Manga マンガ: a comprehensive guide through the world of Japanese novels now on at the British Museum.

Written by Natalia Puchalska, International Training Programme; Communications Volunteer

How many of you can recall the adventurous life of Son Goku and his companion from the Dragon Ball series, or the dazzling metamorphosis of the Sailor Moon Princess? If these stylised cartoons defined your childhood, you have already been accustomed to manga and anime. No worries if these names do not ring any bells! The British Museum will explain them to you step by step, in its ground-breaking Manga マンガ exhibition which opened this May.


This largest-ever Manga show to be held outside Japan has also been a comprehensive lesson on the topic. The exhibition explores ‘manga’s global appeal and cultural crossover, showcasing original Japanese manga and its influence across the globe, from anime to ‘cosplay’ dressing up.


Manga (translates as ‘pictures run riot’), a visual narrative art form originating from traditional Japanese woodblock printing, has its roots stretching back further than we can even imagine. Around the year 1200 AD, an anonymous artist produced a set of painted handscrolls showcasing various animals in humorous, human like scenes. Known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū Giga), this work is considered by some to be the foundation of modern manga.


The show introduces us to this visual phenomenon by retracing its history and transformation over the years. The Kawanabe Kyōsai’s theatre curtainfrom 1885 is another example of the manga precursor showcased at the exhibition. The story accompanying the origin of the curtain reveals that the artist, after consuming a few bottles of rice wine, retreated to a studio and started painting. Four hours later he emerged with 17 meters of painted curtain, depicting the members of the acting company as various kinds of monsters. Kyōsai’s homage to the actors created a sensation.


Aside from historical background, we get to know the varieties of manga genres and stories it tackles, from gender to adventure, in real or fantastic worlds, often politically motivated.


The curator also gives us practical knowledge about manga, by sharing some useful tips on how to read it or explaining relevant ‘manga’ symbols.


This comprehensive selection of information and works of art has been arranged in a thoughtfully laid out exhibition after careful consultation with artists and publishers. Hence, the experience feels less like an art exhibition and more like ‘this influential art […] is brought to life like never before […]’.

During the International Training Programme 2019 the fellows will have the opportunity to tour the exhibition with the curators of the show and learn more about the exhibition process from research to display.  We are looking forward to sharing this experience with them and getting their feedback.