We sat down recently with Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, curator of the British Museum’s Manga Exhibition, which runs from 23rd May to 26th August 2019.
The Cosplay Journal: So, what was it about Manga that drew you to it as both an academic and a person?
Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere: Well, what drew me to Manga was – first of all as a person, and as a young person, I just loved it. I was born and raised in New York City, although I’ve been here for a very long time, and become a British citizen. But, in New York, there was a lot of Manga around, and so I started reading it when I was young. But when I went to Japan during my time at university, I just fell completely in love, and taught myself Japanese through manga. So, I’ve been a life-long fan. However, as an academic coming to it, I see it not just as soft power, not just as something that engages a number of different types of people, but I see it as a new style of visual language that is gradually becoming a universal movement. It’s shifting and changing, but I think what’s really important in that, is there is a Japanese style, and then there’s a kind of world, there’s a Yo Sushi style. A different type of style. I think what I really wanted to do here is show people what the Japanese style is, where it comes from, what manga is in Japan, and then where it’s going to. So, in a way, forming a kind of foundation, and then we can look at it more universally in a later exhibition or exhibitions.
TCJ: Yes, because, in the West we have comic books, which is a similar form. They’re not the same thing but they have a very similar style to them. So, for people who enjoy Western comics, do you think manga is more easily accessible for them than maybe those who haven’t read Western comics, or is it about the same for everybody?
NCR: Well, I think you’re spot on. It’s definitely more easily accessible for them, because they already have a parity between image and text. What you find, not in Europe per se, but in Britain, you find often people privilege text over image. But in France, certainly, I think that they don’t. And, certainly, in Japan you don’t. So, the idea is that people are already reading comics, enjoying images, and so they’ve got a head start. But what manga does is it privileges the image over the text. So the image actually is almost like a text itself. When you read manga, the words are secondary and it’s the movement of the line that helps you read it, so it becomes much more visceral.
TCJ: You don’t have the same thing as in Western comics where a speech bubble takes up half the panel. In manga, it’s more that you have to infer the meaning from the art, which I love, absolutely love! I read a lot of manga as a young person. Manga has a big connection to cosplay, which is why we’re talking to you. So, what is it about manga art that inspires a love for costume, is it the kabuki theatre? Is there more of a tradition of costuming in Japanese culture than maybe in Western culture?
NCR: Well, textiles and clothing in Japan are probably the ultimate art. They are the most important art, and interestingly enough in the Momoyama Period, medieval Japan – all the way to early Modern –textiles were literally currency. So, there is a privilege in textiles and there’s an understanding. There were also a number of sumptuary laws in Japan, regulations on who could wear what textile. So textiles could be subversive. This is why the Japanese got so upset when Kim Kardashian did her Kimono Intimates brand name and copyrighted it for underwear. Kimono literally means “things you wear,” and for Japan it’s part of their culture, and I was just so pleased that she released it. So, there’s always been a love of textile expression, but you also see crossdressing, you see exuberant dressing. In fact you get a lot of really flash dressing in particularly in the early seventeenth century by men.
TCJ: Oh, right?
NCR: They are much flashier than women. And, y’know, fantastic costumes.
TCJ: Again, not dissimilar to the French!
NCR: Yeah, exactly! What’s interesting, though, in the role of textiles that we’re highlighting in the Kabuki curtains we have, is that Japanese art is always performative, and I think manga’s performative, but there’s a very close relationships with Kabuki, with all sorts of expression, particularly popular expression. The whole idea of what is a costume, what a person is, is very married, and so the spirit of the costume; it’s not just something you put on, it’s something that is part of you.
TCJ: Which is very much the spirit of cosplay in itself. In Japan, at conventions, cosplay has its own space in a way that is different from anywhere else. I’ve never seen anything like it; the way that cosplay is treated and almost revered, that’s just beautiful. Does that come from the same place? This history, this ancestry of the Kabuki and all that?
NCR: It’s kind of a fundamental part of Japanese culture. So, there are these connections, but they’re connections with meaning, and that meaning still resonates today. In Japan, there’s real privileging of detail and finish. So the costumes in general are pretty amazing.
TCJ: What are you hoping that people will gain from the exhibition? You’ve mentioned that there are very specific things that you’re amazed you have, but what is the thing you want people to take away from this more than anything else?
NCR: I want everyone to take away that there is a manga for everybody. That it’s a democratic form. I want people to suspend their disbelief and not think that it’s only for children. It’s about really enjoying the form, understanding the form, and also, if you ignore it, you ignore it at your peril, because it’s fast becoming a universal language. While it will morph and change, it’s about how images portray meaning and narratives, and those narratives are being seen on Instagram, they’re being seen everywhere now, and we need to really embrace this form.
TCJ: You were saying that you feel that a Western version of it will develop. We’re already starting to see things like that with Avatar, The Last Airbender. I would say that’s the most manga-like of the Western anime. Do you think there’ll be a very distinct form that will be Western anime as compared to Japanese anime?
NCR: I think that it’s actually morphing a little bit, and I think that what you’re seeing is Western art copying, or imitating, or borrowing parts of manga, but it’s morphing; it’s changing. And then when it changes it goes back to Japan, and it changes Japan. There are many different versions of manga, but manga started with Japanese narrative picture storytelling, with interaction from the West in the eighteen-sixties, eighteen-seventies, so it’s already originally a morphed form – with the influence of Disney, and all of that. So, it’s a form that is a combination, but one that Japan has nurtured and perfected.
TCJ: You can see it now with the big eyes and Stephen Universe.
NCR: Well that’s Disney, originally, and now we’re getting it resonating and shifting in Europe, and that’s been brought back to Japan; it’s further evolving. So what we’re going to get is a hybrid form. Which I think will be actually quite powerful, but it’s always important to go back and understand the roots, and not to dilute its power, to make sure that we keep up a real consistency and excellence in storytelling through powerful imagery, rather than text.
TCJ: So, in the exhibition, which piece are you most excited about?
NCR: Can I give three different examples?
TCJ: Of course.
NCR: One that really surprised me was when we went to pick up the Akira Toriyama Dragonball drawings. I like Dragonball, I’d read Dragonball, I’m a fan, and I thought I really knew it. But I hadn’t seen the drawings before. I had seen photographs, but I hadn’t seen the actual drawings. And when you see the drawings, they knock your socks off. They’re really good. He doesn’t use Letraset! He, somehow, with simple lines, makes you feel power, motion – that fist flying through the air. I don’t know how he does it, but that was really impressive for me. But what really took my breath away was when we asked Takehiko Inoue to draw three drawings. We didn’t specify what, and we just said, “If you could do it large, that’d be great.” Anything he wanted. And he took a month, and then specifically took ten days to draw it, but we didn’t know what it was going to be. We went to pick it up, and I can’t tell you…I was just…I couldn’t speak. I was just so amazed. And he was there; the ink was still wet on one of them. It was so exciting to have the very last part of the exhibition, three fantastic characters from his manga, wheelchair Paralympic manga “Rio,” against Tokyo backdrops that have meaning for him. And they are eight times the size of a normal drawing. They’re amazing! And he filmed himself drawing them. So, seeing him draw them, and then seeing the actual drawings, even now, I’m just amazed.
Now the thing that I’m really excited about, though, is this young, well, they don’t want to say an age, but they’re a newish artist, and their name is Panpanya and they’re non-binary and they’re very cool. They came to the opening of the exhibition; I couldn’t believe it. I’m a fan. I was so excited. We have their drawing at the very end, and they do something that’s really interesting, they draw the characters in pencil. And many of the characters are morphs of animals, people, all sorts of things. So, there’s a real fluidity; not just of gender designation, but of types of humanity. That’s done in pencil, and they do the background in pen, in ‘g-pen.’ Then they place the pencil drawings inside the ink drawings, and so it’s a two-layered thing, which I’ve never seen anyone else do. They’re really impressive.
TCJ: Talking about the non-binary thing, I think in the West, we think of Japan as being very traditional, very strict, maybe? But manga isn’t like that. Manga has no rules! Does manga have a way of helping people explore themselves, in the same way that cosplay does?
NCR: You got it. One hundred percent. That’s really it. Saying that, I just want to say, though, that Japan always had a lot of sexual freedom. We did an exhibition on Shunga a few years ago, and there’s not been an issue about choosing one or the other. There’s been a freedom. What they do traditionally, and this is changing, and this has caused an issue in Japanese society, is that sex and sexual expression are separate from lineage. And so, marriage is not necessarily considered to require sexual fidelity, it’s about lineage and the household, it’s about continuation of that household. So, they have an issue with people coming out, whereas they don’t have an issue with exploration and expression. But coming out is being helped by Gengoroh Tagame’s manga “My Brother’s Husband,” which we show in the exhibition.
TCJ: Which is beautiful. It’s a beautiful manga.
You can read the rest of this interview in the pages of The Cosplay Journal Vol 4, coming soon from Markosia.
The Citi exhibition Manga at The British Musem is organised with The National Art Center, Tokyo and the Organisation for the Promotion of Manga and Anime and is on now and runs until August 26th 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.