The very first comics to find their way into my hands on a regular basis, were the British weeklies Jack and Jill and Playhour (for small children, one of which I was at the time). Somewhere along the line I managed to lay hands on a few issues of Playhour that were a little bit older than me. Looking at then and now at the same time brought me to a conclusion only confirmed years later when I saw a few Playhours a younger cousin was getting: As time went on, that magazine got dumber.
The feature strip of the oldest Playhour was Rex the Wonder Dog – about a German Shepherd in the American West. On a typical day, with the aid of two white children and an Indian boy, he thwarted the evil schemes of a typical Western villain, and prevented a war between the cowboys and the Indians. There was another strip about Peter the puppet, who was on a quest for something-or-other – possibly to become human, I forget. The only thing I remember now was Peter and his friends on a flying carpet (being propelled by something that looked a bit like an outboard motor) coming to the attention of an envious Arabian gent travelling on a roll of linoleum (flying more like a rocket). Another strip involved a Scottish boy and girl in the time of Rob Roy, wandering through a secret-passage-ridden castle looking for the girl's kidnapped father, while simultaneously trying to avoid the evil slime-bucket (with dim-witted lackey) at the root of all their problems.
Then there was Billy Brock's Schooldays, about a young badger attending boarding school for the first time. I wish I had these old comics to check, now, but I think Billy Brock was intended by its creator to be about humans, but was changed to animals at the last moment. Everything looked realistically drawn – it was just that all the characters had animal heads.
The Playhour I read in the mid 1950s was quite different. The Billy Brock strip was still there, but was called Billy Brock and His Woodland Friends, depicted less starkly-human anthropomorphic animals, and had a more organic setting. The bricks and concrete school of the original had given way to a forest where trees served as buildings, and the animals went home to their parents at the end of the day. Peter the Puppet's quest had taken him to Puzzle Land…which he never left. The strip became Peter Puppet's Puzzle Page which became simply The Puzzle Page. Peter's quest never had an ending. Rex the wonder dog stopped preventing Indian wars, and took up getting hassled by two mischievous puppies. Rex the Wonder Dog became Rex the Wonder Dog with Wink and Blink the Playful Puppies, which became Wink and Blink with Rex the Wonder Dog, which became Wink and Blink the Playful Puppies. By the end, the American West had melted away into a present-day British farm. The adventures of the Scottish children vanished completely, along with most stories about human beings, and all serialised stories.
When I was a child in the age bracket the comic was aimed at, I preferred the older version of the comic. I was not getting it. I and all other cops-and-robbers, cowboys-and-Indians-playing kids my age were getting shovelled stories about furry humanoid animals. The biggest crisis in any of the stories was along the lines of whether the lead character would get scones with jam for supper, or not. Indian wars and draughty Scottish castles were not even hinted at. Why not? Assuming I was typical for my age, all other children would have preferred the older version of the magazine too. Obviously it did not sell. Why not? Because kids as young as us did not actually buy the comics. Our parents did! And they preferred us having comics about fluffy-wuffy animals, far and away from cowboys and Indians. Playhour eventually vanished totally, presumably having wussed itself out of existence.
Do you realise that today in Japan parents are buying their young children stories like Babu Akachin (about a tyke who can do incredible feats with his penis)? This is not to say all Japanese children's comics are oriented along these lines. One of the more popular series is Doraemon, which follows the life of Nobita Nobi and his robot-cat friend from the future, Doraemon. (And just what are the equivalent kiddies comics in the West these days? Judge Dredd?) At the other end of the scale are the pornographic comics – definitely not intended for children.
The Japanese do things differently from the rest of us.
In Japan, comics (called manga) are often as large as big-city telephone books – 350 pages, about 10 to 20 of these being ads or text, costing about $1-00 and coming out weekly.
Compare this with the USA, where comics run to thirty or so colour pages (many of which are ads) and the buying public consists mainly of young boys, and adults with comic book collections. U.S. sales have decreased since the 1950s, thanks to over-regulation and competition from t.v. A circulation of 300,000 is usual. (Apart from the obvious fact that some titles are always more popular than others, certain individual stories or story-lines stand out above the crowd for one reason or the other – by being just plain good, or simply novel, as when a major character dies. While Superman's death lasted, it revived sales figures not seen since the 1950s.) There are no weeklies in the USA, and these days not in Britain either. Well, probably not in Britain. Every so often a new U.K. weekly does pop up, but sooner or later simple economics turns it into a monthly. (It is cheaper to ship a large magazine once a month than a smaller one four times in the same period.) These economic rules do not apply to the small but densely populated country of Japan, where a telephone-book-style issue of something like Shonen Jump sometimes sells over 4,000,000 copies a week. (By comparison, Newsweek sells about the same number, to a population twice that of Japan.) Contents of manga are mostly monochrome, but usually the stories come on different shades of paper.
When Japanese children grow up, they do not stop reading comics, as the market caters for an older readership, too. (There are something like ten comics for every man, woman, and child). ). There are even pornographic manga – mostly available from vending machines, to save buyers the kind of embarrassment Woody Allen goes through in Bananas. (At the time of the first version of this article, the sight of pubic hair in any publication in Japan was forbidden – apart from that, anything went. When entering Japan you might have your medical textbooks confiscated, but found it quite all right to take in the worst kind of pornography. This has now changed.)
Japan has a long history of integrating pictures with stories. (One twelfth century picture scroll has Disney-style anthropomorphic animals. Even back then there were artistic conventions to indicate things like changes in time, place, and mood.) Despite this, the manga was slow to take off. Not until the 1920s did Japanese newspapers realise what a reader-attracting power the likes of Mutt and Jeff and Felix the Cat could have. Although the newspapers now started doing their own comic strips, Japanese manga were still aimed at children and adolescents.
This changed after World War II.
Comics were imported – in massive quantities – and had a huge impact. They were as popular with Japanese children as they were in their Western countries of origin. In Japan they had the added effect of helping rattle the world-view of people who grew up under feudalism. (One example: Chic Young's Blondie became highly popular with Japanese women, trained since birth to be submissive to their husbands.)
The vacuum in the market for a matching local product was quickly filled. The Japanese adopted the foreign comic-book conventions and set them to stories reflecting their own culture and times. (One popular example being Sazae-san, which began in 1949 as a near-clone of Blondie, and ran until 1974.)
Perhaps the greatest influence on Japanese manga and animation at the beginning, and for all the rest of his life, was Osama Tezuka. As Tezuka was heavily influenced by Disney's big-eyed children and fluffy animals, Disney influences Japanese art to this day.
Although a few artists do draw closer to real life as we judge it, by and large most of them find that big eyes help to show emotion and make for a more appealing character. (Note that villains tend to have normal size eyes). As a consequence, most Japanese characters to this day do not look Japanese...at least to Western readers. Japanese have no trouble in looking at a blonde, big-round-eyed character on a printed page, and knowing it is "really" a dark-haired Japanese. (If anyone is supposed to be foreign, the story will not leave the reader in doubt.) To Westerners, most Japanese characters do not look Japanese. In fact, if any characters do look oriental, they are probably Chinese. (Or some other Asian race. Just not Japanese.) A character in the Patlabor series who looks the most oriental is one who is supposed to be half American. (Hawaiian, I think.)
Even if you do not know Tezuka's name, you have almost certainly come into contact with his work at one time or another. Among his more internationally famous tales are ones adapted under the titles Astroboy and Kimba the White Lion. (The latter has incredible parallels with Disney's The Lion King, even though everybody at Disney is denying knowing Kimba ever existed!)
Tezuka's death in 1989 was a bigger shock to the Japanese public than the Emperor's. (Hirohito was sick a long time and the public had time to prepare for losing him – Tezuka's exit via stomach cancer caught everyone by surprise.)
After World War 2 the narrative structures in children's magazines firmed up somewhat, and when the children grew up they did not stop reading comics. After all, why not? There's no rule book saying that stories with pictures have to be for children, yet this is a hard-to-shake conviction in the West. (Maybe Walt Disney is to blame – in animated cartoons at least – with his preoccupation with wholesome family entertainment. In the video stores here, you can find such titles as Robotech in the children's section of video stores, right next to Strawberry Shortcake, The Smurfs, and Fritz the Cat.) So, as the readers of the 1940s and 1950s aged, new lines of comics appeared that were slanted to an increasingly adult audience. Today – in a country where manga accounts for one third of all books and magazines – everybody reads comics, adults and children alike. There are titles targeted specifically at all males and females of all age groups. Even so, there is still a lot of cross-over. Certain children's titles have a larger turnover than can be accounted for if a lot of adults were not also buying. (The popularity of Sailor Moon, for instance, exceeds anything explainable merely from its mid-teenage-female target audience.)
That we in the West do not have a similar comic-saturation can most likely be attributed to two main factors. (1) We did not have Osama Tezuka. (2) We did have Fredric Wortham.
Fredric Wortham was a New York psychiatrist, living in the USA in the 1950s, who noticed that a lot of juvenile delinquents read comic books. Ignoring the fact that a lot of non-delinquents also read the things, he concluded that getting rid of comic books would eliminate juvenile delinquency. An incredible number of people all over the world believed him. (He was, after all, an expert.) There was a short film doing the rounds of science fiction conventions here in Australia several years ago, of an actual 1950s television programme which explained that, although words alone were okay, combining them with pictures automatically caused confusion, sadism, and juvenile delinquency. It featured a kid who used to read comics, and was now much happier now that he had quit.
Comics were purified to such an extent that sales in the USA today are a third of what they were in the early 1950s.
Wortham did not go over too big in Japan, however, although there too there were voices demanding regulation. Unlike the USA, the comics industry in Japan ignored the calls, and the would-be reformers eventually gave up. Today in that country, there are something like ten comics for each man, woman, and child.
Although comics are mostly called "manga" in Japan, the English word "komiksu" is not unknown. The flavour of the Japanese product is so distinctive, it is generally still called "manga" even when translated into English.
Merely translating into English is not enough. Manga are read from what we would consider to be the back of the magazine to the front, from the right of the page to the left, and from the top to the bottom and the right to the left of each word balloon. Consequently, in English versions, the artwork is usually mirror-flipped. This can produce some odd effects, particularly with such things as wrist watches and steering wheels. Artwork has to be altered where word balloons are different shapes, and where English sound effects do not match the original Japanese. And the effects are not just to depict noises! There are visual effects, (knives go "glint" for instance) and emotional states have their own language. Westerners are often given horizontal dialogue, even when they are speaking Japanese. When Japanese is written horizontally it reads from left to right, since the end of World War 2, at least. (Exception: letters and symbols on the sides of buses/taxis/ships/spacecraft/etc all read from the nose to the tail, no matter which way the bus/taxi/etc/etc is pointing.)
Manga frequently get spun off into tv shows, movies and video games. (This can also work backwards. Video games have inspired manga before this. Even in the West, things such as The Mario Brothers have been turned into movies.)
As with a lot of English words adopted into the Japanese language, "animation" has been cut down to a more convenient size, namely "anime". (In the Japanese system of syllableisation, words simple to us become unnecessarily humungous. Consequently words like "inflation" get reduced to "infooray", and "building" – as in Western style architecture – becomes "biru".) There seems to be a tendency, particularly with SBS, to call anime "manga animation", or simply "manga". This is not simplifying things!
Many movies and tv shows are done animated because it is cheaper that way than with live actors and expensive special effects. This logic has yet to reach us, unless it is something for the kiddies. (The movie Cool World was cancelled just days before cinema release, because someone realised it contained animation...and it was not fit for children! Since then the movie has appeared directly in the video stores, by-passing cinemas entirely. Its reception, for one reason or another, has not exactly been all raves.)
Japan produces huge quantities of animated science fiction, all as much subject to Sturgeon's Law as everything else. Comparatively little of even the best is readily available in Australia, although in America at least, more people seem to be realising there is a market for animation. If you want to get any of the translated stuff in this country, though, it pays to have access to a video-converter, as most of it will be in the American-style NTSC format. (Most VCRs made these days also have the ability to play NTSC.)
Most of the exceptions seem to be stuff brought out by Harmony Gold, before they went bust. The most famous examples of HG is the English-dubbed Robotech series. (If you think dubbing into English merely involves overlaying foreign words and phrases with English equivalents, then Robotech will lend entire new meaning to the term "dubbing".) Not only do new nationalities creep in with new names (EG Hikaru Ichijo becomes Rick Hunter) but totally new sub-plots come into being. These new story threads help camouflage the fact that – to pad out the American version of the television release to reel in more money during syndication – two other unrelated Japanese series have been glued onto the end of the original Macross, and the whole presented as one long multi-generation saga. Due to design similarities between giant transforming robots in all three, the result more or less works. However the middle part drags on a lot, particularly with the removal of all the footage of the female lead's endless shower scenes. (Practically the only thing it had going for it.) Even in Japan Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross was so dull that ratings forced it to be brought to an end in far less than the planned number of episodes. When Robotech appears here in Australia, no matter where it is screened it always seems to get killed halfway through, (due to falling ratings I presume) in the middle of the Southern Cross part.
The Americans liked the transforming robot idea so much that they ripped off Macross to come up with Transformers. Transformers so intrigued the Japanese that they bought the rights from the Americans and did a few original stories of their own.
Another Japanese series to make it here was Starblazers. When it began, a Green Guide reviewer panned it as being a pathetically unoriginal imitation of Star Wars. He was obviously unaware that the original Japanese version of the series aired years before Lucas made Star Wars.
There is much animated material that is not generally available – in the USA or Australia – and does not look like becoming so in the near future either. One example, a series that became a favourite of mine, is Kimagure Orange Road. (The "kimagure" part translates as "capricious" or "whimsical"). KOR originally began as a manga, which became adapted into a 46-episode animated tv series, and then a cinema release animated movie. After that the stable was added to with four OAVs (original audio visual episodes made for the video market only, in this case being based on stories from the manga which had never been adapted for the screen before.) More recently the author of the manga wrote a book which was a sequel to the animated version of his work. The book became the basis for a second movie. The movies and the OAVs are available on officially released, subtitled videos – all in NTSC format. There are as yet no sign of release any of the 46 tv episodes. Talk yes, action no. (All the same, this part of this article is likely to date the fastest).
Thanks to anime clubs, stuff like KOR can be obtained in this country. (Depending on the source, sometimes programmes come with Japanese commercials included.) It is a matter of knowing where to look.
Cultural differences abound, naturally. You expect to see things like shoes off at the door, eyes going up and down while a letter is being read, and people sitting on the floor – but other things can come as bit of a jolt. Christmas in Japan – where only 1% of the population is Christian – is a major event. (After all, when it all boils down with all its trappings, how much does the Christmas festival have to do with Christianity?) Valentine's Day is another major event, cursed by unpopular boys, when girls give chocolates to boys they like. (Boys do not give girls chocolate, the flow is strictly one way. The chocolate companies would probably prefer otherwise, but that is not the way the day evolved in Japan.)
Body language is not always the same. Nodding and shaking the head still mean what you expect, but there is a hand-flapping "bye-bye"-style gesture that means "come here." Then there are things like "idoru". "Idoru" is the English word "idol" in a Japanese accent. (Idoru is also the title of a book by William Gibson. Heaven knows how it is expected to be pronounced in English speaking countries.) Idols are usually singers, usually female, and usually young, whose main function appears to be cute, and little else. This will help you understand characters like Minmay in what was seen here as Robotech: The Macross Saga.
Culture shock is a two-way street. There is a sequence in the Kimagure Orange Road series where a girl writes in icing on a monster Valentine's chocolate the English words "For my Daring". The logic is quite obvious. R and L sounds are made with the tongue aimed at the roof of the mouth, and are considered identical by the average Japanese. The writer obviously knew there was a separate L sound, and the R was obviously already there in the "da" syllable, so…. (Even In English there are some sounds we consider identical which aren't. Try saying Pat and Spat while holding a lit match in front of your lips. There is a rush of air in the P in pat not there in spat. And there is an implosion of sorts at the end of tap. When I tried this with a match, I put the flame out with all three words. The 1950s Astounding in which I found this gem of linguistic information said it should only happen with pat. Maybe I speak funny.)
Characters who are Westerners can be really interesting when they are written by Japanese. Talk about seeing yourselves as others see us. I am still recovering from the anime about the evil Americans trying to buy up Japan. It was not a turn-about story. The writer seemed concerned with real issues. Paranoia is indeed universal. None of the Americans in Deep Blue Fleet seemed unsympathetic – just staggered at how badly they were losing World War II to the noble Japanese forces. Armed with a knowledge of our time-line, they make WW2 come out so that the right side wins this time. In one of the Kimagure Orange Road OAVs, the three central characters holiday in Hawaii. Unlike the manga version of the story, the kidnapping which seems to happen really happens. At the end all three return to the security and safety of Japan. Despite the blood-drenched stories the place produces, Japan is actually one of the most crime-free places on Earth.[Photo of yours truly (with trouble-making camcorder) in Tokyo]
A major source of frustration in watching videos fresh from Japan is not being able to understand what the characters are saying. Even in videos where action says all, it is still nice to know what people are waffling about. (For instance: it is possible to figure out most of what is going on in the Gunbuster videos from the pictures, but without dialogue the plot complexities involving the time-distorting effects of near-light-speed travel would go right by the viewer.)
Fortunately, with so many computer-armed fans of Japanese animation out in the world, some knowing the Japanese language to some extent or other, synopsis and/or translations are frequently available. This means you can sit at your tv, watching your favourite Japanese video, glancing occasionally to a computer printout in one hand. With any luck, the printout will explain what is going on. (Not always. Some of those things are done by speakers of English only, whose "synopsis" are done by looking at what is happening on the screen, guessing what is happening, and sometimes guessing wrong. I do not know why these people bother.) It is always nicer to have the translation on the screen, where it can be seen together with the action. This naturally leads to the fan-subtitled video.
Manga/comic production is different between Japan and the USA. In America, comic book artists draw fewer pages to a higher quality, whereas quantity is the key-word in Japan. The more popular a manga is, the more its creator is expected to churn out in a short time. Author burnouts are common.
The average manga artist has about 30 pages to play with, per week. Compiled into paperback, stories can run ten volumes (10,000 pages) There is room for experiment, camera angles, symbolism, etc. far exceeding what a US comic artist has. Stories are highly visual – lucky for the Japanese speed-reader with lots of comics to get through. (Also lucky for Western viewers watching manga-based videos. Dialogue is not always essential to following the plot.) As in the movies, symbolism is important. (EG: When two samurai hack it out to the death, the trees around them are usually barren of leaves.)
American comics are frequently about super heroes existing in a shared universe, and are written and drawn by a full staff. Japanese manga are normally the product of one person – who is usually both artist and writer – and super-heroes are far less common. Characters who do have special powers usually have a more "realistic" kind, such as ESP. (This said, The X-Men are enjoying something of a boom in Japan at the moment.) In the USA characters are usually owned by the comics company their creator works for. (See the problems Siegel and Shuster went through to get officially acknowledged as the creators of Superman.)
The creator of a manga has the final say about his work. While a Japanese artist can be called on to alter his work for, say, adaptation to a Western market, once he dies his work becomes sacred. There is a sequence in Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf where activities in a Jewish synagogue look a lot more like goings-on in a Christian church. Tezuka is dead, so there was no getting him to change the artwork when Adolf was translated into English. When you read Adolf in English, the panel appears much as Tezuka drew it, just with an explanatory note and disclaimer added underneath.
The original manga is taken as being the definitive word, in all things. When City Hunter was adapted for television, the lead character was shown flying an aeroplane in one story. When the manga later disclosed this same character had a dread fear of flying, this fear made the jump to television too, erasing any indication there had ever been anything to the contrary on screen before. When This is Greenwood was adapted for the screen, stories were taken out of sequence … but kept the manga chronology. When characters who had not even been introduced on the screen-version yet were influencing the plot, viewers were referred to the manga for an explanation of the oddities.
As one would probably suspect, big money is to be had in the Japanese comic industry, for those who can consistently turn out a popular product. Rumiko Takahashi, creator of the Urusei Yatsura series, is the fifth-richest woman in Japan. (Obviously not every person who sets pen to paper becomes the fifth-richest woman in the country. It stands to reason they become the sixth richest, seventh richest, etc etc)
When in Japan – on the most expensive overseas trip I have had in my life – I obtained every single issue of the Urusei Yatsura manga series, along with Kimagure Orange Road and Video Girl Ai. I actually had to force myself not get some stuff I wanted, because the size and weight limitations of my luggage had reached crisis point as it was.
There are a total of fifteen paper-back sized volumes in the Video Girl manga series. Like most such books, they are compiled from a series that ran in a weekly magazine. In this country you can slide almost any weekly magazine under the door. In Japan the typical weekly is the same size as a big-city telephone book. My first exposure to Video Girl Ai began in a weekly whose name translates as Weekly Boys Jump. A girl spends 18 pages waiting for a phone call from her boyfriend. Sounds dull. Wasn't. (Girl keeps staring at telephone, waiting. Decides to buy answering machine so as not miss his call. Girl watches answering machine. Girl goes to bathroom. Phone rings. Machine not in answer mode. Should she call the boy back? Suppose the call was not from him? And on and on.) It hooked me enough to look for the first book in the series. (Boy feels rejected when the girl he is secretly in love with falls for his best friend. He gets an idol video to drown his sorrows. The girl on the tape pops out of the screen. The boy's life then gets incredibly complicated.) Getting the first book led to my collecting the entire series. I was unable to do that in this country, because of a resurgence of cries for censorship in Japan.
On the censorship front, (in the late 1980s / early 1990s) there were new calls for regulation of manga in Japan, and a sign that the callers were being listened to – at least to an extent. The new cries began around the time a Japanese mother bought a manga for her child, on the reasoning that the "deformed"-style artwork on the cover indicated it was made for young children – which is usually the case. In this instance, however, it was one of the porno-publications.
When it was revealed a Japanese serial killer was a big fan of pornographic manga – even to signing his taunting letters to the police with the name "Yuko Imada", one of his favourite characters – things really stirred up. Following this, I found myself unable to get the complete set of the Video Girl Ai manga series, because in volume 5 one of the female characters appears completely nude. Volume 5 is back on the shelves now, but the offending female is now preserving morality (and presumably also thwarting any homicidal inclinations) by wearing panties.
There was a lot of ranting and raving in Japan for a while, with people being prosecuted in the interests of decency. Now it seems to be business as usual in the manga industry. As far as anime is concerned…well, the decline has been under way for some time now. The West has always seen only the vaguest tip of the iceberg as concerns anime and manga, so what is happening is not so obvious from here. These days there is a trend toward playing it safe, not taking risks, to go with tried formula. It was not that New York psychiatrist who was responsible for the wussing-out of the British magazines of my childhood – at least, not entirely. What happened was the makers catered for the market forces – or what they saw as market forces. They same kind of thing happened in television, around the time of The Fugitive. Instead of trying something new which we might lose big on, let's go for what we know works. Let's have the central character of this new series go on the run from the police! People with that same kind of logic are at work in Japan. (Over there they seem to want to make Sailor Moon their equivalent of Dr Kimble. Magical girl shows to the same formula seem to be breeding.) Making popular manga into long-running tv series has given way more to activities like making it a series of short video tapes – much less risky. The accountants are taking over the world, pretty much everywhere, these days.
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