A mangaka is a manga (Japanese comics) creator. The term is most commonly used to describe an artist, whether male or female, who both writes and draws his or her own manga. The term is also used, though less frequently, to describe a person who only draws manga. The label is generally not applied to the mangaka’s assistants, who often work in anonymity while doing a substantial amount of work. Mangaka is both singular and plural.
Mangaka break into the industry in a number of ways. Many manga magazines conduct contests in which readers, usually high school and college-aged students, submit their original works. Winners of the contests are often awarded prizes and offered opportunities to work professionally in the field. Others start their careers working as assistants to established mangaka, developing their skills as they ink drawings, add background images and sound effects, and other elements before accepting their own projects. Still others are simply discovered by watchful publishers.
Once in the business, mangaka face grueling work schedules, hard deadlines, and fierce competition. When working on a project, many mangaka will work ten to twelve hours a day. Most mangaka work closely with an editor who serves as a guide, mentor, critic, and even enforcer to make sure deadlines are met. At times, the editor will even resort to kanzume (“canning”), in which the mangaka is confined until his or her work is completed.
Breaking into the field may be easier than staying in as the success or failure of a mangaka is measured almost exclusively by market forces. Manga publishers frequently elicit readers’ opinions, which are factored into which manga continue to be published and which are not. Manga that receive negative feedback or don’t sell sufficiently often find themselves pulled from publication quickly.
Although many mangaka work long hours under the close supervision of their editors, mangaka usually maintain control and ownership over their characters and work. A publisher may pressure a mangaka to continue a successful series, but ultimately, the choice of when to end a run is up to the mangaka. Many mangaka have assistants who complete their work; however, mangaka rarely share credit for their work, even when the assistants do the majority of the work.
A number of English translations of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical manga depict the life of a mangaka. Interspersed throughout his multi-volume Showa: A History of Japan, Mizuki Shigeru depicts his own jagged path to becoming a mangaka. In A Zoo in Winter, Taniguchi Jiro presents the fast-paced, exhausting work of manga, as his central character, Hamaguchi, begins his career working as an assistant to an established mangaka, honing his craft, and eventually having his own manga published. Taniguchi’s narrative presents the mangaka as more of an often-absent supervisor who relies on his assistants to complete the work. Tatsumi, Yoshihiro’s award winning autobiography A Drifting Life examines in detail Tatsumi’s personal journey from a boy entering manga contests, to a young man working in the industry, to his developing a more mature form of manga, what he called gekiga (literally “dramatic pictures”). Finally, Oba Tsugumi and Obata Takeshi’s Bakuman depicts the heavy workloads, the fierce competition, and the physical toll manga creators endure.
–Daniel D. Clark