Date: 2019 June 10 20:53
Posted by Guest Contributor
In the window of Japan House in Kensington, a standee of a schoolboy with a baseball cap and backpack beckons. "Hey! Come look at this!" a speech bubble by his head says, inviting you to join him and his two friends inside. The characters have been drawn in the distinctive style of legendary mangaka Urasawa Naoki, and their invitation is for THIS IS MANGA - THE ART OF URASAWA NAOKI, which is open to the public until 28 July 2019.
Source: Otaku News
We're visiting just before the exhibition is due to open, and it's a special day - Urasawa himself is here, offering us a tour of the exhibition and providing us with context and information for many of the exhibits and displays. The ground floor part of the exhibition is very small - a glass-walled enclosure with old notebooks and several sheets of sketches spread out over a series of pedestals, and guarded by an imposing mannequin of 20th Century Boys' "Friend". Urasawa himself, despite it being early in the morning, is very laid back and welcoming, and he happily tells us the stories behind the notebooks and drawings. At the Friend mannequin, he tells us that the mask we're seeing is the same one that was worn by the actor in the live action adaptation of 20th Century Boys. "The first prototype for the mask I saw wasn't quite as I imagined it," he says. "It wasn't tight enough, so I said, 'make it tighter!' The actor said that every time he put the mask on, he thought he would be suffocated." Moving on to the piles of sketches, featuring scenes and characters from Monster, Yawara!, and Billy Bat among others - a representation of his workspace - he says that he often just lets his work pile up. "My editors say I should take better care of these," he says. "They say, 'these are valuable!'" That this didn't occur to him naturally speaks to a level of humility that you might not expect from a man who says that a lot of manga artists also aspire to be rock stars - and in Urasawa's case, no choice was made, as he also fronts his own folk rock band.
We move downstairs to the basement, and this is where we discover the greatest joy of the exhibition. Standees of Yawara and Jigoro from Yawara!, plus a sinister cutout of one of the twins from Monster, lead the way to the main hall, which is filled with display stands showing pages from different manga series by Urasawa. From his most famous works like Master Keaton and Pluto, to lesser-known pieces like Billy Bat and Mujirushi, whole chapters are displayed in large formats and arranged so that they can be read as one would read a tankobon - two pages, side by side, to be read from right to left. It's a real treat, especially since some of these series have not yet been translated and released in English (in the case of Mujirushi, Urasawa quips, this is because there is a Presidential candidate character who could be interpreted as having been visually inspired by a certain actual President, and he doesn't want to get in trouble). Some of the chapter choices are unusual - the Monster display shows the final chapter of the series, which isn't the most intuitive way to promote a long-running mystery manga - but it's nonetheless a delight to be able to get up close and experience the sheer variety within Urasawa's work.
The manga pages are without question the star of the exhibition, but they are by no means the only pieces on display. In the centre of the room is a passageway made up of strips of canvas displaying the facial expressions of Urasawa's various characters - he says that his approach to facial expressions requires an understanding of acting in order to capture and convey a character's subtle changes and emotions. Adorning the walls are giant prints of art, either lifted from their respective manga series or from Urasawa's character drawings. Two large murals serve as photo spots - in colour, the kids from 20th Century Boys peer into their secret den; in black and white, a dramatic image of Monster's Dr Tenma and Johan facing off (Urasawa says that he hopes visitors will stand between them to try and stop Tenma from firing his gun). A giant hanging canvas that runs almost from the ceiling to the floor features Urasawa's Astroboy blasting off into the sky. In one corner, a looping TV spot advertising Billy Bat is projected onto the wall - the advert was planned and directed by Urasawa himself, and features a slightly discordant guitar soundtrack also recorded by Urasawa - clearly he is a man who takes great pride and care in his creations (even if he doesn't always remember that his sketches are valuable), and likes to involve himself in their marketing and promotion.
We end the tour at a case showing a collection of Urasawa's drawings and manga from his elementary school days, including a crayon drawing of Tetsujin 28, which he drew when he was six years old. Prior to starting school, he says, he didn't spend time with other children, but was already eagerly drawing manga by then. When he was told to draw something in class, he was afraid that he might be shunned by his peers for his artistic ability, so he looked at what his classmates were doing and copied their style, dumbing his work down for the sake of acceptability. Something that is very clear, from walking around the main exhibition, is that this need to soften his edges and avoid risk has been left far behind in his childhood. He wrote Yawara! at a time when no-one cared about women's judo; he wrote Monster despite being told no-one was interested in mystery manga; he took Tezuka's classic characters and made them his own for Pluto; he even wrote Osomatsu-kun's character Iyami into Mujirushi, a collaboration wit the Louvre, for no particular reason except that he thought it would be funny. The world of manga is so much richer for this refusal to compromise, and THIS IS MANGA firmly emphasises how true this is.
If you want to know more you can always read our interview with Urasawa Naoki.
Written by Leah Holmes
Leah Holmes is a freelance writer and postgraduate academic specialising in the history and dynamics of anime fandom in the UK. She was the Editorial Assistant on SFX Magazine between 2005 and 2009, and has also written for Imagine FX, MyM Buzz, and manga.co.uk. She has been attending anime cons - and cosplaying - in the UK since 1997. Find her on Twitter at leahmholmes, or visit her website at leah-m-holmes.blogspot.co.uk.