What you need to know about the British Museum’s manga exhibition – the largest ever outside Japan

22nd May 19 | Lifestyle

Documenting the rise of a pop culture empire.


In Hoshino Yukinobu’s 2010 manga, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, the eponymous professor embarks on a series of adventures inspired by the museum’s artefacts.

His Dan Brown-esque escapades revolve around a terrorist group kidnapping the rocks of Stonehenge, and in the ensuing carnage Munakata must examine, understand and defend several jewels of the museum’s collection.

Manga has already hosted the British Museum, so now the museum is returning the favour. Here’s what you need to know about its new Manga exhibition (opening May 23), the largest ever to leave the motherland…

What is manga?

Given that manga can be anything from children’s picture books to violent pornography, summarising it can be rather difficult.

Chi's Sweet Home
(Konami Kanata/Kodansha Ltd/PA)

At its simplest, it’s a form of Japanese graphic novel or comic, read from right to left, usually serialised and often in black and white. It’s also a multi-million dollar pop culture empire that exports to every corner of the globe.

Manga, and its better-known cousin, anime (which is an animation) share an almost symbiotic relationship, and roughly 60% of all Japanese anime is based on a manga source.

Stereotypical manga tropes – dinner-plate eyes, kaleidoscopic hair, heavily stylised set pieces and almost universally absent parents – have traditionally confused some Western audiences, so Britain’s manga market has chiefly been built online.

Manga Alice in Wonderland

Newcomers to the genre should start with a mainstream franchise. Threshold titles include Death Note, a Gothic tale of a teenager with the power to kill almost at will, and the popular if endurance-testing mega-series, Naruto.

Manga on show

Naturally manga is far older than its presence online. Literally meaning “drawings run riot”, the exhibition traces the medium back to 18th century artist Katsushika Hokusai (he of the famous Japanese wave) whose miscellaneous drawings of people and places were published as ‘Hokusai Manga’.

1880 theatre curtain
(Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University/PA)

The displays take a deep dive through the decades of the discipline’s development, illustrated with an array of historical artefacts. Foremost among them is the Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain – 17 metres long and four metres wide, this 1880 masterpiece features ghosts, ghouls and demons, and is now so delicate it will never again leave Japan.

Particularly compared to last year’s exhibition on Rodin and art in ancient Greece, manga is not the British Museum’s typical diet, and many displays are unusually interactive.

The cover of Flower Magazine

Visitors are taught the basic tenets of reading and drawing manga, can browse a large library of genres, and can create a ‘manga-fied’ version of themselves with a specially designed camera. The exhibition is curated not by a person, but by a bespoke, white rabbit named Mimi-chan.

© Press Association 2019