Manga animates new millennium

Underground art revealed

by Ken Kawashima

Manga took a giant leap into its future on New Year’s Day 1963, when space-age cartoon images from Osamu Tezuka’s famed comic book “Tetsuwa Atomu (Astro Boy)” came to life in Japan’s first original animated TV series. This was the birth of anime, which has now mushroomed into a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

A year later, however, the same industry coughed up Garo, a 180 yen underground manga magazine, which, in many ways represented everything that Tezuka’s loveable “Astro Boy” was not, giving a voice to a generation of largely unknown underground manga artists and writers whose works were often laced with dark, satirical narratives and weird, surrealistic imagery.

When Missouri-born artist and curator Tim Evans first flipped through the dog-eared pages of an old Garo magazine in 1992 during his college years in California, not only was he introduced to the wilder side of Japanese manga culture, but also to a fresh and dynamic medium for visual expression that would profoundly alter his career.

“I always loved Garo because of its ardent commitment to political and aesthetic radicalism, and also because it was renowned for publishing the works of young and emerging cartoonists,” 34-year-old Evans says in an e-mail interview from the United States. “In a sense, Garo is a kind of a blueprint for my own artistic endeavors.”

Evans has now brought together selected works from more than 30 artists, mostly from Japan and the U.S., in an exhibition titled “Psionic Distortion” running Nov. 11-30 at the SuperDeluxe event space in Roppongi, Tokyo.

The multi-media exhibition — which incorporates paintings, sculptures and segments from various artists’ comic books as well as live music events — features both the works of cutting-edge Japanese comics artists like Shintaro Kago and Akino Kondoh and artwork by manga-inspired artists from the States like Kenjji and Toby Barnes.

Another highlight will be the numerous video installations produced by popular visual artist Keiji Ito, which will be screened throughout the mostly admission-free 20-day exhibition. Ito, who recently created the poster art for “Expo 2005 Aichi, Japan,” will also lend his talents as a guest DJ for the opening party (which is open to all) on Nov. 10, and participate in a panel discussion with fellow artists the following evening (for both of which a small admission fee will be charged).

“Manga has served as a catalyst for self-expression and a powerful springboard in dynamic nihilism in the 21st century, in much the same way that jazz, blues and hip-hop grew out of very specific historical situations and consequently took on vibrant new forms in various parts of the world,” says Evans. “Psionic Distortion” aims to demonstrate how Japanese popular culture has been dispersed and transformed throughout the West (particularly in America), and is currently influencing a younger generation of artists.

If “Pikachu” — from the anime megahit “Pokemon” — is the new millennium’s answer to “Astro Boy,” then the eclectic circus of strange and subversive artifacts on display in “Psionic Distortion” is likewise Garo-esque in its aims.

Manga artist Shintaro Kago, who will contribute several illustrations from his manga book covers, certainly knows how to test the limits of what is art (and good taste) with his oftentimes sexually and politically charged manga comics. In one strikingly colorful image, uniformed Japanese schoolgirls wave the Hinomaru flag as Zero fighter planes circle the bright blue sky. One girl has an eyeball falling out of its socket from a gunshot blast to her head. Another hairless girl stands beside a wild-eyed and bloodied schoolmate in a state of purplish radioactive decomposition.

Although perhaps not as bleak as his Japanese counterpart, comic-book sequences taken from Detroit-based Afro-American manga artist Kenjji are no less political in their vision. Kenjji has created his own self-styled brand of kuroi-manga (black comics), and is particularly known for his groundbreaking concoction “Witch Doctor: Protector of the People.” Kenjji’s protagonist, Jovan, is a sharp-suited black superhero with D’Angelo-style cornrowed hair, who not only fights Zombies and racist stereotypes, but is on a spiritual mission to unearth the hidden riches of Voodoo culture and ancient African history.

“[Japanese] manga culture has shown to my audience that comics, cartoons and illustrative art can deal with a broad range of issues, not just typical superheroes,” says Kenjji, whose own initiation to Japanese comics was Katsuhiro Otomo’s post-apocalyptic thriller “Akira” in the early ’90s. “In America we still struggle to bring out different material from the mainstream, but typically the trite material is always more popular,” he says. Works by American painter Toby Barnes project a heavier influence from late ’80s and ’90s Japanese robot animation classics like “Gundam” and “Evangelion.”

“Being Asian-American,” says New York-based Barnes, “my family would travel east every several years on vacation and that’s when I would bring back toys and comics. Because I didn’t have much anime or manga stuff to play with or look at while at home in the U.S., I would have to find a creative way to fill in this void.”

As a child, he copied images from old Japanese comic books and creating his own storyboards and scenarios. This childhood escapism fueled his creative drive years later when, as a frustrated art student, he decided to unlearn most of the classical drawing techniques he had absorbed in school. Instead, he began seriously painting the robot doodles that had turned him on in his youth.

However, the cross-cultural exchange at the heart of “Psionic Distortion” also works both ways. Tokyo-born graphic designer and collage artist Keiji Ito, known for his acid-inspired collage art of psychedelic flower gardens and motorways, says he has received no inspiration at all from the manga culture of his own country. The artist, who instead namedrops Americans like the film director Richard Fleischer and cartoonist Robert Crumb as his artistic influences, says he feels quite distanced from the whole global anime and manga boom.

“On the other hand, those glorious American cartoons and animated films I watched on TV as a child have had an enormous impact on me,” says Ito. “I think it’s that almost ecstatic sense of happiness and optimism I witnessed on the TV screen in my childhood that really messed up my brain today.”

For exhibition-goers not yet exposed to the darker side of Japanese manga, though, “Psionic Distortion” may also prove to be a heavy visual experience that’s both disturbing and enlightening.

“The term ‘Psionic’ refers to the superhuman powers many anime and manga characters possess, like the power exhibited by a monk or yoga master who is deep into his/her practice,” Evans explains when asked about the show’s title. “They sometimes claim that their third eye has awakened, and that quasi-mystical experience is what ‘Psionic’ is all about — a deep and profound insight into the human condition.”

Don’t say you haven’t been warned.