The “Grammar” of Manga

A look at the unique methods of expression that have been established in manga

By Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry

Arawi, Keiichi (2018). CITY (Vol. 4, ch. 53), pp.2-3. ©︎Keiichi ARAWI

Natsume, Fusanosuke, et al. (1995). “Manga no Yomikata [How to Read Manga]”, Takarajimasha, p.106.Original Source: -

Manga and symbolic expressions
Manga is typically said to be “easy to understand” or “easy to read,” but its expressions are in fact supported by the reader’s high degree of literacy.
For example, as shown in this illustration, the reader is able to perceive emotions even in inorganic objects through the use of symbolic expressions called "manpu", or manga symbols.
The use of this system of symbols as a convention of expression has become prevalent over time, influenced by Western comics and animation since the end of the 19th century.

Kono, Fumiyo (2018). Giga Town Manpu Zufu, p.23.Original Source: Asahi Shimbun Publications

The rich world of “manpu”
Just as the meaning of words changes with context, symbolic expressions such as manpu do not necessarily correspond one-to-one with a particular meaning and are only understood according to the context.
In what situations and in what positions are they depicted? How are they varied in size and shape, and with what other symbols are they combined? From this type of context, readers familiar with manga unconsciously decipher the meanings of these symbols through literacy gained from experience.
Fumiyo Kono’s “Giga Town Manpu Zufu” [Giga Town: A catalog of manga symbols] (Asahi Shimbun Publications, 2018) is a work that demonstrates the rich versatility of these symbols in the manner of a dictionary.

“Kirin-gō no Tabi” [Journeys Aboard Robot Giraffe](1949) from Sugiura Shigeru Mangakan (1) Shirarezaru Kessakushū [Shigeru Sugiura Manga Library (1): Unknown Masterpieces], Chikuma Shobo, 1993, pp. 252-253.Original Source: ©️Shigeru Sugiura

How are panels read?
The order in which panels are read, now taken for granted as right-to-left and top-to-bottom in Japanese manga, is also something that was established gradually. In the past, panels were numbered to help readers understand the order in which to read them. Today, even the composition of each scene and positioning of dialogue inside each frame are ingeniously constructed to be read naturally from right to left as readers run their gaze across the page—which is why, in panel 19 of this manga, it may appear to contemporary readers as though the character says “You got me!” before being shot.
This image is from a work by Shigeru Sugiura, who was active during a time when the “grammar” of manga was more lenient than it is today.

Arawi, Keiichi (2018). CITY (Vol. 4, ch. 53), pp.2-3.Original Source: ©︎Keiichi ARAWI

Manga’s playful spirit, as seen in “mankei”
Despite having an established and refined “grammar” which includes panel reading order, the playful spirit of purposefully creating wild chaos is essential to manga.

In "mankei" (large panels depicting numerous characters in a disorderly jumble, each saying and doing their own thing), 

As Keiichi Arawi demonstrates in the scene shown here, “mankei” is a fascinating form of manga expression still used today in the 21st century.

a device often used in the past by early manga artists such as Osamu Tezuka, readers are free to decide the order in which to view the details of the entire scene.

Araki, Hirohiko (1987). Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Vol. 1, p.81.Original Source: JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE © 1986 by Hirohiko Araki/SHUEISHA Inc.

Expanded onomatopoeia
In addition to comic symbols such as manpu, onomatopoeia has become an important convention of expression in manga. Unlike anime and other forms of video expression, manga cannot actually play sounds. Rendering onomatopoeia and mimetic words through hand-drawn lettering is therefore vital to creating vivid expressions.
The effect is not limited to reproducing physical sounds. Onomatopoeia has developed into a system of symbolic representation that can express psychological states and even constitute a scene in itself, for example, by making the sound of a kiss in a kiss scene echo across the panel like a gunshot. This image is an example from the work of Hirohiko Araki, who is known for his distinctive use of onomatopoeia.

Fujiko Fujio (A) (1996). “Manga Michi [Path of Manga] ”(Vol. 1), p.235.Original Source: ©︎Fujiko Studio, Chuokoron-Shinsha

The buzzing energy of silent manga
Readers of manga, even in panels that do not include onomatopoeia, do not perceive scenes as being completely silent. While reading, they unconsciously imagine background noises appropriate to the situations presented in the pictures.

Because manga cannot actually play sounds, the use of onomatopoeia such as “shin” (the “sound” of silence in Japanese) became necessary to emphasize the complete silence of particular scenes.

As Fujiko Fujio (A) brilliantly demonstrates in this scene depicting the nervous tension of two boys waiting to meet face-to-face with a person they deeply admire, the world of manga is buzzing with energy in scenes both with and without sound.

Kono, Fumiyo (2018). “Giga Town Manpu Zufu”, p.122.Original Source: Asahi Shimbun Publications

The magic of speech balloons
In Japanese manga, words such as dialogue and narrative speech are often typed (physically typeset in the past, now digital). At first glance, this text may seem less “alive” compared to hand-drawn onomatopoeia, but artists (and editors) pay close attention to the changes in nuance brought about by their choices of font and size.
The shape of the “speech balloons” surrounding this text can also create extreme variations of tone in manga, a medium that lacks sound. Neither concrete pictures nor conceptual words, these outlines create abstract shapes that convey even the tone of the characters’ voices.

Iwadate, Mariko (1987). “Marude Shabon” (Vol. 2), p.185.Original Source: MARUDE SHABON © 1986 by Mariko Iwadate/SHUEISHA Inc.

The way in which words resonate with each other across different dimensions.
For example, in “shōjo“ (girls’) manga from the 1970s onward, it has been pointed out that the use (or absence) of speech balloons and changes in their shape enabled readers to distinguish lines spoken by characters from internal dialogue, allowing both to be superimposed on the same scene to create extremely multilayered expressions of internal states.
This scene, taken from “Marude Shabon” [Just Like a Soap Bubble] by Mariko Iwadate (Shueisha, 1987), layers the character’s spoken dialogue with her unspoken thoughts to achieve a complex psychological portrayal of the character in which the latter conflicts with the former.

Tezuka, Osamu, and Sakai, “Shichima” (2009). Kanzen Fukkokuban Shin Takarajima [Complete Reprint Edition: New Treasure Island], p.XX.Original Source: (C)Tezuka Productions

Linked panels
Unlike illustrations that are complete in a single frame, manga is made up of several “panels.” How are these panels linked to each other?
The way in which panels are linked in manga is often likened to the editing of a film. Just as a film builds a story-world by linking multiple shots together through editing, manga also constructs time and space by linking multiple panels together as though they were edited.
For example, in this scene from “Shin Takarajima” [New Treasure Island] by Osamu Tezuka and Shichima Sakai
(first published in 1947 by Ikuei Shuppan), a panel depicting a character looking at something is followed by a panel that shows the object he is looking at, much like the “eyeline match” technique used in film editing.

Takahashi, Rumiko (1980). “Maison Ikkoku” (Vol. 15), p.147.Original Source: -

Layered panels
There are also many differences between manga panels and film shots. The shape and size of manga panels can be freely changed to create various layouts. This is because there are multiple panels on a single page, and not only do these panels line up in an orderly and precise manner, they also occasionally overlap with each other.
This image, from a famous scene in Rumiko Takahashi’s “Maison Ikkoku” [The House of One Moment] (Shogakukan, 1980), is an example of a layout in which panels are layered over each other in order to depict the faces of two people, who are facing each other, from the front. The outlines of these panels do not strictly follow the pictures they are supposed to enclose, resulting in a form of expression that requires a high degree of literacy to understand.

Hagio, Moto (1995). “Thomas no Shinzō [The Heart of Thomas]”,Shogakukan Inc, p.88.Original Source: -

The possibilities of panel layouts
Unlike watching a film in which shots are presented one at a time, readers of manga follow individual panels in sequence while also seeing the general composition of the entire page in their field of vision. Moto Hagio and other “shōjo” manga artists of the 1970s took full advantage of this aspect of manga and refined its expressivity. Their intricately overlapping panels masterfully depict the complex, confusing, and even divisive nature of human consciousness.

How to divide the story into scenes, and how to lay these out on the page—this “panel layout” process is one of the most important of all the various expressive techniques unique to manga.

Higashimura, Akiko (2017). “Gisō Furin [Fake Affair]”.Original Source: -

Toward new expressions
Although we have called these conventions of expression the “grammar” of manga, they are not absolute rules, nor are they a universal style.

In the “Webtoon” manga format that has emerged in recent years, for example, unlike books in which readers proceed horizontally through the story one page at a time, readers view the story on a display while scrolling vertically down a long screen that is not necessarily divided into pages.

Just as language evolves over time, the “grammar” of manga will also keep evolving. And, in response to these changes, individual artists and their works will keep creating new “styles.”

Credits: Story

Text: Kentaro Miwa
Edit: Yuka Miyazaki(BIJUTSU SHUPPAN-SHA CO., LTD.)
Supervisor: Hirohito Miyamoto(Meiji University)
Written in 2020

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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