Why is manga not colored? When Japan values practicality over aesthetics

If you grew up reading black-and-white Japanese manga and colorful DC and Marvel comic books from the United States, you might have wondered why the Japanese manga is not colored.

It is definitely not because black and white looks so much better or because the publishers want you to use your imagination. Instead, it has more to do with the Japanese choosing practicality over aesthetics. 

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How so?

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Why manga is not colored

Just like the sun always rises early in Japan, since its conception in the 16th century, manga artists have always published black and white manga.

At first, it was primarily because colored inks were not readily available when the first manga was published and circulated. 

But why did manga artists keep it that way when colored inks became more available?

Some manga pages include color versions. But these are primarily on very few pages and are exclusively used for special edition issues. Regular manga issues are printed in black and white for valid reasons. 

There are three main reasons many manga artists publish manga in black and white even today: tradition, cost, and deadlines.

Let me cover each one in detail to understand better how these three affect the monochrome color used to make manga. 

Manga is steeped in tradition

Similar to its floor culture, Japanese manga is steeped in tradition.

Chōjū-jinbutsu-giga (Scrolls of Frolicking Animals) is the first known manga. It is rumored to have been created collaboratively by multiple artisans. It was said to have emerged sometime during the transitional period between the 12th and 13th centuries.

Commonly shortened to Choju-giga, it was a set of four picture scrolls drawn in black-and-white. It depicted animals moving about, playing, and having fun, with some enacting a Buddhist ceremony. 

What’s interesting about this scroll is the masterful use of ink, delicate brush strokes, and simple but bold lines. These give the picture movement and action, highlighting the culture and Japanese calligraphy. This drawing style is very uncommon compared to traditional motionless or stationary drawings.

From there, similar publications featured the same visual storytelling techniques. Their concise pacing and panel layout allowed the storyteller to convey complex issues, views, and emotions. Because of this, there was never a need for color.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when manga became widely popular. Editions were published weekly. They were first given to the Japanese army, which boosted their morale while defending the country during World War II. 

So as not to disappoint their avid fans who need a break during this chaotic period, the mangakas or manga writers decided to retain the monochromatic theme. This ensures they keep up with the regular weekly publication of the manga issue.

Thanks to these mangakas who made sure they got issues out at regular intervals and to the soldiers who introduced manga to a broader readership, Japan gave birth to a new form of art known to the world as manga. 

Modern-day mangakas keep new manga publications monochromatic in style. This honors and shows appreciation to those responsible for manga’s popularity. 

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Keep manga affordable to its broad readership

Manga is unlike the colored pages of Western comics, which typically contain between 32 and 48 pages. Published manga magazines are the size of a large book and have about 300 to 600 pages.

To make the manga affordable to all audiences—from young children to young adults to older readers—the publishers have to print it in one ink color. Different colors and shades cost more than black ink.

They do not use photos printed from expensive cameras that can be bought in Japan.

Furthermore, they use cheap recycled paper that does not allow for vivid-colored printing to keep the production costs low. 

Beat deadlines

Mostly, the mangaka is the artist and colorist responsible for drawing the characters. They are also doing the background and everything needed to publish an issue.

What makes it challenging besides crafting a story and drawing images is the lack of assistants to help them finish their work on time.

Some mangakas have one or two assistants to help them work on their stories and colorize the drawings, while others must work on their series alone. 

You may think that having assistants means mangakas will have more time on their hands. 

The truth is it does not lessen the workload. The creator is solely responsible for the quality of their work. Because of this, most decide to do it themselves or closely supervise their assistants’ work. 

Besides that, they also have to contend with a short deadline. 

With deadlines hanging over their heads for a few days, mangakas find writing stories and drawing the images needed for the issue more prudent. They prefer not to spend their precious time coloring each page.

Furthermore, the drawing could be messed up if the colors are not done correctly. This would require them to redo their work from scratch, a waste of time and effort they cannot afford.

Mangakas take the utmost pride in their craft. They make it a point to turn in their high-quality work ready for publication, no matter how short a time they were allotted to finish an issue.

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Manga transitions to Anime

The transition from black and white to colorful animation is a fascinating process in the world of manga and anime. It reflects each medium’s unique storytelling techniques. 

Manga’s monochromatic pages rely on linework and shading to convey emotion and narrative depth. It invites readers to interpret the story through their imagination.

When adapted into anime, color enhances the visual experience. Vibrant hues enrich the world and characters and allow for greater emphasis on details.

Manga’s static images and sequential panels contrast with anime’s dynamic animation and sound. It brings characters to life with fluid motion and voice acting.

This transformation highlights the strengths of both mediums while embracing their differences. This offers audiences an immersive and captivating viewing experience.

Insights from Manga Fan Perspectives

I talked to numerous fans and those new to reading manga. This is to understand how fan expectations affect how colorization is perceived within the manga community.

Many appreciate the original black-and-white aesthetic and letters. This style is cherished for its simplicity and authenticity. These fans argue that colorization risks diluting the essence of the story. It may also potentially diminish its impact. 

However, I’ve also encountered individuals who welcome the addition of color. They see it as an opportunity to enhance visual storytelling and bring new life to beloved narratives.

Balancing these contrasting viewpoints poses a challenge. Manga creators must balance preserving the original work’s integrity and satisfying their audience’s desires. It’s a delicate issue. Some artists opt to stay true to the monochromatic style, while others explore the possibilities of color.

Through these discussions, I understood the complexities surrounding manga colorization. It also gave me an idea of the diverse preferences that shape this dynamic aspect of the medium.