Imagine your elementary school, if your elementary school was filled with comics.
Filled with them, from floor to ceiling, all in alphabetic order, to simply remove from the shelves and read to your heart’s content. Books all the way back from the 1940’s, comics you can only see in reprints or expensive collections, and no one scolds you for daring to get your fingers on something expensive or for reading for too long. Some magical school where you can read comics from 10am until 6pm (admissions close at 5:30).
I have seen the future and, unsurprisingly, it’s in Japan. My tens of readers (Hi Mom!) might have noticed a short absence from my musing duties here at The Fifth Color, and I am proud to report to you that I took a short trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, mostly to get rid of some of that fat Comic Shop Employee cash you just get laying about from selling comics all day. Secondly, to enjoy the adventure of traveling somewhere that wasn’t the San Diego Comic Con, to live where hot dogs are for breakfast and waffles are a dinner dessert. To see the great green expanses, to marvel at historical landmarks and to fly at 150mph on a bullet train. To have a public toilet entertain me with music.
When the Kyoto International Manga Museum was but a short walk from my hotel, there was no way I could resist.
You might miss it a couple times when walking by or have to squint and take out your map just to make sure, but some orange-colored flags help you confirm that this is the museum you are looking for; it blends in so well because the grounds started as an elementary school. The Tatsuike Primary School was founded three years before the modern Japanese education system, opening its doors in November 1869 (the second year of the Meiji Period for those playing at home). Created from the donations of the community, it makes sense that this building would later be converted into a public museum to continue to give back to the people.
Heading inside, past the adorable Museum Cafe where manga artists have scribbled signatures and artwork on the walls, you’re hit with the gift shop. Okay, then after that is the Manga Expo, celebrating “manga around the world.” Shelves of translated works from across the globe are carefully arranged to show what One Piece would look like in French or Korean. They do also showcase a small sampling of other countries forays into manga so Mr. Bendis? Congratulations, you’re museum worthy.
After this comes live demos from artists or a little workshop for hands-on displays (since I went during their salute to model kits, dolls and pop sculpture, the workshop was for painting models). There are some great displays regarding the school and its history, how classes were taught and the illustrious principals that led the school when it was active.
Now you’re going to have to trust me because there was a certain point at the Manga Museum where cameras were not allowed. There is a hallway of drawings of maiko-san (a sort of apprentice Geisha) by 174 different manga artists. As you might already know, copyright issues are rather important in Japan right now so from this point I didn’t get a lot of photos in but each of these very humble little drawings was fascinating. A friend of mine keeps a Flash convention sketchbook, taking it with him to cons and getting his favorite artists to draw their version of the Speedster. I figure if you take that, frame each and every one then line the walls with them, there would be a sense of the two floors of maiko illustrations.
Keep in mind, the manga doesn’t stop. It starts with the Expo then keeps going, cataloging titles alphabetically and by genre. Three floors of a district school of manga books, some donated from personal libraries, others by former shop keepers. Plus, there’s a kids’ library (looking much like your public library’s carpeted jungle), a section that’s specifically organized by year and research libraries I couldn't even get into. Nearly 500,000 manga books with no velvet rope, no limit and an open invitation. People casually sitting the halls on little chairs, on steps with a stack of manga books next to them, mothers and sons, all reading. Most of the museums I’ve been to aren’t big on the “Hey, put your hands all over this!” theory of education, but most libraries allow you to check books out and take them home. Most likely to be lost by Yours Truly. So this whole building is a mix of both, educational and informative without being austere or too reverent.
Which makes my favorite part even more interesting. Again, I wish they’d allowed cameras because in the center of the second floor is the Main Exhibition Room, which according to the brochure handed at the door, answers all your questions: “‘How is manga made?’ ‘Is manga the same as animation?’ ‘Are manga artists rich?’ We will answer various questions related to manga happily and seriously. The huge book shelf in which selected classic manga books are displayed in rows is a must-see!” Personally, I think the must-see is the display itself. Blessedly in English, it’s an honest and ... well, there’s no other way to put it: a museum quality exhibit on illustrated stories and how they are an integral part of popular culture. See? I can’t even do it! I have to say ‘illustrated stories’, where in Japan, they straight out call it what it is: manga. Comics. There is no forced enthusiasm or shameful rewording of what we’re all here to see: the comics.
While elements of Japanese Manga expression have been found in picture scrolls produced in the Heian period (794-1192 for those playing at home), the exhibit takes a strong stance on manga being fully realized at the point of modern printing, where the stories and pictures were made available in mass to the public. From there they show how manga not only grew as time passed, but how people grew with the manga as well, showing what types of books are read as the readers grew up. They did indeed explain the process of publishing and printing in their ‘Are Manga Artists Rich?’ display, they touched on elements in artwork that make the manga style distinct (speed lines, sound effects, etc.), how manga made up certain types of animation techniques (watch the Powerpuff Girls) and how manga is produced in other countries.
Proudly standing in for the USA in the sections relating to cost effectiveness was an Absolute Watchmen and in the section regarding page count were issues of the Incredible Hulk and Legion of Super-Heroes. They talked about cosplay, video games and other marketing tie-ins, even dōjinshi, and its effect on the manga culture. The display admitted that dōjinshi was indeed a double edged sword, that a lot of work could be used to make money with the originator of the property never seeing a cent from their hard work. They also said that a lot of manga artists catch the public eye and go on to be great creators of their own work by starting in dōjinshi. And, what stuck with me the most was the displayed idea that, while pirating manga is illegal, those pirated works are all that some overseas audiences can get. Once a property or title is taken across to the international market, sometimes those pirated books have helped pave the way for Japanese manga to gain acceptance in foreign markets.
I could write about the Kyoto International Manga Museum for hours... and someone did because that place is full of information and analysis I only hope we could get to here in the United States. Maybe there is; maybe Scott McCloud has finally opened his “Understanding Comics Museum” and we’re all invited. More importantly, maybe it’s not there at all and we have to start taking the books over the shelves, learning for ourselves and teaching others how wonderful the comic medium really is.