Pictures run riot as manga enters the British Museum

The largest exhibition of manga ever held outside of Japan opened in London this week.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the preview.

A huge room inside the British Museum holds a striking collection of around 160 pictures, as well as videos, statues, books – and even a place you can dress up in a manga costume and have your picture taken.

The British Museum’s Director Hartwig Fischer said it offers an opportunity to see a “new dimension” of Japan.

Thought provoking

“We give our visitors a lot to look at and a lot to think about,” said Mr Fischer.

He went on to explain that the museum has been collecting manga almost since the genre started and even commissioned an artist called Hoshino Yukinobu to draw a book called Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

Mr Fischer said: “Manga tells stories which are relevant and address questions which matter to us all. It also looks at aspects of life which are challenging. In this exhibition, we tried to celebrate the intimate aspects of manga as well as acknowledge its global power and presence.”

The exhibition includes examples of some of the most popular manga series in Japan, including pictures by famous artists such as Tezuka Osamu (Astro Boy and Princess Knight), Akatsuka Fujio (Eel Dog), Toriyama Akira (Dragon Ball).

Ghost story

For me, it was a spooky little painting by the great 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai which truly made me shiver.

It shows a ghost about to take revenge on the wife who killed him by raising the mosquito net which protects her from insects as she sleeps. It’s a gruesome picture of a particularly quiet form of murder!

Fertile ground

The exhibition’s curator Nicole Rousmaniere says Hokusai’s ghost picture is an example of the fertile ground from which manga grew.

Another example is a huge theatre curtain created in 1880 by the painter Kawanabe Kyōsai, featuring actors in the form of demons and ghosts, blurring the worlds of fantasy and reality.

It’s a very delicate treasure and Waseda University, which owns it, has decided this will be the last time it will travel outside Japan.

Love stories

A lot of contemporary manga looks at relationships, especially romance. One interesting example in the museum is called My Brother’s Husband described by one reviewer as “an unprecedented and heartbreaking look at the state of a largely still-closeted Japanese gay culture.”

The Exhibition’s curator Nicole Rousmaniere says: “Manga can sometimes tell the stories of people whose stories are not usually told.”

She also believes that the emotional power of manga is important. “It can help relieve pain and has a cathartic quality,” she says.

Skilful hands

Most of the time, readers of manga books flick through the pictures so quickly I wonder if they actually notice them. But looking at the exhibition, I realise the great artistic skill involved in making these works.

Stepping into a museum to see the pictures enables one to appreciate them in a deep way and to share one’s joy with other visitors.

The Citi exhibition Manga will run from 23 May to 26 August 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.