I had been familiar with Murata’s work for some time, mainly from his covers for the manga magazine ROBOT, for which he is apparently also editor and compiler. A friend has a number of volumes of this, and I have long been interested in buying some issues, though I was a bit scared off by the price tag, and wavered between the cheaper English version and the more expensive (in the US, that is, as an import) but more “authentic” Japanese version. In any case, I loved the art, but admittedly had not paid attention to the name of the artist. Even looking through this exhibition at the Manga Museum, I remained oblivious to what big-name series Murata had worked on, if any. Actually, I remain a bit unclear on this even after having researched it on the internet – he’s worked on series including Last Exile, Blue Submarine No 6, and the Animatrix, but if I’m understanding this right, he’s only done concept art, not actual animation work.
His art is beautiful. Just stunning. His characters are cute and innocent, his colors and lines as crisp and clean as could be. The Japanese word kirei, one of the first words learned by students of Japanese as a second language and generally translated as “pretty” and used for that meaning, actually has a strong connotation of “clean”, “organized”, “put together”, and the more I think about it, the more I think that this clean & pretty element is really one of the key things that appeals to me in both anime/manga art, and in older Nihonga painting. You can see it in the complete lack of painterly-ness (that is, in the invisibility of any brushstrokes), minimal use of lines, soft, even shading of colors, and just general ‘clean’ feeling. This girl, for example, though she is sweating, doesn’t look sticky or gross or disheveled in any way. She has no blemishes on her skin; her clothes aren’t wrinkled, her hair isn’t ruffled or messed up. And while there are shadows in the places there realistically ought to be (such as on her neck), the whole scene is painted (? or digitally composed? or…?) as though quite brightly lit with a clean white light, like the kind of spring or summer sun that returns color to the world after the dreariness of winter.
The subject matter of Murata’s works is usually one of cuteness and innocence – there are lots of works depicting schoolgirls, for example, though he does depict cute boys, and older, more toned young men as well – and so of course that contributes to one’s reaction to the piece, but I really think that the way line and color are treated play a huge role in making these works, and so many others by many other artists, give off the feeling of a perfect spring day. A breezy, sunny day that makes you just want to smile, and go out and enjoy the day with no cares in the world.
The exhibit was quite small, just one room. But, for a solo exhibition, there were a good number of works there. Any more and there would have been a strong danger of just being repetitive, that is, overkill. The exhibit consisted largely of magazines and the like in cases, and perhaps most interesting for more dedicated fans (and aspiring artists, or those who just doodle for fun), preparatory sketches and the like, something that I guess is seen more rarely.
I quite enjoyed the large, blown up digital prints along one wall. I have not read ROBOT, or any of the other very similar magazines Murata is involved with, such as FutureGraph, but I gather that many of the stories contained within are sort of one-off stories. Not fully encapsulated, they could function as episodes within a much larger plot, but they are presented as just one-off, cute glimpses into the lives of certain characters. I think, if I remember correctly, there were three or four of these short, maybe 10 page stories, posted up on the walls. I read one in which two young schoolgirls chat while riding a train… what about, I barely even remember. Maybe about their friends, and which friend was moving away to another town, or something. What really appeals is the environment and atmosphere created, not solely through the art, but also through the dialogue and plot, which, if not memorable (apparently), are still crucial elements in this creation of an ideal, romanticized, carefree cute schooldays atmosphere.
Of course, the other key element that I’ve been completely glossing over is the fact that these stories, all of those in ROBOT, by a variety of writers/artists, are in gorgeous full color, unlike the vast majority of manga out there, which is in black and white. There are economic reasons for this, basically, as I understand it, stemming from the fact that most manga is published in cheap newsprint anthologies and only later republished in tankobon individual volumes. But all of that is a story for another day.
There is a lot, I am sure, that can be said about Murata’s work, about manga/anime aesthetics and subject matter more broadly, etc etc. But I think I should like to leave it at this: enjoy the pictures.
The exhibit remains up through August 29.