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Tales Worth Telling: On Manga, Anime, and how they changed Japanese storytelling

12:00 PM on 05.16.2016 // Yussif Osman

Stay A While, and Listen

I won't hazard a guess as to how many of you have read my previous articles, but something that may have come across is the emphasis I place on the importance of good storytelling. Whether it was Digimon or GATE, that is ultimately what drew me to Japanese animation and comics, the stories that are told to a high, compelling standard and the sheer volume of them. I am not making the case that all manga and anime tell amazing stories, but I believe that a huge number do and that huge number cater to the immense variety of tastes and preferences that people come with.

 

 

Japan has a long and vibrant tradition of storytelling. Of course, there is the current massive industries of anime, manga, light novels and video games, but long before television and anime there was kamishibai, a practice where a street performer would narrate a tale whilst flipping through illustrations on a mobile stage; or rakugo, where the comic or storyteller would perform multiple characters in dialogue with one another with nothing but a fan with which to gesture, meaning characters had to be well developed and distinct.

And then there is kodan, the heroic tale and predecessor to modern Shounen series. Stories told in these ways, for the Japanese people became news and sensation, novel and theatre for people of all classes. A culture so drenched in the art of storytelling has a great deal to teach the world about how to build worlds, create characters and set plots in motion.

In contrast to much of Western media, the bestbetter anime and manga do not patronize the viewer or reader. One Piece for example, is not about what someone thinks people want to see, it is about the story the author and artists want to tell. Hayao Miyazaki was once asked about the creative process for a creator in Japan, in contrast to a creator in the West. In the West, films are often made by committee. I am not saying there is anything wrong with writers' rooms, on the contrary, collaboration can be a wonderful thing, the problems arise when a studio, which has ultimate creative control over a property, makes assumptions about what people want to see.

A number of films come to mind, Fox's interference on Josh Trank's Fantastic Four or the X-men movie universe as a whole, where executives felt the need to simplify characters for an audience who just 'won't get'. I also think of the 4Kids dub of One Piece, where it was assumed that orchestrated music would not appeal to young viewers and certain themes would be inaccessible. I'm not saying that this never happens in Japan, in fact it's probably happening now more than before, but for the most part, Japan with its massive storytelling industry has put emphasis on the importance of story and not just delivery. This is evident in a passion for characters in and of themselves and in a will to drive story and touch readers and viewers, to say something true about the human condition, more than just attempting to entertain. This is storytelling for storytelling's own sake.

When composing each new story, Hayao Miyazaki was concerned with just that, the story, something he has said himself. Japanese animation has confronted the world with rich and deep stories with both real and bizarre characters that speak about what's real in us, in the human condition. One Piece, which is the manga and anime I will use as my primary case study comes to mind here. Overwhelming enemies who engage in fantastic and brutal battles with the rubbery Luffy says a lot about life and the need to overcome moments of adversity by literally bouncing-back and meeting life head on, thus the head-strong, if not simple character of many Shounen heroes.

Even these stories, in all their whimsical adventure, do more than just entertain, they resonate, like I've said before in my article on Digimon, high stakes make for high hopes and therein I believe lies the appeal of epics like Attack on Titan and why it became so popular. And outside the Shounen genre and the work of Hayao Miyazaki we have a plethora of incredibly moving stories, from Makoto Shinkai's 5cm per Second to works such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and The Boy And The Beast, you have a compelling and grounded premises with fantastical characters and circumstances which only enrich and make more vivid the narrative as the characters themselves remain very human, full of awkward subtleties and quirks which make it possible to empathise with them.

At this point, I would like to bring up the tradition of drawing on manga to create anime. There are huge benefits to doing this, not simply because you can simply copy a story on to the screen because it often doesn't work that way, often anime take a concept and re-interpret or build upon an idea, but the benefit of manga is the vast worlds that the characters have emerged from and that has been built around them. Something I find that Japanese media has done very well, whether that's anime, manga or video games, is build tremendous and beautiful worlds and I don't just mean that on an aesthetic level, I refer to histories and politics, nations and ideologies all built from scratch from which incredible stories can spiral. More developed worlds, mean longer runs for readers and viewers to become invested, people grow-up with the characters and see them through their journeys and become committed to the worlds they live in. Worlds you can invest in are richer, richer worlds help make more interesting characters with more interesting histories and good characters with a great world to interact in, makes for a great plot.

These three components: world, character and plot when executed well, I believe are responsible for producing a great story. Recently in Western media, this has also been evidenced with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I will illustrate this now with an anime/ manga which I believe does this best in One Piece. In One Piece, we're faced with the setting of a number of oceans and seas in their own hierarchy of fury and adversity, inhabited by a complex hierarchy of pirates and forces, such as the Marines and the Seven Warlords of the Sea, the revelation of each one being something we always look forward to. Hierarchies and structures within which characters explore their given world, create a framework in which viewers and readers can actually look forward to things, to more of the Wizard Saints in Fairy Tail or more Dragon Slayers.

Then there is the notion that the most expansive sea in the series, the New World is largely unexplored and home to range of bizarre islands, from lightning countries to flaming tundras. But perhaps the most thrilling part of reading or viewing a great world is discovering it from scratch as characters do and One Piece, like many anime and manga does this artfully, leaving us thirsting for more. One could also turn to the slow revelation of the plethora of villages in Naruto or the wider cosmos in the Dragonball series'. And of course one of the most compelling parts of One Piece, is the world's history itself, the missing century and lost civilization which left behind ponelyphs describing its history, secrets that revolutionaries and pirates are trying to unearth and the World Government is trying to keep hidden.

I hope what I've illustrated here is a network of circumstances and characters which interact in complex and far-reaching ways to create what is a compelling plot. Whether they were exploring a new country, liberating one or unearthing new secrets, the Straw Hat Pirates have never bored me and when it has been less thrilling, it is only because of the drastic scale that the series can often rise to. And even away from the high-stakes of One Piece story arcs, the characters and the themes they represent are warm and intimate, such as friendship and how it should be cherished, Usopp's wish to be brave or Robin's wish to live.

I'm not saying great things don't come out of the West, when it comes to animation, I would in particular like to highlight such work as the Batman and X-men animated series' or Transformers which were all incredible, but I'm not trying to make a point about Western media, I'm trying to make a point about anime and manga.  But while we're on the topic of Western media, this is a good opportunity to bring up a handful of ground-breaking series' which have been heavily influenced by anime and manga and in doing so, illustrate how the world's love of Japanese media has created a demand for better storytelling. An obvious series that comes to mind is the Avatar animated saga and its sequel the Legend of Korra.

In the tradition of long-running manga, Avatar brought us a vast world to explore and high-stakes politics to understand alongside enchanting and compelling characters heavily influenced by Eastern culture and civilization. Less obvious is Steven Universe, which I have said in a past article, is heavily influenced by such anime as Revolutionary Girl Utena in its style and themes of fluid sexuality and gender roles. There are many others, such as the French conceived Sav! The World Productions and their creation the award-winning Oban Star Racers, or the more recent Miraculous Ladybug. I go as far to make the case that the popularity of anime and manga in the West, made it more acceptable to tell more serious stories for younger audiences and so helped to mainstream the now massive comic book phenomenon.

Like you, I love the Japanese format of storytelling, the amazing characters and stories it produces set across interesting and diverse worlds. So I took it upon myself to try it, to take inspiration drawn from anime and manga to produce stories in the same vain. Hei Stories, a youtube channel which uses audio and illustrations in the kamishibai style is a platform for original stories in the fantasy genre which aim to stretch the imagination and compel listeners to invest in complex characters.

The first story that is being uploaded is Seeking Scarlet At The End of The World, which takes influence from Middle-Eastern and Asian culture to tell the story of a young woman with phenomenal abilities set in a world under siege. As the Raindance movement is hijacked by the Great Secret Keeper, his acolyte, Iconoclast, assaults Polis Earth, with the Orion Alliance long gone, not even the mythical Guardian seems anywhere in sight to stop her. Despite the crisis, the displaced people of the Deepa Wali culture celebrate life into the night and continue to pray. In a universe where material beings are not the only life forms and where the cosmos is ruled by an Eclipse King, I wanted to create a story of hope and cover contemporary political and social issues we're currently faced with such as the refugee crisis. I hope you will enjoy it and join the conversation here and on youtube about storytelling and what kinds of stories engage, inspire you and humanize other human beings, whether they are in your city or across oceans.

So what does make a good story? Sincere, warm characters full of agency in a developed world, from Shakespeare's turbulent Scotland to Tolstoy's revolutionary Russia, a good world and characters people can be passionate about go a long way in creating a story that can resonates with readers. With Japanese media so aware of this, I look forward to every season, knowing it is bound to bring something entertaining, inspiring and compelling and above all, shedding light on the human condition and the world we live in.

 








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