Is Japanese manga moving into mainstream art?

While manga is one of Japan’s most powerful mediums, with a huge influence on many industries including publication, film, games and even electronics, the art world has never quite embraced it as high art.

But now is perhaps the time to change that mindset, as Artsonje Center, a private art museum in Hwa-dong, central Seoul which usually presents contemporary conceptual art, has taken the bold step of opening its space for a special exhibition on Japanese comics.

Organized by SAMUSO and The Japan Foundation, the exhibition “Manga Realities: Exploring the Art of Japanese Comics Today” makes the case for why and how manga should be viewed as art.

“We pondered the question of how manga, which is born to be sold in the form of comic books in book stores, could be displayed at an exhibition. We also questioned the limit of manga; if it should stay as a commercial product and be bought and shared by many people, or become something more. We hope this exhibition will pave the way for more discussions on manga,” Takahashi Mizuki, curator of the exhibition, told the press Friday.

Manga’s sudden intrusion into a lofty art museum definitely seemed to have caught the media’s attention as the museum was unusually packed with journalists on the opening day. Setting aside all the lingering questions, the general response was that the show offers heart-fluttering memories for hardcore manga fans and an easy introduction for manga first-timers. Divided into nine sections, the show features some original illustrations from nine manga strips ― “Number Five,” “The World God Only Knows,” “Sugar Sugar Rune,” “BECK,” “Children of the Sea,” “Solanin,” “Five Minutes from the Station,” “Sennen Gaho” and “Nodame Cantabile.”

“Only the most representative manga that are translated into Korean and widely read here were selected for the show to better reach out to the public,” explained Mizuki.

Unlike in some exhibitions fe aturing comic strips which simply display the original illustrations, exhibition designer Toyoshima Hideki created something like a 3-D realization of the comics by adding whimsical props and installations that look like they just popped out of the comic books.

The section dedicated to Wakaki Tamiki’s “The World Only God Knows,” for example, is presented like a classroom with a chalkboard, a lecturn and 12 desks and chairs, just like it is illustrated in the comics. Brief introductions on the characters are written on the board in adorable handwriting.

The highlight and finale of the show is “Nodame Cantabile,” manga which was also made into a TV series and a movie that were extremely popular in Korea. Original illustrations and rough copies of the manga are exhibited behind a player piano that plays Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 13 No. 8, a significant musical number in the story.

The complete collection of the comics featured in the show are on display on the first floor of the museum. A guide book is distributed to visitors so even those who are not familiar with the original works are able to get a picture of what they are going to see before jumping into the sea of 3-D realized imaginations.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 13 at Artsonje Center in Hwa-dong, central Seoul. Tickets are 1,500 won for students and 3,000 won for adults. For more information, call (02) 733-8945 or visit

By Park Min-young (

Holy comicbook exhibition, Batman!: Japan's artists put their own twist on America's iconic superheroes

In a publishing market so dominated by illustrated stories--i.e. manga--it is sometimes surprising the only exposure Japanese audiences have to American comicbook superheroes is in the form of blockbuster Hollywood movies.

Using that very point of entry, Parco Factory's latest exhibition, DC Comics Super Heroes!!!, explores a small but significant corner of that increasingly popular American art form.

"We felt this exhibition would be a good way for light fans who became interested in America's comicbooks through films to learn about the genre in an accessible, fun way," says Rui Shigeto, who curated the exhibition.

The show covers the history of some of America's favorite comicbook heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern (most of whom have appeared in film). Starting with the Golden Age (ca 1938-1952)--which was heralded by the appearance of Superman in Action Comics No. 1, and later introduced Batman in Detective Comics--a number of replica covers from each era illustrate the changes in artistic attitudes and societal norms.

Each of the major turning points in comicbook history--which also include the Silver Age and the Modern Age--is marked by a distinct approach in terms of both artistic style and story content. Early stories were a bit on the dark side, before taking a turn for the camp during the 1960s. Later, characters struggled with issues such as drug abuse and, in the case of Frank Miller's brilliant The Dark Knight Returns, nuclear war and misplaced patriotism. As one might imagine, a dark realism--both visually and thematically--has taken hold in the Modern Age of American comics.

Hanging on the walls of the exhibition space are recent issues of series dealing with these classic characters, each of them handled by a different writer and artist. Grant Morrison's Old West version of Batman, any one?

"I think one of the interesting things about American comicbooks--as opposed to Japanese manga--is that different artists [and writers] handle the same character, thereby giving the art a different flavor and the storylines a different structure," says Shigeto. "In Japan, you would never see several mangaka taking on the same character's story."

For Super Heroes, however, Japanese artists get to do exactly that: 22 artists and designers try their hands at re-envisioning these classic icons. Shunya Yamashita, who designs game characters, imagines Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Catwoman as kawaii sexpots straight out of anime; illustrator Hiroki Tsukuda applies traditional Japanese craft to an ink recreation of the Batmobile from the recent Batman films; and the designers at Be@rbrick turn Batman into its trademark cute bearshaped toy.

"We wanted to make use of the various styles, genres and ages of the participating artists--which include graphic designers and mangaka, among others--as a filter through which to view the world of American comicbooks," Shigeto says. "I feel that this varied mix really resulted in a particularly 'Tokyo' sensibility. This is an exhibition that really only could have been done here in Japan."

But the most famous redesigns of America's comicbook superheroes have been done by film studios, and there is no shortage of memorabilia on hand at Super Heroes. Among the many items are Val Kilmer's cowl from Batman Forever, Brandon Routh's glasses from Superman Returns and Batmobile and Batwing models from 1989's Batman. And the most impressive of all: the rhinestoned "S" from Marlon Brando's costume for 1978's Superman.

"DC Comics Super Heroes!!!," until Dec. 19, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Parco Factory in Shibuya, Tokyo. Admission is 300 yen, with student discounts available. For further information, call (03) 3477-5873 or visit