'Manga and Philosophy': More Connections Than You Might Think

Image found on Art & Culture of Japan

The latest volume in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series casts a philosophical eye on the world of manga.

Manga and Philosophy: Fullmetal Metaphysician

Publisher: Open Court
Length: 374 pages
Author: Joseph Steiff, Adam Barkman, eds.
Price: $19.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-07

A love for manga has piqued many a reader’s interest in all things Japanese. For some it has served as the gateway drug to a lifelong addiction to Poky, ramen noodles and wasabi peas while for a more select group an interest in manga has provided the motivation to learn Japanese and become a serious student of Japanese culture and history.

This strategy is evident in the collection Manga and Philosophy: Fullmetal Metaphysician which uses the hook of manga as a tool to draw people into the world of philosophical thought. It’s #52 in the Open Court Publishing series “Popular Culture and Philosophy”, which specializes in making this kind of connection: the first volume in the series was Seinfeld and Philosophy and other volumes have treated subjects as diverse as baseball, The Wizard of Oz, and even 'bullshit'.

Looking down the list Manga and Philosophy seems to be one of the more obvious titles (tell the truth: how many manga otaku do you know who don’t already have a taste for philosophical dissection and argument, often at unseemly length?) and on the whole the collection is pretty successful. The price ($19.95) is certainly right for a generous collection of 24 essays which have enough range to provide something for almost any taste.

The target audience for Manga and Philosophy seems to be the manga fan rather than the philosopher: extensive familiarity with the specific manga series discussed is assumed in many essays while in most the philosophical discussion remains pretty close to Philosophy 101. At their worst, the essays graft the two concepts together awkwardly (“Here’s something about manga. Now here’s something about philosophy.”) or ignore the philosophical component almost entirely. At their best, they use the tools of philosophy to cast light on the manga under discussion and use the manga to help people connect with important philosophical concepts. The level of discourse is similar to conference papers at a meeting of the Popular Culture Association, so none go really deep. This ie easily accessible to any interested reader with a good general education.

The book is divided into sections by general topic: Tezuka (essays about works by Osama Tezuka), Ketsuekigata (essays about different types of manga), Kazoku (essays about family relationships in manga), Nimensai (essays about Death Note), Zen no michi (for essays about what it means to be a good person), Hamon (for essays about the influence of manga) and Furoku (supplemental materials: contributor bios, bibliography and index). Manga discussed in the essays include Black Jack, Phoenix, Angel Sanctuary, To Terra, Death Note, and Hero Heel while more general topics include superheroes (or their absence) in manga, the treatment of World War II in manga, women’s manga, hentai

Rather oddly, only a few essays treat the visual aspects of manga at any length (if there’s a follow-up volume, I hope more artists will be recruited to help balance out the philosophers and English professors), but this topic includes two of the standout essays in the volume: “Why Do They Look White?” by Jason Davis, Christie Barber and Mio Bryce and “Drawing the Self” by Sally Jane Thompson. Also strong are essays by Tristan D. Tamplin which uses Tezuka’s Black Jack as the springboard to a discussion of health care ethics and Ashley Barkman’s “The Brink of Extinction” which looks at the influence of five religious/moral traditions (Christianity, shamanism, Daoism, Buddhism and Confucianism) on Sun Park’s Ark Angels.

Volumes of manga frequently include “extras”: bonus comics, vocabulary and culture notes and so on which give the fan a little something extra for their money. Manga and Philosophy hews to this tradition with a bonus comic (drawn manga-style, of course), “Fullmetal Metaphysician” which sets out the basic premises of the book. Also in a bow to manga convention it’s at the back of the book and reads right-to-left. It’s a nice little extra, but for reasons known only to themselves the authors have also placed the acknowledgements, which includes information about the meaning of the titles for each section, at the back. Since this section reads left-to-right like any ordinary page of printed English (and like the rest of the book) it’s a bit awkward (the reading order and the page order are in opposition) and I’m not sure what the point was in doing it this way.

Rather oddly for a volume which uses many foreign words and seems to want to include newcomers to the field Manga and Philosophy does not include a glossary. Instead, the reader is referred to the glossary contained in another volume in the same series, Anime and Philosophy: Wide Eyed Wonder. That’s a choice which is inconvenient (granted one can always Google unknown terms as I frequently did in the course of my reading) and also looks rather self-serving on the part of the publisher. I don’t buy a book expecting to have to buy another book to have access to a feature which should have been included in the book I bought. Were I a professor considering texts for adoption, such an absence might swing my decision toward selecting a different book.

Those quibbles aside, Manga and Philosophy will appeal to manga fans and amateur philosophers alike. It offers a selection of interesting essays from a variety of viewpoints and it’s hard to imagine a manga fan who can’t find a number of things of interest in this collection.






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