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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2001

More to it than meets the eye: the private world of 'manga'

ADULT MANGA: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society, by Sharon Kinsella. Curzon Press, 2000, 228 pp., $19.95 (paper).

"Manga" leads a double life in Japan. Its popularity as entertainment for the masses is well-known: Subway riders furtively flip through its pages, young people crowd into convenience stores to read the latest installment of their favorite series, and gaggles of schoolgirls chat about their heroine's latest escapades. There are manga coffee shops and bookstores, manga conventions and art exhibits, manga Web sites and international conferences. In fact, manga is such a ubiquitous form of contemporary popular culture that it has often been compared to air.

The private world of manga, however, is relatively unknown to a large segment of the English-speaking audience. Award-winning authors like Fred Schodt, in "Manga, Manga! The World of Japanese Comics and Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga," have deepened readers' general appreciation of manga, but very few studies have concentrated on the interrelationship between the industry and contemporary Japanese culture and society.

Sharon Kinsella's "Adult Manga" is the first English book to give a detailed, "behind the scenes" account of this reclusive industry. In her introduction, for example, she describes the volatile relationship between the contemporary creators of manga and their editors: "The manga world vibrates with secrets and rumors about artists abducted by their editors, artists who escaped through toilet windows, artists who fled their studios overnight, artists who beat up their editors, leaving them with facial scars, and artists who committed suicide."

For a female researcher to penetrate this cloistered world, she would have to possess an intrepid spirit and a sense of humor wide and deep enough to take her through the tangles of cross-cultural and gender relationships. Kinsella, who is a researcher at the University of Cambridge, navigates her way through these thickets with aplomb and brings a special insider's knowledge to her subject matter. She did a nine-month stint in the editorial offices of the manga magazines Morning and Afternoon and conducted over 300 hours of interviews with some of the most influential and celebrated executives and artists in the industry.

In her role as a participant-observer of this iconoclastic industry, she was able to gain unprecedented access to information, but she also had to endure some unique complications for a serious academic scholar. After work, Kinsella would invite editors out for an interview. While most of their discussions took place in a professional setting, a few inebriated interviewees viewed her invitation in a different light.

"My already imprecise identity as a (young, white, female) researcher tended to become blurred with that of a badly trained bar hostess in the hazed judgment of some editors. As the night drew on, some of them became personal, amorous or abusive, as well as informative."

Although she might have been a "badly trained bar hostess," she is a supremely gifted writer and researcher. "Adult Manga" begins with a short history of manga and subsequent chapters take us through a description of the production style, an examination of the increased vigilance by government agencies and the surging interest in manga as a corporate tool for information and public relations in the 1980s.

The second half of the book examines alternative manga, the legal structure of manga censorship and regulation, and the changing relationships between the editors, who are member of the cultural elite, and their working-class artists and audience.

By looking at the inside world of manga and the subtle, ever-changing interrelationships between the writers, copy editors, editors, artists, graphics designers and distributors, we are also able to better appreciate the effort and forethought that has gone into their creation and gain a more comprehensive view of the industry and its readers.

For example, many uninitiated Western commentators actually scoff at adults who appear to be regressively poring over comic books while commuting to work on the train. Manga, however, is not defined by its content, as Kinsella emphasizes: It is first and foremost a medium that uses words and pictures in tandem to present an animated reading experience to a highly segmented mass audience. Treating manga as simple-minded American-style comics or as exclusively fetish-driven and sexually perverted lowbrow entertainment is a colossal misreading of the diversity of its market.

As with pop art, the content of manga is wildly varied and idiosyncratic, ranging from the neoconservative to the wildly avant-garde, from tepid love stories for love-starved teenagers to exotic fantasies for the middle-aged. And that diversity may just be the secret of its popularity, if not of its longevity.

Buoyed by the interest of the Western media, manga has found a growing international audience. Kinsella, however, is pessimistic about its potential for domestic growth. After peaking in the '70s and '80s, the huge expansion of the Internet and video-game industries have let some of the steam out of four decades of growth.

To ensure that manga does not become a living dinosaur, the best and brightest of its marketing executives are devising new strategies for delivering manga to a wider audience. If their plans fail, the author's dismal prognosis may prove to be prophetic:

"The immense manga medium has flowered in the space of only four decades and like springtime in a desert it may disappear entirely from the face of society as rapidly as it appeared."

Philip Zitowitz teaches at Meiji University in Japan.

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