Pop culture show may be a bit off game

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

On paper, “Manga * Anime * Games From Japan,” currently running at The National Art Center, Tokyo, sounds like a great show. The exhibition overview certainly makes a big pitch:

“Transcending the boundaries of each individual medium to realize unparalleled artistic expression, Japanese manga, anime and games are reflective of social change and technological development.”

On visiting the exhibition, however, it seemed to lack a lot, and also felt somewhat sterile. This is a strange impression to have, especially when you consider that the three interlinked genres supposedly represent something of a “wild frontier” in terms of artistic and cultural expression. So, what went wrong?

First, while much of the subject matter is interesting, it has been arranged with what seems like an overly neat curatorial approach. This rather put me in mind of a stamp-collecting album. Why would this relatively wild area of artistic expression be organized like this? The simple answer is that the show is too wide in its conception, and has too many bases to cover, too many companies and commercial interests to satisfy.

All three industries are now massive, and the exhibition obviously required a lot of cooperation from the various companies holding copyrights. The end result is that the most famous titles — of which they are a great many — are allocated their own small space. Visitors then roam around until they find displays related to their own personal tastes, often ignoring much else.

There is some attempt to create a more sweeping narrative for the exhibition’s blown-up prints, original artwork and installations: The show is divided into “themed” sections, such as Section 5, titled, “The World: A Place Where Characters Dwell.” Such a loose, open-ended title, however, make the themes and overall narrative read more like a bland advertorial than a compelling thesis.

Any points the show tries to make are also too obvious to be worth making. Section 7, for example, notes that the three genres can be greatly affected by real-world events and then includes some comics that depict the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Since none of this, unfortunately, succeeds in adding to the narrative, visitors will instead find themselves walking through, looking for their own favorite titles, while completely oblivious to whichever section they are in.

Given the fact that manga, anime, and games are very much part of an extremely addictive otaku (geek) culture, it is also noticeable that little is said about the negative effects of the genres. Having said that, if the show is just trying to be positive and boost “Cool Japan,” it will have a very limited impact.

“Manga * Anime * Games From Japan” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs until Aug. 31; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.) ¥1,000. Closed Tue.