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How do you sum up one of the world’s most popular cultural phenomenons; an art movement that’s lasted for hundreds of years and continues to grow, taking in video games, cinema, art and literature, with countless thousands of practitioners and millions upon millions of devoted fans. The answer, when it comes to the British Museum’s ‘Manga’ exhibition, is, well, you don’t.
It’s not for a lack of trying, it’s just that summing up manga, the Japanese art of visual storytelling, is too tall an order. This sprawling show has a hell of a lot of ground to cover. It starts – thankfully – by explaining how to read manga (right to left, top to bottom), before exploring the history and origins of the art form, from its nineteenth-century roots through to the influence of overseas cartoons and films. There’s a mixture of gorgeous old prints (like Kohada Koheiji’s incredible leering ghost) and fragile sheets of manga from the ’50s through to today.
The show attempts to explain all the different facets of manga – looking at themes including sport, adventure and sexuality – and there are some stunning things to see. I love the bright pink of Yoichi Takahashi’s ‘Captain Tsubasa’ image, the shuddering musical lines of Shinichi Ishizuka’s jazz panels, and the heartwrenching sexuality of Gengoroh Tagame’s work.
But is an exhibition the best way to experience something intended as a book, or a movie? Not really. These are all just tasters of the experience of manga, not the full mouthful.
Manga is just too big. It can be for kids, or it can be violent pornography, it can be Pokémon or it can be a historical epic. Manga reflects every aspect of society, its breadth is enormous – this show was never going to be able to do it justice. But what this exhibition does is act as a potential launching pad for your own fascination. If you can leave here with a little snippet of interest, a shred of desire to go and find out more, to trawl through manga history to discover something you’ll love, it will have done its job.