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Rayna Denison visits a Kingdom of Characters in Norwich

We’ve all grown up with favourite characters from film and television. For many of the readers of this blog, those characters may even be Japanese. Which is why you might want to pop along to the Kingdom of Characters exhibition being held in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.

This pre-packaged exhibition is a Japanese perspective on the range of meanings characters have in Japan. From local mascots to internet Flash animation sensations, the Kingdom of Characters exhibition tries to introduce the “big picture” of characters in Japan. Their history, from Ultraman, who greets you at the entrance to Hikonyan, the 2006 Hikone castle samurai-cat mascot (above), is told through life-sized statues, explanation boards, and, if you book in groups in advance, helpful tour guides.

The real highlight is the statuary. A 5-foot Gundam, Pikachu in a glass case, and a petite, but probably life-sized, Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion all group together as you walk through exhibition’s explanations of Japanese pop culture history. Then come some weirder and slightly wonderful things…

For example, you can peer through windows into a bedroom branded entirely by Hello Kitty goods. And this is juxtaposed with a collection of more adult-oriented (though not hentai) miniature resin statues designed by Bome. Bome’s work is both high art and popular; he’s done a lot of statues for Gainax, but has also worked for Takashi Murakami, who is the leading figure in Japanese “superflat” artwork. Then there are videos, including one of Japanese Flash anime sensation Eagle Talon by Ryo Ono. But that is not the oddest moment…

As you round the final corner of the exhibition, you are met by a group of local mascot characters. These seem to tend to take on local characteristics, such as the Daibutsu (Giant Buddha statue)-meets-deer mascot that was produced to commemorate Nara city’s 1300th anniversary. 2006 seems to have been a big year for mascots in Japan, with the featured Suginami “fairy” and Hikone cat, Hikonyan, both being created in this year.

This is informative, odd and pretty wonderful to have in the UK. So it’s hard to be too critical, particularly when the Sainsbury Centre is doing so much to augment this relatively small exhibition with events, from an academic study day on kawaii culture, to manga drawing workshops , introduced film screenings of anime and tour groups for schools. They’ve also carefully put Japanese twists on other parts of their temporary exhibitions. So, the Anderson and Low photographs downstairs are “manga inspired” and the Early Modernisms exhibition contains woodblock art prints. Even though it is small, and missing a couple of heavy hitters like Astro Boy and Studio Ghibli, overall the exhibition is well worth a look. Particularly if you have children with you, and especially if you can time it so that you drop in when there are events going on. Come on, Norwich isn’t REALLY that far away….

The Kingdom of Characters exhibition is running at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich until 24th June 2012.

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