Manga: The Virtues and Difficulties of Minimalism

Sitting in my college illustration class one evening I remember vividly the teacher’s comments when he found a pair of students dabbling in manga-style characters.  How he saw “man-ga” everywhere and he was sick of it; that it wasn’t real art. Yet Western comic book art was perfectly acceptable and we even had a class that was centered around how to caricature. As someone who has an appreciation for Eastern art forms I was taken aback. Amateurs might flood the market with manga of varying quality but we see people flood the market with varying attempts at modern art imitations of someone like Warhol or Jackson Pollack just as much.

Manga Example

Manga Example

So firstly, in defense of manga, we should probably understand why people might like it so much. Manga as a form of art came out of a long tradition in Japan. For many centuries Japan had been highly influenced by the art of China, which traditionally had a focus on details and perfection. In the 1600s there was a movement away from the Chinese form which started to discard the details of the Chinese influenced schools and sought a more evocative form of expression of washes and minimalism that was inspired by Buddhism. By the 1700s minimalism had begun to flourish in Japan’s art schools. This new school of art was called nanga (nope, that’s no typo). For those of you curious to know more I would recommend the book Japanese Art by Joan Stanley-Baker, part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series. Artists used this style to portray the first real caricatures of humans and also made animalistic representations of humans. This history was influential to the modern artist Stan Sakai’s making the iconic comic book figure of Usagi Yojimbo, for example.

What is at the heart of minimalism can best be summed up in the art of sumi. The goal is to create as realistic as possible a depiction of an object, a koi fish, a cliff, a human being, in as few rendered strokes as possible.  I encourage people to try this because it is much harder than it sounds unless the subject matter is known incredibly well!

Which begs the question, why does minimalism work? The human mind cannot stand a vacuum. It will fill in information it generally does not have. This is why in art you can suggest a brick wall or a row of teeth with only a few establishing lines. As long as there is enough of something there the viewer’s mind will fill in the rest of the details. When applied to such things as a character we get a fascinating psychological phenomenon called ‘projection’, which is the same thing as when an artist suggests a brick wall.

The viewer’s mind fills in the details of the character. Many manga characters look alike because the suggestion that the style creates allows the viewer to fill in the details instead of having the artist spoon-feed them. A manga character, therefore, becomes the viewer’s personal expression of that character, allowing an ownership that a fully detailed drawing does not afford. Facial expressions and lively gestures are used to convey the minute details without presenting the details themselves. It is like the line from Chekhov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Within Japanese art history we see that this was not always so. Prior to the rise of the warlords in the late 1100s, figures were iconographic and represented larger ideas.  With the rise of the daimyo there was a shift in the desired art; these powerful warlords wanted their faces in the artwork, their exact deeds recorded. A suggestion was not good enough. Minimalist art makes the viewer decide what details to include much in the same way that Tolkien’s suggestion of Gandalf allows us to decide what he looks like instead of the silver screen telling us he looks like Ian McKellen. On the other hand naturalist details create a character that is wholly the artist’s and takes away the personal involvement of the viewer. A relevant case to manga is the recent live action release of Rurouni Kenshin where actors replace the archetypal images of each character and fight scenes are choreographed in realistic terms. Most of the participation of the viewer has been stripped from the experience.  The viewer is shown everything.

But secondly, in defense of my illustration professor, what I felt he was trying to say is that the use of minimalist techniques and style to avoid learning to draw is to cheat the artist of valuable insights. The sketch books of modern, professional manga artists are filled with photorealistic sketches that you would expect from any western artist. First, the artist learns to draw everything they can see into a complete piece. Then the artist draws the essential parts of the piece, leaving the details out for the viewer to fill in.

This is a very intimate form of art much in the same way we will speak informally with close friends and family members. We leave out certain details that someone who had not been present would be lost without.  Those details are excluded because everyone who’s in-the-know knows. Minimalist forms work because we’ve seen it before, turning what would have been a photo into an archetypal representation which we can all participate in and make our own.

I feel that this is an important thing to keep in mind lest we accidentally sound like we are being culturally insensitive when we are really trying to say that no style of art should be engaged in lightly but with understanding and appreciation for the history that formed it.

While my illustration professor was having difficulties with manga, my watercolor professor explained how working with a sumi-e artist that had been declared one of Japan’s living treasures forever changed how she approached watercolor painting. As a teacher she was aware of cultural sensitivity and as a naturalist trying to tackle minimalism she was gaining an appreciation for what may look deceptively simple but is, in practice, rigorously difficult. The backbone of Japanese minimalist techniques actually lays in a constant application of the basics so that body memory kicks in when the artist wants to represent certain textures, angles and proportions.

So if we apply the criteria by which art is defined, as presented by Musebreak’s own Marva Maida, we can see that manga meets all of the criteria with ease. It is art and should be recognized as real art. Not everyone’s attempt at it might be, but ultimately whether a person likes it or not comes down to a matter of personal taste.