Kyoto International Manga Museum: Not Just Big Eyes And Big Robots!

"Manga... that's those Japanese comics with the big eyes and girls in sailor outfits, right? You're actually into that weird stuff?" Perhaps you've heard words like that, or even thought so yourself. Fair enough, but manga has history going back to 12th century, and a far greater artistic depth and range than wider pop culture often gives it credit for. Kyoto was the birthplace of manga, dominated the medieval Japanese printing industry, and even into modern times many great artists have come from the area. So it's only fitting that Kyoto should have a stellar manga museum. Opened in 2006 and housed in a decommissioned elementary school not far from the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Kyoto International Manga Museum will give its visitors an excellent overview of the history, business, and creative varieties of this distinctly Japanese art form.
The entrance.

  • Open: 6 days a week 10:00 - 18:00 (last entry at 17:30). Closed on Wednesdays, or Thursday if Wednesday is a national public holiday. 
  • Admission: Adults 800 yen, Jr. & Sr. High School Students 300 yen, Elementary Students 100 yen
  • Accessible by Karasuma Oike Subway Station (about a 3 minute walk)
  • NO PHOTOS!!! Due to copyright issues, taking pictures or video is prohibited in most areas of the museum. Alas, it means this article will have few pictures, but bear with me.

   My journey began at an automated ticket machine not unlike what I'd find in any number of Japanese fast food restaurants. Thankfully, the machine had multiple language settings in addition to helpful staff which made it easy to buy my ticket. Actually, the multiple language settings on the ticket machine were an example of what I would find all throughout this fascinating museum. Befitting its title of 'International Manga Museum', the KIMM (as I'll be referring to it from here onward) puts serious effort into being accessible for foreign visitors, with large amounts of information translated in English.
   After taking my ticket I passed through the museum gift shop, which was frankly rather unimpressive. There are a few art supplies, some articles of anime/manga merchandise from the most popular series, and small shelf of English language manga, and most disappointingly, almost no KIMM-specific souvenirs (the KIMM has its own mascot, why not put him on a t-shirt?). If you're looking for manga goods, here are a few good articles. But nobody goes to a museum for its gift shop, so let's keep going.
   Next stop is the International Manga Library. I counted manga volumes in a whopping 21 foreign languages, from Chinese to Catalan! The best part? You're free to simply taking books off the shelves and sit around and read. I even found a couple older titles I'd never heard of while perusing the English language section (hello Amazon!) If you had any doubts about manga's ability to entertain across the world, this room will put them to rest. Adjacent to the library are tables for local manga artists who will showcase the process of making an actual manga, or draw your portrait for a set fee of 1000 yen per person. These artists are only available on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and national holidays, so despite the greater weekend crowds those are the best days to visit the museum. I made a reservation to have my portrait done (in traditional manga style, of course) and set off the explore the rest of the museum. At the back of the first floor is a cool children's library, but those without small kids can skip it without regret (and given that only elementary aged children and younger and their parents are allowed back there, you may have to skip it anyway).

   The real meat of the museum is up on the second floor, but before you go up the stairs, take a look at the '100 Maiko' display, which starts on the first floor and winds around the halls of the museum. 100 different manga artists each drew a Kyoto maiko (geisha/geiko in-training) in their own style, and the results range from cutesy to realistic to wacky, it's a good example of the wide varieties of art that can be classified as 'manga'.
   Your tour of the second floor should start with the replica Kamishibai Theater. What on earth is Kamishibai? It's a form of street performance that peaked in popularity from the 1920-50's. A storyteller would go around with a pair of hyoshigi (those wooden kabuki clapper things) and gather up a crowd of kids and sell them candy. Then, using his portable display case holding a series of illustrations, he would tell his audience a story, usually stopping at an exciting cliffhanger so that the kids would come back tomorrow (and hopefully buy more candy). Eventually, TV and other forms of entertainment would relegate kamishibai to obscurity, but many early modern manga artists got their start making kamishibai illustrations. The KIMM holds kamishibai performances at 11:30 and 14:00 on weekdays and at 12:00, 13:30, and 15:00 on weekends. The performance may be in Japanese, but just listening to the wide vocal range and watching the bombastic antics of the storyteller is worth any language barrier (and the slides have English subtitles anyway). It's a must-see if you visit.
via . A kamishibai performer in Tokyo. Not the KIMM, but you get the idea.

   On to the Main Gallery. In here you'll get an overview of the whole manga industry. Want to know the step-by-step process that takes a manga from a twinkle in an artist's eye to published work? Want to learn about all the different genres and demographics of manga? (Hint, it's not just muscle-man fighting stories for teenage boys) Every wondered how a manga series gets turned into an anime series? How do the profits of a successful manga get divvied up? And just how big is the manga market in Japan and around the world? You'll find answers to all those questions and more here, and the walls are lined with award-winning series dating back to the 1960's that are free to read. Even if you can't so much as recognize the kanji for 'Tokyo', those massive shelves of manga are worth looking through due to the huge variety of artwork on display. You'll come to understand manga's true artistic range as you find stories in every genre from romance, to historical fiction, to sports, to drama, to cooking (yes, cooking!) and more!

      There is a third floor, but aside from a few more shelves of manga and a reference library for serious academic scholars, there isn't much up there so I only spent a few minutes perusing the shelves before heading back down for my portrait reservation. On the way out you might want to check out the KIMM Cafe. It's nothing terribly special as far as food and drinks go, but the walls are covered with illustrations from famous manga artists, and even a few by international cartoonists (such as Stan Sakai, who may be an icon in American comics, but he was actually born in Kyoto!).

    The KIMM is a must-see for any otaku visiting Kyoto, and interesting enough for even those who aren't much into manga to consider a visit. I'd recommend going on the weekends to see the artists and timing your visit to see a kamishibai performance, however. Without those two things, the museum can be a little content-light for those not wanting to spend hours reading manga.

Oh, and my manga-style portrait turned out great!
There was a 'standard' caricature style option, but this is a MANGA museum!

  I know it's not really the point of this site, but here are a few of my favorite manga series outside of the most popular genres, just in case this museum makes you want to check out some manga that's different from the norm but you don't know where to look for stuff that isn't Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon.
  • HISTORICAL FICTION: Vinland Saga. Equal parts deeply philosophical and graphically violent, a young medieval Icelander hunts the man who murdered his father, only to come to question the entire Viking way of life.
  • DRAMA: A Silent Voice. A high school boy seeks the forgiveness of the girl he bullied back in 6th grade, but also needs to learn to forgive himself.
  • COOKING: (yes, I'll say it again, COOKING) Sweetness And Lightning. After the death of his wife, a middle-aged man starts learning to cook for the sake of his adorable 5-year-old daughter. America doesn't have 'cooking comics' so I'm still a little culture-shocked that this is a major genre in Japanese manga.
  • SUPERNATURAL: The Ghost and the Lady. Florence Nightingale, and a ghost who can quote Shakespeare verbatim, AND monsters that feed on negative emotions. As if the Crimean War wasn't bad enough already...
  •  CRIME: The Book of Human Insects. A complex, twisted, and at times disturbing manga set in 1970's Japan. Fun fact, it's by the same artist who created the kid-friendly mega-hit Astro Boy.
  • EDUCATIONAL: Showa. Four huge volumes covering Japanese history from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake to the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. The last volume even has several pages dedicated to the artist's early career making kamishibai illustrations.
  • ROMANCE: A Bride's Story. A series of loosely connected short stories following the lives of several young women in 19th century Central Asia.
  • SPORTS: Giant Killing.  An eccentric and controversial head coach is hired by a nearly broke professional Japanese soccer club to turn them from second-rate-wannabes into championship contenders. 
  • FAMILY SAGA: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju. Spanning decades, this story follows 3 generations of an unusual family of rakugo performers who have to come to terms with the clan's incredibly talented but irritable and secretive patriarch. Not a bad way to learn about the rakugo art form either.
  • COMEDY: Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. Black comedy abounds as an outlandishly depressed substitute teacher interacts with his class of loony oddballs.
  • BUSINESS: Bakuman. A manga about making manga. Two teenage boys team up to try and create the most popular manga in Japan, but find it will take a lot more hard work than they first expected to make it to the top. Also, an entertaining way to learn more about the inner workings of the manga industry if the KIMM piqued your interest.

Hayden Murphy