Scrolls, Satire and Strangely Large Eyes: The Prehistory of Manga

When I’m not being a geek over anime, video games and science fiction, I can occasionally be found geeking about writing, literature and history… and what better way to compound my geekiness than combine them all together a bit? And while most of the time I’m content to have a bit of history in my manga – albeit usually rather loose history at best – recently I thought I’d get a bit of manga in my history and do some research on how manga as we know it came to be. And while a lot of people know about how the medium got started in the 20th century, the roots of manga go back a long, long way in Japanese history. So put on your learning caps, guys and gals, as I run you through the abridged history of our favourite Japanese comics.

Ahiru Dodgers of the 12th and a Half Century!

The very first manga, or at least the first precursor to manga in Japan, is generally considered to be a series of scrolls known as the Choju jinbutsu giga, or just Choju giga for short. Read from right to left just like modern Japanese novels and manga, the scrolls depict a series of anthropomorphic rabbits, monkeys and frogs taking part in Buddhist ceremonies, dressing in monks’ robes and engaging in all manner of funny human behaviour. There are no text sections or dialogue balloons, but it’s clear that the artwork is set in a sequence meant to tell a story. It’s a bit like the Japanese equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is also known as an early “cartoon” or “comic”; however, while the Bayeux Tapestry is rather dry and unfunny, the Choju giga has cute animals in fancy dress getting drunk (no furry jokes, please!) If you want to take a look, a Google Image search turns up some good images of the scroll.

There are several similar “story” scrolls floating around from that time period, such as the Shigisan-engi which depicts the foundation of a Buddhist monastery. The whys and wherefores of Heian scroll painting might seem a long way removed from the shoujo and shonen manga we read today, but it was the first step in using sequential artwork (i.e. a series of pictures rather than just one image) to tell a story. Even in medieval times, Japanese artists were making the connection between artwork and long-running narrative… which, really, is what comic books and manga are all about.

Whimsical Pictures

The actual first use of the word manga, however, came quite a bit later in the 17th century. It was around this time that ukiyo-e, or woodblock printing, was becoming all the rage. It provided a way to mass-produce beautiful works of art without having to draw or paint by hand all the time, resulting in a lot of art and books for middle class people as opposed to rich nobles. One artist that produced a lot during this time was a man called Hokusai, he of the famous Mt. Fuji pictures.  He and his students drew a series of 15 books with pictures of everyday life, landscapes, flora and fauna. Unlike the Choju giga, these pictures were not in a sequence and didn’t tell an ongoing story, but they still had a lot of character and narrative strength. Thus, they called the picture books “whimsical pictures”… which, in kanji, works out to manga!

Around the same time, there were also illustrated books called kibyoshi that featured large two-page spread pictures with prose and dialogue filling the “blank spots” or blending in with the artwork. These books were mostly satirical tales with plenty of contemporary slang, references to current trends in fashion and wry commentary on various events of the day. While they may not have exactly been the epic slapstick of Ranma ½ or Azumanga Daioh, they still served as a comedic and artistic outlet for many Japanese, and they are often considered some of the first adult comic books, at least in Japan.

The Father of Manga

Japan began to produce some “proper” comics from the 1890s to 1920s as part of youth anthologies and similar publications. There were lots of kids’ magazines likes Shonen Sekai that, on top of offering games, baseball cards and interviews with famous people, would have a few regular comics. However, these manga comics were still not quite what we imagine when we think of modern manga.

That came about thanks to a man we likely all know and love: Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy (along with numerous others) and the “Father of manga” as he’s often known. Originally a medical student, he grew to love drawing comics and decided to become a manga artist full time. Inspired by the work of Disney and other classic Western animators, he wanted to bring that same style to manga, both in terms of artwork and storytelling. The artistic results are now so easily recognized that they have become a bit of a joke: overly large eyes, flat face, simple features, and crazy hairstyles, all originally inspired by characters like Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. Seriously, if you don’t think anime and Disney have anything to do with each other, take a look at a picture of Astro Boy and Mickey Mouse side by side!

On top of the big eyes and small mouths, Tezuka was also responsible for introducing a more cinematic sensibility to manga. If you read manga, you can see that a lot of the pacing, angles etc. borrow a huge amount from movies; there are close-ups, panoramic “shots”, dynamic action sequences, weird and wonderful angles… it’s really like there’s a camera right in there with the characters (albeit one that sometimes comes with its own SPARKLY BISHONEN/BISHOJO filter!) If that weren’t enough, Osamu Tezuka was not only ridiculously prolific (he wrote/drew 700 titles with over 150,000 pages!) but he dabbled in almost every genre possible and even created a few new ones along the way. Not only did Astro Boy help launch countless manga about robots, little boys and futuristic Earth, but he also created what might be the first magical girl manga (Princess Knight) as well as medical thrillers (Blackjack) and animal drama (Forest Emperor).

Needless to say, Tezuka’s work took Japan – and eventually the world – by storm, creating the entire medium of manga we know and love today. Thanks to him – and to a few 12th and 17th century artists – we now live in a world where we can enjoy tales of manic-depressive boys with giant mechs, ten catgirl fiancées and a power level of over 9000.



What do you know of the history of your favourite geekdom of choice? What other artwork (both in Japan and abroad) do you think gave rise to comics, manga, manhua and so on?

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