It matters how you look at pictures. The most famous picture in Japanese art, Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is a case in point. Look through western eyes – with their inclination to go from left to right, as they do across the written page – and you are taken up the side of the wave to its crest, well above the skiffs and their crews struggling below.
But look at it as a Japanese person might – from right to left – and the effect is different. You are with the crewmen, under the tiny outline of Mount Fuji in the distance, and the wave approaches with all the force of an explosion. It is an image of desperation and of doom.
When he wasn’t making prints of terrifying waves, Hokusai helped to popularise the word manga, which means something like “flowing drawings”. In the early 19th century, it was used for the sketches he produced to practise and demonstrate new techniques.
Nowadays it is more commonly applied to the many thousands of comic books from Japan. They, too, should be read in the opposite direction to western comics, panel by panel, always from right to left. For basic Brits such as me, it takes some getting used to.
The right-to-left flow of manga is a hindrance for non-Japanese readers, but doesn’t seem a significant one. In the past few decades, these comics have spread around the world at hyperspeed, passing milestone after milestone. Take the weekly manga magazine Shonen Jump: more than 7.5 billion copies have been sold since its launch in 1968. Or take one of the stories serialised within its covers, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece: more than 450 million of its collected paperback editions (known as tankōbon) are circulating globally, more than any other collected comic book series in history, and more than most non-comic books. It’s thought that JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is around the 150-million mark.
This is about more than just numbers. As Douglas McGray put it, in a 2009 essay for Foreign Policy: “Japan is reinventing superpower again. [It] has been perfecting the art of transmitting certain kinds of mass culture.”
Manga continues to be the motor for that reinvention. Its influence reaches into films, video games, toys and fashion collections. It can be seen in the upcoming, Hollywood-made movie Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. And, thanks to the porousness of the internet and the young minds who hang out there, it is likely to spread even farther.
Curiously, manga was a cross-border phenomenon from the start – depending on where you consider the start to be. Later this month, an exhibition devoted to the artform opens at the British Museum, and it will go all the way back to the 12th century, when Japanese monks would paint expansive, sequential scenes on scrolls called emaki. But leap forward several centuries and you’ll see that modern manga is more a product of trade routes than temples. For his series of prints of Mount Fuji, which includes The Great Wave, Hokusai was inspired by the European paintings he encountered at a Dutch outpost near Nagasaki. As Japan opened up to even more trade, it gained newspapers and magazines modelled on those in the west, right down to their proto-manga comic strips.
One of the greatest outside influences on manga, however, came from a different source at a difficult time: the United States after the second world war. The US troops who entered Japan in 1945, while Nagasaki and Hiroshima were still irradiated ruins, were not the only occupying force. Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop came too, in the animated films of Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. So did various American comic-books and live-action movies. After years of total cultural remove from that land across the Pacific Ocean, Japanese audiences had a lot of catching up to do.
Osamu Tezuka caught up more voraciously than most. This teenage artist had encountered Disney cartoons before the war, and was enraptured by them. Now he could access more, along with the brilliant Donald Duck comics by Carl Barks. He would watch Bambi more than 80 times.
He would also be punched in the face by an American soldier in 1952, the final year of occupation. By then, Tezuka had published several successful manga series, but the attack would, he said, inspire his most successful: Astro Boy, the story of a rejected robot-child who uses his hi-tech powers to fight for peace.
Again, it matters how you look at it. On the surface, there is a lot of Disney and Fleischer about Astro Boy, not least in its hero’s pond-sized eyes and the sheer animation of its cast. But, no less on the surface, there is also war, racism and the possibilities and pathologies raised by technological advance. Astro Boy was Japan then – and is generally regarded as the ur-text for manga as we know it now.
Astro Boy is not the only reason why, 30 years after his death, Tezuka is still known as “the god of manga”. He worked ferociously and widely, helping to establish several of the categories that subsequent comics have occupied – including mecha (robots) and, with his Princess Knight series, shōjo (manga aimed at teenage girls). He may even have influenced Disney artists, although the Walt Disney Company denies it. There are similarities between The Lion King and his earlier Kimba the White Lion.
It wasn’t just Tezuka who expanded manga’s borders in those post-war years. The Year 24 Group was a loose collection of female artists who took shōjo manga into the complicated realm of puberty and sexual awakening. Moto Hagio’s The Poe Clan, a centuries-spanning vampire tale, soon to be republished in English by Fantagraphics, is a fine example. Its characters are delicate, androgynous and intertwined with each other.
For anyone who has only encountered the stickier end of manga – the doe-eyed, full-chested pinups for teenage boys – the subtlety of the Year 24 Group’s comics may be a surprise. But manga is varied, and variety has helped to strengthen its global power. A tour of the best series of recent decades would take you from a hardboiled, philosophical reworking of Astro Boy (Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto) to a swirly, subversive horror (Junji Ito’s Uzumaki) to a twentysomething’s unyieldingly confessional autobiography (Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness).
This diversity can make manga hard to pin down. After all what is it, if it is everything? Aren’t western comics diverse too? The best answer comes in the form of one of manga’s masterpieces, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Not only is this a distinctively Japanese story – set in a futuristic Neo-Tokyo established after an explosion destroyed the old Tokyo – but it was constructed in a distinctively Japanese way. Starting in 1982, Akira was serialised in a manga magazine over eight years. For all that time, Otomo drew every panel and wrote every speech bubble. It is entirely his work.
Many other manga stories are the work of individual creators, and some have been told across longer time periods than eight years. This distinguishes them from western comic-book stories, which tend to be shorter, with multiple creators. But it takes a book like Akira to reveal the full magnificence of this difference. Across its 2,181 pages, there is barely a single panel that is not full of detail, invention and motion. With a work ethic bordering on the devotional, Otomo built a cathedral to popular culture. The rest of the world could only marvel.
Akira demonstrates another of manga’s qualities: it translates easily across different media. Six years into writing and drawing his comic, Otomo turned it into an animated film, or anime, which became its own sensation. In this respect, he was simply following Tezuka, who turned many of his series, including Astro Boy, into cartoons. But Otomo was also pre-empting what was to come. Japan’s pop cultural industries would continue to operate in happy synchronicity, to wring every drop of potential – and cash – from manga.
The ultimate example is Pokémon, even if it didn’t start as a manga. Satoshi Tajiri’s original video game, for Nintendo’s GameBoy, had players finding and battling cute critters in a sunlit land. Kids wanted more, and got it. Soon there were sequels, a card game, an animated series, movies, toys – and several manga series. One, by Toshihiro Ono, was distributed by Toys R Us in America and became the first manga to sell a million copies there. The whole mega-franchise is thought to have made about $90 billion for its corporate owners.
Will the cash keep on coming? For all its ubiquity, manga has experienced challenges in recent years – and the cause of most, as in so many other cases, is the internet. Thanks in part to online piracy and print scepticism, weekly sales of Shonen Jump magazine have declined by about 5 million, to 1.7 million, since the mid-1990s.
However, the internet is also a place for manga’s influence to spread – and there are many signs of that happening. The cartoon series RWBY, inspired by both manga and anime, has millions of viewers on YouTube. Many are in Japan, but more are elsewhere. Except in this case the cultural exchange is slightly different to usual. RWBY is made in America and in 2014 became the first US-made anime to be redubbed and exported to Japan.
For some otaku, this cultural backwash is a cause for concern. Manga that is not produced in Japan, they say, is not truly manga – and should be called “manga-inspired” or something similar.
But being too fussy about these distinctions is to miss the point. Manga’s development has, to some extent, come on the back of Japan’s own development from an isolated set of islands to a country connected with the rest of the world. Influenced by other cultures at the start, it now influences them in turn. There are no walls on Planet Manga.
The British Museum’s Manga exhibition runs from 23 May to 26 August
Photographs and Images; Getty Images, Yukinbo hoshino/Shogakukan.Inc, Kabi Nagata 2016, Moto Hagio/Fantagraphics