Writing about an entire medium is hard.
We are familiar with them pretty much throughout our whole lives, even if we don’t necessarily connect with them immediately in any meaningful way, we generally know of their existence, especially in the case of television, movies, and songs. To write about your whole experience with a medium, be it film or music, must be emphatically difficult. Not only because mediums by nature are so heavily varied and to make grand statements on them would be largely inaccurate as there’s always an artist who creates the exception to the rule, but also because of how they play a part in our lives. And while there may be a point when someone becomes an outright nerd for some of these rather than a casual fan, it is usually a specific genre most likely which they have been able to connect to, leaving them absent to a detailed understanding of it. Of course, then there are the niche mediums which people are more likely to get into through personal interest, such as comic books and Anime. While we become mildly obsessed with them and they take up a large portion of our time when they do, they can be easier to keep track of. Hence why my Anime List is much more concise than my Letterboxd list.
And this is especially true of the medium which I have most recently sought to acclimate myself to, Manga. I still can’t really write something like the history of the medium or what particular artists in it stand out, as I still lack the proper knowledge on that forefront, but I have gotten into it recently enough to keep track on my own personal history with it in a detailed fashion. I suppose if there’s a purpose to this Article, other than allowing a platform to display some of my brief opinions on Manga since MAL doesn’t allow a notes section on it’s Manga lists like it does on Anime lists, it’s to provide a look into the life and trivial difficulties of getting into the manga, which could potentially provide a guide for any aspiring manga readers to follow while I’m at it.
So, with that introduction out of the way, allow me to take you into the backlog of my roughly one year history with Manga.
Naturally, like many, I decided to start reading Manga because of my interest in Anime. My history with that one may be a subject for another article in the future if I feel like it. Though this wasn’t immediate, as although there was a significant Manga section in my local Waterstones, I was intimidated by the Right-Left format, thinking I wouldn’t be able to feel accustomed to it. I also wasn’t particularly sold on the uncoloured art of it all. Thinking that I would find a lot of it a chore to read through. Most of all, I just felt that since Anime adaptations for a lot of popular Manga already existed, I could just watch them instead of having to ploughing through black and white pages of it for endless hours. These thoughts now sound hilarious to me by the way, but I’ll get into how much later.
Where it started to change for me was when I watched more and more Anime, beginning to distinguish between titles I liked and those I didn’t like, and my knowledge of the medium expanded. With it came the realisation of how different Anime and Manga could be. The fact that there can be weak adaptations of strong source material, that Anime adaptations can often remain unfinished, and that some Manga titles for some reason or another didn’t and were unlikely to get an Anime adaptation.
Before I had even read anything, I had gathered the knowledge that there were certain titles in the medium which could tackle areas which Anime would only tiptoe around at best due to censorship restrictions. Topics like sexuality, politics, religion, genocide, the human condition, all those cheery topics which made those titles seem more interesting to me at that time than what I was getting out of Anime. That isn’t to say a story handling these topics automatically improves it’s quality, just that it makes for a more immediately noticeable and intriguing from the outset.
Still, I was intimidated by the style of most Manga for the reasons mentioned before. I did once try reading the first few pages of ‘Attack on Titan’ in Waterstones and only stopped because I was stripped of time while I was there that day, so it didn’t really allow for any impression to form on me. The point however which really made me decide that I should really try it out was when I watched Under the Scope’s excellent video on ‘Oyasumi Punpun’, which made me decide to read it, meaning I would also likely have to read other Manga.
Of course, the fact that Manga, especially titles without an adequate Anime adaptation, is difficult to access outside of there without poor scanlations online didn’t help. It was here where I did make my first attempts to begin reading. When I tried this on my computer, I found the task of sitting up and reading the flat screen jarring. I then opted to read them from my iPad instead, since it replicated the feeling of holding a book a lot better.
So, to avoid having to spend a lot on multiple volumes of a single series, I used pirating websites to begin reading Manga. I already planned for multiple different titles to read, but the first one I chose to, before ‘Punpun’ because I felt the high regard it was held in made it too important to experience without gaining an understanding of the medium first hand, was ‘Berserk’. Yeah, not exactly small beginnings there I know.
Keep in mind all the qualms I discussed earlier about reading Manga were ruminating in my head as I began reading this, page by page while trying to keep mindful of the fact that I was supposed to read it from right to left, and soon enough, I found that I was reading it with great ease. It perhaps doesn’t need to be pointed out that on the technical side of things, ‘Berserk’ is an excellent Manga with famously detailed Artwork which really helps to bring a very real sense of weight and gravity to it’s battle scenes. And the black and white Manga colour pallet adding a physical grittiness to them, as they help to bring out a lot of the dirt from the floor beneath the soldier’s feet, while the strongly defined outlines of each characters ensures that the reader is able to distinguish each and every one of them.
This is just quoting a Wikipedia article of course, since everyone already knows this about Miura’s artwork, but what made an even bigger impression on me was the panelling. The frequent use of large scale panels between pages to display the artwork and the scope of the opening battle (which is repeatedly used throughout the rest of the series, often in more dramatic circumstances but always with a sense of purpose) which helped the task of reading it a lot easier for me, especially with the well placed vertical smaller panels often placed to the side to ensure that these panels didn’t overtake the whole Manga, maintaining a level of balance which keeps the viewer’s attention paid firmly to the happenings of the story.
The other important aspect of ‘Berserk’, and the one which was perhaps most influential in allowing me to figure out my own preferences for Manga I would read later on, was the dialogue. More specifically, how minimal that dialogue was, as Miura is clearly a very visual artist, keeping exposition regarding the narrative to a minimum by having his expository dialogue only appear when it is truly necessary and allowing the imagery to tell the story more freely. This helps each individual chapter of the manga to move along at a constant pace which never feels too slow, something which became apparent to me after I finished that first chapter and continued reading into the next few, which didn’t take as long as I expected because the following chapters were on average only 20 pages in length.
It’s worth noting that I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly quick reader at all. For me, it can often take an extensive number of minutes for me to complete a single chapter in a novel, or an issue of a Western comic book, which is often exacerbated if the format of a particular work does something that throws me even just a bit off and causes me to be not completely invested in it. And this has happened with some manga that I’ve tried out so I won’t pretend the medium is completely guilt free of this either. But the minimalist presentation of reading words that I find to be more prominent in manga than in Western comics (with exceptions of course) was a significant factor in helping me to become more invested in the medium.
The fact that I was able to read through this already long series so quickly was a true sudden joy to me, who was afraid the task of reading manga would take up too much of my busy time, and early on established a definite preference for me for more fast paced yet methodical and picturesque manga which didn’t allow their dialogue to hold the reader’s pace hostage, allowing them to feel weighty and impactful without coming across as overbearing. This is not to necessarily speak for the actual content of such works or their subjective quality being influenced fully by the format in which they are presented, but it was what was finally able to help me latch onto the medium.
Of course, it didn’t take me long to find out that not all Manga was as finely packaged in its storytelling abilities as this, as I found with some of the other early titles I read. The first of these being ‘Madoka Magica: the Different Story’, which I started reading primarily just because I felt I should have a title which was completed which was short enough for me to complete quickly. There were probably shorter titles I could read a lot quicker if I wanted that, I realise now, as the twelve chapters were each longer than what I had recently become accustomed to, and significantly more dialogue driven, which made for a contrast I could quickly distinguish my preferences for format-wise.
Another title I decided to check out early on was ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’. Although I did make a promise for myself to opt away from reading Manga which already had Manga adaptations (this was back then, I may make more exceptions for it now though) I decided to read it because having seen both Anime adaptations I decided this would be the story in it’s definitive form. Having previously heard of how ‘Brotherhood’s early episodes were condensed, which having seen the 2003 version I could easily see, I was struck therefore when I saw that the Manga was actually a lot closer to those early episodes pacing wise than I thought, with the chapters even taking only slightly less time to get through than their respective episode counterparts.
I don’t wish to make it sound as though I’m inherently prejudiced against manga with 50 page chapters, I bring this up mainly because I became caught off guard in the earlier days and something I found I needed to prepare myself for if I wanted to give myself free time for other things. And it wasn’t as though I was completely averse to it, as about half way through my read of it (when I had also found the time to read other Manga in the meantime) I decided to start reading the copies of FMA in Waterstones instead to stop inadvertently providing funding to pirate sites. And I found reading through physical copies made the reading easier and provided it a more satisfying feeling.
It helped that while I was a bit caught off by how weak some of the humour in the series could be early on, that was the point in the story where slowly but surely I remembered why I loved the series to begin with, as the whole mythos of the thing in that extended lengthy climax was truly a pinnacle in narrative structuring, character progression, and thematic conclusiveness. And comparing it with the Anime adaptation, the sense of nostalgia it invoked in me allowed me to understand the appeal of reading manga whose adaptation a reader had already seen, as there is a great comfort in knowing already what path a story takes. As I had already watched ‘Berserk’s Anime, I did have a somewhat similar experience with that, but this time with a cast of characters I remembered more clearly and felt more of an affinity for.
I don’t intend to use this article simply to produce a mini review for every manga I’ve ever read, but rather as a portrait of how my introduction to the medium shaped my thoughts on it, but then we get to the point where the medium truly became something else for me than a little hobby. That was when I decided to finally read ‘Punpun’. I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, being only vaguely aware of what it was about and that it was apparently adult. Having been around the Wyald arc of the Golden Age saga in ‘Berserk’ at that point, I was firmly familiarised with the medium’s intense ability to venture into extremely hardcore territories than any other work of media which only leave you to speculate on the more graphic segments of its darker material. The fact that the Wyald Arc’s treatment of rape being considered problematic would be a huge understatement is beside the point. The point is that I began reading ‘Punpun’ thinking even with it’s 20 page-average chapters to be something that I would read as an odd experience.
When I did read it, I found myself entranced in it. The story of Onodera Punpun and his longing to be loved and in depth examination of the ugly and selfish thoughts that he and many of the people around him kept with themselves and coped with while wading through the frustrations of adult life in a less than quirky way became something that quickly resonated with me. Something that I used the volume format for to read on average a volume or two in one sitting and managed to complete less than a week after I started because it’s loose yet concise narrative and always engaging developments in where these thoughts that felt to me like they had read my own and understood me while refusing to cater and glamorise those thoughts I felt ashamed of simply caused me to need to know what happened in the next chapter.
Now, I won’t say that Punpun was a whole life changing experience for me personally. I won’t say that it forced me to confront myself in a way that few works of fiction could ever hope to match, whether it be in the portrayal of sexuality stemming from the often stubborn (in his younger years) and self entitled title character, or Seki’s committed faux nihilism which prevents him from trying to aim for something else in life which provides the series with a greater sense of nuance to prevent from being an all encompassing edge fest. I won’t say that it’s portrayal of victims and victimisers was such a hauntingly personal experience for me. I won’t go on about separating my own personal feelings towards it, it is such an objectively excellent work of fiction and one which utilises every component of the manga medium to it’s fullest potential. I won’t say that every single page and panel is infused with such artistic/narrative care that it continuously captivates the reader. I won’t say that it’s artwork is among the most incredible I’ve ever laid sense upon, adding to the intense realism of the whole thing.
I won’t say any of the things that I just said with that whole paragraph. But I will say that on the artwork side of things, one of the many ways it helped me gain a greater interest in the medium was how it incorporated black and white imagery to enhance its artistry. The vast majority of manga is of course uncoloured to allow for faster production, setting it apart from much Western publication and something that I worried when getting into manga would make it less accessible, because the lack of colour would potentially cause the imagery to lack much sense of vibrancy or personality, and while I understood that images without colour could have an enhanced atmosphere, but Punpun in particular showed how it created this sort of ambivalent and un-vibrant environment through such imagery which lends it a strange sense of detached intimacy which is excellent for character drama.
Both ‘Berserk’ and especially ‘Punpun’ showcased how colourless imagery could enhance the intended, often harsh emotions of a scene in a way which, in the case of the latter, spoke to me as both someone who aspires to illustrate despite the results of my work often setting to a less than satisfying standard, it made me come to a realisation. One that would be enhanced when I decided to try out reading more physical copies of Manga and read the author’s notes which were sometimes placed at the ends of volumes (a feature I love when it happens by the way) of how much of an artist’s medium it was. How even in it’s most basic format, manga seemed to me like this gloriously personal experience and one which begot an extensive amount of passion into it, one which even in it’s lower quality could demand more attention from me than most other mediums. One which also presented stories evidently very personal to their respective authors. In other words, it was a medium that I felt was almost made for me, with how it incorporated both visual and verbal information. Through aesthetic appeal which lent it a fine mix of uniformity and diversity to keep me invested in the medium in multiple ways.
The emotional resonance I extrapolated from ‘Punpun’ was again somewhat replicated in Asano’s other work I sought out, specifically ‘Solanin’ which was a lot more down to earth and less gruesome, but no less harrowing. And, since I always half heartedly use money I get for my birthday, having little real inclination to get anything, I decided that since I couldn’t read the sealed off manga in Waterstones, I could use part of it to purchase one of them, so I got Asano’s ‘A Girl on the Shore’, a manga known for it’s extremely explicit sexual content and unforgivingly raw depiction of youthful ambivalence which now has the honour of being the only manga I own an official copy of.
And venturing outside the realms of gritty Seinen, other emotional narratives such as ‘Orange’ and ‘A Silent Voice’ presented a similar emotional intensity which while constructed naturally by their writing, were also enhanced by their liberal use of large panels which enhanced a scene without coming across as needlessly show-offish, and enhanced by the enhanced care of cuteness imbued into their respective character designs, which the comparatively less internally fleshed designs which drawing-wise concentrated more on outlines of their features served to achieve, creatively a more latch-able character for the reader to wish protection towards.
This is what led me to spend a good portion of my time reading Shoujo manga and begin reading ‘Horimiya’ both at Waterstones and online. Though this does bring me to the more complicated process of how I would decide what to read next. Especially given my more recent aversion to the use of pirate sites, I opted to go to Waterstones and see what they had in stock, which had the advantage of changing its selection every so often, allowing me to go there continuously. But it has the natural disadvantage of leaving certain series incomplete, especially the longer running or more recent ones, what with the limited physical space in the shop. This often leads to me completing a single first volume in a single sitting and being left either waiting for the next volume to turn up in the shop which has only occasionally ever happened, or resort to seeking them out online.
It’s a shame too, because the presence of manga in that shop has made the task of deciding what to read easier for me. After all, having been introduced to a whole medium means there are hundreds of titles out there that I still have yet to read after a year, and from that I was able to have a concentrated selection of titles to browse through and pick out what to watch. And from it, I did manage to pick up some decent titles that maybe wouldn’t have been the first things I would read if I had access to every acclaimed title that was considered the ones I should read above all else. This included Junji Ito works, hidden gems such as Kaori Ozaki’s ‘The Gods Lie’, Yuuta Nishio’s ‘After Hours’, and Nagabe’s ‘The Girl from the Other Side’. Each of which may have only slipped past my radar if not for their inclusion in that collection. I even found the time to start reading a cute little gag manga about a Polar Bear in love with a Seal.
But beyond what was available there, I do now find myself having to search beyond that if I really have a desire to read the stuff I’ve put on my Plan to Read list, which for the most part I sincerely do. The list in question is something I built up through the recommendations of people far more experienced than me, similar to Anime I plan to watch, but it wouldn’t feel right if I had to read all of them online. At the same time, I can’t really imagine buying that much manga physically with money, at least not long running series. Any that I buy would likely have to be short ones so I can save money a lot better, even if with how quick I can read a single volume, it often feels like they cost too much to be equivalent to the time I spend reading them but, that’s a whole other issue.
But even with the irritating blocks against my ability to read more, I am honestly still anticipating reading more. As I said before, the format of the medium has resonated with me, and provided me with some of the most intimately touching or at least interesting media I’ve encountered as of late. That’s not to say every manga I’ve read has necessarily pleased me. Reading the original manga of ‘Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid’ only showed me how much the Anime adaptation managed to miraculously improve something which, was just outright trash I’m not going to sugar coat it. Other times when stripped of much else to read, I’ve actively sought out reading trash. Looking at ‘The Water Dragon’s Bride’ in particular. There I go just trying to name check everything I’ve read again. Indulgence aside, I still highly anticipate how much Manga looks set to take up a good portion of my creative influence in the future.
I haven’t even talked about minuscule details such as how often I’ve looked at first chapters of work to get a taste of it before having it fill up my time, or my attempts to latch onto more Manga through connection between authors. Or my attempts to go into older Manga. If we’re talking really old, the oldest would be Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, which wasn’t as meditative as I anticipated and a bit long for my taste, but certainly had noticeable merit. Or how ‘Forget Me Not’ uses panelling to portray glimpses of psychosexual perversion and internalised misogyny in an intelligent and personal way. Or the most important thing in this whole journey, the fact that the best Manga genre is of course gay romance. It’s just a fact. All because this article has already gone on for a bit long now, so to conclude I want to say this:
Throughout much of this article, where I’ve mostly mentioned ‘Berserk’ and ‘Punpun’, I’ve possibly given the impression that I’m a violence hungry depression monger only capable of enjoying darkness, and I like to think my negative reactions to the early chapters of ‘All you need is Kill’ would disprove that, but as I said before, the format Seinen manga like this is placed in is what makes it the most easy to read for me. Something further shown by how invested and immersed I manage to be in both ‘Vagabond’ and ‘Golden Kamuy’, the latter of which at the time of writing this article is just a month away from the airing of it’s Anime adaptation, marking for me the first time I’ll see first hand the adaptation of a Manga I’ve already read before, not counting ‘A Silent Voice’ which was less of a direct adaptation of its source material.
And while that could have been a decent place to end this article, I instead want to highlight a panel from Iyashikei, ‘Yokohama Shopping Trip’, the Manga which I’ve put on hold from nearly completing for the purpose of this article and the one which has come the closest to rivalling ‘Punpun’ as my favourite Manga. This is despite the fact that in just about every conceivable way, it’s the exact opposite of ‘Punpun’, showing how much of an eclectic taste I’ve developed in my manga journey. It has the most calm and effectively relaxed tone I think I’ve ever encountered in any work of fiction, it’s artwork is good but only truly “incredible” in a few select panels (including the one I’m sharing), and unlike ‘Punpun’ I can’t say I related to it in any way that I can specifically identify. And yet, my fondness for this wonderful manga perseveres through all of that because it’s melancholy and sense of hopeful sadness is just done so well, and the moment which for me best illustrates not only ‘Yokohama’s strength, but the ability of it’s medium to break through the seemingly impossible to push against its own limitations and create a tangible and harmonious feeling. within the reader.
It’s in one of the very earliest chapters, when Alpha (the extremely adorable main character) is at a meeting with her neighbours, and begins to dance in a drunken haze. That setup may not sound like much, but the following few pages when we see her dance are what make it so special. Movement is of course something which the still images of manga can’t convey in its most complete or absolute portrayal, yet these pages manage to do so to an incredible effect which only the medium of manga can really achieve. It achieves this through a combination of thickened and vibrant line-work which fluently creates the illusion of movement with just a handful of pictures displayed on large panels which take up the whole page. The artwork in this scene is incredible, what with the shading helping to lend a calming atmosphere to the setting of this scene and use of waving motion lines to display Alpha’s movements during this dance. It’s hard for me to explain how, but this atmosphere somehow actually makes me hear the music that obviously can’t be heard. The angle from which we see Alpha in all her glorious beauty pulls the reader in with her inviting stare towards us. Maybe I could feel this effect because I read it when I had recently had a dance like this but even so, the technical craft that has gone into making these pages so effective is visible.
The scene would certainly feel less immersive if it were displayed say, with a succession of small panels revealing each intricate and animated movement of the dance, so Ashinano’s precise choice to illustrate the scene in this way displays the level of care that an artist puts in crafting how to have a scene affect the reader. But perhaps the most effective thing about these pages are the context surrounding them, which is bookended by an extremely laid back and sombre sense of serenity and quiet mundaneness, all taking place in a world that has experienced the apocalypse. A world where humanity as a whole is on the verge of its last breaths, yet rather than present a sense of dread at this prospect, the people gathered in this scene have come to enjoy and appreciate what life has to offer them, which is part of what make the world of this series so peculiarly inviting despite that context.
Other moments like this pop up throughout the series, these moments of beauty intercutting between the more simple and activity based scenarios of most of the manga (and this is hardly much of a spoiler I think, especially given how early this scene takes place) but this this first example is perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most throughout my journey reading it. It’s a clear cut example of the level of immersion and dedication that the medium is capable of, to make still images come to life. After all, isn’t life what fiction is ultimately about?
Thanks for Reading