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Manga at the British Museum

"Enter a graphic world where art and storytelling collide in the largest exhibition of manga `ever to take place outside of Japan..."

At my local train station is a big advert for Manga which is the Citi exhibition being held at the British Museum. Not being someone who uses the train frequently I received many messages from friends telling me it was on. Through Twitter I saw the Guardian review of the exhibition and there was something about the review which was less than favourable and irked me (though more positive reviews from the Mail and the Evening Standard provided more balanced arguments). As luck would have it, the stars aligned and I was in London just after the exhibition opened so being a fan of manga for my years I *had* to go check it out.

The exhibition is about its title and is part of the Japan-UK Season of Culture 2019-20. It displays and explores manga be that its visual language style, history, stories of its genesis, genres or its significant impact worldwide. I got into manga about the same time I got into anime. There were very few titles of both media available and if you were into one of them it was highly likely you would be consuming the other. Over time I have found favourites and my interests have broadened. Like all fans I'm on the look out for new titles. Now I also I enjoy reading academic and semi-academic books and papers on anime and manga so I have a good grounding in its history (but definitely no expert). I can't deny I had a slight concern that I may have seen some of the exhibition content before but I went in with an open mind to experience what the exhibition had to offer and to learn more about this popular art form. On all counts this exhibition exceeded my expectations - it was fantastic.

From a visitor's perspective the exhibition has a really nice layout and guides you through manga in a logical and inclusive way - it is not patronising or pretentious. We start with a brief introduction to manga, how to read it and the visual language which gives way to history, background and key figures within the manga explosion of the 20th century. This is placed against the woodblock prints of 18th century to give broader context. From here we are drawn into examples of the different styles and genres with photos of the creators and their works. Finally the wider impact of manga is explored by the exhibition in a series displays bit static and interactive. Throughout the exhibition are blown up examples of the manga pages and panels on display on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. There is something to look at almost every direction you turn.

What should be made clear is that there are few of the modern big hitters or fan favourites. Titles like Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist or Fruits Basket are not there (I know there are others but those titles sprung to my mind). There might be a few in the component that looks like a Japanese bookstore but not being able to read Japanese and being more interested in the rest of the exhibition I skimmed over the titles. (There was a giant Attack on Titan headand some very familiar images from a few well known manga around however.) What we are given is a fantastic cross-section from Tezuka and Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) via Chi's Sweet Home to REAL (about a wheelchair basketball team). Lesser known artists and titles are pushed to the front and there is no doubt about the breadth of manga available. Seeing the original pages at their original size (rather than that of the printed book) was a surprise. I had no idea how big the original work would be, how vibrant the colours were or how text is integrated - it was an eye opener.

There are a few arguments as to when manga was created - none of which I will get into here although one of them is made in a video exhibit - but to see manga in this wider context of Japanese art is striking. This is the real strength that the British Museum is able to bring to this exhibition be it a Hokusai woodblock print or the Shintomiza Theatre Curtain by Kawanabe Kyōsai (which is 17m long!) It paints a fascinating narrative through the exhibition as well as giving sufficient hooks for you to explore further.

The exhibit explaining the language of the page and the image was brilliant. It was probably the first time I have seen it explained and it really showed how easy to understand and universal the language of the image is. I have seen some of the same features used in anime. In some respects it wasn't needed as the definitions were blindingly obvious when you read them, but it was so effective at showing how imagery can be used to convey a lot of information easily. The related display about the frame and space between panels is brilliant too. I saw some of it in a Mechademia book but when integrated into the whole display its significance was amplified as right next to it was the theory in practice.

The next standout for me was turning a corner and seeing a huge Galaxy Express 999 image. It was not something I was expecting to see but I love the design and art work of Leiji Matsumoto so to see it at the exhibition as well as seeing it on such a scale was a huge joy. Seeing this work made me realise just how much I enjoy his art - it took me a few minutes to compose myself. Similarly it was a treat to see some of the Princess Jellyfish artwork (and find out more about the creator Akiko Higashimura). Her coloured art on display was marvellous! I watched the anime and off the back of the exhibition would definitely read it too and her other works translated into English.

Within the genre section of the exhibition space was made to explain where and why titles originated. Whilst this was in the context of Japan it gave an insight into a developing society and how art is used to explore deeper questions within society. Faith or religious beliefs and sexuality being two main areas. Some of this content was equally applicable to the UK and it made me wonder what the British equivalents would be.

Going around the exhibition it was great to see a complete cross section of the population taking it all in. Old and young, parents and their children and international tourists were all taking it in. It was lovely to see parents take an interest in the hobbies and passion of their children who were patiently trying to explain it to their families. You could also hear people talking to their friends, asking questions and genuinely engaging with what was on show.

There was a lady with her carer and her reaction to the Sailor Moon content bowled me over and had me blinking back the tears (even now as I remember it). There was so much joy in her exclamation and the physical response she had to it. It showed the genuine transformative power of art and that it is o.k. to express your emotion during the exhibition. For me what is displayed is a significant part of the exhibition another are the crowd there experiencing.

The chatter, smiles and engagement with the display lifted it to another level from what could have been a cold, transactional experience to an emotional one. (We've all been to museums, galleries and exhibitions where we've walked detached between the displays) I don't think the exhibition curators Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, the National Arts Centre Tokyo and the Organisation for the Promotion of Manga and Anime (OPMA) could want for anything more. It definitely worked for its intended audience and showed manga as well as its wider impact on media and fan activities. That is why there was a dress-up box and why people were putting them on and posing for photos.

I really enjoyed the Manga exhibition that the British Museum is hosting. I had genuine emotional reactions to its content and to seeing how others were enjoying it. Whilst there could have been a greater variety of authors or titles on display there was the right mix of current recognisable titles and the classics. Within the space, material available and likely the inevitable challenges of IP they captured a snapshot of the variety of artist styles, of genres and how it has evolved over time. It also highlighted the importance of art and how it enables the exploration of current challenges or concerns within contemporary societies. There is something for everyone (manga fan or not) in the exhibition whether it be seeing some prints by Hokusai and questioning how this plays into the evolution of manga as we know it today, finding out a bit more about the industry or perhaps finding a new title to dive into (I found plenty!).

My overriding memory and experience from visiting the exhibition was how the visitors were engaging with the displays. Fans (of all levels including the "true fan") have been given something that they can enjoy and it provides a great entry for those with a casual interest. I would definitely go back again and can't wait for the Urasawa manga exhibition at Japan House in June/July.

Manga (the Citi exhibition) runs from 23 May - 26 August 2019 at the British Museum, London. Tickets are free for members (or under 16s) or £19.50. Tickets can be booked in advance on the British Museum website which also contains more information on ticket prices and opening times.