Running until January in the Tampere Art Museum, Finland, Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga is a comprehensive introduction to Japan’s most famous comics artist. It is shown in conjunction with Manga Mania, a more general display of Japanese comics, seemingly commissioned in celebration of the centenary of Finno-Japanese relations. Assembled with the cooperation of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the silent partner in many manga exhibitions overseas, it is presents a concise but informative introduction to what manga is, with clear definitions and bilingual English-Finnish signage.
All three floors of the Tampere Art Museum are given over to Japanese comics, although one might need to be in search of the toilets on the way out in order to notice Manga Mania sprawling across the basement (not, as the museum website claims, the ground floor). In a sweetly whimsical touch, the security staff are all identifiable by berets in homage to the one that Tezuka himself sported.
As in the Kyoto International Manga Museum itself, the venue struggles with the contrary formats of a foreign-language right-to-left medium that is designed to be appreciated privately and slowly, and an exhibition space that demands public installations to stare at. We have KIMM’s Keiko Takemiya to thank for many of the blow-ups, 3D representations and off-the-peg explanations that make exhibitions like this one possible in the first place.
Tezuka is both an obvious choice and an odd one – he is certainly a pivotal figure in the field, but he died thirty years ago, long before most Tampere visitors were born. He is also blessed with a studio, Tezuka Pro, that has expertly and intelligently managed his literary estate, so that Tezuka’s creations remain the most accessible artefacts for foreign curators. Putting together an exhibition of everybody else from the 1950s and 1960s in manga is a substantially tougher process, and likely to bring diminishing returns from a public that will not necessarily appreciate it. Visitors, as the Tampere exhibition recognises, need to be educated as to what manga is before they can return to appreciate the achievements of its unsung heroes (or heroines). Despite cavils from dissenters like Go Ito, whose Tezuka is Dead is a crucial book for understanding the politics of manga museology, Tezuka seems to be the most frequent point of agreement between the kind of people who hold the kind of meetings that make events like this happen. I would even suggest, on the basis of my interactions with numerous consuls, vice-consuls and policy wonks over the years, that Tezuka is a point of common familiarity for the Japanese, particularly those in diplomatic positions who blush to admit they are not manga readers themselves, who are obliged to play along when foreign delegations turn up demanding material for something related to popular culture.
A small section on costuming includes a stunning Bride’s Story dress, as well as a Sailor Uranus outfit, misidentified in signage as Sailor Moon. “Is cosplay also a form of manga?” asks a sign, hopefully.
No. No, it isn’t.
For the record, neither is rounding up local kids and getting them to draw a comic in an activity area – a fact made inadvertently clear by a small library stocked with How to Draw Manga books, many written by people who plainly cannot do it themselves. This, too, is something of a mis-step, since there are plenty of publications by people, even non-Japanese, who can really walk the walk when it comes to Japanese stylistics. I’m not objecting to having fun activities for the kids that foster youthful comic art. I just don’t like being told how to do it by someone who can’t draw. Not all How to Draw Manga books are worth the cover price.
Tampere Art Museum wrestles with issues common to manga exhibitions worldwide – the need to incorporate anime (running constantly in several video rooms, here), the need to indulge interactivity, and the inconvenient truth that comics pages have to form an integrated whole, otherwise they are just scattered illustrations. I am invited to sit down and watch Black Jack, or to sit down and read it, which are both activities I can perform without leaving my house, so one must assume that the implied visitor is someone almost entirely new to Japanese comics, who will appreciate a broad introduction and the chance for a haptic encounter, fondling the magazines and browsing the books, and close-up appreciation of the artistry. In some performative sense, the achievement of exhibitions like this lies in legitimation and the performance of value – manga artwork is put in a frame and placed on a wall in an art gallery, and hence urges the casual passer-by to reconsider it.
If that’s the case, the gift shop needs to up its game, since it offers little material that might truly extend a visitor’s experience once they get home. There was, for example, no sign of Helen McCarthy’s lavishly illustrated Art of Osamu Tezuka, nor of the British Museum manga exhibition catalogue, which the Tampere Art Museum could have easily left in a stack by the door and claimed as its own – it is, after all, a very good book, that does in paper form what the Tampere exhibition is trying to do in three dimensions. And, really, no Schodt? All those examples, of course, would be of little use to a hypothetical Finnish matron unsure of her English – as so often happens in Finnish cultural events, curators expect a local population that largely speaks English, but have a duty of care to visitors who only speak Finnish, for whom there is little to offer but a few local translations.
A few signs acknowledge the short but meteoric history of manga in Finland, from the first translation in 1985 to the present day, which sees over 80 titles a year in Finnish. Smartly, they allude to the peculiarities of Finnish manga and anime reception – Silver Fang, almost unknown in English, is one of the biggest titles in Finland thanks to a 1989 TV broadcast, whereas the 49-episode Katri the Milkmaid, a World Masterpiece Theatre series based on a novel by Auni Nuolivaara, has never been seen in the country in which it is set (I suggest why in the Anime Encyclopedia, but wouldn’t this have been the perfect time to tell the Finns all about it?). I would have liked to see more along such lines, since Finland does make occasional, quirky appearances in anime and manga history, not the least the involvement of Tezuka’s former studio, Mushi Pro, in the creation of the iconic Moomins anime series, greater coverage of which would have surely filled an entire gallery with a subject that truly united Finnish and Japanese tastes.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Osamu Tezuka: The God of Manga and Manga Mania are running at the Tampere Art Museum until 5th January 2020. The Tezuka exhibits will switch over on 12th November, presenting an entirely different side of the artist – visitors are offered a discount ticket allowing them to visit twice to see both sets.