Movement in Western and Japanese Comics, or, “There Is No Future Tense in Japanese”

3 November, 2010 § 1 Comment

I’ve been trying to put it into words lately.

I’ve always had trouble with reading manga – I found its pacing too fast and alienating, besides the whole “reading right to left” thing. So I started to read a manga about manga and the culture around it: “Genshiken,” or “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.”

Ohno in her happy place.

What do I think of it? It’s fantastic. It reads sort of like “Freaks and Geeks” about anime/manga/video game fans (“otaku”) without the overt teen drama, and much more funny. While reading it, I thought of why I’ve been averse to reading manga for so long. It took me a while to pin down, but I think I’ve solved it: there is simply a profound cultural difference to Western readers in the way manga handles movement.

I haven’t brushed up on my comics theory in a while (meaning I haven’t read Scott McCloud’s indispensable “Understanding Comics” in a while), but important visual movement happens in and in between comic panels. The West and Japan differ wildly in their handling of this movement. Remember: this is all very generalized, so don’t get too mad when you think of examples to the contrary.

Western comics favor visible movement. Humor, especially in this form, is heavily dependent on comic timing. Take this example from Meredith Gran’s fantastic webcomic “Octopus Pie.”

Click the image for a better view, sorry about the tiling.

This is a GREAT example of movement’s importance in Western comics: we see our hero Eve slip off the roof of a building and fall through the bottom of the panel into the tub of water. Not only is there a lot of movement throughout the first panel, but that movement directly leads into the second panel, and punningly so. It’s gloriously fourth wall breaking, but it also seems natural and just exaggerated enough to be funny.

Japanese comics favor detail and implied movement. Manga panels are intricate, with many strong lines and little touches that liven up backgrounds and character designs. Panels are also relatively big, and I would guess that there are less average panels per page in manga than in Western comics. Because of these large panels, the artist has more room for detail. They also have less room to indicate movement within a panel. (Reminder: read right-to-left!)

Madarame, de facto leader of the Genshiken, explains and demonstrates manga's emphasis on detail. (NERD ALERT: Madarame's squinted eyes are the kana for "hehe." He's quite snide.)

This is why movement is rarely detailed in the panels of manga. Movement is even downplayed when transitioning panel-to-panel. Take the page I took the above panel of Madarame and Tanaka from:

Notice how the movement between panels is not necessarily linear. There is also little indication of movement within the panel. So how did Japan come to think of movement differently than the West?

Rhetoric scholar Fan Shen described the important Chinese rhetorical concept of “yijing.” In yijing, “the process of criticizing a piece of art or literary work has to involve the process of creation on the reader’s part. In yijing, verbal thoughts and pictorial thoughts are one. Thinking is conducted largely in pictures… [Yijing] is not a process of moving…” [emphasis mine]

This is a fascinating concept. Chinese thought has obviously been a huge influence on Japanese thought on rhetoric and images and it’s easy to see yijing in manga: there is little emphasis on movement because in East Asian thought the author delegates the creation of movement to the reader.

For example: if the “Octopus Pie” example were a manga, we might see Eve at the top of the building in one panel and in the next we’d see the splash caused by her fall. The author would let the reader’s mind fill in the events that occurred in between. You can also bet the backgrounds would be INSANELY detailed (which isn’t to say Gran’s aren’t in every other strip – for here, the lack of background provides excellent contrast and emphasis on Eve’s fall).

Western and East Asian concepts of movement are even ingrained into the representation the cultures create of themselves. Western culture prides itself on progress and moving forward; Chinese and Japanese cultures value the present, to the point where the latter doesn’t even have a future tense in their language!

Whoa! Heavy stuff there. But it all provides a fascinating example of how culture and language shape visual arts/rhetoric.

I’ve been trying to put it into words recently, but I guess it should’ve been pictures all along.

PS: This post was inspired by 2-D Teleidoscope, a great blog for those interested in critical studies of anime and manga.

PPS: I’m aware I’ve used manga to implicitly represent much of East Asian sequential art. Any recommendations for manwa or Chinese comics or anything else would be great!

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§ One Response to Movement in Western and Japanese Comics, or, “There Is No Future Tense in Japanese”

  • Eric says:

    For manwha, I’ve only read two. “Kill me, Kiss me” and “Unbalance x Unbalance.”
    Both are romances, but Kill Me is girlier while Unbalance is MUCH more guyish.

    I think for the same reason that you put down on implied movement is the reason why its difficult for manga to become animes and why many manga fans will go on to say that the manga is much better than the anime adapation (and of course theres this case of adaptation decay).
    Its really hard to create movement out of something that implies the movement.

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