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Manga: Not just for kids, cretins & dirty old men

May 28, 1999

Yukiko Kishinami
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

It is unfortunate that the first encounter foreigners have with Japanese comics, or manga, usually matches one of their images of Japanese society--men reading pornographic or violent comics on the trains. But there is so much more to manga that it would be a shame for anybody to ignore this fertile field of the imagination. Manga have experienced a phenomenal growth in Japan. Fusanosuke Natsume--a cartoonist, writer, TV personality and manga critic--tells us why.

It has been some time since manga kissa, or manga cafes, became an urban phenomenon. Customers at these cafes choose manga books from the shelves and read them for hours. Manga have also provided many TV dramas and films with stories that are full of originality and twists. There is probably no other country where comics are so deeply embedded in society.

"The reason for the development of manga is that children do not stop reading manga as they grow up, because manga have progressed to the point where they also meet the expectations of older readers," Natsume said last week at his office in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. "So it's not that all Japanese adults reading manga are childish, but there are manga that adults can appreciate."

At age 48, Natsume belongs to the generation who grew up with modern Japanese manga. In his childhood, masked heroes, boy ninja and slapstick characters bobbed about in children's magazines, and artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Mitsuteru Yokoyama and Shotaro Ishinomori fueled children's imaginations.

"I was honored that I once had my manga carried in the same magazine that was featuring Tezuka-san's Hi no Tori (Firebird)," recalled Natsume, the grandson of the novelist Soseki Natsume, whose face is featured on the 1,000 yen note. "Until the early 1960s, Japanese manga, apart from the political or satirical ones, were kids' stuff, like any other country. But during the 1960s manga targeting young adults emerged, partly because the manga industry wanted to keep the baby boomer audience," he said.

As the market grew, manga diversified and, like the film industry, began producing everything from historic sagas to everyday romances. Some of these manga are regarded as classics. Natsume recalled that by the end of the 1980s, the manga share in Japan's publication market reached a staggering 40 percent, with half being printed for young adults. But since it was so cheap, manga purchases accounted for less than 25 percent in monetary terms. It is an industry that grew by producing in volume and selling at prices that children could afford. This is why most comics are black-and-white.

The market continued to grow even after the economic bubble popped in the early 1990s, but it peaked in 1995 and is now slowly declining, probably due to the drop in the birthrate and ever growing popularity of computer games. In fiscal 1998, the publication numbers and sales figures of omnibus comic magazines continued to fall, although those of comic books, which are smaller and feature only one author's work, turned upward again, according to statistics by the Research Institute for Publications. This was due, in part, to republication, in a smaller form, of classics from the 1970s and 1980s. The market, it seems, is very resilient.

In a critical situation

On May 10, Natsume was named the special award winner of the 1999 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize for his knowledgeable manga critique. The award was created three years ago to honor outstanding cartoonists and those who made contributions to manga. It is probably the first time a manga critic has won any sort of award.

Being a cartoonist himself, his criticism features detailed analysis of manga drawing, accompanied by shrewd comments. In one of his recent works, Manga to Senso (Manga and War), Natsume discusses how a lot of Japanese manga have treated war.

"After the defeat in World War II, Japan has not been directly involved in any war. I think that is quite a rare occurrence in history. But manga have repeatedly featured wars, destructive robots and so on. In other words, there are wars in manga because there is no war (in reality). Readers are well aware that manga is a fantasy," he said, denying any relationship between manga and violent acts committed by minors.

Some say young people no longer read books because of manga, yet manga readers are often encouraged by comics based on classic novels from The Tale of Genji to Crime and Punishment to go back to their originals. Despite the popularity of manga, there is no official manga information center. For better or worse, Natsume has become a leading spokesman for Japanese manga since giving a lecture at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo last autumn. This was followed by about a dozen interviews with manga researchers and journalists from other countries.

In January, he spoke at an animated cartoons and manga symposium in New York.

"It's very interesting to explain various things about Japanese manga to foreign people and I learn a lot from the experiences," he said. "But doing a lot of unpaid work like this goes against the motto I had when I started this career--make a big profit out of a little work!"

Asked what manga he would recommend to someone with limited Japanese reading skills, Natsume, after a long deliberation, settled on Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira, a catastrophic scientific fiction work set in near future Japan.

"Akira has animation and English versions, too, so it would be helpful for learners of Japanese," he said, adding that there is also one that has no words at all--Masashi Tanaka's Gon, a story about a young dinosaur. Other suitable choices, Natsume said, would be young artists Katsuhiko Terada, who started as a character designer for computer games, and Taiyo Matsumoto.

"A French manga researcher once described Matsumoto as an expressionist," Natsume said. "I found her observation really interesting because I never thought of describing manga drawings using terms from other arts."

Yomiuri Shinbun, May 28, 1999

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