In the West, manga has become a key part of the cultural accompaniment to economic globalization. No mere side-effect of Japan’s economic power, writes Jean-Marie Bouissou, manga is ideally suited to the cultural obsessions of the early twenty-first century.
Paradox surrounds the growth of manga in western countries such as France, Italy and the USA since the 1970s, and of genres descended from it: anime (cartoons), television serials and video games. The first parodox is that, whereas western countries have always imagined their culture and values as universal and sought to spread them (if only as cover for their imperial ambitions), Japan has historically been sceptical about sharing its culture with the world. The Shinto religion, for example, is perhaps unique in being strictly “national”: the very idea of a “Shintoist” foreigner would strike the Japanese as absurd.
The second paradox is that manga, in the form it has taken since 1945, is shot through with a uniquely Japanese historical experience. It depicts the trauma of a nation opened at gunpoint in 1853 by the “black ships” of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, frog-marched into modernity, and dragged into a contest with the West which ended in the holocaust of Hiroshima. It was this nation’s children – call them “Generation Tezuka” – who became the first generation of mangaka [manga creators]. They had seen their towns flattened by US bombers, their fathers defeated, their emperor stripped of his divinity, and their schoolbooks and the value-system they contained cast into the dustbin of history.
This defeated nation rebuilt itself through self-sacrificing effort and scarcely twenty years later had become the second economic power of the free world. Yet it received neither recognition (the 1980s were the years of “Japan-bashing” in the West), nor the security to which it aspired, before its newly-regained pride was crushed once more by the long crisis of the 1990s. Such a trajectory – unique, convulsive, dramatic, overshadowed by racial discrimination – differs radically from that of the old European powers, or that of young, triumphant America. Hence, it is all the more stunning that its collective imagination has spawned a popular culture capable of attaining “universality”.
At the start of the twenty-first century, Japan has become the world’s second largest exporter of cultural products. Manga has conquered 45 per cent of the French comic market, and Shonen Jump – the most important manga weekly for Japanese teenagers, whose circulation reached 6 million during the mid-1990s – has begun appearing in an American version. Manga, long considered fit only for children or poorly-educated youths, is starting to seduce a sophisticated generation of French thirty-somethings. This deserves an explanation.