For those of you who know me, you may know that I’m a semi closeted otaku–not in the stay at home and fall in love with 2-D characters sense, but in the sense that I watch a lot of anime and read quite a bit of manga among other things. Now perhaps you scoff and call me a geek in your mind even as you read, but don’t knock it til you try it. Not only are manga a great stories for reading if you’ve only got thirty minutes or so and they have actually taught me a thing or two about young adult storytelling from a non-western perspective.
1) First, manga have taught me the beauty of unrequited love. Love is so often two dimensional in stories; it’s always this typical kind of romantic love. There’s the heroine and the hero (or, if edgy, another heroine). They fall in love. They battle obstacles. They end up together. Don’t get me wrong. Lots of manga have a similar plot, but there is also a considerable attention given to unrequited love, and not just with the tragic sort of “woe is me” take. Characters in manga (and this is a bit of a blanket statement) who experience one-sided love, do deal with sadness, jealousy, and other expected emotions, but they also grow and experience a kind of grace from their emotions. This is true not only of unrequited love but of all the different ways that love manifests and expresses itself in manga plot lines. Manga authors don’t seem afraid to explore unconventional and unexpected types of love in their stories.
2) Sometimes it’s not about the story, it’s about the telling. Round these parts we have this obsession with “original” stories, even though most of us know that there’s nothing truly new under the sun. Manga authors don’t seem to have any such hang-up. Mangaka seem to embrace the idea that it’s okay to tell a familiar story over and over again because what makes the story unique and meaningful is not convoluted plots–tortured and twisted into something dubbed original–but the way that familiar stories are told. Somehow the familiar plot has the potential to cast the author’s artistry and skill as a storyteller in sharp relief. Now, for my own writing, I definitely still want to tell a unique story, but I realize that how I tell the story is as important to that aim as the story I choose to tell.
3) Lastly, not all stories need a happy or even resolved ending–even the ones for teenagers. Not everything has to be wrapped up in a neat little bow. Westerners, and Americans specifically, love our happy endings. We want the good guys to win, the bad guys to be punished, and everything to be neat and pretty with no shades of gray. Again, most of us know that this is not the reality anywhere, but in our escapism we want everything to be clear cut at the end, no matter how muddled the middle. Mangaka, even though they are writing in a medium that is not taken serious by western audiences, embrace ambiguity. Particularly in the “slice-of-life” genre, they happily leave ends loose and questions and conflicts unresolved. Sometime it is artful and sometimes it’s because the questions and conflicts the manga grapples with aren’t easily if ever resolvable.
Essentially, manga authors write stories that take for granted that an audience is comfortable with and capable of grasping sometimes frustrating but always complex and nuanced visions of the world. They write stories that linger with us as we tussle with their meaning. I, too, want to write those kinds of stories, so I take my lessons where I can find them.