EarlyManga: The Origins and Evolution of Japan’s Iconic Art Form

Manga is a term that refers to a variety of comics and graphic novels that originated in Japan. Manga has a long and rich history that spans centuries and genres, from historical dramas to sci-fi adventures. Manga is also a global phenomenon that has influenced many other forms of media and culture, such as anime, video games, movies, and fashion.

But how did manga begin? What are the roots and influences of this popular art form? And how did manga evolve over time to become what it is today? In this article, we will explore the early origins and evolution of manga, from its ancient predecessors to its modern manifestations.

The Pre-Manga Era: Scrolls and Sketches

The earliest forms of manga can be traced back to the Heian period (794-1185), when illustrated scrolls called emaki were produced by aristocrats and monks. Emaki were narrative paintings that depicted stories from history, literature, religion, or folklore. They often used humor, satire, and caricature to convey their messages. One of the most famous examples of emaki is the Chōjū-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals), which is considered by some to be the first manga. The Chōjū-giga depicts animals such as rabbits, frogs, monkeys, and birds in various scenes of mischief and play. The scrolls are attributed to a monk-artist named Kakuyū (also known as Toba Sōjo), who lived in the 12th century¹.

Another precursor of manga was the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) genre that emerged in the Edo period (1603-1868). Ukiyo-e were woodblock prints that depicted scenes from everyday life, such as landscapes, festivals, theater, courtesans, and samurai. Ukiyo-e artists also produced sketches and drawings called nikuhitsu-ga (painted pictures) or shasei (sketches from life), which were more informal and spontaneous than their prints. Some of these sketches were collected in albums called ehon (picture books), which often had humorous or erotic themes. One of the earliest examples of ehon was the Toba Ehon, which was created by an unknown artist in the 17th century. The Toba Ehon featured animals and humans in various comic situations, similar to the Chōjū-giga².

The term “manga” itself was first used in 1798 by Santō Kyōden, a writer and artist who published a picture book called Shiji no Yukikai (Four Seasons: A Fashionable Flower Album). The book consisted of four volumes, each depicting a different season and its associated customs, fashions, and activities. Kyōden used the word “manga” to mean “random sketches” or “whimsical drawings”. However, the word did not become widely used until the 19th century, when it was popularized by Katsushika Hokusai, one of the most famous ukiyo-e artists. Hokusai published a series of sketchbooks called Hokusai Manga (Hokusai’s Sketches), which contained thousands of drawings of various subjects, such as animals, plants, people, landscapes, architecture, mythology, and erotica. Hokusai Manga was a huge success and inspired many other artists to create their own manga³.

The Modern Manga Era: Comics and Magazines

The form of manga as speech-balloon-based comics more specifically originated from translations of American comic strips in the 1920s, with several early such manga read left-to-right and the longest-running pre-1945 manga being the Japanese translation of the American comic strip Bringing Up Father⁴. The American comic strips were introduced to Japan by GIs who occupied the country after World War II. They also brought with them other forms of American culture, such as movies, cartoons, magazines, and books. These influences shaped the development of manga in the post-war era.

One of the most influential figures in manga history was Osamu Tezuka, who is widely regarded as the “godfather” or “father” of manga. Tezuka was inspired by both Japanese and American comics, especially Disney cartoons. He created his own style of manga that combined dynamic storytelling, cinematic techniques, expressive characters, and diverse genres. He also pioneered the use of long-form narratives that spanned multiple volumes and chapters. Some of his most famous works include Astro Boy (1952), Kimba the White Lion (1954), Princess Knight (1953), and Black Jack (1973). Tezuka influenced many other manga artists, such as Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko Fujio, and Leiji Matsumoto.

Another important factor in the evolution of manga was the emergence of manga magazines, which provided a platform for serialized manga stories and a way to reach a mass audience. The first manga magazine was Manga Shōnen (Boys’ Manga), which was launched in 1947 by Tokiwa-sō, a group of young manga artists who lived and worked together in a shared apartment. Manga Shōnen featured adventure, sci-fi, and fantasy stories aimed at boys. Other manga magazines followed suit, such as Shōnen Magazine (1959), Shōnen Sunday (1959), Shōjo Club (1955), Nakayoshi (1955), and Ribon (1955). These magazines catered to different demographics and genres, such as shōnen (boys’), shōjo (girls’), seinen (young men), and josei (young women). They also established the system of editors, assistants, publishers, and distributors that still operates today.

The Contemporary Manga Era: Diversity and Globalization

Manga has continued to evolve and diversify in the contemporary era, reflecting the changes in society, culture, and technology. Some of the trends and developments that have shaped manga in recent decades include:

  • The rise of alternative and underground manga, such as gekiga (dramatic pictures), which emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to the mainstream manga industry. Gekiga artists such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Yoshiharu Tsuge, and Kazuo Umezu created realistic, dark, and experimental stories that dealt with social issues, violence, sexuality, and psychology.
  • The expansion of manga genres and themes, such as horror, romance, comedy, sports, historical, mystery, slice-of-life, fantasy, and more. Manga also explored topics such as gender identity, sexuality, politics, religion, ethnicity, disability, and environmentalism. Some examples of manga that represent these genres and themes are Uzumaki (1998) by Junji Ito, Nana (2000) by Ai Yazawa, One Piece (1997) by Eiichiro Oda, Slam Dunk (1990) by Takehiko Inoue, Rurouni Kenshin (1994) by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Death Note (2003) by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Yotsuba&! (2003) by Kiyohiko Azuma
  • The globalization of manga and its influence on other media and cultures. Manga has become a worldwide phenomenon that has reached millions of readers across different countries and languages. Manga has also inspired many adaptations and spin-offs in other media forms, such as anime, video games, movies, live-action dramas, musicals, novels, and merchandise. Manga has also influenced many artists and creators from other countries who have incorporated manga elements into their own works. Some examples of global manga are Naruto (1999) by Masashi Kishimoto

Source: Conversation with Bing, 4/6/2023
(1) The History of Manga: Early Origins – Evolution. https://evolutioninjapan.wordpress.com/2020/12/25/the-history-of-manga-early-origins/.
(2) History of manga – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_manga.
(3) EarlyManga version 2 is here, Finally! : r/EarlyManga – Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/EarlyManga/comments/wfw3ls/earlymanga_version_2_is_here_finally/.
(4) earlymanga.org – EarlyManga – Early Manga. https://sur.ly/i/earlymanga.org/.