Videos of anime conventions in America greet visitors to Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art at this summer’s “The Power of Manga — Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori” exhibition. Looped footage of attendants in cosplay at the Los Angeles Anime Expo and other similar events play, while a “prologue” banner nearby declares in Japanese and English, “Manga is a cultural genre of which Japan can be proud of.”
It seems as if you are just steps away from a grand manifestation of “Cool Japan” — the country’s way of spreading “soft power” via pop culture. And since Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry assisted with putting this together, that actually is one of the show’s objectives.
Yet “The Power of Manga” impresses more as a history lesson than a sales pitch. The exhibition focuses on influential artists Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori — regarded as the “god of manga” and the “king of manga,” respectively — highlighting each artist’s work and style, and using the two individuals as a way to simultaneously lay out the history of manga and its influence on Japanese pop culture.
As a platform for “Cool Japan,” it fails — but it succeeds in nearly every other way.
Tezuka (known for “Astro Boy” and “Black Jack” among others) was born in Osaka in 1928, while Ishinomori (“Cyborg 009,” “Kamen Rider”) was born 10 years later in Miyagi Prefecture. The exhibition’s “Birth” section doesn’t dwell much on personal childhoods, but rather displays early sketches and journals created by the artists. It also contextualizes what stage Japanese comics were at in the 1920s and ’30s, showing strips from that time to demonstrate just how influential the duo’s approach to illustrating was to become.
Tezuka introduced the “large eyes” of character design that have come to define Japanese animation over the past half-century, a style that he helped spread with his popular late-’40s manga “New Treasure Island.” That series — based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel — jumpstarted a “golden age of manga,” during which Ishinomori worked as a manga artist, too. From here, “The Power of Manga” chronologically sifts through each artist’s oeuvre, introducing major works and providing the inspiration behind different series they created.
Each area of the show crams in many sketches, original manga magazines, merchandise and even books full of comic strips from each manga franchise, yet the actual spaces are not cluttered. Each exhibit is allotted the needed space to be properly appreciated, and the museum has made it easy to tell the artists’ works apart with an apt labeling system of cartoon versions of the two. And if the matching berets of those characters throw you off, the labels are also color coded to make them even easier to identify.
There is just one section of “The Power of Manga” that seems slightly out of place, though it happens to document a period when Tezuka and Ishinomori were at their closest. In the 1950s, the two artists — along with a handful of other manga creators — lived in a two-story Tokyo apartment called Tokiwa-so. Built into the exhibition are large detailed re-creations of Tezuka and Ishinomori’s rooms in that apartment, showing their lifestyle, right down to what ramen they ate.
“The Power of Manga,” however, doesn’t confine itself strictly to the artists and their manga books. A large chunk of the exhibition devotes itself to the impact manga had on television — a field that both Tezuka and Ishinomori entered in the early ’60s. The introduction sequences to TV programs — including “Astro Boy,” “Kimba the White Lion” and “Ganbare!! Robocon” — are juxtaposed with the original print versions, revealing the challenges of turning a comic strip into a show. This section also reveals one of the biggest differences between the two artists — Tezuka only made cartoons, while Ishinomori showed a pronounced interest in film, with nearly all his TV works being live-action.
All of this, along with displayed background information behind each creator’s works, is extremely interesting. But the explanations are all in Japanese, so tourists from overseas with a view to fully partake of “Cool Japan” will likely be left in the dark. Only the giant banners prefacing each section of “The Power of Manga” feature English, and they offer up an extremely general overview of what visitors will see. For a show with “Cool Japan” as one of its premises, this could be seen as quite a flaw. The organizers behind it must believe non-Japanese patrons can still be drawn in by surface-level visual aesthetics alone. But the best parts of “The Power of Manga,” and the parts that foreigners are most likely to learn from, are such explanations that detail the intricacies of each artist’s styles and elaborate on how the two differ from one another.
It was definitely something that visitors, many of whom might not have been familiar with some of the series on display, were finding particularly interesting. Whether older couples or elementary school kids, they lingered over the giant collections of “Black Jack” and “Cyborg 009.” And at the highlight of the exhibition, a room that focuses on a comparison of how each artist dealt with elements such as sound and human form, people took their time absorbing each of the deeply informative displays.
There is plenty at this exhibition to keep you occupied, whether you are simply curious about either of the artists, or are a big manga fan in general. But what makes “The Power of Manga” an even better exhibition is its analysis of works, which anyone without a detailed knowledge of manga and anime would likely find fascinating. So it is a little bit of a shame that those details, which are only in Japanese, won’t be “exported” as examples of “Cool Japan” via the show’s foreign visitors.
“The Power of Manga: Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, runs till Sept. 8; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp