Exhibition review: Manga – Reading the Flow, Zürich, 10.9.2021-30.1.2022Posted: January 28, 2022 Filed under: review | Tags: Christina Plaka, comics, exhibition, manga, medieval Japan, museums, Swiss Leave a comment
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.
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).
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).
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
Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: FurariPosted: February 11, 2021 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, Furari, geography, history, Jirō Taniguchi, manga, medieval Japan 2 Comments
One of Jirō Taniguchi’s († February 11, 2017) last manga to be published in translation during his lifetime, Furari has been called (even by the mangaka himself) ‘The Walking Man in Edo’. But is Furari really a masterpiece on the same level as Aruku hito?
Furari (ふらり, lit. “aimlessly”; German title: Der Kartograph)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Number of volumes: 1
Price: € 16
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/softcover/der-kartograph/978-3-551-75102-7 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=60670
Some similarities can’t be denied, as both manga are about flaneurs, men walking around and exploring their urban surroundings. One difference is the protagonist’s motivation: while the nameless Aruku hito has just moved to a new home and wants to get to know the neighbourhood, Tadataka Inō, the protagonist of Furari, is a pensioner who has taken up pedometry – measuring distances by walking with a constant step length – as a hobby. (Only at the end of the manga does he officially become a surveyor; thus the German title, “The Cartographer”, is a bit misleading.) Also, Furari is a lot wordier than Aruku hito with many thought balloons, as Taniguchi must have felt it necessary to have his main character explain more things to the reader, as it were, and bridge the 200-year gap.
The biggest difference, however, is that Furari is really about something else. In 7 out of the 15 episodes, Inō has dreams/daydreams/visions in which he transforms into an animal (or a tree in one instance) and sees Edo from its point of view, e.g. from the river as a turtle, or from above as a dragonfly. And also some of the other episodes feature such a change of perspective on the town- and landscape, e.g. on a boat trip on the river: “when I’m on water for once, I realise that things come into view that you can’t see from onshore.” Thus I’d argue that Furari is at least as much a meditation on geography itself as it is a portrayal of historical Edo.
This is all quite fascinating, but there is one aspect in which Furari might be inferior to such Taniguchi classics as Aruku hito, Harukana machi e, or Chichi no koyomi: in these, the main character is pretty much a ‘nobody’, or an ‘anybody’, a ‘man without qualities’ from the contemporary real world with whom readers (particularly from Japan) can easily identify. Inō and the things he sees and does, in contrast, feel very distant to the reader, and thus the experience of reading Furari is more detached.
That being said, Furari is a must-read for any Taniguchi enthusiast, especially for those with an interest in historical Japan. Too bad the German publisher Carlsen once more overpriced what is essentially a regular tankōbon.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Michel Foucault’s heterotopia – in comics?Posted: May 31, 2013 Filed under: review | Tags: comics, dream, First Comics, Gōseki Kojima, hell, heterotopia, Kazuo Koike, Kozure Ōkami, manga, medieval Japan, Michel Foucault, philosophy, samurai, space, theory 3 Comments
This time, we’re going to look at a theoretical concept which is not specific to art history: heterotopias, or “other spaces”, described by philosopher Michel Foucault in a talk in the 1960s which was published in the 1980s. He defines heterotopias as “something like counter-sites […] in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” Foucault then lists six “principles” to further characterise heterotopias:
- Today’s heterotopias are “heterotopias of deviation: those in which individuals whose behavior is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm are placed”;
- “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion”;
- “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible”;
- heterotopias are often linked to either the accumulation of time or to ephemeral time;
- “heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable”; and
- heterotopias either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory”, or they are “as well arranged as our [space] is messy”.
These “principles” are not meant to be necessary characteristics of heterotopias, i.e. a space doesn’t need to fulfil all six principles to be regarded as a heterotopia. This rather vague definition means we can apply the term heterotopia to many different spaces. In art history, we mainly deal with two kinds of spaces: real spaces in which art is produced and received, and imaginary spaces conveyed by the content of works of art. For the former, see e.g. Ruth Reiche’s recent blog post (in German) on cinemas and museums as heterotopias. I’m going to look at the latter now, and try to find out what is to be gained when we conceive a space in a comic as a heterotopia.
The sequence I have selected for this purpose is from an episode of the manga classic 子連れ狼 / Kozure Ōkami (Lone Wolf and Cub) by Kazuo Koike and Gōseki Kojima, titled “Pitiful Osue” in the US edition (issue #2 in the First Comics series from 1987). On the first 19 (of 56) pages, we only see the infant Ogami Daigorō, the “cub”, but no trace of his father Ogami Ittō, the “lone wolf”. Then suddenly, starting with p. 20, the page background turns black for five pages. A caption text tells us we’re “elsewhere” now, and we witness Ogami (Ittō) fighting against animal-headed demons amidst swirling fumes. Is this new setting a heterotopia?
The basic definition, a counter-site which represents and inverts real sites, might be applicable: in this hell (Ogami himself uses this term later), the twisting, naked bodies are representations of the people on earth. Ogami seems unchanged at first, but then his sword breaks in the fight – something which probably never happens to him in “real” life – and he doesn’t overcome his enemies. Some of Foucault’s six principles also hold true for this hellish place:
- It is a place for the deviant, not only in a mythological sense (the deviant sinners are condemned to hell), but also in the sense that this scene turns out to be a feverish nightmare of the ill (i.e. unhealthy, thus deviant) Ogami.
- It is a place that has changed its function in history. While in medieval Japan, in which the story is set, hell was imagined as a real place where you could end up after death, the 20th century manga readers would probably regard hell as unreal and recognise this scene as a dream sequence, even before it is revealed as such on p. 25.
- Three places are juxtaposed here: the place where the dead wind in agony, the place where Ogami fights the demons, and the shrine (which turns into a real place in which Ogami sleeps). These places are both separated and connected by the mists of hell. On another level, they exist all in one “real” place: the shrine where Ogami dreams of them, or his imagination.
- It is quite an ephemeral place, as it exists only for as long as Ogami is dreaming. (On the other hand, for those who believe in it, hell is eternal.)
- No matter whether we regard this place as hell or as a dream, both have notoriously specific modes of entering: entrance to hell is usually reserved for the deceased, and a dream can be entered only by one single sleeper.
- As a dream, this place is an illusion. At the same time, as hell, the place of eternal torment, isn’t it more real than the fleeting earthly life? Ogami himself seems unsure about how his nightmare is connected to reality: “Is it a sign that my fever has passed — or that death is near?”, he wonders on p. 26. (The relation between the two spaces gets more complicated on pp. 42-43, when they briefly merge, but that’s another sequence…)
So what do we make of this dream/hell now that we’ve identified it as a heterotopia? Above all other characteristics, heterotopias are radically different from real places, and this “otherness” might be the key to understanding the role of the dream sequence in the story: it marks a harsh change of perspective from Daigorō to his father, who are for once far apart from each other in the beginning of this episode. By shifting from the real world to the heterotopian underworld, the authors emphasise that father and son are “worlds apart”. In the course of the episode, they will have to find each other again, so that the order at the basis of Kozure Ōkami – the companionship of “wolf” and “cub” – is restored.