Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe
Closes Oct. 3

In an attempt to bolster its artistic pedigree, manga has sought parentage in the popular ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo Period (1603-1868) that achieved high-art status from the late decades of the 19th century. There are compelling reasons for establishing such parent/offspring connections. “Mizuki Shigeru: Illustrations of Yokai” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, however, offers a reason for why that history might be jettisoned in favor of comparing such work with other contemporaneous manga and animation.

Comics and animations by Mizuki (b. 1922) featuring yokai (supernatural beings) are well known in Japan, particularly the wildly popular adventures of the one-eyed hero in “Gegege no Kitaro.” This exhibition is devoted to Mizuki’s depictions of fantastic creatures that have their historic roots in various prefectures of Japan, and for which the artist borrows freely the designs of his artistic forbears such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).

Another section of the show offers the ghostly and grotesque pictorial precursors to Mizuki’s cutesy and mostly unthreatening oeuvre, which unfortunately leaves his work seemingly unmoored from the history recruited to give it depth and somewhat visually and intellectually diluted. Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s “Earth Spider Conjuring up Demons to Torment Minamoto no Yorimitsu” (1843), for example, depicts Minamoto, a samurai of the Imperial Guard, on his deathbed beset by yokai, which symbolically stand in for the Edo merchants who lost their businesses through shogunal reforms. The work is deeply engaged with the society, from which it emerged and a thinly veiled political satire flush with antiauthoritarianism.

That much older popular culture is deeply sophisticated and politically complex, whereas Mizuki’s works, created to be light entertainment, appear aloof from incisive critique. The inevitable conclusion is that works such as Kuniyoshi’s address an urbane adult populace, whereas Mizuki’s points to the world of the child.

Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, is an 8-min. walk south of Iwaya Station (Hanshin Honsen Line); open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri., Sat., till 8 p.m.), closed Mon.; admission ¥1,300. For more information, visit www.artm.pref.hyogo.jp.

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