The terms manga or anime generally suggest the same stereotype: a character with huge eyes and stylized features. This visual aspect has precise origins. Let’s travel back in time to understand the visual influences between manga, comics, and Japanese woodblock prints.
There are two surprising threads of influence. The first concerns Japanese Woodblock prints, Art Nouveau, and manga. Three eras, three artistic expressions that link the West and the East by multiple flows of influences.
This visual dialogue linking Asia, Europe and America reveals that there is no ex nihilo creation: art always conveys the vision of a previous artwork.
Therefore, I propose a short journey wavering between Japan and the West, from the Edo period to the present day, to discover the currents of influence linking printmaking, comics, 1920s cartoons, Art Nouveau and contemporary comics.
Visual Influences: Woodblock Prints and manga
The Edo period (1603-1867) forms two centuries of relative calm, during which numerous artistic innovations appeared. They result from the rise of a middle class eager for pleasure and refinement.
In parallel of the traditional schools of painting, the woodblock prints flourished. It is also known as the Ukiyo-e, the Japanese more poetic terms meaning “pictures of the floating world.”
The nobility experienced and fancied of the older styles of painting. On the contrary, the Ukiyo-e drawed its inspiration and its subjects from the world of pleasure (geisha and kabuki), daily life, nature, mythology. They often ludicrously pastiched famous paintings.
Japanese woodblock prints and painting are part of a non-mimetic conception of reality.
While vanishing points and linear perspective are crucial in the Western arts, Japanese art relies on flat spaces and arabesques in a single plane of depth, not to represent reality, but to evoke it.
The intention is to suggest and give a poetic representation, not to produce a photorealistic snapshot of reality.
This lack of concern for imitating nature undoubtedly explains why Japanese prints were disregarded at first.
Perceived as being uniform, the faces all look alike for an audience not used to a foreign artform.
Similarly, people used to criticize manga for its lack of variety and “realism.”
There is no obligation of prima facies in Japanese pictures, since nature should not be duplicated but evoked.
The caricatural aspects of the manga may derive from the woodblock prints and, more precisely from the Toba-e style.
Heir to the latter type of pictures, the kibyōshi (with the yellow cover) are collections of illustrations decorated with text that constitute little stories.
They were very popular at the beginning of the 19th century. Some think they are the manga’s close ancestor.
Thus, Japanese comic books and cartoons inherit a pictorial tradition based on non linear perspective, linework width and areas of flat color.
One can compare the use of screentones in manga print magazines to the use of color blocks in woodblock prints.
Hinako Sugiura explored the graphic relationship between Ukiyo-e and modern manga.
In Asaginu (“Morning Silk”) published in Garo magazine in 1981, she imitated the graphic style of Japanese printmaking in the Edo period.
This mangaka also tried to reproduce the graphic style and kibyōshi format in Hanageshiki Kitsune Kōdan (“stories of foxes in the time of contemplation of flowers,” which can also mean : “so as not to be intoxicated”).
Another similarity between woodblock prints and manga is their remarkable availability. Thanks to the woodcut technique, Ukiyo-e was accessible to all whereas traditional paintings were not.
In manga and woodblock prints, there is a version for the general public, usualy made of low grade paper.
When a Ukiyo-e print is popular, there is more lavish formats with a very thick paper allowing embossing and special colors (gold, silver, copper or mica dust).
Nowadays, the most successful manga series benefit from a deluxe edition with new color pages.
Hokusai and Manga
Among the Ukiyo-e‘s most influential artists, Hokusai is known as the “Old Drawing Madman.” He was a collaborator of writers, friends, and illustrators of poets, visionary of magnificent landscapes.
He drew from all schools, even studying Dutch painting, to acquire the brush’s best mastery. Among his many creations, there is, of course, the Manga.
It was initially meant to be a series of sketches allowing his Nagoya admirers to grasp his painting technique.
After the first volume’s success, the drawings collected to lead to thirteen volumes of sketches or four thousand plates retracing the master’s pictorial journey.
Manga is composed of two words: “ga,” drawing and “man,” at the whim of the idea through the brush. One can translate manga as “quick sketches.”
Hokusai may be the artist who spread the word manga, but his work has little to do with comics in its current form.
Most people consider Osamu Tezuka as the modern manga father, and he is himself heir to the European and American cartoons.
Mirrored and followed by generations of Japanese cartoonists, Tezuka’s style gives manga and anime their aesthetics so far removed from woodblock prints.
Visual Influences: Ukiyo-e, Japonisme, and manga
During the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the Belle Époque (early 19th century), the Ukiyo-e stirred significant interest among the European public and artists.
Besides exoticism, the Japanese artform revealed a divergent apprehension of the world through drawing.
Japanese woodblock print was a revelation for many artists such as
- Van Gogh (who copied many prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige),
- the Nabis
Ukiyo-e brought new blood to an art bogged down in the dull repetition of the styles of past centuries.
Thus, western art turned to the East to find a second wind, just as it was inspired by African art to renew itself after the First World War.
The French word “Japonisme” refers to the late 19th century’s artistic movement, inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, motifs, and art forms.
The Japanese influence manifested in the painting formats: square or rectangular in height (close to the Japanese kakemono).
It was also noticeable in the techniques they used. They emphasized lines, curves, and irregular shapes.
Global composition and decorative aesthetics take precedence over the search for detail. The artists rejected the linear perspective in favor of the use of flat areas of color.
For example, Gauguin’s “Cloisonnisme” consists of defining color areas with a line, which brings this technique closer to Japanese woodblock printing and stained glass.
The visual aesthetic of Samurai Champloo introduction is a reminder of this Japanese technique.
Japonisme encompasses several artistic movements such as Art Nouveau, a reflection of the European Belle Époque.
As it was the case for Ukiyo-e, Art Nouveau manifests the rise of the middle class and the social will to make art available to all.
Art Nouveau’s various expressions vary according to national particularities and artists’ temperaments.
But they are all characterized by natural theme, plant stylization, decorative composition.
They wanted to blend industrial craftmanship and visual arts.
This art movement had multiple names (Modern Style, Jugendstil) and it erased the boundaries between fine arts and liberal arts. It included ceramics, furniture, jewelry, posters, sculpture, architecture, and painting.
For the Japanese, Art Nouveau most representative artist seems to be Mucha, to whom a significant retrospective was devoted to Tokyo in 1983.
As early as 1900, artists redesigned several of his posters for the covers of Japanese art magazines.
Curiously, Alphonse Mucha appears to them as an artist representative of Western art, when in reality Ukiyo-e indirectly inspired him.
Mucha’s influence on Japanese artists may be linked by the exuberance of his arabesques, his slender curves reminiscent of the curvilinear lines of his prints.
The Belle Époque Europeans’ fascination for Ukiyo-e paralleled the Japanese’s admiration for Mucha and Art Nouveau.
According to legends, Mucha became instantaneously famous thanks to an impromptu commission for a poster for the famous comedian Sarah Bernhardt, which he produced overnight.
Mostly known for his poster and billboard skills, Mucha was also a successful illustrator.
A large part of his work consists of vertical rectangular panels, allowing him to depict full-length portraits of woman, the central subject of his work.
Part of a decorative pattern, the lush flora sensually wraps around the female body.
Languorous, radiant, and curvaceous, the woman, adorned with luxurious and charged jewels, drapes herself in an ornamental folds dress.
A complex hairstyle frames her face with profuse and intricate curls. A thicker contour line highlights her silhouette departing it from the plant motifs.
There is often an arch or halo that frames her body.
Less constraining than posters, the series of decorative panels for folding screens allow Mucha to give free rein to his imagination.
These paintings, coupled in pairs of two or four, usually represent personifications of notions such as the Four Seasons, Flowers, Arts, Fruits.
Besides all these works, Mucha has made theatre sets and jewelry in collaboration with Fouquet, furniture, and all kinds of decorations. Like other artists of that time, Mucha wanted to create a “total work of art.”
Mucha, manga and anime
Difficult to use in manga because of the entangled decorative details, Mucha-like style appears mainly in illustrations and advertising material.
It is not surprising since Mucha’s drawings were often intended to advertise products or plays. Images inspired by this European artist are frequent in illustrations for both animation and manga.
Clamp is probably one of the most inspired by Mucha. They use Art Nouveau frames and Mucha-style compositions in most of their illustrations of RG Veda, X, and Rayearth.
Mucha inspires Kosuke Fujishima for his Ah My Goddess! illustrations as his heroines wear dresses with many folds, and their long curly hairstyle rival Mucha’s women’s one.
Just as Klimt had a beneficial influence on the heroic fantasy world of Simon Bisley (Slaine, 1989), Mucha is a source of inspiration for Lodoss Wars‘ heroic fantasy world, Mikimoto’s Elver Z, and many others.
Mucha’s influence is so apparent that you only have to put the images aside.
Some Mucha-style illustrations turn out to be mere duplications of the artist’s paintings.
A series of portraits of Sailor Moon‘s heroines, sitting in a simplified “Art Nouveau” frame, resume the poses of the women in Mucha’s Precious Stones series.
Some illustrations shift from the vegetal patterns to other variations on the “Art Nouveau” frame.
Masakazu Katsura and Clamp notably use decorative eerie shapes for the various structures highlighting the characters.
Visual Influences: Fleischer, Disney, Tezuka
Before continuing, let’s go back to the beginning of modern manga in the post-war era.
Tezuka, who laid the foundations for Japanese comics and cartoons, genuinely admired the pioneers of animation movie.
People often mention Walt Disney as one of the artists who influenced Tezuka.
But they forget the Fleischer brothers, whose contribution in the technical, graphic and narrative field is much more significant than Disney.
On the visual level, the character’s shapes shows an evident influence of Western cartoons on Tezuka.
If you think of a disproportionate head and huge eyes, when imagining manga characters, you get the Fleischers’ influence.
This way of portraying the characters’ features like those of a baby derives partly from the foremost character of Fleischer productions in the 30s: Betty Boop.
The famous pin-up girl is not only one of the first leading female character, but she is also one of the first animated characters intended for an adult audience.
Sexual innuendos were numerous in the early versions of the cartoon, and the “boop-oop a doop” suggested activities that were not allowed on screen during this era.
The Lolitas in Japanese anime and manga are indirectly linked to this charming character with a woman’s body and a childish face.
The influence of the childlike morphology in adult characters (or neoteny) is visible in almost all the cartoons.
The success of Mickey and Bugs Bunny grow as their facial features became rounder and their eyes larger.
Influenced of the Fleischer brothers, Tezuka drew characters with childlike faces.
And the many mangakas inspired by Tezuka’s graphic style contribute to stereotyping this way of drawing in Japanese comics and anime.
These visual aspects, which the general public holds purely Japanese, came from Western cartoons’ specific features.
This way of drawing has a double advantage. By focusing on the face and eyes, it allows greater expressivity.
The manga and anime mainly center on the characters; this design highlights the protagonists all the more.
On the other hand, the character’s childlike aspect arouses sympathy from the audience. Psychologists speculated that adults show reflexes of affection and protection towards beings with juvenile features.
It is not by chance that manga and anime characters can turn into SD (Super Deformed) or Chibi versions. This stylization makes them more baby-like.
Visual Influences: manga, comics, and bande dessinée
Japanese manga and animation have a remarkable influence on many Western artists.
The broadcast of many Japanese anime television series in the 1960s and 1970s created a large potential market for manga. A 1990s series such as Robotech was adapted into comics by American cartoonists.
In France, publishers adapted popular anime series adapted in bandes dessinées (Goldorak, Albator or Captain Flam).
There are also several adaptations of anime into comics such as Dirty Pair (started in 1989) and Adam Warren’s Bubblegum Crisis, or Project A-Ko and Cyber City, distributed by a publisher specializing in adaptation, CPM Comics.
These comics rely more or less on the primary Japanese graphic design, but they are original works drawn by Americans. Moreover, Bubblegum Crisis and Dirty Pair are initially anime that do not exist as manga.
One of the most famous American comic artists influenced by manga is Frank Miller, creator of Sin City (1993).
He is a Lone Wolf and Cub enthusiast. Known as Kozure Okami in Japan, this manga is created by Kazuo Koike and Gôseki Kojima.
Miller created covers for the American version of the manga and he wrote the preface. He also drew inspiration from it for his comic book, Ronin (1989). Thanks to him, American publishers and audience started to show interest for manga.
There is also a cross-influence of animation and manga on American artists.
The series translated are the ones the American or European publishers thought were best suited for the domestic audience. It explains why the most popular Japanese artists are not the same in the US and other countries.
As early as 1996, the American magazine Wizard featured two articles on the influence of manga and anime on comics industry less than six months apart.
They interviewed several artists on their passion for manga and anime: Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men), J. Scott Campbell (GEN 13), Billy Tucci (Shi), Humberto Ramos (Impulse), Art Adams (Godzilla), Brian Pulido (Lady Death), and the critic, Scott McCloud.
It is no great surprise that the main Japanese works that inspired them are Akira for anime and Ghost in the Shell for manga.
As in Europe, Shirow is very popular. Among the other Japanese artists mentioned, there are Katsura (Video Girl Ai), Fujishima (Ah my Goddess!), Sonoda (Gunsmith Cats). Only two comics artists mentioned Tezuka and Go Nagai.
Among the anime, they praised Ninja Scroll and other series from Mad House studios (Gunnm, Wicked City).
This interest for Japanese masters lead to several collaboration and homage. For example, Frazetta and Bisley draw new covers for the US version of Devilman, a manga by Go Nagai.
As an fan of Katsuya Terada (Blood, Sayukiden), Mike Mignola entrusted the Japanese artist with the monsters’ design for the film adaptation of Hellboy.
Given the anime and manga growth in the US, there should be an increased influence between Japanese and Americans.
In France, Jorodowki and Moebius served as ambassadors for manga and anime in the 80s and 90s. The creator of Arzach answered to several interviews about Japanese comics.
As in the USA, Otomo and Shirow are the two most famous artists. Among the French professionals inspired by manga, there is Enrico MARINI (La Colombe de la Place Rouge, Gipsy). Vatine’s Aquablue series borrows from manga the speed lines, and some mecha are reminiscent of Patlabor.
The French publisher Glénat released two comics whose graphics evoke manga: HK (1996) and Nomad (1994). The publisher is the first to introduce the idea of French manga or Manfra.
Casterman sought to mix French-Belgian bande dessinée and Japanese comics, by publishing series made by Western artists but first published as manga by Kodansha. For example, the publisher released Baru’s L’Autoroute du Soleil in 1995.
On the other hand, the former monthly magazine Yoko published amateur comics inspired by manga and anime graphics.
In the sixties, the French publishers feared the concurrence of American comics and later dreaded Japanese media. Nowadays, it is no longer the case.
Many companies seem to consider it as an easy profit source. The word manga unravels the cord of all purses. A French banking company even used an advertising visual inspired by Dragon Ball and Saint Seiya.
What about the influence of Western comics on manga?
It is obvious in comic books, SF, and fantasy. For example, Masakazu Katsura is a big fan of Batman, and in his manga Video Girl Ai, the characters go to see a Batman movie.
Slaine‘s hero made a cameo in Gunnm. There are also various adaptations of American superheroes by mangaka, such as Batman by Otomo or Spiderman by Ikegami.
Thus the manga brings a second breath to the French-Belgian bande dessinée and comics. It is a genuine way to make narratives and has a new visual style.
In a sense, manga influence on comics is almost comparable to that of the woodblock prints on European art at the end of the 19th century.
Conversely, comics is a source of inspiration for the manga, which sometimes gets bogged down in sterile stereotypes.
So, as you can see, the influence between manga, comics, and bande dessinée artists should increase.
Some may worried about the risk of standardization of comics, whether it is to the benefit of manga or any other comics. It would be a shame since the variety of style makes comics more interesting. But a talented artist could always break a genre’s boundaries and create a personal style.
More than the visual influence, I believe that manga has a significant impact on the narrative and the way to create lasting series.
Besides the art style, manga led new inspirations for designing layouts and panels, and the way of conveying a narrative.