Manga review – where has all the riotous fun and filth gone?

British Museum, London
It has moments of brilliance but asking us to compare today’s graphic artists with greats of the past is misguided. What’s next – Rembrandt meets Dennis the Menace?

One morning in June 1880, the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyōsai drank several bottles of sake and started painting a 17-metre cloth spread out on a studio floor in Tokyo. It took him four hours to fill this giant scroll with grotesquely vivacious portraits of ghosts and demons. These fascinating monsters are a rare highlight of the British Museum’s blockbuster journey into Japan’s art. Kyōsai was the Jackson Pollock of caricature, turning actors in Tokyo’s kabuki theatre into these uncanny yet very real beings. His freely painted panorama of the supernatural shows exactly why European artists in the late 19th century looked to Japan for inspiration.

Kyōsai still looks like our contemporary. Even though his Shintomiza Theatre Curtain is now so fragile this may be the last time it is ever loaned to an exhibition, its rollicking energy and hilarity burst off the wall as if you were watching a film full of special effects and outlandish superheroes. For Japanese art looked like modern comics long before there were modern comics or movies based on them. You think Thanos is scary? Take a look at Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s 1880s drawing of a mythic warrior swinging his enemy’s severed head around by its hair while he contorts his face into a snarling ecstasy of rage.

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