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Japan: Myths to Manga

  • Things to do, Exhibitions
  • Young V&A, Bethnal Green
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Japan: Myths to Manga, Young V&A, 2023
Photo: David Parry

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Smart new exhibition that draws the lines between ancient Japanese folklore and its wild contemporary pop culture

The first temporary exhibition at Young V&A is a real delight, and should appeal to grown-up Nippophiles just as much as school kids.

‘Japan: Myths to Manga’ is a grab bag of the more eye-catching highlights of the past few centuries of Japanese pop culture, taking in everything from Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave’ to copious Studio Ghibli appearances, to a draw-your-own manga craft corner (complete with arrows to reminds you to draw the cells from right to left).

It is relatively light on information about the individual items, and in theory the eclecticism should be a bit bewildering: how exactly do a display of Transformers toys, an ornate screen covered in images of mischievous rabbits, and a truly horrifying folk model of a mermaid that looks like a trout crossed with a zombie foetus all relate to each other?

Quite well actually! The mass of eye-popping artifacts is subdivided into four thoughtful zones: sky, sea, forest and city. The import of each of these areas to Japanese culture is stressed, and while there’s little editorialising beyond that, the linkages between the country’s rich folklore and head-spinning contemporary culture are made clear - we see, for instance, how Ghibli’s arboreal masterpiece ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ fits into a long tradition of stories of supernatural encounters in the deep woods, or how Sylvanian Families toys were born out of hundreds-of-years old netsuke animal sculptures.

There’s no single object liable to blow your mind in and of itself, and many of them will be familiar already. But there is something delightfully simple and headily romantic about the way it links the country’s weirdest cartoon excesses to generations of elegant mythological tradition. You’ll have gone in thinking Japan was cool; you’ll come out thinking it’s cooler.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


Young V&A
Cambridge Heath Rd
E2 9PA
View Website
Tube: Bethnal Green

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