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Pre-Raphaelites and Modern Manga

By Kachi (real name removed for personal reasons)

Chapter Structure

  1. Gods and Legends
  2. Old Artists and Their Way of Showing Legends
  3. Manga Artists
  4. Comparisons Between Pre-Raphaelite themes and Manga
  5. Conclusion - Comparing Pre-Raphaelites and Modern Manga Artists


Every country has legends - myths and fables are an integral part of any culture. When society fails and religion fades often the legends remain with us.
Myths have always been in art, forming a large selection of famous art works. When religious paintings declined in favour, artists were forced to seek alternate ways to get old legends across to the mass market. Now, many old stories are given a new twist and depicted in a fresh style.
Manga is different because the viewer does not need to possess a cultural knowledge to understand in great depth what the artist is trying to say. The style used is ‘comic-book’ form, which can not only tell old legends but create new ones.


There are many myths and legends that were used by both the Pre-Raphaelites and more modern Manga artists. Many of them are Greek, although many artists used Greek stories with Roman names, such as Burne-Jones’ ‘Pygmalion’ series. Although the story was Greek, he names Aphrodite ‘Venus’ to fit in with the expectations of the time.
Orpheus was a popular choice for painting, although some of the best paintings of him are the hardest to track down. Orpheus was the son of Morpheus, and the best lute player in Greece. He fell in love with a young girl named Eurydice, but she was chased by a satyr one day and fatally stepped on a snake. Orpheus travelled down to Hades to rescue her, but Hades was unwilling to let her go. Orpheus played the lute until Persephone took pity on him and persuaded Hades to let him take Eurydice back. Hades agreed but added the condition that Orpheus couldn’t look back at her until they were clear of the underworld. Orpheus was almost at the exit when he couldn’t control himself any longer and looked back, and so Eurydice returned to Hades. Orpheus, beside himself with misery, refused to ever play his music again and was killed by the wild women of Thrace, who removed his head and threw it into the river Styx.
One of the most famous mythological anti-heroes is probably Lancelot, from the Arthurian legends. Although this view depends on the context of the story, he has many traits that make him an ideal anti-hero. He seduced King Arthur’s wife Guinevere and, while he occasionally saved her, he could hardly be considered a ‘best friend’. But he was also responsible for many feats of bravery and in some ways could be considered the main hero, since Arthur seemed to not do a lot.
And many Manga stories almost seem to create new legends, as some stories can be astounding or strange enough to stick in one’s memory. Certainly one of the best examples is Ranma Half, the story of a boy who went with his father to the site of some ancient Chinese springs to practise his martial arts. A good kick from the son landed the father, Genma, in one of the springs. For a moment nothing stirred - then a giant panda leapt out of the spring and began to attack the surprised boy, Ranma. A finishing blow from the panda threw Ranma into another spring, where he discovered he had turned into a girl... A plot like this is certainly not easily forgotten, and it is easy to see why Rumiko Takahashi is such a popular artist - her stories have enough of the strangeness of life in them to be viewed as almost real.
Only Burne-Jones uses Medusa in his Pre-Raphaelite work - but she is also fascinating. She was once a beautiful maiden, and her hair was her pride and joy. But Athena was jealous of her, and Medusa dared to flaunt her beauty in front of the enraged goddess. In a fit of pique, Athena turned Medusa’s hair into a nest of snakes and cursed her, so that any man who saw her face would be instantly turned to stone. She later, with the help of Hermes, employed Perseus to kill Medusa while she was sleeping, using a highly-polished shield she gave him to see her in, so he would not be petrified by her visage. He took the head and used it to freeze Atlas, the giant who held up the heavens, then gave the head to Athena, who set it into her aegis.

Old Mythologies

Fantasy and mythology have always been popular choices for artists, but the Pre-Raphaelites are the best known of the more modern artists. They have been responsible for painting subjects ranging from intricate landscapes, to Arthurian and Greek legends, to Christian paintings and portraits.
Probably the best-recognised artist of the Pre-Raphaelite era is Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones, who was born in Birmingham on the 28th of August 1833. This man - who later adjusted his name to Burne-Jones to fit in with the fashions of the time - is one of the most famous artists of the age, and one of the main artists of mythological subjects. His most famous paintings are mostly famous legends in themselves. His Perseus cycle depicts, somewhat unsurprisingly, the young Greek hero Perseus, who slew the Medusa and rescued the princess Andromeda from the sea monster. Burne-Jones depicts him as a slender-looking young man with lightly curling brown hair, wearing light blue armour. Although Perseus is the hero in the legend and the paintings, he doesn’t look hero material in the way he is painted, and he is the subject of four finished paintings and four more almost cartoonish sketches - all part of the Perseus Cycle. Of the four finished paintings, I feel that ‘The Baleful Head’ expresses the story best. It shows Perseus with Andromeda, holding the head above a well. Andromeda is looking into the well - so she will not be turned to stone by the visage of Medusa, and Perseus is looking at her face. The first thing that strikes the viewer is not the main picture of Perseus holding the head and Andromeda’s hand, but the reflection in the well. The wonder in Andromeda’s face is apparent, and the skill with which the reflection is painted is wonderful. The next thing that struck me is the detail in the folds of Andromeda’s robe. Compared to the cloth tied around Perseus’ waist, the robe folds look surprisingly solid and three-dimensional. In a way, it would appear that Burne-Jones lost interest in the robe around Perseus, as it looks very two-dimensional in places, most notably in the bunched section at his side. In the picture, this is the part that bears the most resemblance to a Manga picture. The other thing that struck me is that Andromeda’s hair does not seem to move in accordance with the way she is holding her head. Since she is looking down, her hair should emulate the fact and be hanging over her face, but it does not do so and her fringe remains remarkably well-stuck to her face. This could be for two reasons - one might be that Burne-Jones, having already drawn the outline of the model, did not have anything to work from in relation to the hair, or maybe that he did not possess the technical ability to paint hanging hair in a reflection.
The picture that emphasises Perseus’ ‘bishounen status’ (see ‘Comparisons Between Pre-Raphaelite themes and Manga’) is actually in ‘The Rock of Doom’. In this picture, both he and Andromeda are present - Andromeda is chained to the aforementioned rock and Perseus is looking round it at her, one hand on the rock, holding his helmet in the other. The first thing that I noticed in this picture is that Perseus seems to almost be as thin as Andromeda is, although he is slightly broader in the chest. While his feet are larger than hers, they are much the same shape, with long delicate toes. Interestingly, both characters’ feet are in the same position, leading the viewer to think that Burne-Jones only had one model for both sets of feet. While Perseus’ legs are thicker and stronger, his arms are as thin and delicate as Andromeda’s. The background looks very two-dimensional also, so I assume that Burne-Jones must have been working from his imagination and popular cultural ideals of what Greece must have looked like then.
Another painting that could be considered part of the ‘Perseus Cycle’ is ‘Danae and the Brazen Tower’. This painting shows Perseus’ mother looking hesitantly at a tower being built to house her, since her father was told by the Oracle that his daughter would bear a child who would kill him. She bears a striking resemblance to Andromeda, leading me to think that both characters were modelled by the same woman. Again, while the foreground looks incredibly solid, the background, while incredibly detailed, seems more of a backdrop than an actual event, giving it a rather cartoony, Manga feel.

Modern Manga

Even today, Manga can be used to convey legends of old. In particular it seems Shoujo Manga is used to tell stories such as ‘Anada and Devadetta’ by Kao Yung, a romanticised Manga of an old Buddhist legend. Characters can also be named after legendary characters too, such as Nataku. Nataku is an ancient Chinese god, but the name has been used in Manga such as X/1999 by C.L.A.M.P., where the ‘Nataku’ in question was a genetically created being, and also in Gundam Wing, where ‘Nataku’ was Chang Wufei’s pet name for his Shenlong Gundam.
Pseudo-Manga - American comics - can also be based on old legends. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books talk of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams and a famous Greek god. In addition to Morpheus, Gaiman has also used Death, Calliope and Cain - the latter taken from the Old Testament of the Bible. This shows that in some cases the artist/writer may not be averse to mixing and combining legends and Gods from two or more religions to achieve the effect they desire.
Christianity is an ever-popular religion to draw selective items from, and in particular, angels are the most commonly-taken items. Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamato’s Neon Genesis Evangelion has the centrepoint of the earth being attacked by so-called ‘Angels’, beings that are supposedly the embodiment of God’s wrath with post-apocalyptic (in this case, named as the ‘Second Impact’) mankind.
C.L.A.M.P.’s X/1999 is one of the most skilful blends of Christianity and traditional legend I have seen. The hero, Kamui Shiro, is sometimes shown with angelic wings, and sometimes with demon wings, depending on how he is depicted. As I understand it, when he is portrayed as a ‘Chi no Ryu’ he is shown with large white wings, and as a ‘Ten no Ryu’, with immense black wings most commonly associated with demonkind. Even the name itself, ‘Kamui’, has two meanings: ‘the one who hunts the power of God’ or ‘the one who has the authority of God’. The first three or four Manga in the series are about 16-year-old Kamui’s fateful decision - to become a saviour of mankind, or a destroyer. His surname could lead to two conclusions until the story becomes clearer: as ‘Shiro’ means ‘White’, it could mean either he become a white-winged Chi no Ryu, or he joins with the ‘white’ forces and save the earth. This ambiguousness is a main part of the Manga, leading the reader to never quite know what will happen next. This is also the Manga that refers to Nataku, the soulless Chinese god/warrior. They use many Japanese words to emphasise the main points. They especially emphasise the special relationship between Kamui and his childhood best friend, Fuma, as they are futagobashi, so whatever Kamui chooses to become, Fuma is drawn to being on the opposing side. This is another common theme in Manga - when one character chooses to become one thing, sometimes his/her childhood best friend has to turn against them and become the anti-hero.
Buddhism is also a very popular source of inspiration, as one would expect from a country where that is the dominant religion. But sometimes, rather than names, themes are taken. Even though X/1999’s Nataku was named after a Chinese god, the three petals on his forehead are to symbolise the lotus flower - which means a lot to the Buddhist. It is considered to be a symbol of purity and innocence and in Buddhist mythology was the first flower to bloom at the beginning of the world. This has a peculiar meaning to the character of ‘Nataku’ - who, being the genetically created entity ‘he’ is, has no feelings or emotions. This means that in a strange way, he is pure and innocent, because he kills for no reason other than the fact it is all he was created to do. He does not understand any other way.

Comparisons Between Pre-Raphaelite themes and Manga

Many characters in both Pre-Raphaelite art and Manga stories follow a set ideal, and the images used to depict a character can tell a story all by themselves.

The Hero:

The hero is usually the ‘bishounen’5 type - normally slender with delicate facial features - and the bishounen is usually the main character. Frequently they tend to follow a set path or ‘fate’ of some kind: X/1999’s Kamui Shiro was destined to save or destroy mankind; Perseus in Burne-Jones’ ‘Perseus Cycle’ was predestined to kill his own grandfather; and a common theme in a lot of Shoujo Manga is the man who has to kill the demon-girl, but loves her too much to actually do it. In both Manga and Pre-Raphaelitism, the bishounen is almost feminine-looking, sometimes with wide eyes, and on average they are pale and ethereal. Burne-Jones’ ‘Day and Night’ painting shows a prime example of the bishounen - Day himself is pale, has his head tilted back a little, his mouth open slightly, gripping the side of the frame. He gives an impression of vulnerability, the idea of the fragility of daylight itself. This is, I suspect, to around feelings of tenderness for the hero and, to a lesser extent, to create a feeling of maternal love in the female viewers. They are intended to look as though they need protecting. Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of these ‘beauties’ - he looks pale and weak with long fingers and slim arms, legs and waist, and is part of a new genre of heroes that do not rely on physical strength, because they have very little of it. This is why so many bishounen in Shoujo Manga are so delicate - they do not need force and strength because they have some kind of psychokinetic or telepathic power. Perseus looked quite thin and pretty in Burne-Jones’ pictures because he had divine help and items to ensure that he didn’t need to charge into the situation waving his sword over his head and yelling a war cry. But at the same time he was evidently possessed of some physical ability since he killed the sea monster that was threatening Andromeda, and this too is shown in the way that he is portrayed.
Some heroes do not even have to be human. Rumiko Takahashi’s hero in ‘Inu-Yasha - A Feudal Fairytale’ is a demon for most of the time, and is only human on a full moon - a twist on the werewolf idea. He is also rather attractive in a rugged sort of way, and looks slightly unreal since he has ‘horns’.
And some heroes don’t even have to stay male for very long. Ranma, the protagonist of Ranma Half, fell into a Chinese spring (‘The Spring of Drowned Girl’) and when he gets doused in cold water he turns into a girl. His fiancee isn’t very impressed with this and regularly calls him a pervert.

The Heroine:

The heroine is usually a ‘bishoujo’ . It seems to be a prerequisite for the bishoujo to look pure and virginal. X/1999’s Kotori Monou is a prime example of this: her hair is blonde-brown and softly curling, her eyes are wide and innocent and she gives the impression of cute vulnerability. Her older brother Fuma takes great care of her, and men who see her want to protect her. As a footballer in the background says in the Manga: “‘Fragile beauties’ are rare these days. They’re an endangered species.” He evidently doesn’t read a lot of Shoujo Manga. The heroine, Souko, in Chie Shinohara’s ‘Ao no Fuuin’8 looks rather like Kotori, but in a different context. She was an ‘Oni9 Queen’ in a past life, and is to be killed by a demon-hunter (one of the aforementioned ‘bishounen’) that replaced one of her classmates who tried to rape her. But she falls in love with him, and he with her, and all manner of complications ensue. Another fragile beauty was Galatea in Burne-Jones’ ‘Pygmalion and the Image’ series. Galatea was a statue who the sculptor, Pygmalion, fell in love with. The statue was a representation of the goddess Aphrodite, and she, touched by his devotion to the likeness of her, turned the statue into a woman for the lonely creator. Galatea was a rather different style of beauty compared to the average Pre-Raphaelite definition - most of the women painted were pale-skinned but brown haired, rather than the light blonde of Manga-style work.
The look of Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion is another fairly common style of ‘bishoujo’ heroine. Although Ayanami could count as an ‘anti-heroine’ in many respects - being as she is the one to bring about the end of the world - she is still very much an important central character of the story, and is only revealed as being the anti-heroine towards the end of the series. With her bob-cut pale lavender hair and red eyes she looks very unreal and distant, but beautiful in an ethereal, untouchable way. But Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Proserpine’ was a very different kind of untouchable heroine. Rather than her being a delicate and fragile type, she looked more aloof and indifferent, almost to the point of glaring suspiciously at the painter. She bore a certain resemblance to Akane Tendou, the rather violent heroine of Ranma Half - neither of them look particularly delicate, although Proserpine certainly looked more feminine than Akane does.

The Anti-Hero:

These are rather less seen in fine art than in Manga, although some do exist. probably one of the most famous groups of anti-heroes is in the X/1999 Manga, where the entire Chi no Ryu could be considered as such. But the character most commonly considered to be the anti-hero is Fuma, who was mentioned in a previous chapter. Even though this seventeen-year-old was once the main character’s best friend, his view of his friend and the world was warped by the leader of the Chi no Ryu and he slowly went insane, until he was killed at the end in the final battle.
Another wonderful anti-hero was Ryouga in Ranma Half. He was continually trying to stop Ranma falling in love with the heroine, Akane, because he was in love with her himself, although his grudge against Ranma went as far back as their childhood together. The big downside to his plans was that he turned into a pig when drenched with cold water.

Angelic Beings:

These differ depending on the artist, style and genre. In Yoshiyuki Sadamato’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Angels are huge, monstrous beings sent, supposedly, by God to exact His wrath upon Mankind. In a way, these beings link to the Monsters of art, but yet are still named as Angels. X/1999 also subverts the genre a little: the Ten no Ryu have demon wings, while the Chi no Ryu have the large white feathered wings associated with divine intervention. yet the Chi no Ryu want to destroy Mankind for the planet’s good. The Chi no Ryu think of themselves as almost being the Guardian Angels of the planet, but go against most of Christianity’s New Testament theology by trying to destroy Man. In a sense, Manga Angels live in the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as being much crueller to His creations.
Mostly, the Angels in Pre-Raphaelite work are associated with Christianity, such as Burne-Jones’ ‘The Annunciation’, and Arthur Hughes and Edward Reginald Frampton’s works of the same name. Arthur Hughes work seems to be different from the others though, as his Angel’s wings do not have individual feathers, but seem to be more made of gold and light. Yet some artists used wings on gods and ‘wannabe’ gods, such as John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s ‘Love and the Maiden’ and Herbert James Draper’s ‘Lament for Icarus’. Icarus is a famous mythological character, yet is one who seems to be rarely painted. Icarus was the son of Daedalus, who was imprisoned by King Minos after creating the labyrinth for the Minotaur. They both fashioned wings of feathers and wax to escape from their prison but Icarus did not heed his fathers words and flew too close to the sun. The wax that held his wings together melted and his plummeted to his death in the Icarian Sea. Another actual Angelic being appears in Burne-Jones’ picture ‘The Star of Bethlehem’, standing by one of the wise men, holding a ball of light in both hands. Burne-Jones’ Angel’s wings were always incredibly ornate, looking more like stained-glass than actual paintwork, which shows his love of actually working with stained-glass - although this work is not as familiar to the casual museum-goer as his paintings.


Monsters can take many forms in both Manga and fine art. They can be of the rather gruesome kind, or the horrifying kind - such as Burne-Jones’ Medusa in the ‘Perseus Cycle’, best shown in the picture ‘The Baleful Head’ - or they can be in the least-suspected form, the anti-hero.
Medusa is certainly famous - people remember the legend even if they can’t recall the paintings. She is a fascinating subject - the woman with snakes for hair is hardly easily forgotten, and the legend behind it is extraordinary to say the least. Burne-Jones doesn’t show her as a hideous beast, more as a fairly pretty woman who just happened to have snakes for hair and a predilection for killing people, which is what she really was (see ‘Legends’).


Gods are a rather common part of Pre-Raphaelite art, and many of the more famous paintings tend to centre on the Greek goddess Aphrodite, also sometimes known as her Roman counterpart Venus. One of the most fascinating pieces with Aphrodite in is ‘The Judgement of Paris’ by George Frederick Watts. The depiction of the three goddesses is not in the Pre-Raphaelite style most commonly associated with Burne-Jones - it seems quite scruffy in a way - but it is as easily identifiable as any other Pre-Raphaelite painting, and looks obviously like it is from that timeframe. Aphrodite is the only goddess looking at the painter - evidently supposed to be Paris - while the other two have their backs turned, but all three goddesses - Aphrodite, Athena and Hera - are there. It seems that the painting might be set after Paris has made his choice of the most beautiful goddess since, in the legend, he picked Aphrodite over the others because she promised him the most beautiful woman in the world if he chose her. She favours the viewer by looking at them, while the other goddesses are looking away in disgust.


Old legends are, in a sense, rarely used any more. Christianity is the dominant world religion, but people still like to think of the old myths, calling them stories and telling them children, albeit with the more gruesome and frightening parts edited out. This is how artists both in the nineteenth century and now like to think of them, and so parts of them are regularly plundered so good stories can be made. It doesn’t matter where the religion came from or whom it is taking the selective parts, they make a good addition to any tale. But many of the sources are different. I previously thought that many sources of both Manga and Pre-Raphaelite work shared many of the same beginnings, but I was wrong. Japanese and Chinese Manga artists are more like to borrow from Chinese, Japanese and Buddhist mythology than they are from Greek, German and Roman, whereas the Pre-Raphaelites were the total opposite. But they are both totally valid forms of art to study, and they do have a lot of similarities. The way the heroes and heroines were created and portrayed is similar in both styles, and the same goes for things like gods and monsters. The research into the varying legends has made me more aware of both the way different cultures view their histories and fables and the way they work, and this is something that I will definitely be continuing to research into. The links between Pre-Raphaelites, Manga artists, and the later Art Nouveau movement, while not as strong as I thought they were, are also plain to see and would merit further investigation. I can see that they each show excellence in different fields and they both have a few things in common that makes the comparative study of them a truly fascinating thing. I shall certainly be looking more deeply into them in my own time.
I feel that I have gained a lot from this study but I know that there is a lot more I could have done. But on the whole I am proud of my research and am definitely planning to work further on this. I am aware that this personal study seems to have turned into ‘Compare both Manga and Burne-Jones’ but it would seem that he was the most prolific of the Pre-Raphaelites, especially when it comes to Greek and Roman legends. I think I should have performed greater research into the other artists, but I am still pleased with the level of research I have conducted into studying Burne-Jones.