Tezuka in Tampere

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.

British Museum Manga

“As the exhibition winds down, its catalogue is going to form much of its historical footprint. On shelves and coffee tables in years to come, this hefty 350-page book is going to transform into a resource and an aide-memoire, a place for people to remember and revisit what they saw. Undoubtedly, it will form the germ of some new fans’ first appreciation of what manga is.”

Over at the All the Anime blog, I examine the heritage and likely legacy of the British Museum Manga exhibition.

The Elephant in the Room

I get a walk-on role in the art magazine Elephant‘s coverage of the British Museum’s new exhibit.

“Jonathan Clements… has published more incisive, entertaining insights about manga than any other writer in the UK. Clements’s Manga Snapshot column in NEO magazine has been going strong for fourteen years; his Schoolgirl Milky Crisis essays explore the behind-the-scenes drama of the manga/anime industry, and his latest book, Attack of the Red Panda, will be out this year.”

Vital Statistics

Continuing to make a mockery of the supposed four-panel format is I Love the Best Boobs in the World by Wakame Konbu. Yes, that’s a pseudonym, since it means Seaweed Seaweed, and you’d probably want to hide your real name if you were writing a comic about a kind-hearted teenager, Chiaki, who is best friends with classmate Hana, whose mammary glands are apparently the top of the tit tree. In this month’s instalment, our two heroines go shopping for bras, which allows the implied male reader a delicious, erotically-charged peek at what goes on in lingerie shop changing rooms. Chiaki, in fact, is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – as a girl, she gets a free pass into such inner sanctums, although she secretly has a fetish for large breasts, and loves to be around them.

Because NEO leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of Japanese culture, it’s time to talk boobs. The Triumph company has been logging Japanese bust-sizes since 1980, allowing statisticians to plot a curve of Japanese… curves. The story it tells is a compelling one born from changes in Japanese dietary habits (particularly dairy products containing bovine growth hormones) and trends, suggesting that A, B, and C cup sales have been dropping for a generation. Whereas A-cups in 1980 were worth 58.6% of all Japanese bra sales, now they’ve fallen to 4.1%. 2016 was the tipping point – the first year in which D, E and F cup sizes represented more sales in Japan than A, B, and C.

However, before you rush off to impress your friends with this news, some things to bear in mind. Firstly, Japanese bra sizes are not the same as other countries’. A Japanese E-cup, for example, is the same size as an American D-cup or a British DD.

Even allowing for these differences in definition, there is still a palpable change in bra-buying in Japan since 1980, but this does not necessarily mean that Japanese women are suddenly bustier. Triumph cautions that it may simply mean that women with bigger chests buy more bras, either as a feature of their struggle to find one that fits properly, or possibly because they are more likely to work in a sector that requires what we shall gingerly call performative lingerie exhibition.

University undergraduates who have suddenly decided on their final essay topic while reading this page are also advised to bear in mind that many Japanese bras are also aspirational – you might be a humble A-cup, wearing a padded C-cup because you think it will get you noticed. In that regard, the changing statistics may have less to do with changes in body type, and more to do with 21st century standards of beauty.

Jonathan Clements is the author of  A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared as part of the Manga Snapshot column on Comic Cune in NEO #180, 2018.

Jesus is My Flatmate

Morning Two’s greatest success story was a manga that began running in its very first issue, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men. At one level, it is a slice-of-life comedy about two with-it hipsters sharing a Tokyo apartment. They squabble over vegetarian recipes; they experiment with a boutique T-shirt business, and they go shopping for noodles at the corner store. But Nakamura’s high concept has incredible bite, because these young men are really Buddha and Jesus, roughing it in an earthbound vacation.

In this month’s chapter, they argue about the washing up, and then go on a trip to Ikea, because even God-made-flesh needs a working hob and an extractor fan. Buddha enthuses about how idyllic life must be for all those Viking gods and Valkyries in their beige Swedish wonder-kitchens. Jesus goes a bit crazy in Home Furnishings, and then realises he has to carry his purchases home.

Nakamura’s storyline injects a much-needed humanity and humour into figures usually viewed only through translations of ancient books. Jesus is a resolutely happy person, who can laugh at the fact that schoolgirls mistake him for Johnny Depp. He runs a blog about TV drama, and frets about how to keep his crown of thorns dry in the shower. Buddha likes reading manga (particularly Osamu Tezuka’s famous Life of Buddha), and has an irritating ability to somehow get infinite lives whenever he plays a video game.

This could have all too easily gone horribly wrong. Nakamura is well aware of this, and has been reluctant to allow her manga to receive an English-language edition, because she is afraid of the likely knee-jerk reaction from the Christian Right in the USA. This doesn’t appear to have stopped it getting translated in Italy (the home of the Pope), or in Spain (the home of the Spanish Inquisition – nobody was expecting that). This is a sad state of affairs, because Saint Young Men is a truly charming story, rich with humour and compassion, and oddly respectful of its protagonists. Its satire is not directed so much at them, but at the modern world in which they find themselves, repeatedly confronting 21st century customs and attitudes with the nature of old-world religious figures.

If you think that gay marriage causes hurricanes, that tattoos will send you to Hell, and that a prawn cocktail is forbidden, then you are never going to like Saint Young Men. If you believe that “reverence” means never laughing at absurdity or imagining “what would Jesus do”, then this manga is certainly irreverent, and that makes it literally blasphemous. Nakamura is an equal opportunities satirist, and throws in a bunch of other gods and goddesses – this is typically Japanese eclecticism, but unlikely to play well with anyone who refuses to accept that others believe differently.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #144, 2015, and is reprinted now because of the Saint Young Men live-action TV show, currently creating waves online.

The Ghosts of Dead Gods

Back from the Worldcon in Helsinki this August, a gathering of science fiction’s great and good. Japanese attendees maintained a strangely low profile at an event that often made me muse upon the thinning of the old guard, and the continuing onrush of the new. While a block of fifty Chinese fans paraded big-name authors, pushed their upcoming Asia-Pacific convention in Beijing and ran a riotous party, the Japanese huddled at a dealers’ table and rarely seemed to venture out. I found myself on two anime-related panels having to apologise for the lack of native speakers, with representatives from the homeland of anime and manga seemingly unwilling to volunteer to talk about it publically. Despite this, two awards were dished out with Japan connections, both sneaking in under Japanese fandom’s radar.

One was for Ada Palmer, sometime historical consultant for Funimation and the founder of the Tezuka in English website, although her accolade here was a John W. Campbell Best Newcomer award for her novel Too Like the Lightning. The other was the Best Graphic Novel Hugo, handed to writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda for their ongoing comic series Monstress.

Although drawn in Japan by a Japanese artist, and hence perfectly deserving of a manga tag, Monstress is far better imagined at the forefront of modern “woke” comics, intimately concerned with the powerlessness of slaves and chattels in a colonialist society – what it feels like to be an object in someone else’s world. Trawling through online reviews, I see many readers ascribing a manga sensibility to the artwork. This is news to me – Takeda’s imagery seems to strive to be as un-manga as possible, luxuriating in the availability of a colour palette, thin lines and a sedate panel progression – if it reminded me of anything it was Colleen Doran. One imagines that faced with visceral, violent imagery, some American readers are immediately prompted to pronounce something as “manga” – which is also ironic, considering the reputation that Image Comics already enjoys without any help from across the sea.

The cast are largely women, but Takeda refuses to objectify them. No fan service here – instead these are characters getting on with their various stories, showcasing a cast of widespread ages and grotesqueries, as if Orange is the New Black were suddenly invaded by a coven of steampunk cannibal witches. It’s Liu’s writing that imparts Monstress with its true chills – feral, fearful creatures with magical powers, locked in eternal conflict with predatory, flesh-eating ghouls, constantly fighting to gain control of their own destiny.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article previously appeared in NEO 169, 2017.

The Allure of Gravure

agnes lum.jpgCommon to many Japanese magazines for the teenage male, Young Gangan features a “gravure” section – photo-sets of demure Japanese girls, posing in a sequence of fashions with occasional gormless texts.

As the name implies, gravure in Japan began with the conceit of amateur photography, giving new camera owners an excuse for titillating “research”. My recollections of early gravure are of rather sweet virtual dates, such as a pipe-smokers’ magazine from the mid-1970s that featured a photo-set of a rather prim, refreshingly plain young lady, sitting earnestly across a dinner table, perching on a couch, and lurking coquettishly near a lamp-post: the fantasy being simply that of her company, her attention, and presumably, her lack of complaint about the smell of smoke.

Later, racier magazines would go all the way, lurching from the public realm into the bedroom, with the virtual companion whipping off her clothes in a sealed bonus section. The game-changer for 1970s gravure, however, was the Hawaiian-born Agnes Lum (pictured), who parleyed her early appearances in Japanese magazines into a singing and modelling career. The fiercely attractive Lum was notable for her magnificent boobs, a feature less prominent in the Japanese girls of the day, which soon lured her photographers away from urban fashion shoots and into the realm of swimwear, all the better to show them off. This, in turn, incentivised beach locations, and it was not long before the expense and exoticism of teen photo-shoots began to spiral upwards. Wouldn’t you rather put a weekend in Hawaii on expenses? The male population’s panting obsession with a pneumatic, bikini-clad foreigner was soon satirised by manga creator Rumiko Takahashi in Urusei Yatsura and its iconic Lum-chan, a green-haired, sexually aggressive devil girl in a tiger-skin two-piece.

By the 1980s, a gravure appearance was commonplace for aspiring actress-model-whatevers, particularly among would-be idol singers. Such photo-sets are ten-a-penny in Japan, and have been largely unchanged for decades. One wishes, Viz-style, for a magazine that offers a little subversion – interfering passers-by, for example, a cameraman whose lack of ability becomes comically, rather than merely irritatingly incompetent, or a model who dresses like an Australian’s nightmare. Instead, they have merely limped along, sustained, one imagines, less from reader support than by the ever-present interest of music promoters in snatching page-space for their starlets, and by photographers’ desires to charge for weekend getaways with young soubrettes.

lumBut the U-rated images in Young Gangan are notable for how low-rent they seem: Rina Ikoma is pictured in someone’s back garden beneath a drab grey sky; Hinako Kitano has at least gone somewhere with a pool, although she oddly jumps in while keeping her clothes on. Then, she stands in the street and throws around a baseball. Don’t play in the street, Hinako! This is that most innocuous of “girlfriend experiences”, the simple presence of a female making eye contact, although also discreetly whispering that her new album is in shops now. It’s all about the male gaze, although the gaze one can’t help imagining is usually that of Alan Partridge, fumbling ineptly with a Canon 5D.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016, as a sidebar to a Manga Snapshot article on Young Gangan magazine.