While many argue that the manga’s popularity is due to its lack of politics, a closer look reveals that politics is rooted in the medium.
When Marvel Comics presented a version of MODOK modeled after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, many quickly contrasted this with the perceived apolitical nature of manga. A common refrain among some Western manga fans is that the media’s success is tied to its lack of apparent political messages. Despite this, nothing could be further from the truth. A closer look at many of Japan’s most influential manga reveals a deep well of political themes, messages, and imagery.
Far from being a novelty, politics has been present in manga since the medium’s early days. With classics like Kimba the white lion, Blackjack, and Phoenix Osamu Tezuka is widely regarded as the father of manga. However, it is Astro boy it is truly his defining work. Somehow combining cute Disney cartoons with the brave heroism of American superheroes, Astro boy is considered one of the very first modern manga. It was also unabashedly political. Known for being anti-war and pro-environment, Tezuka has woven these themes into Astro boy. For those fans of manga who think these themes are too subtle or too general to really qualify as “political,” a story should allay all doubt. 1969 The Angel of Vietnam by Tezuka sees Astro protecting a Vietnamese village from American forces at the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
A well-known designer clearly influenced by Tezuka’s work is acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. Although most Western readers know him for his jaw-dropping films, he was also a manga artist for quite some time. His magnum opus, Nausicaä: from the valley of the wind contains many themes that have defined Miyazaki’s career. Much like Tezuka, Miyazki used the medium of manga to portray the futility of war and the importance of respecting the environment. The series follows the eponymous character in a post-apocalyptic world destroyed by pollution. Far from being something easy to ignore, the themes of environmentalism and mankind’s folly in trying to control the environment are absolutely central to the story. Ignore the terrible political message of Nausicaä is basically not to engage in the story at all.
In the same vein, the politics of classic cyberpunk, Akira. Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga was a critique of 1980s Japanese society. The setting for the manga, Neo-Tokyo, is a city overrun equally by gang violence and a dangerously militarized police force. A key plot point of the manga is the construction by the Japanese government of an Olympic stadium. Considering the absurd levels of poverty and destitution that the people of Neo-Tokyo face, the obvious conclusion readers are meant to draw is that the stadium is a waste of money. Beyond this critique of the different priorities of a government and its people, Akira also openly tackles burning issues such as youth violence, economic inequality and police brutality.
These three classic manga used the events of the time and the Japanese political landscape of their time to create awe-inspiring and epic stories that still influence mangaka to this day. Looking more to the present, it should be equally obvious that manga creators are still using politics and social change to inform their work.
While some critics of the Western comic book industry have viewed the recent inclusion of more LGBTQ characters as a reason for the decline in sales of traditional superhero comics, this is odd considering the industry Manga, while far from perfect, is often tied or even ahead of the curve in including characters with a wide variety of sexualities and genres. In 1994 sailor moon created a heroic lesbian couple in Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. Ghost in the shell Motoko Kusanagi has been either lesbian or at least bisexual since her first appearance in 1989. Hunter x hunter features an entire arc focused on the Killua series co-protagonist reconnecting with his trans sister, Alluka. A piece just introduced Yamato, who was assigned female at birth but uses male pronouns which are respected by the main cast. The attack of the Titans Also features several prominent LGBTQ characters, including non-binary Hange Zoë and lesbian couple Ymir and Christa.
The attack of the Titans on its own, should be enough to dispel any idea that manga is a mythical apolitical medium. The hit series highlights themes of nationalism, militarization and how members of oppressed groups are radicalized by their oppressors. Given Japan’s complex relationship with WWII and Nazi Germany, the German-inspired setting and constant references to WWII imagery throughout The attack of the Titans are inherently political in nature, although what the show uses to tell these images is always a hotly debated topic.
Beyond the blatant policy of The attack of the Titans however, the last two decades of manga have been rich in political themes and imagery. Considering the eruption of the Middle East, it’s hard not to see Fullmetal Alchemist Ishbalan conflict as analogous to the Iraq war. A punch concerns the hollow and unsatisfactory nature of a work-oriented society. My hero university explores the pressure on young adults to be exceptional and how this pressure can ultimately hurt and alienate those struggling to measure up. Demon slayer uses his Taishō-era framework to examine the impact of modernization and how people are adjusting to a rapidly changing world.
While some of these political messages and themes are easy to ignore for readers less politically savvy, other manga is much more blunt. While some readers complained that Marvel turned a politician into a supervillain … Death threat was preparing to do the exact same thing with the exact same politician. The creators of the series returned to the world of Death threat with the A-Kira Story, a one-shot highlighting a blatant parody of Trump receiving the titular Death Note and being too cowardly to use it.
All of these examples should be more than enough to show that the manga is just as political as anything released by Marvel or DC. It’s important to note, however, that even series with less obvious politics are still political. Works like Dragon ball They may not be so forward thinking with their politics, but they still exist in a political context and still send political messages, whether they are intentional or not. For better or worse, all media are political in the sense that all media reflect the values and beliefs of the culture that created them. These themes are woven into the very DNA of their series. Say that manga isn’t political isn’t just blatantly wrong, it’s disrespectful to the rich, textured worlds created by Japan’s greatest mangaka.
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