Illustrators draw from pop culture for 3/11 exhibition

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

“March 11 seen through the eyes of comic artists from all over the world: Magnitude Zero” at the Kyoto International Manga Museum is a commemorative tribute to the ways the world and the Japanese dealt with the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe last year. It puts forth positive images reflecting friendship, solidarity and goodwill, and in many ways glosses over harsh realities. Arguably this is a necessary reaction and response to the loss of lives, torrent of disaster footage, radiation fears, power shortages and other persistent, ongoing fears.

At the suggestion of French bande dessinee comics writer Jean-David Morvan, artists around the world contributed illustrations, which were initially collected and posted on the blog (in French) and 50 works were auctioned off in Paris, raising more than ?30,000 to help support victims of the tsunami. Then came “Magnitude 9: Images for Japan,” a book of more than 200 illustrations, the sales proceeds of which were donated to charity via the organization Give2Asia.

Now comes the Japanese version — an exhibition showcasing the work of around 60 foreign illustrators who contributed to the original French publication as well as that of 60 local illustrators. For each sale of the new book, “Magnitude Zero,” ¥200 of the proceeds will go toward ongoing disaster relief.

All of this is to be applauded. The visual and narrative results of the show, however, are mixed. Much of the work cheers on Japan, using sound-bite slogans such as Javier Jimenez’s “Ganbare Nihon. Stay Strong Japan” or Yllya’s “Standing Together.” Xiao Bai’s contribution becomes somewhat overwrought when he writes “Japan, don’t cry. Japan, please come on.” He illustrates his message with the outstretched arms of a Lolita-type cutesy cosplayer (costume player), complete with fairy wings and a single red tear rolling down her cheek.

Many of the foreign contributions tend to portray Japanese pop-culture stereotypes, and you can have your fill of scattered cherry blossoms, geisha (as in Mobidic’s model who mends her kimono, essentially restitching the social fabric of the nation), samurai and sumo wrestlers. Nearly all of these motifs are combined in Thierry Segur’s illustration, in which a sumo wrestler and a geisha, standing knee deep in a swamp, stare up at glowing cherry blossoms that emit radioactive trefoils.

Elsewhere kitschy, recycled symbolism is put to work, such as in Florian Falaise’ depiction of a little green plant growing out of the rubble and amid adversity. Ooshima Hiroyuki similarly takes the kitsch line giving us a girl, wandering among wreckage, giving her last rice ball to a kitten. A boy with a bandaged nose subsequently gives his rice ball to the girl. The infantile cute aesthetic with sugary messages of care and share here begins to irritate and broaches the malaise of how to respond appropriately to a disaster of such magnitude. Much of the trend here is to assert the sentimental over the serious and so some responses seem forced and insincere, though of course in conception this was not the case.

Three works, however, stand out as more poignant reflections. Mista Benny of France represents the red circle of the hinomaru national flag writ upon the ground, a fault line chasm coursing through it. A girl and boy naively try to paste sheets of red-painted paper over it, as if the damage could be healed by the application of a flimsy veneer. Like the exhibition, peering into the deep and dark chasm is something to be avoided. Marc Antoine Mathieu, also of France, depicts a man in hat and trench coat with a little dragon figure at his feet. They both peer off into the distance at a fault line that disappears into the horizon. Like the jagged crack, which runs on eternally, the way forward is seen as long and painful.

Hazuki Jun offers a very different take that out of context could garner very different interpretations. She portrays a couple of boys on the way home from school stopping to play with a cat. The point, seemingly, is to show the desire to turn attention away from catastrophe and focus on the small happy feelings of everyday life. And that, arguably, is the point of the exhibition. Unable to deal with the complexities, horrors and over-stimulations of the disaster, simpler, more personal perspectives provide self-deceptions of a much needed normality.

“March 11 seen through the eyes of comic artists from all over the world: Magnitude Zero” at the Kyoto International Manga Museum runs till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Free with admission to the museum’s general exhibition, ¥800. Closed Wed.