JAPANESE THE MANGA WAY: An Illustrated Guide to Grammar & Structure, By Wayne P. Lammers. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2005, 312 pp., 500 b/w illustrations, $24.95 (paper).

Wayne Lammers is among the best of the younger translators of Japanese to English. He has rendered such classical texts as Fujiwara Teika’s “The Tale of Matsura,” and expertly translated such contemporary novels as Taichi Yamada’s “Strangers” and Junzo Shono’s “Still Life.”

At the same time he has been involved in Japanese educational texts. For seven years he was translation editor for “Mangajin,” a publication for students of Japanese featuring manga as language aids, and he now continues this interest in the present publication.

In “Japanese the Manga Way,” he describes the advantages of manga as a teaching tool. “The text is natural, conversational Japanese, not discursive prose.” Since manga is served largely by illustrations it allows “the action to move along much more quickly than when you are forced to tediously decipher passages of narrative.”

At the same time, in manga “each frame is frozen” and you can take all the time you want over images and dialogue. Similarly, the “lower-density text” of manga is less intimidating since “you don’t have to face solid pages of nothing but text.” Thus, the “fun quotient” is much higher.

This “fun quotient,” more than several times mentioned, is a concept important to this book, as indeed it is to manga itself. These series of panels are designed to amuse (which is why they are still called “comics” in English) and to elevate inconsequence into entertainment. Here manga are used to beguile those of you “whose eyes glaze over any time you hear the word ‘grammar.’ “

The fun quotient is mainly the result of the artlessness of manga. It is perhaps the simplest form of narrative (cave paintings are an example), and its characteristic lack of detail is handy when (as in movie-making story-boards) thrust is to be privileged above verisimilitude. Most things that radically simplify are fun.

Here, as the author points out, the simplification of manga is extreme. For example, identified as one of its strengths is “the way they set the stage visually without the need for text narrative.” Also the disagreeable complications of character and motivation are reduced when the narrative process confines itself to simple cause and effect, as all the gray areas of experience are simply abridged to plain black and white.

This desired simplification is also the aim of language teaching where approaches plain, clear and easy are prized — and where the fun quotient too plays its part. A combination of the unavoidable simplicities of manga and the desired simplicities of teaching languages should result in a practical methodology. Let us see how this works.

To illustrate “nara,” meaning “if” we are shown a single frame from a manga series (original identity scrupulously identified in later pages) in which a young woman in a black slip sits on a bed and holds a knife to her wrist. She is introduced as “Yoji’s former girlfriend, Shirai” who has just told Yoji she has turned on the gas. He rushes over, then notices the knife.

In the manga, the balloon coming out of Shirai’s mouth says: “Kaeru nara shinu wa,” which is translated for us as: “If you leave, I’ll kill myself.”

This declaration is rendered in Japanese, in romaji, in literal English and in colloquial English. There are also various explanatory notes including one that mitigates our possible concern by informing us that “it turns out that she only has a cheese knife.”

We are thus encouraged to associate “nara” with Shirai and her cheese knife, and when we need “if,” we are prompted to remember this startling if simple manga frame. The device is thus mnemonic — association prompts memory.

One may merely wonder whether something as melodramatic as Shirai’s planned use for her cheese knife was necessary. No, it was not. Almost anything would have done. Examples always make things easier (and more fun) by substituting the particular for the general.

That conclusion, however, is not the point. The point is that, for many reasons, manga has been chosen as the single mnemonic vehicle: It invariably simplifies, it is itself “easy,” and it still sells quite well.

Its splashy presence may indeed help sell the book for all I know, but it does tend to obscure the fact that even without manga the book would be one of the best explications of Japanese grammar and structure available.

Lammers has restructured much of the “Mangajin” material and has added much as well. The result is a reasoned, densely informing book (read, for example, the page on Interjections), which would have been just as good without all the cartoons. And we could all have done with a good deal less of the “fun quotient.”

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