Let’s Get Visual: The Verklempt-Makers

MICHELLE: It’s time for another installment of Let’s Get Visual, the monthly column in which MJ and I attempt to better understand the visual aspects of manga!

This month we’re looking at scenes that have impacted us emotionally. Personally, I had always assumed that a sympathetic reaction to an emotional scene was due purely to my empathy for the characters and whatever they happen to be feeling. Having learned more about an artist’s bag of tricks, however, I began to wonder if the creators weren’t somehow influencing readers to respond in the desired way. To that end, MJ and I have each picked a scene that made us verklempt and will attempt to look at them from a more critical perspective.

MJ, why don’t you start us off this time?

MJ: Sure! Well, as you know, my original idea when we were talking about this column was to focus on romantic imagery, so I’m going to still go in that direction for my, uh, verkelmptedness.

NANA, Volume 6, Pages 123-125 (VIZ Media)

The scene I’ve chosen comes from volume six of Ai Yazawa’s NANA. Here, Nobu has finally gotten up the nerve to confess his feelings to Hachi, though she’s still involved with Takumi. What I think is especially brilliant on Yazawa’s part, is that she’s managed to create real romantic tension while keeping the characters physically apart, but without the kind of melodrama that might typically involve.

The symbolism seems obvious. The two are standing at the edge of the jetty (maybe less dramatic than a cliff, but similar in feel), separated from each other by the solid sections of the structure. So they’re both out on a limb (metaphorically) by just being there, though circumstances keep them from getting too close. Yazawa sets this tone immediately by establishing their position in the very first frame.

Recognizing the tension of the situation, Hachi tries to lighten the mood, but Nobu’s got a mission, so he gets right to the point. He doesn’t draw things out at all. There’s almost no anticipation, and the dialogue is fairly sparse. Still, with little more than a few camera angles and some subtle body language, Yazawa manages to create a deeply affecting scene, more romantic, even, than in the next volume when the two actually get together. It’s beautifully done and really shows off her powerful talent for romance.

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s such a good point regarding the jetty and their position on it! I totally did not notice that when I read this volume. What strikes me is how different the darkness in this scene feels from the oppressive use of screentone we saw last month in your pick from Tokyo Babylon. For me, the darkness here reinforces the feeling that, for this moment, these two might as well be the only people in the world. I swear, too, that I can almost feel a night breeze when I look at that first page. Perhaps it’s the wide angle used, which emphasizes openness and yet utter solitude.

MJ: The night breeze is absolutely there! The flutter of Hachi’s skirt, the still-visible clouds creating a coolness in the air… it’s all there! The wide shot at the end reinforces this too.

And while one might think that it’s the dialogue that makes it romantic (Nobu does say “I’m in love with you.” right at the end, of course), I think the real testament to Yazawa’s skill here is that, even if you take all the dialogue away, the scene reads the same. Take a look:

MICHELLE: It does! I bet if you tasked someone with filling in the dialogue with no knowledge of the series, they would still get the basic gist right, even if they missed some of the specifics of Hachi’s attempt to lighten the mood. Her mute, blushing shake of the head stands out more this way, as well.

MJ: This is what makes great comics, in my opinion. Obviously dialogue is important, but Yazawa really lets the artwork tell the story here, and it’s so powerful. This is probably one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.

So what verklemptotomy have you got up your sleeve?

MICHELLE: Well, you’ve probably heard people say, in regards to One Piece, something like, “Wait until you get to volume nine! That’s when it really gets good!” Heck, I have said this, because I think that it is true. For today I’ve chosen the scene that, for me, is the emotional crux of this pivotal volume.

One Piece, Volume 9, Pages 199-200 and 202 (VIZ Media)

At this point in the story, independent and avaricious Nami has been keeping secrets from the other members of the Straw Hat pirates. She is in over her head, trying to deal with an enormous problem on her own, and even though Luffy doesn’t know the specifics of what’s going on, he still wants to help. Here, we finally see Nami break down and finally ask for his assistance, and I swear that this scene gives me goosebumps. I love stories about someone finding the place where they belong, and that’s really what this scene is all about. We’ll see this again when another solitary, wounded woman joins the crew—it takes time to let down one’s guard and accept Luffy’s offer of unquestioning acceptance, and the notion that the crew really becomes a family is an important theme for the series.

Artistically, Oda depicts Nami’s state by putting her in a pose in which she appears almost literally weighed down by her burdens, and also by drawing her very small. It’s a wide angle, and she’s trying to hide her despair, but on the second page she finally allows herself to be open with Luffy and communicate how much she needs him, which is where we finally see the true extent of how upset she is. Of course, Luffy agrees instantly, and the loan of his treasured hat silently communicates many things, like, “You are trusted,” “You are valuable,” and, perhaps most important when up against a powerful foe, “Don’t worry; I’ll come back.”

The final image is one of my favorite pages in the entirety of One Piece. There we find that the other members of the crew have just been waiting for word from Nami. They are all there, ready and willing to come to her aid, and the change in Luffy’s expression in that final panel just says it all: “Nobody messes with a member of my crew.”

MJ: I agree, it’s that final bit, the strong demonstration of the support Nami’s got behind her that really punctuates the scene. I think what really strikes me, too, as someone who hasn’t yet read past the first few volumes of the series, is how powerfully Oda uses what is really a very cartoonish art style to create this emotional impact. Luffy’s so goofy, even down to his rubber-man powers, yet there’s nothing goofy at all going on here. Even his “shwing”-y little jump feels weighty in this scene.

MICHELLE: I must admit that I did not scan page 201 because it’s a full-page illustration of Luffy bellowing “Okay!!!!!” in a rather unattractive manner, but otherwise, you’re quite right. Oda’s style takes some getting used to at first, but long acquaintance with the series will reveal that he has crafted a story far more in touch with its emotions than most shounen fare.

And, you know, I suspect this scene would work equally well with all the dialogue stripped away.

MJ: I expect you’re right!

MICHELLE: So, in the end, I think it’s fair to say that artists are emphasizing certain elements of emotional scenes to influence a reader’s response, but it doesn’t come across as outright manipulation. That’s probably not even possible. I know we’ve both read series in which the artist tried very hard to wring pathos from flat and lifeless characters to no avail.

MJ: Yes, that’s really a great summary of what we’ve seen here, Michelle. Both Oda and Yazawa display their real skill through their subtlety, even though most might not characterize either of these series as “subtle.” They use their artwork to do most of the heavy lifting, so that they don’t have to tell us everything through dialogue, which would be much more obvious and much less effective. That’s their real craft.

MICHELLE: I concur. I raise my Coke in salute to them both. Well done.

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  1. Most enjoyable read. Thank you, both.

  2. I can’t wait for Yazawa to recover to resume Nana…

    I taught a student course in college about themes that stood out strongly to me in manga – memory and loss, nakama, choice, etc. and brought in visual themes when I could. This stuff is like catnip to me, cool read, thanks!

    • Thanks! I actually wasn’t familiar with the term nakama, and upon looking it up found a page that used the crew of Firefly as an example! I apparently love nakama, too, though I’ve been calling it “teamy goodness” all this time! 🙂

  3. This is all so true, and is why I fell in love with manga in the first place. When I picked one up on a whim one day, I was unprepared for the emotional impact it would have. Visual story telling is a powerful thing and I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since.

    • Well, we’re happy you found us, then, because that’s what we’re trying to do, too.

      I’m not a person who quickly loses interest in hobbies, but my enthusiasm usually fades to a more sedate level after a couple of years. I’ve been reading manga for ten years now, with no signs of waning. I see that as testament to not only how good it is, but also how intriguing I find the whole process of its creation.

  4. I definitely find myself going back and rereading key emotional scenes over and over again in manga. Yuki and Zero’s standoff in volume 10 of Vampire Knight, the last scene of volume 3 of Yellow, or that scene in Fruits Basket where Tohru accepts Kyo’s beast form (which I rediscovered tonight happens way back in volume 6!). It helps to give substance to the meaning of future, less emotionally-charged events to understand and appreciate these key moments when they happen.

    • Oh yes, that Fruits Basket moment is liable to give one geekbumps just thinking about it. There are many moments in that series that I could’ve picked, actually.

      You have reminded me that I need to read Yellow. I have liked the other Makoto Tateno that I’ve read, so I would probably like that, too.

      • Yellow is really her flagship title. It’s no longer my favorite, but I still love going back and rereading particularly the end of volume 3 (but the whole volume is the best of the series). That’s not only where all of the romantic tension comes to a head, but the best that the series has to offer in terms of art, story and pacing. The early chapters/volumes are a little too slow and episodic for my taste and the last volume is a bit weak, but man, volume 3 is some of the best that action styled yaoi has to offer.

        • Michelle says

          That’s good to know. 🙂 I particularly like that she bothers to create actual plots for her stories. Of what I read, I think Blue Sheep Reverie is probably my favorite.

          • Yes, even though she leans on some of the more played out yaoi tropes, she does bother to develop her plots, and her art style’s been honed from a 20+ year career as a shojo mangaka.

            BSR is definitely my favorite of hers as well. She developed a much richer universe for that story since she created it for volume 1 years ago. The series was cancelled by Hana to Yume after that one volume and she revisited the universe when she wrote Steal Moon for Karen magazine years later. That gave her the opportunity to flesh out the environment when she came back to BSR after Steal Moon was finished. I think its history as a shojo title also helped give it the character development often not seen in premise-driven BL titles.

            • Michelle says

              That is likely true. I liked Steal Moon as well—though I think there were some creepy moments with young characters—but not as much. I’m looking forward to reading volume three!


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