A Brief History of Japanese Comics Part 1: Pre-Manga

Welcome to my new academic blog, A Scroll in Time, where I will provide various topics in the world of Japanese and American comics ranging from politics, religion, historic significance, and hopefully many more. In an attempt to get everyone on the same page, I thought it best to begin by going through the origins of each country’s comic development.
 In the first installment of my comics’ history series, we will look at the history and development of Japanese comic books. I will take us through Japanese history, showcasing the roots of Japanese manga and comic books up to its modern rise within Japanese society. Note that, while there are plenty of topics to research beyond this, this initial series is about the development of Japanese manga and comic books within the borders of Japan. 
 The earliest predecessors of Japanese comic books are found as early as 6thand 7thcentury Japan, among the great influx of Chinese culture. This on-pour included everything from writing to religion, and included adaptations of narrative picture scrolls. These were drawings and paintings rolled up into scrolls to allow the story to literally “unravel” as you opened it, from right to left (hint hint). The scrolls usually depicted “religious events and scenes from literature” and thus, were intended for a higher aristocratic audience. The most popular of these surviving scrolls, entitled “Chōjū jinbutsu giga” or “Frolicking Animals and People” (or “Animal Scrolls”) (c. 1053–1140), incorporated Japanese humor as it depicted Buddhist monks as animals, such as frogs and rabbits[2].

Japan has been known to adapt other cultures within its own and the narrative picture scrolls were no exception. The Scrolls, as shown, provide scenes in religious life such as praying, providing offerings to the Buddha, as well as wrestling (which is said to have originated by the gods, according to Japan’s Shinto religion).
 Although not quite common, some narrative picture scrolls also included text next to the pictures, which were written in blank space next to the character rather than the now common speech bubble[4]. 
 The Edo period (1603–1867) became an evolutionary period for Japanese caricatures, imagery, and drawings. Art and drawings filtered down into the eyes and hands of the common people, thus this era saw new developments in paintings and drawings as entertainment rather than solely an aristocratic use. A wider audience meant drawings could express a wider variety of topics. Individual caricatures also emerged during this time, including more erotic pictures[4]. Woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e became so popular they were often developed as advertisements and showcased multicolored images, evolving from simplified pen and ink[2].

Around 1775, Kibyōshi (yellow-backed books) arose and became a new source of entertainment for many. Kibyōshi were possibly the first recognizable ancestor of modern Japanese comic book because of their small book form and their release as serials (often with two or three volumes per series). They consisted of images throughout the pages with writing occupying much of the empty space[3]. Several examples show that this writing/imagery ratio sometimes varied, as it does today, and did not follow a consistent rate of a greater focus on writing or on imagery.

Directed towards an adult audience, these books could address and include mature topics, imagery, and storylines. It was typical for kibyōshi to be printed with 10 pages per volume, often constructing a storyline of 30 pages, thus spanning at least three volumes for a series[3].

Katsushika Hokusai, artist of the famed woodblock print The Great Wave, is the one to have coined the term “manga” in 1814. He used this term to describe his rough or quick sketches. In fact, the term manga is made up of the words man, meaning “executed rapidly” or “thrown off”, and go, “drawings”[2]. Taken literally, it could be translated as “exaggerated pictures or drawings”[1].

Hokusai’s own use of the term points to a reference to rough images rather than a serial story. In his existing drawing collections, simply entitled Hokusai Manga, the pages seem to project a collection of pictures or test sketches rather than a story[4].
 Hokusai was also significant in the advancement of methods of presenting images of a story. In “The Vertical and the Horizontal Face”, Hokusai exemplifies a new technique, called a “split-frame” due to the stacking of images[4]. This would later become significant in its use with other artists.
 In the next issue…I will continue my look into the history of Japanese comic books in Part 2 of this series, with how Japanese comics were influenced with American and European intrusion beginning in the mid 19th-century.

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[1]Gravett, Paul. Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics. New York, NY: Collins Design, 2004. Print.
[2]Koyama-Richard, Brigitte. One Thousand Years of Manga. Paris: Flammarion, 2007. Print.
[3]Shirane, Haruo. Early Modern Japanese Literature. Columbia University Press. 2002. Print.
[4]Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983. Print.

Originally published at ascrollintime.blogspot.com on October 1, 2016.

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