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.
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 adventures… Rupan 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…