As an art form that pertains to originate from the 12th century, and whose prominence and cultural impact grew with a cultural expansion in the 18th century, whilst in the UK we perhaps incorrectly view Manga as an art form through the prism of its expansion into western culture around the time traditional comic book art developed following the post war era, as a practise its origins can be traced over hundreds of years, fitting then to have attended an exhibition at the British Museum to explore the origins and expansion of this creative approach into the mainstream zeitgeist. Manga at the British Museum that started its tour on the 23rd May 2019 and concluded on the 26th August charted the origins and rise of this art style from the earliest interpretations and designs through to the fundamental cultural shift as Japanese society and its ethos changed following the second world war and through to its current iterations and style. For the uninitiated and rank amateur of which I’ll openly concede I count myself, there was a great deal to see and appreciate from a visual aesthetic, for those who enjoy and have invested into this art form I can only stare in wonderment and champion the attention to detail and nuance that permeated this exhibit. From the more well known imagery and cartoon strips to the somewhat artistically and culturally challenging displays, there was a great deal to see and partake in for anyone with a mild fascination of this style.
My opening conceit to make for clarity, it was always a subject matter and style I had found a little challenging to embrace and invest my time and attention into. I’ve held a cursory interest in some of the imagery and design having played and enjoyed a great many gaming titles from the Japanese market over the years and written about them in great deal, you cannot help but appreciate the visual aesthetic of the language and characters in contrast to traditional English and Western texts. Certainly those I associate with have a vested interest in Manga as an art form but it was always one that failed to strike a resonating pulse within me. I attended this exhibit with no prior obligation or sense of duty to this art form beyond an ambition to expand my knowledge and awareness of this art form by even the smallest degree and to indulge in a style that for a number of years had been on the periphery of my interests without ever fully transcending and eclipsing the other interests I hold dear. I make this point for the purpose of clarity and transparency as unlike other media I’ve discussed recently, as with the AI exhibition in London, its not a subject matter I can discuss in great detail based on prior knowledge and experience but to speculate on and review purely for the experience of what was there. Certainly a paid exhibit such as this did have the added fortune and benefit of attracting both discerning fans of the genre and those of an open minded disposition to attend due to the financial cost barrier of entry. This of course poses the question of worth, with no intrinsic value it’s entirely a subjective judgement to form of your own opinion, of which, I hope, this allows you to form an impression and come to that conclusion yourself.
A Brief History of Manga
Situated in Room 30 of the British Museum, a challenge in itself to find this offset space on the ground floor, entry brought you to a startling contrast of images, the bold lines on the left juxtaposed to the imagery of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland on the right. I’ll admit to some confusion but this use of imagery was quickly explained as an opening form of connectivity to bridge two different cultures and styles, the familiar figures and individuals we recognise as part of our cultural tradition and how Japanese culture adopted a similar approach through the traditional use of printing and scrolls as far back as the 12th and 13th century. To what extent the imagery of Alice and the traditional companions and adversaries of this classic literature has permeated into Japanese culture is difficult to grasp, at least for me, though it did work to act as a certain bridge between cultures and the use of Alice as such a recognisable character enforced the notion of cartoon sketches and design having an impact and resonance on the psyche and how that notion was in use a long time before it became popular and prevalent in western culture and society. From here the exhibit begun a gradual shift to detailing and explaining the origin of Manga in its current iteration but also alluding to the historical roots of this design methodology.
I’ll concede to being unaware of how deeply rooted it was as a practise in Japanese culture, certainly there are connotations to the use of design and imagery in Western society such as the Bayeux Tapestry, and of course all pre-dated by the Palaeolithic paintings in the Cave of Altamira. Which is to say the use of paintings and design to detail historical events permeates through many cultures long before our conceived notions of open borders and connectivity existed, its fascinating to see how closely societies developed without modern means of communication and discourse. As I understood, a majority of the first section of the exhibit focuses largely on the growth of Manga as we understand it to be today with an assortment of videos and prints detailing the development and publication of Manga as it exists today. The various graphic designers and artists discussing their roles and profession it was a fascinating process to follow from initial conception to finalised printed material. One nice design choice I did find visually pleasing were a series of prints of the more well known characters in Manga on the exhibition walls with their corresponding equivalence on the printed page. I enjoyed this for the visual appeal, I’d imagine for fans of the respective series it would be quite exciting to see their heroes expanded and displayed as such and the wonderful contrast in imagery chosen. From here the exhibit continued around to the pre and post war era of Manga design, a somewhat contentious period given the historical impact of the war upon Japanese culture and the shift in focus following the atomic bomb drops.
Without pivoting onto this for to great a period, it is always, illuminating to understand the impact this devastation had on Japanese society and how they grew and developed from this critical juncture in their history. In western culture we see a certain permeation of this in popular culture with titles such as Fallout exploring the hypothetical impact on America following the detonation of nuclear devices. Western culture and media of course had an impact on the Japanese market as far back as the late 19th century with leading news articles and illustrations resonating amongst the design work of the period, indeed the artists in question taking traditional and recognisable figures such as Donald Duck and creating comics and printed material using the artistic style and narrative technique more familiar with their domestic audiences. This brought us swiftly to the present day and the plethora of comic books, magazines and printed material available today to see and witness, even beyond the printed page into artistry and sculpted pieces. One of the more fascinating exhibits on show was a 3D Manga inspired piece towards the end of the exhibit which of course was recognisable using the script of Japanese language but to see comic books having an impact on wider artistic endeavours if always encouraging.
The exhibit concluded with a look at the societal impact and influence of Manga, a portion devoted to the cosplay scene prevalent both in Japanese and Western cultures with an opportunity to photograph yourself in more well known characters and the various conventions in Asia and their success over the years. In addition design panels around the impact of the men’s love manga series in conflict with the traditional presentation and portrayal of love in this art form. It solidifies the notion and attitude Manga in whatever permutation and style that has existed over the centuries continues to evolve and act as a representation and portrayal of Japanese culture and beliefs and their perceptions and aspirations going forward. The comic panels for Manga in space were interesting to see for a fan of sci-fi in general, the changing attitudes to sexual identity and acceptance in popular culture, the expansion of the art form beyond the printed word into sculpture. Arguably perhaps a great deal of focus was positioned around, as we ostensibly understand ‘modern day’ Manga with a dominant majority of its focus on current magazines and books over the historical prints and carvings as first described. However given the limited size and scope of the exhibit it served its purpose in showcasing a brief history of Manga which as a novice of art in general I could appreciate.
Things to do Things to See
The exhibition was primarily a visual experience, a great deal of panels and drawings showcasing the history and development of the comics and books associated with Manga. However there were some notable experiences to try and partake. As mentioned previously, the cosplay area was a nice touch if you were so inclined, designed to work alongside the tour guides and magazines from the various conventions. I had no real desire to dress up on my own but for those that enjoy the experience it was a welcome diversion. Principally what I felt the greatest draw and addition to the exhibit was the central seating area, formed as part of a digital library and bookstore as pictured above, the internal wall panels provided imagery and videos of the markets in Japan whilst on the outside physical bookshelves held a huge variety of books and comics for you to sit down and read and enjoy. Whilst not an immediate fan I felt this was such a great idea and attraction that wasn’t widely advertised as far as I know and just allowed fans of whatever level and depth to just enjoy the source material in communion with others of a similar predication. Given the exhibit ran on a timed entry system, I had expected to find a large congregation here when I realised what was available but seemingly everyone on the day I visited was of a communal and accommodating spirit, sharing the somewhat limited seating or even just sitting against the walls and enjoying the opportunity to read an available comic.
A nice touch I thought was also the option to use your smartphone or tablet and scan in the barcodes to read the comics digitally. In the modern age perhaps I was expecting the barcodes alone, to actually recognise the peace and tranquillity of stopping for a moment and enjoying the written printed word and associated pictures was a really nice inclusion. Also a very quiet and peaceful area, despite a large number of people congregating here, clearly most were fans and absorbed in whatever they had chosen to sample. For me, just an opportune time to rest my feet before carrying on but recognising the area for what it was. The other exhibit of note towards the end which of course did attract quite a queue on the day I visited was a Manga camera, similar to that found on smartphone apps which takes an image and applies a cartoon filter or process. In the best, British tradition the temptation when you see a queue for an exhibit is to join first, ask questions later. Was it worth]the effort and wait? possibly. For the sake of disclosure there is no option to post or capture the image for your own records without taking a image from the screen which others were doing and of course causing the queue to build up slightly. It does ask for your permission to post to the museums Flickr account. I’m not entirely self conscious so I agreed, somewhere out there in the digital ether is that photo of me on the top right posing in my usual pose bemused at the process and effort for a moments satisfaction.
Beyond that, in terms of the interactive exhibits there weren’t a great deal more to describe or try beyond the usual assortment of tablet based information to swipe and digest. I did personally enjoy as said before the large panels of the characters and locations as used in the comics, some I recognised to varying degrees, others I could appreciate purely for the aesthetic charm and quality of the reproductions. On an entirely superficial level it was an interesting blend of the digital and the traditional, with the printed work tying nicely to the larger images, the digital displays and videos. As a curator for this type of exhibit I’d imagine it was difficult to find to find the blend and balance of traditional media such as printed comics to the videos and displays used. Having been to similar exhibits on other subject matter which haven’t struck the balance ‘just right’, I can say without any great knowledge of the matter it did work to showcase the different types of Manga allowed visitors to interact as best they could especially with the seated area and comics to read. Tickets for the exhibit were readily available, perhaps there were some restrictions on availability or need to book ahead, on my visit I booked whilst sat on the train to the museum and managed to get the time I wanted to enter with enough provision to grab a drink before I went in. As with other paid exhibits at the British museum it does also afford you the opportunity to use the express queue when entering the grounds of the site.
For those who haven’t visited in recent years the museum has adopted a similar security strategy to other international sites undertaking security checks and searches away from the main entrance way before granting you entry. As a result there is often a lengthy queue to enter on a nice day which can be a mild annoyance so it was refreshing to show my exhibit ticket and walk somewhat smugly past the long snaking queue to the entrance way for members and ticket holders. There are concessions for the entry cost for the exhibit and paid members do get in for free as part of their annual membership. As with nearly all these exhibits there is of course the obligatory gift and merchandise store at the end which is accessible to visitors to the main museum to enter as well. They had opted for quality over quantity with a limited range of goods to buy based on a half dozen range of series as featured in the exhibit with about a dozen individual items for each specific series or theme. Some I recognised such as the Dragon Ball Z merchandise, others were lost on me entirely but it certainly felt like a museum store as opposed to a glorified comic book stand. I did purchase a couple of items as a momentum of the day, a fridge magnet of a British Museum Manga comic that had run in Japan about a decade ago and succumbing to the latest health craze within the UK with a slight, geek based twist, a ghetto kitty water bottle.
There was a certain degree of hesitation and trepidation in attending this exhibit, not due to a divisive or contentious premise but more because I was uncertain whether I would find any value or enjoyment in the subject matter. Certainly, having made some impetus to attend more of these type of events and exhibitions in the last year I can observe from a technical perspective it was a well curated and laid out exhibit, an informative mixture of comic panels and printed media, digital displays and videos and a handful of interactive areas. The central library and reading point was a terrific addition that certainly was a unique feature, with no drive or rush to move along it was nice just to stop during your visit and actually enjoy some of the material available you had been viewing and learning about. As mentioned previously, I do feel perhaps given the scope and complexity of the evolution of Manga as a concept there was perhaps too great a focus on more recent Manga in its current form though understandable as this is the most well known form in the West. Given the entry cost, inevitably the question will arise as to whether there is sufficient content to justify the price, personally I was content with the overall experience.
With very little exposure to the art form in popular culture I was approaching it largely from the aesthetic and visual perspective looking to gain some insight into its history and evolution. To that extent I was satisfied and it certainly has piqued my interest to research a couple of titles I was browsing on the day. Having read a little more about Manga as a subject of interest, given its prominence in Japanese culture over the centuries I was somewhat dejected there wasn’t a great focus on the historical connotations and evolution, forgivable in portraying a brief history of the subject matter but still a missed opportunity for a greater exploration of the subject. The opening moments with its connectivity with the Alice in Wonderland narrative certainly had something of a personal resonance with me feeling like I was travelling down into the rabbit hole on a subject I knew little about but I persevered and feel I have come to gain an appreciation of the art form. Is there a natural entry point? perhaps, a number of titles have been suggested as a suitable entry point but even primarily from a gaming perspective, with its influence on a great deal of popular culture I do feel its acceptable to support and discourse Manga as a legitimate art form, a style perhaps not in the traditional sense or parlance but one arguably that has a longer historical presence. And the exhibit functioned well to showcase and provide a brief history of this art form.
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