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As a storytelling medium, manga can tell all kinds of stories. From something simple like the exciting adventures of ninjas and pirates in Naruto and One Piece, to something fairly complex like the rise of a dangerous religious cult in 20th Century Boys, or even a historical epic that takes place during China’s warring states period in Kingdom. No matter what kind of story you like, chances are there’s already a manga about it.
For this particular article, we’ll talk about some manga that can give us an insight into the fascinating world of Japanese traditional art forms. For this list, we’ll stick to manga that have already received an official English translation, and we’ll also try our best to talk about different kinds of art forms. With that out of the way, here are five manga about traditional Japanese art forms that you should read.
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5. Akane-Banashi (Comedy)
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The first one on the list is a manga about a unique form of comedy that only exists in Japan – a fascinating style of comedy called Rakugo. Those who perform Rakugo are called Rakugoka. In a Rakugo performance, a Rakugoka will sit in the middle of the stage and recite comedic stories that usually take place in medieval Japan. Since there are usually multiple characters in the stories, the Rakugoka will change their voice, facial expressions, and also mannerisms to suit each character. The result is a mesmerizing performance that can haunt you and make you laugh at the same time.
In Akane-Banashi, Akane is a young girl who grows up seeing her father trying to make it as a Rakugoka. She admires her father very much, but then something traumatic happens and her father has to abandon his dream and settle for doing a normal job. But her father’s dream is still alive and well within Akane. So unbeknownst to her parents, she begins to practice Rakugo in her own time. By the time Akane graduates from high school, she is ready to enter the professional world of Rakugo.
4. Moebana (Flower Arrangement)
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Not many people realize that flower arranging was once a popular activity for different cultures all around the world. From ancient China to medieval Europe, you can find paintings depicting this calm and peaceful art form. Every country has their own unique technique and philosophy in regards to flower arrangements, but most of them are lost to the passage of time. Only a handful of cultures still actively practice this art form, and Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) can be considered to be at the forefront in the modern day.
Moebana is a story about a high school boy named Tsukumo who is often mesmerized by the beautiful flower arrangements that sit calmly at the back entrance of his school. Tsukumo has a keen insight about flowers that allows him to easily differentiate different kinds of flowers that look highly similar to each other, such as the Tree peonies and the Chinese peonies.
Unbeknownst to him, an upperclassman from the Ikebana club notices Tsukumo’s unique ability, so she invites him to join the club. Although Tsukumo is quite reluctant at first, once he tries arranging some flowers, he falls in love with this art form. And that is the beginning of Tsukumo’s journey into the intricate world of Ikebana.
3. Barakamon (Calligraphy)
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Handa Seishuu is a professional calligrapher who is known throughout Japan as a prodigy. After all, his works have won all kinds of awards and are displayed in all kinds of prestigious places. Some of his calligraphy has even been bought for millions of yen. Unfortunately, this genius young calligrapher is in trouble right now. He is totally burned out. He doesn’t even have the inspiration nor the will to pick up a brush. Following the suggestion of his close friend, Handa decides to live in a small village on the outskirts of Japan, and that decision changes his life forever.
Calligraphy may not be an art form that is unique to Japan. After all, almost every country around the globe has some form of calligraphy in their culture. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not exciting to see a master express his inner thoughts with such bold and intricate Kanji. And that is what Barakamon has to offer. A glimpse into the life of a true professional at his craft. Even better than that, we also get to learn some basic calligraphy techniques, along with interesting insight into the world of Japanese calligraphy.
2. Sen wa, Boku wo Egaku (The Lines That Define Me) (Painting)
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Painting is one of the most ubiquitous art forms that has persistently existed from the time when the early humans began to draw on the wall of a cave, to now, when you can create beautiful digital art with your tablet. There are different types of painting that are often used all around the world, such as abstract art or impressionism. However, there are also certain styles that are unique to certain countries, such as India’s Jadopatia painting or Russia’s Lubok. For Japan, there’s a traditional ink wash painting style called Sumi-e. And as the name suggests, it is a type of painting that is made by using black ink.
A Sumi-e painter usually draws the elements of their painting, such as leaves or bamboo, with a single stroke. The tension and the speed of the strokes, and also the intensity of the ink, can either make or break the painting. It is a deceptively complex painting. That is why Aoyama Sousuke from The Lines That Define Me is so hesitant to try Sumi-e, even when a renowned painter in Japan tells him that he has a keen eye that is perfect for it. But once he starts touching the brush and creates his first flower painting, Aoyama is instantly obsessed with Sumi-e.
1. Show-ha Shou-ten! (Show-ha Shoten!) (Comedy)
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Other than Rakugo, there’s also another form of comedy that can only be found in Japan. It’s called Manzai, and it is actually quite similar to regular stand-up comedy, but rather than being a solo act, Manzai consists of two people. One person is called the straight man (tsukkomi), and the other one is called the funny man (boke). The funny banter between the two makes up the whole comedy act of a Manzai. Manzai has been around since the Heian Period (approximately 794 AD), and it continues to thrive till this day. As a matter of fact, thanks to its massive popularity, Manzai has become the default path for most comedians in Japan. After all, from teenagers to elderly people, there are so many fans of Manzai.
Show-ha Shoten! is a story about two high-school boys: a shy and awkward boy who can write tons of funny jokes and sketches named Azemichi Shijima, and an easy going boy who used to be a prodigious child actor named Taiyo Higashikata. Both of them know each other due to a school project, but it doesn’t take a long time to figure out that there’s a true chemistry between them. And by the time they’re standing on the stage of their school’s cultural festival to perform their first ever Manzai act, both Azemichi and Taiyo instantly realize that their future lies in comedy. And they are willing to work hard in order to achieve it. So begins the hilarious and inspiring journey of these two aspiring comedians.
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This list only graces the surface of the traditional art forms that are still practiced in Japan till this day. There are dances, theatrical performances, poems, and so many other beautiful and mesmerizing art forms that you should see when you have the time. Some of them have been turned into manga, but only a handful of them have received official English translations. So hopefully we get to enjoy more of this type of manga in the future.
Have you read any of the titles mentioned on this list? If you have, which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comment section below.
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