What is manga doing in the British Museum?

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25.05.2019 13:34

What is manga doing in the British Museum?
Originaly published in The Gaurdian

The Japanese graphic form has contributed to modern culture for over a century. Its influence should not be underestimated

It’s a question the Guardian’s reviewer asked about the new summer exhibition that opens today devoted to the comics medium, which originated in Japan.

The answer, I’d say, is quite a lot. We’ve come a long way since sequential art (if you want to use a term for comics that makes you feel a bit more grownup and sophisticated) was dismissed as at best, juvenile trash, and at worst, dangerously corruptive. Graphic novels (another good one for the dinner party) are considered a valid literary form; manga is one of its most prevalent and popular aspects. So why not?

I admit to having a dog in this fight (or, more appropriately, this Battle Royale, one of the manga that made the transition to the cinema). I earn some of my living as a writer of American comics, and as such am standing on the shoulders of the mecha-giants of manga. The first manga is thought to date back to 1902, when the artist Kitazawa Rakuten began to draw comic strips for the Jiji Shimpo daily newspape

Manga has been phenomenally popular in Japan for over a century, and not so much tarred with the low-culture dismissals that western comics endured up until very recently. Manga isn’t a genre, it’s a medium, and within its very broad church there are science-fiction escapades of course, and bloodthirsty historical epics, but also tender love stories and slice-of-life soap operas, sports dramas, funny-animal juvenilia and, yes, sex. Manga caters for a huge breadth of taste, and is aimed at a wide range of age groups, like cinema or TV or any other medium.

It’s also spread far beyond Japan. Everybody recognises the manga style, often (but not exclusively) typified by big-eyed characters, ultra-dynamic speed lines and sometimes insanely detailed levels of draughtsmanship. According to the worldwide statistics and data compiler Statista, manga sells huge amounts across the globe. Its report on the manga industry in March this year named the One Piece series by Eiichiro Oda as the most popular manga of all time, with 450 million copies being sold. That was followed by Dragon Ball at 300m, and Naruto at 235m (both of those have been successful anime cartoon series).

Popularity is not necessarily a measure of artistic value, of course, but manga has a deeper claim to be a cultural force worth celebrating. When my son was younger he was, like many boys, a reluctant reader. I attempted to usher him in through the back door with comics, just as I had become a reader. But the superhero fare of Marvel and DC was too unwieldy with its sprawling continuity and relatively specialist outlets; he instead opted for manga, and I discovered it was a huge thing among boys of his age.

Manga is accessible and easily available; most high-street bookshops have shelves of the stuff, much more than western graphic novels. In Japan, manga has been readily recognised as having an important and positive role to play in children’s education and development. Indeed, a few years ago the Japanese academic Yuichi Higuchi wrote an essay titled Are You A Bad Parent?, which chided adults who denied their children access to manga.

But does it sit uneasily alongside the historical wonders at the British Museum? It’s a question that Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Matsuba Ryoko, the editors of the official guide to the exhibition, asked the many creators they interviewed.
Tetsuya Chiba thinks its “humbling”. Hikaru Nakamura says manga might “look strange in a museum”, but hopes her tales of ordinary Japanese life might one day become a historical reference. Hoshino Yukinobu says it’s “an exciting opportunity that will no doubt kickstart a new cultural dialogue”.

The cultural dialogue should conclude that manga has indeed earned its place in the British Museum. Manga endures and thrives, and its influence is spreading. Young people enjoy manga in its original form, translated yet not appropriated. It birthed anime, which in turn wormed its way into western cinema, most recently visible in the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

The British Museum is, of course,noted for its displays of artefacts from the ancient world, sculptures from the Enlightenment, coins from Roman Britain. Is manga too frivolous, too contemporary – despite its roots in the 19th-century – and too disposable to sit alongside the Elgin marbles? Or is it more, as I believe, that the British Museum has rightly recognised the form has contributed rather uniquely to modern culture over at least a hundred years, and continues to do so? If the British Museum is a public institution devoted to history, then perhaps manga is a venerable medium that just happens to be history still in the process of being made.

Britain didn’t invent manga, we never properly stole it and we haven’t wiped it out. And still its global march continues. And that’s something it is right to celebrate.

 

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