Pokémon. Astro Boy. Sailor Moon. Ghost in the Shell. Death Note. Japanese popular culture today is ubiquitous, whether you live in Tokyo or Austin or Sydney, and many Western creators are influenced by the style of manga as surely as Osamu Tezuka, rightfully dubbed “the god of manga”, was influenced by the cartoons of Walt Disney. While nearly everyone knows about the Disney-Tezuka connection, fewer are aware of the centuries of Japanese popular visual culture that also influenced modern manga, most obviously the tradition of colored woodcut prints and woodblock-printed books.
The edited collection Hokusai x Manga: Japanese Pop Culture Since 1680 seeks to trace those connections, through a series of essays and illustrations of both contemporary and historical popular art. The inspiration for this volume was an exhibition of the same name at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (The Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts, or MKG), which drew on the MKG’s strong collection of Japanese popular art. Hokusai x Manga does an exemplary job in discussing and illustrating different aspects of pre-20th century visual culture that influenced manga, but is much weaker in presenting and analyzing contemporary manga (those published from the mid-20th century onwards).
Nora von Achenbach throws down the gauntlet in the first sentence of her essay, “Fiction and Reality”: “The first comic books were created in Japan.” She finds the origins of comics in kibyōshi, small booklets of woodcuts telling stories in pictures. As an example, she cites a 1785 work by Santō Kyōden (1761-1816), “Playboy roasted à la Edo”, which tells the story of a young man who tries to become the type of fashionable dandy featured in the romantic stories he likes to read (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well). This story parodies the pretentions of the newly prosperous merchants in Edo (Tokyo) while also illustrating a theme that remains salient in Japanese popular culture, the blurring of reality and fantasy.
The district of Yoshiwara, the “pleasure quarters” of Edo, was literally walled off from the rest of the city and accessible only through a single gate. But the pleasures available inside those walls — among them gambling, prostitution, theatrical performances, the latest in fashion, and some chance to throw off the strict hierarchies of the times (as long as you had the ready money) — meant that there was no lack of individuals willing to make the trip to reach it. Yoshiwara also furnished many subjects for woodcuts, which were cheap enough, thanks to mass production, that they were affordable for a broad swath of Japanese society, similar to the way nearly anyone today can afford to buy a comic book or see a movie now and then.
Many woodcuts and series featured scenes of pleasure activities. The kabuki theatre, with its elaborate costumes and stylized gestures, was an obvious subject for woodcuts, often featuring well-known actors in their most famous roles. Portraits, including those of beautiful courtesans, were popular, as were images of geisha carrying out their daily activities, some skating dangerously close to the kind of eroticism that could bring on censorship. Blatantly pornographic woodcuts (shunga were also produced in large quantities beginning around 1680, although they were subject to periodic bans (in the latter case, they were still available, but you had to know where to get them).
Images of ghosts and monsters and spirits were also common topics for woodcuts and collections, including the many different types of yokai (hybrid spirits that have been popular in Japanese folklore as long as anyone has been keeping track). Many types of yokai remain popular today, from the demon kitsune (magical fox) spirit in Naruto to the vengeful female ghost with long black hair in Ringu and its many sequels and adaptations. The sheer variety of monstrosities featured in the illustrations in this section should provide plenty of inspiration to anyone trying to create their own ghost or monster character.
Travel and famous sites formed another popular class of print. Mount Fuji, revered in Japan for centuries, was often featured in whole series of woodcuts, one well-known example being Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” (one of which, known colloquially as “The Wave”, remains a dorm-room staple). Urban scenes also received the serial treatment, as exemplified by Hiroshige’s “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo”, while the growing popularity of travel created a demand for woodblock series illustrating well-known travel routes, such as Hiroshige’s “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road”.
Manuals instructing amateurs in drawing and painting were tremendously popular in 19th century Japan, with one of the most famous, “Hokusai manga” (“Random Sketches by Hokusai”) supplying the term (“manga”) now used to describe Japanese comics in general. These manuals typically provided simplified examples of different subjects (plants, animals, human figures, facial expressions) that an amateur might like to draw, often breaking them down into their basic shapes (circles, triangles, etc.), an approach still used in art instruction today.
Hokusai x Manga devotes about three-fourths of its pages to pre-20th century works, so those looking for an in-depth treatment of modern manga should search elsewhere. There are interesting chapters, however, covering Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen the work of Jirō Tanigushi, Kiriko Nananan’s Blue, the work of Inio Assano, Jed Henry’s Ukiyo-e Heroes, and the contemporary state of manga. (In these modern works, text within the manga are given in German, with translations in English in the footnotes.)
Hokusai x Manga is a beautifully illustrated large format (8.2 x 11 inches) book, with wonderful color reproductions of the featured works. While the focus is much more on the past than the present, it will still interest fans of manga and anime as well as art historians. Indeed, it has much to offer readers at all levels of interest and expertise.