The Power of Manga at the British Museum

Manga, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, 2011, by Hoshino Yukinobu © Yukinobu Hoshino/Shogakukan Inc

Manga – often translated as ‘pictures run riot’ – are serialised Japanese stories, told through a combination of images and text. With an avid readership in Japan and beyond, manga has evolved into a multi-billion-pound industry. Its distinctive style of storytelling has inflamed imaginations all over the world, and its influence stretches through decades and across media. But when and where did this sprawling genre originate? The British Museum’s exhibition on manga finds out.

The Date of the Creation of the First Manga

The date of the creation of the first manga is much-debated. An early manifestation of the form can be found in the Choju-jinbutsu-giga, possibly the work of a 12th-century Japanese Buddhist monk named Toba Sojo (and others – the four scrolls in the Choju-Giga seem to bear the mark of several hands). These brush-and-ink cartoons show anthropomorphised animals in humorous situations: frogs, rabbits, foxes and monkeys swim, race, and even attend religious ceremonies, some in religious or courtly clothes. The next few centuries saw the development of printing technology across Japan, and the satirical imagery that made the Choju-Giga so popular began to be produced on a larger scale in the form of toba-e, caricatures of everyday scenes.

Other kinds of illustration that would later feed into modern manga included kibyoshi (yellow back), woodblock-printed comic books, and ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world). One of the most notable ukiyo-e artists was Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), creator of – among other well-known prints – the iconic Great Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts grasping hands of foam curling over the distant peak of Mt Fuji. Hokusai published his Hokusai Manga, a bestselling collection of sketches, between 1814 and 1878.

The Power of Modern Manga

The prints contained within these volumes are unconnected; the storytelling arc of modern manga is missing here. But Hokusai’s sketches do have a satirical edge and occasionally nod towards the weird and the humorous, as do 21st-century manga. As Tim Clark, head of the British Museum’s Japanese section, notes in an essay which accompanied the British Museum Press’s edition of the recent manga title Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, ‘There is a chronological lineage of pre-modern artists of popular illustrated fiction and ukiyo-e prints which leads fairly seamlessly into the world of modern manga. The artists are linked above all by a common predisposition for mischief-making that may well end up being the defining characteristic of the lineage.’

Hokusai’s contemporary Kawanabe Kyosai is also thought to have contributed to the development of modern manga with the startling, comic stage curtain he created for the Shintomi Theatre in 1880. This curtain, 17 metres in length, depicts members of the Shintomi acting company in the guise of monsters and demons, a portrayal which caused a sensation at the time. It is said that the artist painted the entire thing in a few hours while drunk.

The Japan Punch

The 19th century saw the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in Japan and the opening of Japanese ports to the rest of the world, after years of isolationism under the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1862, Charles Wirgman, a young British journalist in Yokohama, set up the Japan Punch, modelled on the popular magazine Punch in the UK. Japan Punch quickly gained a wide readership across Japan, and other satirical newspapers, including the Marumaru Chinbun, followed in its wake, critiquing politics, society and culture through clever cartoons and biting caricature. Another influential publication from the time was Tobae, established later that century by the French illustrator Georges Bigot; it assembled images in narrative sequences, a precursor to modern manga panels.

The appetite for long-form illustrated narratives continued to grow. New themes were explored, informed by cultural shifts in the twentieth century. The devastation of the Second World War, particularly the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would become a major thematic focus for many later manga and animé creators. Miyazaki Hayao’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, a manga series that ran from 1982 to 1994, takes as its setting a post-apocalyptic land destroyed by nuclear technology. Similarly, Otomo Katsuhiro’s series Akira explores Neo-Tokyo, a fictional city built next to the derelict skeleton of old Tokyo, which was destroyed in the Third World War.

The Power of Manga and the Second World War

Not only did the Second World War change the themes addressed by manga creators, it also changed the way manga was consumed. After the war, a widespread lack of disposable income meant that Osaka-based publishers began to print akahon (red books), long-form graphic stories that were cheap to produce. Tezuka Osamu, the so-called ‘Godfather of Manga’, published his astonishingly popular New Treasure Island in 1947 in the akahon format. This was followed in 1952 by the arrival of Tezuka’s Astro Boy, an adventure-loving android, now the protagonist of one of the world’s most famous manga franchises. Tezuka’s other hugely successful series, Princess Knight, was aimed at a female readership, part of a boom of shojo manga or ‘girls’ comics’.

By now, manga was being created for readers of all ages and tastes, and the themes it addressed were wide-ranging. Huge volumes were published, and new sub-genres were created. The 1970s witnessed the publication of popular series such as Hagio Moto’s The Poe Clan, which responded to new trends in the shojo manga genre, including narratives that focused on friendship and love between men (or, in this case, male vampires). Manga created for teen male readerships, known as shonen manga, was also thriving. One of the most successful titles in this sub-genre is Oda Eiichiro’s One Piece, which broke the world record for the most copies sold for the same title by a single author. This story, serialised in the Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine since 1997 and running to 92 volumes so far, describes the adventures of Monkey D Luffy, a boy whose body has the properties of rubber and who roams the world on a pirate ship in search of the mythical ‘One Piece’ treasure.

The extraordinary popularity of One Piece – it has sold 70 million copies, has been translated into 30 languages, has been made into animé and adapted into a kabuki performance – testifies to the enduring grip manga has on the imaginations of its fans. Not only within Japan, but across the world – as recognised this year in the largest exhibition of manga to be held outside Japan, on show at the British Museum this summer.

The Power of Manga at The British Museum

Manga at the British Museum explores the rich history of manga through a number of exciting loans and immersive displays. Opening with a section dedicated to equipping visitors with the tools to read manga – with manga artist Kono Fumiyo’s characters introducing common symbols and motifs – the exhibition is designed to be of interest to both enduring fans and newcomers to the form.

The five subsequent sections consider manga through the centuries, featuring culturally significant objects such as Kawanabe Kyosai’s Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain, loaned by the Waseda University Theatre Museum, Tokyo – the curtain is now so delicate that this is the last time it will travel outside Japan. Elsewhere, visitors to the exhibition can explore a virtual recreation of Comic Takaoka in Tokyo, one of the longest-running manga bookshops in Japan.

World Cosplay

The power of manga can also be seen in the immersive nature of the exhibition does not stop there – manga enthusiasts are invited to don their own cosplay and experience the Comiket and World Cosplay summits, enormous conventions devoted to manga fandom, as well as ‘manga-fying’ themselves in photo-booths, and engaging with audio and video installations, which bring beloved manga characters to life. A white rabbit named Mimi-chan, a bespoke mascot designed for the British Museum by the manga artist Kono Fumiyo, accompanies visitors through the six sections of the exhibition.

Popular contemporary mangaka, or manga artists, have a crucial role in the exhibition. As Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, notes: ‘The British Museum cares for one of the finest collections of Japanese graphic art in the world. It is our privilege to invite the modern masters of manga to join company in this exhibition with the great masters of the past such as Hokusai and Kyosai’.

In this blockbuster display, the curators Uchida Hiromi, Matsuba Ryoko, and Nicole Rousmaniere sought to feature work from a range of modern artists, including Oda Eiichiro, the mangaka behind One Piece, Tezuka Osamu, of Astro Boy and Princess Knight fame, Toriyama Akira, the creator of Dragon Ball, Hagio Moto (The Poe Clan), and Higashimura Akiko, whose Princess Jellyfish, which explores questions of gender and identity, proved a huge shojo manga hit. More insights from the curators can be heard at their introduction to the exhibition at the British Museum on 1 June.

Contemporary Manga

This is not the first time the power of contemporary manga has been seen and found a home at the British Museum. A humorously self-referential exhibition in 2009 saw Hoshino Yukinobu’s Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure displayed in the museum’s Japanese galleries. The series follows Munakata, a popular manga character and professor of folklore at the fictional Toa Bunka University, as he solves crimes against the backdrop of the British Museum. Ten years after its release, visitors to Manga in 2019 can enjoy a digital experience based around Munakata’s adventures in the museum.

Animé, the animations which evolved out of manga, are also explored in the Manga exhibition. An extensive public programme includes animé film screenings, late events, lectures, and workshops. In partnership with Time Out and Japan House, part of this programme includes a Studio Ghibli film season. The animation company Studio Ghibli, co-founded by Miyazaki Hayao in the 1980s after he successfully adapted his own manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind for film, has created globally acclaimed animé films such as My Neighbor Totoro (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001).

Japan House in London also looks at The Power of Manga

Japan House, the cultural centre established last year in London on Kensington High Street, is behind another exhibition that explores the power of manga in London this summer, This is Manga – the Art of Urasawa Naoki. Exploring manga through the lens of Urasawa’s decades-spanning career, the exhibition looks at Urasawa’s working process with over 400 original drawings and storyboards.

Born in Tokyo in 1960, Urasawa made his debut in the 1980s, and soon found fame – both in Japan and internationally – with works such as the judo-themed Yawara! Monster, an eerie hospital mystery, and the sci-fi thriller 20th Century Boys. Selected stories from Urasawa’s many series will be featured in the Japan House gallery, as well as four consecutive stories from Yawara! over the course of the two-month exhibition, one story every two weeks, in a changing display that mimics the serialised form of contemporary manga publication. Visitors can explore these narratives further in a specially created reading area filled with Urasawa’s volumes, and in a conversation between Urasawa and Wired, to be held at Japan House on 5 June.

This exhibition, exploring the power of manga, which has previously been on display at Japan House in Los Angeles, and will travel next to Sao Paolo, testifies to the international appeal of the manga medium. The visual nature of the form lends it to translation, as does its ability to address themes and plots for all tastes and readers.

As Nicole Rousmaniere, IFAC Handa Curator of Japanese Arts at the British Museum, has written: ‘There is less reliance on text, and narrative is created through expressive line drawing along with the visual development of individual characters. It is manga’s visually immersive quality that makes it so popular… It is immensely popular with people of every age in Japan and increasingly across the world. With hundreds of genres, from sports to love, and from horror to sexual identity, there is a manga for everyone’.


Manga, until 26 August, at the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, For the public programme of events, visit the museum’s website.  A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

This is Manga – the Art of Urasawa Naoki opens to the public at Japan House, London, from 5 June to
28 July. Admission free