Manga Basics

What is Manga?

The basic answer is that a manga is any comic created (a) in Japan, (b) in the Japanese language, or (c) by a Japanese person or people.

The word manga itself is broad enough to refer to comics and cartooning in Japanese.

But like most basic answers, this one starts to break down at the edges of its definition. For example, what if two people, one of them Japanese and the other Italian, created a comic? Is the result manga? Or what if you take an X-Men comic and translate it into Japanese. Is this manga, or it is not manga because it wasn’t created in Japanese? If if isn’t manga, what’s the difference between a volume of X-Men created in Japanese and a volume of X-Men created in English and translated into Japanese? If you hold both in your hands, what is it that makes one manga and the other not?

Thankfully, identifying manga from non-manga is easy for most of us. Much like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously had trouble nailing down a definition of obscenity, we know it when we see it. While that may seem like a cop out, it points to a useful conclusion:

It’s better to define manga in terms of its narrative and visual style than by where or by whom it was made.

The majority of manga are made in Japan, but being made in Japan is not what makes them manga.

That said, much of the style that makes manga manga does stem from Japanese culture, by which we mean history, language and the arts, so it’s foolish to divorce manga from Japan entirely. Just what this style entails is a topic for another day, but probably its most defining element, and what quickly gives manga away, is a unique stylization of the human face: large and round, it features over-sized, expressive eyes, small, simply drawn noses and mouths, and a general flatness.

How to Read Manga

Japanese-language manga is read right-to-left and top-to-bottom.

While we westerners don’t typically have trouble with the top-to-bottom flow, we are very much left-to-right readers and it can be challenge to go against these instincts. Almost all English-language manga (translated manga) retains the right-to-left reading order, although some English translations do reverse this by mirroring the pages. When the pages haven’t been mirrored, you should read like this:

Illustration of how to read manga properly, from right to left

Because you’re reading from right to left, you’re also flipping pages the other way, so the pages you’ve read collect at the right cover of the book rather than the left. The consequence is that what’s usually the front cover is now the back cover and vice versa. It’s not hard to get the hang of it once you know what you’re doing, and some volumes even include a helpful reminder on the last page, i.e. the first page if you’ve started reading in the wrong direction, to nudge you onto the right path.

Types of Manga

There are five main types of manga: kodomomuke, shonen, shojo, seinen and josei.

These categories are ostensibly based on the target audience for a given manga series. But before explaining what those are, I want to add that I say ostensibly based on the target audience because the terms are more descriptive of the style, and especially the content, of the mange than of their actual audience. A good non-manga example is the Harry Potter series, which was first advertised as a children’s book series, ended up being considered young adult fiction, and has been read and enjoyed by people of all sexes and ages. That said, young adult fiction is not a genre whereas the five types of manga do sometimes straddle the line between target audience and genre. Perhaps the better example would be the term “chick flick.” While not all “chick flicks” are romantic comedies, there are tropes from romantic comedies to be found in almost all “chick flicks.” In addition, although a “chick flick” is a movie made for and marketed to women, men can also watch and enjoy “chick flicks.” In the same way, the five types of manga can be enjoyed by broader audiences than their ostensibly intended ones.

Illustration of the types of manga: kodomomuke, shonen, shojo, seinen, and josei

Briefly, kodomomuke manga are aimed at children. They are playful and sometimes manic in style, with minimal or cartoonish violence, straightforward stories and simple themes. The most famous example of kodomomuke is Pokemon. Shonen manga are written for boys and often revolve around male heroes attempting to become the best at something, whether it’s high seas piracy, alchemy, volleyball or cooking. Some of the features of shonen manga are an emphasis on adventure, exploration, and fighting. A majority of the most commercially successful manga are shonen, including the “Big Three” of One Piece, Naruto and Bleach. Although shonen manga may include romance, it’s usually not the focus. That brings us to shojo manga, which is the female counterpart of Shonen—namely, manga aimed at girls. Shojo loves romance as much as shonen loves adventure but can include a smattering of action too for its usualky female heroines. One of the better known shojo franchises is Sailor Moon. Next, we have the two types of manga for adults, seinen, which is for men, and josei for women. These manga are harder to pin down. Josei continues shojo’s interest in relationships but increases the complexity and realism of these relationships, and is more likely to be set in contemporary times, and seinen is not without adventure but its main characters are usually older and its themes darker than in shonen.