Japanese illustration, particularly manga, has gathered a huge, global fan base in the last few decades. As its influence continues to spread, we take a look back at how it all began, where it is now and what might happen in the future.
The Origins of Japanese Illustration
The beginning of modern Japanese illustration can be dated back to a series of medieval scrolls created in the 10th century that contain drawings of animals. These scrolls are thought of by many as the first example of the famous and hugely influential manga illustration style. Animals remained a common subject throughout the 13th century in linear illustration. These more closely resemble modern day manga illustrations. The afterlife was another popular subject for Japanese illustrators of this time, but after this period they began to branch out to wider ranging subjects.
The Art of Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e, the ancient Japanese illustration technique of painting onto wooden blocks, came about in the 1600s in the Edo period. Ukiyo-e often contained erotic content, like a lot of modern manga illustrations, as well as a lot of satirical content. The most recognisable ukiyo-e painting from this time is the incredibly famous illustration by Hokusai, ‘the Great Wave of Kanagawa’.
The waves in this famous work are often mistakenly referred to as a ‘tsunami’, however, they are more accurately called ‘okinami’, or great off-shore waves
The late 1600s provided further innovation in Japanese illustration with ink-brushed illustrated prints; however, the content of the majority of these prints lacks a progressive storyline which is so common of modern manga illustration today.
The Origins of Manga
Manga are Japanese illustrated storybooks, comics or graphic novels. On every commuter train and in every waiting room or cafe in Tokyo you are certain to see a number of youngsters with their noses in a manga comic. The word ‘manga’ can be translated to mean ‘whimsical picture’. The popularity of manga, across the world of both illustration and storytelling, has been massive and their influence on modern commercial illustration styles continues to be strong.
The first commercial manga illustrated comics came about in the late 1940s. They were known as ‘Akahons’, or cheap red books, and were introduced to provide entertainment to the huge population of poor who were in desperate need of entertainment during the post-war period. Tezuka’s 1947 “New Treasure Island” sold over 400,000 copies when it was released and its popularity would change the face of Japanese illustration forever.
Tezuka’s 1947 debut ‘New Treasure Island’ is widely credited as the first modern manga
Manga illustration today
By the 1990s, Japanese manga had become a popular commercial art form across the world, and artists in the West started to use the style to inform and inspire their own work. Luis NCT has been working as a freelance illustrator since 2005 and although he lives in Valencia, Spain, the biggest influence on his style comes from Japan. He feels the use of bold illustration is the perfect way to tell a visual story:
“The first thing that attracted me to manga – when I began to see them in the comic book stores – was the strength and immediacy on the graphic. The contrasting pure black and white (even with the mechanic grey tones on it) of manga transmitted dynamism and promoted a faster reading rate, which I thought was much closer to the image in motion of cinema and animation. The stylisation on anatomies and composition contributes to the same effect, giving a special vitality to the artwork. Moreover, manga illustrations tend to avoid the use of bold black masses for shadow (in faces, for example) so the pages look less heavy and dissuades slow-reading, unlike a lot of those chiaroscuro-abused occidental comicbooks.”
“Sleepers” by Spanish illustrator Luis NCT is set to be released in the US early next year
“I love that manga doesn’t try to mimic reality. It doesn’t look like a series of photographs translated to drawings, but images constructed with a graphic language that only make sense in drawing. Of course I’m generalising and there are a lot of exceptions, for example the abuse of backgrounds traced from photo or 3D models seen over the last few years.”
Image from ‘Sleepers’ by Luis NCT
“There is intersection between eastern and western design that you can see in colour illustrators, like Katsuya Terada or Katsuhiro Otomo (both were heavily influenced by Moebius and other European artists). I prefer this style to the cell-shading you could see on most of the mass-produced manga. Connecting with that, I have to say that I love manga artists that have a unique voice and style (like Otomo, Toriyama, Kishiro, Miyazaki, Tanaka, Nihei…) but I don’t like at all the standardised, commercial and mass-produced manga.”
Image from ‘Sleepers by Luis NCT
Felix Setiawan is another manga illustrator who is creating work from outside of Japan. Living in Jakarta, Indonesia, Felix says he loves both reading and using the manga style for the escapism it provides and says, “the fantasy of manga illustration can make me forget about how boring real life is.”
Manga fan art illustration by Felix Setiawan for Japanese video game ‘J Stars Victory Vs’
The Future of Japanese Illustration
While manga is the most popular form of Japanese illustration globally, there is a danger in thinking that manga illustration completely defines Japan’s illustration scene. While there are many outstanding Japanese illustrators who work with manga illustration styles, there are many who are influenced by the ancient history of Japanese illustration but work in a completely different style. Tatsuro Kiuchi, for example, is a multiple award-winning illustrator, representative of the amazingly talented Japanese illustration scene, that is not reliant on the manga industry:
Award-winning illustration by Tatsuro Kiuchi
“Actually, I am not particularly a big fan of manga right now. When I was a high school student, I read manga magazines regularly. However, I hardly read manga after that. I know some of the manga are very interesting and fun to read storywise, but I think I am not into those manga-type line drawings. I love drawings done by illustrators or fine artists much more. I do love a couple of manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka, Fujio Akatsuka, Katsuhiro Otomo, Katsuya Terada, Shigeru Mizuki; I admire the qualities of their line drawings. I tend to pay attention to the qualities of artworks in great detail rather than the stories in manga.”
Illustration for Japan Railway Kyushu by Tatsuro Kiuchi
However, the popularity of manga in Japan is almost unavoidable and Tatsuro admits that manga has had some bearing on his own style as a top Japanese illustrator:
“I can say that some of my favourite manga along with my favourite line artworks have influenced my work. I have been looking for great line drawings, and I get inspired when I find one. However, I think the percentage of manga influence on my work is not so high.”
Cover Illustration for Style Asahi by Tatsuro Kiuchi
A bright past, present and future
As manga continues to influence the work of illustrators across the world, Japan looks set to continue to play a huge part in the global story of illustration. With the work of current Japanese illustrators, such as Tatsuro Kiuchi, already carving out a unique style that is influenced by, yet separate, from manga, we could yet see further evolution and advancement of Japanese influence on the industry.