Mysterious assassins, rubber-bodied pirates, homoerotic vampires and cross-dressing princesses: an unusual cast of characters greets visitors to the British Museum, a London institution best known for its mummies and classical sculpture. But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg at an exhibition about manga, a form of graphic storytelling that Japan exported to the world. Manga could be defined simply as Japanese cartoons, but this doesn’t do justice to its artistry or cultural importance. The exhibition traces manga’s trajectory from its early origins in Japanese art to its fusion with Western cartoon styles in the 19th and 20th centuries, to its status today as a multi-billion pound industry. It shows how manga has become a global cultural powerhouse which has given rise to anime (manga-style animations for TV and film) and cosplay (when fans dress up as manga characters) and influenced fashion and literature.
Though it traces its roots back to medieval Japanese scrolls, 17th-century picture books and even ancient engravings, manga as we know it today began to emerge in the 19th century, when Hokusai began making his sprightly sketches and Japan, after a long period of isolation, began to open itself to the outside world. In the 1860s, in the port of Yokohama, where foreign merchants were now allowed to settle, the first Western-style newspapers were printed; irreverent cartoons in papers like Japan Punch proved hugely popular. Though the country had a rich history of satirical illustration, the serialised comic strip, with its arrangement of panels and speech bubbles, was new. A century later, when America occupied Japan between 1945-52, American GIs brought with them novels and comic books. Before long, manga artists were writing Alice from “Alice in Wonderland”, James Bond and Mickey Mouse into their stories, and incorporating the big eyes characteristic of the animation of Walt Disney, a major influence.
In turn, Hollywood has often turned to manga for inspiration. “Snow White and the Huntsman” (2012) draws on the aesthetic of “Princess Mononoke” (1997), an anime film, while the makers of “The Matrix” (1999) have said they are indebted to “Ghost in the Shell” (1995), an anime film which was re-made by Hollywood in 2017, for its depiction of cyberspace. New chapters in manga’s history are being written as it arrives in new corners of the world: the Arabic edition of “Captain Tsubasa” has been distributed in Syrian refugee camps and artists from all over the world are creating new manga, such as “Miseyieki”, a story by Shangomola Edunjobi about a Maasai girl in Kenya.
The story of how the world fell in love with manga is all the more extraordinary because there was a time when it was regarded as too extreme, too niche, too Japanese for international tastes. Many Westerners found reading right to left too strange, and in any case it was difficult to find manga outside of Japan. Stories in the international media about hentai, or “perverse” manga, did much to sully its reputation. But thanks to the internet, people began to realise that hentai was not synonymous with manga, which spans a breathtaking range of styles, from the completely wacky and transgressive, to exquisite and sensitive, to macho and hardcore.
This family-friendly exhibition does not explore the more extreme corners of the manga universe, nor does it acknowledge criticisms of the form: many manga enthusiasts deplore how women are sometimes portrayed – female figures with tiny waists and doe eyes are just the beginning. Instead “Manga” focuses on its ability to tackle human tragedies, from Hiroshima to Japan’s 2011 earthquake, and difficult subjects, from social anxiety and disability to grief and loneliness. Manga resonates with people the world over in part because of its power to generate empathy and understanding. It is a subject the British Museum is right to embrace.
Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain (1880) by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889)
In June 1880 a barefoot artist armed with a hemp-palm broom and bucket of ink contemplated a 17-metre-long swathe of cloth. Four hours and a few bottles of sake later, this dramatic theatre curtain teemed with 27 demons (and a couple of footprints). Kawanabe Kyosai, like Hokusai before him, created manga when the term meant simply “comic drawings” and his exaggerated forms, likenesses of contemporary kabuki actors, would no doubt have thrilled and amused theatregoers. Playing with fantasy and reality, he turned the world around him into a dance of animals and deities. The use of supernatural forms and Shinto religious symbols will be familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli anime.
“The Poe Clan” (1972-76), on the cover of Flower magazine, by Hagio Moto (b. 1949)
Hagio Moto is acclaimed for her shojo manga, which is aimed at young women, and her shonen-ai, homoerotic stories about young men widely known as “boys’ love”. Her work is beautifully sensitive; “The Poe Clan” is drawn with a tender and light touch. The story follows Edgar Portsnell and Allan Twilight, who are embraced by a family of vampires who live in an village covered in roses. When Edgar’s sister, Marybelle, dies, Edgar falls for the object of her affections: Allan. Romance between them blossoms.
“Alice” (1985) by Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954)
The range of interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” on display shows how imaginative manga artists can be. In Hoshino Yukinobu’s detailed, hypnotic take here, Alice falls down the rabbit hole in a story that has her injuring her head, which causes her to split psychologically from her younger self. In another version, by Otomo Katsuhiro, which is set in a Chinese wonderland, the white rabbit is dressed as Chairman Mao. In a third, “Miyukichan in the Wonderland” created by CLAMP, a female collective, Miyuki, a reluctant hero, is pursued by predatory lesbians. An earlier group of female artists also drew on Alice when, in 1991, they created the March Hare Tea Party Club to publish work rejected by their male editors. For them, Wonderland was a place where women’s stories could be told freely.
“Princess Jellyfish” (Kuragehime) (2008-2017) by Higashimura Akiko (b.1975)
Fun and vibrantly drawn, emphasising comedy and calamity, “Princess Jellyfish” is a heart-warming example of manga’s ability to reach out to people on the fringes of society. Tsukimi is an illustrator who suffers from social anxiety and lives in Tokyo with other reclusive women who refer to themselves as amars, or nuns, each with their own niche enthusiasm. Tsukimi is obsessed with jellyfish due to a childhood visit to the aquarium with her late mother who likened the tendrils of the jellyfish to the frills of a dress and told her that every girl could be a princess. Now an adult, Tskukimi has developed all sorts of phobias and sees “beauty as a weapon”. She and the other women are terrified of men as well as attractive, fashionable people, so her life is turned upside down when Kuranosuke Koibuchi, the stylish, confident, cross-dressing son of a politician, barges his way into her life and heart.
View of a print shop (ezoshiya) (1890-1891)
Manga is ubiquitous in Japan. It can be found in magazines, books and apps; at manga cafés, hotels and theme parks; it is deployed in public announcements and advertisements. You can even read a manga version of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”. It is therefore striking to see this snapshot of Japan from the late 1800s. Before children went to megastores or the internet to buy the latest toys, video games and manga, they went to roadside stands and small shops like this one. With its flickers of colours, this image seems to contain glimpses of manga’s future: in the following century shops would start selling “red books” – cheaply produced manga collections – as well as weeklies and monthlies.
“Town of evening calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms” (2003-2004) by Kono Fumiyo
How do people come to terms with events as devastating as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster? There is a strain of manga that eschews the gaudiness and wacky characters that many associate with manga in order to grapple with the legacy of these events. Among them is Nakazawa Keiji’s “Barefoot Gen” and this award-winning manga by Kono Fumiyo, about a family of survivors of the atomic bomb. You cannot help but be struck by her sensitive portrayals of the dead. Like ragdolls, so childlike and innocent, they are lost souls taken on the tide of history.
The Citi exhibition: Manga The British Museum, London, until August 26th