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Eiji Otsuka Workshop Recap: Cinematography in Manga

Last weekend, I was very lucky to be able to attend and participate in an inspiring two-day workshop led by manga writer and Kobe Design University professor Eiji Otsuka, of MPD Psycho and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery fame. Held at Otaku Lounge, Otsuka-sensei and his student Chiharu Nakashima (a professional mangaka in her own right) gave us a crash course on manga storytelling that entirely blew my mind.

I really felt like this is the type of thing Love Love Hill tends to be really interested in, so I wanted to write a bit of a recap of my experience and share some of the lesson here 😀

I’ve broken it down into the two days and then one more entry about my own thoughts and what I synthesized most out of it. I am probably not going to delve too deeply into individual points in the actual lesson, because the presentation was so dense and to be honest I am not really sure how to do it without mass hand gesturing and visual aids, lol. I can only try my best to explain it in words here, I’m sorry. Maybe for another time.

edit: Now peppered with bad cell phone pics of the handout that we were given! Otsuka-sensei had this all in a Powerpoint presentation where we were able to see it much larger, sorry it looks so terrible, and also HAS MY TERRIBLE JUVENILE NOTES ALL OVER IT. Some of it is in French because the presentation was in French, I’m not gonna bother translating. Anyways I hope it will help to illustrate some of the more confusing points.

DAY ONE: An Introduction to the Usage of Cinematographic Language in the Art of Manga

We started off with a little bit of manga history to explain the link between film and manga. Just last year, Otsuka-sensei covered this in detail in his keynote presentation in a different conference altogether. Summary: contrary to what you might think, manga is much less derived from traditional Japanese art (painted scrolls, woodblock prints, ukiyo-e) – the true roots lie in modernism, Russian constructivism, Disney, and WWII propaganda film of the 1930s and 40s (especially Eisentein’s montage techniques). Osamu Tezuka and his generation of peers grew up as the target audience of this kind of media, and were therefore influenced by them while creating their own work, subsequently going on to inspire the entire manga industry.

Otsuka-sensei went on to tell us that in his classes in Kobe, he further emphasizes the link between manga and film by having his students break down classic manga scenes into storyboards. They then have to shoot the actual scenes with cameras while being the actors, and then cut the footage into short film adaptations. Because the way you read manga is so instrumentally cinematic, you are actually able to direct straight from the original manga itself – script, composition, camera movement are already all there, if you consciously look for it.

This seems pretty weird and jarring at first, because in every art class or writing about comics-writing will tell you – film, storyboards, and comics are all different mediums and while similar, generally do not cross over. This is mostly true in American, even Chinese comics, because in those cases the storytelling much more compressed: more actions per panel. In order to convert them into storyboards, you have to break down the larger panels or else your focus is way too scattered.

In manga, this is usually already done for you due to it’s deconstructed visuals. The main strategy points that Otsuka-sensei pointed out are these:

1) Manga is framed in individual panels using traditional film-type shots and composition, which all have their own special dramatic use. For example, using close-ups of characters shows more of their face and the subtle emotions going through their heads. Putting a character within a long panned out shot not only gives a context of their surroundings, but lets you relate to what they may be feeling within that scenery. Shifting the eye-level/perspective also evokes different feelings. Examples: normal sitting/standing eyeline = mundane, daily activities / slightly lower eyeline = depicting the view of a child, innocent person (apparently used often in Ghibli films) / a low-angle shot = menacing, dramatic, strong feelings / fisheye or distorted = confusing, very unsettling, with the implication of a camera movement or zoom in, etc.mangaframe_01 mangaframe_02 mangaframe_03 mangaframe_04

2) Panels in manga can also the rule of thirds, a technique also found in film and photography. If you split your panels into three vertical sections and set your characters or focus within the sections or on the guidelines, you can generally guarantee an interesting and balanced shot. You can also break these rules for narrative effect. If you set characters/focus off-center, off the guidelines, you end up tipping the compositional balance, and the eye starts to move. This can be effective if you’re trying to depict narrative imbalance, or a quick physical movement such as a character beginning to move or run. You can also split the panel into two and use that as a compositional guide for more static moments in the story, or to demonstrate a kind of narrative binary. Otsuka-sensei warned us to use this with caution because too much balance might mess up the tempo of your story – the reader’s focus may stay there for longer than you intend.

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3) The reader’s eye is directed around by the composition within the page, so in effect your own eye is acting how a camera would in film. Otsuka-sensei demonstrated this to us through a page from the manga Ryuujinuma by Shotaro Ishinomori –the boy protagonist looks back to his girl companion, asking her about the pain in her feet, with his gaze looking down; the reader then instinctively will also look at the next panel (a full body shot of the girl) with starting with her feet, just like the protagonist; you can therefore imagine it as a film shot beginning from her feet and rising upwards. Scenery objects can also be used to lead the eye through a larger panel – leaves blowing through the wind from left to right will also lead the camera left to right.



4) Time-passing in manga is depicted by the different sizes of individual panels. Logically, the larger the panel is, the longer you will look at and analyze it, emphasizing a longer amount of time passing within the story. This works for anything from a setting-establishing shot full of scenery, to a full-on face zoom up where you’re meant to understand the feelings of one character. Smaller panels indicate a quicker pace or speed because you spend less time looking at them. Juxtaposing panels that are the same in size can mean that a constant amount of time is passing within all of those panels, or it is a single moment where you’re able to see many different sides/reactions of the characters.


5) Manga page scripts, or “name” (pronounced NEHYME, like in English “name”, not NAH-MAY) have their layout done in two page spreads. You have to be conscious about how the two pages play against each other, and the variety of artwork within the pages. There are certain positions in the spread that the eye is also tend to be drawn towards, and that readers subconsciously expect certain narrative actions to happen within. For example, in a right-to-left conventional manga, the topmost-right corner should have some indication of the action that preceded it from when you last turned the page. This could be the finishing of a character action if you’re not done your scene yet, or if it’s a scene change altogether, an establishing scenery shot that takes you to a new location. Consequentially, that means the bottomost-left corner should be something exciting that makes you want to turn the page. Another good place to put important actions is the left page topmost-left  corner (the “climax” of a particular scene, let’s say) – for some reason it is the first place that reader glances at when they open a book (Otsuka-sensei never really explained why, other than it being some kind of psychological phenomenon). Putting the most important/climactic/twist shot there (ex: a heroine crying her eyes out) further emphasizes the drama/emotional impact as well as makes the reader curious and anxious to go back and read from the first page in the spread (ex: what the heck happened that made her bawl like this??). This strategy is not always achievable because you can’t have constant climaxes in your overarching narrative, but if you can use it, it’s even better for you! (Also, we asked: if you’re doing left-to-right comics, you reverse the direction in this strategy as well.)


So in summary, using all these strategies can not only help you convert a manga into storyboards, but facilitates the overall readability of manga and can help you draw/compose/write/story-tell much more effectively!

Day 1 was entirely all these lessons and then we were given some comics-paper, and a script passage and background info from Ryuujinuma. Our homework was to re-draw this scene on two to three pages, with a focus on the girl character Yumi as the protagonist. The drawing didn’t matter so much as the composition and storytelling. This kind of threw the class in for a loop a little but it was really exciting!! Little did we know, we would then have to show our “names” to the rest of the class, while being corrected by Otsuka-sensei and Nakashima-sensei… but that is a story for Day 2.

PS: If you really want an additional reading re: at what Otsuka-sensei is teaching, and can read Japanese and have a knack for tracking down rare out-of-print books, look for Shotaro Ishinomori’s Introduction to the Art of Manga.


Originally posted on tumblr.

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