Bijin-ga (pictures of beautiful women), long a staple of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and its erotic sub-genre shunga (spring pictures), is mostly moribund in contemporary art. A variant form, however, lives on in shojo manga, serialized comic books that are often flush with romantic narratives and target, usually, a young female audience.
“Watanabe Masako and Kai Yukiko, Fantastic Journey” at The Kyoto International Manga Museum largely ditches shojo manga’s coy plots to focus on two women manga artists and how they portrayed their female characters. The exhibition is part of the museum’s regular series created to introduce the influence of well-known manga artists through faithful reproductions of their work.
Kai (1954-80), whose early death left a limited number of artworks, favored Art Deco patterning and often posed her figures against dramatic flowery backdrops that hint at a mid-1970s style. The pictorial conventions she employed were essentially a kind of comic version of Pre-Raphaelite painting.
Watanabe (b.1929), on the other hand, is able to show greater stylistic development. Though she is one of the artists who helped established the shojo genre, she later partly abandoned it. Her earlier works from the late 1950s, such as “Palace of the Raccoon Dog,” which features plate-sized cutesy eyes and infantilized facial features, illustrate the kind of stylistic conventions that still define the genre today.
In the ’80s, her material became much more sultry and sexual as she moved to targeting an adult audience through her adaptation of the erotic Chinese novel “The Plum in the Golden Vase.” What is on display is relatively tame, but something of the thrust of her later work can be seen in “The Sadness of Miss Popolak, a Snake in the Bed” and in the smoldering look from her “Pale Lady.”
“Genga — Exhibition Series: Watanabe Masako & Kai Yukiko, Fantastic Journey” at the Kyoto International Manga Museum, runs till May 15; admission is included in the ¥500 general entrance fee; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Wed. For more information, visit www.kyotomm.jp