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Exhibit Examines 'The Many Faces of Manga'

The National Japanese American Historical Society (NJAHS), in collaboration with the Nichi Bei Times, is presenting an exhibit of the ever-popular artform of manga and anime in the heart of San Francisco's Japantown.

Titled "The Many Faces of Manga," the exhibit includes the work of Japanese American and Asian American comic artists from throughout the country, feature stories from the past three Nichi Bei Times Anime and Manga Special Editions, and the winners of the past two Nichi Bei Times Manga Art Contests. It will be held from Saturday, Jan. 10 through Tuesday, June 30 at the NJAHS Gallery, 1684 Post St. (across from the Peace Plaza) in San Francisco's Japantown.

The exhibit is co-curated by Deb Aoki, the manga guide at and creator of the Honolulu Advertiser's "Bento Box," and Nichi Bei Times English Edition Editor Kenji G. Taguma. Additional curation was contributed by Rick Deragon, the director of the Napa Valley Museum.

The exhibit features an Art Wall, where visitors young and old will be able to contribute their own art on a large canvas.

Expanded Exhibit Features Original Artwork

The idea for a manga exhibit was originally conceived when the director of the Napa Valley Museum got wind of the Nichi Bei Times' second annual Manga Art Contest, and then launched a month-long exhibit at the museum in the heart of Wine Country last summer. Since then, forms of the exhibit have ventured to the Spirit of Japantown Festival in San Jose, and then the Shibuya restaurant at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

"Manga is chock full of desirable elements," said Napa Valley Museum Executive Director Rick Deragon. "It's hip, cool, stylish, common, uncommon, mysterious, fantastic, realistic — provocative in so many ways. Manga fulfills people's needs to be entertained in artful ways."

While the original exhibit featured solely digital reproductions of art, "The Many Faces of Manga" will include original works by contributing artists.

Included will be an original copy of Henry Kiyama's pioneering "The Four Immigrants Manga," originally published in 1931 in Japanese to depict the Issei (Japanese immigrant) experience in San Francisco. Also included will be original artwork by former Disney animator Willie Ito, as well as original art by Stan Sakai, creator of the cult favorite "Usagi Yojimbo."

Contemporary illustrators will add their original comic art as well, such as Tak Toyoshima, whose "Secret Asian Man" was the first Asian American lead character to be nationally syndicated, and artist/actress Lela Lee, whose "Angry Little Girls" has developed a strong following for both the comic and the accompanying line of merchandise.

Japanese American illustrators who originated from Hawai'i will also be highlighted, including Aoki, whose "Bento Box" is a featured comic strip in the Honolulu Advertiser, "nemu*nemu" creators Audra Furuichi and Scott Yoshinaga , and "Online Aloha" and Honolulu-Star Bulletin comic artist Jon J. Murakami.

Also featured will be articles about manga master Osamu Tezuka ("Astro Boy"), Adrian Tomine ("Optic Nerve") and pioneer comic strip artist Bob Kuwahara ("Miki"), as well as features on "Anime Goes Hollywood," "Original English Manga" and the "Ghibli Museum."

"We are pleased to present in collaboration with the Nichi Bei Times and the Napa Valley Museum a 'taste' of Japanese and Asian American cartoon artists of the past half-century or so," stated NJAHS Executive Director Rosalyn Tonai. "We invited manga aficionado Deb Aoki and Nichi Bei Times English Edition Editor Kenji G. Taguma to bring together their favorite characters and artists to help us understand our unique Japanese American connection to manga or 'comics' as we know them."

Career-Launching Artwork

Last year marked the second annual Nichi Bei Times Manga Art Contest, which again featured the top four winners in the third annual Nichi Bei Times Anime and Manga Special Edition.

The Manga Art Contest helped to launch the career of at least one contestant.

Since winning first place in the 2007 contest, Tony Foti's career has blossomed from "unrecognizable" to "Hey, I've seen that guy's art," he said. His work has appeared in books, magazines, newspapers and on clothing. The San Jose resident's latest endeavors involve him working on several book covers for a publisher in New York.

"I can't stress enough just how much your contest last year helped launch my career," Foti told the Nichi Bei Times in 2008.

"It's great to see that our Anime and Manga Special Edition actually helped to launch the career of an aspiring artist," said Taguma. "As our mission is to keep the community connected, informed and empowered, it's great to see how we and our judges helped to empower this one talented individual."

The 2008 contest winner was 17-year-old Kimberly Igno of Hercules, Calif.

"I got into [drawing] because of anime and manga," said Igno in an artist statement. "This is the first time I joined something anime/manga related. I would rather pursue something anime/manga related than anything else."

Growth of an Artform

The anime culture, introduced decades ago via old "Speed Racer" cartoons, has changed dramatically, notes Nichi Bei Times contributing writer Tomo Hirai.

"In the mid-1990s, anime culture exploded with the introduction of 'Dragon Ball,' 'Sailor Moon' and 'Pokémon,'" Hirai stated. "With its increase in popularity, the diversity of topics and styles covered within the genre also grows. More and more American artists are taking in these influences from such an atmosphere."

According to Taguma, the Nichi Bei Times Anime and Manga Special Edition has expanded since its first incarnation in 2006. The Nichi Bei Times is perhaps the only newspaper in the country to have an annual dedicated anime and manga edition.

"All of a sudden, we've become a go-to publication for anime and manga," said Taguma. "We're blessed to have dedicated contributing writers who have a firm grasp on the genres."

Coming Full Circle

Co-Curator Deb Aoki sees the exhibit as displaying a circle of influences and inspirations.

"For Japanese American comics and animation artists, mixing the artistic influence of American comics and animation from Disney, Warner Brothers and Hanna-Barbera and anime, manga, TV shows, movies and toys from Japan mirrors our dual cultural heritages," states Aoki in the exhibit introduction. "For artists like Willie Ito and Iwao Takamoto, the dream was to draw for an animation studio like Disney or Warner Brothers, a goal they both achieved successfully."

Meanwhile, Stan Sakai was "inspired by samurai movies, TV shows and comics he enjoyed as a young man," writes Aoki.

"Tak Toyoshima and Lela Lee mix the simplicity of Sanrio-style characters with a voice that's loudly and proudly Asian American. "

Aoki stresses the universal appeal of the genre.

"There's a lot of talk about what is, and what isn't manga," she writes. "My comic strip 'Bento Box' is inspired by manga, but isn't exactly manga as most people would define the style.

"However, in Japan, 'manga' just means comics — and that is what we're presenting here: Manga / Comics by Japanese / Americans that are inspired by Japanese and American styles," she concludes in the exhibit statement. "I hope these works inspire you to create your own comics as much as Tezuka-sensei and Mr. Disney has inspired us."

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NJHAS Gallery hours are from 12 to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, and the first Saturday of the month. Admission to the NJAHS Gallery is FREE (donations gladly accepted). For more information on the exhibit or the National Japanese American Historical Society, call (415) 921-5007 or visit

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* This article was originally published in the Nichi Bei Times for the week of January 15, 2009.

© 2009 Nichi Bei Times

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