Aesthetic symbols

Having been interested in comics for a very long time, I have of course been aware of manga. Until now, I haven’t read any, and my only knowledge of the genre has been second-hand, either through anime adaptations like Akira, or by reading what other people have written about it. It is one of the most important forms within the medium of comics—in terms of the volume produced and consumed it is the most important form, and it is arguably so in terms of its global cultural significance (although it has more competition there). One of the reasons I’ve never dug into manga is that I find aspects of its conventional visual style unappealing, specifically its large-eyed, unblemished protagonists. Other aspects have always struck me as wonderful, however. By comparison with Anglo-American comics, both the dynamism of manga’s action sequences, and the allocation of space to its scene-setting and atmospherics, are notable—and noticeable, even to someone like me who has never read a manga album cover-to-cover. Mass-market manga also tend to share one of the appealing characteristics of Franco-Belgian comics, which is the precision and detail of their background art, onto which their more cartoonish characters are superimposed. This is frequently a literal superimposition, as the enormous scale of manga production has led to an industrial division of labour, not in quite the same way as in American comics, but between the lead artist and their assistants, who may handle any combination of inks, lettering, shading, and background art. Lone Wolf & Cub, however, which is one of the most legendary manga, was not produced in this way, and in terms of its style it harks back to an older tradition of manga which includes individual artworks as well as sequential strips—such as Katsushika Hokusai’s monumental Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.

Goseki Kojima draws his figures in much the same way that he draws his backgrounds and landscapes, and in fact it would be wrong to speak of them as separate elements—his characters are very much in and of the scenes that he draws, and he varies his finish expressively in a way that implicates field and figure impartially. Sometimes we see the scratchy lines of his pen work, and simple blocks of black ink; sometimes he uses a brush to shade his drawings; and sometimes, usually when he is scene-setting, entire panels or pages are composed in brush-work. The influence of cinema is immanent in his work, and the films of Akira Kurosawa are a clear and direct influence—this is particularly visible in his combat sequences, which mimic Kurosawa’s directly. It’s no coincidence that Kojima spent the last years of his career (he died in 2000) producing adaptations of Kurosawa films; Lone Wolf & Cub is basically a homage to Kurosawa’s samurai movies, and given the long-standing circuit of influence between Hollywood Westerns and Japanese cinema, it’s useful to think about this comic in an international context even before it was taken up explicitly as an influence by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Frank Miller (who created the cover art on this volume).

Kazuo Koike’s scripts are also cinematic, in their pacing, their atmospheres, and their epic themes, which deploy the mythic ideology of the samurai class in much the same way that Westerns are driven by the honour and machismo of their heroes. There are important differences however, in the code of bushido’s heavy emphasis on service and sacrifice, which makes the symbolic environment of Lone Wolf & Cub more compelling for me than any Western. The story is written in short episodes, as it was published, each self-contained and requiring no prior knowledge, although through the sixteen chapters of this first volume, we begin to learn something of the history of the central character, and begin to see the outlines of a larger narrative arc. The plotting is varied and inventive, Koike finding as many ways as possible to make an entertaining and stylish tale out of his simple basic ingredients. Although he finds plenty of opportunities for gruesomely violent action sequences, and surprisingly explicit sex scenes (given that this is a mass-market comic first published in 1970), the social and visual scene-setting which contextualises them is always thorough—perhaps the most obvious contrast with Anglo-American comics of the time is the number of wordless panels. This manga is clearly produced for an audience that was expected to appreciate its aesthetics—be they visual or narrative—and it is equally clearly intended for an adult readership. It’s easy to think that comics were largely for kids until the 1980s, if your point of reference is Marvel and D.C., but bandes dessinées in France and underground comix in the U.S.A. had been addressing an older audience since the late 1960s, and manga aimed squarely at adults had been published at scale in Japan from the 1950s.

One thing I have certainly heard about the manga industry is its diversity—there are manga for every taste and interest, from the wholesome to the sordid, and from the mindless to the intellectual. I’m no more likely now than I was before reading Lone Wolf & Cub to take an interest in the majority of manga, but I know now that there is work out there that will knock me absolutely flat, and that I just need to dig around a little bit to find it. This is one of the best known of all manga, and it’s one of the most beautiful and fully achieved comics I’ve ever read, so I shouldn’t have to dig too hard—once I’ve worked my way through all twelve enormous volumes!

1 Comment

  1. My boys are big Manga fans, especially the Dragonball series which was really popular in France in the 1980s-1990s. In fact Manga books and films are hugely popular in France, as there is a long tradition of “bande dessinées” for adults as well as children. It is not something I am a fan of myself, but I respect and admire the genre.

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