Bright Japanese forms, and darker meanings

Show explores world of anime cartoons, manga comics

Momoyo Torimitsu’s balloon bunny in “Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable.’’ Momoyo Torimitsu’s balloon bunny in “Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable.’’ (Momoyo Torimitsu)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2010

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Astro Boy has landed at the Portsmouth Museum of Art, along with Hello Kitty. “SugiPOP!: Anime, Manga, Comics and Their Influence on Contemporary Art,’’ a frothy but unexpectedly deep exhibit, explores the origins and influences of those powerhouses of Japanese popular culture, manga comics and anime cartoons.

With their big-eyed, sharply drawn, eternally adolescent protagonists, futuristic scenarios, and infatuation with cutie-pies, the two forms shape and reflect the Japanese imagination. They also have captured the hearts of youths around the world. According to wall text, sugi means “too much,’’ kawaii means “overly cute,’’ and from this syrupy brew has sprung a legion of fans known as otaku — among them, artists such as Takashi Murakami, a mastermind of contemporary pop.

Co-curators Beau Basse, of LeBasse Projects, a Los Angeles gallery, and PMA’s Katherine Doyle have designed an exhibit that functions well in the museum’s awkward space in Harbour Place, a residential and commercial development on Portsmouth’s waterfront. Small galleries tracing the history of anime and manga circle a central room dominated by Murakami. A separate gallery nearby spotlights work of other contemporary artists who deploy elements of Japanese graphic arts in their wider practices.

The show begins with a host of 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints on loan from the University of New Hampshire’s Museum of Art. The legendary printmaker Katsushika Hokusai coined the term “manga,’’ meaning “whimsical sketches,’’ in reference to his own book of sketches, mass-produced as a text for artists. One of those sketchbooks is on view, with scenes of men at work, smoking, and socializing.

On the wall behind it, the curators match Hokusai’s sketches with contemporary ones by Hiroki Otsuka from his manga “Samurai Beam.’’ The action-packed fight scene in “Samurai Beam’’ makes clear how film has influenced manga, but the Edo-era prints are no less dynamic, buzzing with dense pattern, moving figures, and antic facial expressions.

US soldiers brought comic books to Japan during the occupation after World War II, and the Japanese, who had a history of image and text together, including the ideograms of their language, ate them up. Osamu Tezuka took his cue from comic books and Disney cartoons, developing the manga-turned-anime Astro Boy, a kid with jet-fueled feet — there are animation cels on view here, slick and adorable. His work shifted comics’ narrative focus from dialogue to visual movement. The show also nods to Tezuka’s followers, who developed more intricate story lines, such as Hayao Miyazaki, best known for his feature-length anime, “Princess Mononoke.’’

Certain motifs emerge: youthful protagonists, robots, threat of apocalypse, strong heroines, and a divide between the sweet, sunshiny cartoons aimed at girls, and the edgy, dark, technological ones aimed at boys.

In 2005, Murakami staged “Little Boy,’’ an exhibit at the Japan Society in New York, which probed postwar Japanese pop culture. “Little Boy’’ was the name of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. It also suggests the arrested development captured in the fantasy worlds of manga and anime: whippet-thin, asexual heroes, and cute, big-eyed animals such as Hello Kitty.

Murakami proposed that the Japanese had not recovered from the trauma of the war, the bombings, and the defeat. Manga’s and anime’s preoccupation with apocalypse may be an unconscious way, as nightmares are, to process that history. Then, too, the insistent, cloyingly adorable characters suggest a refusal to grow up.

The artist is critical, but also a fan boy. His art is driven by a slickly-sweet, retina-wowing aesthetic he has termed “Superflat,’’ which defines an obsession with surface and pattern that is prevalent in anime and manga and reaches back to the Edo era — but that flatness and repudiation of depth also has psychological implications.

The aesthetic blares brilliantly in Murakami’s work, even the smaller pieces on view here. His cartoony lithograph “Hoyoyo’’ depicts a mouse boy in a bow tie whispering to a towering, eye-covered toadstool. Murakami’s Warholian genius for highbrow/lowbrow crossover and marketing — another nod to a fanaticism about surface appearance — shows up in his “Multicolor’’ Louis Vuitton leather clutch, stamped with the Louis Vuitton logo and a poppy floral pattern.

Other artists get in on the Superflat game, too; look at animator Yoshitaka Amano’s mixed-media painting “Candy Girls ii—3,’’ in which a big-eyed vixen garbed in pink reclines on a cloud-upholstered star against a sparkly blue sky. It’s slick, cheery, vaguely disturbing work. Aya Takano’s painting “Gather the Dust, a Dim Red Light Shines,’’ is a weird, dark scene in which half-naked, reed-slender girls, essentially sexless with big eyes and mournful faces, don hard hats at a construction site. Then there’s Momoyo Torimitsu’s frankly comic “Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable,’’ an inflatable pink animal too big for the gallery it has been blown up in — cute, sure, but with an edge.

The pieces in the final gallery thoughtfully integrate manga, anime, and Superflat with other elements. Tomokazu Matsuyama’s painting “Kirin — White,’’ layers the flat, biomorphic, patterned geometries of Superflat over dashes of Abstract Expressionist brushwork to describe, in sharply contemporary terms, a folkloric Japanese character that blends deer and dragon. And it has a twist that both 19th-century printmakers and anime artists would approve of: a ridiculous rider, sprawled awkwardly over the beast’s back.

Contemporary art almost always chews on and digests its progenitors, and after the delicious but unnerving sugar rush in the other galleries, it’s a relief to see work that demands a bit of perspective.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

SUGIPOP!: Anime, Manga, Comics, and Their Influence on Contemporary Art At: Portsmouth Museum of Art, 1 Harbour Place, Portsmouth, N.H. 603-436-0332,