'Japan: Myths and Manga': A Technicolour Journey for All Ages

The Young V&A’s new exhibition, a stone’s throw from Bethnal Green station, documents the rise of the likes of Studio Ghibli, Sylvanian Families and One Piece, from start to finish.
My Neighbour Totoro. © 1988 Studio Ghibli
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'Japan: Myths and Manga': A Technicolour Journey for All Ages

In recent years, we have seen the likes of Anime, Manga and Japanese characters develop from a niche, fandom-based movement towards the mainstream market. ‘Myths to Manga’, which is showing at the Young V&A until 8th September 2024, takes viewers on an invigorating trip through Japan’s rich history of folklore tales.

Woodblock print, Utagawa Hiroshige, 1860, Japan. Museum no. E.3243-1886. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The exhibition space itself provides a diverting array of mixed media exhibits, occupying half of the top floor of the museum. It’s very attentively curated, beautifully communicating the rich depths of traditional Japanese ideas in a widely understandable language: visually. Spaces dedicated to each element of nature line the walls of either side of the exhibit, beginning with bite-size narratives of traditional folklore, progressing into modern interpretation, and then branching out into an abundance of mediums. Fashion, sculpture, photography and even household goods work in harmony to spell out the monumental success of both modern and traditional Japanese talents.

Double Spiral by Keita Miyazaki. © Luke Walker Courtesy of Gallery Rosenfeld.

It’s also refreshingly accessible: as this space in particular is aimed at a younger demographic, the information panels are quite succinct; threaded with questions and activities which evoke the thoughts of any age group. With modern exhibition culture increasingly sesquipedalian, this experience provides a rare opportunity to pace yourself. Where there is a clear ‘entry’ and ‘exit’, the somewhat tangled muster of information and items between them allows time and space for exploration. Linearity ends around halfway through the space, meaning you can explore the space to your heart’s content, without losing the narrative along the way.

Hello Kitty rice cooker by Sakar International, 2014, Japan. Museum no. FE.19-2015. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Within the centre of the space lay mostly interactive activities, including origami and a manga-reading space. The buzz from a number of electronic devices playing short films is occasionally interrupted by someone (likely under the age of about seven) banging on a traditional Japanese drum. The cacophony of sounds provides a somewhat atmospheric background noise, which juxtaposes the quiet you would anticipate for an exhibition about traditional folklore.

PARO personal robot, by Dr Takanori Shibata, 2004, Japan. Given by Intelligent System Co., Ltd. Museum no. CD.10-2023. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Certainly part of the appeal of the exhibition, especially to people within the young adult age bracket, is it’s nostalgia. Its acknowledgement of brands or characters such as Sylvanian Families, which are staples in the childhood household, bring a certain unique warmth to the experience. With the aforementioned resurgences of the likes of Sanrio, Rilakkuma and Sylvanian Families, along with the rising popularity of broader Asian media in the Western world, the exhibition does a remarkable job at digging below the surface. Arming visitors with knowledge of the intricate histories behind it, this will undoubtedly skyrocket interest in Japanese media once more.

If there are any further persuading reasons at all to drop by, along with super cute stickers and pin badges, they do sell Sylvanian Families in the shop!

Japan: Myths and Manga is showing at the V&A museum in London, now. Tickets can be found here.
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