual diary—a freely illustrated groundwork for bits and pieces of life, an anthology of sketched moments that tell stories in the way they were documented and framed rather than in the events they convey.
Following this emphasis on presentation and expression, it is likewise interesting to note that prior to the late 19th century, Japanese artists had a tendency to avoid a certain element of manga that is now a well-loved marker of the art style—that is, the division of events into sequenced panels (koma-wari). For them, the usage of this technique denoted an incompetency in comprehending the flow of time, to the extent that the creator must physically chop the events up into little boxes instead of recognizing sequentiality within simultaneity.
Moreover, koma-wari panels were associated with certain religious connotations, as similar sequential layouts were used in narrating the lives of famous monks (setsuwaga) and other Buddhist tales. This created a bias that swayed artists from using sequence-representing panels, and prompted them to use Western cultures (i.e. American comic strips) to remedy their technique.
20th Century Modernization and Reconstruction
The 20th century saw the rise of a more crude interpretation of manga as “random sketches”. One could argue that the word “manga” started to symbolize approximately the opposite of what it entailed before that point—a rigid indicator of a certain art style that stood for standards of lines and brush strokes, rather than for its anthological narrative process.
It is believed that this change was brought about by the influence of newspapers, whose illustrations and caricatures were utilized as an Americanized comprehension tool to repackage political matters into digestible content. Moreover, the core principle of 18th to 19th century manga involving the coalescing of pictures with text and speech was somehow let go of. In other words, a sense of separation between the text and images or illustrations was introduced, in that images were more highlighted as entities that spoke for themselves.
Manga had also started to be associated more heavily with the comedic satire that its Sino-Japanese characters literally translate to. Interestingly enough, this comedic quality did not stem from the events portrayed in the images being funny in themselves, but rather from the erratic implications and haphazard inferences that may be drawn from them.
The 21st Century: Contemporary Manga
Fast forward to today—the Sino-Japanese characters that have been mentioned in the writing of “manga” thus far are no longer what is most widely known to comprise “manga”. The katakana method, which ascribes 3 syllables to the word (ma/n/ga or まんが), emerged in popularity re: usage due to its “de-Japanizing” quality.
It was during this time that manga started to gain global and international traction as an iconic art style. This, on top of the influence of American comics in the aftermath of World War II, led to the “de-Japanized” method of “manga” phonetics to grow predominant over other traditional methods. As for purpose and substance, it has become an increasingly seen trend to utilize manga as an instrument of fostering nationalism and Japanese identity and history.
More than a fluid phenomenological account of life through the lens of the artist, manga had now stepped into a more public and communal sphere. This was evidenced by the 2002 art education curriculum of Japanese junior high schools, and by the 2006 picture-scroll exhibition of the Kyoto National Museum. Manga has also become part of people’s everyday lives; they are even animated and weekly subscribed to by both local and international manga fans.
As one can observe, more than the etymological aspect of the word, the art of manga itself has undergone what many can consider multiple cycles of evolution and metamorphosis. It has been molded time and time again by the hands and eyes of artists, enthusiasts, and even passersby of all the eras of history it has lived through, and it will continue to do so as an art form that is not just read or seen, but one that is interculturally felt and experienced.