Manga Traces: Imitation, Integration, Art (nsfw)

The immediate motivation for this post is quickly explained: a couple of days ago, Wabisabi from Iwa ni Hana wrote briefly about mangaka Kaoru Fujiwara.  Reading her post reminded me that I had wanted to look this artist’s work up and read it, but somehow in the middle of my research I had stopped and forgotten all about it.  So yesterday I started reading her Fetish anthology and was quite amazed by it.

Panel from Fujiwara's "Fetish"

Panel from Fujiwara's "Fetish"

Halfway through I hopped on the Net and tried to find information about her.  There was less than nothing in English, so I switched to Japanese and found pretty much nothing.  Actually, I did find a number of discussions on 2ch about Fujiwara, but rather than focusing on her biographical details and habits etc, they were all centered on a scandal that erupted a few years ago.

It had come to light that she had traced with 99% fidelity a photograph from a fashion book and used it as a cover for one of her works [she subsequently made a new cover].  Soon after, as it always happens in these cases, it became clear that she had done this multiple times (especially in cover work) and usually taking her -ehem- inspiration from fashion photography.  Currently she is inactive, although I don’t know if this scandal was responsible for that.

There is a website detailing a number of Fujiwara’s images and comparing them to the suspected originals [here].  Even though the site is in Japanese, you only need to click to the links on the left to see what’s going on.   A couple of the pictures I see as really having no connection [interestingly, they include the picture in the Iwa ni Hana post I linked to above].  Other Fujiwara’s drawings in this site could be categorized with some leniency as “inspired” by the originals, a case of “imitation is the highest form of flattery”.  Some, like the one below (the cause of this scandal), are hard to take as anything but flat out copies.  As far as I know, Fujiwara never credited any of the original photographers.

Cover of "If you want to destroy the world", with original on the left

Cover of "If you want to destroy the world", with original on the left

I imagine most people will be outraged by this practice.  It might seem like the best option is to abandon this particular mangaka as a “hack” and move on.  But there are a couple of reasons this is problematic:

a) the practice of “tracing” is widespread, and your favorite mangaka could very well be a tracer.  2ch loves the subject, here’s a set of links on various artists’ traces.  Besides the long history of imitation in Japanese art, there’s also the fact of the various insidious deadlines that any Japanese laborer, mangaka included, are subject to.  Sometimes, if the artist finds a photo that is not only stunning but which fits well with the theme of his work, s/he might be persuaded to use it simply as a matter of “survival” in the industry.

b) the fact remains that Fujiwara is a great artist in her own right.  The overwhelming majority of her art is not traced, is one to condemn all of it for the sake of those few “traces”?

What's the story?  What are the stories?

How many stories...

My personal take on the situation roams outside or beyond the issues I have just mentioned.  For one thing, I have a deep respect for fashion photography and am of the opinion that there are plenty of ads and editorials every year deserving the title of “Art”, and darn good art at that.  However, because this medium is so inextricably associated with commercial concerns (often, as in the photo above, with the sale of human bodies as the strategic preliminary to the sale of the actual product), a lot of people pass it over.

Therefore, I see Fujiwara’s desire [if indeed she has it, I’m assuming she does] to enhance or spice up her work with “traces” of photography as ultimately beneficial: the integration of one flow [fashion photography] into the other [manga] not only increases the exposure of the original product, but it opens up new possibilities for the product → a photo is worth more than a thousand words, sure, but clever, spartan text of the sort that Fujiwara’s manga teems with can in turn explode [exploit?] that photo into a thousand worlds of thought. Chain reaction.  Value addition.  Synergy.  That sort of thing.

Of course, I haven’t addressed legal and ethical matters, a topic I am in fact slightly less ignorant of than I would like, so I’ll let others deal with those issues.

***

There’s another reason my take is somewhat twisted: I’ve come across this before.  I said that “tracing” was widespread in the manga community, but the same phenomenon occurs elsewhere.  A few years ago I came face to face with it in the triple sense [see end of the post *] at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany.  One of the prized works there is American pop artist Roy Liechtenstein‘s M-Maybe.  After coming back home I bought a book on the Pop Art movement and began reading up on the likes of Liechtenstein and Warhol.  Then I came upon this site [here] and behold:

What has changed?

What has changed? Original (left) and Liechtenstein's (right)

I was shocked, no doubt.  The background is different, the colors…but the text is exactly the same!!  [The words Deconstructing Roy Liechtenstein are the name of the site]  Liechtenstein sometimes changed the text, colors, background, but in essence he usually copied his pictures from American comic books.  I guess something that must be said for Liecthenstein is that his paintings have a strong impact when seen face to face.  However reading articles about this man without thaving seen the original comics, as most students I suspect do, you’d get the feeling he was making a commentary by reshaping the comic book form to his own medium.  As it turns out, reshaping is too strong of a word for most of his works: the more modest reframing will do.

I’ve never been a big fan of Liechtenstein’s so I haven’t felt a real need to reflect on what the genesis of his works means (or should mean) for my assessment of him as an artist.  The case is different when we come to Daft Punk.  I listen to them daily, have been for years.  And there’s an issue that every fan of the French House duo has to face at some point or another: their heavy use of sampling.

I’m not talking about your basic hip hop hit, which mixes a sampled refrain with an original rap on how the singer is so cool [well, now that I think about it, originality of that theme is extremely doubtful].  I’m talking about songs built around samples, like Robot Rock, the most original part of it which is the title!  This popular youtube video (2.4 million hits and counting) will demonstrate what I’m talking about:

It took me about 5 seconds to get over my crisis after I saw this video and read about the controversy.  I simply realized that I’d much rather listen to the Daft Punk tracks than the originals they were based on.  Remember Value Addition! The ethical aspect of the case, for those interested , is not a problem because Daft Punk credits and pays royalties to the people they sample from.  There are a few remaining accusations of plagiarizing certain songs without crediting them but the beats are different enough to go under the rubric of inspiration and flattery…

So..where’s the limit??  Is there one??  I feel as if there were a pair of opposing tendencies advancing simultaneously in our world: the sense that we are one planet, in other words, the triumph of a (suitably diluted) version of the Gaia Hypothesis, increasing alongside an obsession with copyrights and intellectual property.  Rather than drift into ethics or something boring like that, I’ll leave the last word to Jorge Luis Borges.

The Argentinian author wrote a story called Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote which you can read [here].  I would argue that the tale speaks of the same issues I’ve spoken of in this post.  Very briefly, a Frenchman decides to reproduce the Spanish classic in its exact original form [not an adaptation or a translation, the exact same text].  The narrator, a critic and Menard’s friend, argues that Menard’s text is superior to Cervantes’ (even though it’s the same thing!  Or maybe it isn’t??  Ay, there’s the rub) and ends the story by quoting from this would-be new author of Don Quixote:

“Every man should be capable of all ideas and I understand that in the future this will be the case.”

fetish2

THE END

* – Triple sense: 1) metaphorical – face to face as an intellectual confrontation with the issue; 2) – literal – face to face as physical (visual, of course) contact with the painting; 3) metaliteral – face to face as it is quite simply my face against that of the model painted on the canvas.  Neat!

~ by Haloed Bane on September 28, 2009.

25 Responses to “Manga Traces: Imitation, Integration, Art (nsfw)”

  1. Usually I won’t mind if people trace for covers, illustrations, whatnot, since that feels more like a homage in my book. My dividing line would be whether or not they can draw with consistency and some sort of originality in the COMIC. The comic medium requires these poses and expressions to make sense, so I think it’s harder to trace for various frames, in a way.

    That said, here’s the anti-example of that: Greg Land, pro in the “use porn for all poses and expressions” method. Which I don’t really care about but half his art is for X-Men……straight up X-Men, not some porno spin-off.

    • Yes, it’d be impossible to maintain tracing for a whole story. and if there’s a driop of quality between the traces and the rest of the work, we’re in trouble.

      that link is hilarious..

  2. Imitation => Flattery => Homage => Remembering Love(?) So much to consider!

    I too appreciate fashion photography, and flatten distinctions between commercial and (allegedly) non-commercial photography and illustration.

    To me every sign is a sales pitch: “accept me as a signifier over other options,” at the very least of transactions. The currency is usage itself. Given this, any expression is readable as a sales pitch.

    • of course, you can turn that upside down and say fashion photography isn’t commercial because there is no “commercial” apart from the universal flow of signs. It’s all LIFE.

      • How about the theoretical|applied binary, which is used in scholarship and science, or even philosophy?

        • How would you go about it? I’m not sure how I would reframe this in those terms…

          • Theoretical = pure thought, etc

            Applied = obvious utility, made for purpose, not for itself etc

            I get the impression that the former is ennobled just as art for art’s sake is ennobled; while the latter delivers more utility for a far greater number of individuals.

            I don’t have enough science on hand to make quotes or clear examples, but let’s take the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory, where an esteemed theoretical physicist bristles at the insult of being called a rocket scientist.

            The more useful/end product is thought lesser compared to the pure thought that is the basis of its science.

            • Yes, this “prejudice” harks back to Plato. The highest reality, perfection itself, lies in the Ideas which are unchanging. Objects crafted are coarser by far. And if we do paintings of such objects, they are even lower still…

  3. I’m with you – I find it transformative to take it in for your own. I want to quote Roger Ebert in his review of the movie Kill Bill.

    “By the same token, Thurman wears a costume identical to one Bruce Lee wore in his last film. Is this intended as coincidence, homage, impersonation? Not at all. It can be explained by quantum physics: The suit can be in two movies at the same time. And when the Hannah character whistles the theme from “Twisted Nerve” (1968), it’s not meant to suggest she is a Hayley Mills fan but that leakage can occur between parallel universes in the movies. Will “Volume 2” reveal that Bud used to be known as Mr. Blonde? “

  4. If she doesn’t credit an artist that she’s taking work from, she’s stealing their idea. The reason she copied it is because a) someone had a great idea and put it into practice, and b) she didn’t. And without crediting them, she’s claiming their ‘genius’ as her own. It doesn’t matter what the rest of her work is like. For that one picture, she has acted unethically. And if she does it multiple times, I feel she doesn’t deserve my support.

    • Stealing is taking something from someone without telling them. So yup, no doubt many of these cases qualify as flat out stealing.

      “She has acted unethically.” Yes, agreed.

      I wonder, though, what would be your strategy. I mean, tracing is rampant. Would you research each mangaka you like in order to screen out the unethical ones?? What if you enjoyed a series for years and then found out some heavy tracing had been involved? Would that mean the series was bad all of the sudden?

  5. I don’t know much about Kaoru but here’s what I think of her ‘tracing’. If her tracing was,you know, non-profit work and if we can treat it as her fanart/doodling to exercise the art of tracing, then maybe she doesn’t have the obligation to credit the artist. But in professional world you definitely need to credit the source. In my recent post on Tekkon Kinkreet there is a pencil sketch done by Deleuze, which was basically copied in the design of a room in a movie, without crediting Deleuze. So he took them to court and won 6 figure sum. So yea, whether it’s ethical or not you better credit it -__-

    Anyway, I’ve talked a bit about transformative nature of different mediums before, but I appreciate it more if they’re imitating both the visual language AND exact form of it. I like it when artist extracts the characteristics of the style, and transforms it to work with things that don’t exactly look like the thing they’re copying. I guess visual language of The Secret of Kells is an example of that, which is inspired and original, not imitated and unoriginal.

    • The legal situation is clear on paper but not so much in practice. One of the reasons this happens so often is because the “damaged party” does not know, does not care or can’t be bothered to sue. So most of the time, most of the artists will get away with tracing.
      Why not just credit everything just in case, then? I guess it’s frowned upon…if a mangaka turned in her work to her boss and said: “BTW, I got this from here”, she’d be cussed out etc. So she’ll probably do a risk analysis: the benefits of doing it against the costs of getting caught.
      Anyway, legal and ethical issues are not my forte, but thanks to you and john for bringing them up.

      On your last point, I think it’s what I call “value addition”, and I agree with you of course. However, if I have never been exposed to the wonderful world of Calvin Klein ads [bear with me and assume they’re wonderful] and I happen upon a manga trace of one of the ads…isn’t there some value added for me by the mere fact of distribution? Isn’t distribution of the same exact product, simply by reaching a wider or a different audience, adding value?

      • Yea I think there is value to the fact that it exposed the same product to wider audience. It’s just that, you know, not crediting the work may give off the wrong impression (i.e. artist: “I am responsible for everything you see here, including style, how they exactly look, positioned, etc”). If the artist won’t credit because her boss might be D:<, then oh well…I still think it's wrong, if you copy 90% of it. Besides, if she doesn't credit the source then how would I be introduced to, say, wonderful world of Calvin Klein ads, if I didn't know much Japanese to surf more informative sites 😦

        • Good point! There’s something really funny that I just read about concerning Fujiwara. It seems that she traced a Calvin Klein ad (Kate Moss) for a comic magazine, and the magazine actually had “Kate Moss” in their staff list for that volume! Of course, no one actually contacted CK or the photographer for permission to replicate the photo, so they’re still legally liable (worse, they’re caught on print accepting the tracing). Apparently when the magazine first came out a lot of readers were confused as to why the supermodel appeared among the staff!

  6. Another factor is the subconscious. If we have seen something in the past we are more likely to recall it. SO if we were to draw an image, it is natural for us to recall a previous idea or picture that we have thought off or seen. One must be careful into declaring straight tracing. Like claiming originality. People might declare that your work is exactly like someone else’s yet you have never heard of it … does that mean you are coping his idea yet you have no prior knowledge?

    Understandable that alot of artists will have the same poses as alot of others, just because they do doesn’t necessarily mean they had knowledge of it. So if I drew someone sitting on a porch and some else drew an image of someone sitting on a porch, would it be declared tracing because they are the same?

    Also remember that artists learn from tracing. How do you think that they draw cars and buildings with no prior knowledge? Sitting down and drawing a manga, means that we will instinctively pull up a memory of a past work.

    But there should be a limit to doing so. To do it continuously, means that you have little confidence in your work and you mean more practice. We, as humans, inspire to be like others and sometimes we head head-over-heels and go too fast. Even if you love something, or some one’s work, then it is proper to ACHIEVE to be on the same level. But if you are still coping and trying to sell it as your own without reference, it not longer becomes admiring, it becomes selling yourself as better than what you are.

    I believe to admire another’s work is to LEARN from another’s work. Just like (Excuse the slightly racist comment) how the rest of the world can see the issue with guns in America and decide NOT to permit them. To blatantly trace another’s work to LEARN from them is to aspire to be like them. To blatantly trace another’s work then to SELL it under your own title without reference means that you desire to be better than yourself but desert your OWN talent for anothers. That isn’t aspiring or loving another work, that is undermining yourself.

    Oh god … I think I’m saying this in a round-about way … what I’m saying is that ‘To copy to learn’ is to admire, ‘to copy to sell or create’ is not allowing you to get on the same level because it is limiting your originality and thus lowering your ability to be on the same level. … Is that better?

    • Ha! I do get what you’re saying, I do.. Now I’m really curious to see what you think of my next “Manga Traces” post, coming out very soon… 😀

  7. […] just written a post on manga tracing [here], I thought it’d be good to do another with specific examples, kind of a practical post to go […]

  8. The Daft Punk one is shocking, oh wow. I recognized all of those beats, and most of them were actually the best of the album. Scary. I still think that Daft Punk did a good job with that album though and I wouldn’t go all “Ahh, they have stolen!” on them.

    • Yeah, when you see them crediting so-and-so for a sample, you don’t really realize that 80% of the song IS the sample!! But the arrangement is different etc. Thomas Bangalter (1/2 of Daft Punk) has an awesome song called “Together” which is basically 2 samples on a loop. I love that song which strictly speaking is very unoriginal in content, but extremely creative arrangement-wise.

  9. […] nudity.  For those hard to please “readers”, I offer [this] and [this] and [this] and [this] and [this], oh, and let’s throw in a little bit of [this] for good measure.  IF FEMALE […]

  10. what does nsfw stand for?

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