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Three's Company: A Visit to the Tokyo Art Center's Manga, Anime, and Games Exhibition

What does the grouping of three distinct mediums into one exhibition say about their place in Japanese pop culture?

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One question I hear a lot is, "What place does gaming hold in Japanese society? Is it more or less mainstream than in the U.S.?" A hint can be found at the Tokyo Art Center's Manga, Anime, and Games from Japan exhibition, which I visited on a rain-soaked Thursday morning in Roppongi.

I went in part because I wanted to see if I could find any interesting artifacts, but also because I found the grouping interesting. Anime, manga, and gaming certainly have a relationship, but otherwise they're rather distinct mediums. I wanted to see what similarities were highlighted by the curators, who were attempting the ambitious task of covering the history of all three since 1989.

The Final Fantasy VII exhibit. In typical Square Enix fashion, they couldn't resist tossing in a prop.

Like most buildings in Tokyo, the National Art Center is a monument to functionality, its massive echoing atrium being quiet and sparsely decorated. The Anime, Manga, and Gaming Exhibition is housed in a brightly lit gallery, its subjects mashed together in a series of broad categories.

As I entered, I was greeted by a host of relatively obscure (at least in the U.S.) anime characters on one side, and a brief Super Mario Bros. timeline on the other. According to the description on a nearby pillar, the grouping was meant to highlight the purity of early characters like Mario, who were unambiguous heroes. The Mario exhibit included a handful of concept art, but when I went in to snap a picture, I was shooed away by an attendant stationed nearby. Thankfully, I was able to surreptitiously snap a few pictures elsewhere.

The community exhibit included a chance to play Street Fighter II on the SNES; though oddly enough, only one controller was provided.

As I continued, there were times when the theme of a particular section was easy to grasp. An area highlighting community, for example, was devoted to Street Fighter II, Taiko no Tatsujin, and weirdly enough, Steel Battalion and its outlandish controller. Another talked about the parallels of Japanese pop culture with reality, highlighting manga that was drawn in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, though it somewhat disappointingly omitted mention of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 4: Summer Memories, which was canceled due to the disaster.

Aside from education, the exhibit is a convenient excuse for a Mario Maker demo, not that one is needed.

The most interesting section explored the craft that went into developing anime and games. It included art from Macross Plus, famous for its incredibly elaborate missile attacks, as well as shots of modeling and track design from Gran Turismo.

I ended up spending about 30 minutes the gallery, stopping at one point to play a game of PES 2015 (I lost), but otherwise spending most of my time on the concept sketches scattered throughout the exhibition. When I was finished, I ended up circling back to make sure that I hadn't missed anything. For an exhibition purporting to cover 25 years worth of Japanese pop culture history, it was surprisingly sparse, focusing mostly on basic themes. It might have benefited from a more in-depth examination of one subject, rather than trying to cram three of them into one show.

Ultimately, it was a broad look at the evolution of entertainment in Japan through the lenses of three distinct mediums, though it left what I imagine is the unintentional impression that the three are interchangeable. As exhibitions go, it was a bit muddled, with the Mario Maker exhibit in particular feeling more like an advertisement than something you might find at a museum, not the least because it's not even out yet over here, or anywhere else for that matter.

This was there. Why? Because it's cool, that's why.

I left with a vague sense that games had indeed made an impression on Japanese pop culture, but it was difficult to parse out what exactly what that entailed. A little later, as I had lunch with a game developer living in Japan, I asked if games were truly trapped in the proverbial pop culture ghetto. He responded in the negative, pointing out that it's quite common for a salaryman and his wife to pick up a copy of Monster Hunter or Pokémon, and noting the ubiquity of the Nintendo 3DS on trains and elsewhere. Games, ultimately, are just a part of everyday life, whether they're enjoyed on a game or a console. And even if the National Art Center's exhibition didn't always do a great job of showing it, they are more deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche than it seems.

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