Look! Inside the museum! It's ... Atom Boy?
For those who like a clear line drawn between "high" and "low" art, the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo poses a challenge. Its current show is devoted to a publishing phenomenon visible on every morning commuter train in Japan: the comic book.
In a country where the literacy rate is near 100 percent, the "funnies" - though some aren't so funny - are the most popular form of reading entertainment. Japanese comics, called manga, resemble their Western counterparts only in that both are illustrated and published in magazine form. Manga are largely an adult pastime here and cover subjects from modern history to science fiction, trade friction to romance.
The museum focuses on 50 years of artwork in its exhibit, but many argue that the reasons for the popularity of manga here, and increasingly overseas, lie elsewhere. Manga history is rooted in cheeky subversion against the feudal lords of centuries past. Some modern manga still provide a form of social criticism, along with an escape from a society that stresses conformity and restraint.
"They're one way of understanding the unconscious desires of Japanese people," says manga artist and critic Fusanosuke Natsume, quoting a colleague. "They're also a place where people's desires are expressed."
The earliest roots of manga lie in Buddhist scrolls of the 900s that depict life after death, says Kimio Koketsu, who sells antique manga. By the 1600s, Japan's merchant class, growing richer, had developed an appetite for entertainment and expressions of wealth.
Manga books, bound in silk, fit the bill. Slim volumes of drawings accompanied by explanatory text became popular, particularly when they were about glamorous actresses and actors. Usually drawn in black-and-white, the books sometimes had dashes of color using natural dyes. Another popular subject was daily life: two women gossiping, a farmer plowing his field, a nobleman playing chess.
Manga provided an outlet at a time when the shogun governed harshly. Though some were occasionally censored, the books grew in popularity as woodblock-printing techniques improved and materials became affordable.
"They were one way of getting around the rules," Mr. Koketsu explains. "Japan was closed to the outside world and tightly ruled within, but there was no dictate that you should be closed to yourself."
Kunio Yaguchi, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, says manga perform the same function today. Gesturing at one of the exhibition's displays on superheroes, he says, "Many readers have the desire to transform themselves and become somebody different. Manga allow that. They're easy to read, and touch people's hearts."
From satire to cooking
The differences between manga then and now are greater than the similarities. Today, close to 1 in every 3 books published in Japan is a manga. They can be bought at any newsstand for $3 or $4. Sales last year were near $5 billion - 32 percent of the total revenue for all publications. Often published weekly, many are the size of a small telephone book.
Mainstream manga artists address themes that Westerners would find unseemly, especially for publications that are available to children and teenagers. On one floor of the museum's exhibit, a larger-than-life panel hangs from the ceiling. In the first frame, a bright-eyed young woman says, "Let's have sex!"
Pornographic and graphically violent manga are common here, but most Japanese are undisturbed. "Explicit comics target adults who want to read them, not kids," Mr. Yaguchi says. One of the most popular artists today turns out revision manga that deny much of Japan's aggression in World War II. Complaints come largely from outside Japan. The only topic that has provoked protests within Japan is the burakumin, a group discriminated against because their ancestors worked in "unclean" trades such as tanning or butchery.
Many manga topics aren't incendiary. They include gourmet cooking, basketball, the economy, business etiquette, and political satire. One of the most popular themes in the 1990s has been the coming millennium. This bleak genre depicts a devastated future. But Yaguchi says it is less about what's ahead than it is about the recession-hobbled Japan of today.
Dramatic, scene-setting storytelling
The range of subjects manga cover mark one difference with mainstream Western comics. The way they tell a story differs too. The frames on a page aren't the neat boxes Superman and Batman fans are familiar with. A manga page will be divided in long diagonal slashes, small stamp-sized squares, and vertical rectangles.
There's a difference in the way images are put together as well. Western artists tend to show one action leading to another: a man lifting a baseball and in the next frame, his arm extended, the ball hurtling away from him.
Japanese artists use this method, too, but also use a detailed scene-setting style rarely seen in the West. They might depict the same athlete by first showing the field full of players; then the sun shining fiercely; a close-up of the player's face beaded with sweat; a close-up of his hands, white-knuckled on the ball; and then his arm raised to hurl it. This cinematic approach forces readers to pull together the moment from the varied perspectives the artist has given them. (It also explains the phone-book length of many manga.)
In "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art," author Scott McCloud argues that this story-telling style is the legacy of Asian art. Despite the differences between the Western and Japanese comic-book traditions, there are common links. American cartoons influenced the grandfather and stylistic trendsetter of modern manga, Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Atom Boy, who made his start in the 1940s. "You can see a lot of Walt Disney in Tezuka," says artist Mr. Natsume. "Mickey Mouse had four fingers, Tezuka liked that and copied it, and he also copied Disney's round faces."
Ironically, Disney has come under fire from Japanese manga artists who charged that its movie, "The Lion King," was plagiarized from an Osamu Tezuka cartoon "Kimba, the White Lion."
The cross-pollination between manga and Western comics is usually less contentious, especially as they become more popular in the US. (Manga have long been popular in Europe.) Some Japanese companies are translating and exporting manga, mostly to California. Stories featuring manga are cropping up in major cities across the country, and American artists are beginning to issue their own, manga-inspired comics.
Rap singers have embraced manga action characters and one popular rapper, Missy Elliot, appears in a video as a cartoon superhero. This cultural borrowing fits the spirit of manga, Yaguchi says. "Japanese people aren't so good at expressing themselves," he says. "Manga are a new way of communicating with the outside world."