I learnt to read all over again this past week. It wasn’t easy. I cannot say that I have scored more than 80%. The first lessons were a lot more simple to get used to, but the finer points I still haven’t mastered.
I don’t want to irritate you further so I will get to the point – I read Manga in almost its original form (it was an English translation, so almost). I have decided to use my Singapore jaunt to look for Manga books that might be tougher to get in India. So I picked up a horror title called ‘Uzumaki’ and read it at a stretch.
It couldn’t have been a more apt title to apply myself to, since it translates as ‘spiral’. I had to turn my world by 180° to follow the narration. This is because Japanese (the source culture of Manga) uses a script that reads (from top to bottom, and then) right to left, and hence is backwards for people used to left-right scripts like English. It also follows the reverse order of page-flipping, that is to say the back cover for an English books is the front cover for a Japanese book. Urdu speakers/readers will also identify with this.
To illustrate here is an image from Scott McCloud’s ‘Making Comics’ where he shows the reading order of the left-right type mentioned (his * clarifies that it’s right-left in some cultures), and another from the publishers of ‘Uzumaki’ offering a warning for readers.
Here the image on the left is the way English language readers follow the narrative on the page, and the image on the right is how a Japanese language reader will follow theirs. You can view the images in whichever order you want.
Now a page from the comic itself to help you see it for yourself. It’s almost like a game of hand-eye-coordination.
Did you do a good job of following the story? If you did you would have noticed that it is not just a flipping over of the panels, intended to be read from right to left, but also within the panel the speech balloons are in a right-left orientation, adding a further step of complication to our act of reading.
It is remarkable how we have become used to a certain way of reading. This is the creator-reader contract that McCloud and others have spoken about, where we understand that a comic is meant to be read in a certain fashion and we become trained to follow this. I am reminded of the closing credits of the movie ‘Se7en’ (even the title here starts a little Uzumaki in my brain). There instead of rolling the names from the bottom of the screen to the top, it reversed it. There itself it brought a huge sense of jarring to the viewer. How fragile the sense of order is.
Of course, here that isn’t intended at all. Here the norm is followed by the writer which the reader is new to. But it wonderfully unsettles the act of reading. Without trying it teaches us how even the most basic fixedness can be done differently. What I am saying will be obvious to all of those who have been reading Manga for much longer than I have, but for me it brings a child-like joy whenever I mess up and slip into left-right. It’s like somebody sneaking up from the right when I’m looking left.