When East Beats West

So today I wanted to discuss a non-conventional form of literature: Japanese manga (aka graphic novels). Ever since I was young, I was interested in Japanese anime, such as Digimon, Pokemon, and Cardcaptors. Then in high school I started reading manga and quickly fell in love with it. And now that my best friend has majored in Japanese and spent over a year in the country, I always try to keep up with the culture.

When it comes to pop music and graphic novels, I believe that Japan and Korea kick our butts. Unfortunately, manga suffers from many American misconceptions. Many people in the U.S. are only familiar with the Saturday cartoons, so they think manga is just for kids. Some also believe that they’re all pornographic, but only a small percentage are considered hentai, a term meaning “pervert.” Lastly, some have racist notions that manga is not superior to American comics, simply because they have been influenced by Western art or the characters are not stereotypically “Asian.”

All of these misconceptions are ridiculous. There’s manga out there for everybody, of all ages. There are some with mature themes, whether they’re in the romance, horror, and hentai genres, but that also applies to all graphic novels. And of course, manga are a valid art form all its own, and even Hollywood is catching on to its appeal, given that many movies based on manga are currently in the works.

So whether you’re familiar with manga or not, I’d like to share my 5 favorites:

Cardcaptor Sakura (1996-2000): This was the series that inspired my obsession. Considered one of the greatest “magical girl” manga, this 12 volume saga follows the adventures of Sakura, a 4th-grade girl on a mission to collect all the mysterious Clow Cards, with the help of her best friend/stylist Tomoyo and her crush Syaoran. Created by female mangaka (aka manga artist) powerhouse CLAMP, it was also adapted into a Japanese anime, which was then diluted into the American version Cardcaptors. Originally a shojo (girl) manga, the U.S. marketed it to boys instead, and took out many themes–including two major relationships, one homosexual, the other teacher-student. Ditch the American editing, and read the manga if you’re interested in a lighthearted fantasy tale.

Fushigi Yugi (1992-1996): You can’t be a lover of shojo manga without reading anything by mangaka Yuu Watase. Known in English as “The Mysterious Play,” this 18 volume series narrates the story of Miaka, a high school student who is transported with her best friend Yui into the ancient world of a book called The Universe of the Four Gods. Miaka learns that she is a priestess of this world and is assigned seven Celestial Warriors to protect her. She falls in love with warrior Tamahome, and the manga delves into their relationship, as well as their struggle to save both of their worlds from evil. A must-read for hopeless romantics.

Fruits Basket (1999-2006): If you can’t tell by now, I love shojo manga the most. The girlier, the better. But this 23 volume series is more than just a girl caught in a love triangle. Protagonist Tohru meets the Sohma family, whose members are each cursed by an animal of the Chinese zodiac. If they’re stressed or embraced by a member of the opposite sex, they change into that animal. It sounds crazy and superficial at first, but the Sohmas each have a tragic background. From abused Yuki the Rat to isolated Kyo the Cat, these characters will make you both laugh and cry. An emotional rollercoaster with many profound insights about love, loss, and friendship.

Ouran High School Host Club (2002-2010): This is another “reverse harem” manga (girl in a big group of guys), but there’s nothing magical or fantasy about it. Just the story of Haruhi, a girl attending prestigious Ouran High on a scholarship. She walks into the meeting room of the Host Club, a group of male students who make it their duty to please girls with social events and flattery. Haruhi accidentally breaks a vase worth 8 million yen, so the Host Club makes her work off her debt by joining them. And because she already dresses like a guy, the female students are easily fooled. A truly hilarious manga with adorable characters. The anime version is complete, but the manga is still being released in the U.S.–and since I buy manga instead of reading it online, don’t spoil the ending for me!

Death Note (2003-2006): I wouldn’t make this list without throwing a bone to the guys! My favorite shonen (boy) manga is this 12 volume series about Light, a teen genius who discovers a Death Note, a notebook in which if you write someone’s name in it, that person dies. Quickly obsessed with ridding the world of criminals, Light goes on a killing spree, learning the rules of the Death Note with the help of a death god named Ryuk. Of course, these deaths don’t go unnoticed, and soon Light is being hunted by the police, FBI, and a equally smart teen only known as “L.” The battle between Light and L will keep you glued to the pages up until the climactic end. Be sure to check out the anime, the live-action Japanese movies, and the upcoming American film.

So do you read manga, and if so, what are your favorites? Any ones that are overrated? Does East truly beat West in the world of comics?

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4 thoughts on “When East Beats West

  1. As an avid fan of Anime, I have to say that I also love Death Note, so I second that recommendation. Maybe one day I’ll give Fruits Baskets another chance, but my original impression was that it wasn’t my thing (talk about ‘girly’ 😛 ).

    However, I generally have always avoided reading Manga for some reason. I think its the idea of a graphic novel that, somehow, bothers me – I’ve never enjoyed one… That may be because I just hadn’t tried the right one, but I’m also not keen on finding out. It is interesting that you say that it was american comics which influenced manga, and that this explains why the characters portrayed in anime so often have western features – I didn’t know that.

    I don’t know if I’m ready to commit to any claim to superiority, eastern or western – but I will say that, at least as far as animated productions are concerned, western productions have pushed the envelope always much further as far as animation is concerned, and eastern productions have often been more entertaining and provocative just the same. Plot-wise eastern Manga have explored more genres than western comics (unless I’m mistaken), and I think its that diversity in genre which lends it its admirable quality.

    • Glad to know another anime fan! If you enjoy Death Note, I recommend watching Code Geass. It’s a show animated by CLAMP, and its main character Lelouch is very similar to Light, except he’s probably ten times smarter and his magical talent of being able to command anyone to do anything if they look him in the eye (including killing themselves) is much more powerful. It’s part of the “mecha” genre since it focuses on robot warfare, but it is extremely intricate. Prepare to have your mind blown!

      As for Fruits Basket, I’d say give the manga a shot. It’s surprisingly dark and emotional, and anyone can relate to the tragedies of the Sohma family. Also, given that one of the characters is cursed to rule as the “God” of the Chinese zodiac, you might find it interesting theologically. You said you don’t prefer graphic novels, but trust me, you probably won’t enjoy the Fruits Basket anime. Girly indeed!

      I actually wrote a paper on Japanese animation for an art history class–one of my favorite projects. Anime started off as WWII propaganda, but Disney characters like Bambi inspired the large eyes and cute demeanor of anime characters. Ironically, it’s the Disney-ification of anime that has kept it from blossoming more in the US. Even if Disney produces Studio Ghibli films here, they will never spend a decent amount on marketing on them if they’re seen as threats to Disney films (Spirited Away’s Oscar win is the perfect example).

      Just curious: do you watch anime dubbed or with subtitles?

      • Oh, I’m a complete snob about subtitles – there is rarely an anime I will tolerate watching dubbed. I admit I’ve avoided Code Geass up till now precisely because I generally dislike the mecha-genre. However, if the main character is, as you say, 10 times smarter than Light, then perhaps I’ll keep an eye out for it from now on.

        That sounds like a fun and interesting paper you wrote, and I’d actually love to read something like that.

  2. Pingback: My Top Ten All-Time Favorite (Living) Authors | Book Club Babe

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