A Textual Analysis of Practical Manga:

Framing Real Life Information Within a Fiction-Oriented Medium

Henrique Reis, Kyoto Seika University [About | Email]

Volume 21, Issue 3 (Article 8 in 2021). First published in ejcjs on 20 December 2021.

Abstract: Commercialised almost exclusively as fictional media for the most part of its history, Manga nowadays also presents itself as a tool for learning. Existing by the name of Practical Manga (Jitsuyō Manga), this genre occupies a peculiar place within the Media Economy: although having its form and style based on the entertainment-oriented storytelling of traditional Manga, they aim to communicate real-life knowledge. Analysed through the lens of media and manga theory we see that in order to maintain this peculiar position, and its appeal as a product, Practical Manga manages to find ways to make its content “readable” as real, reliable information. Aiming to pinpoint the means by which it manages to do that, this article conducted a textual analysis of 18 works, trying to find out and categorise the visual strategies and Manga techniques by which this genre makes itself readable as a source of trustworthy information.

Keywords: Manga Studies, Media Trust, Practical Manga, Jitsuyō Manga, Frame


While visiting a bookstore in Japan, one can notice a curious trend amongst shelves dedicated to mature subjects such as Business, Self-help, and Psychology. Once dedicated exclusively to text-based books these sections now also feature Manga works, some even being adaptations of the same text-only books, lined up side-by-side with them on the same shelf. Known through a myriad of names (Informational Manga, Advertisement Manga, Business Manga, How-to Manga) but being largely categorised as Practical Manga (Jitsuyō Manga) or Study Manga (Gakushū Manga), these works exist in a totally different economy than the traditional Story Manga, with their appeal being the ability to present nonfictional trustworthy information in a fun and entertaining fashion. Employed as Advertisement, Pamphlet, Instruction Manual, Employee Training Material, etc. Practical Manga can be considered part of a larger ‘Invisible Manga’ (Fujimoto et al. 2007) economy which runs parallel (and most times unnoticed) to the mainstream market, composed mostly of entertainment-oriented fictional works.

Relying on a traditionally subjective, fiction-oriented media to convey trustworthy nonfictional information, Practical Manga’s merit as a product is paradoxical, to say the least. And it is precisely this paradoxical quality that makes it a fruitful starting point for discussions on the tools and strategies used to communicate reality in a medium that is so closely associated with the idea of fantasy and imagination. Moreover, the study of the genre may bring up interesting questions on the multiple ways in which we relate to Media Texts, especially those that tiptoe between the fictional and nonfictional realm.
With this background in mind, by making use of the conceptual framework of Manga Representational Theory (Manga Hyōgenron), this paper aims to understand how Practical Manga utilises the visual structure of the Multi-Layer Frame, in order to create a reading experience that puts itself apart from mainstream Manga and is able to present its content as real, trustworthy information. In order to do so, I will start with a brief history of the genre, making clear the points where its emergence and consumption depart from mainstream entertainment manga. Following that I will bring up a more general take on what are the features that make a text readable as ‘trustworthy’ information, contrasting to it the characteristic feature (namely the Movie-Like Realism) that makes Manga readable as nothing more than fictional entertainment. Once this theoretical foundation is presented, I will finally enter the core theme by bringing the discussion of the Multi-Layer Frame structure in Manga: what it is, how it goes against the mainstream reading practices of Manga and, most importantly, how Practical Manga appropriates its logic and creates unique techniques that encourage the reader to believe in the credibility of the information depicted. In this last step, to find out what are these unique techniques made possible by the Multi-Layer Frame, I will conduct a textual and statistical analysis of 18 titles where I look for the amount and the type of frames used on sequences where the main information is presented.

Historical Background

More than just a storytelling medium, Manga as a tool for spreading information has roots dating as early as WWII, with one of the earliest examples being the propaganda comic strip How to Spot a Jap. Featured on the first edition of Pocket Guide to China (1942), the comic strip was made to help American soldiers recognising possible Japanese troops infiltrated amongst the Chinese population (Kerr 2017: 192).

Figure 1: How to Spot a Jap (1942) In: Pocket Guide to China. USA Army pp. 70-71
In Japan, however, there is little research that shows such willingness to use the medium as a form of political propaganda, with rare exceptions such as the case of the work Yamato Family (Yokusan Ikka). A possible reason for this would be the several restrictions faced by authors, explicitly forbidden to draw any military and war-related depictions at the time (Akiyama 1998: 29).

In a somewhat reverse logic, it was not government incentive but, rather, regulation that would push Manga to have a more practical role as a means of communicating useful information. Issued in October 1938 by what at the time was the equivalent of the present-day Bunkachō (Agency for Cultural Affairs), Jidō Yomimono Kaizen ni Kan Suru Naimushō Shijiyōkō (Outlines for the improvement on Children’s Books) was a series of instructions aimed at every children-oriented publication that regulated not only physical characteristics (such as font size, ad placement, etc.) but it also made a clear statement that it was advisable to change the tone of the published content: instead of low-moral and crude stories, to works that could be of some use to the children’s daily lives (Miyamoto 2018: 30).


Figure 2 Benkyō Manga (Study Manga) Vol.5 (Mainichi Shinbun, 1950) p.89 (left) Pon-chan no Itazura Nikki (Pon-chan’s journal of Misfits) (Chūo Kōronsha, 1938)p.7(right)

These instructions would be the catalyst for the birth of Practical Manga’s predecessor genre: Study Manga (Gakushū Manga). Forefronted by works such as Aki Reiji’s Benkyō Manga (Study Manga), and Yokoyama Ryūichi’s Pon-chan no Itazura Nikki (Pon chan’s Journal of Misfits) (Ito 2013: 206) (Figure 2), the Study Manga kept flourishing even after the war and, by the early 1980s, the idea of learning through this type of Manga was so established that it could be found even in Public Libraries and Schools, a feature unachievable to traditional Story Manga at that time (Yoshimura 2009: 160).

Also, it is precisely during the 1980s that we will see what is thought to be the first Practical Manga: Ishinomori Shotaro’s Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (Japan Inc: Introduction to Japanese Economics) (Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1986). Visibly aimed towards an adult audience, having a narrative revolving around issues such as currency appreciation, oil shock, and the US-Japan economic ties, this work inaugurated the idea that learning through Manga was not something limited to children. With each chapter named after its main topic, it featured a considerate number of footnotes, sometimes taking the space of entire pages, further to expand on the explained topic (Figure 3). Much fewer in number but still present are literal citations from other texts and graphics regarding the theme.

Figure 3 Nihon Keizai Nyūmon (Nihon Keizai Shinbunsha, 1990) pp.890-891
Labeled later as ‘Study Manga for Adults’ or ‘Mass-oriented Educational Manga’ (Shimizu 1999: 111), it had unprecedented popularity for the genre, selling 2 million copies altogether by 1987 and having an Anime adaptation in the same year. In the wake of such success, adult-oriented Practical Manga with a focus on economic and business-related topics also rose in popularity, being forefronted mostly by Trend Pro (Schodt 1996: 198), a pioneering company in creating so-called Advertisement Manga (Manga Kōkoku). Responsible for the first educational Manga ever published by an official Japanese Ministry, Manga de Miru Kankyō Hakushō (Environment White Paper in Manga) (National Printing Bureau, 1994), the company kept working with other ministries throughout the 1990s until the 2010s, publishing several Practical Manga aimed to teach topics such as the Pension System, Enlistment, Recruiting Methods, etc.

Entering 2010, alongside a rise in the number of Practical Manga publications (Figure 4), we can also see a boom in sales with titles such as Manga de Wakaru Nanatsu no Shūkan (Understanding with Manga: The Seven Habits) (Takarajimasha, 2013) and Manga de Wakaru Nīche (Understanding with Manga: Nietzsche) (Takarajimasha, 2016) hitting million sale marks (PRTIMES 2016), while others like Manga de Wakaru Shinryōnaika (Understanding Psychosomatic Medicine with Manga)(Yangu Kingu Kommikusu, 2010) selling out its first tankōbon editions in less than a month, even having the same content already available for free on its author’s official Website. (MANTANWEB 2017).

Figure 4: Number of yearly publications of Practical Manga books under the title Manga de Wakaru (Understanding with Manga) (HONNOHIKIDASHI 2017) 

Objectivity and Authority: Strategies for a Trustworthy Text

From the Study Manga born during WWII publishing regulation to the Practical Manga we see in many bookstores nowadays, the genre has continuously executed a specific function on a bigger media economy: be an easy-to-get source of trustworthy information. That said, it becomes necessary to ask ourselves a more fundamental question: How do we judge something to be trustworthy? Why, for example, do we usually consider the contents of a Manga less trustworthy than a news report or a school textbook? One possible way to think about those relations is to consider the differences in reception between Information and Entertainment in media. By doing so, we can begin to understand how textual characteristics such as Objectivity and Authority work together to give the reader hints about the quality of that text.
The first one, Objectivity, when thought within the specific context of contemporary mass media, can be understood as a double-purpose tool. Working as a ‘strategic ritual’ (Tuchman 1972) through which media representation can be read as real, and establishing a boundary between fact and fiction, which will then define ‘two distinct modes of response’ (Ellis 2005: 351) by the spectator. Normally used as a synonym for a neutral, unbiased approach to the text, Objectivity can also be linked to the Cartesian idea of an essential scientific reality where ‘the threat of “subjectivity”, the blurring boundaries between the self and the world’ (Bordo 1987: 98) is not working. In other words, conveying the idea of an ‘essential foundation of reality’ (ibid: 99), Objectivity as a textual quality makes necessary a clear separation between author and content.

One of the main features of Media Texts considered trustworthy, Objectivity is usually highlighted by a series of formal choices which assure the reader that what is being presented is based on an essential reality, and not the writer’s apprehension/version of it. The most visible of those formal choices is certainly the structure of the text itself. Taking a news article as an example, we can see that alongside its headlines, the core information is usually already given in the first paragraph while posterior ones serve to give minor details and contextualise the fact. Without a clear-cut start-to-finish narrative continuity so dear to narrative texts, the news article makes use of a formal structure based on Discontinuity and Conflict (Luhman 1996: 78) to give it the appearance of lived experience, something not previously organised by an author-like figure. Other than this non-linear organisation, another way to reinforce a text’s claims of Objectivity, this one more specific to the written text, is the use of quotation marks as a way to remove the author from it (Tuchman 1972: 668). Following the Cartesian thought, they work as a reminder that the text suffered no alterations by the author and that it is a textual transcription loyal to the reality of the event.

Working alongside this quality of Objectivity, Authority is the second characteristic of the text usually read as trustworthy. While the first one, Objectivity, is in charge of presenting referential information to back up its content, the second one, Authority, works as a way to legitimise it as a ‘construction of textual fact out of lived actuality’ (DeCastell 1990: 84). It serves as a tool to create a rigid Power Structure between reader and author. Usually reinforced by linguistic supremacy where a dense and intricate text symbolises an author’s superior knowledge about the content, the text which aims to present itself as having Authority will demand a reader who wishes a serious treatment of the topic and, therefore, will ‘take the time, make the effort, have the concentration’ (Kress 1996: 23) to read it.

As a result of that logic, where visual/tactile/auditory means of meaning-making are underestimated in favour of Linguistic Supremacy, we tend to consider authority-imposing texts as something devoid of subjectivity and social context, and immune to critical interpretation. We can assume that such a relation has much to do with the specific Media Environment in which Linguistic Supremacy becomes an essential feature of the text with Authority. Being the sole bearer of information for a good period, the printed page (of the newspaper, the Textbook, etc.) did not encourage a more willingly critical discussion of its contents. Instead of looking behind the reasons and arguments that may have grounded an article, to judge by ourselves the validity of its information, in most of the printed media history the validity of printed information was a given. On the printed paper ‘authority comes in the form of a stop sign: You’ve reached a source whose reliability requires no further inquiry.’ (Weinberger 2009).

Reflecting on the argument made above, where Objectivity and Authority are thought as essential features to the trustworthiness of any text, we can suppose that to be thought of as Trustworthy, Practical Manga must have found a way to emulate these two characteristics in the Manga text. That is, having at the same formal qualities associated with texts thought as Objective, and having a pre-structure (Davis 1983: 13) (Kress 1996) that gives it Authority, as in social legitimacy. Thus, in order to understand how Practical Manga achieved all this while still relying on a medium that works contrary to such characteristics, we first need to have a grasp of how the traditional entertainment-oriented Manga works, what its “grammar” is, and how it uses it. It is only after comprehending how narrative meaning is traditionally structured in Manga that we will be able to inquire how this same media manages to express non-narrative content understood as Objective, Authorised information.

The Manga Grammar and the Importance of the Panel/Frame

Discussions surrounding the Manga Grammar, its peculiarities, and essential features have always been present in Japan; however it was only during the early 1990s that such discussions, alongside Manga Scholarship as a whole, became viable. This is mainly due to the works of Takeuchi Osamu, Natsume Fusanosuke, and Yomota Inuhiko, who laid out the basis of what today is known as Theory of Manga Representation (Manga Hyougenron). Taking hints from fields such as literature, art, semiotics, and film studies, this theory aims to work as a grammar for the Manga text, giving the tools necessary to enable a textual analysis of Manga works by mapping, understanding, and categorising the relationships between its formative elements, most notably Drawing (E), Panel (Koma), and Text (Kotoba) (Fusanosuke 1995).

Also visible in American Comics and French Bande Desinée analysis, such as Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud,1993) and Systéme de la bande dessinée (Thierry Groensteen, 1999), the consideration of Manga as a Text with its own grammar pays special attention to the Panel since it is a feature exclusive to the Manga experience. Normally thought of as Manga’s minimum-unit of time and space, the Panel structures the reading experience working as the ‘missing link’ (Yomota, 1999) between the Manga page and the Cinema screen. This comprehension of the Manga Panel as creator of a Movie Camera illusion (Ito 2005: 248)  has much to do with the pioneering works of Tezuka Osamu, who by abiding to such view was able to transport the cinematic logic of space and time to the Manga page by dividing an action into several Panels and thus establishing a linear temporality closer to the movie watching experience.

Commonly described as Movie-Like Realism (Eigateki Riarīzumu) and characterised by a 1:1 equivalence between the Manga Panel and the Movie Frame, this understanding was considered the state of the art of the Manga Grammar until scholars such as Ito Gō (2005) started questioning if this was not actually a limited comprehension of the actual grammar through which Manga creates meaning. His main criticism towards this theory, other than its heavy bias towards Tezuka Osamu, is the fact that by abiding too much to the idea of the Movie Frame, we could be missing the creative and narrative possibilities of a Frame concept that is unique to Manga. Describing it as more unstable (Ito 2014: 266) than the Movie one, Ito Gō considers that the Manga Frame should not be thought of as a flat and non-divisible screen like the movie one, but, rather, as a set of multiple screens organised in a layer-like fashion. Naming his theory as Frame Instability (Furēmu no Fukakuteisei), Ito Go will argue that it is precisely this volatile Frame, which is not fixed on a single Panel, nor camera-like, that constitutes the uniqueness of the Manga experience and the main feature of the Manga Grammar. As an example of titles where we can see this concept in action, Ito Gō points out the Shōjo Manga (Girls’ Manga) genre, and how its works frequently deviate from this Movie-Like Realism tradition by thinking of the Manga Frame not as a Camera Screen but as a Multi-Layered system.

When we look at a Shōnen Manga like Tezuka Osamu’s Burakku Jakku (Black Jack) (Akita Shoten, 1973-1983) (Fig.5 left), for instance, we see a sequence of Panels that work together in order, creating a dramatic sequence—even emulating a zoom-out camera in the first three panels, a feature achieved by drawing the protagonist, Kurō Hazama, in Extreme Close-up, Close-up, and Medium Shot, respectively. On the fourth panel we have a reverse long shot showing the villain, Dr. Kiriko and, finally, the fifth comes as an Establishing Shot which shows the reader all the parts involved in the conflict.
On the other hand, when we look at Shōjo Manga like Ikeda Ryoko’s Oniisama e… (Dear Brother) (Shūeisha, 1974) (Fig.5 right) we see not only a lack of clearly divided panels but also, more importantly, a rather chaotic overlapping of images, panels and text. In it we see the protagonist’s older brother, Takehiko Henmi, having a flashback from the first time he met his little sister, in an image that flows from the upper left corner to lower right of the page. This happens at the same time Takehiko himself makes some remarks on this first encounter, an internal dialogue present on the images and texts that flow in the opposite direction, from the top right corner to the bottom left corner.

Figure 5: Tezuka Osamu’s Burakku Jakku (Black Jack) Vol.4(Akita Shoten, 1976) p.51(left); Ryoko Ikeda’s Onīsama e (Brother, Dear Brother) Vol.1 (Shūeisha, 1974) p.14 (right)
As a fairly established variety, Shōjo Manga will be the first instance to break up from the usual time-space continuity paradigm brought up by the association of the Movie Frame and the Manga Panel. Treating the Manga Frame as a Multi-Layered structure, not just an emulation of the movie camera, Shōjo Manga are able to express a multitude of meanings that do not presuppose the linearity of time, to which the single-layered Movie Frame is bound to. As a result, they succeed in depicting not only multiple parallel timelines but also manage to feature decorative elements that do not exist in the narrative context. Commonly employed on depictions of inner monologues, flashbacks, emotions, dreams, etc. this Multi-Layered Frame will make it possible the representation of a character’s inner world.

While the [reader’s] eyes go here and there exploring the page, the realistic temporality based on cause and effect is temporally made more ambiguous with images that pop up to then suddenly disappear. This style creates a sensation of delving into a world of dreams, of fantasy. (Akita 2005: 218)

This approach to the Manga Frame will result in Panels that are disconnected from the idea of a camera view and are presented in a scattered non-linear way, creating a reading experience that is distinct from traditional Manga, being less accelerated, more introspective, and less conflict-oriented once it abandons the cause-effect principle that enables motion to be recognised as such in the first place.

Although present firstly in Shōjo Manga, this creative approach to the Manga Frame has already been appropriated by several other genres and has well departed from its gender-exclusive reading of previous eras. Yet, the motivation behind their use remains somewhat unchanged: to represent the inner psyche of a character so the reader can better immerse himself into the Story.

In this paper, I propose that Practical Manga, although employing the same Multi-Layered Frame structure, does so with a different intent in mind. That is, other than expressing a character’s inner world, I would like to suggest that Practical Manga’s Multi-Layered Frame structure, characterised by the ‘scattering’ of information into panels, will serve the pragmatic role of organising the non-fictional information presented within its narrative.  

Multi-Layered Frame Structure as Visual Aid to Practical Manga’s Trustworthiness

Not exclusively tied to the Manga panel nor to its page, the Multi-Layered Manga Frame will be defined as the ‘outlined area contained within another outlined area, contained within another outlined area and so on’ (Ito 2017: 293) which in Shōjo Manga, will organise the page surface in a layer-like fashion to depict a character’s inner mindset. In Practical Manga, however, this Multi-layered Frame will be used to structure information that has no explicit begin-to-end order to it. In other words, Practical Manga will feature a Multi-Layered Frame structure that differentiates it from most entertainment-oriented Manga while also, at the same time, making a unique approach to the Multi-Layered frame structure using it to depict non-narrative content organised in non-linear fashion (Fig. 6).


Figure 6: Yūki Yū’s Manga de Wakaru Shinryōnaika Vol.2 (Shōnengahosha, 2010) p.36(left); Manga de Wakaru Tsutaekata ga 9wari (Daiamondosha, 2017) p.142 (right)
Trying to understand how this specific use of the Multi-Layer Frame modifies reader-character relations and narrative continuity, I analysed 18 selected works published between 2010 and 2019. To do so, I considered: the quantity and arrangement of panels and frames within each work, while also trying to grasp a possible difference between how they are organised in Explanation Sequences and Background Narrative (written as ES and BN respectively on the analysis table below). From this sample, I could find techniques based on the Multi-Layer Frame Structure which work in reassuring the presented information as objective information while also enhancing the author’s authority, reinforcing the idea that what is being presented should be read as trustworthy information.

The 18 titles (Table1) analysed were chosen having in mind the period when publications of the genre rose in numbers (from 2010 onwards), and themes that imply a grown-up reader, such as politics, taxation, sex, childcare, work-oriented self-help, etc. Focusing on the first chapter of each work, I used image editing and spreadsheet software to do the following:

 1. Break the pages into two types of panels: Explaining Sequences which concentrate the information to be ‘taught’, and Narrative Sequences which function mostly as background Story. Out of the 1715 panels analysed, around 30% (520 panels) were dedicated to the former.
2. Further break down the previous panels into 3 different layers of Manga Frame (Fig. 7) according to how they relate to the temporality within the narrative. Type 1 being the actual Information, portrayed without any connection with the narrative chronology (Green). Type 2 being the Background Narrative closely linked with the story’s chronology (Yellow). And finally Type 3 being the Character Figure, sometimes being closely linked to, while other times existing outside the story’s time and space (Red) (Table 2).
3. Comparing the Frequency of Multi-Layered Frames in Explaining Sequences and Narrative Sequences (Table 3)

 Table1 List of Works used in this analysis


Figure 7: An example of a manga panel divided in 3 frames. Source: Manga de Wakaru Aichaku Shōgai Jibun wo Shiri, Shiawase ni Naru Tame no Ressun (Kōbunsha, 2019) p.36

Table 2: Frame Analysis of each work

Table 3: Types and frequency of frames on Explaining Sequences (left) and Narrative Sequences (right)
With this analysis, I found out that most of these works have in common two specific usage of the Multi-Level Frames: (1) As a tool to guide the reader’s gaze and interpretation, and (2) As a method to create interruptions within the narrative flow, bringing elements which exist outside the story without compromising its coherence. While the first emulates an authority discourse by depicting the characters having teacher-student relations, the second one abandons the traditional linearity of manga by featuring pieces of information and graphics that do not take place within the actual text. With this, Practical Manga becomes structurally closer to the journalistic and the informational text by not abiding by a clear start-to-finish storytelling progression.

Navigator-Character as a Representative of Authority

While pondering the ways through which characters are perceived and interpreted by Manga readers, Takeuchi Osamu (1995) considers that the connection between character and reader happens through what he calls the Identification Technique (Doitsuka Gihō), a creative choice that consists mainly of Emulating on each Panel a first or second-person camera, and through this overlapping both the reader’s and the character’s gaze.

Even though a very common feature of most mainstream Manga, when looking at Practical Manga as a whole we see that this Identification technique is rarely utilised. Instead of visual reader-character identification, what they feature more preeminently is contextual closeness to the reader by using a background story familiar to the reader’s background and a clear student-teacher style power dynamic held between the protagonist and other characters. On the stance of these teacher-like characters, we can understand them as examples of two types of character-types also defined by Takeuchi Osamu: The Agent (Baikaisha) and The Onlooker (Bōkansha) (ibid: 59).

The first one refers to a character (sometimes the author him- or herself) who pops out of the narrative’s time and space to comment or add something to the story as if s/he existed in a reality parallel to it. A common indicator for the existence of an Agent is his or her drawing overlapping the Panel boundaries and/or pointing directly to other frames within the same panel (Fig.8, left). The Onlooker on the other hand is a character that although pinned down to the narrative, serves as a compass to the reader, pointing out information s/he may have missed or certain emotions the author wants to highlight in specific scenes. Outside the Manga realm, we may consider that a similar Onlooker character can also be found on the many the religious paintings present in western art history, specifically those related to biblical passages which frequently depicted crowds that worked ‘providing the “chorus” explaining the meaning of the action and, doing so, setting the key for the beholder’s response’ (Gombrich 1964: 383).

Most often than not being the story’s protagonist itself, the Onlooker character will navigate the reader not only through the story but also through its educational content. If we take a look at sequences where knowledge is explained by the teacher-like character we can see that after being thought, the protagonist almost always summarizes the teaching contents while also adding an opinion or, sometimes, inquiring further (Fig.8, right).


Figure 8: The Agent-character Asami (Left) and the Onlooker character Nakatani which follow’s Asami’s explanation while linking it to a next topic (Right). Source: Manga de Wakaru Konnnani Abunai!? Shōhizōzei (Bijinesusha, 2019) p.32 (left) p.37 (right)
When faced with a problem or a piece of new information, the focus will be given to the characters’ instant reaction to it, with little to no camera work being done to overlap its point of view with the reader’s one. This peculiar use of characters, who work not so much as vessels for identification but rather as independent beings, seems to have interesting similarities with the depiction of characters in the Moe Manga genre. Taking as an example the common montage technique where a character panel is usually followed by what that character is seeing, implying a connection between the reader and the character, Moe Manga intentionally avoids drawing only the scene as seen by the character as if it wanted to ‘remove the Identification Technique’ (Ito 2005: 284).

Figure 9: Gakkōgurashi Vol1 (Hōbunsha, 2012) p.13 (left); Manga de Wakaru Saikō no Kabu Nyūmon (Shinsei Shuppansha, 2017) p.83 (right)
Free from the burden of identification, this character who also doubles as navigator will be presented in Practical Manga through a series of visual strategies, the most visible one being its reproduction as something that pops out of the narrative and/or directly refers to external panels. Commonly abbreviated as a floating head or more extremely deformed as a cute character, it will serve as visual cues that guide the reader where to look, frequently used to adorn graphics, blocks of texts, and other contents presented in the Panel but that have no connection to the Story Background. For example, when looking at how stock market fluctuation is explained in Manga de Wakaru Saikō no Kabu Nyūmon (Understanding with Manga: The Best Introduction to Stocks) (Shinsei Shuppansha, 2017) (Fig.9 right), we see a deformed version of the protagonist adorning the explaining graphics on the upper left part of the page followed by a very obvious reaction to each one of them.
Other than the above-mentioned techniques, around half of the analysed sample presented the authors themselves as Navigator Characters stylised according to the work and, most often than not, being the only ones who directly refer to the reader and comment on their narrative, organising and making sense of the information presented on the page. From the 18 analysed works, the one that best exemplifies such technique is, certainly, Nakamura Yuki’s Manga de Wakaru Tōgoshichōshō (Understanding with Manga: Schizophrenia) (Nihonhyōsronsha, 2011) which features the author herself portrayed both as a Navigator-Character on the main narrative, and normal character in a parallel one. Building from previous autobiographical works such as Waga Ie no Haha wa Byōki Desu (Our Mother is Sick) (Sanmaruku, 2008) and Waga ie no Haha wa Byōki Desu 2: Kazoku no Kizuna (Our Mother is Sick 2: Family Ties) (Nihonhyōsronsha, 2011), this works features Kokoro, a young girl that finds out about her schizophrenia and, with the help of her family and doctor, overcomes the struggles and the prejudices against her mental condition. However, although this plot constitutes the main story, parallel to it we have the author herself and her family retelling their experience with the late diagnosis and treatment of their mother’s schizophrenic condition. In other words, what we have here are two parallel stories linked by the disease: while the main one features the fictional narrative of Kokoro’s recently diagnosed condition, the parallel one features the author herself recalling her real-life memories of living with a schizophrenic mother.

We can observe this very clearly on the pages below. The occasion being depicted is the moment when Kokoro discovers her mental condition, and even though the page’s first two panels (Fig.10 right) shows the author extra diegetically highlighting other diseases with similar symptoms, the narrative focus is still on Kokoro and her shocked reaction to the fact that, depending on the gravity of her case, she may even have to be hospitalised (bottom half of the page).

However, on the page following that (Fig.10 left) we have the author directly addressing Kokoro’s anxiety on the possibility of being hospitalised by listing not only information on the particulars of the hospitalisation of patients with mental illness (upper half of the page), but also brings a more personal connection by remembering the time she had to apply for her mother’s hospitalisation by herself (lower half’s two panels).


Figure 10: Manga de Wakaru Tōgoshichōshō (Nihhyouronsha, 2011) pp. 36-37
Here, the Navigator-Character is a figure of authority that summarises and explains the data shown in the background; it not only indicates and highlights where important information is placed, but also, help and condition the reader’s comprehension of it. This is most clearly visible by the ways the characters interact with the knowledge being presented: a common sequence on pretty much every work analysed shows us the presentation of an absurd or incorrect interpretation of the information by the character being taught. Usually created as comic relief, this sequence may not add any new information to the ones already presented by the Navigator-Character; however, it can still be seen as a means to guide reader comprehension. Showcasing at the same time what something is and what something is not, the author foresees and prevents misinterpretation by highlighting the wrong interpretation and, as result, making even more clear what is the correct one in the context of the Data being shown.

Although convenient, this dynamic can have results very similar to what Suzanne de Castell (1990) calls ‘the problem of interpretation’ on School Textbooks. By omitting the reader’s subjectivity and also, to a certain extent, erasing the author’s subjectivity (his authorship) in favour of a status-given authority, the Practical Manga examples analysed in this paper tend to function similarly to the School Textbooks, which present their text as pre-interpreted knowledge, depicting its contents more as ‘factual statements’ than subjects of the reader’s interpretation.

Non-linear Reading as a Way to Present Objective information

Analysing Practical Manga’s closest genre, Study Manga, Sugaya (2008) proposes five categories through which they can be organised according to the way they present information, two of them being specifically prominent: The Story-type (Sutōri-gata), common in historical or biographical themes, and the Lecture Type (Jugyō-gata), usually featuring themes different to the previous ones and almost always having a teacher-like figure through which most of the knowledge is transmitted.

Amongst the differences found in structure between these two types, he cites the biggest one being the way they are usually read, with the former one being closer to the traditional Story-Manga, where the amount of text and panels, alongside the emphasis on the image, creates a clear, less burdensome reading flow. The Lecture Type, on the other hand, other than not commonly featuring a narrative background on which to base itself, is usually heavy on text and panels, resulting in more information-per-page and, therefore a slower and not-so-fluid reading ‘with a lot of going back and forth between the page and the panel’, working similarly to a “Random-Access Memory”’ (ibid: 36).

That said, the majority of Practical Manga analysed here could easily be categorised as a ‘Hybrid Type’ (ibid: 93), since they feature, in the same work, characteristics of both Story and Lecture Types. By introducing a narrative background first as an excuse for teaching, these works present a story that is conditioned to the character development through instruction, making clear the difference between Explaining Sequences and Narrative Sequences. Usually, such transition is done by moving the focus from the protagonist to the Navigator-Character that will then transform the conversation in an almost-monologue. More often than not the panel that symbolises the start of such explaining sequences is a wide one, placed on the top/bottom of the page and typically followed by what Kajiya (2014) calls Transcendent Images: tables, figures, charts, diagrams, quotations, etc. Rather than pointing out something that exists within the story, and therefore pertaining to the subjective imaginary of the characters or the author, when characters point out to these transcendent images, sometimes literally overlapping them, they invite the reader to treat them more like documentary evidence than a subjective representation or interpretation of that matter.

However, as a downside to this multilayered non-linear organisation of the Manga Page, the amount of information on the page can be, at times, incredibly overwhelming, discouraging any type of engagement by the reader. However, thanks to the text’s own non-linearity, most visible on Educational Sequences, Practical Manga gets to feature comic renditions or interpretations that are also unrelated to the narrative but whose humour and/or connection to the main story helps to make the reading experience more smooth and less painful. This was especially true for works dedicated to teach sex-related topics, as is the case for Komikkuban Hontou ni Kimochi no Ii Sekkusu (A Really Good Sex as Taught by a Female Doctor: The Comic) (Bukkumansha, 2012) (Fig. 11 left) and Manga Unchiku SEX (Manga Erudition: SEX) (Kadokawa, 2014) (Fig. 11 right).


Figure 11: Hontou ni Kimochi no Ii Sekkusu (Bukkumansha, 2012) p.40 (left); Manga Unchiku SEX (Kadokawa, 2014) p.75 (right)
Focused respectively on teaching female and male readers the basic information and techniques to achieve a better, healthier sex life, each manga features comedic reactions and related facts as a means to lighten the mood and engage the reader, even in such a sensitive topic. On the former, for example, we have the teacher-doctor explaining where the female G Spot is located, followed by her assistants wrongly assuming that the term is an acronym for “Great Spot” (Fig. 11, left, upper half), whereas on the latter we have the mysterious sex-guru character teaching a group of young salarymen the particularities of the vaginal mucous membrane (Fig. 11, right, upper half). Following that he brings up a trivia fact (bottom left corner) that contextualises the tradition of penis pearling as a body modification originally conceived as a way to avoid any injuries and deliver a better sexual performance when the partner had a particularly strong mucous membrane.
Moreover, using a Multi-Layer Frame Structure, Explaining Sequences presents information that, although having a logical continuity, seems to be constructed in a way that does not privilege time-space continuity between Panels like traditional Story Manga traditionally does. It presents the reader a series of explanatory interruptions, which will then result in a page read both in its entirety as a bigger frame, as well as a group of minor ones, creating a structure that seamlessly mixes extradiegetic information with intradiegetic story as is the case for Manga de Mi ni Tsuku Sonshi no Heihō (Get it with Manga: Son Tzu’s Art of War) (Asa Shuppan, 2016) and Manga de Wakaru Niiche (Understanding with Manga: Nietzsche) (Takarajimasha, 2016).

In the first one (Fig. 12 left) we can see the protagonist, a young Office Lady, being taught by her older mentor how to use the teachings of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in the context of business practices. On the first panel, as the mentor recites Sun Tzu’s teachings (written in a different, bolder typeface followed by a footnote), the protagonist opens up a dictionary to make sense of his wording choices on the cited quotation and, after this, we have panels 2 to 4 making sense of it. As we find out from reading, this set of anthropomorphic rice ball characters never actually exist in the main story and are just cute extradiegetic images that simplify information shown previously. Nonetheless, as we can see from the characters’ reaction and pointing on panels 6 and 7, the characters themselves are conscious of this as they point out and look at this previous set of panels, reinforcing that the reading activity should also take in consideration the entire page as a frame.

Likewise, in Manga de Wakaru Niiche (Fig.12 right), we have a structure that, at first glance seems to be completely very confusing but, in fact, is quite similar to the one previously described. Here, the young protagonist is following a stray cat when she meets a customer from the restaurant, she works in. The customer-turned-guru will then address her complaint about a recent troublesome customer by teaching her Friederich Nietzsche’s notion of perspectivism. The explanation starts with a direct quote from Nietzsche on the top and ends with a comment from the author on the page’s lowest bottom. In-between these two text boxes, we have two overlapping panels putting the concept to test exemplifying it with practical everyday-life examples and also adding to it the character’s comments and interpretation.


Figure 12: Manga de Mi ni Tsuku Sonshi no Heihō (Asa Shuppan, 2016) p.41 (left); Manga de Wakaru Nīche (Takarajimasha, 2016) p.21 (right);
By presenting its information through discontinuity, conflict, temporal breaks, and style-overlapping (Luhman, 1996), Practical Manga’s visual structure assumes characteristics that are commonly associated with media deemed as Objective such as research papers, news text, textbooks, infographics, etc. Therefore, we can say that the reading demanded here is not so much an accumulation of information but rather a continuous assembling and disassembling of information, being done consciously by going back and forth between the multiple Frames. It is precisely due to that organisation, based on a non-linear structure, that Practical Manga works like the ones analysed above will differentiate themselves from the traditional Story Manga narrative flow and, at the same time, emulate a focused, non-linear, time-consuming reading style that is almost always synonym of trustworthy objective media.


As discussed previously, although a fairly recent subcategory to rise in popularity, Practical Manga is in fact a phenomenon whose roots trace back to Japan’s WWII print regulations. The Study Manga created at the time, although different from the Propaganda Comics created by the US Government, shared with it an important characteristic: instead of comical and/or fantastical settings, these works’ goal was to portray and transmit useful information. Its consumption by a larger adult audience, however, would only be possible after the great impact and influence of Ishinomori Shotaro’s Manga Nihon Keizai Nyūmon published during the 1980s. His work was the first one to inaugurate the idea of Practical Manga as a type of Study

Manga aimed towards an adult audience in thematic and style.
Continuously transforming with time, Practical Manga has not only changed the notions regarding the communicative possibilities of Manga but also made some stylistic choices that could change its reception as a text. Aiming to be thought of and consumed as a source of real, trustworthy information, it appropriated the Multi-Layer Frame Structure from Shōjo Manga as a means to build a non-linear text whose Form would make it possible for it to be read similarly to other trustworthy texts. Making use of this structure, which originally made it possible to create fissures within the story’s space-time to represent a character’s flashback and inner emotions, Practical Manga are able to pause cause-effect relations and time-space continuity within its narrative to bring information that, although unrelated to the story, contributes to the reader’s learning process. Not only that but, in some cases, characters themselves act as some sort of Frame. Functioning mainly as a navigator and interpreter/teacher, this specific character usage is one of Practical Manga’s most unique visible characteristics, marking its difference from the traditional Story Manga genre. Providing information through a non-linear structure and guiding the reader’s gaze and interpretation by using a Navigator-Character, Practical Manga manages to emulate the form of medium whose content is normally thought to be Objective, while also having a sense of Authority. As a result, it creates a reading experience that is closer to media usually perceived as a source of trustworthy information (such as news media, school textbooks, etc.), than its Story Manga counterpart.

Considered within the actual context, where types of media become more and more complex, with no unique system of reception, understanding how such seemingly polar opposite reception systems, the real/trustworthy News and the fictional/entertaining Manga, work together in Practical Manga is an exercise whose discussions are, certainly, not limited to the Manga Theory much less to this paper. Nonetheless, the textual analysis of such works, like the one done in this paper, can certainly prove to be a useful resource for Media Studies focused on the relationships built between consumer and media texts, in particular the ones which circulate and are consumed as fiction or fantasy.


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About the Author

Henrique T. Reis is a PhD Student in the Manga Department at Kyoto Seika University. His research focus on the dialogues made between fictional and non-fictional media, paying special attention to how they articulate their form in order to match, instigate, and sometimes betray specific user/reader/consumer responses.

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