Drawing the line in Tokyo and Kyoto

Headshot of William Yeoman
William YeomanThe West Australian
Even first timers can get great results from woodblock printing, manga and calligraphy classes.
Camera IconEven first timers can get great results from woodblock printing, manga and calligraphy classes. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian

The popularity of manga — Japanese comics and graphic novels — shows no sign of abating. It’s almost ubiquitous in Japan, where it epitomises pop culture. Every demographic and stratum of society embraces it, either serialised or in books or through its animated cousin, anime or through often lurid and bizarre merchandise. Perhaps that’s because it in turn embraces every subject, theme and genre you could imagine, from sports to “Boy Love”. It's very popular elsewhere too, and most Perth bookstores boast a substantial manga section.

But the word, the literal meaning of which points to a certain anarchic quality and strangeness, has been around for centuries, reaching a crescendo of notoriety in the 19th century with the famous artist Katsushika Hokusai’s 15 or so volumes of Hokusai Manga.

Like a lot of kids, I read comics. As an adult, I read graphic novels. Perhaps not so much manga — though I recently started the classic manga adaptation of Murasaki Shikibu’s 11th century classic, The Tale of Genji.

But I’ve always loved the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists and other artists who were strongly influenced by the woodblock prints of Japanese artists like Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro.

So, knowing I was heading to Japan, I thought it was high time to take a hands-on approach to a deeper understanding of manga by taking classes in the two art forms which inform it — woodblock printing and calligraphy — and then to follow those up with an actual manga class. When in Rome… or in this case Tokyo and Kyoto.

A visit to the comparatively small, and therefore manageable-in-an-hour, Ota Memorial Museum of Art in the Shibuya ward, is an essential prelude. The collection itself, which belonged to the late Seizo Ota V comprises more than 12,000 ukiyo-e woodblock prints. But only a few are displayed at a time, the exhibitions changing regularly.

All the greats are represented, including the above-named artists. The works themselves are beyond exquisite, the more abstract qualities such as colour and composition just as overwhelming as the number of genres, which includes landscapes, portraits, anthropomorphic pictures of frolicking animals and more.

I can’t resist buying a copy of the first volume of the Hokusai Manga in the gift shop before leaving. And a limited-edition all-purpose napkin covered with cats. What else? Again, when in Rome...

Mokuhankan is in the heart of Tokyo’s historic Asakusa.
Camera IconMokuhankan is in the heart of Tokyo’s historic Asakusa. Credit: Will Yeoman/The West Australian


I head back to Asakusa, part of Tokyo’s Taito ward, and to Mokuhankan, a commercial woodblock print publisher which also runs workshops and classes. I am fortunate to have two instructors and nobody else in the class. The paper, the paints, the brushes and the carved woodblocks — one for each colour — are already prepared. The finished product will be a print of Hokusai’s famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

At each stage, I add some binder and a few dabs of paint to the woodblock and then spread it evenly with a brush. I carefully lay the moistened paper upside down on the block and apply pressure with a flat tool called a baren. As I rub, the strong lines of the composition show through. Once I’m satisfied enough of the paint has been transferred to the paper, I lift it off and flip it around. The colours are subtle, beautiful. I feel like I’m holding a piece of history in my hands. Best of all, I get to bring it home with me.


After the image, the word. I am a stone’s throw from the Kyoto Imperial Palace. I arrive early at Wak Japan, one of those terrific institutions offering a huge range of Japanese cultural experiences to locals and foreigners alike. So I drop into the Kyoto International Manga Museum just down the road. I only have time to browse in the shop. But it’s enough, the books, paper, pens, inks, paints, movies and merch utterly absorbing. The following one-on-one calligraphy (shodo) class pulls me backwards in time to when etiquette, tradition and technique reigned supreme.

Inextricably linked to painting and poetry, Japanese calligraphy requires decades of training. I have an hour. It’s just enough time to explore a few different kanji (that part of the Japanese writing system which uses Chinese characters) and to get the sense this is more like dance, the movement of the whole arm as it guides the ink-charged brush across the hanshi paper an aesthetic experience in itself. I also learn to write my first name in katakana (the simplified script, derived from the Chinese characters, used mainly for foreign words) down the side of the paper as a signature. As with the woodblock print, I am allowed to take my efforts with me.


Now to combine image and word. Well, almost. Back in Tokyo, at the fabulous Manga School Nakano International in Nakano ward, I have to compress a three-hour workshop into a one-hour class. So we focus on the basics of head and figure drawing. Some real insights emerge. The use of basic geometric shapes and guide lines was known to me. But not how to change and shift these to depict different age groups.

For example, a small child will have a round head — so a sphere — with a very low guide line for the eyes, which themselves are drawn extremely large. On the other hand, when drawing a young man or woman you’d use an ovoid shape. This time the guide line for the eyes (notice I’m not using the term “eye line” which has a different specific meaning in perspective drawing) is higher, dividing the head in half. For an older person, you’d shift the line higher up again. It’s fascinating stuff, and there are plenty of How to Draw Manga books around if you’re interested.

So: I haven’t come back to Australia an accomplished manga artist. But by getting a taste of the traditional skills of woodblock printing and calligraphy, and to see how they feed into contemporary manga, I feel like I’ve deepened my appreciation of Japanese and European art and culture in a way I never thought possible.

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