Kawanabe Kyōsai was another master of the era, and one night, after downing several bottles of rice wine, he embarked on a four-hour painting spree that produced a theatre curtain rendered with incredible energy, depicting actors dressed as all manner of ghoulish characters. You can still see ink spillages and even footprints, left by the painter as he feverishly worked away on the canvas. The curtain is included in this exhibition as another example of the precursor to manga, but its splotchy appeal is a world away from the neat, often clinical, images that otherwise fill this exhibition.
On entering this, the largest exhibition of manga held outside of Japan, we are educated on how to read manga, from right to left, top to bottom. Various symbols are explained to us and the appeal of Japanese graphic novels are laid out for the uninitiated. What is clear, it that through these comics we can be transported anywhere, be it outer space, through the looking glass, or into some dark and troubling fantasy. And part of the brilliance of the manga convention is that we are left to imagine the actual moment of action. The before and after are spelled out to us, but the crucial moment, a punch, for example, is not described. Unlike anime, manga's animated cousin, manga makes us do some of the work, thereby sucking us into its world like Alice down the rabbit hole.
Part of manga's appeal is that it gives voice to the underdog, offers escapism, and imbues its heroes with supernatural powers. Take Astro Boy, for example, a jet-propelled android child with the power to seek out and destroy evil. You'll see a lot of him next year, as he will be an officially licenced product at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.
The curators of this exhibition have really gone to town with the layout, and artists and publishers have been consulted throughout the show's design, so that the experience feels less like an art exhibition – as manga is not meant to be viewed on a wall – and more like a show at the Design Museum. But where there are examples of original drawings (many are too fragile to hang), these are often beautifully rendered, even when the subject itself is grotesque. Take, for example, images from a series called Spiral (1998–9). The graphic novel tells the story of a curse that turns the citizens of a town into twisted spiral forms and its clever images are straight out of the horror genre.
Left: HigashimuraAkiko(b.1975), Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime), 2008-2017 ©AkikoHigashimura/ KodanshaLtd. Right: TagameGengoro, MyBrother’sHusband, 2014-2017 ©GengorohTagame2014
But manga's dark side also courts controversy, and pornographic examples have been criticised for the sexualisation of children and violence that they contain. There is nothing of that ilk on show, here, however. This is resolutely a family-friendly show.
This exhibition is a good introduction to the world of the Japanese graphic novel, if a strange show to hold at the British Museum. Would aficionados of Japanese comics enjoy it? I can’t be sure. But, it feels at times, a little too much, as though the curators are trying to please everyone, cramming as much as they can into the experience. A more in-depth look at key novels would have helped the exhibition feel more immersive. Instead we only get glimpses of fantasy worlds, where the whole point of manga, surely, is to get lost in the story. You can, however, download comic books in the virtual bookshop at the centre of the exhibition. And make no mistake, this is a show well worth the visit.
|Manga exhibition: British Museum review
|British Museum, Great Russell St, London, WC1B 3DG | MAP
|Tottenham Court Road (underground)
23 May 19 – 26 Aug 19, 10:00 AM – 5:30 PM
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