Exhibition review: Manga – Reading the Flow, Zürich, 10.9.2021-30.1.2022

A very special manga exhibition is about to close soon: curated by none other than Japanese Studies professor Jaqueline Berndt, it may well be the most scholarly sound manga exhibition yet.

exhibition poster with art by Christina Plaka

The special exhibition space at Museum Rietberg is basically one large room, divided into five partitions for this show. The first of these contains a reading area with a selection of manga tankōbon in both German and Japanese for visitors to peruse. The second section, titled “Panels – Pictorial Storytelling”, takes a closer look at how manga are made, in terms of both craftsmanship and layout. To this end, a manga has been purpose-made and is displayed in various stages of completion, including a video of the manga being drawn. The short manga in question was made by German mangaka Christina Plaka and is a present-day reimagining of the Japanese fable of the Poetry Contest of the Twelve Animals, which is shown in the exhibition as a 17th century picture scroll (in reproduction – apparently, the original scroll from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin had been shown in another Japan-themed exhibition at Museum Rietberg which has already ended in December).

exhibition view: Poetry Contest of the Twelve Animals scroll and Tanuki vs. Zodiac 12 manga pages

The following section, “Genres”, contains more pages of Plaka’s manga, but this time each double page is drawn in a different style that corresponds to the major manga demographics – seinen, shōnen and shōjo (setting aside the question of whether “genre” is the adequate term here). The fourth section is called “Studio” and invites visitors to continue Plaka’s manga story by drawing their own little yonkoma manga. Finally, there’s the “Genji” section which presents three different Japanese manga on the same topic – the 11th-century Tale of Genji – by means of enlarged reproduced pages with accompanying texts in German and English. These manga are Asakiyumemishi by Waki Yamato (1980), Ōzukami Genji monogatari Maro, n? by Yoshihiro Koizumi (2002), and Ii ne! Hikaru Genji-kun by est em (2015).

exhibition view: Genji manga

For the most part, the exhibition works fine and dandy. There are just a few points at which it perhaps oversimplifies things, or which for other reasons are not as convincing as they could have been. For instance, large parts of the exhibition rely on Christina Plaka’s Tanuki vs. Zodiac 12, i.e. a German manga, to explain things about Japanese comics. Of course, Plaka is an accomplished mangaka, and it would have been much more complicated to collaborate with a Japanese mangaka, translate the resulting manga, etc. But no matter how closely Plaka’s manga imitates Japanese manga, it can never fully replace the ‘real thing’. And when people come to the museum to learn something about how the Japanese make comics, they probably want to do so by looking at comics created by Japanese people.

Another somewhat problematic thing – not only about this but also some other manga shows in the past, e.g. Hokusai × Manga in Hamburg, or the more recent Rimpa feat. Manga in Munich – is how contemporary manga are forcibly connected to historical Japanese arts and culture, as in this case the Twelve Animals fable and the Tale of Genji. This carries the danger of perpetuating the myth that modern-day manga are direct descendants from such older Japanese arts. It may also give a false impression when manga as a whole are represented only by manga set in or otherwise concerned with Japanese history, when in fact there are only relatively few of those compared to present-day, futuristic or fantasy settings.

Lastly, the identification of manga as a necessarily participatory fan culture, as claimed by the “Studio” section, is a bit exaggerated. There is nothing wrong with including such an activity section where visitors can draw their own manga in an exhibition, but the accompanying text goes too far when it suggests that manga fandom with its fan art and fan fiction is not only an integral part but even “at the heart of manga culture” in Japan. While that is a common view, it is actually perfectly fine to regard the published manga independently from their readers (and vice versa). Also, not every single one of the millions of manga readers can be considered a ‘fan’, let alone one who creates fan art or fan fiction.

Speaking of the exhibition texts, it is a pity that no proper exhibition catalogue has been published, but at least the texts from the wall placards are collected in a free leaflet (both in German and English). It is available for download here: https://rietberg.ch/files/ausstellungen/2021/Manga/MuseumRietberg_Manga_Handout_EN.pdf

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○