How can you exhibit manga?

How is it possible to exhibit manga? These days we have more and more chances to see to view manga in the context of art, and art museums and galleries continue to search for ways to exhibit comic books.

One of them is Ai Koko Gallery, a small art space inside a condo in Sumida, Tokyo. It held the ‘The Everything-Is-Rather-Friendly World’ (Subete ga chotto zutsu yasashii sekai) exhibition from April 6th to June 8th, featuring the work of manga-ka Daisuke Nishijima.

The exhibition was based on the eponymous manga published by Kodansha, a fable in which a “light tree” appears in a village, and the lives and world of the locals begin to change. The winner of the Third Hiroshima Book Prize in 2013, the comic is evocative the 2011 Fukushima accident.

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‘The Everything-Is-Rather-Friendly World’, Daisuke Nishijima’s latest manga

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The floor was covered in original drawings, with books on the chairs and panels on the walls.

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A panel on the wall greeted visitors as soon as they entered.

We paid a visit to the exhibition on the last day. The first surprise upon entering the gallery was that original drawings from the manga — pictures drawn by pen on manuscript paper — nonchalantly covered the floor. Pre-photoset dialogue was written in with pencil, along with raw notes like “I don’t know what to say here” which you wouldn’t see in the final paperback book. Moreover, the drawings were not displayed in frames like manga exhibitions usually are, so you were able to pick things up as you liked.

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Children also liked looking at the original drawings.

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You could pick up the drawings and take a close look.

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The walls on either side were decorated with drawings that Nishijima had made especially for the exhibition, while on the table inside there were copies of the manga and other past works by the author. For me, original drawings have value as the first images of a manga, and the drawings on the floor were like an insurmountable river. But the gallery director urged me to walk over the drawings and check out the books and new artworks. So gingerly I moved forward and stepped over the drawings.

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You had to step over (and onto) the original drawings to go inside.

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On the wall were artworks created especially for the exhibition.

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Also on hand at the venue were other manga by Nishijima.

The artworks in the frames were drawn with a Posca pen on whitewashed manga manuscript paper. This meant there was less texture to the colors and you could really sense Nishijima’s style. There were also pictures drawn on wooden panels.

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The wall panels were small squares, emphatically different to regular comic book frames.

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One of the artworks that Nishijima drew especially for the exhibition

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This one was popular with visitors.

Nishijima’s pictures have always been hand-drawn. In particular, the style of lines in his new manga has become softer than in his past work. His art is also highly symbolic. The critical message that underlies ‘The Everything-Is-Rather-Friendly World’, showing the collapse of a community, is portrayed more vividly through the way he draws the human form by hand.

Manga-ka themselves rarely take part in these kinds of exhibitions. However, the gallery owner wanted to exhibit Nishijima’s ideas themselves, since she views him as an artist. As part of this, she set up a Skype call so visitors could ask him about the exhibition and his work. When I visited, he was online from Hiroshima.

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You could speak to the author on a computer.

I asked Nishijima why his manga exhibition turned out like this. “I didn’t intend to show original manga drawings at first,” he said. Generally speaking, exhibitions based around manga typically show the “making of” process of the comic through things that take us into the manga’s world. But the gallery owner asked Nishijima to make “one of a kind artwork” and this led the manga-ka to consider the difference between manga and art. “Manga is complete when it is a duplicated book that is then circulated. This is great but art is singular, it’s one of a kind. If even just one person likes it, it can be sold and that gives it value. The relationship is totally different.” This thinking led to the drawing artworks that were on display. And even though they didn’t know Nishijima’s manga, there were people who just dropped in and liked the exhibits purely as artworks.

In fact, a publisher actually once lost Nishijima’s manuscript. But if you have even just the layout data you can still publish something, so Nishijima didn’t believe in the monetary value of a manuscript. “The manuscript is the mere material in order to make something duplicated like a paperback manga — it’s not an artwork.” For this reason, the original manuscript drawings are spread out on the floor and exhibited as something without value. The idea was to use the entire gallery to show that, more than the original manuscript, the spatially higher-up books and wall panel artworks were the things with value.

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But that’s not to say he is completely denying the value of original drawings. “I don’t want to repudiate other manga-ka’s exhibitions. I recognise the values of anything,” Nishijima told me. Visitors to the exhibition could also get another “one of a kind” item — a signed manga book. “Well, it increases the sales of the books, so there’s merit for the publisher as well.”

Nishijima is not just a manga artist. He’s also an art director and DJ. “I’ve been working as a manga-ka for nine years now, but with this exhibition I crossed over a bit into the art world.” Perhaps next he will find new fans in this field as well.

It depends on the manga-ka but when I’ve previously visited other exhibitions, there was a real difference to looking at manuscripts and drafts. There are manga-ka where the power of their work is better expressed through looking at the hand-drawn manuscript, rather than the printed books. On the other hand, sometimes there are cases when the entire production process has been digitalized and the “original drawings” are just printed plates. The exhibition this time worked because of Nishijima, and his idea that the exhibition is a place for exhibiting a total way of thinking. These days we see manga being placed more and more into the context of art, so this event gave some big pointers for the question of how to exhibit the medium successfully.