Toying with Japan at new Norwich exhibition

Astroboy, Hello Kitty, Pokemon — animated characters dominate life in Japan and have become part of everyday culture over here too. A vibrant new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre charts their rise and rise. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Do you remember Astro Boy? Have you ever owned anything emblazoned with Hello Kitty? Have you become addicted to the iconic Pokemon? Welcome to the world of Japanese characters, in a playful exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre.

Japan: Kingdom of Characters, which opens tomorrow, offers the chance to encounter characters from television, computer games and comics. Many have become much loved household names around the world.

The exhibition, which is backed by the Japan Foundation, comes to Norwich following displays in Manila and Sydney and includes figures, panels, film and character-related products that showcase representative animated characters from the 1950s right up to the present day.

As well as being great fun — and a nostalgia trip back to childhood for any of us — the show also provides a fascinating overview of manga comics and animation through the second half of the 20th century, and a unique insight into this cultural phenomenon.

While quirky and playful, the exhibition provides visitors with an understanding of the cultural and historical love of characters in Japanese society.

The 60-year history of Japan since the end of the Second World War can be characterised through the history the Japanese fondness for characters, which have permeated Japanese life from manga to TV and computer games – and especially character goods.

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It has been suggested that the world of characters might be compared to a modern day equivalent to the myriad of ancient gods in Japanese culture.

Used unhesitatingly by both adults and children in private and public, these characters have become a part of our daily landscape in Japan. You'll find, for example, characters printed on bank books and train tickets. They have permeated everyday life to a degree that would be unthinkable in most other countries.

But what exactly is a character? Why are they so popular? What kind of society do these characters reflect and what kind of influence do they exert on that society? And, where is Japanese character culture headed?

Global it would seem. Interest in Japanese subculture, particularly anime and manga, has been increasing all over the world in recent years; whether it be toddlers sleeping in Hello Kitty bedspreads or hardcore manga fans dressing up as their favourite characters in Chapelfield Gardens, as they did last summer as part of a Norwich sci-fi event.

Paul Greenhalgh, Sainsbury Centre director, said: 'It will give fans the chance to come face-to-face with some of their favourite characters, including human-sized Ultraman, Pikachu and a Hello Kitty 'skipping' through the gallery.

'As well as 3D characters, the exhibition includes graphic illustrations and even a room-set of a teenager's Hello Kitty bedroom. The set has also been specially designed to allow younger visitors the chance to peep into the room, which is decorated with merchandise featuring Kitty in her many manifestations, from duvet cover to alarm clock.

'Anime screenings and graphic illustrations are included in the exhibition and create a context for the visiting characters.

'The exhibition asks some thought-provoking questions about what characters are, why they are so popular and how they have become central to everyday life within contemporary Japanese society. It also considers ideas such as the importance of characters as design products.'

Popular characters featured range from the well known to western audiences like Astro Boy and Pokemon to the more obscure, characters such as Doraemon, Mobile Suit Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Haruhi Suzumura, Sentokun and Hikonyan, Namisuke.

All are exhibited through standing figures, panels, and DVDs, to introduce the intimate relationship between characters and Japanese people.

'We hope that the visitors will gain a better understanding of the cultural and historical background behind the Japanese love of characters as well as the future of characters in contemporary Japan,' added Mr Greenhalgh.

? Japan: Kingdom of Characters is at the Sainsbury Centre from February 4-June 3, free admission, 01603 593199,