Thursday, 10 July 2008

[33] How Manga Took Over the World

The current exhibition at Manchester's Urbis is called 'How Manga Took Over the World'. It is an overview of the art style and movement that came from Japan and is now an international craze. Even though it doesn't necessarily delve into the social, economic or artistic processes that have helped manga along to its supposed global domination, the exhibition presents a well-rounded introduction and endorsement of its subject.

Structured around six colour-coded rooms, the exhibit crystallises manga culture into its perceived aspects (cute, artistic, action, adult, corporate). Some of these are self-explanatory, but others require a little brainwork. Nevertheless, the journey is centered around a podium inscribed with a short history of manga (drawn by David Siddall), alongside a selection of Hokusai artwork and an introduction to Umeko, a mascot designed by Sonia Leung, who details and explains all along the way.

One of the immediate shortcomings of the exhibit is the focus on manga's interntational standing and wide appeal. This can often sidestep the actual core literature. The sections 'Cute' and 'Artistic' are mostly dedicated to extra-textual phenomena, like manga-inspired fashion, music videos and toys (kidrobot). These sections are good to see how deep manga culture goes, but it certainly detracts from the source material.

The other rooms, however, more than make up for this diversion. Both the 'Corporate' and 'Adult' rooms focus on the more meaningful, intelligent aspects. The former shows the adoption of manga style artwork for self-help books, language revision aids and Shakespeare adaptations. The 'Adult' room, flanked by large '18' signs and 'Over 18s only' restrictions, took to task the stereotype in western cultures of both manga porn and adult-oriented manga as a whole. Sadly, the giggling teens watching the screened clips of The Rapeman and The Legend of the Overfiend missed out on the eloquent quotations that adorned the walls, one being (ascribed to Helen McCarthy):

'In the West, we're still following scriptural advice - 'When I was a man, I put away childish things'. English-speaking culture labels comics and animation as suitable only for the young... The Japanese, like many Europeans, use comics to tell mature, adult stories... Whatever the reason, although we consider all comics and animation as suitable for children, the Japanese treat them like any other books and films - some adult, some intermediate, some for children.'

Tucked away in the corner was also a small area dedicated to 'Nouvelle Manga', which featured browsable works by Jiro Taniguchi and Kazuichi Hanawa amongst others. Opening up the frame of reference to these (relatively) recent masterpieces is definitely praiseworthy.

Indeed, I often felt that even though the exhibition presented a well-designed, well-presented assault on the senses, plus a crucial demystification and communication of what manga is, there was little to inspire a newcomer to go out and become further acquainted. Despite the best actions of publishers such as Tokyopop, manga and anime are still subcultural, especially in the UK. I still think that the majority of this exhibit keeps manga defiantly apart from the mainstream, and most visitors would merely look on with curiosity, interest piqued only for the time within the glass walls of Urbis.

I contemplated this as I walked into the 'Action' segment of the exhibit. Again, there was a distinct focus on the Western or the familiar - Akira and Ghost in the Shell were represented by both posters and clips, but were only discussed in comparison to The Matrix. Equally, a large mural of Tado's Star Wars art was impressive to the eye, but was hardly pure manga.

However, my mild cynicism started to slip away as I approached the small cinema housed in this section. The 'Manga Cinema' (so called because its programme is mostly made up of Manga Entertainment properties) plays a loop of episodes from a choice selection of anime series - such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Astro Boy and Dominion Tank Police. This in itself is a brilliant idea, as punters are invited to relax on a beanbag and experience a proper slice of manga-derived entertainment. And what's more, through July until the exhibition's close in September, Urbis are holding free evening screenings of full films every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On the bill are classics such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, alongside Studio Ghibli features, and even live-action films such as Oldboy. This truly is a public service, especially considering the price of some anime DVDs and the scarcity of these films on UK television.

Misgivings aside, this is a well-rounded, and at times wonderfully eloquent, passionate and generous exhibition. Well worth your time (it is also free).

How Manga Took Over the World is on at Urbis until 27th September.