The grammar of manga
Every popular medium has its own grammar. Or rather, no medium can become truly popular until it has established a distinctive grammar.
People need to know how to "read" a work in order to really enjoy it effortlessly and naturally. The grammar of cinema was defined in the first half of the 20th century through such films as "The Birth of a Nation" and "Citizen Kane," and makes it possible for people around the globe to "get" a Hollywood movie today.
I have been thinking recently about why manga seem to have finally taken hold in America, and it occurred to me that it may be because a certain critical mass of American readers have caught on to the grammar of manga and can now enjoy them as they were meant to be. Manga are descended directly from American newspaper comics of a hundred years ago, yet the evolution of manga has taken a very different course, making manga something of a "sub-species" of comics.
The basic grammar of American comics was more or less set in stone in the early years of the 20th century, when cinema was still a rather primitive novelty, and before the dawn of radio broadcasting. Early newspaper comics were designed to be enjoyed slowly and thoroughly. They were designed to grab and hold the eye of the viewer, who would lap up every visual detail and pause over every line. Comic books inherited that grammar, which remains much the same today, in an age in which we are deluged with more information than we could ever hope to process from dozens of different media.
Manga, however, are designed not to hold the eye. Instead they are designed to rush the eye along at a dizzying pace. This is probably because postwar manga developed in magazines that were then competing fiercely with the new medium of television. The weekly format became the norm, and the grammar of manga had to be retooled so that they could be produced quickly and read quickly. Information in manga must be conveyed efficiently and absorbed instantly.
One byproduct of this grammar is that it makes it easier for readers to "suspend disbelief," and become emotionally involved in the stories and identify with characters, even though the characters are so stylized and "unrealistic." (The same can be said of Hollywood movies.)
For me, who has loved and enjoyed both manga and American-style comics for years, switching between the two styles is no more difficult than switching between driving on the left in Japan and driving on the right in America. For many others, though, the difference in style can be jarring and puzzling. Though it took a decade and a half, it seems that Americans have finally "got" the grammar of manga, and, rather than trying to read them as comic books with bug-eyed characters, they are enjoying them for what they are.
Shukan ST: April 15, 2005
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- was defined
- "The Birth of a Nation"
- "Citizen Kane"
- have finally taken hold in 〜
- it occurred to me that 〜
- certain critical mass of American readers
- have caught on to 〜
- as they were meant to be
- are descended directly from 〜
- （was）set in stone
- more or less
- lap up
- visual detail
- are deluged with 〜
- （were）competing fiercely with 〜
- weekly format
- be retooled
- be conveyed efficiently and absorbed instantly
- suspend disbelief
- identify with 〜
- 〜 is no more difficult than 〜
- decade and a half
- bug-eyed characters
- for what they are