Manga Exhibition at the British Museum: Review

In Japan, manga has been a part of the culture for a long time. The origins of manga are debated and The Handscroll of Frolicking Animals by Kitazawa Rakuten is considered a major influence, but generally it gained prominence in the post World War 2 era where artists such as Osamu Tezuka brought some levity and lightness to proceedings with Mighty Atom or Astro Boy as he's known in the West. Tezuka was to manga what Will Eisner was to American comics; the medium existed before their arrival but they brought it to the fore and forever changed it.

Astro Boy is iconic and will feature heavily in the 2020 Olympics, which will be held in Japan.

As a young boy growing up in east London, England, I didn't know anything about manga or anime but I was consuming it unknowingly through shows such as The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31.
One Saturday I went into my local WH Smith and saw issue 22 of a magazine called Manga Mania and was taken by the big eyes, spiky hair style and tiny mouth and nose of the cover star that reminded me so much of the animation style I liked. When I picked it up, from the top shelf next to the more salacious magazines, I felt a bit of a rebel but upon opening it the kinetic imagery and artistry blew me away. Flicking through it I saw a mention of The Mysterious Cities of Gold in the letter pages and knew I had found something special. From then on I would buy Manga Mania monthly and purchased graphic novels, VHS films, soundtracks and even anime cels. The shop Forbidden Planet became nerd nirvana for me and I'd visit it monthly. Manga was one of my first true loves and one that has survived to this day, at least to some lesser extent. Manga is in my lifeblood and even though it doesn't feature as prominently in my daily life as it once did for me, it was formative in my youth and for that I am still grateful.

I loved getting my monthly Manga Mania fix.

I loved getting my monthly Manga Mania fix.

Since those heady underground days in the early 90s, manga has grown and thrived and its influence is spreading across the world. So, when I heard that the British Museum was hosting the largest manga exhibition outside of Japan I wasn't surprised and knew that I had to go. The British Museum has dipped its toes into the manga and anime pool before over the years but these have been smaller, more focused exhibition. This promised to be a much larger, grander affair as manga is still developing and evolving, the form has and is still contributed rather uniquely to modern culture and I'm glad that a venerable institution as the British Museum is recognising this. I visited the Kyoto International Manga Museum several years ago, which is the largest repository of manga in the world, and wanted to see how this exhibition would compare.

So the question is, is the exhibition worth visiting? In a word, yes.... but this comes heavily loaded with a proviso, which I'll go into later.

The whole show feels less like a staid exhibition but more like something you'd see at more immersive and engaging galleries, no surprise as manga means 'irresponsible pictures' and what is on show is a riotous walk-through of the medium. Being a family oriented exhibition the more controversial elements have been excised but that doesn't diminish what's on show, rather it still offers a smorgasbord of artists and genres that covers the art-form well without excluding younger generations or upsetting some sensibilities.

The exhibition starts with an introduction about the origins of manga and provides a guide on how to read it, from left to right. Then there is a section on the manga-ka, the artists who produce the manga, and the tools of their trade.

On an impressive display of collected comics are a few televisions with the chiefs and editors of the weekly manga collections which are published weekly and sell in the millions. They offer their insight into the creative, production and distribution process.

Around the corner, there is a brief look at the influence of woodblock and scroll works on the medium. There are a few stunning pieces on show but a couple stood out to me, the one where a recent piece of work by artist Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Domu and Memories) was compared to his woodblock forebear. The current breed of artists have built on the shoulders of giants and their influence is appreciated here.

After that, the bulk of the exhibition is split into little islands where different themes of manga and artists are explored like Love, Sports, Horror etc. This is all quite dynamic and exciting as there are banners and posters hanging from the ceiling and giant murals and original art pieces stuck on the gallery walls.

In the middle of the exhibition, there is an impressive library of manga on offer and many soft seats in which to read at your own pace.

Manga Exhibition at the British Museum

The last section of the exhibition has a couple of art installations. Kawanabe Kyosai’s theatre curtain from 1880 was painted in just four hours after the artist had imbibed several bottles of rice wine. He painted the 17 metres by five metres high piece using a huge brush and it was done in such a rush of inspiration that you can still see his footmarks on it!. It really is an impressive achievement and whilst not manga, it shows the kinetic frenetic art style that would feature in so much manga years down the line.

Kawanabe Kyosai ’s theatre curtain certainly is an impressive piece of work.

Kawanabe Kyosai’s theatre curtain certainly is an impressive piece of work.

Near the exit, a large projected montage of Studio Ghibli films at the end is a fitting bookend to an impressive exhibition.

The exhibition is a great primer for the common manga fan or someone with a cursory interest in the medium but someone looking for a deeper look into the minutiae of manga, this is not that. In my opinion the exhibition, whilst well organised and curated, had some glaring omissions in manga-ka such as Rumiko Takahashi (Mermaid Saga, Urusei Yatsura and Inuyasha) and Masamune Shirow (Ghost in the Shell, Aplleseed and Dominion Tank Police),  but on a personal level I'd have loved to have seen some works by Yoshitoshi Abe (Serial Experiment Lain, Haibane Renmei) and Yukito Kishiro (Battle Angel Alita). I understand that with such a large number of artists it is not possible to get everything in the exhibition but Takahashi and Shirow are titans of the medium and needed some mention or recognition. It’s like having an exhibition on Italian masters and forgetting to mention any of the Turtles; Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo, it just wouldn’t seem complete. However, as the first real look at manga outside of Japan this is an excellent exhibition and well worth the 90 or so minutes of your time. It is an amuse-bouche to the promise of something more and for that I’m excited.

LINK: Japan: My Journey to the East

LINK- Battle Angel Alita: And So It Ends

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LINK- Inspector Gadget Retro Soundtrack Review

LINK- Ulysses 31 Retro Soundtrack Review

LINK- The Mysterious Cities of Gold Retro Soundtrack Review

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LINK- Akira Soundtrack Vinyl Review