I started writing this essay a few months back, under the title Why I Love Manga, as something of a love letter to the medium. I’d have kept the name, but you know, rage-clicks pay the bills, so here we are. Kidding…mostly. The title’s only a little bit clickbait!
Whenever I have a second to breathe between the seasonal anime onslaught, I comb through my tremendous backlog, or the top-ranked or most popular shows on My Anime List. I usually prefer to find anime through word-of-mouth or Twitter and Reddit, but MAL is a great tool for neatly cataloging what I want to watch.
I bring up MAL because whenever I search a specific anime, I usually see the manga or light novel it’s based on right under it, and the score is higher. It’s not often staggering, excluding any disasters, but manga are consistently rated higher than their anime adaptations. At first, it seemed innocuous, but, it’s a frequent occurrence, and the gears in my head began to turn and demand an answer.
So I’d like to take a deep dive into why manga is better than anime, or at least, why everyone thinks it is.
The funny thing is that you probably hear the inverse more often than not. A lot of newer anime fans see that manga is in black-and-white, or it doesn’t have music, voice acting, or animation, so they decide manga is just worse than anime. It sounds silly because we don’t usually consume media because however much is going on in creating them.
A manga requires, at minimum, one person to draw and write. In a professional setting, it can involve one to three assistants, plus an editor. So, if you like anime because you consider the quantity of the artistic mediums involved rather than their quality, you should be playing video games, not watching anime.
Video games can be made by hundreds of people, including developers, composers, directors, actors, and so on. You don’t need such a large staff, but hey, if that’s why you prefer anime to manga, at least be consistent. Anime staff usually numbers closer to dozens instead of hundreds, most of them just working in animation, so this line of thinking means we should only ever play Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty instead of watching or reading anything.
But art is not graded by how many people worked on it, or how many skillsets those people have. If you think so, then you’re not appreciating what makes manga unique, and you’ve been spoiled by faithful anime adaptations of manga.
For comparison, people generally don’t consider films superior to books they’re based on because films based on books aren’t guaranteed to be good, much less faithful to the source material. Occasionally, we get a film that gives new life to a novel on the big screen, like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Sometimes, we even get a movie that exceeds the book, like Jonathan Demme’s adaptation of Thomas’ Harris’ Silence of The Lambs, but that can only happen when everyone working on the film have their own vision for the project.
With anime, the most common type of adaptation is following the manga as closely as possible. They’ll probably mimic the manga’s art style and just tell you the same story in motion. You usually only get wild changes when the anime is a drastic retelling of the manga, or it’s being taken on by a visionary director, like Kazuhiro Furuhashi’s Dororo or Masaaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby.
You could make the argument that some manga are improved by the presence of animation or music, but those often have just created a separate version of the story with these added elements, instead of an overall superior product. What makes manga different from anime is that this story was made to be told in this medium.
I picked up this dead draft from six months ago and rewrote it because I saw an ad on Twitter by Shonen Jump Plus, the publisher of Spy x Family. It said that if you loved the anime, you should dive deeper into the story by reading the manga. Sorry, but that’s just so horribly insulting to the manga.
Imagine for a moment that you work in the sales department for Shonen Jump Plus, and your only argument for why people should read Spy x Family instead of just watching it is that they can “dive deeper” into the story. Ignore that this is the original creator’s uncompromised story in the medium it was made for, that the art stands on its own from the anime, or anything else. No, you liked Spy x Family as a show, so read it because you liked the show.
I will harp on this for the umpteenth time; anime is an art form defined by compromise. The craft of animation is repeating the same illustrations hundreds and thousands of times and trying to maintain the highest level of visual fidelity in spite of that. With tight schedules and limited budgets afforded to animation studios, it’s kind of a miracle we get any great anime at all.
That isn’t to say that manga or any other art form don’t have their own limitations, but they’re on a different scale. A mangaka working for a weekly magazine is expected to put out twenty or so pages of art every week, with assistants working on tones, backgrounds, and other details.
The schedule is often grueling, but a story has to pass by the author and the editor, and that’s it. Depending on the manga’s popularity or lack thereof, the story might be subjected to greater scrutiny by the editorial staff, but compare one story from one person to another made by a hundred.
By becoming anime, it is no longer one person’s creation, the project of them and them alone. It is now a collaborative work, and it’s dishonest to pretend that nothing is lost in that. A lot of people, myself included, love stories for the way that they can be used as the unadulterated expression of a person’s innermost thoughts. A truly great adaptation can tap into that, but it’s not a given.
Why do we hate it when anime diverts from the source material? Fullmetal Alchemist ’03 didn’t have a terrible run, but we started watching because Hiromu Arakawa’s ideas struck a chord with us, and that wasn’t what we got. The original author obviously did a better job with the story, and it was stupid to think that anyone else writing the story could hold up a candle to her.
Alright, alright, I know what you’re saying. “But Fullmetal Alchemist got a faithful adaptation too!” To address that, let me talk about the anime adaptations of manga that are genuinely superior.
I won’t lie and say all manga are better than their anime counterparts, because it isn’t true. For every The Promised Neverland and Tokyo Ghoul, there’s a Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen where the anime is helmed by people who have a genuine idea where they want to take the series, and that’s coming from someone who has read and loved all four of those manga.
But these are the exceptions that prove the rule, not the rule themselves. The vast majority of the time, you are losing out when a piece of art defined by its creative freedom is put into a box that conforms to new broadcast and editorial standards, budget and staffing limitations, and time crunches. It’s not that you’re diving deeper into the story, but you’re experiencing it as it was meant to be seen.
And we forgot how rare it is for an anime to actually get to tell the whole story. Heck, how many anime never got a season two because the production committee either didn’t think it was successful enough or they just lost interest in making more? Obviously, manga isn’t immune to getting canceled or scaled back due to author illness and other problems, but if you care about a meaningful conclusion to a story, you’re almost always better off going for the manga.
It isn’t that by reading the manga, you’re diving deeper into the story, but it’s a matter of what you want out of the media you consume. Anime can often clean up sketchy art, or use cinematography to elaborate on a scene in ways that the original manga never did. Beastars is actually a great example of them both. However, not every or even most anime can pull that off, and it’s rather arrogant to assume that they should.
So, the problem comes back to thinking that a manga can or should be adapted into an anime. We’ve been tricked into believing that primarily because the two formats work well together and have had such a close relationship for so long, but it’s not a question of which is better, but appreciating their differences.
Manga just deserves more appreciation than it gets. I’d argue most otaku usually wind up reading manga more than watching anime as we progress. I don’t think I’d ever completely give up on anime, but the longer I watch it, the more I’m drawn away from new shows in favor of picking up the manga instead. The seasonal anime roster is actually great material for the manga I plan to read.
Oh, crap, it’s the last section and I haven’t even answered the question I posed at the beginning; why are manga MAL scores disproportionately higher than anime? It’s actually pretty simple; manga is an involved form of storytelling. You have to actively read and turn pages compared to sitting in front of a screen, so it feels like you’ve put more into the experience.
On top of that, many manga readers were people who watched the anime first and wanted more, so they read the manga. By doing so, they already loved the series, which means that these manga’s audiences are disproportionately biased in favor of the series. A lot of the negative reviews an anime might get don’t extend to the manga because people who didn’t like it aren’t going to start reading it.
People are biased towards what we’re already familiar with. Either that, or my more idealistic answer is that the level of quality accepted in a manga is usually higher than that in an anime. I wouldn’t give that as my definitive answer because it’s more of an opinion than anything, but hey, I started writing this essay because I love manga, so don’t expect me to be impartial.
Regardless, the question is deceptively complex, and I’d like to hear some more perspectives on it, either in the comments or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, where I talk about all the manga and anime I’m currently loving, so check it out. Until next time, thanks for reading.