A new exhibition looks back at the origins of much-loved Japanese comics
This year has seen many interesting and entertaining activities celebrating the 130th anniversary |of diplomatic relations between Japan and Thailand and the exhibition that opened in Bangkok last week – “Manga Hokusai Manga: Approaching the Master’s Compendium from the Perspective of Contemporary Comics” – is certainly one of the most fascinating. Brought to Thailand by the Japan Foundation and showing at the g23 art gallery in Srinakharinwirot University’s Prof Dr Saroj Buasri Innovation Building, it runs until September 22 before heading upcountry for a two -city tour.
The more than 100 pictures along with 40 pages from booklets and other items on show in “Manga Hokusai” invite visitors to explore how the works of artists more than 200 years ago influenced the Japanese pop culture of manga – the beautifully drawn comics that have conquered the world.
One of the main influencers was Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), a renowned woodblock print artist who worked in Edo, or Tokyo as it now known, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Hokusai is best known as the author of the woodblock print series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”, which includes the iconic and internationally recognised print, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”, created during the 1820s. Hokusai created the “Thirty-Six Views” both as a response to a domestic travel boom and as part of a personal obsession with Mount Fuji.
The exhibition focuses on how Hokusai influenced the manga drawings of today through another of his well-known works “Hokusai Manga”, the first volume of which appeared 203 years ago. The “Hokusai Manga” is block-printed in three colours – black, grey and pale flesh – and was published from 1814 to 1878 in 15 stitched-bound volumes. Consisting of 4,000 images and some 800 pages, “Hokusai Manga” is considered the pioneering work in shaping the manga characters we know today.
The exhibition, which is divided into four parts, introduces some of the similarities and differences between modern Japanese manga and Hokusai Manga. Among the exhibits are selected sketches by Hokusai along with panels, books, videos and new works by contemporary manga artists that explain pictorial storytelling and the participatory culture of manga in different periods.
“The exhibition has a lot of great things to explore. The information provided with the presentations is very interesting but you need to read it thoroughly,” says Asst Professor Dr Chaiyosh Isavorapant, of Silpakorn University’s Faculty of Painting Sculpture and Graphic Arts and an expert in Japanese art and culture.
A scholar of the history of architecture who earned his degrees at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Chaiyosh is the author of “Snow, Moon, Flower: Japanese Garden” and “Katsushika Hokusai”, a biography of the late artist. An avid researcher into art museums and art festivals in Japan, he has been lecturing at universities across Thailand on art, architecture and Japanese gardens for more than 20 years.
Chaiyosh notes that although Hokusai’s works reflect style influences and ideas that evolved into modern manga, the first comics in Japan date back to the ninth century, during the Heian era, and appeared as scrolls featuring frolicking animals. While there was no story telling per se on the scrolls, the animal illustrations were given characters and thus narrated some sort of story.
“The pictures of rabbits and monkeys were not just pictures of animals. They were dressed in costumes and made human gestures,” he says.
Japanese script and contemporary manga scan from right to left and top to bottom and the exhibition has deliberately chosen to emulate this reading direction in its display design.
For the “Hokusai Manga: Funny Pictures?” display, the sketches have been replicated in such a way as to allow the visitor to enjoy the books in their original 200-year-old form. It explains how the artist named the most popular collection of his printed sample drawings “manga” and the term was later adopted for all Japanese comic.
The artist has in fact appeared as a character in numerous manga series since 1970s including in the first volume of comic series “Blade of the Immortal” (“Rit Daab Rai Pranee” in Thai) where he is known as Master Sori – a name he adopted briefly between 1795 and 1804.
The “Manga like Ukiyo-e, Ukiyo-e like Manga” section shows how Hokusai’s techniques have been developed into modern manga style.
Ukiyo-e was the name given to the art of the common people during the 18th and 19th centuries and encompassed many comic-specific techniques such as visualising the invisible, balloons reminiscent of speech bubbles and also motion lines that showed the movement of nature and people in the pictures.
At that time the balloons were used for elaborate dreams and |prose and later evolved into the dialogue boxes that we know today. Common to both Hokusai Manga and today’s frames is the use of lines to portray the motion of wind or water. These later became known as motion or impact lines and were used to break down the picture plane into small frames or panels. In the Hokusai Manga, 14 per cent of all pages are subdivided into at least two frames.
The visualisation in the invisible was expressed through the character’s eyes. A typical modern manga character has a wide-eye stare that facilitates the reader’s emotional engagement through the close-ups of faces. The modern comic’s wide-eyed characters are in contrast to those of the Ukiyo-e era though, which often showed small eyed-characters that were closer to real life people. The wide-eyed character in manga was initially treated as a symptom of westernisation or a racial inferiority complex.
Visitors are then led to explore Hokusai Manga as the manual of comic techniques. Hokusai Manga in a way serves as the reference book for students of pictorial art and design. In this part, the exhibition also gathers a variety of “How to Draw Manga” manuals, which have been a notable part of manga culture in Japan since 1950s, among them works by pioneer Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astro Boy.
The tutorial books show the modularisation for modern manga from panel layouts to speech balloons and also character design. Sample collections from fan-made manga publications are also on display.
Seven contemporary manga artists have been invited to revisit the Hokusai Manga and create works while bearing in mind three questions: Does Hokusai Manga have an impact on them? Do the master and his work continue to stimulate creativity? And what aspects of ukiyo-e art attract attention?
“By doing this, the exhibition is attempting to connect Hokusai Manga with fine art but in different ways. The seven contributing artists are not from the mainstream though all are respected for their artistic talents,” says Dr Chaiyosh.
The exhibition, he says, not |only allows visitors to learn the background and the origins of Japanese comics, but also re-|flects the strong book culture that existed in Japan more than 200 years ago.
“Hokusai Manga was part of the prosperous period of book culture. At that time Japanese people were literate and the book business was booming. There were more than 500 bookshops in Edo (Tokyo) and they even had rental bookshops in every corner of the city,” he says.
With such a strong literary |culture to its credit, it should |come as no surprise that two centuries later, the Japanese comics industry is one of the most popular in the world.
- Manga Hokusai Manga: Approaching the Master’s Compendium from the Perspective of Contemporary Comics” continues in Bangkok through September 22.
- It will then be on display in Chiang Rai from October 7 to November 2 before heading south to Hai Yai from November 14 to December 5.
- For more information, visit www.JFBkk.or.th