A touring exhibition examining the legacy of the 19th century artist Katsushika Hokusai is not only a reminder of Japan’s rich visual tradition, it also puts a spotlight on the contemporary Japanese comic book or illustration form known as manga.
From a Western perspective, the ascendency of Japanese popular culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, beginning in the late 1980s with the explosion of animated films known as anime, such as Akira, and currently recognised in the fascination with J-pop acts such as Babymetal.
It is through comic books that Japanese popular culture has enjoyed its greatest reach. And though the exhibition Manga Hokusai Manga has added significance in that it is part of a programme of events celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations between Ireland and Japan, it is a timely one due to the increasing influence of Japanese popular culture.
“It’s really significant,” notes Yuichi Yamada, First Secretary, Press and Cultural Affairs, of the Embassy of Japan in Ireland, who credits the popularity of manga with an increasing interest in Japanese culture and language.
“A lot of young people in Ireland like manga and pop culture a lot. That’s the reason why a lot of young people started to learn Japanese.”
Mr Yamada offers the statistic that where 2004 saw 28 students take Japanese for the Leaving Cert; 2016 saw that number rise to 326. “According to a survey 54% said they started studying Japanese because of an interest in manga, anime and J-pop,” Mr Yamada adds.
Running in the Long Room Hub at Dublin’s Trinity College, Manga Hokusai Manga takes a broad look at Japanese comics culture stretching back to the manga (a word that translates as ‘whimsical pictures’) of Hokusai, whose print series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and the iconic The Great Wave off Kanagawa are internationally recognised.
Mr Yamada hopes the focus on the old master will encourage visitors to take a deeper look at Japanese culture. “This exhibition can be the example for those students and those people to look at pop culture based on traditional culture at the same time side by side,” he says.
Dr Lorna Carson, Director of Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, says the influence of manga has become pervasive.
“You see it in the way the figures are depicted nowadays,” she says, pointing out the increased use of wide-eyed characters that tap into the Japanese fascination with the quality of cuteness or Kawaii.
She continues: “So many of the features in manga and anime have an impact. Even looking at something like The Matrix, the relation between it and Ghost in the Shell, which was originally a manga and then an anime. And now of course it’s being remade with Scarlett Johansson. So it’s very much impacted our culture but I think we sometimes don’t realise it.”
Manga has a style distinct from American and European comics. As Scott McCloud demonstrated in his masterly Understanding Comics, this is particularly evident in the amount of panels in a manga comic that focus on space and place, placing as much weight on the visuals as on text and storytelling.
Dr Carson maintains we can’t really understand contemporary Japan without knowing a little bit about ancient Japan and that Manga Hokusai Manga will help identify the roots of contemporary pop culture in the venerable Hokusai.
“I think the point to make here is that what we see as a contemporary phenomenon is actually deeply rooted in Japan’s long history of visual culture.
"Many of the aspects of today’s manga can be traced to the type of work that Hokusai published so prolifically in his sketches of everyday life — such as the inclusion of humour, the supernatural, word plays through strategically placed images, and so forth.”