As you enter the Kyoto International Manga Museum, the sight that meets you is less that of a museum but a library. Shelves upon shelves of graphic novels, comics, manga – or whichever term the viewer chooses to affiliate with the genre – line the walls from floor to ceiling. Through the exhibition rooms, every chair, bench and cushion is occupied by someone reading through the endless collection on offer, seemingly their sole intention of visiting the place that day rather than view the exhibition at all.

The great “Wall of Manga” in the  Kyoto International Manga Museum

This sight alone conveys something key about manga within the Japanese culture at least – not just a collectors item or a geeky fad, these comics are read and enjoyed by everyone from children to adults as a part of daily life, the library of the museum offering the equivalent of a candy shop with no cost or limit to the quantity to be enjoyed by the hungry readers of the image-filled paperbacks.

For those less familiar with this artistic medium however, the museum also offers an educational journey through manga history, citing everything from its early beginnings, its tumultuous place in Japanese culture, as well as its sometimes uncertain interrelationship with comic genres outside of Japan. It has everything from a set of “100 maiko prints” – images of young apprentice geisha – to the first appearances of manga, a breakdown of the process and techniques employed in manga creation, as well as a collection of the most influential series of the post-war period, including many first editions. Pure gold to some and a delight-filled discovery to many.

An issue of Tokyo Puck from 1910 depicts social satire of an old man’s penchant for young girls

Starting out as an affordable entertainment source for the masses, prices for manga magazines have generally remained low and readership diverse, the cheap flimsy pages still taking pride of place on the supermarket shelves. But this resilence has not been easily won – throughout history the form has also met a lot of resistance, even being banned at times due to being seen as sexualised in nature (which to look at some of the female character illustrations isn’t so difficult to fathom). 

Fascinating to learn is that the spin-off “anime” form was actually born out of budget restrictions in creating animated TV shows – based heavily on the manga style, the technique of “limited animation” allows programmes to be made quickly and cheaply by cutting down the number of frames used, incidently creating the unique and revered style that survives today.

Much like trying to define the form itself (what is manga?) the museum had to draw an arbitrary line somewhere, landing its focus very much on the printed form as circulated in Japan – particularly magazines and tankoban books – but the potential spectrum of items falling under the manga umbrella stretches not only across anime movies, but to cosplay, computer games and to the $1000s worth figurines to be found in many a Japanese arcade.

Indeed the exhibition explains that the key to success of a series is often to create a kind of boom covering a complex media mix, with the popularity and profitability becoming as much about the franchise frenzy as the comic itself. It also centres around community building which sometimes catches on to the point where there is a whole subgenre of fans creating their own fanzines and selling them at 1000s strong comic markets. Though posing a copyright issue this also is part and parcel of a series generating a loyal (sometimes fanatical) fan base.

Summer Comic Market in Tokyo Japan

One Piece, the most popular current series with a circulation of 4 million for its no.73 issue, recently released their latest film at the cinema and the merchandise explosion in every store and summer event across Japan is testament to the multi-media merchandise leveraging power this genre has.

One Piece Film: Gold – 2016 animated Japanese film directed by Hiroaki Miyamoto. Part of series based on manga written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda

The museum’s special exhibition of Eguchi Hisashi “King of Pop” also shows how the manga drawing style fluidly crosses genres, permeating adverstising and marketing, as well as constituting an art form in its own right.

Hishashi's illustrations demonstrate manga as an art form
Hishashi’s illustrations demonstrate manga as an art form

The subgenre of adult entertainment manga is also given a nod in one corner of the museum. Far from a top shelf item, these types of magazine are freely available alongside other manga series but its more vivid incarnations can be found by the brave in the infamous sex shops in Tokyo and elsewhere.  A particular image on one cover which featured an octopus seared itself on my memory enough to not need further investigation but did give an insight at least into how pervasive this medium is.

Woman browses the adult manga section at a manga convention
Woman browses the adult section at a manga convention

And although not the focus of the museum, it also holds an eclectic collection of the world’s “manga”, noting how the comic form has increasingly been translated from Japanese but has also developed independently elsewhere in the world, both inspired by and in turn inspiring the original Japanese genre. Many other countries are featured, including the popular Spanish translations of Dragon Ball, the bandes dessinées of French-speaking regions and the American Marvel cartoon characters that have brought renewed fame to the genre through blockbuster movie after blockbuster movie.

Rather than attempt to distinguish Japanese manga entirely, there is not only acknowledgement but a celebration of the osmosis that occurs between Japanese and outside culture through the manga medium, making it difficult to define where one ends and another meets. As with all artistic expression, it is in elegant variation that something new and unique is created.

Art Speigelmen, famous for Maus and also a 9/11 comic "In the Shadow of No Towers"
Featured comics from North America, including Art Speigelmen‘s “Maus” and “In the Shadow of No Towers

But manga seems to hold a special place in the Japanese culture – their endlessly entertaining cartoon information signs being a prime example of how the drawn image is used to convey all kinds of information simply and accessibly. Also in all that is kitsch in pop culture Japan – sometimes gaudy, sometimes cool – from the little figures hanging off girls’ backpacks on keyrings, to the pachinko machines guys sit in front of from dawn till dusk, playing what effectively is a fruit machine with flashing cartoon images.

Japan railway sign in Kyoto informs passengers of a crackdown on fare evaders through powerful illustration
A Japan railway sign in Kyoto informs passengers of a crackdown on fare evaders through powerful illustration

From the oldskool tattered paperbacks stacked up in Japanese cafés, restaurants and hotels, to the electronic issues being read by commuters on kindles and phones in the packed Tokyo metro, manga, despite its obstacles, seems to remain today as much the form it ever was – a genre to be accessed and enjoyed by all, providing not only entertainment but important social commentary through satire, a powerful tool of communication and education, and holding unique cultural significance for modern day Japan.