Translations of Japanese cult cartoons strive to take a moral line, but the violence of the manga form remains unpalatable, argues Nicholas Tucker
British boys used to read contentedly enough before mass television arrived. Ever since the hunt has been on to win back these increasingly reluctant readers, with the manga series, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books, the latest hope.
Manga is a Japanese word encompassing both cartoons and comic strips. In 1814 Hokusai introduced the European cartoon to Japan in 15 volumes of his own manga. The comic strips appeared later, in 1905, and have flourished since, with one-third of the books and magazines bought in Japan by all age groups now falling into this category. Many of them deal with death, mutilation and sex, sometimes in shocking detail. Japanese readers seem used to this tradition of visual violence and unaffected by it.
The 12 translated comic strip stories by Takeshi Maekawa, published in book form by Bloomsbury, are also violent at times, but less graphically so than many manga titles. Directed towards younger readers, they read, Japanese-style, from the back to the front and from right to left. Numbers on each picture guide the eye through the various adventures of Ironfist Chimni. Will this kung fu junior champion and his all-male cast, going strong in Japan since 1984, be equally popular here?
They may well. The pictures are vivid and the text has been cut to a minimum. All the stories feature set-piece kung fu encounters, slowed down to include every kick, punch, feint and jump in dynamic detail.
The main theme - a young hero learning his tricks from a stern but kindly old teacher - is a popular one. This is especially so as the boy concerned eventually wins his personal battles and ordeals.
Chimni is drawn as a wide-eyed, tousle-haired youth, more Tintin than ethnic Chinese. His adventures take place in China some time during a picturesque past, featuring junks and rickshaws rather than factories and bicycles. Each book takes about half an hour to read and they are modestly priced.
Some boy readers in Britian do seem to be enjoying these energetic little publications. However, Bloomsbury is also considering a manga series aimed at girls, saying that they also enjoy reading Ironfist Chimni.
But opportunities for valuable reading practice are limited by sparse text plus a profusion of specially-invented, supposedly onomatopoeic, words accompanying the visuals for greater emphasis. We have "plyuck" for spitting, "badum, badum" for a cat running and "sshik" for a fish darting about in water.
Sometimes these neologisms are more opaque. Pictures for one of the many kung fu fights are accompanied at different times by "twibble", "swip", "pling" and "wlub wlub". Despite diligently pronouncing each one aloud, I still have no idea what they mean.
The graphics in these books are quite cinematic in their variety, passing ingeniously from effective establishing shots of villages, forests or mountains to blow-ups of tiny details. Chimni often learns important lessons from observing animals or insects. A water beetle moving silently across a pond merits a full page for the following moment of insight: "Its feet leave ripples on the pond. Human beings are the same. Even if they don't make a sound, there are always other ways of following their movements." All such messages benefit Chimni's fighting skills. He rarely turns to nature for humane suggestions.
One particularly violent story, Breaking Glass, produces a nervous publisher's disclaimer on the first page: "Chimni is a kung fu boy and that makes him an expert. Please don't try to copy the things he does in this book, or it'll end in tears. Never play with broken glass."
But it is unlikely that children from the nine-plus age group, for whom these books are intended, will try punching with a broken bottle as Chimni does.
A generation brought up on the kung fu adventures found in screen favourites such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is unlikely to be swayed by the tamer medium of the comic strip.
Bloomsbury hopes that "a very strong spiritual philosophy" can be found in these manga books. For me, their overall atmosphere is more reminiscent of those disturbingly masochistic Japanese game shows so often featured on British television compilations. References to a Zen master could give readers more to think about than getting better at fighting. But messages such as: "One strike, one kill; in true combat you don't get second chances" sit uneasily with any loftier aims.