Manga at the British Museum

Manga at the British Museum


British Museum

Until 26 August 2019

Admission £19.50


To be exposed to “manga” from a standing start, with very little knowledge about what seems to get millions of Japanese so animated, is like being thrust into an alien culture, with no understandable language, and no real idea of what is going on. On leaving the exhibition, I was still puzzled by what the fuss is all about. I thought that “manga” was comics and graphic novels, in other words, picture books for semi-literate people, but it is a three billion-dollar industry that has become a global phenomenon, across all age groups and genders. “Manga” literally means ‘pictures run riot,’ and its roots stem from the great Japanese artists Katsushika Hokusai and Kawanabe Kyõsai in the 19th century and has evolved to become a form of immersive story-telling in the 20th and 21st. The last time I was in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery was to see the Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, and that was full of majesty, power and beauty. Sadly, the Manga exhibition is a trifle flimsy, with a few drawings pinned to walls, books in vitrines and screens dotted about, and what three-dimensional models there are, looked like fill-ins. There is an extraordinary object, the Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain, some 17-metres in length painted in 1880 by Kyõsai, to be displayed between acts, and featuring ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties, all painted in an alcohol-fuelled session lasting four hours. It is quite a piece, but it is certainly not “manga”, and one wonders as its inclusion, other than to fill up a vast run of an otherwise bare wall.


Maybe, I am too old to appreciate the finer points of “manga”, as I have never been immersed in the world of gaming, which, along with “anime”, stems from that art form.There is one telling clip from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in which the wild-eyed professor Rotwang creates Maria, by frantically twiddling knobs and pulling levers, placed alongside another monitor showing the creation of Astro Boy, using not-dissimilar devices creating and transmitting electrical power. Astro Boy (1952-68) was set in the near future, where robotic technology had become so advanced that it threatened to radically transform human culture. Not only had the loss of many human jobs to robots led to social upheaval, but the robots themselves had become so sophisticated that mankind must begin to recognize them as another sentient species. In Astro Boy, Tezuka Osamu used robots as an allegory to explore issues of prejudice and racial intolerance. He was also responsible for Princess Knight, a very un-Japanese looking girl with saucer eyes, who would appeal to a female audience that could replicate the success of his other stories aimed at boys. In fact, most of the characters have very ‘western’, almost Disney facial characteristics, with large eyes, little pointed noses and broad faces. There are cute cats, like Konami Kanata’s Chi, teen romances, sports-based dramas and a Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime) series, written and illustrated by a woman, Higashimura Akiko, for women, exploring gender and identity through an apartment building in Tokyo where only female tenants are allowed. Nowhere in the exhibition is the preponderance of manga porn mentioned, which is possibly the most well-known genre of manga in the Western world, and possibly in Japan, too, but there are references in the accompanying catalogue, which costs a whacking thirty pounds. One artist dealing with sexuality is Tagame Gengoro, who published his first work at the age of 18 and has gone on to become a leading artist of gay erotic manga. The British Museum features heavily as a backdrop to Hoshino Yukinobu’s Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, with a planned robbery and subsequent intrigues, the artwork which the Museum has been collecting over the past ten years.……


One Piece series by Oda Eiichiro is the best-selling manga of all time, with 450 million copies sold in 91 volumes, followed by Dragon Ball at 300m. and Naruto at 235m. Pokémon is another example of a massive game-based spin-off. These were all made into anime films. The very best of the films to come out of manga were from Studio Ghibli, makers of Spirited Away, which became the top-grossing film in the history of Japanese cinema and won an Academy award for Best Animated Feature. Astro Boy,will be one of the officially licensed products sold in Japan during the 2020 Olympics and Paralympic Games taking place in Tokyo next year. This enormous cultural phenomenon is a colossal art movement that has been around for two hundred years and covers such facets as publications, films, TV and games, and it cannot be ignored, whether one likes the strangeness of it all, or finds some of the graphics cheesy and badly-drawn. There was a cross-pollination between Japanese culture and western art, with many impressionists and post-impressionists being influenced by Japanism, including Van Gogh and his interest in “ukiyo-e” woodcut prints, and Degas’s fascination with Hokusai’s compositions. Claude Monet’s “Garden in Giverny” featured a Japanese footbridge, James Tissot painted Young Ladies Looking at Japanese Objects, James Whistler found simplicity in the Japanese aesthetic, while Pissaro, Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec all looked towards the East for inspiration, with two illustrators, Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha, leading the charge in the Art Nouveau movement. Manga were first drawn in the Meiji period, influenced greatly by English and French political cartoons, including those that appeared in Punch, and then later by American superhero comics and Disney animated cartoons. Hardly fair trade, one would have thought.





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