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"Hokusai x Manga: Japanese Pop Culture since 1680" on view at MKG Hamburg
Hokusai x Manga, exhibition view 1, photo: Christiane Papenmeyer.

HAMBURG.- In an extensive exhibition, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg retraces the manifold links between historical and contemporary popular culture in Japan. The MKG has in its possession an internationally acclaimed collection of Japanese colour woodblock prints and woodcut books by the most important ukiyo-e artists, such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). The exhibition covers the spectrum from these superb woodblock prints and historical printmaking products of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the visual mass media of modern Japan: manga comics, anime and computer games, as well as the active fan scenes and appropriation practices – for example, cosplay (short for “costume play”) – that accompany them. In addition to presenting the various independent stylistic elements that distinguish these media, Hokusai x Manga: Japanese Pop Culture since 1680 explores the timeless features that they have in common. Contemporary pop culture, for example, is characterized by a pronounced pluralization of themes, motifs and genres, while also drawing on traditional Japanese narrative material, such as that of renowned samurai heroes or the world of ghosts and monsters (yōkai), and reinterpreting it in ever-new ways. Parallels are also found in the visual and stylistic repertoire, the linking of text and image, and the various forms of serialization. The production methods and distribution structures are also comparable. The exhibition features more than two hundred historical woodblock prints and illustrated woodcut books, printing blocks, sketches, and pen-and-ink drawings, as well as over sixty Japanese Manga books, high-quality reproductions and original Manga drawings, plus excerpts and animation cels from Anime films, video games, cosplay costumes and merchandising articles from the world of Manga and Anime.

The Birth of the Comic
Hishikawa Moronobu’s pictorial narrative about the demon Shuten Dōji from the period around 1680 is one of the first examples of a story told in sequences of images and presented in the print medium. During the seventeenth century a commercial publishing industry established itself in Japan. After the advent of the first illustrated books produced for a wider readership, the major urban centre of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) witnessed the invention of a new type of book for the city’s consumer-oriented inhabitants: popular picture stories in affordable small-format editions. The Kibyōshi, which took their name from their yellow covers, first appeared in 1775 and soon became the bestselling books of their time. An entertainment industry developed that responded at ever-shorter intervals to the demand for new, stimulating attractions. The artists used combinations of text and images for their stories, as well as coded symbols, experimental narrative strategies and abbreviated forms of representation. With the help of these creative tools they produced the kind of dynamism and tension that would later reappear in modern Japanese comics. The pronounced typification of the figures, which increased their visual recognition value, is an early stylistic device that has remained a key element in contemporary popular culture.

Courtesans, Heroes, Stars and Phantoms
In the early seventeenth century, Edo, which was the biggest city in the world at the time, developed a distinctive culture oriented towards pleasure and consumption. This period gave rise to a broad spectrum of motifs and narrative material. The publishers of the ukiyo-e woodblock prints took their cue from the demands expressed by their urban readership.

Popular themes included the star cult surrounding Kabuki theatre and the glamorous world of courtesans. The woodblock print motifs show elaborately attired prostitutes as idols of femininity. They cater to the erotic curiosity of men, while simultaneously bringing the latest fashion trends into the homes of middle-class women. The devotees of the Kabuki actors stuck woodblock prints on the wall showing their portraits or depicting them in classic roles. They also copied their mannerisms and expressions and formed fan clubs. Modern stars are fictional but are just as idolised. Characters like Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy are so popular that they are to be found in a huge range of different media and have risen to become icons of pop culture, forming part of the everyday fabric of life. Their fans bring them to life in cosplay using costumes and accessories, imitating their gestures and facial expressions. The passion for graphics amongst readers is also expressed in the large-scale production of fan art. Popular manga and anime materials find their way into interactive computer games, contemporary graphic and fashion design, and the visual arts.

In the woodcut books of the Edo period the samurai was stylised as a mythic hero and became a symbol of loyalty and honour. Heroic stories like that of the forty-seven masterless samurai, or ronin, were bestsellers, offering the public a model of righteousness in an era marked by political constraint and the despotism of the military nobility. In the mangas of the 1960s and 1970s, the samurai motif was reinterpreted as a subversive critique of the traditional code of honour and allegiance. The social and technological developments also generated whole new hero types like the female Sailor Moon superhero or space warriors in the form of giant robots from the science-fiction genre. Woodblock artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi also gave an imaginative and inventive twist to Japan’s creepily lurid, yōkai-populated world of ghosts and phantoms, catering to their readers’ thirst for gruesome horror stories. Illustrator Shigeru Mizuki’s manga – and subsequently anime – series GeGeGe no Kitarō, which appeared in the 1960s, played a major part in ensuring that the folkloric yōkai are still ubiquitous in today’s Japan. The theme has also conquered the big screen worldwide with films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away produced by Hayao Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio.

Travelling came into fashion around 1830. The success of Katsushika Hokusai’s series of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji marked a breakthrough for the landscape motif. Colourful landscapes depicting famous regions and locations became popular as tourist souvenirs. In the modern age, the genre lost its importance, although not the human relationship with the environment. In his science fiction epic Akira Katsuhiro Otomo created a dystopic urban space. Negative images of the city are counterpointed by the flâneur in Jirō Taniguchi’s The Walking Man, who discovers his familiar surroundings afresh. The earthquakes and numerous wars the country has experienced since the mid-nineteenth century have also been a theme for its artists. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, for example, portrayed the power struggles between former samurais and imperial loyalists. In the woodblock prints of Utagawa Hiroshige II a fire-spewing volcano threatens its next eruption. In his critical account Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), Keiji Nakazawa depicts the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, while also indicting Japan’s fanatic militarism and nationalism. Kazuto Tatsuta gives a more factual account of the efforts to clean up the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the catastrophe in March 2011.

New Readers and Themes
Since the mid-1900s manga in Japan have been an omnipresent form of mass media, printed in their millions and read by a massive and varied audience. There are manga for pre-school girls, teenagers, employees and pensioners. Since the end of the 1980s, they have found an increasing number of readers in the Western comic markets. Initially perceived by a niche public as exotic publications, they have ridden the rising wave of popularity of Japanese animated movies, so-called anime, to claim a large, primarily young fan base with distinct sub-cultural leanings. This has been accompanied by the emergence of new themes, motifs and genres catering in equal measure to the public’s cravings for action, thrill and emotional expression. Among other themes, they tell tales of future scenarios critiquing civilization, of the relationship between man and technology and of gender ambiguities that find expression in manga in complex, multifaceted models of gender identification. This is illustrated, for instance, by the popular Boys Love genre revolving around homoerotic love stories between boys but read primarily by a female public.

Kawaii and Children’s Rooms
The typical manga forms of expression are characterized by a specific pictorial language with their very own depiction conventions and visual codes. An example is the kawaii aesthetic, which works with the image of the cute little child. Although kawaii elements exist in various shapes and forms in almost all manifestations of manga and anime, in Germany the phenomenon is mostly associated with media for children and teenagers. In the 1970s numerous well-known films were made of children’s books like Heidi or Die Biene Maja (Maya the Bee) in German-Japanese co-productions that drew on the animation craft of East Asia. This stylistic device is especially pronounced in merchandising articles or in completely autonomous product lines such as Hello Kitty that are not based on existing manga themes and figures. Cross-media marketing strategies of this kind expand the fictional pictorial worlds of manga and anime into many areas of everyday, consumer life.

Historical Woodblock Artists: Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848), Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797– 1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915), Torii Kiyomitsu (1735–1785), Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815), Isoda Koryūsai (1735–1790), Toyohara Kunichika (1835–1900), Utagawa Kunisada (1786–1864), Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), Santō Kyōden (1761–1816), Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889), Hishikawa Moronobu (?–1694), Shikitei Sanba (1776–1822), Toshūsai Sharaku (tätig 1794/95), Kitao Shigemasa (1739–1820), Katsukawa Shunshō (1726– 1792), Utagawa Toyokuni (1769–1825), Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711–1785), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753?–1806), Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–1892) and others

Contemporary Artists: Hirohito Araki (*1960), Inio Asano (*1980), Fujiko F. Fujio (1933–1996), Keiichi Hara (*1959), Miyazaki Hayao (*1941), Jed Henry (*1983)/David Bull (*1951), Hiroshi Hirata (*1937), Mamoru Hosoda (*1967), Riyoko Ikeda (*1947), Yukio Katayama, Yōko Kitajima (*1943), Kururi, Miyako Maki (*1935), Shigeru Mizuki (1922–2015), Hideko Mizuno (*1939), Takashi Murakami (*1962), Kiriko Nananan (*1972), Natsuya Semikawa, Sanpei Shirato (*1932), Macoto Takahashi (*1934), Arina Tanemura (*1978), Jirō Taniguchi (*1947), Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935–2015), Osamu Tezuka (1928–1989), Janis Vernier, (*1989), Toshiki Yui, (*1956) and others

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