LONDON — For what the British Museum describes as the biggest exhibition of manga to ever take place outside of Japan, Manga doesn’t feel so big. Sure, it covers major themes and trends, from sports manga to manga that centers on indigenous identities. And it provides a good overall sense of the historical trajectory from Hokusai’s woodblock prints to Osamu Tezuka’s postwar, Disney-influenced comics. But it doesn’t take an in-depth approach to any period or genre, so it’s far from an exhaustive exploration. It’s manageable, in both scale and ambition, rather than inspiring.
Manga contains some genuinely interesting information about the manga industry, such as its frenetic pace and massive scale, seen in filmed footage from manga studios. The quotations from mangaka (manga creators) nicely center the artists themselves. But ultimately, the exhibition is more sober and academic than one might expect, given the subject matter. Playful elements — for instance, interactive features and recreations of manga settings — would have elevated the experience. An oversized Attack on Titan head is on display, but it’s tucked away in one corner, making it seem both out of place and oddly inconspicuous. And the few panels on cosplay and conventions feel insufficient to convey the importance of fandom in manga culture.
More child-friendly elements, like toys and spaces to draw manga, would have infused a greater sense of play — although though the museum deliberately tried to keep it family-friendly, reserving the sex manga for the brick of a book, also titled Manga, that accompanies the exhibition. Indeed, I got the sense that the 350-page book, which is lavishly illustrated and includes perspectives from a dizzying array of manga industry representatives, is where the curators’ hearts really lay. The exhibition almost feels like a live version of the book — simply bringing a selection of the latter’s images and texts into the museum — rather than a pulsing, compelling force of its own. For the most part, the museum’s spaces are not taken advantage of as fully as they could be, for striking displays; the exhibition doesn’t come off the page.
The best part of Manga is the miniature library right in the middle of the exhibition, containing hundreds of books for visitors to read. Plush chairs, rather than hard seats, would have made the space more inviting. But carving out this space for a library is an important acknowledgment that the best way to appreciate manga is simply to read it. And being able to scan QR codes that link to free online manga is a clever way to keep the manga spirit going after leaving the exhibition.
It worked for me, as I read Tezuka’s classic sci-fi classic Astro Boy while in the exhibition, and binge-watched the anime adaptation of Princess Jellyfish immediately afterward. Princess Jellyfish is Akiko Higashimura’s manga series about a group of socially awkward and reclusive young women sharing a house in Tokyo, who fear the outside world as much as they adore their individual geeky obsessions, such as jellyfish. As a vehicle for recommending manga and anime ― I chose two popular stories of gender-variant relationships ― the exhibition clearly succeeds. And to its credit, Manga goes beyond just the most popular and acclaimed works.
Yet in trying to be everything to everyone, it’s hard for Manga to satisfy anyone. It’s too wordy for kids, not analytical enough for experts, too scholarly for casual readers, and too tepid for those who come to manga for its eccentricity. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the exhibition’s generic name, which suggests the lack of focus baked into this project. It’s hard to imagine the British Museum putting on a similar exhibition simply called Comics or even American Comics. Attempting to cover all of Japanese comics in a single exhibition, rather than zeroing in on particular aspects, feels almost like an arrogant and reductive exercise. Still, even with its shortcomings, the breadth of Manga means that fans will find something to delight or intrigue them in the exhibition.
Manga continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London, UK) through August 26.