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Jonathan Clements on the British Museum’s very own manga

In a bold move designed to attract the attention of the world’s media, unknown terrorists kidnap the Stonehenge monuments from the middle of Salisbury Plain. Their demands are eccentric and controversial: the return of artefacts from the British Museum to their rightful homes, wherever they may be, or they start smashing up the rocks… by dropping them from a stealth airship onto London monuments!

In this gleefully bonkers manga story, Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, the UK gets a new hero in the form of a Japanese academic. With crazy artifice to rival the best/worst of Dan Brown, the Professor is plunged into a century-old conspiracy by enemies of the British establishment, and dragged into a hunt around the British Museum’s galleries, across the rooftops, and through the allies and streets of central London.

The British Museum Adventure forms just a fraction of the long-running Professor Munakata series by manga master Yukinobu Hoshino, creator of 2001 Nights. It was inspired by Hoshino’s visit to the BM in 2009, originally just to sketch a few old pots and statues. But Hoshino returned in force to draw an entire story, meticulously based on his time at the museum, taking in dozens of galleries and artefacts, and even writing in a role for his UK colleague Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, who appears in the comic as the spunky academic Chris Caryatid. It must have been a good time for the British Museum and Japan — director Makoto Shinkai has since revealed that he was also mooching around the BM back then, looking for inspiration for his Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below.

Professor Munakata is a true friend of the BM, who recognises that more people will see these antiquities, for free, in the centre of London than if they are scattered around the world. Nor does he shy away from the ongoing arguments as to whether the Rosetta Stone, nothing but a slab of rock to centuries of desert-dwellers, should be “returned” to Egypt, a nation that did not even exist when it was found. As in Professor Munakata’s adventures closer to his Japanese home, Hoshino embraces such controversies as the best way of bringing history to life, and dragging reluctant readers into the rich world of the past.

As junkets go, the British Museum’s decision to invite Hoshino for a few days on site could not possibly have been money better spent. It has amounted to an incredibly successful public-relations exercise, gained the BM massive exposure in a Japanese magazine with tens of thousands of readers, and is sure to see many British manga fans paying to read what is, essentially, a museum catalogue with occasional attacks by assassins.

The translation has been produced by a trio of well-meaning academics who know a lot about antiquities and a lot about Japan, but seemingly very little about comics, with sound effects confined to footnotes and dialogue left stilted. Hoshino’s well-known predilection for info-dumps and monologuing, carefully sanded down in the American editions of 2001 Nights, is left to run wild here, with wordy panels intoning endless facts and figures, names and dates, at the expense of characterisation.

Then again, the sheer data contained in a Hoshino story is at least part of its appeal, particularly in the case of Professor Munakata, whose true vocation is telling readers stuff they don’t know. Hoshino’s tale of museum skulduggery delivers a veritable grand tour of one of the world’s greatest treasure houses, zooming in on many of the British Museum’s most famous highlights.

The story itself is pure hokum, oddly similar to an episode of Sherlock Hound in which the Rosetta Stone similarly came under threat from nefarious foreigners. An introduction by the peerless art historian Tim Clark concentrates, perhaps a little counterproductively, on the history of Japanese art before the post-war manga boom of which Hoshino is more demonstrably a part. But those are mere cavils that do not detract from a superb publishing coup. It will surely, hopefully, reap rich populist rewards for an academic institution that has dared to try something different.

Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure is out in the UK on 31st October from British Museum Press. Yukinobu Hoshino’s TO/2001 Nights is out on UK DVD and Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.

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