Manga Toshi Tokyo Exhibit Explores the Destruction and Rebirth of Tokyo Through Anime

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"Japanese manga, anime, games, and tokusatsu (SFX films) include a lot of works that depict large-scale destruction of Tokyo and new, reconstructed urban landscapes," writes Manga Toshi Tokyo exhibit curator Kaichirō Morikawa. "In actual history, Tokyo has suffered significant damage from disasters like earthquakes and each time it has been reconstructed. Also, it is known to be destined to suffer great disasters again in the near future. The history and perceived future of the existing city have caused people to have a sense of reality and also have functioned as foundations for fiction works. That is the relationship between the city and fiction."

The timing of the Manga Toshi Tokyo exhibit couldn't have been more eerily uncanny. Originally scheduled to coincide with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the exhibit was intended to introduce visitors from around the world to the history of the city through the lens of Japanese popular culture. One of the themes of the exhibit was the cycle of destruction and rebirth, as Tokyo has been rebuilt countless times in the wake of unforeseen calamities.

The exhibit's original schedule was interrupted, however, by COVID-19, and so, too, were the Olympic Games. Instead of facing wanton destruction, the city of Tokyo has faced a new kind of threat and has closed itself off like a bubble. The exhibit has been rescheduled to run from August 12 to November 3, without the Olympic Games and without the international interest that it should have attracted. Instead of telling the story of Tokyo to the world, this exhibit has transformed into an opportunity for Tokyo residents to reflect on the vicissitudes of nature that have shaped this city to the core.

The Manga Toshi Tokyo exhibit is a rerun of the MANGA⇔TOKYO exhibition which was held in Paris, France in 2018. The Tokyo version, which is being held in the National Art Center, is on a smaller scale than the version held in the La Villette. However, it still maintains the main attractions of the earlier exhibit, such as a 1/1000 scale model of the city modeled by the Nishimura Topographical Modeling Group, Inc. and Marbling Fine Arts Co., Ltd. A large-scale video above the model shows a 3D map of Tokyo alongside clips of various parts of the city as depicted in anime and tokusatsu works, making it easy for visitors to directly compare the depictions to the real thing.

Many of the works represented at this exhibit are by creators who are considered national treasures, like Osamu Tezuka, Hideaki Anno, and Makoto Shinkai. But there's plenty of diversity represented across all eras of Japanese animanga history, from Ashita no Joe to Love Live! School idol project. It does a good job of balancing not just the individual works which have influenced mainstream Japanese culture but also properties that represent the modern otaku subculture, which cumulatively has had a tangible effect on Tokyo's physical landscape. Part of the exhibit explores anime collaborations with stores and trains, as well as pilgrimages and the creation of anime-inspired landmarks such as the life-sized Unicorn Gundam in Odaiba.

The feedback loop between the physical Tokyo and its fictional depictions in pop culture is the biggest underlying theme of the exhibit. When Godzilla was first released in 1954, for instance, many Japanese still vividly remembered the devastation of World War II. In that film, devastation was brought onto Tokyo while it was in the process of reconstruction. In each subsequent Godzilla film, the beasts destroyed new landmarks as they were created. In that sense, the character of Godzilla itself has more permanence than the city landscape it originally sprang from.

Another key aspect of the exhibit is that it takes you through the different eras of Tokyo's history, from the Edo period to present day. Although a common theme of pop culture works across history is destruction and rebirth of a city constantly in flux, the exhibit also highlights the "Fading Appeal of Tokyo" in the modern day. Instead of calamity, this modern slice of life genre depicts the beauty of mundane life, rejecting the idea of cataclysmic change as the inevitable way of living. The exhibit links this artistic movement to the post-bubble economy of the 90s and beyond, when Tokyo's rapid technological and urban development slowed to a crawl.

All in all, this exhibit is a valuable opportunity to experience a variety of different pop culture works and think about them in the context of Tokyo's modern history. It has a very academic slant, but that's what makes it appealing not just to hardcore fans of Japanese pop culture but to anyone interested in Japanese history and culture. It's definitely a pity that it opened in less-than-ideal circumstances, so hopefully this report can give you a little taste of Tokyo wherever you are.

Photos by Kim Morrissy.

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