On Panels and Pages

Manga Realities at the Ayala Museum

The Japanese word “karoshi” does not directly translate: it means “death from overwork”. That there had to be a word for it attests to the kind of culture that thrives in Japan: anonymous armies of salarymen, prolific portfolios, and long commutes to and from the office, branching out from previous incarnations of warrior classes, farmers and fishermen, and female subservience. One can only imagine the potential for narrative, as well as recognize the contradictions of Japan’s damning shame society somehow supporting an economy of creative expression that is beyond free.

To begin with, I was never much of a manga fan, and considering the previous exhibitions housed in the ground floor gallery of the Ayala Museum, I’m guessing the typical visitor would approach Manga Realities with the same mix of unenthusiastic condescension. This is clear from the works previously held in the same space, such as Araceli Dans’ retrospective, and the series of works inspired by Picasso’s Guernica, both of which posed self-conscious searches for the elusive Pinoy psyche. Dans’ body of work consisted mainly of portraits of her family as well as those commissioned by Manila’s elite, alongside carefully executed oil paintings of Filipino fabric; while Guernica explored themes of hubris and martyrdom that have persisted across Filipino art, from social realism to contemporary installations (see Mark Salvatus: c_rafts). In fact—with the exception of Olivia d’Abboville’s exhibit—one doesn’t even have to look at previous Museum shows, the juxtaposition of exhibits dedicated to martial law martyrs Ninoy and Cory Aquino with manga are enough to testify to the conscious crafting of national identity and romanticized cultural ideals.

While both the Philippines and Japan intersect in matters of asserting identity, when it comes to creation, what is inherently Japanese is more of a consequence than a preliminary concern—put simply, the work precedes the message. This is especially clear in Harold Sakuichi’s BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad, which featured famous UK and American pop and rock album covers, rendered as manga. The evolution of manga in such a short span of time affirms how, in the case of Japan, prolific production eventually forms a firm foundation for distinct identity; whereas with the Philippines, much creative output is endlessly dogged by questions of whether or not what is on the table is “truly Pinoy.”

While manga sheds light on how sequential art blatantly overlaps with and borrows from other media, Filipinos place their already muddled notions of culture as a primary reference to the conceptualization of an exhibit and the production of work. For instance, tracing the origins of manga back to the brief American occupation during the second world war will not necessarily draw accusations of being unpatriotic, but will foreground how well the Japanese are able to riff on an existing form. In the case of Manga Realities, to ask if Sakuichi’s cover of Rancid’s …And out come the wolves has a place in the canon of Japanese art—let alone on the walls of the Ayala Museum—is rendered irrelevant by what it contributes to the space, which is the fact that manga branches into discourses that go beyond pen and ink and paper. Manga, for all its low brow origins, is undeniably an artefact of popular culture that has surpassed its earlier editions, branching out and tying up with its counterparts in other cultures.

But while manga was first conceived as a cheap antidote to the boredom of the daily commute faced by Japan’s middle and lower classes, its transcendence to prime real estate on gallery walls only testifies to its growth into a legitimate art form, with countless subgenres and diverse niches. Sequential art has that advantage of combining visual and literary components, which eventually became narratives that directly referred to Japanese culture. This is achieved by tackling themes as volatile as technology, societal expectations, the limits set by our careers and our education (as well as the fantasies we conjure up to surpass these limits), and communing with nature—a theme most evident in Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea.

Japanese environmental awareness, long nurtured in Shinto religious practices, is beyond any publicity stunt about going green and Elizabeth Gilbert-style tree molestation. Igarashi’s work, which involved a fabric tidal wave, beneath which the viewer would have to bend, just to read the panels which were laid flat on a set of half-moon shaped tables, showed that nurturing one’s environment means allowing it to change you, lest it eat you alive. This should also work in defense of the stereotypically Japanese technophiles, with their prevalent cycles of invention and obsolescence. In this exhibit however, the commentary on technology resonated most clearly with the use of white space in Machiko Kyo’s Sennen Gyaho.

This may seem like a broad spectrum to tackle with one exhibit, but Manga Realities maintained that element of cohesion maintained by an instantly recognizable aesthetic, one which causes constant confusion between manga, Japanese comic book art, and anime, Japanese animation. It was specifically because of this aesthetic that I was never much of a fan of Manga. I just did not like the infantilized features, the inexplicably subservient women, and the loopy narratives with no resolution, but I am a fan of music and I am open to literature—and it is through this porousness and propensity for pop culture references that comics have that proverbial leg up over other exhibits that have been held at the same space.

The arguments for sequential art can result in the butting of heads between its literary and visual components: In matters of form and content, should a comic—if you still want to call it a comic—be judged by its visual or literary qualities?

But sequential art is a matter of words working with images, not against them, and this is where the challenge of translating portable printed matter to a three-dimensional space comes in. This is how Manga Realities most successfully illuminated how manga has long surpassed the standard definition of sequential art, which basically told a story in pen and ink, panel-by-panel. Aside from the increasing prevalence of Japanese pop culture in post-industrial society, this exhibit represented how our lives are becoming increasingly flattened by our changing definitions of the page, thus allowing us to read manga not simply as a series of distinct stories with different characters, but as commentary on the overarching human narrative and how the boundaries between our more concrete realities and what’s happening on the page are becoming increasingly blurred.

Despite our increased awareness that connectivity does not necessarily mean actual connection, the relationship of the cosmopolitan apartment dweller to a page on a glaring white screen has only gotten stronger with the development of new technologies (a phenomenon in which Japan might bear much guilt). The gallery’s stark white walls and the organization of the space into enclosures—directly referring to the use of panels in sequential art—only strengthens this idea, allowing it to verge dangerously into paranoia on the part of the technophobe. Kyo’s work, as well as Inio Asano’s scene stealer, Solanin, provided the clearest commentary on this phenomenon—going so far as to recreate the cramped apartment space in which Solanin’s characters live; while the robot-controlled room, used for Tamiki Wakaki’s The World God Only Knows, lectured on how our increasingly fragmented relationships are beginning to influence our educational system.

The irony of it all is that in Manga Realities’ insistent, bordering on cynical, commentary on how the modern age has drastically altered our personal interactions, the entire premise of the exhibit traces its roots back to the book—once again reflecting that despite the future of this quaint little medium coming into so much heated debate, our lives are still hinged on its existence. What this also testifies to is that the book can become anything, making it impossible to pronounce or foresee the death of publishing. Maybe the Japanese, with their remarkable propensity to turn the bizarre into brilliant, are the best people to show us that.

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