Cartoon characters occupy a special place in the Japanese psyche. Characters appear everywhere from train tickets and cheques to electric shavers and wine, in a country where it is clear that they appeal as much to adults as to children.
Japan: Kingdom of Characters is a vibrant exhibition that celebrates the Japanese passion for characters and their general subcultures, notably the graphic arts of Manga and Anime (animation). Organised by the Japan Foundation, and on tour following highly successful showings in countries such as Manila, Sydney and Madrid, the exhibition takes you inside the world of Japanese characters and asks you to consider what they represent.
Human-size 3D models of characters such as Ultraman, Pokémon and Pikachu welcome you into this colourful, and substantial show. Over eighty graphics, photographs and films trace the history of cartoon characters by decade from the 1950s to the 2000s and provide insight into their fascinating backgrounds. For instance, Astro Boy, who turns 60 this year and whose name means ‘Mighty Atom’, was conceived in the aftermath of the atomic bomb drops. Hello Kitty’s origins are in suburban London where she was ‘born’ in 1974. Installations, including a fully furnished Hello Kitty bedroom, show how the characters have become commodities in a now billion-dollar industry.
The exhibition focuses on the notion of character and asks thought-provoking questions. What exactly are ‘characters’? Why do characters appear and become popular? What kind of social reality do they reflect?
“In the UK we tend to associate Manga and Anime with young people. In Japan though the culture associated with Manga is also embraced by adults to the extent that it forms a realm, or as suggested by this exhibition, a ’Kingdom’ in its own right. We want to use the opportunity that this exhibition provides to overturn pre-conceived notions about Japan’s ‘culture of characters’, to explore current academic thinking about subcultures such as Manga and Anime and also offer the chance for visitors of all ages to simply have fun and to experience the SCVA in an entirely new way!” Harriet McKay, Curator, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
There is a series of events accompanying the exhibition including a Manga Mania Weekend (24 March 2012) with cosplay (Manga costume dressing) and live music.