In the summer of 2019, the hallowed halls of the British Museum came alive with futuristic space travelers and ninja, fashion designers and amateur detectives, salarymen and white rabbits. The Citi Exhibition: Manga, curated by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures’ (SISJAC’s) own Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere and Matsuba Ryoko, would become the British Museum’s most popular exhibition of the year. In addition, the exhibition stands as the largest show on manga ever to be staged outside Japan. It was particularly popular among younger audiences – in fact, it has the youngest audience on record for any paid exhibition at the Museum.
While it may not surprise anyone that an exhibition on the global phenomenon of Japanese comics is popular amongst the young, that very popularity points to the necessity of the British Museum’s exhibition. The United Kingdom and Japan have enjoyed more than a century and a half of diplomatic relations deeply imbricated with artistic and cultural exchange. In fact, Britain’s first Consul General in Japan, Sir Rutherford Alcock, propelled the development of the Japonisme artistic movement in mid-nineteenth century England. Coming at the start of the Japan-UK Season of Culture joint governmental initiative, Manga offered an opportunity to simultaneously remind visitors of the two nations’ historical ties and shine a spotlight on contemporary cultural ties.
SISJAC provided a core of experts for this exhibition, including lead curator Professor. Rousmaniere, co-curator Dr. Matsuba, as well as a consultant in the form of myself, then Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow and now Assistant Teaching Professor at North Carolina State University. In addition to consulting on the exhibition itself, I wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue, which is now being translated in Japanese.
For this landmark exhibition – the British Museum’s biggest on manga – the curatorial team presented a comprehensive examination of the manga medium. In addition to examining the history and artistic value of manga, the exhibition covered the manga production process and how manga circulate in society. Contextualising manga in this manner demonstrates its importance as a form of expression and a bridge between peoples. Manga is, after all, a medium. The artists who create manga and the consumers who adapt manga to their own purposes both use manga to express themselves.
My research interrogates the visual media of Japanese popular culture to learn about the people who produce and consume them as well as the society in which they live. In particular, I am drafting a book on Japanese adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland novels. This project provided a through line for the exhibition: visitors walked through a swirling rabbit hole projection drawn by Ōtomo Katsuhiro to enter the exhibit, itself a Wonderland of manga artifacts helpfully explained by artist Kōno Fumiyo’s white rabbits. Collections of Japanese Alice merchandise at key spots within the gallery showed manga’s connections to other media and how consumers have adapted manga to express themselves. The quintessentially British Alice thus serves a locus of cultural interchange in Japan today much as Japanese woodblock prints did in England during Sir Rutherford Alcock’s time.
The exhibition catalogue expands mightily on the exhibition. It features interviews with many manga artists, including pioneers like Hagio Moto and Chiba Tetsuya, as well as analytical essays by leading theorists such as Itō Gō, Ryan Holmberg and the University of East Anglia’s Rayna Denison. The catalogue also includes pieces on manga-related topics like Japan’s Comiket (the largest fan convention in the world) and manga law. Perhaps most interesting for the casual reader are the plethora of short manga scattered throughout the volume. Representing diverse genres and artistic styles, many of these manga are unlikely to ever be published separately in English.
Since the exhibition closed, it has been invoked in articles about the preservation of art, high fashion – even Japanese ethnic diversity. For my part, the exhibition has served as an impartial support for my work on Japanese visual media and Alice in Wonderland. My ability to speak with and to diverse international groups, as evidenced by my work at SISJAC and on Manga, was a key factor in my hiring this summer as Assistant Teaching Professor of International Studies at North Carolina State University. Further, I am now working on an academic conference about Japanese Alice adaptations that should gather scholars from four nations in California next spring. The pandemic may force changes to that plan, but that same pandemic highlights the value of The Citi Exhibition: Manga. As we build physical barriers around the world through quarantines and social distancing, it is more important than ever that we break down those mental barriers that might desensitise us to other people’s pain. Seeing other people’s everyday pleasures and concerns builds bridges of understanding that carry us through crises like the pandemic.
Assistant Teaching Professor, North Carolina State University
The Citi exhibition: Manga catalogue, edited by Professor Nicole Rousmaniere and Dr Ryoko Matsuba, is now available in Japanese language. See here for more details.
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