In a story that has uncanny parallels to the (rejected) April 1st EDM by Andrew George MP  in 2009, a Japanese Manga comic is serialising a story based on the repatriation of treasures from the British Museum – in exchange for other British artefacts that are held hostage.
The professor to the rescue
A cartoon strip takes on the repatriation of treasures from the British Museum
Aug 26th 2010 | tokyo
“THE Stonehenge megaliths have been stolen!?” So exclaims Professor Munakata at the outset of a rollicking adventure set at the British Museum, in the form of a manga, or Japanese cartoon. Over the past five months, readers of Big Comic, a Japanese fortnightly magazine, have followed the exploits of the fictitious ethnographer as he gets embroiled in a bizarre plot to force the repatriation of the museum’s prized objects.
The strip, called “The Case Records of Professor Munakata”, was introduced 15 years ago by Yukinobu Hoshino, one of Japan’s most notable manga artists. Portly, bald and impeccably dressed with cap, cape and cane, the professor is Japan’s anti-Indiana Jones. He does not invite danger but bumbles into it. The strip does not follow any set formula but takes on serious issues.
In previous escapades the professor barely survived after uncovering an ancient burial ground in Japan’s hinterland. He also risked his life leading an archaeological survey of an island between Japan and Korea that both countries claim. The current saga, which reached its tumultuous conclusion on August 25th, marks the first time that the brave hero (and his 56-year-old creator too) has paid a visit to the West.
In Japan manga is a mainstream medium, with sales of magazines and books amounting to around $5 billion a year. Though many are juvenile, violent or pornographic, others are intricate narratives skilfully illustrated and meant to educate as much as to entertain. They are increasingly popular abroad and starting to make their way into museum exhibitions—though in Japan itself they are still given short shrift as an art form.
Mr Hoshino trained in classical Japanese painting, but abandoned it for his love of manga (which means “pictures run amok”). He has produced works on history and folklore as well as science fiction. Like his medium, his method combines the old and the new: he draws with a traditional Japanese brush dipped in ink, but adds occasional colour on a Mac.
In the current adventure Professor Munakata is the first to realise that the stolen megaliths are pawns for the return of the British Museum’s controversial treasures, such as the Elgin marbles which Greece has long been demanding. He uncovers a French plot to infiltrate the museum and snatch the Rosetta Stone (the ancient artefact that provides the key to Egyptian hieroglyphs) in order to return it not to Egypt but to France, which first discovered and translated it. Eventually, it is Professor Munakata’s “reverse pyramid” strategy that prevents the megaliths from being dumped atop the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral from a blimp.
The immaculately drawn images and historical accuracy permit the artist to move into the realm of the improbable. “I engage with historical themes or folklore with a totally open mind and try to invent new theories,” explains Mr Hoshino. Along the way, he exposes readers to early British civilisation, Egyptian pyramids, ancient Assyria and the Kingdom of Benin in the 13th century.
How the latest strip came to be produced is almost as unlikely as the good professor’s exploits. Last November the British Museum organised an exhibition of Mr Hoshino’s work and a curator, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, lobbied the artist to produce a manga about the museum. After two five-day visits, during which he took masses of photographs, the story emerged. “His works examine the interplay of humans, objects and places—people’s attachment to spaces,” says Ms Rousmaniere, who is the model for Chris, the museum curator who helps the professor.
Normally manga appears in a series of nine episodes. Mr Hoshino was so enamoured with the adventures at the museum that he broke the rules and drew ten, which will be published as a book by Shogakukan in October. Mr Hoshino now plans to give the professor a well-earned rest, and return to science fiction for a bit. But first the museum had to be saved. After rescuing St Paul’s from the Stonehenge megaliths, the professor and Chris raced back. The crushing of the cathedral was, after all, no more than a distraction, a dastardly plot to get at the Rosetta Stone.
The first two episodes of “Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure”, in Japanese, are on display at the British Museum until October 23rd. The complete series will be published in English by the British Museum Press in March 2011.