Asian and African studies blog

08 May 2014

Manga, comics and an alternative view of the British Library

With the opening last week of the British Library's new exhibition ʻComics unmaskedʼ, it seemed a good opportunity to write something about Japanese Manga. Manga had its origins in the practice of drawing stories in 12th century Japan. However, the first time Manga was actually used as a descriptive term concerned a book of sketches by Katsushika Hokusai published in 1814. Modern Manga derives not only from the historic roots of visual story telling in Japan, but also significantly from the juxtaposition of Japanese Manga with the rich tradition of American comics in post war Japanese society following the involvement of the United States in the revivification of the Japanese economy after 1946 – though in the nineteen thirties Manga had been published extensively in newspapers in short strip stories. Arguably the Father of modern Manga was Osamu Tezuka whose mother had read to him American comics. He combined Japanese tradition with an inspiration drawn from Walt Disney’s animation, a style that has been widely copied.

Images of people at leisure from Hokusai manga (Random Drawings by Hokusai) vol. 8, illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) (BL Or.65.a.43).

Today Manga publications make up over 40% of the total sales of books and magazines in Japan, an impact that goes far beyond the role of comic books in western countries. Manga seeks to entertain but it also has a mission to educate in a positive spirit. You can find an almost unlimited range of Manga books on different subjects: adventure, samurai, sake wine, romance, history, music, sushi, basketball, board games, tennis, cars, medical, religion… In fact any subject in which there is a necessity to be informed is within the scope of Manga set within imaginative story lines. Manga is a subculture.

It is interesting to note that there is one series of Manga novels that refer explicitly to the British Library. This is a series entitled Read or Die, written by Hideyuki Kurata and illustrated by Shutaro Yamada. The novels concern the adventures and character of Yomiko Readman, code name 'the Paper'. Yomiko Readman is an employee of the British Library — an alternative British Library with an alternative Library history!

Vol. 4 of Read or Die by Hideyuki Kurata, art by Shutaro Yamada. Cover girl is Yomiko Readman, the 19th British Library agent to earn the codename ʻThe Paperʼ. Yomiko is wearing her British Library uniform consisting of a red tie, white blouse, brown waistcoat, and a brown skirt.

ʻMr Gentlemanʼ of the British Library, Chief Executive Roly Keating at work in his office.

The purpose of the British Library expressed in the novels is to promote the literacy and greater glory of the British Empire. What value does the idea of empire, the British Empire in particular, have in Japanese consciousness? Unlike the real British Library, a national research and cultural institution, the British Library in Read or Die is a powerful political organization with many branches all over the world. Unlike the real British Library that is led by the Chairman, the Chief Executive and the British Library Board, the British Library in Read or Die is presided over by ʻMr. Gentlemanʼ and is unique in this alternative Library world for having at its heart the British Library Special Operations Division that in reality does not exist. Unless you know different?

Matthew Neill, Asian and African Studies


Hokusai manga 北斎漫画 [Random Drawings by Hokusai] vol 8; illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎, Nagoya, Japan: Eirakuya Tōshirō 永楽屋東四郎, 1819.


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