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Manga! Japanese images

Louisiana Museum of Modern Art

Humlebaek, Denmark

October 10, 2008-February 8, 2009

Art museums continue to evolve, expanding their definitions of both art and their role in its display. Some may quibble with this broadened scope, preferring the museum remain a white cube used strictly for aesthetic contemplation, but evolving realities of culture (and often sheer economics) are re-shaping museums. Now, cheaply printed, mass-produced comics reside under the same roof as Alberto Giacometti sculptures and Piet Mondrian sketches, as was the case at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art's "Manga! Japanese Images."


What makes a less-traditional exhibition like this work? How does an art museum best present a show weighted more toward cultural history than line art? In this case, the answer was a wide-ranging emphasis on education and context. The exhibition did not treat manga as high art, but instead explored its antecedents and examined its influence on culture, revealing it as a vital piece of Japan's long and unique history of art and publishing.

Visitors were greeted with a massive quantity of information: "wall text" had become "wall of text." A general introduction flowed into a glossary of different terms and ideas specific to manga, but also art history, animation, and more. (We were enlightened with Harvard University professor Joseph Nye's concept of cultural or ideological "soft power" alongside a short definition of "cosplay.") Next came a timeline of milestones in manga history. Following this deluge of words, ideas, and dates, it was on to the exhibition itself.

In the first gallery, a huge mural of a single eye stared down at visitors. It was a perfect distillation of familiar manga imagery, appearing to my American eyes like a frozen action scene from Speed Racer (the Speed Racer cartoon series being one of the earlier successes adapting Japanese anime and manga themes for a western audience). The tilted, intense (particularly blue) eye is the work of Yoshitaka Amano, the storyboard developer for comics Gatchaman and Time Bokan, and the key designer of the Final Fantasy video game series. Several of Amano's sketches and paintings of bits and pieces of anime and manga scenes hung nearby. Rendered with confident, single-stroke lines, they were boldly reminiscent of the Japanese Sumi-c painting style whose origins reach back nearly one thousand years.

Less gallery wing than lively study center, the galaxy of manga came alive in the exhibition's next room. Large screens showed clips from various anime series and several bookshelves overflowed with a vast assortment of manga comic books. It was here that the breadth and scope of manga's place in Japanese culture was best understood. There exists a strain of manga for nearly all tastes and demographics: shojo manga (aimed primarily at younger girls, with cute but not totally innocent romantic understones), shonen manga (for teen boys, full of action and humor), gekiga manga (literally "dramatic pictures," similar to serious graphic novels), and hentai manga (sexually explicit cartoon images), just to name a few. …

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