‘Manga’ is now officially defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a ‘Japanese genre of cartoons, comic books and science fiction films, typically with a science fiction or fantasy theme (the Japanese definition is slightly different, but more on that anon). Since the days of Akira, quality Japanese animation has been delivered to the West by a company that liked the medium so much it named itself after it. Manga Entertainment saw the future in Akira, snapped up the cinema and video rights to the film, tried it out on Western audiences, and in the process brought a whole new world to the English lexicon. Since then, Manga Entertainment has brought many of Japan’s best cartoons to the rest of the world: as well as Akira, other seminal manga films included Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. If you’re yet to take the plunge into manga, think big – big robots, big explosions and big future cities. In terms of mood and atmosphere, films like The Matrix, Blade Runner, Kill Bill and Sin City probably best capture the tone of manga on the big screen – typically anything where the old-fashioned themes of westerns and gangster movies are transplanted into a futuristic or ultra-modern setting. As these films illustrate, the impact of manga on global SF and fantasy in recent years has been humungous – Japanese animation now seems almost to be the medium of choice for auteur directors and fantasy/SF fans all over the world.
If you’re a complete newcomer to manga, the range of titles on offer may at first appear daunting. From mind-warping psycho-thrillers like Perfect Blue to politicized police-procedurals like Patlabor, manga films are as wild and wide-ranging as the armies of Japanese artists making them can imagine. Some of the best films the medium has to offer are famous in the West, others shamefully obscure, but in my view at least one of them should be on everyone’s DVD shelf. The uber-manga movie is Katsuhiro Otomo’s mind-blowing, joyously violent SF actioner Akira. It’s a film full of psycho bikers, rollercoaster action and grand-scale duels between adolescents with a real sense of teen angst and rage. Set in Neo-Tokyo, a towering, hyper-violent mega-city beneath which a god sleeps, the animation in Akira is breathtaking and the visual designs are awesome, with incredible attention to detail. Then there is Ghost in the Shell, the film that partly inspired The Matrix. Although it shares Akira’s setting of a futuristic mega-city (Hong Kong this time), Ghost in the Shell is as different from the former film as Star Wars is from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mamoru Oshi’s film is an ice-cold cyberpunk meditation, in which first-class manga action supports a philosophy tract on human identity – from the point of view of a (sort of) nude woman cyborg. Ghost in the Shell, perhaps even more than Akira, is a visual and imaginative tour de force – a genre-bending fusion of police procedural, SF actioner and art movie. If you’re a fan of Philip K Dick or the Wachowskis you’re sure to love it.
Also playing a part in inspiring The Matrix was The Ninja Scroll, one of the archetypal manga movies, full of fantastical fights and weird and wonderful monsters. Refreshingly for a manga film, Ninja Scroll is set in the past, in 17th century Japan, where a man and woman samurai fight an array of monstrous meanies, including a rock-hard giant and a skin-shedding snake girl. Although violent, Ninja Scroll is equally memorable for its emerging love story, which is both affecting and sad. The climactic battle scene on a burning ship is particularly visceral and inventive – as good as anything that Hollywood has ever produced. While Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll effectively tackle the genres of SF, fantasy, adventure, detective yarn and historical fiction, Perfect Blue sees manga take on horror. In present-day Tokyo someone or something is going around carving people up. Perfect Blue is not for the faint-hearted – there are a couple of real gross-out moments – but the central heroine’s plight is absorbing. With its phantom pop-singers and scary fanboys, Perfect Blue is also slick, smart and ultra-stylish. Despite all of its obvious qualities, however, it’s easy to see why films like Perfect Blue seem to have given rise to one of the common misconceptions about manga: that it’s all about sex and violence. The reality is very different.
For a start, in Japanese manga does not mean ‘cartoon’, it means ‘comic’ (the Japanese word for ‘cartoon’ is ‘anime’). Japanese anime has also been around for much longer than you might think – the first-known cartoons date back to 1917, although the industry as we know it today really kicked off for the first time in the 1960s. While some manga titles are definitely extremely violent, the genre has also produced much tamer fare – one of the all-time best-loved Japanese cartoons is an epic-length TV adaptation of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi! The other criticism commonly made of anime is that, even once you get past all the sex and violence, the films are simply absurd and incoherent. Whilst on the face of it many manga films have something of a fuzzy grip on story logic, this is largely because many viewers in the West simply don’t see the context in which they’re released in Japan. Many manga cartoons are spin-offs of some kind – comic book adaptations, maybe, or re-vamps of an earlier cartoon. When Akira was released in Japan, for example, most of its audience would have known the comic, which may be why it doesn’t explain everything for newcomers. Other big name anime directors create overarching universes where they set all their stories, sometimes reworking plots and characters from different angles. The main point I’d make is, how can you judge something if you’ve never tried it? If your interest is even slightly piqued, why not rent a manga movie? You may hate it but, just on the off-chance that you enjoy it, there’s literally a whole universe of films waiting to be discovered after you’ve watched Akira or Ghost in the Shell: Patlabor, Fist of the North Star, Wolf’s Rain, Amon Saga, Kai Doh Maru, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Psychic Wars, Vampire Hunter D, Street Fighter, Redhawk, X the Movie, Tokyo Revelation, Shadow Skill, Ghost Sweeper Mikami – and that’s just for starters…