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Manga At The Royal Academy:

The Making Of Manga Mania

Between March 21 and June 7, 2009, The Royal Academy of Arts presents an exhibition on one of the greatest Japanese print artists, Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). Featuring over 150 works, the exhibition presents Kuniyoshi as a master of imaginative design, revealing the graphic power and beauty of his prints.

The modern Japanese comic owes much to the masters of the Japanese woodblock print. In the article below, reprinted from the Spring Edition of the RA Magazine, I assesses its debt to the past. Additionally, on May 29, I will present an evening lecture at The Royal Academy titled Mangaisme - The New Japonisme? Comics As Cultural Heritage And Global Phenomenon, exploring the evolution of modern manga and its connections and contrasts with Japanese artistic traditions.

It’s hard to believe how astonishingly modern Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s warrior print from circa 1848 looks to 21st-century Western eyes. The startling way in which the artist has riven its flat plane with five diagonal radiating shafts to symbolise the plunging trajectory of the sword and the sheer unleashed power of an exploding mine looks like a climactic full-page panel from a Japanese comic or manga. In fact, the common use by manga artists of such explosions or swathes of lines to represent their protagonists’ force or speed offers a fine example of how the lessons of Kuniyoshi and his contemporaries live on through Japan’s vibrant comics culture. Furthermore, as manga has spread internationally, its motifs, techniques and theories, much of them rooted in the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) print form, are affecting the graphic novel movement worldwide and the reappraisal of manga in Japan itself.


Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s warrior print (circa 1848)

Officially at least, manga has been considered quintessentially Japanese. As part of the national art curriculum, since 2000 the Ministry of Culture and Education has issued junior high schools with an textbook including a three-page history of manga illustrated with an ancient scroll, a print and other examples to confirm the links between Japan’s graphic traditions and today’s manga, represented by Toriyama Akira’s Dragon Ball. While these connections are strong, to insist that there has been an exclusively Japanese unbroken continuity from past to present overlooks the considerable effects upon manga’s ongoing evolution of successive Western products. These began at the dawn of Meiji period in the 1880s when Japan became open to the outside world again. This resulted in the influx of satirical British Punch cartoons and early 20th-century arrival of American and British newspaper strips. For example, in 1923 came the earliest Japanese version of these strips to employ speech balloons, Shôchan no bôken (The Adventures of Shôchan). As Brigitte Koyama-Richard states in her richly-illustrated survey One Thousand Years Of Manga (Flammarion, 2008), for this critical innovation, its creator, Kabashima Kaksuichi, took inspiration from the British strip Pip, Squeak and Wilfred by Bertram Lamb and Austin Lamb which had begun in 1919 in the Daily Mirror. There is also no avoiding the impact of American comic books brought over by the G.I.‘s occupying the country after World War Two, nor the appreciation of Western innovators such as America’s Neal Adams or France’s Moebius. That said, ever since the Meiji period, the tides of artistic influences have ebbed and flowed almost constantly between Japan and the West and in both directions.


Path Of The Assassin (Dark Horse)
art by Kojima Goseki

Through all this, Kuniyoshi’s prints have remained familiar in Japan, iconic and embedded in the national visual lexicon. Many mangaka seeking to make their historical stories authentic refer to his vivid portrayals of people and settings. They range from the late Sugiura Hinako’s subtle, meticulously researched tales of the Edo era to Lone Wolf and Cub, Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki’s warrior tragedy of over 8,000 pages. In Japan’s top-selling shonen (boys) weeklies, even the most populist and mainstream of current serials, such as Naruto or One Piece, will happily acknowledge these sources. In these pulpy newsprint pages, one can re-enter the world of yôkai, the monsters of Japanese folklore as visualised in woodblock prints, through another genre of manga pioneered by Mizuki Shigeru in his series Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro.


One Piece colour title spread by Eiichiro Oda
from a recent episode in Shonen Jump

Similarly, Kuniyoshi’s playful ways of anthropomorphising real creatures relate clearly to the "funny animal" genre in comics. His print of octopuses in training, for example, is echoed in Takono Hatchan (Octopus Hatchan), created by Tagawa Suiho in 1931, in which the cartoonist gives an octopus clothes and shoes to fit in with human society. In one propaganda tale, he trains other octopuses to become naval officers.


Takono Hatchan (Octopus Hatchan) by Tagawa Suiho

In more recent manga hits starring comedy felines such as Fujiko F. Fujio’s robot cat Doraemon or Mikan Enikki (Mikan Picture Diary) by Miwa Abiko featuring a walking, talking ginger tomcat, there are also plenty of present-day equivalents to Kuniyoshi’s humanised cats dressed in the clothes of his era. More bizarre is the unlikely recent success Moyashimon (Tales of Agriculture), in which Masayuki Ishikawa has transformed bacteria into cute cartoonish characters. His configuration on a poster for the animated spin-off clearly recalls Kuniyoshi’s print of 53 Cats.


A triptych by Kuniyoshi of cats


Moyashimon (Tales of Agriculture) by Masayuki Ishikawa

Outside Japan, it may be surprising to find Kuniyoshi’s sensitive faces of women resurfacing in one of the finest North American graphic novels of last year. Skim is the intimate diary of a troubled Canadian-Japanese high-school student crafted by two Canadian-Japanese cousins, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. According to Jillian, the artist, she never intended her character to reflect Japanese prints, but, "It seems the ukiyo-e influence is deeper in my subconscious that I gave it credit for. What has always attracted me to Japanese art is the strong design underpinning it, the balance in the pictures. The best of ukiyo-e is perfectly composed, but not boring. In fact, I often find the compositions surprising, even amusing, in their counterpointing of broad strokes and thin strokes, white space and areas of high detail. There is an economy and clarity that I really admire."

More than the quotations or appropriations of specific imagery, there are profound, underlying resonances between these prints and modern manga. To design her comics, the London-based mangaka Inko, pen-name of Ai Takita-Lucas, studies prints for the way their compositions advance a story through one scene without subdividing it into panels, directing the reader-viewer powerfully right-to-left across the image. In Inko’s view, "The beauty of asymmetry is much admired in Japanese artistic traditions, so ukiyo-e compositions create various ‘eye streams’ to avoid a symmetrical layout." Inko sees parallels here with kabuki theatre. "Two actors position themselves and move in an asymmetric way as they do their kata (special posing). First, one crouches down and pushes his arm or sword towards the other. Then the other actor, who has been ‘pushed’ and so receives an ‘eye stream’, pulls his arms back to make an asymmetric final pose. Kuniyoshi’s theatrical portraits depict this ‘power flow’ amazingly well and Japanese comics have a similar sense of asymmetrical beauty." This "eye stream" is the push-and-pull flow of action and reaction, which is central to the dynamics of reading a manga page.

There are other evident graphic similarities between Japan’s woodblock prints and comics, such as their use of precise outlines, caricatured faces and unmodulated patterning of textiles and textures, which in manga are applied by rubbing down flat sheets of tonal effects or digitally by dropping in their computer counterpart. But more importantly, both media are cheap, mass-produced, visually-led entertainments, spotlighting characters and stories and enjoying huge popularity and print-runs. And niether genre has been highly regarded by cultural arbiters of their day. Ukiyo-e prints were so undervalued in Japan that they were used as wrapping paper for shipments of crockery. However, these throwaway exports captivated Europeans, leading to the mania for things Japanese known as Japonisme and having a profound effect on the development of European art and design. As Ukiyo-e prints went on to inform French Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Cubism, the Japanese establishment came to appreciate their country’s remarkable inspirational prints more fully.

A century later, a similar fin-de-siècle transition seems to be underway. A wave of international acclaim and imitation of manga outside Japan, which might be classified as "Mangaisme", has heralded more serious acceptance in their homeland. So in 2006, the first manga museum was opened in Kyoto, while in 2007, the Japanese government created the International Manga Award to recognise non-Japanese creators. It was unveiled by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Aso Taro, a politician whose enthusiasm for comics has not prevented him from being elected Prime Minister. Also in 2007, The Embassy of Japan in London launched its own contest for British artists called Manga Jiman, meaning Manga Pride. All of this suggests a change in the official attitude towards manga as both a significant part of the nation’s heritage and creative future and a cool, positive ambassador for Japan around the world. As Aso Taro declared in 2007, "Manga is about everything - it knows absolutely no boundaries."

Posted: March 22, 2009

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 edition, No. 102, of the Royal Academy Magazine.

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Kuniyoshi
Exhibition Catalogue


Skim
by Mariko Tamaki
& Jillian Tamaki


Lone Wolf & Cub
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Path Of The Assassin
by Koike Kazuo
& Kojima Goseki

One Thousand Years
Of Manga

by Brigitte Koyama-Richard