Sunday, June 9, 2013

Genderifying Manga : Shōnen and Shōjo Yokai

To modern manga readers it comes as no surprise that manga is heavily designated by gender and age. You have shōnen and seinen for males and shōjo and josei for women. Each genre has specific narrative boundaries and tones that are heavily weaved into each title and make it easier for consumers to gravitate toward the magazines that hold what they want.

The main reason why I have started thinking about this idea was that lately, I have been interested in reading manga that depict Japanese traditional culture, particularly yokai, Japanese traditional monsters and spirits. After I read Black Bird, I really noticed something in the way that all the yokai were drawn by Sakurakoji in comparison to the yokai that I read about in Kekkaishi.

What follows is a quick foray into my thoughts on not only yokai manga, but how manga has been slowly breaking out of the genderification that it has, almost willingly, put itself into.


Historically, manga was not heavily reliant on what we would consider gender distinctions today. 

Depending on who you talk to, manga has two main historical beginnings: as an art form that has evolved from different aspects of traditional Japanese culture or as direct result to the opening of the country by Perry and his Black Ships in 1853 and then further connection to political cartooning and then later Disney. While it is dangerous to try and pin any type of "true beginning" to an art form, we can see that Japanese manga could have a much older historical background than would be originally anticipated.

As the manga medium started to gain popularity in Japan pre WWII and then further exploded afterward, there were no gender designations. Plot lines were made by the artist whose work was rented from shops as cheap entertainment for the masses. Girls and boys both checked out the same material, but there was a much heavier consumption of these rented "red books" by boys. Yet there would be a strong shift in these designations. It is very easy to point to the mangaka that birthed the shōjo manga genre: Tezuka Osamu. The publication of Ribon no Kishi, or Princess Knight, in 1953 is where all scholars mark the beginning of the shōjo genre in manga. In Ribon no Kishi, Princess Sapphire has been born with two souls; one male and one female. Sapphire is a strong fighter and has the capability to be a strong knight for her country. Yet she must choose between have a male soul; which would allow her to continue to be strong, or she has to choose to have a female soul and be happy with her prince love interest. Sapphire picks the female soul in the end and lives happily ever after with her prince, but loses the ability to be a knight.

From the onset of the genre, we can see that there has already been a type of genderification of the medium within the first important shōjo title published. Even though Osamu starts Sapphire as having the ability to be a strong and capable knight, she must constantly struggle with her feminine side and cannot have both. As there is no option for her to have both a figurative or literal masculine and feminine side. 

After Osamu's Ribon no Kishi, shōjo manga followed in his footsteps in his overtly Disney influenced large eye style and ambiguity of characters. He later went on and wrote well over 700 manga titles all ranging from Shin Takarajima, or New Treasure Island, to Tetsuwan no Atom!, Atom. The large sparkly eyes were further indoctrinated into shōjo manga through the 24 Group who solidified the style through The Rose of Versailles or others in the 70's. This is also when yaoi manga started being published with Thomas's Heart and Song of Wind and Trees in 1974 and 1976. This brings in a much more interesting view of genderification because these erotic boys love romances are written and read by straight women and usually involve one of the male protagonists acting and having the personality of a overly cute Japanese girl. 

In Japan, the way that boys and girls are raised are very different. At early ages, children are usually distinguished by their genders. Little girls are covered in pink and taught how to be feminine by their overly feminine moms. The way that males speak to each other is different from how girls speak in overly high pitched voices with cute endings to further indicate how girly or masculine they are. When foreigners first start learning Japanese, they are usually taught the word of "I" is watashi. This is a gender neutral pronoun, yet no men really use it. Boys tend to use boku or ore while overly feminine girls use the term atashi. A person can learn things about your personality based on how you refer to yourself in conversation.

With this understanding, it is unsurprising that manga is heavily designated by gender, as most of the rest of Japanese life is. I wrote an earlier post about Eyeshiled 21 and labeled how very male orientated the series was. For those who haven't read or watched the manga or anime, the plot is that a young man, who is not very remarkable, has a talent for running and is brought onto the struggling American football team. Hilarity and strangeness ensue in this sports battle manga. There was only one female protagonist for female readers to identify with and while we Westerns are used to being open to women having interest in football and those women would be able to appreciate a plot based on this story, Japanese women would be less open to it. While it is very true that female readers can read and enjoy shōnen manga, myself being an obvious example, there is a difference between having girls be interested in the plot and having a plot that openly aims at a female readership. One of the editors in Bakuman talks about this with Saiko and Shujin. 

Now, the main reason why I have started this post was because in the last couple months, I have been heavily reading manga that features yokai, or Japanese traditional demons and monsters. I happen to really appreciate learning about traditional ghosts and monsters, so I have read a couple major ones in the last couple of months. Particularly, Black Bird, Kekkaishi, Nurarihyon no Mago, and Kamisama Hajimemashita. One of the major things I noticed between each series was the stylized depictions of yokai communities. 

Of course, the drawing style of manga changes depending on the individual mangaka, but there are parts of depiction that transcend that. For example, in both Black Bird and Nurarihyon no Mago the karasu tengu, these are crow creatures, are heavily apart of the plot. In Black Bird, Kou and all his retainers are all beautiful men and women. They are never shown in actual true crow form. When they transform, they all get longer hair, sprout wings, and then wear a face mask that has the slight appearance of a bird beek. When an individual, like Kou's older brother, was shown to be ugly it was showcased through their actions and personality, not through any physical drawing. Being as Black Bird is a shōjo manga, it makes sense that there is more of an emphasis on their physical beauty versus having a beautiful personality.

Yet in Nurarihyon no Mago, the karasu tengu are a depicted with much more complexity. The tengu who have a human form that is physically attractive, but there is more variety of personality types and motivations. Kekkaishi was the same way. There was never any fear to show the brutality and harshness of the yokai in these manga, whereas in Black Bird and Kamisama Hajimemashita, the yokai are much flatter in comparison.

The shōnen titles take much more time and effort to establish each individual yokai and they're also much more willing to further establish the true differentiation between the human world and the yokai world. They are focused on how "cool" the characters are and how cunning they can be for their appeal to the readers. A yokai can achieve a fan following based on their actions as well as their drawing styles. How cunning a yokai is further layered with their fighting skill and how much of a match they are to the main heroes, as they are also always battle plot driven. Kekkaishi and Nurarihyon both established the heroes in connection to the yokai that they were fighting, be in physically or politically. The yokai are also heavily established in their own communities that showcase a diversity and distinction from other yokai and from each other. In Nurarihyon, the tanuki clan in Shikoku is established away from humans entirely as well as having their own individual differentiations.

By contrast, the shōjo titles are much quicker to establish the yokai within already understood human communities and make them fully humanoid. It seems that by making the yokai almost fully humanoid during the length of the plot, that the mangaka and editors are assuming that females cannot identify themselves with yokai while they are in their natural form. 

This argument could continue as to point out the next step in reasoning is that Japanese women are more attracted to the physical appearance of the characters over their circumstances. As a Western, just the possibility of continuing that line of argument infuriates me. I know that women can and are attracted to the more complexly layered and detailed fantasy novels and worlds like the hugely popular Game of Thrones. That being said, I have met numerous women my age and younger who would prove that continuation correct.

Really, what I find interesting is how much further the genderification and designations the manga world created for itself and is now slowly fading in certain circumstances. Particularly in the rise of female mangaka who have produced hit manga. The four major ones that I can think of at the moment are Arakawa Hiromu, Tanabe Yellow, Takahashi Rumiko and Katou Kazue. These four women have sold millions of copies of their respective manga and have showcased that women can cross the gender boundaries in the manga world and write manga that appeals to both male and female readers.

What the yokai manga really hit home on is the constant fight between modernity and advancement of society and the loss of traditions and a sense of faith. I've talked about this idea in the Kekkaishi post, but it deserves more emphasis. Japan has such a rich and deep cultural history to use in media and entertainment. Indeed, historical dramas and manga are very popular in Japan that they don't always have to be Japanese histories. Recently Korean dramas, which also heavily feature historical themes, are dubbed into Japanese and aired on Japanese networks.

Japanese manga started out as a medium that was not distinguished nor concerned with gender, yet after Ribon no Kishi was published and then the 24 Group indoctrinated the modern shōjo style, there was a clear genderification of plot lines and the manga industry further feed that change with publishing manga magazines aimed at not only different genders, but different ages within those genders. The developed and indoctorniated gender specific plots and styles have been continually consumed and recycled by readers and mangaka. Yet, we can see that there is a slowly graying and blurring of those lines in not only the manga and mangaka, but the readers who consume them.

Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments! 

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