Issue Number: 102
Manga, the modern Japanese comic genre now exploding in popularity, owes much to the masters of the Japanese woodblock print. Paul Gravett assesses its debt to the past
Utagawa Kuniyoshi, The warrior Morozumi Masakiyo kills himself in battle, c.1848. American Friends of the British Museum (The Arthur R. Miller Collection) 21402. Photo © Trustees of the British Museum, London
It’s hard to believe how astonishingly modern Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s warrior print from c.1848 (above) looks to 21st-century Western eyes. The startling way in which the artist has riven its flat plane with five diagonal radiating shafts to symbolise the plunging trajectory of the sword and sheer unleashed power of an exploding mine looks like a climactic full-page panel from a Japanese manga comic. In fact, the common use by manga artists of such explosions or swathes of lines to represent their protagonists’ force is a fine example of how the lessons of Kuniyoshi and his contemporaries live on through Japan’s vibrant comics culture.
As manga has spread internationally, its motifs, techniques and theories, much of them rooted in the ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) print form, is affecting the graphic novel movement worldwide. But claims of an exclusively Japanese unbroken continuity from past to present overlooks the considerable effects upon manga’s ongoing evolution by successive Western products, beginning at the dawn of the Meiji period in the 1880s when Japan became open to the outside world again. Ever since, the tides of artistic influence have ebbed and flowed almost constantly between Japan and the West.
Through all this, Kuniyoshi’s prints have remained iconic and embedded in Japan’s visual lexicon. Many Japanese comic artists, or mangaka, refer to his vivid portrayals of people and settings. They range from the late Sugiura Hinako’s meticulously researched tales of the Edo era to Lone Wolf and Cub, Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki’s warrior tragedy of over 8,000 pages. In Japan’s top-selling shonen (boys’ weeklies), even the most populist and mainstream serials, such as Naruto or One Piece, will happily acknowledge these sources. In these pulpy newsprint pages, one can re-enter the world of yôkai - the monsters of Japanese folklore as visualised in woodblock prints - through a manga genre pioneered in 1959 by Mizuki Shigeru in his series Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro.
Similarly, Kuniyoshi’s playful ways of anthropomorphising real creatures relate clearly to the ‘funny animal’ genre in comics. His print of octopuses in training, for example, is echoed in Takono Hatchan (Octopus Hatchan), created by Tagawa Suiho in 1931, in which the cartoonist gives an octopus clothing and shoes to fit in with human society. In one propaganda tale, he trains other octopuses to become naval officers. In current manga hits such as Fujiko F. Fujio's robot cat, Doraemon, there are also plenty of present-day equivalents to Kuniyoshi’s humanised cats dressed in the clothes of his era.
Outside Japan, it may be surprising to find Kuniyoshi’s sensitive faces of women resurfacing in one of the finest North American graphic novels of last year. Skim is the diary of a troubled Canadian-Japanese schoolgirl crafted by two Canadian-Japanese cousins, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki. According to Jillian, ‘It seems the ukiyo-e influence is deeper in my subconscious than I gave it credit for. The best of ukiyo-e is perfectly composed, but not boring. In fact, I often find the compositions surprising, even amusing, in their counterpointing of broad strokes and thin strokes, white space and areas of high detail. There is an economy and clarity I really admire.’
More than the quotations or appropriations of specific imagery, there are profound, underlying resonances between these prints and modern manga. To design her comics, the London-based Inko, pen-name of Ai Takita-Lucas, studies prints for the way their compositions advance a story through one scene without subdividing it into panels, directing the reader-viewer powerfully right-to-left across the image. In Inko’s view, ‘the beauty of asymmetry is much admired in Japanese artistic traditions, so ukiyo-e compositions create various "eye streams" to avoid a symmetrical layout.’
There are other evident graphic similarities between Japan’s woodblock prints and comics: both use precise outlines, caricatured faces and unmodulated patterning of textiles and textures. But more importantly, both media are cheap, mass-produced, visually-led entertainments enjoying huge popularity and print-runs.
And neither genre has been highly regarded by cultural arbiters of their day. Ukiyo-e prints were so undervalued in Japan that they were used as wrapping paper for shipments of crockery. However, they captivated Europeans, leading to the mania for things Japanese known as Japonisme and having a profound effect on the development of European art and design.
A century later, a similar fin-de-siècle transition seems to be underway. A wave of international acclaim and imitation of manga outside Japan has heralded more serious acceptance in their homeland. So in 2006, the first manga museum was opened in Kyoto, while in 2007 the Japanese government created the International Manga Award. As Japan’s Foreign Minister Aso Taro (now Prime Minister) declared in 2007: ‘Manga is about everything - it knows absolutely no boundaries.’
In the printed copies of RA Magazine Spring 2009 the creator of Doraemon, the robot cat, is given as Akatsuka Fujio. It should have been attributed, as it is above, to Fujiko F. Fujio. We apologise for the error.