The word “anime” often goes with the word “manga”. Anime is easy enough to parse, since it sounds like “animation”, but what does the word “manga” mean and why should anime fans care?

In Japan, the word “manga” encompasses both the art of cartooning and what Westerners think of as comic books or graphic novels. Most anime are adaptations of best-selling manga titles, and often the animated shows runs concurrently to the manga. It’s common for manga to be serialized as weekly chapters printed in affordable pulp format. After every so many chapters they get collected into a volume, which is then printed on much higher quality paper meant for collection.


Where Does it Come From?

In my article about what anime is, I noted that the Japanese were strongly influenced by American animation from Walt Disney. Early show such as Astro Boy clearly took inspiration from contemporary Disney cartoons. The art style we associate with anime, with its big eyes and simplified linework, still bears those influences today. Likewise, you can’t help but see those influences on manga as well, but both anime and manga continue a tradition of Japanese art and visual communication that go back much further than the 20th century. As far back the the 12th century BCE the Japanese produced scrolls telling stories in picture form. The word manga itself has been traced back to the year 1798. Today’s manga is a mix of both these traditional Japanese arts and the influence of the West.

How Popular is Manga in Japan?

It may surprise a lot of people, but manga is way bigger in Japan than anime. At least, this has been the case historically. EVERYONE reads manga – when they’re on a break, on the train, or wherever. It’s the perfect escape for a people who are constantly getting in each other’s faces. This may change now in a modern age where everyone has portable devices on which they can watch anime with ease, even on the bus. However, tablets and smartphones themselves are heralding the age of digital manga.

In any case, manga spans every conceivable genre and storyline you can think of. There are manga that appeal to housewives, to LGBTQ+ people, to sports fans, and more. Only a small sampling of these will ever be made into anime, which is why many anime fans in the West began to consume fan-translated (“scanlations”) manga in the quest to get more of that quirky Japanese media.

The Relationship Between Manga and Anime

Anime adaptations of manga face many of the same limitations as Western adaptations of books and comics. Storylines have to be simplified, cut down, or rethought in order to make the jump from paper to screen. Sometimes this means that the anime is actually better than the manga, thanks to punchier writing. But at other times it means missing out on a larger, even better incarnation of your favorite show.

The biggest pain in the butt when it comes to anime based on manga is that while the storyline is still going on, the anime producers don’t want to take season breaks. So whenever the show catches up to the anime you have something called “filler”. These are non-canon stories that have no impact on the main plot and are not based on stories written by the manga author.


Manga and Light Novels

While manga has traditionally been the source of most anime adaptations, there is another popular medium known as the “light novel” that has also become a key source of stories for anime. Light novels are similar to young adult fiction in the West, but are generally the same length as full novels at about 50,000 words. Light novels are not written in isolation from manga and anime. Generally they are illustrated with manga-style character art, and they essentially sell themselves as ready to be adapted to either manga or light novel form.

Personally, I have found that some of the best anime I’ve seen started out as a light novel. For example, both Banner of the Stars and Sword Art Online started as light novels. Like serialized manga, light novels can be published in cheap pulp form one chapter at a time, only to be collected in a volume after so many chapters. If you think about it, that makes things pretty difficult from a writing point of view. If you write a single 50,000 word novel you can make sure it all works out and makes sense. If you’ve already published some chapters you can’t go back and change them!

In general I find that anime that has been adapted from a light novel tends to be a little more complex and deep than those that come from manga, but both sources of material have delivered great anime!

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