Young V&A, the branch of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum geared towards young people, is staging its first exhibition since its three-year transformation from the Museum of Childhood.
Japan: Myths to Manga revolves around the nation’s art and design heritage, and how this intersects with its rich folklore, in the hope that it will inspire young and old minds alike. The exhibition is set across four sections – Sky, Sea, Forest, and City – and showcases how each setting has been the context for some of Japan’s most popular and beloved creations, including anime, manga, fashion, film, robots, and photography.
In the Sky section, visitors will be able to explore stories from throughout history that have drawn inspiration from the sun, moon, and stars. From woodblock prints by 19th-century artist Kunisada, which depict the tale of the Shintō sun goddess Amaterasu who left the world in darkness after hiding in a cave, to the story of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi, who are eternally separated by the Milky Way and only allowed to meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month.
Moving to the world below, the Sea section pays tribute to one of the biggest driving forces behind Japan’s myths and tales: the ocean. Of course, Hokusai’s iconic Great Wave woodblock print makes an appearance here, alongside other artworks from historical Japanese artists like Hiroshige, who painted the Seven Gods of Fortune arriving in Japan in a treasure ship. Elsewhere, more contemporary creations like Studio Ghibli’s classic film Ponyo and the fish-esque Pokémon Whiscash show how the water – and the life beneath it – continues to play an integral part in Japanese popular culture.
The Forest section, meanwhile, captures some of the magical stories that have been birthed from the country’s extensive woodland areas. Studio Ghibli returns again, this time with the 2013 film the Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which tells a captivating story about a small girl found in a bamboo stalk by a woodcutter. There are also displays of the iconic collectable animal figurines Sylvanian Families and historic netsuke sculptures, both of which draw inspiration from the creatures and animals that live in Japan’s ancient forests.
Finally, in the City section, Japan’s modern world is brought to life through examples of manga, anime, and gaming technology. Visitors are familiarised with the pervasive culture of kawaii (or cuteness) and are presented with various objects and characters that have transcended their roots in Japan, growing to become cultural icons. Tamagotchis – the digital pets stored in a mini handheld device – sit alongside Hello Kitty rice cookers and a selection of Transformers robots. Japan’s unwavering influence on fashion is also shown through pieces of clothing created by Comme des Garçons and curated by the social media sensation and 12-year-old stylist Coco Pink Princess.
Commenting on the opening of the exhibition, curator Katy Canales says: “For Japan: Myths to Manga, we’re bringing together the V&A’s incredible collections alongside amazing loans to explore the influence of Japan’s fascinating folktales to their fullest.
“Japan’s striking landscape and wealth of myths have sparked imaginative and innovative responses from artists and designers for centuries and we can’t wait for it to inspire our young visitors and their grown-ups too.”
Japan: Myths to Manga is on show at Young V&A, London from October 14, 2023 – August 11, 2024; vam.ac.uk/young