The London landmark gives manga the fine-art treatment.

London’s British Museum is one of the world’s premier cultural institutions, and a look at its schedule of upcoming events includes “Troy: myth and reality,” and “Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art.” Before either of those open, though, there’s the British Museum’s current special exhibition, simply dubbed “Manga.”

More old-fashioned artistic and historical academics might argue that Japanese comic books are entirely too insubstantial a subject material for a world-class museum to devote such energy to, but that would be overlooking an important precedent. One of the first Japanese artforms to gain widespread appreciation in the west was ukiyo-e, woodblock prints. But though ukiyo-e are seen as fine art now, during their heyday in the 1700s and 1800s, in Japan they were primarily low-cost artwork for the common masses, showcasing everyday life or erotic fantasies.

So really, why shouldn’t manga, for which slice-of-life and titillating fan service are established genres unto themselves, be given a similarly scholarly look?

Our Japanese-language writer Seiji,a big manga fan himself, just so happened to be in London last week, and so he decided to see how the British Museum would handle its treatment of the topic, walking underneath the banner of Golden Kamuy’s hunter girl Asirpa and into the museum’s hallowed halls.

Not surprisingly, international mega-hits such as Dragon Ball, One Piece, Sailor Moon, and Naruto were accounted for, and Seiji felt a mix of nostalgia and pride as he saw that the stories he grew up with have left similarly strong impressions on people outside Japan.

But the exhibit seeks to examine manga from a broad perspective, and so it also highlights early pioneers, such as Testuwan Atom/Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka made no secret of how he himself was influenced by Disney, and the exhibit even has some side-by-side comparisons of the two.

A separate area draws parallels between Katsuhiro Otomo, of Akira fame, and ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi.

Important manga artists that many western fans may not be familiar with are also saluted, such as Daijiro Morohoshi, whose focus is on folklore and mythology.

Likewise, many modern manga readers may never have picked up a series by Moto Hagio, creator of Poe no Ichizoku and They Were Eleven, but she’s one of the most respected figures in the world of shojo manga/girls’ comics, and her works in the category were among the first to be professionally translated into English.

▼ Also part of the exhibition: Akiko Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish and Snowflakes’ Tiger

The exhibition also groups manga into themes or story-telling devices, such as “Transformation” (where you’ll find Attack on Titan) or “Faith and belief” (Saint Oni-san, a.k.a. that manga where Jesus and Buddha are apartment roommates in Japan).

There’s also a section on “Love and desire,” which discusses manga’s long-held willingness to deal with various types of sexuality, and in sometimes explicit ways.

▼ One part of the exhibit is set up to look like a book store, and there’s also a photo of an actual Japanese bookseller from a bygone era.

The exhibit also touches on Studio Ghibli anime and cosplay, neither of which are manga per se, but still part of the overall otaku culture collection that most manga fans have at least some interest in.

Seiji was curious as to why Golden Kamuy’s Asirpa was chosen to be the face of the exhibition, seeing as how fervor for the series seems to have cooled off following its 2018 TV anime adaptation. The organizers told him that Aspira was selected because she’s immediately recognizable as a manga character, and also because as a strong young woman drawn in a shonen (boys’ comic) style, her design is likely to be visually appealing to all genders.

And finally, bringing us back to the manga/ukiyo-e comparison, the British Musuem is displaying what it calls a manga drawn by ukiyo-e master Hokusai, with some amazing lettering work that would make any modern comic artist jealous.

The British Museum’s Manga exhibition is going on until August 26, but if these photos have whetted your appetite for manga art, there’s plenty more to be found within the pages of the collected volumes of their respective series.

Related: British Museum Manga special exhibition website
Photos ©SoraNews24
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