Genga: Otomo Katsuhiro

There is a line, snaking around the block as far as the eye can see, of people of all ages, backgrounds and types – bartenders, low-level yakuza, manual laborers… me…all eagerly queuing to shuffle in single file at a painstakingly slow pace to gain access to Genga, the first exhibition of Otomo Katsuhiro’s original artworks and concept sketches. (Recommended reading: this review from the Japan times).

The exhibition was held at 3331 Arts Chiyoda, just next to Akihabara (multi-level, neon-signed, busy, loud shops selling nothing but electronics and home to Japan’s infamous ‘otaku’) in a densely populated area of central Tokyo in what appeared to be an old high school building converted to an art space. It looked like a scene straight from Neo-Tokyo – the setting for Otomo’s world famous manga and movie Akira. This incredible cross section of fans is a testament to Otomo’s understanding of the different aspects of contemporary urbanized Japanese society.

Lesley will attest to my unrelenting determination to get to this exhibition: Navigating Japanese websites and seemingly efficient ticket dispensing machines at the local Lawsons only to be unable to get there due to our crazy schedule. Tickets were strictly time controlled. I had given up the possibility of viewing the show, but on our second last day in Japan flew there in a cab (an extravagance in Tokyo!) thinking at least to buy a catalogue. All kami were smiling on me as at the last minute, lost in the queue, they announced that there were 10 tickets available- I was the lucky 10th!

When I finally get in to the space it becomes instantly evident that these are artworks, not just sketches by an illustrator or storyteller. The space is packed full. It is hard to distinguish the crowd from the artworks. They seem to merge into one. The characters on paper are not dissimilar to those in the room. Everyone is silent, mouths open, staring, pointing and nodding in appreciation.

The works are truly captivating. On display is every single page of all 6 volumes (over 600 pages) of the Akira graphic novel (buy on Amazon), every detail drawn to perfection in black and white pen on paper. Otomo draws with purpose; you can see it in the faces of his characters – strong and determined, but youthful and innocent. His brush strokes, pencil, pen or brush are fine – understandably so as Otomo’s works are small, many no bigger than A4. It is hard to fault his work – composition, use of colour -everything is perfect.

Otomo Katsuhiro has an international cult following for his 1988 anime film Akira based on part of the story from the 6 volume graphic novel of the same name (first published in 1982 and completed in 1990). Akira was the first ‘serious’ (and most expensive) feature length anime film, the birth of a new genre in film.

Born in 1954, Otomo had a keen interest in film and story telling from early childhood and showed promise throughout high school in manga style illustration. After high school, he moved to a newly developed area outside of Tokyo where he began his career as a manga artist. Here he became obsessed with the Tokyo Metropolis and its people; later the skyline of New York, his honeymoon choice. The daily struggle of urban types in a bustling metropolis became the backdrop for most of his work.

Otomo rose to fame in the mid 1970’s through his headline comic strip work in ACTION magazine and published his first long-form manga Fireball in 1979, also his first foray into science fiction. Later he published Domu and did film and manga work covering intense war-related subjects. It was not until the early 80’s that Otomo began work on Akira, the perfect culmination of his previous works on urban life and war. One of his most notable achievements, in my opinion, was his brilliant script for the hugely successful anime adaptation of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka’s manga Metropolis.

Otomo Katsuhiro is a hero to young urban Japanese. His stories and drawings capture the basic elements of their existence, their feelings and stories, translating them to a new aspirational future world that, although not perfect, has great appeal. Otomo understands what it is from the past and present that makes up the contemporary Japanese person, both the positives and negatives. Through his wonderful graphics and story-telling, Otomo has extended that world and its appeal to an international audience.

Katsuhiro’s son Otomo Shohei has developed into a skilled and interesting artist whose work has just as much, if not more, to say than his father’s.

– Byron Kehoe