Thursday, 13 September 2012

Is that a Zanpakuto in your pocket?

Let me introduce you to Shounen Manga.  It's a category of the Japanese comic strips which centres on action, fighting and martial arts.  Examples include Bleach, Dragon Ball Z, Pandora Hearts and Kuroshitsuji.  It also happens to be the category of Manga which most interests my daughter, hence my meagre knowledge of the genre. 

Following on from Lara's fascinating post on onomatopoeia yesterday, I can confirm that the copy of Bleach (#45 if you are interested) which Raven left on the desk contains 5 instances of the word 'whup' on the first page.  This is the noise of a Zanpakuto, or fancy sword as I insist on calling them.  The fact that the book begins with the sound of a sword being swung does not surprise me.  From what I can gather, these comic strips are 85% fancy fighting and only 15% dialogue/plot development. 

There's a certain amount of fetishistic pleasure, I imagine, in looking at images of carefully orchestrated, supernatural, martial arts fights.  I have to imagine because to me this main element is about as exciting as an  Audi showroom, the Wickes catalogue, or the back page of the Gazette.  In short, the Shounen Manga is primarily aimed at the young uns with the dangly bits rather than the young uns with the monthly waterworks.  Which is why my daughter's continuing interest in the genre is so surprising.  She has introduced the series to several, female, friends and they too are hooked. 

The narrative arcs are sloth-like.  A single fight can be spread across several books, interspersed only by, somewhat witty, dialogue which often provides background to characters and the occasional flashback.  Characters wax lyrical about their extraordinary prowess with their weapon, describing the fight as it occurs.  And here is the point where I concede a similarity to poetry.  Japanese poetry tends to work on a deep, naturalistic level. In traditional Haiku, the focus is on capturing nature in concise, beautiful language, as in this example by 17th century poet, Matsuo Basho:

on a bare branch
a crow settles down
autumn dusk

This makes me wonder, if the focus is on examining the movement and action in Shounen Manga, in close detail, what does the language of the characters look like, if taken away from the images?  Below are 2 examples of dialogue taken from the Bleach issue mentioned above. 

You said before the battle that you knew we'd eventually cross swords.
To tell you the truth...
I was thinking the same thing as we fought.
I suppose Hisagi was too.
Our relationship has been superficial until now.
We were destined...
To cross swords one day...
And to truly get to know one another.

Don't seek aesthetics in battle.
Don't seek virtue in death.
Don't think your life belongs only to yourself.
If you really want to protect something...
Attack the enemy from behind.

It's certainly not an attempt at natural dialogue.  The characters are, to my mind, more like conduits for a variety of martial arts philosophies.  The text reminds me of Confucian proverbs, I-Ching definitions or Sun Tzu's Art of War which places the style within a broader cultural context. 

Repetition is used to great extent, not only in the prolonged battles of Shounen Manga but in the dialogue, as above.  The ellipsis is used to break up text across frames but serves as a line break would on a page of poetry.  The first section above is immediately thought-provoking and the second has a little more depth to it.  Both can be read on a level beyond that of the immediate meaning: Can we really say we know someone if we've never crossed them?  Do we place more value on our individual life or that of our society? 

Personally I find it challenging to sit through entire episodes of Shounen Anime on DVD, nevermind reading an entire comic book of the stuff.  My addiction to a fast-paced plot and lack of interest in anything to do with fighting means they lack appeal for me.  But I am beginning to understand that there is a beauty in the form.  If flashy swords and deep philosophy are your cup of tea, why not look up the enormous wealth of Manga available and see if any of it works for you.  



Ashley R Lister said...

This is why we're an award-winning blog.

Excellent and absorbing post.


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