Part 3 - Visual Flow I (Natsuki Takaya, FRUITS BASKET)

Continuing the manga layout essays, this time with FRUITS BASKET, where I mostly dwell on the visual flow, because I think this is where Natsuki Takaya excels.

HEAVY image warning in this one, with 3 or 4 that are up to 200K each.

FRUITS BASKET is a classic-style shoujo manga - it's aimed for a teenage girl audience, and stars a teenage girl, Tohru Honda, who through a series of misadventures is now a live-in housekeeper for some members of the Sohma family. Several members of the Sohma are under a curse where they turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when hugged by a member of the opposite sex or are under stress. Wacky hijinx ensue, along with some more thought-provoking stuff. I won't spoil it any more for you - if you haven't read it, go read it. There's a reason it's currently the #1 manga in the US.

Shoujo manga is characterized by an emphasis on the emotional lives of the characters. There may or may not be any life-threatening action or plot, but if there is the manga genre in and of itself will ensure that these things are as ridiculously over-the-top as possible. Shoujo art and layout is characterized by delicate linework, with less of an emphasis on speedlines to show motion and more of an emphasis on screentone patterns to tell you what the characters are feeling. The panel layout is often wonky, with panels careening crazily across the page and figures breaking panel boundaries left and right, with lots of panels going straight to the edge of the page in full bleeds. There is less emphasis on backgrounds, with them being indicated more sketchily than in other types of manga, especially in scenes that are expected to be familiar with the reader, like classrooms.

That is, of course, a generalization and there are plenty of exceptions - SAIYUKI, for one - but classic shoujo does that, and FRUITS BASKET is classic.

So, without more ado, here's pages 26 and 27 of FRUITS BASKET volume 7. Read the Japanese way, from right to left -- page 26 is the one way over on the right.

Now ... seems confusing at first, huh? But once you started reading it, I expect you got the hang of it fairly quickly. There's a really big reason for that, and it's part of why I think that this manga is the top-selling one in the States right now, but I'll get to that in a minute after I talk about the panel shapes, tones, and the action in the pages.

Panel 1 - Hiro Sohma is grabbing Tohru's bookbag out of her hands, which overbalances her and makes her fall over, prior to ripping off her notebook. This could be taken in a very serious way - it's a somewhat violent criminal act after all - but the mangaka doesn't want to go down that route, because it leads to an entirely different story than the one she's writing. So we have the flower tones filling up the whitespace in the background, and the cartoony shape of Tohru's arms to indicate that she's not seriously hurt - she's probably more shocked and surprised than actually hurt. The tones probably also act like stars and little birds do in cartoons when the toon characters get whacked on the head. The angle of the camera tilt emphasizes the action of Hiro's grabbing, plus leads your eye to the next panel in the sequence. The camera at ground level looking *up* at the characters emphasizes Hiro's dominance over Tohru, even though he's much younger and smaller than she is. The angle of the panel border also ephasizes this movement and makes the page a bit more dynamic.

Next panel - Tohru on the ground, shocked. The camera is at ground-level so we're down there with her, sympathizing. Note how her speech balloons have really thin, wavery lines, much like her voice is at this moment, I expect, and Hiro's have strong, confident lines.

Third panel - Hiro's hand with the notebook he's talking about, from Tohru's point of view, and she's focusing on it. You have a teeny little cartoon of a rice ball with eyes representing Tohru (it's a metaphor that runs through the series and is referred to in the title) next to a speech balloon that shows it's her saying "EH?".

Fourth panel - the biggest one on the page showing what a little snot Hiro is (like we hadn't figured that out already). It's the important panel because it's his intro panel, where we learn his name and that he's one of the Sohmas. The patterns in the background here are darker and heavier than the flowers in panel 1, because he's a threatening, dark character. The camera is looking up at him from Tohru's point of view (POV) - we see what she sees. The upward angle also makes him loom over her in a threatening manner, helped by his dark clothing and the dark tones in the background. You can see that the panel borders are there mostly for formality's sake, to indicate where each panel begins and ends. Boxing the panels in fully would lose some of the emotional effect of the spillage acros the page.

('Tones' is short for 'screentones' and refers to the grey dots and the patterns that shade and fill in the pages. I explain them a bit more in the first SAIYUKI post, earlier in my journal.)

Then we see his feet walking away along the tiled floor.

Note that the camera does not show anything from Hiro's point of view. We are not invited into his head - this scene plays out from Tohru's point of view. We don't hear his thoughts, either - this would be the equivalent of writing prose from a tight-third point of view, where you hear the main character's thoughts but not those of anyone else.

The next page -- this page is all about Tohru, and she dominates it, floating in space there. The first panel is a bit of an establishing shot, showing the hallway she's in, with the perspective lines leading away the way that Hiro has gone, and the little wind-line and 'whooooo' giving the same sense of emptiness that a newspaper blowing across the screen does in the movies. Tohru's words tell us why she's feeling so empty - he's accidentally ripped off her mom's picture with the notebook. Tohru's mom is dead, and she misses her desperately - Tohru is so easygoing and accepting that she wouldn't mind her stuff being stolen because she would think that Hiro was acting out for some reason (that was probably her fault - Tohru blames herself a lot), and she'd just get another one. But the photo of her mom is the one thing she does not make compromises about.

Anway, the camera is looking down on her, so she looks small and lost in the middle of that hallway.

Next panel, if you want to call it a panel. Tohru is kneeling there, her thoughts and words crowding around her and tumbling over and over themselves. The bursts that her thoughts are in symbolize how horrified and upset she is. There's no background at all, because she's so focused inward at this moment.

Next panel - Tohru's face, close-up to emphasize her emotions. It's also faded out with a grey tone which functions like a fade-out in the movies, transitioning to the next panel, which starts from black and using a scratchy tone, fades up to white as Tohru-the-narrator takes over from Tohru's thoughts. The final speech bubble is someone else speaking, which takes us out of Tohru's thoughts and leads us off the page. The speech bubble at the beginning of that panel, with the long exclamation-point thingy, is a standard symbol of something-or-other. [explained by oyceter here in the comments.] I interpret it as wordless emotion. It also serves another purpose - to get you to look at that side of the next-to-last panel and thus your eyes move down to the correct next narration box. If it wasn't there, you'd go from the final "I'M COMING, MOM!" to the box directly beneath it, which is out of sequence. (That's why the I'M COMING MOM burst is cut off by the panel border. More on that in a moment.)

What Natsuki Takaya does so well

Now we get to the bit that I think makes this manga the gateway manga for so many readers:

It's easy to read.

What? Isn't it crowded and confusing? Yup, but it's got a very clear pathway through it that is easy to pick up, unlike other manga. Read the pages without the text:

I bet you automatically knew exactly which balloon was next, which panel was next, and could figure out what was going on in the scene on an emotional level. Why? Take a look at it again:

Look how smooth and easy that path is. You know exactly which one to go to next, because there's only one choice and your eyes are already moving that direction. Balloons break panel borders when you're supposed to follow them, and are broken by panel borders when you're not. And if you look at the characters, you can see they're literally pointing in the direction you're supposed to look. Panel 1 -- Hiro's arms with the bookbag and Tohru's arms, both pointing in the same direction! In the bottom right panel on page 26, Hiro's arm holding the notebook takes you from his body, where the last speech balloon led you, right up to the next one. Then when he's walking away, his foot points directly to the next speech bubble.

On page 27, Tohru does the same. Panel 1, she's leaning in the direction you need to read. When she's floating in midair, the curve of her body echoes the curve of the text, and her legs point directly at the closeup of her face. Then her profile, the dark lines in her eye, and the lines in her fingers lead to the speech bubble that transitions to the final panel on the page. Then the gradient leads you from dark to light, and off the page.

This is something that makes it easy to read these for someone who doesn't know comics and is unfamiliar with the visual language of sequential art, and, I think, precisely why so many new readers are picking it up and reading it - it takes almost no effort to learn how. You can argue about characters and plot and cute animals all you want; I think it's the ease of access that's doing it.

And here's proof! This is a two-page spread from DESCENDANTS OF DARKNESS, which is a really hard manga to get through if you're not used to it. Not only that, this is literally the spread I first opened it to - I didn't have to search through it to find what I was talking about, because almost every single page is like this. Read from right-to-left, Japanese style:

Why is this so confusing? I bet you're first thinking it's because of the art - the art is so crowded.

Nope. Not it.

Look at the path that the speech bubbles make your eyes follow:

See how much more work there is just to read it? The mangaka relies on the standard reading motion of right-to-left and up-to-down to pull you through the page, and it makes it choppy and confusing, instead of saying "The hell with how you *normally* read, this is how you *need* to read!" like FRUITS BASKET does. The visuals don't help you, either - the characters and the lines don't point the way to the next panel. You manage to read it in spite of the layout, not because of the layout. This is a popular manga in Japan and it has its own rabid fan base here in the States because of the characters and the story, but I think the layout is holding it back from being even more widely read. If the mangaka had just rearranged the speech bubbles to simplify the path, it would be much easier to read and make sense of, and I bet it would be more popular here in the US. As it is, it's the mainlining crack manga you get to after breaking yourself in on FRUITS BASKET.

I leave it as an exercise for the aspiring managaka to decide for themself as to what the pathway *should* look like. I know I've got opinions on it.

This is getting long enough and I've still got a few more things to say about FRUITS BASKET and visual flow, so I'm going to close with a...


Index to the Series
Tags: fruits_basket, manga_analysis
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