The Manga Age at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art

by Monty DiPietro

Manga: One of perhaps a dozen Japanese words that requires no translation in the West. One among a handful of art forms in which Japan records an international cultural trade surplus. A medium that accounts for one in three books published in this country.

By the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Contemporary Artís reckoning, Manga are fifty years old this year, and the Koto Ward art institutionís tribute is "The Manga Age," the first ever major museum retrospective dedicated to a comprehensive overview of the art form.

Contemporary Manga have their roots in the work of Osamu Tezuka (1930-1989), who is perhaps best-known for a character he debuted in 1951, Tetsuwan Atom. The robot-boy, so the story goes, was built by a Doctor Boynton as a substitute for his deceased son (name of Toby, for you trivia buffs). Dr. Boynton made the wise decision to install thrusters in little Atomís shoes, which rocketed the cute little cyborg to cartoon superstardom in the West, where he was known as Astro Boy. Tezuka, who drew his original inspiration from Walt Disney, also created Japanís first color television cartoon show, "Jungle Taitei," which is widely believed to have served as the (unacknowledged) inspiration for Disneyís "Lion King."

Tezukaís oeuvre figures prominently in the exhibition, but there are also a good number of more recent works here, forming a manga time-line that ends with several Yoshiyuki Sadamoto ink drawings used in the popular animated film series "Evangelion." More than 150 artists have contributed over 1,300 sketches and cell drawings, about 300 of which are originals. There are posters, silkscreens, display cases stuffed with rare old comics, models, and even a couple of Takashi Murakami and Roy Lichtenstein paintings, presumably included to reassure visitors overwhelmed by a towering Ultraman print that, yes, this is fine art. The show is divided into 27 categories, spread over two floors of the museum, and was curated by Satoshi Otaba.

"We wanted," says Otaba, "to present the different styles of story manga typical of each period to show how the genre has developed and progressed."

Although a glance over the shoulder of a male train commuter would suggest that manga of the current period is characterized by big-eyed girls in various states of undress and/or sexual activity, there is almost none of this kind of work on display here. When Otaba explains the reasons for its exclusion, he speaks of the museumís being a family place and of the strict police monitoring of what goes up on the walls at art institutions. But something in the tone hints that he feels including what the masses actually read in this exhibition would be a bit like serving cup-a-noodle at a banquet showcasing Japanese cuisine. Call it comic elitism.

Although the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Contemporary Artís texts are often bilingual, this time they are not, and neither are the catalogue or audio guides. Otaba indicates that the museum simply did not anticipate a large number of foreign visitors. Those who do not read Japanese will thus have to forgo many of the exhibitionís educational aspects and satisfy themselves with getting an eyeful of the almost exclusively monochrome drawings and panels. While a real manga enthusiast will have great fun with this show, "The Manga Age" may wear thin rather quickly for those who are less than maniacal about cartoon drawings.

notes: Until Dec 13, 1998, then on to Hiroshima. (5245-4111).
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