Posts Tagged ‘kyoto international manga museum’

It’s been about two weeks since I promised you a post about Murata Range 村田蓮爾, a manga artist whose work was on display at the Kyoto International Manga Museum when I went there a few weeks ago.

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.

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A few days ago, I finally visited the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It’s a gorgeous museum, quite clean and sleek and well-put-together. It all looks quite new, as well it should I suppose, since it only opened in 2006, on the grounds of a former primary school.

The school folded under perfectly normal circumstances – as is happening all over Japan, and as happens around the world to one extent or another, sometimes there just are not enough children in a community to merit a need for as many schools as there are, and so schools are merged and old school buildings are either destroyed or repurposed. While Tatsunoike Elementary School is hardly a historical monument – no more historical than any other elementary school built and operating since the early Meiji period – I am quite glad that they kept its structure intact, repurposing it rather than tearing it down. The school atmosphere really suits a manga museum quite well, and helps make one feel like a child again, a bit. Piano music piped throughout the building, very similar to the light music reminiscent of the innocence of childhood expressed in Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks for various Ghibli movies, contributes to this feel.

(The museum also maintains one room as an exhibition on the history of the school, and plaques throughout the museum explain what certain rooms were used for back when it was a school. The principal’s office is maintained just as it was, I guess, more or less, as a showpiece, and the Museum Director’s office is in the Vice Principal’s office.)

On the other hand, I thought the environment and atmosphere a bit sad, in that reverse backwards sort of way that bright, happy music and scenes can be quite sad when the children are gone. Like parts of movies when someone remembers all the wonderful times that were had in a place now destroyed, or with a person now gone. An elementary school devoid of children is a pretty sad place, the cheery music only adding to that feeling, 逆に, rather than dispelling it. Or maybe that’s just me…

In any case, I could have loved this museum’s design and architecture if it were a brand-new shiny steel and glass building in the ultra-modern mode. But I love it just as much if not more like this, with hardwood floors and steps, at least one room lined with tatami (oh how I love that smell), and the furnishings and such in the (closed to the public but visible through the hall windows) principal’s office and such.

The museum consists primarily of shelves and shelves and shelves of manga – roughly 50,000 in all, with another 250,000 volumes in the closed stacks. Though there are some permanent exhibits and temporary exhibit halls, the chief thing to do at this museum, it would seem, is to sit and read manga. A quite enjoyable way to spend a day, I must say, if a bit unorthodox for a museum (if it were a library, there wouldn’t be an admission fee, and there would be a way to take out books; so, really, it’s more like a manga café).

I was, admittedly, disappointed at this, as I don’t read much manga. I never felt particularly confident about my ability to read manga, since they have so much casual language and weird sound changes (much like how Japanese people might have trouble with words like “gonna” that don’t really represent “going to”, or the way things are misspelled to indicate the pronunciation of different accents), and so many strange words and jargon words referring to the magic or spaceships or whatever it may be for a given series. But… after not even trying to read any manga for a number of years, I picked one up (the first volume of Ranma 1/2natsukashii na!), and made my way through the first chapter, moving quickly and smoothly, and smiling all the way. Spending a few hours at the museum could be a fine way to get through series without having to buy all the volumes yourself… it’s a fine atmosphere for reading – clean, brightly lit, welcoming – though there’s no food or drink, and nowhere to really lay down and stretch out.

In any case, the one main permanent exhibit hall is really quite well-done. The walls are lined with manga organized chronologically, so one can skim the selections and sort of get a sense of how manga developed and changed over time. Actual exhibition displays address a number of fundamental questions and themes relating to manga, including some that we really take so much for granted, it’s great to see them addressed. First, there is a display or two or three on the history of manga. I was most pleased to see that the museum does not take a stand on where manga starts, since basically any answer one could give would be controversial and debateable. Does it start with the Chôju giga, a 12-13th century handscroll depicting anthropomorphized animals and something resembling an early relative of the speech bubble? Or does manga start with ukiyo-e prints? Or with kibyôshi illustrated novels? Or Hokusai’s sketchbooks that he just so happened to call manga (漫画, lit. something like “rambling, aimless, wandering pictures”)? Or does manga start in the Meiji period, with the introduction of satirical political cartoons from the West? That the Manga Museum didn’t set themselves up for being argued against by taking a stand on any one of these was a very smart move in my opinion.

The exhibits also address standards, symbols, and forms, pointing out that a lot of things we take for granted in comics are in fact quite artificial. The convention of the speech bubble, as opposed to the narrator’s speech which goes in a box, for example; and the ways thought bubbles are shown differently. In American comics and cartoons, we show that someone is asleep by having Z’s float in the air above his head; in manga, a small bubble (of snot?) emerges from the character’s nose to indicate they’re asleep. All kinds of lines and marks and symbols appear on or near people’s faces to indicate certain emotions, and lines and shapes can be used in other ways to indicate speed of motion, or great power… A small hands-on bit of the exhibit lets you mix and match eyes, noses, mouths, and other features to sort of show how versatile manga style can be, I guess, and yet how remixed. It’s amazing to realize just how much a certain mouth or a certain nose indicates a certain character type, and yet also how combining a different set of eyes with that same mouth or nose can change the impression of the character type completely.

The exhibit highlights a manga from the 1970s called “Bakabon,” which apparently was quite experimental in how things were rendered inside the panels. Sometimes he would use no words; sometimes no pictures; sometimes a scene would be laid out as if it were drawn as a picture, but just with words placed in different parts of the panel, where the images should be. Characters changed size and art style dramatically, highlighting the artificiality of the medium, but its versatility and value as well. Of course, any expert of American comics (whether he be a scholar or just an obsessive fan) could tell you quite a bit about innovation in the way the panels themselves have been used by various artists over the years, something that goes on in manga as well, but doesn’t seem as dramatically emphasized or as extensively used, even.

A kami-shibai performance rounded out the day; somewhat related to manga, kami-shibai (紙芝居, lit. “paper play” or “paper theatre”) was a street entertainment mainly in the early postwar period. Scenes would be drawn out on separate cards, and a storyteller would show each card as a visual aid while telling the story, serving both as narrator, and delivering all the characters’ lines, in different voices of course. I had never seen kami-shibai before, and actually had a very different impression of it, thinking it was more like shadow puppets, when in fact it’s a bit more like an anime with only one frame per scene.

I hope to post soon a separate post about the Murata Range exhibit that was up in their temporary exhibits gallery.

For now, then, I suppose that’s it. There is of course some controversy over the founding of the museum, since I gather it was sort of the pet project of a politician who is no longer in power… and while the especially strong prominence of manga in concerted, intentional, efforts by the Japanese government to represent the country and its culture, and to exert soft power, etc etc, is certainly bizarre and controversial in its own ways, I think it is great that such a place exists for those researchers who are in fact researching pop culture phenomena… And for the wider public as well, of course.

I’m glad I went and checked it out. If I were living here more permanently, I really might actually make a habit of spending time there, reading through another volume or two or three on each visit, slowly making my way through series without having to buy them myself.

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