Sunday, August 07, 2005

[Blog Entry] Anime, Manga, and Japanese Soundtracks

Anime, Manga, and Japanese Soundtracks

Issue #269 of The Comics Journal has an interesting piece on manga. The author describes her experience of attending a comic convention, and one of the attendees was a little girl who walked out, surprised that manga was not available. It was followed by reluctant consent of various people in the comic industry who were happy that that was the experience of the little girl. Now many manga fans see this as part of the festering disease that is DC and Marvel Comics. In my opinion, it’s not, but I’ll get back on that topic later. As much as I want to talk about my love for manga (and comics in general), I’ll have to start with my first love: anime.

Coming from a guy who doesn’t turn on his TV anymore, I was a fan of cartoons as a kid (weren’t we all?). Everything from Hanna-Barbara to action-packed shows like She-Ra (strangely enough, when I was three, I had nightmares about He-Man and the ugly monsters he faced, so I tuned in to his tamer sibling), Bionic Six, Ghostbusters, and Centurions. My favorites ones though, I would later find out, were cartoons which could be classified as anime. Transformers, G.I. Joe, Robotech, and Voltron were favorites of mine, and the one common factor isn’t because of the art style, but rather due to the storytelling (the first two shows are actually collaborations between the US and Japan, the latter doing the animation). The starkest difference between Western cartoons from the Japanese ones was the reluctance of the former to place at the end of each episode the “to be continued” part. And honestly, especially with Robotech and Voltron, there was a bigger story to be told. It wasn’t as episodic as, say, Superfriends. The characters grew, changed, and even died. If you missed an episode, you missed an essential part of the story. Better yet, there was an actual start and an actual ending. The entire season wasn’t a meaningless “who shall we fight today?” gimmick (although there’s no shortages of those, even in anime) but rather had some depth, had some real story to tell.

That’s changed now, as the US has produced some really good animation titles with story and depth, such as Reboot. Back in the 80’s and 90’s though, that was the exception rather than the rule. I don’t think it’s because the US are dumber or less skilled than the Japanese. I mean they’re capable of producing shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Farscape, which do have good stories to tell. Rather, it’s perhaps their perception of the animation medium. Whereas the West has merely seen it as a tool to mesmerize kids, hence impacting the kinds of shows they released in that medium, Japan took animation as they would other mediums like film, live-action, and novels: an opportunity to tell stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every cartoon the US comes out with is crap, or that every anime Japan churns out is good. It’s just that with the former, such storytelling techniques are rare, while with the latter, well, they do explore various genres and do not limit their audiences.

As an anime fan with access to manga (well, pirated manga but manga nonetheless), it didn’t take a genius to figure out that most of the shows we’re seeing on TV were based on manga that was available. I truly became a manga reader when Dragonball was a craze here in the Philippines. They were just showing a few episodes, but friends of mine who’ve been to Hong Kong and Taiwan had all these volumes of Dragonball comics. What we were seeing on TV was just a fraction of an epic story arc. Suffice to say, I was hooked. That’s not to say I ignored other options. During the same time, I was a fan of Marvel Comics and collected various titles like The Infinity Gauntlet saga and The Dark Phoenix saga for the X-Men. I loved both manga and Western comics, and had really no biases towards either. Later on though, I stopped buying comics because of budget problems, and all the anime I was watching were the ones on local TV.

I didn’t ditch Marvel at that time because I thought anime or manga was better. It was simply a matter of finances. One of the perks I quickly discovered though was that unlike other geeky hobbies which involves lots of males concentrated in just one area, anime and manga drew a female crowd (video games back then was unfortunately, still much of a boy’s club; RPG’s weren’t popular back then [at least in the US], and while there were great female gamers around, they were far and few in between). I didn’t dwell much on it at the time (when you’re a guy around girls, why question the phenomenon?), but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention.

DC and Marvel has a niche. That is, it proved to be that on their circumstances, superheroes sells. I mean DC didn’t start out that way. DC stands for Detective Comics, after all. And when you look at it from their perspective, there’s good reason to choose superheroes. I mean the likes of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are iconic. I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out who those three were, or what they were capable of. They were larger than life, and everyone pretty much knew their superpowers. When I picked up a superhero comic, I didn’t need to know the character’s history because it was common knowledge. For story arcs, I needed the previous issues to know what was happening, but as for the character’s origins or their motivations, nothing was as transparent. And to this day, DC and Marvel do deliver great stories about superheroes. Unfortunately, that’s their weakness as well: they’re a one-trick pony, and all they tackle are superheroes (of course there will always be exceptions, such as DC’s venture into their Vertigo line with the likes of Sandman, but how many titles like Sandman are there?). Another criticism of mine on their part is the fact that well, their stories don’t end. Superheroes have origins, but they don’t have an ending. The plot continues on and on, ad infinitum. Every decade or so, there’s a restart button the publishers will press, or perhaps a revamp (such as Marvel’s Ultimate line), but in general, a lot of core elements stay the same. In my opinion, a good story needs an ending. Readers want closure (even if that’s not always possible in reality). Part of the reason I think Sandman was a huge success is the fact that it has closure. Superhero comics don’t give us that. At least not often.

Manga addresses that problem. There are stories, and characters revolve around those stories (and not vice versa). I’m not saying that all manga titles are like that, but for the most part, even the most successful manga franchise has an ending. They just come up with different stories to tell. Take, for example, Gundam. The original anime had an ending. It had a sequel, but the sequel revolves around a different set of characters (although the original characters do make cameos). Twenty-five years later, we have remakes ofGundam, which retains the template of the original story, but features different plots and characters. It’s still Gundam, but the story ain’t the same. As for actual manga titles, the likes of Dragonball Z and Ruroni Kenshin were pretty popular, but they do have definite endings (even if it took a few dozen graphic novels to get there). But that’s just my opinion.

I think the true strength of manga is that it dares tread were Western comics doesn’t dare venture into. Much like the comparison between anime and Western cartoons, the Japanese aren’t afraid to venture into unknown territory. Manga, simply put, has lots of genres. In the US, for most people, when you say comics, they either associate it with the funnies you see on newspapers, or you think of superheroes. In Japan, I don’t think there’s any such limitations. Regular Japanese might think manga fans are geeks, but whether they’re into fantasy, horror, science-fiction, drama, or whatever is subject to debate. There’s simply a plethora of possibilities in manga (unfortunately, I’m not saying that all of them are good). You can have a bunch of manga fans in the same room, and each one of them will name a different genre, writer, or artist as their favorite. Heck, you can have a bunch of manga fans in the same room and they’d all disagree on what they think was cool.

On the artistic side, readers might want to take a peek at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It shows how comics as a medium is capable of a lot of things, yet only little of it is being harnessed. Most of his examples are manga titles, simply because manga uses a lot of techniques that Western comics doesn’t use. An example is the “cinematic” flow of some action-oriented manga. An entire page can be devoted to one huge illustration, or several panels could be spent seeing a character tumble from one end to another. To be fair, I don’t think Western comics didn’t pursue that angle not because they couldn’t, but because they can’t. I mean a typical manga graphic novel is several hundred pages long. A typical comic issue is what, thirty pages at most? If you’ll notice, Western manga titles use narrative text blocks often, usually as a quick exposition to inform readers what’s going on. Manga usually does that with visuals because they have the time to do so. With a Western comic, the reader must be hooked in that same issue. It’s all a matter of economics, and manga manages to keep its schedule thanks to its streamlined (sometimes abusive) system of inking and penciling, and comes at the cost of color.

Lastly, linked with the fact that manga has various genres, the Japanese actually cater to both male and female markets. In fact, manga is typically divided into “shonen” (boys) and “shojo” (girls) comics, although that’s not an accurate description of the demographic (those terms are usually geared towards the teen market, and just because a title is shojo doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of male fans, and vice versa). While Japan’s classification system is far from perfect, it recognizes the profitability of both markets. With Western comics, the dominant genre is superheroes, and they’re typically written by male writers for a male audience. To be fair, there’s a wealth of great comics to be explored in the US, like Blue Monday, Liberty Meadows, Nodwick, and the like (check out Devil’s Due Press’s of comic adaptations of popular fantasy short stories like George R. R. Martin’s Hedge Knight or R.A. Salvatore’s Drizz’t series for fantasy enthusiasts). Unfortunately, they don’t often get the limelight, and the masses don’t realize they exist. I don’t think the US has any shortage of diverse genres or stories to tell, but they don’t get as much attention as their Japanese counterparts, nor do they sell (or printed) in such quantities.

Of course the next step in the revolution which I don’t think the US has caught on to yet are soundtracks. I’m not really a music fan. I haven’t listened to The Beatles, and I probably wouldn’t be able to differentiate Britney from Cristina Aguillera. Well, maybe the last part is an exaggeration. I usually downplay my knowledge of music. But one thing I do listen to are anime soundtracks.

What do Japanese soundtracks that Western soundtracks don’t have? Aside from them singing in a language I don’t really understand, it’s the presence of background music (BGM). Come on, just because it’s a soundtrack doesn’t mean each and every song has to have lyrics. I mean short of Kill Bill and Lord of the Rings, where the theme is purely an instrumental, where else can you find such musical themes? The dominant market of soundtracks in the US are usually songs sung by popular artists. While there’s no shortages of that in anime soundtracks either, they still have tons of BGMs and acknowledge composers for it (perhaps one of the more popular ones is Yoko Kanno, a personal favorite). Be it an action movie or a melodrama, Japanese soundtracks will have good BGMs, a rare find for such quirky tastes as mine.


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