Combining stimulating stories with stylish graphic art, manga - Japanese comic books - have for the past several decades tickled the sensibilities of readers, with ramifications more profound than one might imagine. Not only do manga comprise a whopping 40% of the contemporary Japanese publishing industry, their influence also extends to other forms of mass media—anime, novels, television dramas, games, movies, merchandise— and even to the formation of social values and practices. As a core component of the “Cool Japan” mystique that the Japanese government has promoted to enhance its soft power, manga have now been officially embraced as a defining element of contemporary Japan. While traditionalist critics may dismiss them as derivative, formulaic, superficial, or grossly commercial, the very lightness, ease of reading, and familiarity of repetition in manga comprise part of their charm, and the bewitching effect of that appeal deserves serious consideration.
To what should we attribute the widespread and powerful allure of manga? Does it derive from long enduring Japanese pictorial practices, or is it a modern Japanese version of a Western form? The answer is complicated by the fact that the term “manga” itself has had shifting definitions since its emergence in the 1790s, and has been confusingly applied to various types of visual materials, from pictorial miscellanies to satirical political cartoons to comic strips. Competing histories of manga are thus shaped largely by different interpretations of the term. For some, defining manga broadly as spontaneous, playful drawings, the genre goes back to the Frolicking Animals scrolls of the 12th century. For others, narrowly defining manga by their contemporary form as comic books, they are strictly a postwar phenomenon, more directly influenced by American popular culture than Japanese art history. While the rich background of visual narratives in Japan deserves careful consideration as context, this exhibition focuses mainly on manga in their contemporary form as Japanese comic books, in which American influence predominates.