29. Manga as Optic Device – Photography Visible and Invisible

The chapter of my current book project that I was most recently working on had a great deal to say about photography, in particular how photo-mechanical processes such as photogravure throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries developed into a mode whereby other things are represented, a mode that had previously been occupied, though only briefly, by what might broadly be understood as printed line art, i.e. etchings and what have you.  Prior to this, the primary mode for “representing” some visual form was simply to describe it in prose, the obvious exemplar being Giorgio Vasari‘s lengthy descriptions of the works of Michelangelo.  Photography, in its function as mode for representing, is thus discursively invisibilized, meaning when you see a photograph of a Jackson Pollock in, say, an art history textbook, the tendency is to talk about it, as if it really were the painting, though, when pressed, you would have to admit that what you’re seeing is, in fact, merely a photograph thereof.  Photography is, then, not permanently invisibilized, and it is possible, again discursively, to draw attention to it in ways that overcome one’s ordinary, facile mode of thinking and speaking.

Jackson Pollock's Mural, 1943, from the collection of the University of Iowa

Jackson Pollock’s Mural, 1943, from the collection of the University of Iowa

What I have to say today is somewhat more limited than all that–as the chapter stands, I more or less end up arguing that what comics are has everything to do with this representative mode that photography later takes over–though it is an attempt to make photography and the role it plays in manga creation and representation more visible.  With that in mind, I would like to consider two wildly different “manga” texts: the Māru-sha series of pose catalogues and Tsuruta Kenji’s Spirit of Wonder.

Photo Reference

Though the exaggerated and often grotesque anatomy of some manga may not seem to confirm this, nearly all comics make extensive use of photo reference, if not for character designs themselves, then regularly for backgrounds and scenery.  An artist may not want to invent the graphic minutia of a lamp or window as she goes, so it is quite common simply to copy or adapt a photograph.  One might make use of reference books or websites specifically designed for this purpose or flip through an architecture book or magazine until she happens upon a particular object, room, or building that will work for whatever page she happens to be working on.  In certain cases, artists are so obsessed with maintaining a level of detail (so-called photo-realism) that it is easier to work directly from a photograph, i.e. trace and recopy a photographic figure over a series of steps that, hopefully, will maintain the level of fine detail that the artist seeks.

What’s interesting about Sim’s process is the way in which it closely reflects the process of developing a photograph in the first place.  He goes through a series of transfers in reverse, just like a negative, before finally penciling and inking the “finished” drawing on his preferred paper stock.  This is something of an extreme case–not all artists trace directly from photos, and it is only in this limited instance that Sim himself does–but it points to an interesting problem when thinking about the relationship between comics/manga and photography.  On the one hand, you could think of the ways in which artists have used photo-mechanical prints to construct comic panels–and there is a history of this going all the way back to the 19th century–but more of a concern here is how integral photography is to the production process and yet thoroughly invisibilized by the text you end up reading.  I often wonder about the extent to which any given reader would even notice or pay attention to the numerous ways in which a comic text has been surreptitiously inscribed with photo reference.

Pose Catalogue vol. 6

Pose Catalogue vol. 6, cover

In his 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters artist David Hockney presents the controversial and sweeping argument, developed in tandem with physicist Charles Falco, that the sudden shift in realistic detail that one sees in the early Italian Renaissance and later elsewhere could only have been achieved through the use of optical aids such as the camera obscura or camera lucida.  The world of art history and art criticism generally reacted badly to this claim, due in no small part to how it seemed to imply that artists were “cheating” and thereby denigrating the force of their respective genius.  I mention this fact, because, while it may seem that the invisibility of photography in comic art is simply an accident of the production process, there are ideological reasons for thinking that the intermediate presence of photography in other arts is actively suppressed.  In the art world, it is a mark of talent and skill, if one can draw freehand what one sees in exacting detail.  The widespread use of photo reference, especially in the way Sim copies magazines in the above video, despite the obvious presence of such materials, would seem to diminish the mythos that so often surrounds “artistic talent.”

ibid., p. 35

ibid., p. 35

Though Japanese pose catalogues are not limited to use specifically for manga–the inside flap of the Māru-sha series notes they are made for use by any and all illustrators and animators–its page layout, at first glance, is eerily reminiscent of a comic text.  I chose this page in particular because, while this may not have been intended, this woman’s face emerging from shadow into the light immediately brought to my mind the ways in which Noh masks are used in performance.  Your typical mask is designed in such a way that the actor, by holding his head at different angles can cause shadows to be cast across its surface in such a way that the same mask appears to depict a variety of expressions.  It is easy enough to read ever so subtle changes in this woman’s mood–assuming these nine “panels” are, in fact, a sequence and not simply the same face from different angles–but such a reading would run directly counter to the way the book itself is designed to be used.

ibid., p. 3

ibid., p. 3

[Text]: The majority of the pages are laid out according to the charts below.  Those that are not are structured according to a similar progression of angles.

Over and against the claims of the overleaf, it’s worth noting how on this same page, the claim is made that this catalogue is well-suited for “illustrations and gekiga” (irasuto ya gekiga – the use of ya instead of to does imply, though, that these examples are not exhaustive).  While a pose catalogue might appear at first glance to be a neutral reference, in subtle ways its very existence is adapted to a particular artistic ideology, namely that gekiga stories are more gritty or “realistic,” and as such a book of reference photos is well-suited for helping to create line art that is itself “photo-realistic.”  Sometimes there is more to see than what a text claims is there.

Manga as Optic Device

I’m not a super huge fan of Proust, but the one thing that has stuck with me from À la recherche du temps perdu is his notion that the text is not simply a narrative but a kind of optical device, whereby a reader might see him- or herself.  The text is therefore not a representation but a reflection, in every way you might construe that.

I will always have a soft spot in my cold, black heart for Tsuruta’s Spirit of Wonder, since it was one of the very first manga in Japanese I purchased after moving to the ‘Pan with the best outreach and instruction librarian back in 2003.  The Hamamatsu connection is also salient, for some of my fondest memories of Japan are of traveling there for the yearly kite festival along the beach.  There’s something infinitely memorable about sitting in the shade eating greasy yakisoba while men and women shout wasshoi-wasshoi over and over, as they try to pull down another neighborhood’s massive kite with their own.

Spirit of Wonder, tankōbon cover

Spirit of Wonder, tankōbon cover

Spirit of Wonder is a series of loosely interlinked stories in a science fiction frame.  The way the stories interconnect with each other is a post in itself, but I would like to focus on Tsuruta’s use of photography, sometimes in overt (as above) and sometimes in very subtle ways.  Tsuruta’s debut manga story, retroactively included in SoW due to the reappearance of the main character, Maiko, in later stories, “Isn’t it a Wide, Wonderful Universe?” (Hirokute suteki na uchū janai ka) shows Maiko returning to Hamamatsu so as to, she soon discovers, help her father with a deep sea dive based on a treasure map left by her grandfather.  In this future, most of Hamamatsu is now flooded, and the submersible Maiko pilots moves eerily through the watery remains of the city.

ibid., p. 20

ibid., p. 20

Maiko’s father: Though the old man thought so too.

The photos depicted in this story, of Maiko as a young girl living with her grandfather, have a clearly nostalgic function that echoes adult Maiko’s journey to her old home now buried beneath the sea.  But the photographs are not simply tacked onto a refrigerator or piled in a box; they are taped to a window, and so they function both as a codified memory of the past and as a frame for viewing the world of the present.

ibid., p. 37

ibid., p. 37

It is worth thinking about this panel as photograph.  Sure, you could easily point to the fact that earlier we saw these photos tacked to a window, but the framing also recalls the very first page of the story with a young Maiko and her grandfather gazing up at the sky.

ibid. p. 9

ibid. p. 9

The panel too, then, has a nostalgic function similar to the personal photos in the story, though in this case we as readers occupy the subject position that on the title page are represented by an old man and a little girl.  This movement between frames of reference, of the past in the present and vice versa, can also be seen in how the exterior shot of Maiko’s brief excursion to her grandfather’s submerged house recalls an earlier scene where the same exterior is buried in snow.  The way in which these panels relate to each other temporally and nostalgically mimics the relationship between a photograph and our own memories/experiences.  And when we see Maiko again at the end of the story, as she is about to leave again, the panel that shows her eerily resembles a photo, like the kind you take as a memento of shared experiences or of a particular moment in time.

ibid., p. 38

ibid., p. 38

I’m taking the pictures with me.   Maiko

The pictures may no longer be there, but the trace of their presence remains in the form of little bits of celo tape dotted here and there.  Tsuruta’s entree into science fiction came both by way of his friendship with Hoshino Yukinobu and his study of optical science at university.  He had originally wanted to become a photographer, but it was his career as a manga artist that took off.  Yet, as I think it is easy to see, his manga retain a certain photographic sensibility, not merely in the limited utilitarian manner I reference above but in a way that reflects photography both as a mechanical and conceptual mode.  The panel of Maiko above is the size and shape of a once typical (before the advent of digital photography) photo-chemical print, but it is also a reflection of how we envision ourselves, for Maiko’s pose here also recalls herself as a little girl standing next to her grandfather.

ibid., p. 13

ibid., p. 13

Maiko never explains why she takes the photos with her, but one can imagine that her recent experiences with her father, diving into the sea on a fool’s errand to find her grandfather’s “treasure,” has altered her perception of self and realigned it with something she presumably lost in growing up.  Those photos, of herself and of her grandfather, serve as a different kind of photo reference, one that is more conceptual and sentimental than the “simple” utility of a face or hand shot from many different angles.  Unlike a camera, which, at its most basic, is just a hole in a box, a text–and in particular a comic text–is an optical device not for recording things “as is” but for excavating the present so as to see what lies beneath the surface, like the submerged remains of Maiko’s Hamamatsu.  A text can be a mode of perceptual re-orientation, one in which even the “invisible” mode of photography itself can be re-seen.

Next week: a simple, straightforward review; I promise!

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com



  1. Here is a further, naive photographic, or cinematographic tangent that I wish develop, but am too limited on Japanese reading culture to make any sense of.. The test would be for anime, not so much manga and expand on the (western? all?) photographer’s old “rule of thirds” composition trick: Maybe it would be of use to you? You probably already are familiar with it.

    Centuries ago I took a grease pencil and put a tick-tack-toe grid on my tv screen, dividing it into equal horz. and vert. thirds. You can see this grid on some modern DSLR camera lcd’s too. Then behold: single person close-ups had their eyes on the top horiz. line. More interesting were shots with dialog btw two people: the “dominant” or action-pushing character would have their face at the top left intersection of the lines. The listener/ react-er/ subordinate character would have their face at the bottom right intersection. This was so fixed as to get creepy. Lots of male-female interaction shots that way too. Male and female news anchors, girls to the right. etc..

    Well, I’m not going to grease pencil up my 16:9 lcd screen, and I am sure the conventions are different in anime and perhaps in certain manga panel layouts, but the exercise surprised me as to how “invisible’ these visual story-telling tricks were, and how ubiquitous. So when I saw the position chart above, things went click a bit.. Fuel for ?? Would be interested in your take on similar.. Cheers and thanks for the good reads!

    1. The Rule of Thirds is not specific to photography and, in fact, comes out of English Portrait painting of the 18th/19th centuries (Reynolds in particular). Photographic aesthetics of the 19th century were closely linked to those of landscape and portrait painting–in fact this is why we call photographs “pictures,” a word that was originally synonymous with painting–and so the RoT has as much to do with balances of color (especially light/dark) as how you frame foreground figures against a background.

      You see it so commonly, because it’s the basis of almost all rudimentary art instruction; people are more or less trained from day one to see things this way. That’s why simple framing adjustments (e.g. Dutch angles) can have such a disquieting effect on the viewer, because the proliferation of images has by degree taught them to see the world in a particular way. Now that I type that out, I see that this must be your point.

      I’ve often thought about dealing in great detail with the technicalities of composition and design, but because I am not an artist myself, I can only ever address them from a conceptual rather than hands on perspective. That said, it’s worth addressing, even by a relative novice. I’ll think about coming to that once I’ve finished the next two weeks’ diatribes.

  2. Please, by all means have a go at it… Officially I am supposed to be versed in this, as one of my academic forays involved and art degree – but aside from a brief mention in art history class there was nadda about it. Independent research turned up mention of a photography guru in the mid 20th C who proclaimed that using it was the way to take “perfect pictures”, and that other major photogs got cheesed at this and proceeded to break the “rule’ with glee.. meanwhile movies and later TV doubled down on it..(cues help with low res images) But what of Japan? Parallel culture, highly literate, many visual narrative conventions, and a “author-creator” culture in the 20thc that would see successful rule-breakers praised for new styles (floor shots in movies from Ozu, etc.. These conventions become “conceptual” when used and impose hierarchy, rank, agency, etc.. in a storyboard. Don’t let the art school mafia stop you – we’re harmless

    1. Well, off the top of my head, I would note that conventions are much easier to break with in live action film than commercial animation. With a film, you’re generally only dealing with the creative input of a director and 1 or 2 cinematographers. The cameramen simply do what they are told, and the more independent the film, the higher the likelihood the director him/herself is filming each shot. With animation, particularly prior to the widespread use of CG, you have to blend together the work of several hands just to create a single shot. This puts greater emphasis on standardization and adherence to drawing conventions, otherwise the production process would slow to a crawl. The same would hold true, typically, for mainstream manga, which adhere to a grueling schedule, and thus often necessitate a studio of many hands working on separate and sometimes even the same page. Also, there is audience pressure: for a title to be successful in a particular weekly, it needs to more or less conform to the content readers expect from that weekly. This isn’t to say there are no manga auteurs, the 60s were lousy with them, but the industry as structured today rewards those with discipline and constant, bland output over those who might be thinking, visually at least, outside of the box, something that historically fails to conform to a regular schedule.

      Ozu is a bit of an anachronism, and Yoshida Kiju has an excellent book on this subject (Ozu’s Anti-Cinema, iirc). That and Japanese directors were more actively involved in the international film scene, whereas anime/manga were for a very long time a rather insular affair.

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