Part of a stage curtain, painted with a snake with a human head and long tongue and other people, animals and monsters

Manga: a brief history in 12 works

Publication date: 5 December 2018

Modern manga is a global phenomenon, but its roots stretch back further than you might imagine. Ryōko Matsuba and Alfred Haft introduce the history of the genre in 12 key works.

Manga: a brief history in 12 works

Manga is a diverse and popular art form in which artists tell stories through pictures and words. Japanese manga artists find inspiration for their work in daily life, the world around them, and also in the ancient past. Many people are familiar with modern manga, but the art form – with its expressive lines and images – is much older than you might think. As the Citi exhibition Manga マンガ is announced, here is a brief history of Japanese manga in 12 works.

1. The Tale of the Monkeys

Monkeys acting out serious and comical human situations, some speaking or dressed in human costumes
The Tale of the Monkeys

Around the year 1200 AD, a humorous, anonymous artist produced a set of painted handscrolls that show rabbits and monkeys bathing in a river, frogs and rabbits wrestling, and other scenes where animals behave like humans. Known as the Handscrolls of Frolicking Animals (Chōjū giga), this work is considered by some to be the foundation of modern manga. The Tale of the Monkeys made in the late 1500s follows on from this and shows monkeys acting out serious and comical human situations. It includes early examples of speech bubbles (fukidashi), and other techniques essential to modern manga – figures appearing multiple times within a single illustration, a strong sense of visual progression, funny details within a larger scene, and the dominance of visual action over text.

2. Santō Kyōden, Small Change from a Gem-grinding Wheel

Three volumes of books with buff covers and illustrated title slips pasted in top left corners of the covers
Three volumes of illustrated books, produced in Japan in 1790.

By the late 1700s, Japanese artists were combining pictures and words in comic illustrated novels (kibyōshi) that commented on, and sometimes satirised, aspects of contemporary society. These novels were published in large numbers mainly for newly rich and literate urban audiences and show that from an early stage, Manga could be political.

3. Hokusai manga

Sketches of people seated on the floor, engaged in various activities such as playing a stringed instrument
Sketches from the Hokusai manga.

The word 'manga' (漫画) has been used to describe various styles over the last two centuries. Artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), the designer of the famous print, The Great Wave, has become closely associated with it because he chose 'manga' for the title of a series of picture-books that he published starting in 1814, the Hokusai manga. These books are collections of assorted sketches, not narratives telling a story, so we have to remember that while Hokusai brought the word manga to popular attention, he thought about it differently than we do today.

4. Japan Punch

In 1858, after Japan opened its doors to international trade, a foreign settlement and new port were opened at Yokohama. The first newspapers printed in Japan were created there, including Japan Punch by Charles Wirgman. Published from 1862–1887, Japan Punch presented cartoons satirising local westerners and the difficulties they had in establishing commercial and diplomatic relations with the Japanese. The journal had a major influence on Japanese artists and writers who, at the time, were concerned about Japan’s rapid modernisation, and established similar publications to satirise Japanese government policies.

5. Kawanabe Kyōsai, stage curtain for the Shintomi Theatre

A stage curtain, painted with a snake with a human head and long tongue and other people, animals and monsters
Kawanabe Kyōsai's stage curtain for the Shintomi Theatre, © The Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Artist Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831–1889) painted this provocative and humorous stage curtain for the Shintomi Theater on 30 June 1880. That day, after consuming a few bottles of rice wine, Kyōsai retreated to a studio and started painting. Four hours later he emerged with 17 meters of painted curtain, depicting the members of the acting company as various kinds of monsters. Kyōsai's homage to the actors created a sensation. His spontaneous wit and expressive line stand at the root of modern manga.

6. Topical Manga (Jiji manga)

Hints of the development of the Japanese manga market appear in early photographs, such as photos of print shops taken around the late 1800s, and also in the appearance of new publications like Topical Manga (Jiji manga). Illustrator and commentator Kitazawa Rakuten (1876–1955) launched this humorous newspaper in 1902 as a Sunday supplement to News of Current Affairs (Jiji shinpō). He modelled Jiji manga on the Sunday comics sections of US newspapers.

7. Manga sugoroku

Manga as we know it today first emerged from an international background of serialised cartoon strips in magazines and newspapers in the 1920s. Okamoto Ippei (1886–1948) arranged for the syndication of US cartoons in Japan, such as George McManus' Bringing up Father and Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff. He also founded a school encouraging manga artists to work in their own individual styles.Manga sugoroku is a board game that Okamoto Ippei designed in 1929 and shows the lifestyle choices available to the modern young woman.

8. Red books (Akahon)

The covers of various storybook mangas, showing scenes such as a rocket flying in space
Long-format storybook mangas, late-1940s

In the late 1940s, the post-war occupation of Japan by Allied forces introduced new forms of censorship. Japanese people also had little cash to spend, so a trend emerged in Osaka for printing cheap, long-format storybook manga called 'red books' (akahon), which were sold at roadside stalls. One outstandingly successful red book was New Treasure Island (Shin Takarajima), produced in 1947 by the young Tezuka Osamu (1928–1989) and Sakai Shichima (1905–1969). The title rapidly sold 400,000 copies!

9. Garo magazine

The cover of an edition of Garo magazine showing a warrior cutting the arms off other warriors with swords
The cover of Garo magazine, number 1, September 1964

In the 1960s, Shirato Sanpei (b. 1932) was a key figure in the genre of 'dramatic pictures' (gekiga), and an innovator who helped to create the avant-garde manga magazine Garo, in which participating artists retained control over the editorial process. This policy coincided with alternative ideas current in the 1960s and early 1970s. Shirato's series Legends of Kamui (Kamuiden) chronicled various struggles against injustice and corruption, and became a classic of its genre.

10. Hagio Moto, The Poe Clan

Two young men dressed in suits made of colourful fabric with a design featuring flowers and birds
The Poe Clan tells the adventures of a family of vampires based in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe. ©SHOGAKUKAN.INC.

In the 1970s, the long-established genre known as 'girls’ manga' (shōjo manga) saw new developments, such as stories that featured only boys, love between boys, and friendship approaching love. Representative of the period is The Poe Clan (Pō no ichizoku), published from 1972.

11. Oda Eiichirō, ONE PIECE

Monkey D. Luffy's rubberised face, seemingly dripping of sweat, surrounded by other characters from the story
A page from ONE PIECE. ©Eiichiro Oda/SHUEISHA

The golden age of manga arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, following Japan’s economic boom. The peak came in 1995 – that year alone, 1.34 billion manga collections (tankōbon) were published. Among the most successful recent manga is ONE PIECE, which has been running continuously since 1997. It tells the adventures of Monkey D. Luffy, a boy whose body has become magically rubberised and who travels the world on a pirate ship in search of the priceless treasure called ONE PIECE.

12. Kōno Fumiyo, Gigatown

A monkey, a rabbit and a frog illustrate the difference between and tears
A page from Gigatown. ©Fumiyo Kouno/Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc

Some modern manga artists have been making fresh connections between historical and contemporary manga. In her book Gigatown, Kōno Fumiyo borrows characters from the famous Frolicking Animals handscrolls (painted about AD 1200) to explain the signs and symbols that manga artists frequently use to suggest actions or emotions (manpu).

If you enjoyed this blog, you can buy the accompanying book to the British Museum’s major exhibition, Manga, on our online shop.

You might also like our exhibition, Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything, which is open at the British Museum from 30 September 2021 to 30 January 2022. Sponsored by The Asahi Shimbun.

You may also be interested in