Precursors to Manga
What exactly are manga, and where did they come from? The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as you might expect. For some scholars, defining manga as light, carefree works of art, manga have clear roots in Japanese art, going as far back as the twelfth century Frolicking Animals scrolls. Seeing manga as a form with a native development in Japan, they trace its growth though comic paintings and ukiyo-e giga (woodblock prints with playful subjects) to the key transposition of late nineteenth century satirical prints into cartoons in magazines. These single panel cartoons subsequently spawned the four-panel comic strip, which in turn became the basis for the full-fledged comic book in the early twentieth century. The “one thing leads to another” tracing performed by these scholars attempt to situate manga as a natural growth within Japanese art, yet even a casual observer can see that today’s manga have very little in common with the monuments of other eras to which these critics casually apply the name.
In this exhibition, while acknowledging the influences of earlier artworks and media types as “precursors,” we treat manga solely as comic books, at least as influenced by the American version of this hybrid form as by native graphic art and pictorial narrative traditions. Conditions in Japan after its 1945 defeat in the Pacific War acted as the incubator in which the manga as comic book developed into its current form and found a massive, receptive audience. Following an all-out, failed war effort in which dire seriousness was the prescribed tone of life, an enormous appetite for carefree entertainment and escapism arose in Japan, leading to a blossoming of popular culture in multiple fields still significant today. American mass media—the movies, animation, pulp fiction, music, and comic books forbidden during the war years—was prominently reintroduced with the U.S. occupation forces. These examples of the “victor’s culture” became models for cutting edge Japanese innovators, who sought to make new forms with widespread appeal that were of their times, and for the people, not the authorities. This was the birth of the manga.