Brigitte Koyama-Richard is a professor at Musashi University in Tokyo where she teaches art history and comparative literature. She has written books about traditional Japanese art, but her latest book, One Thousand Years of Manga, recently published by Flammarion, centers on the history of the great popular art of Japanese comics, or manga. Beginning with scrolls of Japanese art that date back to the 12th century and wood block prints, as well as early 19th century Japanese comics—that look like imitations of their western counterparts—Koyama-Richard unfolds the rich history of art in Japan and how it led to today’s art of manga.
Unlike other Japanese art books that focus on either the classic prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige or manga-influenced contemporary pop art by the likes of Yoshitomo Nara, Koyama-Richard examines manga’s winding historical path starting from the 12th century scroll painter-priest Toba Sôjô to nouvelle manga-ka Jiro Taniguchi and Studio Ghibli, the animation studio founded by anime master Hayao Miyazaki. Indeed much like Japan itself, One Thousand Years of Manga is anchored in tradition and ritual while also reaching for something new and contemporary. PW Comics Week interviewed Koyama-Richard via email with the aide of Flammarion managing editor Kate Mascaro who kindly translated.
PW Comics Week: Most books on manga—Fred Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics or Paul Gravett's Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics—point to World War II as the starting point of Japanese comics as we currently know them. But you go all the way back to the 12th century. Why did you decide to start there?
Brigitte Koyama-Richard: I read the thoroughly researched and interesting works that you cite with great interest. I believe that both authors are contemporary manga specialists, which would explain why they focus on post-World War II manga. In Japan, however, the specialists agree that the roots of manga actually date back as early as the 7th century and my book One Thousand Years of Manga includes examples that date from that period to the present. My primary goal was to start from the origins and to show the evolution of drawing and caricature over the course of centuries in order to give the readers a visual panorama to help them understand not only the origins, but the originality of manga and to further their understanding and appreciation of Japanese culture.
PWCW: You are a professor of comparative literature in Japan. Do you use manga in your class? How did you come upon this project? What made you want to pursue it and does it dovetail with your teaching?
BK-R: My courses are mostly about Japanism in which I explain the influence of Japanese art on Western art, literature, fashion, etc. After presenting the history and production of prints from the Edo era, we go on to look at the ways they have influenced Western art. If the students are interested in the prints they feel much closer to manga. Having seen many exhibitions on the origins of manga and read many books on the topic, I decided to introduce this subject to my courses and to write this book.
By studying the origins of manga, my Japanese students gain a new perspective on the art of their country. They have a better appreciation of Japanese art from the past few centuries and instead of merely reading manga, they turn a more attentive eye to their graphic aspect.
PWCW: Legendary manga pioneers such as Hokusai who first coined the term; and Osamu Tezuka, who revolutionized the form, were deeply influenced by Western art or movies. Did manga in Japan then develop as a hybrid art form, informed by Japanese and Western sensibilities or does it stem from a deeper tradition of Japanese visual narrative?
BK-R: Art in general has always benefited from the influence of other cultures. Japan was significantly inspired and influenced by both Chinese and Western art but, nevertheless, developed its own very original art. Prints and manga, in particular, seem to me to be profoundly Japanese. Image has always played a fundamental role in Japanese culture. Manga are actively studied and are emulated today by young Asian mangakas [manga artists] as well as Western artists, which is testament to their unique and profoundly Japanese character.
PWCW: You use scrolls and print tryptchs, ukiyo-e block prints, as examples of early manga. What are the similarities between these older paintings and prints and current day manga?
BK-R: Japanese researchers and Mr. Takahata of the Ghibli studio, who devoted an important book to the question, all agree that scrolls are at the origin of manga and animated drawings. The scroll was a format on which an action could be represented as it unfurled over time, just as animation does today. Techniques used in the prints to demonstrate movement (e.g., motion lines, circular lines, etc.) are mirrored in contemporary manga.
PWCW: In addition to teaching comparative literature, you've written extensively about Japanese art. What made you decide to bridge the two worlds of traditional Japanese art and contemporary, commercial manga?
BK-R: To my mind there is no gap between the two. Manga, like illustration, contemporary painting, etc., finds its origin in the past. Mangakas prefer to avoid using the word “influence”, but they all recognize that what they design and express is anchored in the past; it is part of their DNA and their work finds its roots in their culture. Some say that they are very influenced by American comic book culture, yet their designs are different. Their manga are not American-style comics, they are decidedly Japanese manga.
PWCW: Are today's manga creators influenced by the hand scrolls and prints of old Japan
BK-R: Some—Mizuki Shigeru and Sugiura Hinako for example—are profoundly influenced by and attach a great importance to the culture of past centuries. [Shigeru’s Ge ge ge no Gitaro is his most famous work; NonNonBâ won him the Best Album award at 2007's Angouleme International Comics Festival; and Shigeru's work also inspired Takashi Miike's movie The Great Yokai War where he also made a cameo appearance. Hinako debuted in Japan's indie comics magazine, Garo, with Tsugen Muro no Ume]
PWCW:Caricature is a popular theme and tool used in Hokusai's work as well in Japan's first comic strips. Was the use of caricature important as manga developed over time? Is it still used in the manga that we see today?
BK-R: Yes, caricature has always played a very important role. One Thousand Years of Manga includes numerous examples of caricature, selected from throughout the centuries. The tradition of caricature is evident in the facial expressions of characters in contemporary manga.
PWCW: Are there current trends or themes in manga that you see in Japan today, such as more collaborative work between Japanese and western creators?
BK-R: More and more young mangakas from Asia, Europe, and the United States come to study and work in Japan. Some, like the well-known Taniguchi Jirô, have already published manga with a renowned Western mangaka like Moebius. I think this trend is on the rise; which is very positive. The exchange of ideas, the collaboration of several mangakas on a single work—it’s bound to be creative and enriching.
PWCW: You are fluent in both French and Japanese. Is it safe to assume that you were exposed to both French and Japanese comics at an early age? If so, are there any that are your favorite or made a deep impression on you?
BK-R: With regard to French comics, I, like many of my compatriots, like Astérix! For manga, I enjoy different styles: the poetry of Taniguchi Jirô, Mizuki Shigeru’s World of Yokai, and Sugiura Hinako’s forays into the very heart of the Edo period. But I’m also interested in many other manga artists.