When living in Japan as student a few years ago, I couldn’t fail to notice the prevalence of manga as a genre-crossing form of entertainment, with publications for all ages and interests. In the U.K., however, manga is far from the $5 billion mainstream phenomenon it is in Japan. Instead, the art form here is something of an underground niche for those with a passion for Japanese culture. Still, it’s also increasingly being seen in art galleries and museum exhibitions around the country.
Following on from a small exhibition in late 2009 as part of a partnership with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, one of Japan’s leading manga artists is once again back at the British Museum. Occupying the lobby area in the Prints and Drawings gallery and around the staircase to the Japanese gallery is a celebration of the English publication of Hoshino Yukinobu’s latest adventure in the Professor Munakata series, inspired by architecture and artefacts in the British Museum itself.
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Published as a serial over the summer in Japan, its English publication marks the first foray into manga for the British Museum, with the English version being printed on a higher quality paper and in a larger format than its Japanese counterpart – a change the perfectionist Hoshino himself was very positive about.
The story draws on themes common to Professor Munakata’s previous adventures, namely folklore and ethnography, and sees the hero trying to solve the mystery of the stolen Stonehenge megaliths and save the legendary Rosetta Stone from danger. The exhibition highlights some of the frames that show off the British Museum’s collections best, comparing the English printed version with the original, painstakingly accurate brush and ink drawings. Hoshino has also been kind enough to donate some of the sketches and fude brush pens he used to create the masterpiece to help document its progress from conception to completion.
Although the exhibition is small, and it’s a little difficult to take enough time on the steps to look with so many visitors, the display offers a rare chance to witness the work that goes on behind the scenes in creating printed ephemera. The frames are well chosen to show off the iconic Lewis Chessmen and Benin Bronzes without giving too much of the underlying plot away. The difference between the patchy black brush strokes and the solid, midnight of the printed version is astonishing and makes a real impact, emphasising the crisp, clean lines and finish expected of manga.
On the other hand, looking at the originals, it’s obvious the drawings are very much centred around the Japanese text, and in changing the text from the vertical Japanese to the horizontal English the pleasing spatial balance is somewhat lost. Being able to read the Japanese pencilled in, and comparing it to the printed English, I also thought some of the wonder was lost in a few of the translations (some of which admittedly seemed to make little sense in the first place).
In spite of some of my reservations, it’s still exciting to see new and different art forms represented in traditional museums. Indeed, not only represented but celebrated and revered – the whole gallery wall itself is emblazoned with enormous, blown up manga frames and the exhibition is heavily promoted both in and outside the museum. Intriguingly for his creator, Professor Munakata has for the first time got his own range of merchandise to accompany the exhibition.
Manga at the British Museum: drawings by Hoshino Yukinobu – British Museum, London, until 8th April (Admission free)