“THIS IS MANGA”, THE ART OF URASAWA NAOKI
Having recently found occasion to visit Bloomsbury’s British Museum, and been delighted to discover that a show devoted to Japan’s premier popular art form, “Manga”, was being displayed within it’s halls, I was pleased to note that, in tandem with the Museum’s efforts to collate data relevant to far Eastern graphic art, a similar exhibition featuring the work of perhaps one of “Manga’s” brightest talents, “Urasawa Naoki”, was currently being staged in Kensington…
Featuring an interview focusing upon the influence of both Japanese technology and digital media within modern Manga conducted between, “Urasawa Naoki”, and “Wired” magazine’s far Eastern correspondent, “Matt Kamen”, the exhibition was, in being recorded to have opened with a talk given by the artist before a small gathering of admirers, perceived to serve as a pretext for the drafting of four episodes of the strip cartoon,“Yawara!”, throughout it’s duration, a schedule which, in witnessing the completion of a story approximately every two weeks, would ultimately result in a fairly extensive addition to the Manga catalog as the show reached conclusion…
Inspired by both the exhibition’s contemporary nature and the British Museum’s observations relating to the history of oriental art, a term beneath which the medium was perceived to have evolved, upon the strength of a “Kabuki” theater curtain painted by the artist “Kwanabe Kyosai” during the late Victorian era, into a retail phenomenon which, in having witnessed the inauguration of “Kwanabe Kyosai’s” mural into the design scheme of Tokyo’s “Waseda” university, presently constitutes approximately twenty percent of all literature published in Japan, I promptly decided to forge passage towards Kensington in efforts to attend the show…
Entitled “This is Manga”, I learned that the exhibition was due to be staged within the basement of “Japan House”, a venue which, in once having served as a department store, presently neighbors the marvelous Art Deco structure of the “Barker’s” building along Kensington High Street, a location which, in being relatively accessible would circumstantially grant me an opportunity to explore the glorious expanse of “Kensington Gardens” within it’s vicinity.
Arriving early upon a fine Sunday morning, as the customary throng of cyclists, dog walkers and casual shoppers which typify the event horizon of suburban London were beginning to enact their daily schedule, I tentatively approached “Japan House”, noting as I did so that, it’s exterior was partially obscured from view as a result of renovation work, an observation which, in momentarily causing me to check my bearings in efforts to insure that I was at the correct address, ultimately revealed the entrance to the show.
Promptly crossing the building’s threshold to discover what lay within, I was delighted to learn that, despite my initial concerns, the interior of the property was finished in an immaculate manner, both being lined with tiers of illuminated shelves bearing articles of far Eastern extraction and housing a small stall devoted uniquely to the sale of “Manga” literature.
Descending down a spiral staircase constructed to minimalist effect from pressed steel, I was courteously greeted by a Japanese woman who quietly informed me that the Manga panels presented forth for display should be read in reverse order, a practice which, in being peculiar to Oriental script, would ostensibly serve to reveal the detail of each story through a correct chain of consequence.
Containing more than four hundred original Manga drawings, drafted by “Urasawa Naoki” for a selection of different publications, the subterranean chamber which constituted the axis of the exhibition was, in resembling a well maintained artist’s studio, observed to have been arranged about the circumference of a steel skeleton erected to form a tent draped with examples of Manga art, a schematic which, in being further divided into quadrants by partitions that respectively focused upon each of “Urasawa Naoki’s” books, presented a fairly comprehensive overview of the artist’s work to date.
The first thing that I noticed upon examining the sketches was that the spaces in their scheme devoted to speech were left open at their conceptual stage, the words being added afterwards through direct superimposition upon pieces of paper for the purposes of print reproduction, a practice that, for some absurd reason, made me think of the panel games which one occasionally sees in tabloid newspapers that encourage readers to fill in the gaps.
Recorded to have been influenced by the work of the artists “Otomo Katsuhiro” and “Tezuka Osamu”, draftsmen associated with a cultural consortium known as “The Year 24 Group”, the work of “Urasawa Naoki”, represents the culmination of an extensive period of refinement devoted to the manner in which graphic art was ultimately conceived to appear upon the page, a term beneath which the artist justifiably deserves to be recognized as a modern “Mangaka” or master of Manga.
Although “Urasawa Naoki’s” sketches are at first glance, perceived to be fairly simple, even superficial, they nonetheless appear pleasingly appropriate upon the page, an observation creditable to the artist’s superb sense of perspective, which flawlessly interprets subtleties such as movement and distance to the effect of blessing each frame with a manner of three dimensional depth that, in preserving a correct sense of proportion, serves as the perfect vehicle for Manga.
Recorded to have made his debut in 1983 with “Beta!”, a short tale of adolescent anxiety caused by the daily pressures of college life, “Urasawa Naoki” was subsequently observed to have commenced work on “Pineapple Army”, an extended run of militarily inspired stories which, in recanting the adventures of a Japanese self defense instructor commissioned to work for the international defense agency after having left the army, was witnessed to combine the traditional themes of moral fortitude and global salvation that conventionally serves to furnish mainstream comics with detail relatively effectively.
Having formulated the primary elements of what it is that constitutes the heroic narrative whilst drafting “Pineapple army”, “Urasawa Naoki” joined forces with “Hokusei Katsushika” and “Takashi Nagaski” to illustrate “Master Keaton”, an extended narrative which, in being divided into eighteen volumes, loosely recants the adventures of “Talchi Hiralga Keaton” a gifted Oxford student who, after having been enlisted into the “Special Air Service”” to solve the Iranian Embassy Incident during the mid 1980's, achieves success within the employ of “Lloyd’s Bank” as a professional investigator, a vocation that, in earning him a degree of admiration through association with the usage of unorthodox methodology to solve crimes, nonetheless leaves him dissatisfied with what he perceives to be a limited parameter with regards to his field of work, an observation that, in peculiarly inspiring him to study the origins of European civilization in the Danube Basin during the first millennium, ultimately serves to grant him a degree of insight into his true status within modern society.
Although “Master Keaton” exemplifies all of the elements that one would expect from a modern Manga novel, it was not until 1994 with the publication of “Monster” that, “Urasawa Naoki”, achieved global renown, a term beneath which the book was, in being translated into a number of different languages, recorded, at the conclusion of it’s production run in 2001, to have sold a staggering 20 million copies through a distribution network spanning more than twenty countries.
Divided into eighteen volumes, “Monster” recants the adventures of “Kenso Tenma”, a Japanese brain surgeon living in Germany who, in having been commissioned to treat a psychopath named “Johan Liebert” and his sister “Anna”, becomes implicated in a string of murders.
Commencing with an incident in which the surgeon is witnessed to lose face after having allowed the mayor of a small German town to die whilst attending “Liebert’s”, condition, “Monster” proceeds to investigate the peculiar convictions of a psychiatric patient named “Adolf Junkers” who, in correspondence with the book’s name, is obsessed by the idea of an invisible monster that he believes to prey upon mankind, a condition curtly apprehended, for the sake of narrative pace by “Johan Liebert” who, in deciding to shoot “Junkers” , coincidentally implicates “Kenzo Tenma”in the murder.
After a protracted series of disputes in which “Anna” is adopted by a foster family to separate her from her brother only to be staked out by “Johan”, who proceeds to kill her benefactors in a typically grisly manner, it is exposed that the monster to which “Adolf Junkers” had referred during his internment was, in fact, the by product of a sinister program designed to create psychotic soldiers for military purposes, a revelation that, in representing a solution to “Johan Liebert’s” condition, compels “Kenzo Tenma” to review his appreciation of the patient’s case and protect him from the factors that were theoretically responsible for his condition.
Swiftly followed by a sequel narrated from an investigative reporter’s standpoint entitled “Another Monster” in 2002, “Monster” was, in having established premium for itself upon the international stage, subsequently adapted into a series of animated films for relay upon terrestrial television networks thereby confirming the novel’s status as modern classic.
Following the success of “Monster”, “Urasawa Naoki” proceeded to illustrate “20th Century Boys”, a semi prophetic fantasy which, in extending to encompass twenty two volumes in length, was witnessed to have taken seven years to run through to conclusion.
Set between 1969 and 2017, “20th Century Boys” was, in having taken it’s title from a “T.Rex” song, notable for reflecting back to the popular culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, a term beneath which references to both old Manga strip cartoons and pieces of chart music were observed to have been liberally introduced into the story’s script in efforts to capture the essence of the era to which it ascribed.
Recanting the tale of a group of boys who decide to build a hideout in a field in the late 1960's, a retreat in which they can engage in mildly illicit activities such as listening to the radio, reading Manga and scrutinizing pornographic literature uninterrupted by the threat of parental intercession, “20th Century Boys”, proceeds to chart the growth of the gang through the induction of a number of new members into it’s fold, a process through which, it circumstantially becomes enamored with the notion that it will play a role in a prophecy that witnesses it’s involvement in the salvation of the world.
Deftly skipping through to the late 1990’s, a period during which a gang member named “Donkey” is observed to have had died, “20th Century Boys”, proceeds to investigate the rise of a mysterious cult leader known only as “Friend”, a character who, in correspondence with the gang’s prophecy, is witnessed to have devised a plan to contaminate the earth with a deadly virus that will kill it’s entire population.
Serving as the inspiration for a re-union, through which the group becomes actively involved in the sabotage of “Friend’s” schemes, a circumstance beneath which a gang member named “Kenji Endo” is observed to go missing whilst engaged in a mission to destroy a hot air balloon filled with the cult’s virus, “20th Century Boys”, begins to assume the scope of a Shakespearean melodrama replete with a multitude of subtexts and narrative angles.
After “Kenji Endo’s” disappearance, “Friend’s” cult is paradoxically perceived to win acclaim for developing an antidote to it’s own toxin, a premium beneath which “Kenji Endo’s” niece “Kanna” is inadvertently informed of a plot to assassinate the Pope through coincidence with her presence at the site of a gangland assassination, a series of circumstances that ultimately results in the young girl’s pursuit by “Friend’s” sinister cabal.
Throughout the course of the hunt, “Kanna’s” accomplice “Kyoko Kokumi” is coincidentally observed to be captured and subjected to a brain washing campaign waged by “Friend’s” cohorts, a procedure which, in being narrowly circumvented by “Kyoko Kokumi’s” escape, is witnessed to invest the girl with a desire to rebel against the cult’s methodology , a process through which she is ultimately observed to be re-united with “Kanna” and absorbed into the 20th Century Boys’ gang.
As these events transpire, the full virulence of “Friend’s” plan is revealed, a global intoxication of such intensity that only those inoculated by him will remain alive, however the amoral pretext which the scheme is perceived to represent, ultimately causes his chief scientist to assassinate him, a circumstance that, upon resulting in a highly publicized funeral attended by a number of celebrities including the Pope, results nonetheless in a major outbreak of the virus that had, throughout the course of the story, been secretly stock piled by “Friend’s” cult.
Posthumously deified by the Pope, “Friend” is, despite his demise, nonetheless witnessed to have established a suitable premium for his cult to wield constitutional authority, a term beneath which the cabal is thenceforth observed to institute a global defense policy against what it perceives to be the imminent threat of an alien invasion, a process through which “Kanna” is, in a moment of revelation, perversely discovered to have been “Friend’s” daughter, an observation through which the nefarious cult leader had, when alive, effectively been “Kenji Endo’s” brother.
Resurrected at the end of the tale to continue his struggle against the cult’s machinations after having miraculously survived the ill fated mission to sabotage “Friend’s” balloon, “Kenji Endo” is then ultimately observed to be reunited with his niece long after the cult leader’s schemes have reaped vintage, a collusion of circumstances that, in compelling the story’s two remaining central characters to spite the perverse whim of fate that must presumably have served to have aided their survival, draws the series to a disturbingly disconsolate conclusion.
At approximately the same time that “20th Century Boys” was in tabloid circulation “Urasawa Naoki” was commissioned to collaborate with perhaps one of Manga’s most prolific artists “Tezuka Osamu” upon the science fiction fantasy “Pluto”, a novel which, in paying homage to “Tezuka Osamu’s’ popular animated creation “Astroboy”, relates the adventures of a “Europol” detective named “Geisicht” who has been employed to resolve a string of deaths involving both robots and humans.
Recanted in eight volumes between 2003 and 2009, “Pluto” describes a world which, in keeping with the predictions of the great science fiction writer “Isaac Asimov” is observed to grant both robots and humans equal rights, an edict beneath which the general term “damage” can, in being ascribed to both living creatures and those of artificial contrivance, effectively be construed to mean that robots are alive, a pretext beneath which the destruction of robots designed for military purposes was, in saving life, perversely considered to be murder.
Countenancing the ethical dilemmas faced by “Geisicht”, upon discovering that the spate of deaths that he has been commissioned to investigate, were being caused by a resistance movement that wished to prevent the misapplication of robots as weapons of mass destruction, “Pluto” affords a degree of speculation upon the character of a future in which civil enforcement has effectively been forced over a barrel upon which affairs of the heart and those of law are inevitably drawn into confrontation with each other.
As “Pluto” neared completion “Urasawa Naoki”, was witnessed to have teamed up with his old colleague “Takashi Nagasaki” to illustrate the classic adventure tale “Billy Bat”, a story which, in loosely paying homage to the popular American comic book hero “Bat Man”, was recorded to have been published by “Kodansha” between 2008 and 2018.
Set in the late 1940’s, “Billy Bat” recants the tale of an American comic book artist named “Kevin Yamagata”, an individual who, in discovering that his popular creation “Billy Bat” has been sub-consciously copied by him from another source, is compelled to visit occupied Japan in efforts to settle the issue with the character’s erstwhile originator, a process through which he inadvertently becomes involved in a string of murders that, in bearing relevance to his work, are mysteriously thematized by the symbol which had found occasion to feature in his comics.
Learning after a period of protracted research, that the “Billy Bat” character which had inadvertently found it’s way into his work, was inexplicably linked to the supernatural “Scroll of Momochi”, a document that, in being of indescribably ancient origin, once legendarily allowed people to rule the world, “Kevin Yamagata” is subsequently drawn into collaboration with a descendant of the “Momochi” clan, a process through which he incidentally becomes embroiled in an increasingly bizarre web of intrigue through which historic events, including the assassination of the American president “John F. Kennedy” are revealed to have been accidents caused by an improper application of the scroll’s principles.
Represented in the exhibition by a short film depicting six hundred images of “Billy Bat” printed upon different surfaces conveyed onto the anterior wall of the subterranean chamber with an overhead projector, a piece of footage which, in being screened alongside an excerpt of guitar music arranged by the artist to celebrate the end of the strip cartoon’s production run in 2018, “Billy Bat” is observed to capture the sense of low brow popular appeal exemplified by much popular American comic book art, a term beneath which it successfully retains the narrative pace for which such literature is deservedly renowned.
Gradually drawing it’s realm of incident through to matters of a contemporary persuasion, the next section of the exhibition was devoted to “Urasawa Naoki’s” most recent project, “Mujirishi” a tale which, in being restricted to a limited number of episodes was notably recorded to have been devised in collaboration with both the “Louvre” art gallery in Paris and the “Fujio” production studio in Japan.
Relating the adventures of a superstitious gambler named “Zanzou” who, in being led to believe that his fate is governed by mysterious symbols, circumstantially encounters a crow with a length of parchment strapped to it’s claw whilst waiting for his daughter at a train station, a document which in duly being removed from the bird’s leg, is discovered to read “Mujirushi”, “Urasawa Naoki’s” latest tale is notable for referring back to the artistic traditions of fin de siecle Paris, a period during which the city was considered to be the cultural capital of the world.
Compelled, upon the strength of the parchment’s detail, to visit an old house with his daughter, a location in which he encounters a mysterious man who claims that he wishes to discuss the matter of art stolen from the “Louvre” Museum, both “Zanzou” and his daughter become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre web of intrigue through which the occult heritage of the “Louvre” is gradually revealed.
Charting “Mujirushi’s” production run through to conclusion in the February of 2019, the exhibition finally proceeds to investigate “Urasawa Naoki’s” current work program, a series of preliminary sketches which, in collectively being drafted for the publishing firm “Big Comic Spirits”, are respectively devoted to the exploits of two traditional “Shojo” heroines, “Asadora!”, and, “Yawara!”.
Relating the tale of a young girl living in post war Japan, “Asadora!” is, in being observed to retain a markedly understated premium for the purposes of historical perspective, witnessed to dispense with many of the fantastic themes that have found occasion to distinguish “Urasawa Naoki’s” earlier work in favor of a more sympathetic standard, an approach which, in concentrating upon minutiae, promised to provide a degree of insight into the underlying predicaments that quite circumstantially serve to define the human condition.
In keeping with the traditionalist themes embodied by “Asadora!”, “Yawara!” recants the story of a young girl who is forced to become a Judo champion by her grandfather, a patronage that, in beleaguering the heroine with a gauntlet of mixed emotions pertaining to her obligations as an athlete, conclusively compels her to agree with her grandfather’s love of the sport.
Referring back to a series of adventures which, in having concluded their cycle with the culmination of the “Barcelona” Olympic games in 1992, were observed to have been uniquely resurrected by “Naoki Urasawa” for the purposes of the exhibition, a pretext beneath which four fresh interpretations of the original tale were destined to be added to the Manga catalog by the time that the show reached conclusion, “Yarawa!” is perceived to afford many of the the dramatic subtexts that have incidentally come to define the content of much modern media merciful relief.
Having surveyed the last series of displays on show, I tentatively made forth towards the exhibition’s exit, a retreat which, in circumstantially presenting me with an opportunity to investigate the book stall that I had found occasion to notice upon my arrival, presented me with an opportunity to buy one of “Tezuka Osama’s” classic 1970's Manga stories, a surprisingly hefty volume which, in superficially resembling a modern novel, was, in it’s distinction, exquisitely illustrated throughout it’s entirety with a gridlock of printed pictures.
Scheduled to run until the end of July 2019, Japan House’s “This Is Manga” exhibition is, through conjunction with the screening of a series of films devoted to “Studio Ghibli” productions, well worth attending, and for those interested in the progressive initiatives which serve to inspire Manga as a contemporary art form, comes highly recommended.
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