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Manga from the Floating World

Manga from the Floating World

Comicbook Culture and the Kibyōshi of Edo Japan, Second Edition, With a New Preface

Adam L. Kern

ISBN 9780674241787

Publication date: 06/04/2019

Manga from the Floating World is the first full-length study in English of the kibyōshi, a genre of woodblock-printed comic book widely read in late-eighteenth-century Japan. By combining analysis of the socioeconomic and historical milieus in which the genre was produced and consumed with three annotated translations of works by major author-artist Santō Kyōden (1761–1816) that closely reproduce the experience of encountering the originals, Adam Kern offers a sustained close reading of the vibrant popular imagination of the mid-Edo period. The kibyōshi, Kern argues, became an influential form of political satire that seemed poised to transform the uniquely Edoesque brand of urban commoner culture into something more, perhaps even a national culture, until the shogunal government intervened.

Based on extensive research using primary sources in their original Edo editions, the volume is copiously illustrated with rare prints from Japanese archival collections. It serves as an introduction not only to the kibyōshi but also to the genre’s readers and critics, narratological conventions, modes of visuality, format, and relationship to the modern Japanese manga and to the popular literature and wit of Edo. Filled with graphic puns and caricatures, these entertaining works will appeal to the general reader as well as to the more experienced student of Japanese cultural history—and anyone interested in the global history of comics, graphic novels, and manga.


  • Manga from the Floating World is a treasure trove of cultural tidbits… Kern’s love of his subject is infectious; how many scholarly books can be described as a joy to read? Mirroring the contradictions embodied in his beloved kibyoshi, Kern’s seemingly effortless, flowing prose belies a Mount Fuji of thoughtfulness, planning, imagination and erudition. He writes, as was once said of Raymond Chandler, like a slumming angel—but much more engagingly. His prodigious command of sources and generosity in crediting ideas are exemplary. His deft deployment of literary and cultural theory is as masterful as it is discreet. The book generates broad questions that resonate in the reader’s mind: How does humor ‘work’? What is the social role of the bestseller? What kinds of things do urban myths really tell us? How does the concept of au courant embody the seeds of its own demise? Why do people read? Some twenty years ago I asked Henry Smith why no one tried to do for Edo what Robert Darnton accomplished for eighteenth-century France in his classic The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History: giving readers the gift of mental time travel. The answer was that the Japanese material is nearly impossible for any single person to retrieve on that scale. Manga from the Floating World demonstrates that scholarship has advanced to the point that this now is possible. Kern’s book rivals Darnton’s. As one of Enjiro’s savvy cronies might have said to the author: ‘Arigatayama!’

    —Melinda Takeuchi, Impressions


  • Adam L. Kern is Professor of Japanese Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Book Details

  • 606 pages
  • 8-1/2 x 11 inches
  • Harvard University Asia Center