MEHnga, Amirite? Understanding the Pitfalls of the Medium

A while back, I purchased VIZ Media’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for a Rainy Day Reading. It took a while, I even went downtown to see if it was at the only Indigo branch that stocked it, but I was so excited when it arrived at my doorstep that fateful afternoon. For one, it was huge! Two, the artwork was gorgeous, no doubt a testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s artistic talents. And three, it was the inspiration for one of my favourite animated films, so clearly it was gonna be great! All I had to do now was read it.

Which is exactly what I did. For the next month, every Friday night and Saturday afternoon I read anywhere from 50-100 pages. It was an exciting story, and that it went into further detail about that world only added to the intrigue. When I finally finished the first-half and saw that it ended on a cliffhanger, I figured it’d only take me a few more days to start the second-half. Unfortunately, those few days turned into two months, and even then I’ve yet to exceed the first 50 pages of the second-half.

See, I’m not a Manga fanatic. It’s not that I don’t enjoy what the medium has to offer, especially since I’m a visual learner, but I’ve never gotten into it seriously. I’m more than happy to pick up a Manga and read it for Rainy Day Reading, but when it comes to casual reading? No connection. At best, like any graphic novel, I enjoy what I read and check it off of my imaginary checklist.

I think the reason for this stems from an unconscious bias against the format, but the best way to grasp it is to compare it to books and films.

Let’s start with books. Up until about 3 or so years ago, these were my literary bread and butter. That’s not to say that I read them religiously, but they were always there. I’d read many of the modern greats-JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, CS Lewis, Dan Brown, Eoin Colfer-and knew what to expect. Books, essentially, were about textual information, all laid out like pieces of a puzzle to assemble on my own. And I was able to do it quite well. I didn’t always get the pieces right-I thought that Severus Snape was a woman for the longest time-but it was something I could visualize in my mind.

On the other hand, there are films. Despite not being a serious movie-goer until 6 years ago, films have been a big part of my life growing up. I always knew of them, frequently saw them and rarely had a hard time interpreting them. Even when I was somewhat cold on them, like Inception, I could still get a sense of what to expect intellectually and emotionally. This is because films piece together everything for you, leaving the end result a picture that’s left up for analysis. Where as books forced me to do everything myself, films did all the work beforehand and made me the interpreter.

What links the two mediums together, in my mind, is that they have a clear expectation of their audience. Books require the reader to be the detective, while films require the viewer to interpret what’s already there. One involves active participation, the other passive. But both are straight-forward, with little room for error or misstep.

I’ve never gotten that level of engagement with Manga (or, to a larger extent, graphic novels.) Sure, I appreciate that, unlike books, they’re lighter content-wise and allow for easier consumption. I also appreciate that, unlike films, they’re not time-crunched and have more room to explore concepts and ideas. Due to my learning style, I respect both advantages. But the stumbling block comes via the medium encompassing two distinct styles: the visuals of film, yet the constructs of a book. I’m often left wondering how much information is laid out, versus how much I have to put in.

Allow me to use an example:

The above is a panel from Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. On this page, the narrating text implies that State Alchemists are taking innocent lives in the name of their jobs. All of the panels surrounding it illustrate this through the faces of the alchemists and the aftermath of dead bodies and upset children. It’s meant to be shocking, and someone who’s an expert on Manga could probably explain to you why it’s so effective. But for me…I’m at a loss.

Why? Because I have more questions about this page that can’t be answered. Questions like, “Why is the page so messy?” or, “Why are these images the ones that Arakawa chose?” and that’s not including my inability to grasp shading, character design, the length of time I’m supposed to focus on each panel or even how much I’m supposed to be emotionally invested in what I’m looking at. There’s so much that’s not being given even amidst what is, leaving me confused and disappointed. Factor in that the next page isn’t fluidly linked, and I’m left wondering how much I’m missing with each respective page.

If it sounds like I’m giving you a lot to digest, it’s because this is what I go through with every new Manga: how much do I invest? How little do I invest? Am I missing the brilliance? Am I overthinking the brilliance? The questions keep on piling, such that even if I’m enjoying what I’m reading, am I really?

I feel bad even writing this, as there are so many great Manga that are worth my time, but I can’t lie. I’ve been an Otaku for almost 6 years, yet Manga interpretation remains my biggest failing. It’s part of why I struggled with one of my university courses despite liking it, why I rarely talk about Manga and, perhaps, why finishing Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has been so ridiculously difficult, a fact made worse by me promising myself that I’d eventually review it for Infinite Rainy Day. In other words, what else should I do?


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