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This is Manga: The art of Urasawa Naoki

I'm a big fan of the works printed in English of Naoki Urasawa. I've not read everything but I can say with confidence that he is one of my favourite manga creators. His art never disappoints and the stories whether his own or developed by others are rich and engaging. Japan House (London) is currently hosting an exhibition of his works titled "This is Manga" which some friends and I went to check out.

I got into Urasawa through 20th Century Boys and then explored more of his work available in English (and was available in the UK). It has been a marvelous journey through some exceptional work. 20th Century Boys picks up themes of childhood dreams, reality of life, how one person can make a difference and totalitarian regimes all mixed with the power of science and technology. Pluto ask challenging questions about what is life, the rights of AI and the application of science for good or ill. I'm most of the way through Monster which is so far living up to my high expectations. Monster picks up the themes of consequences of decisions, how far would you go for something you believed in, lost childhoods and outsiders. Very recently I picked up the first volume of Master Keaton. It was not what I expected but I'm really enjoying the story of an outsider finding his place in his world.

Whilst I have sort of read his work in reverse order I have always found the art to be intricate and a joy to behold. As he has got older his characters designs are less "cartoon-y" - gone are the more rounded faces and line styles similar to Masamune Shirow or Katsuhiro Otomo (the latter I found out was a big influence on him). Whilst his work has always captured the essence of each character I have found that his later works present characters who look more real - I have always remarked that I could walk past them in the street. Whilst it could be argued that elements of the stories are fantastical each is visually grounded in reality. As you can imagine the exhibition was something I was very keen to visit.

There is s teaser exhibition on the ground floor of Japan House with the main exhibition in a hall downstairs. The teaser has the Friend costume from the 20th Century Boys film, assorted printed pages and, most significantly, reproductions of manga drawn by a young Urasawa which were simply jaw-dropping. You see a progression in his artistic ability across the four books - each of which was superb - but also witness how he understands how to use the panels, the shape of the frames and their layout on the page. This was when he was still in school! Most impressively is that although my friends and I cannot understand Japanese we got what was happening in his stories and felt the pacing and flow of his work.

The main exhibition displays the original manga pages, not individual frames, alongside their coloured counterparts. You can see the screentone, corrections and intricate pen-work all up close. It also features some original sketches, watercolours and chapter layouts. Seeing the progression from ideas to layouts all through to panels and the eventual final coloured work was a real treat. Like many I take manga for granted and, whilst I had an idea of what might go into their creation, seeing it laid out hit home just how much has to be done to produce an entry for a publication. Also as most of his work is in black and white when printed, seeing the coloured work only increased my respect for him. There was an image of Astro Boy from Pluto which I stared at for ages!

As you would expect there are sections dedicated to his major works. 20th Century Boys, Pluto, Monster, Yawara!, Master Keaton (and Remaster), Happy!, Billy Bat and Mujirushi: Le Signe des Rêves (a project commissioned by the Louvre, Paris) are all represented. Whole chapters are laid out that invite you to follow the story and it becomes so much more than "just" looking at the images. You can spend hours following the stories and the artwork (I did!) or you can just treat it as life-sized manga consumption. It was more involving than the exhibition at the British Museum which was what Urasawa wanted from this installation (it was featured in one of the videos running). Either way it is well worth your time to visit the exhibition and it will reward multiple visits.

Of the titles on display I had the most fun in the Billy Bat section. The premise of the manga had us all smiling. The idea that this character is actually real and can only be seen by some who are chosen ... but is also a character within a comic within the manga! The comic in the manga is something I would definitely read with its anthropomorphic animal characters in a film-noir setting. Genius!
I was also lucky enough to attend a talk given by Helen McCarthy who has been involved with anime and manga for many years presenting at many conventions across the world. Her printed work includes books on manga cross-stitch, the Anime Encyclopedia and a book called Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation. Helen's talk really put some additional context around Urasawa's works. This took in musical influences, other manga artists and also situated the whole manga movement within Japanese art over the centuries. It is always brilliant to hear someone talk passionately about a topic that you and they care deeply about. It certainly put a new perspective on Pluto and monster for me and once I finish re-reading 20th Century Boys I'll definitely revisit Pluto.

Following on from both the exhibition and the talk I really want to explore more of Urasawa's manga. Apparently Billy Bat is available in French so I will definitely pick that up. Yawara! And Happy are not normally what I would read - sports manga is not my thing but I am sure that Urasawa will have a unique take and some lovely artwork to look through. I'm also looking forward to any of his future work that will hopefully make it into English.

In short if you have an interest in manga this is a fantastic exhibition where you can see all the work and detail that goes into popular art form. You can also see drawings done by Urasawa on the walks, glass and even in the toilets!

This is Manga - the Art of Urasawa Naoki is being held at Japan House London until 28 July 2019 and entry is free.