How to read manga

read manga - let's take the subway

Manga images surround us.  The style has become so ubiquitous that we seldom stop to consider the origins and meaning of the characters; often not realising that there is a rich language of storytelling lurking behind every manga graphic, as redolent in symbolism as a Renaissance masterpiece.

So, what is manga?

Manga is a form of storytelling, which relies heavily on visual elements, and which conforms to a broad style developed from serialised cartoon strips that first appeared in Japanese newspapers during the end of the 19th century.

Manga stories are similar to comics and graphic novels; are read by all ages; and cover a vast range of genres, including adventures stories, romance, science fiction, and political commentary.

Reading manga

Traditionally, manga stories are read from right to left and from top to bottom, in the same way as Japanese writing.

The narrative is contained within frames called koma.  So, to read a page of manga, you start with the koma in the top right-hand corner and you end with the koma in the bottom left-hand corner.

manga - reading direction

The elements that are used to build up a manga story include manpu, fukidashi and gitaigo.


Manpu refers to manga symbols.  They are frequently used to express movement or emotions, with stock symbols used to convey feelings such as sadness or anger; embarrassment or tiredness.

When these stock representations become instantly recognisable to regular readers of manga, it means that excessively prolix text becomes superfluous!


Fukidashi are the speech bubbles, which give manga characters their voice.

manga - fukidashi

The shape of the fukidashi reflects the mood of the message being conveyed.  Solid, rounded fukidashi represent normal speech, whereas more cloudlike fukidashi express happiness and more spiky-shaped fukidashi surprise or tension.


Gitaigo, Giongo and Giseigo are the ways that manga illustrates sound effects and feelings in a story.

The Japanese language has more than three times the number of onomatopoeic words compared to the English language, which gives manga stories ample scope for expressive sound-words.

In fact, there are so many gitaigo, it’s enough to make anyone ぐるぐる (dizzy)!

A multi-faceted reading experience

Manga is often referred to as multimodel.  In other words, there’s a lot going on.  Reading manga requires the ability to interpret symbols, decipher overlapping text and images, understand cultural references and appreciate differences in storytelling between countries.

But, above all else, manga is meant to be entertaining.

The Citi Exhibition Manga

The British Museum is hosting The Citi Exhibition Manga until 26 August 2019.  It is the largest exhibition of manga ever to take place outside of Japan.

Combining traditional displays with interactive experiences, the exhibition looks at the history of manga; the development of manga; its global spread and appeal; the various genres of manga; and features numerous examples of manga and anime.

manga stories - citi exhibition manga

The Citi exhibition Manga provides illustrations of many of the different genres of manga.  These include Shônen manga; Shôjo manga; Josei manga; and Gekiga manga.  The different genres of manga typically appeal to different age-groups and genders, and deal with varying themes, from adventure to comedy; romance to sports.

Cool Japan

Cool Japan: Manga, Anime, Sushi is a module, which can be studied on the programmes BA Chinese (Modern and Classical); BA Chinese Studies; BA Japanese; BA Japanese Studies; BA Korean: and BA Korean Studies at SOAS University of London.

The module aims to analyse how the various aspects of our ‘imagination of Japan’ come together, working out how some of the stereotypes are formed and enabling students to understand how the concept of ‘Japan’ came about.

Find out more


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