Dec 01 2009

Excerpt from Kaoru Kumi’s “Miyazaki Hayao no Jidai”

Published by at 1:00 am under Essay,Manga

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Kaoru Kumi is a freelance writer and anime scholar who authored Miyazaki Hayao no Jidai (The Age of Hayao Miyazaki), a book containing detailed analysis of the famed director and his work. With the author’s permission, kransom of the welcome datacomp blog posted a translation of a portion of the book which deals with the analysis of the Nausicaä manga. It’s an incomplete translation due to kransom’s busy schedule, and the second half is due to be translated and posted sometime in the near future by SDS on the Ogiue Maniax blog.

Kumi’s exploration is written like a transcript of a high school lecture series. As such, it is a scholarly  discussion but has a certain informal tone. At times this informality works for and against Kumi’s arguments; it keeps the text from becoming too dry and boring, yet I think it undermines the academic quality by digressing too much.

The excerpt starts off with a wonderful setup on the biographical context of the Nausicaä manga. Kumi retells the stories told by Miyazaki in an early interview about his career as a manga artist, which he wanted to be ever since he was a teenager. One story from this period recounts when, as an university student, he went to a tiny publisher to pitch his manuscripts but chickened out before setting foot in the office. How the times have changed! Miyazaki still strikes me as the same shy person like that nervous university student of yore who attempted to visit a tiny manga publisher, but at the same time, he now has more confidence to be outspoken in interviews. When Animage asked him to draw a long series in 1982, Miyazaki was troubled because he only had a limited experience with manga at that point. With no formal training as a manga artist, he struggled with the format while drawing the early Nausicaä chapters.

For the remainder of the translated excerpt, Kumi takes to task the visual criticism of the Nausicaä manga. He analyzed the manga before in a previous book Miyazaki Hayao no Shigoto 1979-2004 (Works of Hayao Miyazaki 1979-2004), but his earlier examination centered around the story composition. Here, Kumi wants to perform a visual inquiry from a technical point of view. His focus appears to be upon two comments commonly made by critics: “[The Nausicaä manga]‘s quite cinematic,” and “Its style is dense and hard to read.”

Kumi asks, “What exactly makes a manga ‘cinematic?’” There have been numerous attempts made at defining cinematic manga by other manga scholars, but Kumi isn’t satisfied with any of their explanations. In his search for a true definition, he believes that he has found the epitome of cinematic manga in Nausicaä and will demonstrate his reasoning in this lecture.

Kumi begins by examining the treatment of panel-to-panel transitions in manga compared to shot-to-shot transitions in films. In cinematic manga, there emerges a pattern of transitions similar to the pattern of edits in films. Using Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a film example, Kumi proposes that there are four basic transition patterns:

Pattern A: Despite going from one shot to the next, the action continues to take place in the same location, and the subjects remain in the frame, allowing the action to continue uninterrupted.

Pattern B: The setting drastically changes from one shot to the next, but the characters onscreen are in both shots, and are not seen briefly during the sequence.

Pattern C: The film moves from one location and one set of characters to another location and another set of characters, turning into a separate sequence.

Pattern D: An edit from one place and cast to another, then return to the original setting and characters, used to skip the passage of time.

If Japanese manga in general is truly “cinematic,” then we should see the four film transition patterns used in the manga as well according to Kumi. Showing samples of various manga, he points out how those patterns are used. In 4-koma manga like Azumanga Daioh, pattern A dominates. Well, actually, Kumi calls this Pattern A’ because of the difference in  medium, we don’t actually see the motion in manga but use our imagination to fill in the blanks to complete the action happening on the page. There’s also a pattern A” where one or more actions are omitted between the panels.

Kumi thinks that pattern B’ is difficult to execute due to lack of motion, but it is used in manga more commonly than one may think, leaving the reader to perform closure with their imagination to connect panels that use this transition pattern.

The next example is a peculiar one from the opening pages of Osamu Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima where the panels follow a character driving a car from the countryside to the harbor. At a glance, this sequence could be categorized under pattern A’ because the driver and his car remain the focus throughout the panels, but Kumi argues that the background changes in each panel, so if this page were filmed, the character would be seen leaving one setting and entering the next setting. Thus Kumi classifies this sequence as an example of pattern B”.

I thought this example was a weak one because it doesn’t strongly support the argument, especially when I realized that it was just an excuse for Kumi to use Tezuka’s redrawn Shin Takarajima to define pattern B”-. Tezuka’s revised version expands on the character’s drive from the countryside to the shore by using a layout with more panels which makes the sequence drag on. This slowdown effect is what Kumi claims is the defining characteristic of pattern B”-. He uses a page from Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk to further illustrate his point. The Slam Dunk page shows Sakuragi-kun making a climatic shot for the hoop by using three panels which show him shooting the basketball from three different angles.

Pattern C’ as shown in the Whisper of the Heart example is straight-forward, but the introduction of pattern C” is extraneous. To illustrate pattern C”, Kumi chooses a page from Golgo 13 depicting a montage of Tokyo and its streets. Each montage panel displays a different street in Tokyo, but when you consider the page as a whole, you are reading a single sequence, not separate sequences as stated in Kumi’s definition of pattern C. Montages are commonly used in films, but I wouldn’t classify this pattern as a subset or derivative of pattern C.

A page from Kaiji Kawaguchi’s Zipang is used to illustrate pattern D’. Here we have a dogfight sequence where a Japanese Zero Fighter is shot down. The switching between inside and outside the Zero allows the sequence to become more dynamic by skipping moments of time between when the Zero gets hit by gunfire and when it crashes into the ocean.

With all these definitions of Kumi’s transition patterns in place, he can now proceed with the visual analysis of what makes Nausicaä such a cinematic manga. Using a couple of pages from Master Keaton that was singled out by another manga researcher as being cinematic, Kumi broke down each transition and noted that they were nearly all A’ and D’ patterns. Does the same hold true for Nausicaä? After a bit of digression, Kumi confirms that it indeed holds true that there a lot of A’ and D’ transitions used in Miyazaki’s manga work.

Unfortunately, I find Kumi’s approach a bit awkward. To dismiss your peers’ conclusions is one thing, but reinventing the wheel is another. In reading Kumi’s breakdowns of panel transitions for each manga example, I had a difficult time remembering which pattern was which because of their abstract and arbitrary labels A, A’, A”, B, B’, and so forth. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud lists six categories of panel-to-panel transitions which make more sense to me:

Moment-to-moment: The panels depict one moment to the next.

Action-to-action: The panels follow a single subject through a progression from one action to another.

Subject-to-subject: The panels change from one subject to another while staying within a scene or idea.

Scene-to-scene: The panels change from one scene to another, allowing us to skip passage of time and space.

Aspect-to-aspect: The panels wander from different aspects of a place, idea, or mood while passage of time becomes unimportant. Scott McCloud suggests that while the above transitions are concerned with tying together separate locations or moments, aspect-to-aspect transitions are all about conveying a single location or moment over a sequence of panels.

Non-sequitur: The panels have no logical relationship to each other.

Kumi’s cinematic patterns don’t map cleanly one-to-one to McCloud’s transitions, but let’s give it a try anyways, shall we? If we used the 4-koma example, pattern A’ could be either a moment-to-moment or action-to-action transition. I’m leaning toward the former because the action is uninterrupted according to Kumi’s definition. Despite the fact that there’s one or more action missing, pattern A” can also be classified as an action-to-action transition because we are still seeing a change in action(s).

Patterns B’ and B” must also be action-to-action transitions because we are following a single subject from one action to the next action even though the setting changes. I think pattern B”- is actually a misidentified aspect-to-aspect transition if we concentrated on its slowdown effect where it portrays a single moment over a sequence of panels. The revised pages for Tezuka’s Shin Takarajima are not particularly strong examples of aspect-to-aspect transitions because it could be argued that these are also examples of moment-to-moment transitions.

Pattern C’ obviously translates to scene-to-scene transition, but pattern C” has to be aspect-to-aspect because in the Golgo 13 example, Kumi claims that the montage’s purpose is to express the feeling of the city, which it does by showing different aspects of Tokyo.

Pattern D’ would have to be the subject-to-subject transition, especially with the given dogfight examples from Zipang and Nausicaä. The view may be switching from different locations inside and outside the cockpits, but the sequences are still within the same dogfights.

Why does this all matter? Why go through the trouble of mapping Kumi’s patterns to McCloud’s categories? Well, McCloud already has some statistics on panel-to-panel transition usage in several comics, both western and manga, and these are solid statistical numbers, not made up ones. McCloud’s findings show that action-to-action transitions dominate narrative comics, followed by subject-to-subject and scene-to-scene. This supports Kumi’s sampling of the Nausicaä manga where patterns A’ and D’ dominate.

However, the problem with this correlation is how does this make Nausicaä “cinematic” in comparison to other narrative comics? Looks like the percentage of transitions isn’t a sole factor in cinematic quality, so what else contributes to that quality? Perhaps a clue lies in Kumi’s observation that Miyazaki’s panels are nearly all trapezoidal and don’t bleed to the edges of the page, which seems to me as if Miyazaki was treating each panel as a view through a camera lens. That may be a direction worth pursuing.

I’m disappointed that there were only two examples from the Nausicaä manga, but then I remembered that this is an incomplete translation. With five volumes at over 200 pages each, I’d expect plenty of examples to back up Kumi’s conclusions, unless such action would exceed the fair usage limit of copyrighted material. So I’m hoping that part two of this translated excerpt will reference Nausicaä more often part one did.

For an informal lecture, Kumi did a fair job of being entertaining while trying to remain informative. There are times though when I wanted to go Red Leader on him to “Stay on target.” The visual analysis of Nausicaä is a worthy endeavor, but the analysis could be more systematic and more thought out than what was presented. As it stands, I’m not quite convinced yet by Kumi’s deductions even though I do consider Nausicaä cinematic for other reasons.

One response so far

One Response to “Excerpt from Kaoru Kumi’s “Miyazaki Hayao no Jidai””

  1. JGFon 05 Dec 2009 at 1:59 pm

    It would possibly be a nice idea that you decide to comment on someone’s paper after its part II being published.

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