As any bibliophile would profess, walking in a library is as much a delight as it is therapeutic. The reason being is that we suddenly don an explorer’s hat and are always looking for that next book, which will turn out to be a treasured read. Indeed, on one such occasion, I got a curious tug to visit the massive, colourful manga section of a local bookstore and thought: why not see what the fuss is all about? For those who are unfamiliar with this genre; manga is an immersive form of visual storytelling where the plot is mainly told through illustrations. Interestingly, the Japanese word for manga translates as ‘pictures run riot’.

Manga’s origins go as far as 1200AD in Japan, evolving across the centuries. By the late 1700s, manga artists were producing illustrated novels that portrayed various aspects of society and were often read by the literate, newly rich urban populations. Even back then, such works were clearly starting to influence public opinion. Around the 1920s, manga began to get published as serialised comic strips in magazines and newspapers, catering to mass audiences of all ages. With the digital revolution, manga’s popularity has expanded astronomically in the 20th century and now enjoys a global audience. It has franchised into the animation, art, fashion, and gaming industries as well.

Currently, there are around 5,000 professional manga artists in Japan and a growing segment globally. These artists are responsible for producing the manga masterpieces we enjoy today. According to a report published by the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher’s and Editor’s Association (AJPEA), total sales of physical and digital manga in Japan alone reached $3.96 billion in 2018, a 1.9 per cent increase versus a year ago. The digital manga market accounted for 44.9 per cent of the overall manga market.

One of the most endearing themes in manga is strong and sacred friendship, also promoting the Japanese culture’s values of teamwork and striving for the collective good rather than individual success.

- Sara Al Mulla

Due to its popularity, manga books can be found everywhere in Japan, such as rental bookstores, manga cafes, convenience stores, restaurants, newspapers, and weekly or monthly magazines. Nowadays, people can even read manga digitally, ever contributing to its global dissemination and translation to almost every language.

So, after sampling my way through a few manga books, I was enthralled, to say the least, and very much pleased at my new discovery. As manga fans would often say, there’s a manga for everyone and they are right. Interestingly, manga subgenres cater to the various age groups of its readers. Shojo manga targets girls up to the age of 18 and revolves around friendship, comedy, and romance. Josei manga targets female readers between the ages of 18 and 40, featuring more mature plots, such as motherhood, careers, and realistic romances. Shonen is aimed at boys between 10 and 18 years old and portray action-packed scenes, adventures, sports, friendships, and overcoming hardships.

The fascinating themes you would come across in manga works are unrivalled and immediately riveting. What’s more is that manga works give a voice to the diverse identities, voices, and age groups in our societies; portraying their aspirations, challenges, and emotions. Plots are injected with larger than life fantasies and characters and settings are anything but banal.

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One of the most endearing themes in manga is strong and sacred friendship, also promoting the Japanese culture’s values of teamwork and striving for the collective good rather than individual success. Friends can be either tomodachi (friends you hang out with most of time, such as colleagues, classmates, or childhood buddies) or nakama (friends who are always there for each other in times of need). These types of friendships emphasise the beauty in cultivating deep relationships with others based on common beliefs and interests. Together, friends go on adventures and save the world from its various evils. Anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day tells the story of a six-grader girl, Menma, who dies in an accident and returns as a ghost to haunt her best friend, Jintan, five years later. Both friends are trying to figure out how she can make an unfulfilled wish come true so she can continue on her journey to heaven. Both of them decide to involve their old friends — who have drifted apart five years ago — and in the process, reconcile many unsurfaced hurt and rekindle old friendships. It is a beautiful depiction of how friendships can last for eternity.

In Captain Tsubasa, we learn about Tsubasa Oozora, an aspiring 11-year-old football fanatic who dreams of winning the Fifa World Cup for Japan. The series span 37 volumes and revolve around his relationships with his friends, his opponents, his training programs, and the action-packed football matches. The manga has become one of the most memorable in the genre, popularising football in Japan, and even inspiring multiple real life players to become professionals.

Manga is a unique, immersive form of storytelling that has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. Its well-thought of plots and gorgeous illustrations help in promoting and upholding values and ideals. This makes it a powerful medium for shaping pop culture all over the globe.

Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.