The evolution and legacy of manga

Coinciding with the opening of Manga マンガ at the British Museum, an accompanying book published by Thames & Hudson explores the changing face of manga and how its influence has stood the test of time

Comics and cartoons were once cast aside as child’s play across much of the world. However, the perception of illustrated books shifted towards the latter half of the 20th century – something Hugo Frey attributes to manga in his essay Manga and the Rise of the Graphic Novel.

“American creators cited and promoted Japanese works and helped in their translation and distribution. In turn, the American scene was enlivened and challenged by this fresh material,” Frey writes. “Although big-name manga have been hits in the USA (Astro Boy and Dragon Ball, to name two), for the development of the graphic novel the key contact points with Japan have been subtler and individual North American publishers and artists have found less mainstream Japanese work to be important.”

Opening at the British Museum, Manga マンガ is the largest exhibition of its kind ever held outside Japan. The exhibition uncovers manga’s wide-reaching influence and evolution from its beginnings in the Hokusai era, when the Japanese artist was widely credited as being the first to refer to the term manga (although artist and poet Santō Kyōden – Hokusai’s contemporary – had actually used it prior, Matsuba Ryoko writes in her essay Did Hokusai Create Manga?).

The exhibition brings viewers up to the modern day, where the publication and adaptation of manga continues to thrive in an industry reportedly worth $4bn. The accompanying catalogue of the same name examines these ideas in detail through a series of essays and interviews by prominent artists, writers and scholars in the field of manga.

Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau ‘Let’s take the subway!’ project posters © Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau

As Frey highlights, manga has pushed forward art in other countries, however the Japanese manga publishing industry had been holding back its own progression for years, perpetuated by a heavily male-dominated environment since it first emerged. This early gender imbalance perhaps has something to do with the proliferation of an idealised feminine aesthetic and one-dimensional storylines, which still propagate debate to this day.

While the representation of female characters in manga continues to be debated, the manga industry did begin to see change during the 60s. Female manga artists started to increase in number, spurring on developments in shōjo manga (girls’ manga), specifically aimed at a young female audience. For years, shōjo manga had been created by men, however with more female artists pushing into the scene, themes in shōjo manga began to develop into more forward-thinking territory that explored gender and sexuality, among other topics.

Some years later during the 80s josei manga began to emerge, marking the renewed impetus of manga destined for women readers. This often placed an emphasis on more realistic portrayals of life, love and eroticism.

Of course, breaking rules is as much the artist’s forte as it is the publication’s. Alternative outlets like Garo Magazine adopted a non-conformist, counter-culture status as it boldly strayed from traditional themes. Since it was founded in the 60s, Garo became known for sidestepping the common tropes associated with most manga up until that point, instead depicting broader art styles and narratives. This was no doubt the fruit of the rise in gekiga – a term coined as an alternative to ‘manga’ as a reflection of a more mature readership. Remembered for being an avant-garde publication, Garo was unafraid to publish work with anti-establishment themes, with commissions raising questions around everything from class struggle to Japan’s roles in various wars.

As manga continued to influence art styles abroad, it also drew upon foreign movements in places. In his essay Garo Magazine and Alternative Manga, Ryan Holmberg indicates that this cross-cultural referencing was sometimes used to reinforce a particular narrative, highlighting that animator Hayashi Seiichi “confronted the legacies of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War in ingenious manga that explored the aesthetics of Pop Art and New Wave Cinema.”

Beyond a flourishing relationship with graphic art around the world, the breadth of manga’s influence is felt throughout myriad artistic mediums, particularly in its closest relative: anime. In her essay, Rayna Denison explains that due to the steep costs associated with animation around the 60s, manga was instead translated into moving pictures, using alternative methods to signal motion such as panning and zooming on static images to create a sense of movement. As such, the manga aesthetic has been preserved rather closely in anime. This is still drawn upon heavily to this day, even though digital production is far more accessible and affordable than it was 50 years ago. To leave the element of manga in anime so untouched illustrates that it has become a visual staple which still resonates deeply with fans to this day both in Japan, and far beyond.

Tagame Gengoro, My Brother’s Husband, 2014-2017 © Gengoroh Tagame 2014

Manga マンガ  is published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum; the exhibition runs at the British Museum from May 23 – August 26; britishmuseum.org; thamesandhudson.com