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JUN 25, 2014

Japan and Belgium: The Empire of Manga meets the Kingdom of the Comic Strip

By Saskia Rock
Night view of the Brussels Grand Place or Grote Markt, the town market square with its many Guild buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. (shutterstock / Mihai-Bogdan Lazar)

Saskia Rock brings an insider (otaku) report on the world of narrated illustrations.

In my last article about the importance of small nations I already hinted at the connection Japan and Belgium have in the world of comic strips. Did you know that these narrated illustrations were called comic strips because they first appeared as daily installments in newspapers? The Flemish words ‘Stripverhaal’ and the French ‘Bande dessinée’ are both literal translations of ‘illustrated story sequence.’ Belgium and France have a long history in comic strips and many artists have also collaborated across the borders on well-known series since the 1920s.

If you should ever travel to Brussels, the Belgian Comic Strip Center which is situated in the center of the city in a fabulous Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta is a must-see. The building is a gem, and the permanent and visiting collections tell the fascinating story of the comic strip in Belgium as well as the rest of Europe. But that is not all; take a walk through the city center and you will see scenes from famous comic strips in places you would never suspect. Look up and prepare to see characters like TinTin, the Smurfs, Lucky Luke, Blake and Mortimer, Nero, Asterix and Obelix and many more having adventures on walls and in doorways. Comic strips are very much alive today and most Belgians read them on an almost daily basis.

©, photo Jean-Pol Lejeune

The world of Japanese manga has certainly influenced some of our Belgian artists, as attested by the creation in 1991 of the series ‘Kogaratsu’ by Michetz and Bosse. Kogaratsu is about a ronin samurai in the 17th century and introduced the Belgian comic strip audience to the Japanese ideal of honor. Another famous comic strip is simply called ‘Samurai’ and dates from 2007. These comics (although “narrated illustrations” would be a better name since they are actually not very comical at all in nature) demand intensive work and a new album is only released once a year or even once every few years in some cases. You can buy original drawings that rival oil paintings of old masters; the attention to detail is simply astounding.

At university I majored in Japanese Studies, so I had learned all about Ukiyo-e and the subsequent birth of manga, and I read many manga and even watched anime on Belgian TV, but I had no idea how alive this world was in my own country until I was dragged into the wonderful world of manga trade fairs.

Before coming to Japan to study at GLOBIS, I founded the Japan Cultural Centre and I was working to further knowledge of Japanese culture and business practices in Belgium. One day in late 2009, I received a request for cooperation from the Made in Asia trade fair, and upon meeting the organizers, decided to take part in it. Our Centre would give classes in Wadaiko and other Japanese arts and crafts for free in return for expo space and media exposure. Little did I know what I was getting into…

The gates were opened at 9:30 am and in stormed a mass of young and not-so-young people in an array of fantastic costumes, many of which were perfect replicas. Some of the most wonderful outfits were hand-made, and upon talking to the owners I found out some of them spend months thinking about characters and scenes from favorite manga they would be enacting at the fair, and then many more months handcrafting their creations. Thus started three days of concerts, talks, signing sessions with famous Japanese and Belgian illustrators and of course a lot of shopping for that one manga-related item you just had to have!

Best costumes in the 2012 Made In Asia show accompanied by Tátáke-Taiko (I’m standing on the extreme left of the podium). ©It’s Art bvba

As we were offering Wadaiko and other Japanese cultural classes, the participants were quite out of the ordinary compared to other workshops we were used to giving. Participating in this fair opened my eyes to the vibrant world of Cosplay in Belgium, and I have since participated every year at Made in Asia as well as other trade fairs that came in its wake, like Japan Expo and Atsusacon, and even organized my own Manga and Anime Convention for the 20th anniversary of the Japanese Garden of Hasselt in 2012.

In Japan in the meantime, one of my favorite comic strips, ‘Cités Obscures’ by Franco-Belgian duo Peeters and Schuiten, was rewarded with the 2012 Japan Media Awards Festival Grand Prize. The reason for awarding the prize made me swell with pride: “Before we start making claims about Japanese manga’s pride of place in the world of comics, we had best acquaint ourselves with the level of comics in the rest of the world. This is one work well worth knowing about. It is one of those rare creations that yields both the pleasure of encountering a foreign culture and the joy of sharing something that transcends cultural differences.”

Call them manga, comic strips, stripverhaal or bande dessinée, I just love reading narrated illustrations and I am ecstatic that this art form is now conquering the world. Japan and Belgium both have been able to transform a rich tradition into a vibrant industry, and I hope that the cross-pollination we have enjoyed so far may long continue.