Two and a Bit Lifetimes: London’s place in manga history

The 150th birthday of the London Underground last week triggered thoughts of two more 150th birthdays: the 150th birthday of the Victoria Embankment next year, and the 150th birthday of modern manga last year.

My first thought was how short a time, relatively, that is. 150 years is only just over two lifetimes. That’s outside the personal memory of the oldest living human, but it’s within their reported memory. Someone aged 75 today may remember their grandparents talking about their great-grandparents.

Yet, because most popular history was transmitted orally, much has been lost. These three events are remembered because they involved the well-connected, but the first was an unlikely candidate for historic status. The accidental collision of an innovative expat intellectual and local artists hungry for the new was not considered of any weight beside great public works that changed the face of one of the world’s mightiest cities. Nobody could have predicted that a few sheets of paper would prove so influential.

Japan Punch, which appeared irregularly from 1862 to 1887, was just one of the ventures of Charles Wirgman, a British artist/journalist who also taught Western-style painting and ran a photography business with the romantically chaotic Felix Beato. Wirgman’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography acknowledges its influence on expatriate society as well as the Japanese press; yet the notion that its memory, let alone copies, could survive two and a half lifetimes would probably seem laughable to its creator. It was a magazine for the new and growing expat community in Japan, a fanzine for the bright and well-connected: an amusing ephemeron, nothing more.

And yet… a Japanese war baby like Hayao Miyazaki, born into an intelligent, affluent family in 1941, could have had a grandparent aged sixty, born in 1881, who saw someone reading a copy of Japan Punch in childhood, or found one among the effects of an older relative. Such tenuous chains are easily broken by time, undocumented and forgotten, but sometimes they hold strong and fast. Wirgman’s little magazine had an influence beyond anything he might have imagined. Japanese mangaka and fine artists still hold an annual ceremony at  his Yokohama graveside to commemorate his contribution to both comics and fine art.

The Victoria Embankment is the subject or background of millions of photographs. To the tourists and journalists who take the photos it’s part of historic London. Yet the solid ground they stand on today was the moving water of the River Thames just over two lifetimes ago. Sir Christopher Wren wanted to build a great quay “from the Tower to Blackfriars” as part of his reconstruction of the City after the Great Fire of 1666, but nothing came of the plan. It wasn’t until 1864 that construction on the Embankment commenced, sweeping away centuries of history to remake the path of the river. It was completed in July 1870, while Japan Punch was still in publication.

If you want to see the river’s edge that Charles Wirgman would have known while he lived in London, walk about 100 yards back from the present river’s edge to the watergate at York Stairs, built in 1626. London’s only surviving watergate was as familiar to generations of Londoners as Charing Cross station is to Londoners today. Here those who had money for the fare, like Samuel Pepys, who lived a few yards away, could hail a boat and travel along or across the Thames.

The Londoner who was so influential in the creation of manga left his hometown in 1857, and died in Yokohama in 1891.  Wirgman never travelled on the London Underground or saw Princess Louise open the spacious new embankment named for her mother. Yet his flimsy little magazine stands beside them, living in memory, changing history, two and a bit lifetimes on.

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