Why Manga does not suck completely

Picture conan_lupin_sansei.jpg When I last wrote that entry on the many shortcomings of Japanese mangas, my original intent truly was to follow it up shortly with my own recommendations, or at least observations, as a skeptical, yet sincere newcomer to the genre…

The fact that it took me three months to get to it, is a testament to the sad state of affairs of this industry (and my own sorry ass’ inability to get anything done when not threatened at gunpoint). Actually, the decision to start reading mangas is an old one, one that arose around the time I woke up one day and realized I could suddenly understand Japanese (すっげぇ〜!日本語を喋れるよ!さああ、僕は貝が好きなの・・・). Well, alright: understand might be pushing it a bit, but I’ve been known to conduct reasonably flawless weather-related conversations with my neighbours: a major improvement from my arrival on Japanese soil, where my vocabulary was essentially limited to three Japanese words, one of which I cannot repeat on this site unless you can testify you are over 18 and click here.

Thing is: drunken conversation with Samurai friends did and still does wonders to my verbal skills, I can pull off a semi-decent everyday-Japanese provided it stays on the topic of whose turn it is to pay the next round, or monosyllabic expressions of my appreciation for miscellaneous types of music or other artistic works. Anything slightly off the beaten path usually gets me nodding complacently until I somehow manage to catch a few words that could clue me in on whatever it is we are talking about. Similarly, that whole level-of-speech issue has not been getting any better: you know things are bad when your friend – who has just chugged half a gallon of rum directly off the bottle – kindly worries about your use of excessively colloquial expressions.

Horizons have to be widened and grammar needs improving dramatically.

Hence: Mangas

First, because books are convenient: you can study them anytime, anywhere and by yourself; they do not require a language exchange partner who will be either convinced you are hitting on her, or actually hitting on you (and yea, the feminine form here has a purpose: just check the number of candidates for language exchange in English or French out there and their repartition by gender).

Also because, taking my cue on the local upcoming generations, I cannot read kanjis for shit. Which rules out most magazines and daily newspapers. Some magazines are not that hard – possibly even below my level – but there are only so many times you can read about the latest news on panty thieving activities, detailed voyeuristic recounts of schoolgirl groping-related arrests or nampa tips, straight from the pros (the gist of which can usually be found in all its quaint alliteration-riddled English translation glory on the Mainichi’s website).

As for regular books, real literature, eternal classics of the Japanese masters: try opening an original Mishima volume for laughs, just once. I swear, that guy uses kanjis even my dictionary has never heard of.

Mangas, on the other hand, rarely make use of overly elaborate kanjis, yet can cover a wide array of situations and lexical fields, all along offering saucerplate-eyed visual clues of the ongoing story. Additionally, most have furiganas for part or all of the kanjis used (depending on the target age for the series).

Let’s stop here for a slightly tedious digression that you may want to skip if you know anything about the Japanese language and the black magic art known as reading it:

As you may know, Japanese is written using both kanjis (roughly 1000 to 2000 different ones for basic books and newspapers) and two syllabaries known as kanas. A syllabary is similar to an alphabet, in that each character represents a sound, but unlike, say, the latin alphabet, Japanese kanas each match a full sound (“ma”, “mi”, “mu”, “mo”, “ra”, “ri”, “ro” etc). Each syllabary contains 80-some characters and is usually the first thing anybody will learn when studying Japanese.

In theory, every Japanese word could be spelled using only kanas (and thus easily readable by anybody with reading abilities above kindergarten level). This is quite convenient in cases like computer interfaces, where words are typed using kanas, before being turned into kanjis through some menu selection or such. In practice, though, most people (yours truly, included) will find it incredibly tedious to read a text written entirely using phonetic kanas (remember that Japanese doesn’t separate words either). For texts meant to be readable by kids or sufficiently important not to take a chance with the odd illiterate countryman, a compromise is found by writing both the kanji and its kana spelling alongside. These kanas are usually written in a smaller font above (when writing horizontally) or to the right (when writing vertically) of the kanjis they explain. They are called furiganas and will make the most arcane reading accessible to the casual reader.

One important reason to love furiganas, especially for foreigners, is that if you encounter a kanji you are unfamiliar with, you will probably want to look it up in a dictionary… Which is infinitely easier to do if you actually know how to pronounce it.

It is still possible to look up both meaning and reading of an unknown kanji by using a method known as “multiradical lookup”, relying on the number of strokes and a few recognizable components of the whole ideogram. Even if with a bit of habit and the right tools, multiradical searches can be done fairly fast, they are considerably more annoying to conduct than regular phonetic lookups.

End of digression

Finding readable materials…

Wasn’t an easy task…

First, as I’ve said, I know little about mangas, beside the obvious classics (so obvious that I have yet to spot them in a traditional manga store) and the ones I have come to associate with the utter stupidity of the genre, such as featured on TV or in the hands of greasy subway otakus. Neither ones, a welcome option as a motivating studying support. My friends didn’t have much to offer in terms of advice either: Yutaka had kindly suggested タッチ, a series revolving around baseball and the usual preteen subjects, written in Japanese well within my grasp… Unfortunately, my seething hatred for this unfathomably boring sport was just too much to overcome and I all but gave up, halfway through the first volume (I would heartily recommend it to any beginners who really gives a damn about baseball, though).

Then, I followed the common sense-laden advice offered by the very helpful maintainer of 日本語の道 and went for “anything I felt like reading”, without worrying too much about difficulty or level of language. After a bit of shuffling around the manga section of Shibuya’s Book First, I became the proud owner of a volume of Arsène Lupin’s – 3rd of the name – new adventuresRupan Sansei, as he is known to his copyright-agnostic Japanese fans.

Why? Simply because it was one of the only character that I somehow remembered ever catching on TV as a kid. Probably seen at most once or twice, on vacation at some cousins’ house (TV watching wasn’t exactly a big hobby of mine, as a kid… It could have become one, had my parents ever deemed it necessary to own a TV). Also because the French novel character it is very loosely inspired from, was my absolute favorite, from age 6 to 10 (didn’t have TV, but we sure had books, oh yes we had). Given he had practically guided my first steps through French literacy, it seemed only fitting his distant cousin would do the same for Japanese. So I picked up a re-edition of the first volume, paid for it, went out and eagerly unwrapped it – because these damn things are always sealed in plastic, so as to thwart freeloading attempts of their perennially cheap readership – and discovered that there wasn’t a single furigana in the entire manga. And I do mean, not a single one: hell, even proper nouns were laid out in all their naked unreadable kanji glory. To this day I am still not sure why a comic book featuring the wacky antics of a sex maniac amidst an abundance of scantily clad buxom women, would make itself so difficult to read for its obvious intended readership of horny teenagers in full hormonal breakdown. I suppose it has to do with the fact it was published 30 years ago, when reading standards were substantially higher: they wouldn’t bother going back and add furiganas now.

Anyway, as I said in my aside, while querying unknown kanjis without furiganas is feasible, it is also much more than one wants to deal with when catching a few pages in between two subway rides.

On my next visit, I made sure this time to stick with the most basic of language levels. Initially, I ran a few laps around the store, trying to assess the market segment covered in each aisle, by sampling a few random covers here and there. I stopped after realizing that, for the past 10 minutes I had been leafing through the volumes of the ボーイズラブ section (sure it was written in big bold letters above the trays, but seriously: I suck at katakana engrish, I tend to tune it out much more often than even kanji signs): in fact, the one specific volume I had in my hands was most definitely outright yaoi stuff. I’m not sure what was more embarrassing: realizing I was holding 200 pages of lurid sexual romances between high-school boys with bad hairdo and rosy cheeks… or that beside my pale ass, all three other customers in that area were teenage girls wearing braces.

It was maybe time to query assistance.

I therefore went on to expose to the nearest employee the motives and nature of my sudden interest in mangas, asking for buying advice. The young and bubbly clerk I confided in, turned out to be surprisingly helpful for Japan, where the impeccable politeness and willingness to bend over backward for the customer, still doesn’t brighten the fact that most store employees act as glorified label-readers for the hapless information seeker. To my amazement, not only did she not respond to my query with the helpless look of the a lamb lost at night in the middle of a hyena housing project, traditionally reserved to foreigners foolish enough to inquire in a Japanese store, but she even had, gasp, suggestions as to what could fit both my taste and language requirements.

And this is how I left with volume 1 of Detective Conan: ostensibly kid’s reading, the animated version of which I had already glimpsed at, on occasion, without noticing too much of the formulaic quirks that make most anime damn near unwatchable (but we went through all that already…). We aren’t talking kindergarten coloring book either: quite a bit of blood and seriousness in the plot, and language I could see a pre-to-mid teen reading. But the important part is that it’s got furiganas for every kanji, making for a totally painless reading experience at any level.

It’s now been a few days, and I’m happy with this choice: in fact, I am reaching a point where I am really itching to read through to the end and know what happens, which is what you want when picking language practice material. At this speed, I’ll probably be done by next week-end. I guess then, I will milk the whole series for what it’s worth, but I also welcome any suggestion with details on availability at my favorite local mangaka… Be aware that a recommandation with only the English translated title and no author nor any idea of which category to look into, isn’t likely to materialize into my next bedside book… But if you wanna share your manga-reading/japanese-studying tips: now is the time, here is the place…

12 comments

  1. Neuro,

    Not that I would be anywhere near the yaoi specialist that you are, but, according to wikipedia:

    The term is an acronym derived from the Japanese phrase 「ヤマなし、オチなし、意味なし」 ( yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi ), meaning “no climax, no punch line, no meaning.”

    Then again, for all I know it could be a tribute to the History of Japan with no special meaning otherwise…

  2. If you can find any old issues of Mangajin, which is no longer being published, it had lots of excellent step-by-step translations (furigana, romaji, English) and explanations of manga; not only what the words mean, but why they are appropriate in that context. Highly recommended for manga novices.

    –GB

  3. Try Beck, it is one of my fasvorites now. GTO was a good one too. For short stories that exercise your reading abilities but don’t challenge you too overly long or too overly hard Doraemon is not too hard, and is often extremely funny.

  4. If you expect something else than the rather boring kid-with-a-hidden-talent-and-fearsome-enemies-that-will-be converted-or-will-die-fighting plot, you should try every manga you can find written by Taiyo Matsumoto. He’s probably my favourite comics writer at the moment with a very original style, and his stories are quite uncommon and short (rarely exceeds 4 volumes).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiyo_Matsumoto
    http://www.artbomb.net/profile.jsp?idx=4&cid=116

    Some of his books were translated and published in English (you can find them on Amazon)

  5. Hi, Dr. Dave! I just wanted to say that I was engrossed by your 2-part post on the reading of manga. ^^ It was very helpful to someone who wished to publish series someday, and I hope you will read my manga when it comes out!! Of course you don’t have to, though! ^_^ I believe that it has nothing in it like what you have mentioned negatively (so far as I’ve checked)…! So no worries, OK? I also have some additional (to the previously posted) manga recommendations for a man of your caliber ^^:

    King of Thorns (Ibara no Ou

  6. Hey! My comment got cut off ^^; And I spent quite a while writing it! Anyways, I hope you will please please check out:
    ~King of Thorns (Ibara no Ou) (Google it up! Lots of download links — I LOOOOOOVE this manga!! It is INCREDIBLE & AMAZING, simply stunning!!!! I realllly hope you read it!! @.@ It is unlike any other manga I have ever ever read, and is composed soooo beautifully. Very original and one of the best, I believe it to be! ^___^)
    ~One Piece (WOW, this is a phenomenal manga!! It gets sooo awesome as it keeps going! And author Oda-sensei makes fantastic character backgrounds and story lines!! It’s long but entirely worth it!! I hope you read and enjoy ^^)

  7. And, for a fun read, (although it has some ecchi in it) Addicted to Curry! It is the only cooking manga I have ever read, and I think it’s really cute and insightful at times! It does have a forgettable back-story, but if you’re looking for enjoyment, it is worth it ^^

  8. hi dr. davesan.
    i came across your previous “manga suck” post in a fairly random way. i’ll replay here cause this post is newer. before my (i hope) quick reply, congrats for the blog, its style’s great.

    well, i do no think manga suck. compared to european and american comics, they’re much more diverse. you can find virtually any kind of genre, from omosexual-sentimental things to porn-horror throu “let’s save the earth” manga, “i’ll explain you the japanese economics” manga and so on.

    90% of mainstream american comics are made up of people in colorful tight coveralls running here and there saving the world. they’ve been saving the world for 60 years, i think it’s now safe enough.
    underground american comics is much more interesting. it should be notated that, interestingly, it is often hardly influenced my manga itself.

    40% of mainstream european comics is children stuff smurf-mickey mouse style. 40% is interesting intellectual stuff. unluckily, most of it is done for the sake of showing how good the drawer is or how much left-oriented the publisher is.
    there’s an interenting underground panorama. interestingly, heavily ifluenced by manga.

    that said, i think there are some things about manga that should be pointed out:
    it’s an authoral work. often, it is a studio (mangaka + assistants) work, but what i mean is that ONE person comes up with the idea, ONE person developes it and ONE person makes it die. it’s not like most of western stuff treated like b***s: disney invents it, 1000 people write it, 10000 people draw it; stan lee invent it, jack kirby draws it, THAN other 99999 write for it, 88888 draw it and so on…

    your point is about quality. some japanese authors, like shotaro ishinomori, in certain periods of their career made up some 500 (!!) pages a month. in his whole life, osamu tezuka made 150.000 pages. i think it is obvious that the quality cannot be the same if you work on a page for 5 days or for 3 hours, but it’s just a matter of perspective: manga focus on the story and the storytelling. their style reflets this. on a stylistic analysis, it is clear that images are made of symbols to convay a concept. you may like it or not, of course. alan ross’ works are like collections of covers and illustration to my eyes (and comics are a different medium), while most manga are “living” things carrying beautiful characters, stories, situations, changes and an end.

    as someone pointed out, you should really read some major work by tezuka osamu to understand what i say. it is drawn in a fast childish way (apparently not good for the seriousness of the stories). on the other way, you’ll find yourself reading an adaptation of buddha’s life and teachings in some 3000 tables (meaning 14 volumes of 200+ pages each, in my edition), the authors’s vision of the story of the human race (phoenix, 16 volumes) or the tales of a mankind-lover doctor with a bitter character called black jack: 25 volumes in my edition made of some 6 / 7 stories each. every single story dealing with a theme like man and nature, the dangers of technology, respect for all the races, importance of self esteem, friendship and i could go on for weeks.
    it is poorly drawn? i love the style, it is perfect because it perfectly creates all the moods needed, all the characters needed and so on. still dont like the style? focus on the stories, it’s the fee you have to pay to read something different from a man dressed like a cheap spider hopping from roof to roof to catch the goblin.

    it’s really a shame that people only think at manga like big-eyed girls raped by aliens.

    just my 2 cents.

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