If you walk into a Seven-Eleven store in Japan and see a small group of suited businessmen standing near the magazine section of the store, you can bet your last dollar that they won’t be reading ‘Popular Mechanics’ or ‘Macworld’ … they’ll be reading Manga!
For the uninitiated, these are Japanese comic books that remain extremely popular with not only men, but with both genders and indeed all ages. Likewise, if you travel by train you might see passengers carrying what may initially look like a small telephone directory, but is in fact more likely to be the next installment of one of the many Manga books produced each week. These weighty volumes are printed on cheap paper for mass consumption; to be read insationably and then quickly disposed of. On our weekly recycling days, I often see volumes of them stacked and bound with string, ready to be pulped and then reprocessed into future editions. The turn over is amazingly quick, with the most popular being reprinted into smaller novel formats and collected in volumes to form a series.
What was once regarded as ‘otaku’ (nerd culture) has over the years developed into a multi-billion dollar industry that has now turned Manga into the uber-cool epitome of ‘Japanese pop culture’? Being an art teacher over here, I observe its popularity first hand everyday, with many of my Japanese high school students appearing to possess some kind of innate ability for drawing manga-style characters. I’m always amazed when I watch them doodling these beautifully formed doe-eyed figures with casual ease and totally from memory. This skill may not be surprising, as I imagine that their exposure to Manga comic books was probably one of their earliest reading experiences.
Over the years the Manga and Anime (the animated versions of the art form) has continued to spread throughout the world, although Japan still remains the undisputed leader in both the creation and consumption of this highly visual form of story telling. Throughout Japan there are many specialized Manga stores and in more recent years, several museums have opened that trace its development from the Heian period (794-1192) through until today. On a recent trip to Kyoto, Jules and I decided to visit the ‘International Manga Museum’ to try and gain an insight into this phenomenon and were quite surprised with what we found. This was not simply an exhibition space, but also a vast library of over 300,000 publications and items. It was a place to not only view the works of popular contemporary artists, but to spend the day comfortably relaxing while reading one or even a series of your favorite Manga books.
Opened in 2006 in a former elementary school, the museum has set itself the charter of preserving and fostering ‘Manga culture’, with the aim of passing it on to future generations. It is certainly a place to experience all things Manga, with not only displays of artwork, but also distinctive ‘Kawaii’ (cute) fashions associated with its youth sub-culture. With several artists on hand, Jules and I watched as they cleverly penciled and inked a comic book, page by page and in the end we simply couldn’t resist having our own Manga-style portraits painted. While we aren’t particularly into the Manga scene, we could well understand its popular appeal and we were impressed by the way the museum was successfully paying homage to this unique Japanese art form. Likewise, the reverence that its patrons held for the museum was plain to see, with hushed tones throughout. This was surprisingly a very tranquil place, with soothing music being piped throughout the building and the sight of groups of totally engrossed readers on each of its three levels.
As we exited through the gift shop (as you tend to do in all museums), we observed scores of Manga devotees spilling out onto the museums grassed area. It was a pleasant sunny day, ideal for all manner of activities, but this crowd appeared to be going nowhere. Much like the businessmen standing in the Seven-Eleven, they seemed oblivious to their surroundings and as they quietly read their books, they were clearly in a world of their own. This was a world of fantasy, excitement and adventure … this is the extraordinary world of Manga!