Felice Beato and Kimbei Kusakabe, Photographers of 1800s Japan

Kusakabe Kimbei - Girls shhowing the back styleThe mid-to-late 1800s marked a shift in Japanese history: the Meiji Restoration. The old guard, the Tokugawa Shogunate, with their isolationist attitudes were overthrown, and Japan began a miraculous modernization movement. When you consider the shift, it is amazing. Japan went from being primarily agriculturally-based in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the US forced Japan to open to trade to the modernized military juggernaut of World War II just 86 years later. Most of us focus on military developments during this time, but the arts also flourished. Photography entered Japan just as woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, were the main form of popular art. Ukiyo-e laid the groundwork for Japanese photograph and their lovely hand-colored work.

Photography entered Japan through Nagasaki, the only trading port where the Tokugawa government allowed foreign traders, in 1848 (Gartlan, 2006). In 1854, photographer Eliphalet Brown Jr. return with Perry and took the first known photograph in Japan (Luppino, 2009). Soon after Japan opened, other photographers invaded, and they discovered a culture open to their art. The subjects of ukiyo-e–actors, geisha, sumo wrestlers, and landscapes–became popular subjects for the new tourist photography market. The port city of Yokohama became the center of this new industry. Almost 90% of photographs exported from Japan at the time came from Yokohama (Luppino, 2009). At the time, Westerners were fascinated by Japanese culture. Photographers saw the business opportunity of providing souvenir photos for tourists and selling photo books to people in Europe who weren’t able to travel to Japan. Felice Beato was the first to capitalize on this interest.

Felice Beato, Father of Japanese Photography

Yokohama Samurai

Yokohama Samurai

Born in Corfu, Italy Felice Beato (c1825-1907) became the first photographer to specialize in war photography. We know little about his early life, but he was known as an eccentric who favored colorful language and business scheming. After learning photography from his brother-in-law James Robertson–who married Beato’s sister in 1855, Beato joined Robertson on an expedition to photograph the Crimean War between Britain and Russia. The next year, Robertson sent Beato back to photograph the war’s aftermath, where Beato started his practice of arranging corpses for emotional effect. Robertson and Beato used a secret dry-plate method that allowed them to photograph in the field. The wet-plate photography at the time wasn’t suited for weather conditions and other issues associated with war photography. Their new technique allowed them to do what previous photographers couldn’t. Robertson and Beato traveled around the Mediterranean until Beato left for India in 1858 to photograph the massacre of Indian rebels fighting against Britain. Over the next 2 years, he worked as the semi-official photographer for the British army.

In the same year, Chinese tried to stop Britain’s export of Indian opium into China, and the British retaliated by attacking and sinking most of the Chinese navy and invading China. Beato traveled with the army throughout its campaign, taking photos of the aftermath of the war. His 100 photographs are the only surviving images of China before the 1870s. After returning to London, Beato decided to travel back to the Far East and settled in Yokohama, Japan for the next 20 years where he made several hundred images of Japan. Beato’s photos ranged from Japan’s landscape and architecture to its people. Considered the father of Japanese photography, his work provided the only record of the country during the 1860s.  He retained his interest in war photography: in 1871, the United States Navy appointed him the official photographer for their attack on Korea. After losing all of his money at the Yokohama silver exchange’s speculative market, he settled in Mandalay, Burma where he founded a photographic studio and sold local arts and crafts through the mail. He died in Burma in 1907 (Wilson, n.d; Gartlan, 2006).

Beato’s Influence on Japanese Photography

Felice Beato - The executioner

Felice Beato – The executioner

Beato’s studio set the standards for Japanese photography at the time, and his work shaped how Europeans and Americans viewed Japan. His work also shaped how Japan developed a new self-identity as the country transformed from a feudal society to an industrial society. Beato’s photographs helped Japan become aware of its appearance to the rest of the world. Luckily, he took Japanese culture seriously and tried to educate Westerners by adding descriptive captions below the photos. Instead of following western photographic conventions at the time, he tried to bring a Japanese aesthetic to his work. He like to photograph moments on the streets of Yokohama and arrange them in his studio when he could not (Luppino, 2009).

Beato’s studio inspired Japanese photographers to open their own studios, but the first native studios suffered from lack of resources and expertise. Shimooka Renjo (1823-1914) opened the first Japanese-operated studio in Yokohama. Uchida Kuichi (1845-1875) managed to attract the attention of Yokohama’s foreign residents but failed to get the interest of rich foreign travelers (Gartlan, 2006). However, Beato also employed many Japanese as assistants, giving them the training and connections they would need to succeed where other Japanese-owned studios failed. Beato hired ukiyo-e artists and colorists to paint photographs. In fact, Yokohama photography became associated with fine hand-colored photographs, painting details as fine as fingernails. These assistants became the pool that allowed Japanese photography to move away from foreign studios. Among these assistants arose Kusakabe Kimbei.

Kusakabe Kimbei, The Most Prolific Yokohama Photographer

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

View of Imaichi at Nikko Road by Kimbei Kusakabe

Kusakabe Kimbei  (1841-1934) left his home in Kofu at the age of 15 or 16 to work at Beato’s studio. After 18 years of working with Beato, he set out to found is own studio in 1881 where he would produce 60% of surviving Yokohama photographs, making him the most prolific photographer of the time (Newton, 2008; Wakita, 2009). While Beato had respect for Japanese customs and tried to capture Japanese aesthetics, Kimbei used photography to capture the vanishing world of traditional Japan. At the time, women across all social classes were adopting Western hair styles and dress. Kimbei preferred to photograph tradition fashion, and he resisted Western introduced poses, such as women holding interlocked hands and other romanticized poses (Wakita, 2009). Instead, Kimbei embraced the bijinga, or pictures of beautiful women, tradition in ukiyo-e and adapted the woodblock print’s compositions.

He primarily hired geisha to pose for him for several reasons. First, social class mattered, and ordinary women wouldn’t pose because of their awareness of their class and of the wide audience the photographs would reach. Geisha were more comfortable with this because of their social status and because of their profession’s visibility. They also didn’t subscribe as readily to the concerns surrounding photography during its early years. Some people thought photography would steal the model’s life-blood, or cause a man’s shadow to weaken–I’m not sure exactly why this is a concern. Some thought every third person sitting in a photograph would die or suffer a shortened life span for each sitting they did (Wakita, 2009).

Because of this, Kimbei resorted to using just a few famous geisha. In fact, we even know their names: O-en, Ponta, Momoko, Tsumako, Azuma. and Miyako. However, this association of geisha and photography led to the public viewing geisha photographs as erotic works. A story in Tokyo shin hanjoki  talks about the embarrassment of young boys who were teased by other people as they tried to buy photographs of geisha (Wakita, 2009). Despite this, bijinga photos became popular. He often depicted women painting, reading, and playing instruments– the same type of scenes found in ukiyo-e. Women appeared as cultivated and traditional.

The Importance of Yokohama Photographs

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Jinrikisha by Kusakabe Kimbei

Beato and Kimbei’s work, in particular, defined the period and how people thought of Japan at the time. They provided a window for the West to look into. At the time, Japan was an exotic place few knew anything about. While the Yokohama photographs catered to this audience, they also showed a country in a state of change. Old customs fell away as new, western ideas entered and mingled with tradition. Admittedly, some photographers of this period created works that would later be used to fuel the racial profiling and ranking by those in the West. On the whole. Yokohama’s wonderful hand-colored photos introduced a level of artistry that changed how people in the West considered photography.

Yokohama’s photographs helped lay the foundation for the export of anime and manga and other Japanese media. They introduced a sliver of Japanese culture that allowed people in the West to become familiar with the culture, even if at a superficial level. Over time, Japanese aesthetics, with a little Western convention to make them comfortable, became accepted. It wasn’t such a big deal to see people in kimono. This gradual trend sped up after World War II when the United States had more direct contact with Japanese culture during the occupation. However, Yokohama and the work of people like Lafcadio Hearn, who introduced the West to Japanese stories, laid the groundwork for the anime and manga we enjoy now. Yokohama photography marks the first time a Japanese-Western product was made and exported.  Manga and anime are also Japanese-Western products. Yokohama photographs tell stories in their own way; again, as manga and anime does.

Whereas Yokohama photograph combines Western technology with Japanese aesthetics, anime and manga reverse this. Anime and manga pull Western aesthetics, particularly those of Walt Disney, and combine with them Japanese technology. Over time, this created its own confluence of Japanese and Western styles we simply call the anime or manga style.

Finally, behind the photographs are people. We know next to nothing about Kimbei’s geisha models, but we can see them. We know their names more than a century later. Yokohama photographs, although they were meant for tourists, provide a glimpse at the lives of people long gone. They provide a glimpse at their stories. While today we don’t think images are a big deal–they are everywhere, after all–at the time they were shocked, awed, interested, frightened, and inspired. They allowed people to save a memory or see something they would never otherwise see. The demand for Yokohama photos and their subject matter reveals the interest people in the West had for Japan. The uniqueness of Japanese culture captured the imagination of the time and catered to an interest in something “pure.” That is, untainted by industrialization and mercantilism. Yes, this was an idealization, even a fetishization, of Japanese culture, but it came from a genuine interest in learning how other people live. The reasons behind why a photograph was taken matters as much as the subject of the image.

All of this aside, the Yokohama photos are simply beautiful. I’ve included a collection of them for you to enjoy.

References

Gartlan, Luke (2006) Types or Costumes? Reframing Early Yokohama Photographyt. Visual Resources 22 (3) 239-263.

Luppino, Tony (2009) Koshashin” A New Collection of Early Japanese Photography Captures a Moment of Change in 19th Century Japan. Arts of Asia 39 (3) 142-149.

Newton, G. (2008). Local heroes of early photography in Asia and the Pacific. Artonview, (53), 36-39.

Wakita, Mio (2009). Selling Japan: Kusakabe Kimbei’s Image of Japanese Women. History of Photography. 33 (2). 209-223.

Wilson, Michael (n.d.) Beato, Felice. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/41130

You can find most of these photographs at the New York Library Digital Collections, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection.

Photographs

Cherry Flower Street at Shiba Tokio

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1880 – 1890). Cherry Flower-Street, at Mukojima, Tokio Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-c924-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Why Does Anime Portray Men as Perverts?

Why does anime portray men as perverts?Fans of anime often ask me why anime has so many perverted men. On the surface, we can say its because of the fans or because of Japan’s sexual culture, but as usual, the true answer involves more complexity. Perverted comedy is a niche despite its proliferation online. The Internet has a tendency to take a niche and make it appear more popular than it is. Most anime I’ve seen have few perverted male characters, and when they do appear, they appear as comedy relief. So part of the reason is a perception problem. A section of the anime community focuses on these characters and stories because of their immaturity. Hormonal teens run amok online on forums and social media, but they don’t represent the majority of anime fans. From my own anecdotal experience, most anime fans in the United States are teenage girls and young women. Women dominate the anime blogging community.

Japanese Sex Culture and Perverted Anime Men

Asuka wonders why boys are such perverted idiots. People like to pin perverted male characters on the sexual repression in Japanese culture. Yet, for those of us who study the culture, we know it isn’t truly repressed, at least not in the same way as American culture. Japanese sexual culture features an emphasis on fantasy. Perverted male characters play into this fantasy by providing an outlet for actions that are taboo in the public eye. It comes back to the idea of social harmony. People don’t have the freedom to act out in ways that disrupt the harmony of society, as perverted characters do. Of course, this doesn’t stop men from groping women on subway trains or from taking clandestine panty photos. Such behavior is not acceptable. Fictional perverted men, however, provide an acceptable, humorous outlet for men who want to buck social demands. It works the same way as action heroes here in the US. Action heroes act in ways everyday men cannot, shooting or beating people who oppose them, driving fast, and saving the girl. They provide an outlet for masculine fantasies.

Japanese culture faces a decrease in birth rates in recent years as people’s interest in sexuality declines and polarizes (Ishikawa, 2015):

The number of adolescents stating that they were sexually active in 2011 was lower than in 2005 or 1999, and the same as in 1993. Moreover there appears to be a polarization among adolescents; while some become sexually active at an early age, there are others who do not seem interested in sex.

This environment impacts anime as a commercial product. In Ishikawa’s study (2015), 5% of males with stay-at-home mothers reported to have had sex under the age of 18 while those with working mothers rated at 9.1%. In either case, the rates of sexual activity among teenage males rates low. The majority don’t have sex according to Ishikawa. This is why the awkward virgin character appears more than the perverted, sexually-active male. More people can identify with him than the perverted side character who brags about his conquests. But, at the same time, the perverted character remains because it represents a persona some men wish they could be or experience. Harem anime center on male escapist fantasies.

Marriage doesn’t provide a sexual outlet, however. According to the Association of Japanese Family Plan, in 2014 married couples reported that they do not have sex more than once a month. The parent-child relationship rates as more important than the husband-wife relationship ( Ishikawa 2015). This offers a reason why perverted male characters stereotype as older men–think Master Roshi and Jiraiya–more often than teens. It provides a outlet for men who may feel dissatisfied with the focus on children within their marriages. These characters also allow them to laugh at their own sexual state by providing an absurd opposite.

I have to note that anime often features innocence as a type of perversity. For example, in Dragonball, Goku often looks up skirts. This may appear lewd to Americans, but it can be seen as a child’s curiosity instead of an expression of sexuality. Some teen characters feature this same level of curiosity and innocence. This differs from true perversity which has a lustful component and a drive for sexual gratification. Perversity has an element of curiosity. Even men who are sexually experienced retain this curiosity.

Teenage Male Groups and Attitudes Toward Sex

Kon, from Bleach, provides an example of a perverted side character.In the US, anime most often associates with teens so let’s return to that age group for a moment.  Castro-Vanquez performed a case study of a Japanese senior high school back in 2003. While the study had a small sample size and can’t be extrapolated to the general population, it revealed a few useful ideas. In the study, students fell into one of four categories:

  • Grinders – those who believed in hard work and restrained sexual activity. They believed hard work was the key to success and they spent their time studying instead of socializing.
  • Lifestylers – those who searched for their own path and had a critical view of school. These boys disliked Grinders and Sporting Boys and began to have sexual relationships.
  • Sporting Boys – these students believed in hard work and discipline. They drew sharp distinctions between masculinity and femininity, believing girls were feeble, vulnerable, and in need of protection.
  • Confident Heterosexuals – these boys focused on their sexual and social performance with girls. They viewed the loss of virginity as essential for adulthood.

Grinders and Confident Heterosexuals stand at odds with each other. Grinders viewed sexuality as opposite academic achievement and success:

Q: Are you saying that having sex and academic achievement contradict one another?
A: … For example my friends, whom I attended kindergarten with, they have many girls, they are always causing problems and they are having a lot of sex. It sounds a little bit biased, but their academic abilities, and abilities in general are different. The schools, the schools they attend are not that good. They don’t restrain themselves. They do mainly sports. They play around. They have sex when they feel like … The environment where they live is just different.
(Masashi, 18 years old)

Whereas the Confident Heterosexuals considered sex as a product of manliness. Inside these 4 categories, we also see anime character stereotypes. Lifestylers and Confident Heterosexuals contain the perverted anime male character. Most perverted characters embrace their sexual drive, and some equate it with manhood.  This contrasts with innocent interest in gender differences some characters convey.

Lifestyler male characters may have an extreme interest in sex, but they also have enough fear that they never follow through with the act, such as Aito in The Comic Artist and His Assistants. The conflict appeals across the different categories and provides for humorous situations. They want to look but not touch while the Confident Heterosexual brag about what they’ve done. Because of their confidence and follow through, Confidents don’t provide the same tension in a story as Lifestylers. Female Grinders often appear as closet perverts in anime.

Girls can be perverted characters too.Speaking of female characters, for most of Japanese history, women were considered more sexual than men. The West also held this same view; however, unlike male sexuality, female sexual desire was used as a reason for repression in the West. The story of Eve and the fall of humanity from paradise cast a long shadow on female sexuality. During the European Middle Ages, female sexuality sometimes equated with demonic behavior. As for Japanese history, female sexuality simply wasn’t mentioned. Some ukiyo-e prints and sex manuals from the Tokugawa period depict women enjoying sex, but on the whole it wasn’t discussed. This silence has carried through to anime, although in shojo stories and yuri stories you’ll see more overt female sexuality. This trend is slowly changing. Female characters that own their sexuality are appearing in more anime, such as Kill la Kill.

Commentary on the Pervert

The Pervert strikes me as more annoying than funny, but then anime’s comedic characters often annoy me. Humor doesn’t translate across cultures sometimes. The main issue with the perverted male centers on how it spreads across the internet and makes some think such behavior is okay. I’ve ran into male anime fans that think its funny to look up women’s dresses and other anime comedic behavior. They miss the main point of those characters: such behavior isn’t okay. They appear in anime to provide an outlet and to show how such behavior is disruptive and tone deaf. It put it simply, they show how it is not okay to be a pervert. In most anime stories, the male pervert fails to get the girl they want and end up alone. They fail to grow and mature as the story progresses, while their counterparts do. Anime depicts perversity as a state of immaturity and of frozen time. Perverted characters remain frozen in their present, unable to move forward toward their goals. Ironically, their perversity prevents them from having fulfilling sex lives. Many anime fans who live these “fun” personas simply miss the point.

References

Castro-Vanquez, Genaro and Izumi Kishi (2003) Masculinities and Sexuality: the case of a Japanese top ranking senior high school. Journal of Gender Studies, 12 (1). 22-33.

Ishikawa, Yukari and Natsuki Nagata (2015). Youth Sexuality and the Modern Japanese Family.  Journal Of East-West Thought (JET), 5(4), 25-39.

Death Threats, Waifu Wars: the Anime Community’s Poisonous and Childish Behavior

Death threats, insults, and other problems pervade the anime communityI tend to keep to my little corner of the anime community, but time to time I hear about something that troubles me. I watch Joey, also known as the Anime Man, on Youtube every so often. He’s plugged into the community in a way that I’m not. Well, recently he posted a rant about the bad side of the anime community. Recently, fans of the anime Darling in the Franxx have sent death threats and other nonsense to the show’s creators because the relationships didn’t go as these fans wanted.

I’ve ran across this before across various communities. Crash Override written by Zoe Quinn discussed how rape and death threats from members of the video gaming community affected her life. As I study the anime community, I see how this dangerous and, frankly, infantile behavior poisons the hobby just as it does video gaming.

This is the Anime Man’s video where he discusses his thoughts and feelings concerning the rise of death threats and similar nonsense. While I dislike some of his language use (cursing is tired and the words are too meaningless now), I fully agree with his points.

Guys commonly threaten female members of communities when they “invade” a male hobby like video gaming. Anime works differently. Guys and girls have mingled for quite sometime in the anime world. Instead of threatening invaders, anime community members threaten creators and each other over the direction of relationships and storylines. You’ll see arguments over best-girls, that is the best female character in a given story, that slide into flame wars. These arguments are called waifu wars. These people get so vested in their waifu that they will defend them as a spouse would a real life significant other. While in real life, this can be seen as a virtue, online this can slid into ugliness and threats.Waifu wars can split into camps where people side with their favorite best-girl or best-guy and argue with their opposition.

Don’t misunderstand. Discussing why you like or dislike certain characters is fine. Problems arise when people fall into ad hominem attacks–written attacks on a person’s character. Verbal threats and slander are not protected speech under the US 1st Amendment, by the way. Obscenity isn’t protected either (Hayes, n.d.). It is possible, though not likely, that you could be prosecuted in court for online defamation. You aren’t as anonymous as you think. Every device as a unique MAC address known to your Internet Service Provider, which sees every packet of data you send and receive. Short of using various proxies and spikes, if someone really wanted to find your true identity, it is possible.

Waifu theme memes are funny.

The anime community makes great memes.

But really, this is about morality and character. It reflects poorly on your character that threatens their well-being. I’m pretty draconian. If I had my way, I would require all ISPs to ban the person threatening others from accessing the Internet for a certain period of time. The only way around the ban I had in mind is for the person to run out and buy a new device or network adapter. Death and rape threats are never okay, and they need to be addressed according to their seriousness. It’s not funny or cute.

Don’t confuse this with critiques or expressing opinion. You can do this without attacking others or wishing their family to die in some horrible way. Anime is fiction. It’s a hobby. It’s supposed to be fun, and communities provide a way to share this with others. Only this sharing sometimes becomes arguing.

I used to believe in the adage, “don’t feed the trolls.” However, ignoring them doesn’t do anything nowadays either. I’ve played many online games where I’ve encountered trolls messing with players. I’ve seen these players getting upset in the chat. Well, instead of ignoring it, I started stepping in and redirecting the trolls’ childishness toward me. I would then send my chat log to the admins who would ban those trolls from the game for sometimes several weeks at a time.

Of course, banning a troll and removing all of them threatening posts sometimes makes them feel vindicated. They will often create new accounts to continue the antics. A proper forum or social media system would allow banning at an IP level. But this doesn’t help for those who are determined or those who start to physically and digitally stalk their victim. As Zoe explains in her book, some problems escalate beyond a single website. Dedicated people will stalk across social media accounts, video games, forums, and into the physical world.

People can get involved with the relationships between fictional characters.

Characters can launch a thousand ships and burn them too.

Even if you would never stoop to threatening a creator over an anime relationship, you can forget a person sits on the other side of the words you are reading. When you read something, you filter it through your own emotions and understanding. Often, this leads to you misinterpreting the intent of the writer, especially when you are fired up over in a waifu war or a creator sinking your ship.

I have to mention this fact as a writer: you don’t fully own the characters. The story’s creator has more of a right to the characters and to the direction the stories goes than you do. After all, they are the creator’s babies. However, as soon as anything becomes public, the creator loses some control over the idea. It takes a life of its own, and the consumers of the story–anime fans–gain a little ownership through their co-creation with the author. Instead of making death threats, Darling of the Franxx fans would better spend their time writing their own alternatives to the creator’s vision, or even better, writing their own original stories.

In the end, the poisonous behavior of segments of the anime community hurts the rest of the community. The rest of us have the responsibility to speak out against this behavior. Ignoring the trolls, not feeding them, doesn’t really work, When ignored, they will seek out some other victim. As for the Darling in the Franxx death threat issue and other similar cases, many of these people will repeat their behavior when the next obsession grips them. As a community, we can only speak out against this childishness and remind everyone that people exist behind the pixels we see, people with emotions and concerns. Sadly, death threats and other similar issues won’t end anytime soon. We can only do what we can to minimize it.

References

Hayes, Christi (n.d.) Is Slander Protected by the First Amendment? The Law Dictionary. https://thelawdictionary.org/article/slander-protected-first-amendment/

Manga and Your Mind: Manga, Autism, and the Benefits of Reading

One Punch man helps those with autism.Manga is good for your brain. Yep. You’ve read that right. In fact, reading manga may give you an advantage over those, like me, who grew up reading only traditional books. Manga benefits those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) too.

The medium requires a different set of skills than reading traditional books. Not to say traditional books are bad for your mind. It’s just that manga challenges the brain in different ways. Even Western comics like Batman and Superman don’t benefit your mind as manga does. Manga relies on images more for story telling then Western comics do. They have more images and fewer words (Rozema, 2015). The media has several layers of reading: images, words, Japanese onomatopoeia, and its own visual language. This combination means “…even proficient readers of English—who are not experienced with this level of multi-modality and have been socialized into more traditional, nonhypertext, storylines—may find manga, as we do, to be a challenging read (Schwartz, 2006).”

I’ve covered Japanese visual language and Japanese onomatopoeia. They combine to create a unique interplay between Japanese and Western cultures. Manga also has different identities and contexts that result from Japanese culture. All of which the reader needs to decipher. The immediacy of images, and the secondary nature of words, means readers can’t rely on explanations as with traditional books. It’s easier for books to explain a cultural context than an image which just shows that context and leaves it to the readers to understand it. But that gap is what makes manga good for our minds.

Reading manga requires practice

This spread from One Piece shows the complexity of manga reading. You’ll see the Japanese sound effect is a part of the artwork of the ship panel. The art shows the chaos and the action of the ship being split in two. The left panel’s vertical reading balances the right side’s chaos and action, giving the gaze a bit of a respite. It also serves to highlight the characters. The author drew the ship’s crew far smaller than the more important characters on the left panel.This helps with the reading flow.

Because English lacks the same number of onomatopoeia as Japanese, many manga translations leave the original Japanese intact. Over time, readers learn to decipher these fonts and words and associate them with certain types of actions. This is multimodal thinking can work without needing to look up a translation or transliteration. Although this can help. Multimodal thinking happens without our awareness. It comes from an accumulation of experiences with manga. That is part of the reason why regular manga readers don’t struggle with reading the book “backward” and reading pages right to left, left to right, and horizontally across two pages. As readers get involved with the story, they learn to read the rhythm of the images and follow them along with the text without much thought behind it. Learning happens without awareness.

Manga’s nonlinear storytelling requires readers to remember dozens of subplots and characters. Many deal with different viewpoints, such as gender swapping stories, along with coming-of-age stories and genres like Boy’s Love. “Thus, it is possible that manga story lines not only afford readers a nonlinear, rich imaginative read of the world but also tap into an array of complexities in human experiences toward which young adults seem to feel great affinity (Schwartz, 2006).” Manga reading skills transfer to other multimodal media that require reading images and words together. It encourages multidimensional thinking.

Anime and Autism

The immediacy of emotions in manga images helps those with autism.

From the manga Kimi no Iru Machi. The immediacy of these images and few words convey the emotions of the story without us needing to read the story.

The multimodal nature of manga may be why it helps those with ASD. While there isn’t a single usual case of ASD, there are 2 board diagnostic criteria (Rozema, 2015):

  1. deficits in social communication
  2. restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

Manga falls under the second criteria. Its focus on images and its visual language may appeal to teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and many autistic people are better at processing images than words (Rozema, 2015).

Manga’s visual language focuses on emotion. The manga face follows a general template–pointed chin, small nose, small mouth, large eyes–which is distinctly manga. The face is designed for emotional exaggeration, leaving hair, accessories, and details to separate one character from the next. Many with autism struggle with reading expressions, but manga faces exaggerate and simplify expressions, making them easier to read. The fact manga faces always look like manga faces allows teens with ASD to recognize them. Then the simple design feature that identifies each character helps those teens draw distinctions among those faces (Rozema, 2015). Think: Naruto’s cheek whiskers.

Manga also provides an ocean of information to dive into. There are hundreds of stories with a vast array of characters to learn. Dragonball has more than 500 chapters of characters, settings, and storylines to learn. Manga is meant to be disposable, printed on cheap paper as it is and rapidly produced. Yet, this creates depth through its sheer quantity. And most of it follows an established visual language, which allows readers to easily slip from world to world without having to relearn anything other than the rules for that story world. This helps those with ASD enjoy a wide array of stories. Many with ASD enjoy learning and memorizing a vast body of information surrounding their interest (Rozema, 2015).

Beyond the learning benefits, manga provides a shared interest that allows people to socialize easier. Because of this, manga provides a sanctuary for those who have high-functioning ASD. Manga attracts those who aren’t inclined toward verbal language so social awkwardness is fairly common and accepted.

Reading difficulty varies across manga, but all of them use cinematic storytelling methods.

From Shokugeki no Soma. This page is easier to read than One Piece’s spread, but it follows the same principles. Manga sits between reading a book and watching a film. You’ll notice in this page the cinematic techniques–establishing place shots, character close-up, a cut-shot, and a zoom-out–used in film. The designs and expressions tell the story while the text supports those visual elements.

Multimodal skills–the ability to decipher images and words and cultural contexts–help people succeed. Globalization with its cross-cultural interaction allows people with multimodal skills to thrive because they can better reason through language and cultural barriers. These skills also allow people to better navigate the glut of information that surrounds us. They can process image information faster and with more flexibility which is important with how the Internet pervades most aspects of work and life. Manga reading makes your mind more flexible because of how it encourages you to read right to left, left to right, images, Japanese onomatopoeia, Japanese cultural details, and more. This allows you to be more open to different cultures too.

Don’t sell manga reading short. Its reliance on images for narration benefits you as images and videos increasingly take over the written word’s dominance. Of course, there will always be a place for words and prose. Everyone should learn both skill sets.

References

Rozema, Robert (2015) Manga and the Autistic Mind. English Journal. 105 (1) 60-68.

Schwartz, Adam & Rubinstein-Avila, Eliane (2006) Understanding the Manga Hype: Uncovering the Multimodality of Comic-Book Literacies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 50 (1) 40-49.