Manga is an art-form without taboos, a free flowing comic book style that is unafraid to tackle challenging subjects. Unlike Disney, which is constrained by child friendly certification, manga is free to roam wherever it chooses. It’s stylised, often gritty, surreal and powerful. Osamu Tezuka, known as ‘the god of manga’, was born in Osaka in 1928 and lived through a time of great change in Japan: militarisation, war, defeat, the atom bomb and the repercussions thereof. Although trained as a doctor, Tezuka dedicated his life to professional manga art, creating characters who invaded the western scene, most famously Astro Boy.
Astro Boy is a robot, created to replace a real child who died in a car crash (or was vapourised in the 2009 American film). Whilst he is a robot, he struggles to understand human aesthetics and values and spends his time fighting alien robots and invaders who threaten the earth. So much for history: my interest this week is in the various languages of learning, and last week i was able to see a stunning performance which spoke in many languages, including manga.
‘TeZukA‘ is a performance piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui that is loosely based around Osamu’s life and creations. It uses a range of languages to do this: primarily, it’s a dance piece, but that dance takes place within and around the manga itself. Technically, this is achieved through clever use of screens, projection, live illustration and animation.
Cherkaoui uses two main screens, one backstage and one that occasionally drops front stage. These were sometimes used to project animations that the characters were talking about, but also in a far more interactive way. In one section, a stylised fight took place between around a dozen characters. ‘Motion’ lines (concentric semi circles) and puffs of dust appeared around the dancers as they punched or landed on the ground. At other times, with each hit, waves of silhouette characters flew out in a cloud around the dancer. Talk about augmented reality: this was a fusion of dance and animation to speak in a visual language of art and dance in harmony, facilitated by technology. The manga reinforced and strengthened the messages being conveyed in dance.
Between the front and back screens, long strips (like wide wallpaper) were regularly dropped down. These often worked with japanese script and kanji characters on them: sometimes static, often animated, melting down the page, breaking apart, creating movement or scrolling effects. Later, the letters came off the paper and onto the dancers as they started to paint individual letters onto each other. Indeed, there was also a ‘live’ illustrator creating characters that were projected onto the screens. Indeed, at one point, the paper, which was used to ‘catch’ characters, was used to wrap and move the dancers.
In one of my favourite scenes, we appeared to be inside the comic book, with pages turning towards us: the characters were squeezed between pages, could ‘hit’ them to turn them back and, later, were able to use the whole back screen like a giant iPad to move sections around, to ‘shape’ clouds of ink in water, to manipulate the images. The story was spoken in a language of physical theatre, art and the interaction between the two.
The story, whilst complex at times, was carried by a central narrative: sometimes the story was told in illustration, in manga, sometimes by the dancers, who would talk on stage, sometimes through song (there were four musicians on stage too) and sometimes through the art of creating characters, literally painting the story live.
I realise that my excitable description cannot do it justice, but it’s fascinating to me for two reasons. Firstly, it was a truly multi modal attempt at storytelling. The narrative was owned at different times by different media or characters. Secondly, it was remarkably coherent.
I really felt that Cherakaoui was an accomplished storyteller, fully utilising the different channels available for communication, and it’s exactly this ability that i’m exploring this week: understanding that there are these many languages and that we can speak with any or many of them.
This isn’t a plea for us to start using dance in training, or to illustrate our workbooks with manga, but it is a plea to think about the power in these languages. it’s probably an indictment of stock art for a start.
Just as we need coherence in the narrative of a story, so too we need coherence in the other languages: the graphic design, the technology, the navigation interfaces, each of the ways that the story touches us needs to be in touch with the others. If the various languages are telling different stories, our message can become unintentionally incoherent.
Learning is largely about stories, so understanding how stories are told and how they are understood is important. It’s easy for us to lose the beauty of languages when we get caught up in technology, in project planning, in budgets, in the gritty everyday reality of life, but it’s out loss to do so. Manga is not just comics for kids, it’s a language that speaks of conflict, of love, of redemption and all of these in a powerful voice. Whether we realise it or not, we respond to these languages, we are captivated by motion, by sound, by colour and shape, by rhythm and rhyme. It changes us and to change is to learn. Taking time to reflect on all the languages of learning makes us better communicators, better storytellers.