Ever since we stepped foot into the enchanting world of manga and anime and declared ourselves as 'otaku'(s) or geeks, we have been fighting a certain battle of allegiance. We have been championing, defending, and asserting the distinction of manga and anime, differentiating them from that of generic 'comic', or God forbid, 'cartoon'! I know I have done it for years!
Perhaps our cringe factor comes from the idea that 'cartoon' or 'comic' is often related to trivial and goofy content targeted towards children, which is not deemed worthy of any serious consideration. As Scott McCloud mentions in his book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993), it is often assumed that comic had silly stories, bad art, and in general, material which was of no consequence. With the advent and popularization of the nomenclature 'graphic novels', did the perception begin to change perhaps. Kudos to the masters such as Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman!
As history buffs would be familiar, a group of young manga artists in the 1950s also went through the same dilemma with manga, which contains the expressions 'man' (whimsical/comical') and 'ga' (pictures). Like cartoons, manga was also assumed to be just a sequence of panels to tickle one's funny bones. They went so far as to establish a different header for themselves, which they called 'gekiga', aka, dramatic pictures; a medium more suitable for longer, serious. adult-oriented narratives.
How is manga different than other comic practices around the globe? Is it because it's primarily Japanese? Is it the sprawling narratives? Is it the stylistics? Is it the production cycle? Is it the visual aesthetics? Scholars have defined manga in their own ways as a 'sensibility', 'experience', a genre under the larger comic 'mode', and so on. I myself have attempted to do so in my doctoral thesis through an idea called the 'family resemblances'. However, my purpose is not to reiterate these debates. My objective here is to share an anecdote which certainly influenced my way of perceiving manga and anime in the recent times.
Last year, I was visiting a part of my family in the marshlands of Sundarbans. For those unfamiliar, Sundarbans, the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger, is located in the Eastern part of India, edging towards the Bay of Bengal. The area is prone to natural disasters like cyclones and floods. As a result, it is often cut off from the rest of the world. Lack of infrastructure and other facilities also contribute the trouble of the residents. They often have to combat extreme conditions to ensure survival. As I was spending days with my relatives in the humble village by the river bank, I encountered my sixteen year old nephew being engrossed on his smart phone with a pocket-friendly internet access plan (which was functional, luckily at the time as the skies were clear). I asked him out of casual curiosity, as to what grabbed his undivided attention! He responded that he is a huge fan of this series of 'ghost cartoon' (bhoot- er cartoon in Bengali, our mutual mother tongue), and has been following it for days. I was unaware of any such contemporary Bengali production. Hence, I peered in. And there it was! This teenager was completely taken in by none other than a global favorite, Death Note! He had no idea that it could be identified as a 'manga' or 'anime' or any other allied nametags. He loved the story and was bingeing it with dedication.
I, like many other fans out there, while trying to establish the distinction of manga which it deserves, had given into the bias, that since everyone does not understand what manga/anime is, the fandom is perhaps a tad niche. It is exclusive, not because of any misplaced elitism, but because it is the community of the misunderstood and the excluded otakus, who spent hours nurturing their love for the medium. However, just because an uninitiated might not grasp the distinction, that does not mean they would not enjoy it! I have shared a lot of anime content (Studio Ghibli productions, Makoto Shinkai's films, Rumiko Takahashi's slice of life tales) with my novice parents, which they absolutely admired! I have paused streaming and have quizzed them about the gender identity of the character on screen, as in certain genres, figures are drawn in a non-binary fashion. (This remains my favorite exercise with my students till date!) Perhaps, the manga scholar Casey Brienza is right when she comments on this long-standing dilemma, 'Why do you care so much?' After all, what is in a name, as long as one understands the worth of the expression and engages with the content passionately? According to certain experts, comic/manga/cartoon does not even require the so called elevated literary validation of them being named and shelved as 'graphic novels'. My uninitiated nephew did not have a superfan's company to walk him through the manga rite of passage and formally convert him into a disciple of the larger geekdom. But looks like he has pretty much found the way himself. Cheers!
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Brienza, C. (2015). “‘Manga Is Not Pizza’: The Performance of Ethno-racial Authenticity and the Politics of American Anime and Manga Fandom in Svetlana Chmakova’s Dramacon.” In, Brienza, C. (Ed.) Global Manga: “Japanese” Comics without Japan? London: Routledge, 95-113.
Johnson-Woods, T. (Eds.). (2010). Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. New York: Continuum Books.
McCloud, S. (1999). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Paradox Press.
Ogi, F. (2018). “Manga Beyond Japan: How the Term Manga Has Globalized”. Orientaliska Studier, (156), 46-62.