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Visitors peruse the exhibits at the Kyoto International Manga Museum. Picture: Steve McKenna

At first glance, the bespectacled schoolboys, the trendy young woman with the Louis Vuitton handbag, the middle-aged woman in a pretty flowery dress and the two white-haired old men would seem to have little in common. But as they sit alongside each other, in complete silence, their heads bowed and their eyes glued to the pages, they encapsulate the egalitarian, and unifying, nature of Japan's manga obsession.

Translated literally, manga means "whimsical pictures". To us, it means comics. The key to these comics, as I discover here, in Kyoto's International Manga Museum, is they're far more sophisticated than the Beano and Donald Duck. In a city bursting at the seams with ancient temples, shrines and palaces, the museum explores this modern Japanese phenomenon, a craze that's far too popular to be called a mere subculture.

Today, to a backdrop of peaceful piano music, males and females of all ages are sifting through the museum's 300,000-plus collection of comics, which are spread across this former elementary school building.

There's a children's library and workshops where kids can practise manga-style drawings. Typified by colourful zany covers peppered with wacky-haired, doe-eyed characters and psychedelic backdrops, the comics nudge exhibits and explanations that sketch manga's origins and inexorable rise.

Despite evidence the Japanese had an interest in "whimsical pictures" as early as the 8th century (in the form of picture scrolls, woodblock art and ink drawings), modern manga really flourished after World War II. Heavily influenced by the US occupation of the country from 1945 to 1952, when Disney and Western art seeped into the culture here, manga exploded thanks to pioneers such as Osamu Tezuka.

Regarded as "the father of manga", he created icons such as Astro Boy and Black Jack, while his character Kimba the White Lion is believed to have inspired Disney's The Lion King.

Manga's widespread appeal, however, can be attributed to the fact there's more to it than superheroes and talking animals crushing the forces of evil. There's manga for everyone, in fact, with comics about history, politics, social satire, science fiction, environmentalism, philosophy, cookery and even pornography (though there do not seem to be any examples of the latter here in the museum, even on the top shelves).

Manga supporters claim the comics not only tell entertaining stories, they also convey knowledge and make complex information easily accessible.

Former Japanese prime minister and avid comic reader Taro Aso, has said: "In manga, it is possible to depict the realities of life or convey to the reader a person's innermost thoughts." Aso has suggested that on the global stage, Japan and manga will become as intrinsically linked as China and Confucianism.

Along with its cartoon cousin, anime (dubbed "moving manga"), it's now a key Japanese export, filling bookshelves across Asia and Europe, injecting billions of much-needed yen into the country's stagnant economy. Manga's popularity at home shows no signs of diminishing, either. In fact, if anything, it's making ever-more inroads into the cultural landscape.

After leaving the museum, I see manga everywhere, and it goes further than glimpsing people leafing through comics in public.

Although cinemas show their fair share of Hollywood blockbusters and regular Asian movies, anime films flood the listings. Internet cafes double as manga libraries, teenagers dress up as their favourite manga characters, while cartoon figures such as Akira and Dragon Ball are splashed all over clothes, bags, gadgets, video games and even the pinball machines in the Pachinko parlours that dot Japan's cities.

Despite its amazing popularity, it must be said that not every Japanese person is a manga fanatic. Some people I speak to in Kyoto defiantly shake their heads when I ask them if they still read comics. Claiming they grew out of them as teenagers, they are now, they say, only interested in "grown-up" books.

FACT FILE

Kyoto's International Manga Museum is open 10am- 6pm daily, except Wednesday. Entry is ¥800 ($9) for adults and ¥300 for children. kyotomm.jp

Set in the picturesque Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district, the Hyatt Regency Kyoto is one of the plushest hotels in the city. Double rooms are priced from ¥22,950. kyoto.regency.hyatt.com

For more accommodation options and Kyoto tips, see kyoto.travel.

For assistance in arranging trips to Japan, check out JTB Australia. japantravel.com.au

Steve McKenna was a guest of the Hyatt Regency Kyoto hotel.