Why do you think women and girls are too stupid to tell reality from fantasy?
Why would you think –
That’s the only thing I can assume from this blog!
Apparently my continued pursuit of this topic, along with my lack of more positive coverage of shoujo, has given some people the deeply mistaken impression that I am suspicious or disdainful of it and that I only read shoujo manga with this aspect in mind. In retrospect, I can see where that impression comes from. This has become something of a passion project for me. It’s a topic I consider deeply important, so it’s only natural that I give it a lot of focus. However, because of a number of factors, I haven’t written as much as I wanted to on other, more positive aspects of the demographic. In order to combat this perception, I’m going to include in these posts short essays about shoujo manga and my relationship with it that I hope will clarify things.
In the months since I’ve started watching it, My Hero Academia has quickly become my favorite battle shonen series. It’s not particularly mold-breaking; it uses the same genre tropes as most other series of its ilk. Its main strength is that it brings the genre’s strengths to the forefront, with a supremely likable ensemble cast and exciting battles, while leaving behind many of the genre’s typical weaknesses. One of battle shonen’s greatest struggles has long been how to incorporate its female characters, and My Hero Academia handles the situation with rare grace and aplomb. However, no work of art is free of biases, and while My Hero Academia avoids many issues associated with the genre, there are still many sexist biases deeply encoded in the series.
The response to my “Romance and Abuse in Shoujo” panel has been consistently overwhelming. The transcripts from my Sakura Con 2016 get new pageviews every day, and every time I present it, I get people approaching me afterward telling me how meaningful they found it. I’m incredibly proud to have put together something that touches people’s lives and resonates with their experiences so strongly.
Many of the series I used in my presentation are older, because those were the ones that made me take notice of this issue years ago. However, I’m not sure how relevant this is to current audiences – how many people sitting and listening are familiar with Boys Over Flowers or Hot Gimmick? New volumes of shoujo manga come out every week, thanks to the hardworking localizers at companies like Viz, Seven Seas, and many others. I curate my reading list pretty carefully, so for years I’ve made a point of looking for series with healthy relationships, or series that are aware of the abusive dynamics they contain. Starting work on this project forced me to engage with series I actively avoided, but what about the ones I just never heard of?
So I started wondering, how do the numbers break down? How many of the series that make it to US shores really do romanticize abuse, and how many don’t? In search of these answers, I’ve started a new side project: “Abusive Relationships in Shoujo by the Numbers.”
Over the past few days, I’ve been updating the “Recommendations” page with movies and shows I’ve watched in the past few months. These are the new entries:
Twenty-seven-year-old Taeko Okajima dreams of the countryside. Despite being born and raised in Tokyo, she has always longed for a small hometown to return to like her classmates’ families. Now, she’s taking a trip to Yamagata to help with the safflower harvest and experience rural life for herself. While on the train, she begins to remember her childhood, and the memories continue flow as she settles into her temporary home.
For many years, Only Yesterday sat in licensing hell, held by a Disney that was mainly interested in the marketability of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantastical, family-friendly worlds while Isao Takahata’s more grounded stories remained in limbo. Now GKids possesses the license, and they have thankfully put in the effort to bring these movies the attention they deserve, including dubs and theatrical releases. Only Yesterday depicts a young woman who feels alienated and dissatisfied with city life, and as the movie examines her adolescence, it becomes clear that she has never truly felt at home. Taeko felt misunderstood by her sisters and stifled by her loving but overly stern father. The bumps and bruises of adolescence, both physical and psychological, are depicted with a sort of softness that doesn’t reduce them but makes them feel more relatable as Taeko reflects on the experiences that made her the woman she is today. Country life is quite romanticized when compared to the disconnect Taeko feels with her city origins, but viewed as a personal journey rather than an indictment of urban lifestyles, it makes for a beautiful, satisfying story.
It’s common wisdom that there’s never been a better time to be an anime fan. More anime than you could watch in a lifetime is legally available streaming online for free; for only a small monthly subscription, you can access another lifetime’s worth only hours after it airs in Japan. Gone are the days of paying $30 for a two-episode VHS, of gathering around a fuzzy fansub VHS at anime club, of tolerating nonsensical edits and low-quality dubbing to watch a show on TV. For people who have been into the hobby for fifteen years or more, it’s an age of miracles.
But if you’re a manga fan? Not so much.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still much better than it used to be – manga volumes are inexpensive and plentiful, with a wide variety of series being released. However, compared to the land of milk and honey that anime fans inhabit, it can feel a bit frustrating. Many fans end up turning to scanlations, scanned versions of manga volumes available for free online, using either amateur translations or sometimes outright pirating the official English releases. It’s not hard to see why this is popular or commonplace – manga is almost never free and convenient the way anime is, and fans weaned on online streaming are used to instant gratification. Many fans don’t even realize that these sites are illegal, since they’re often among the first results when you plug a title into a search engine.
There’s no denying it: isekai is the genre of the moment in Japanese nerd culture. The loanword identifying the genre literally means “different world”, and it features a protagonist from our own world suddenly finding themselves trapped in an alternate world, usually one dominated by Western fantasy tropes. The trend reached the US in the early 2010’s with Sword Art Online, with its protagonist Kirito trapped in an MMORPG. Isekai are generally adaptation of light novels, where they are so prominent that last summer, a short story contest banned entries featuring alternate worlds. Like most light novel anime, they’re usually aimed at young men already immersed in the genre, and their protagonists tend to have a degree of self-awareness about their situation.
Despite their recent surge of popularity, isekai series have been around for quite a while. Recently, I stumbled on an article that claimed that the genre barely existed until a 1983 children’s show called Manga Aesop Monogatari and the anime adaptation of Inuyasha, which began in the year 2000. This article is, to put it bluntly, dead wrong. One of the earliest examples of the genre is Crest of the Royal Family, a 1976 shoujo manga that is still running to this day. Inuyasha may have been a breakout hit, but isekai anime and manga thrived during the 90’s. US fans didn’t have a name for it at the time – we generally referred to it as “‘trapped in another world’ anime”. The main difference between isekai then and isekai now is the intended audience – 25 years ago, it was a staple of the shoujo demographic, rather than today’s escapist playgrounds for young men. Ordinary young women were pulled into alternate worlds where attractive young men told them they had a special destiny to fulfill. They went on grand adventures and usually – though not always – fell in love along the way.
Summary: Mashiro and Takagi have decided to devote their energies toward a mainstream battle manga, despite their editor advising them against it. Miyoshi continues to insinuate herself between the two as her relationship with Takagi deepens. Meanwhile, Miho starts to see some modest success, but at what cost?
Content Warnings: Lots of jokes about Miyoshi’s big boobs, but not much otherwise.
Remember when I said I liked Miyoshi a lot? And that I was gearing up for her downfall? Well, turns out it took a lot less time than I thought!
The third volume of Bakuman opens with Mashiro and Takagi brainstorming a new concept for their mainstream battle manga they’ve decided to make. Miyoshi remarks on their work ethic, “You guys really are something… How can you be so positive about your chasing your dream?” She tells them about how despite her success at competitive martial arts, she quit in middle school when she discovered how many people were better than her. It’s a relatable enough concept, feeling discouraged and quitting because you feel like you’ll never be the best.
When I lived in Japan, I rarely bought clothing. At 5’4” and 140 pounds, I was on the smaller side of average for an American woman, but finding clothes that fit, let alone flattered, my hips or shoulders was a chore to find at best and a self-esteem-destroying battle at worst. The only jacket I bought there is size XL and is loose everywhere but the shoulders. The story was the same for most of my foreign female coworkers, and we generally did all our clothes shopping on visits to our home countries. It was frustrating, but it was just one of those things you have to learn to deal with when living in a foreign country.
As an American feminist, body positivity and the struggle for diverse bodies to be respected and represented in the media is a huge issue. However, when I’m watching anime, it’s probably one of the things I pay the least attention to when considering the show’s representation of women. I prioritize the themes and roles they play within the story, and whether they reinforce gender stereotypes or break away from them. Physical appearance is rarely something I concern myself with except for how it relates to those things.
Summary: As Takagi and Moritaka prepare to graduate middle school, they begin to dip their toes into the world of Weekly Shonen Jump by submitting one-shot manga to the anthology. Meanwhile, Moritaka’s romance with Miho gently coasts along as their feelings grow, and Takagi gets some attention of his own from the ladies…
Content Warnings: Despite the virulent sexism, things are pretty mild
A lot of stuff regarding Takagi and Moritaka’s manga getting published at Shounen Jump happened in this volume of Bakuman, but I’m not going to go much into that because it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a vaguely interesting look at how the sausage gets made, bogged down by the editorial staff fawning over the main duo. No, I continue to be interested solely in Bakuman’s treatment of women, which, though it isn’t as severe as the first volume, is still quite cringeworthy.
Summary: Moritaka Mashiro likes to draw, but it’s not what he considers his defining trait. After his uncle, a formerly-popular mangaka, died of overwork trying to replicate his own success, Moritaka never really considered art a serious endeavor. One thing he does take seriously, however, is his crush on his cute classmate Miho Azuki. When the smartest boy in his class, Akito Takagi, finds a sketch Moritaka drew of Azuki, he suggests they team up to create manga together. Moritaka has misgivings at first – trying to break into the field is too big a gamble – but before he knows it, the two grow determined to get their manga into the popular Jump magazine.
Content warnings: a whole lot of sexism, but nothing worse than that
Would I recommend it: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no
Note: I apologize for the quality of the images – I took pictures of the book using my phone
I’ll be honest here – I did not go into Bakuman in good faith. I started it knowing full well about Ohba and Obata’s disdain for women. The series is well-loved and critically acclaimed enough that I’m sure that there’s plenty to like about it, but since I am specifically taking aim at the parts that frustrate and anger me, I’m pretty much blind to those elements. No, I read Bakuman expecting to hate it and, shockingly, was correct.
There’s a lot of ways for media to be sexist. Objectification and male gaze are constant sources of irritation even in otherwise good series; and with some series it’s as simple as forgetting women exist beyond decorations and failing to give them a role to play in the story. I wouldn’t describe any of these as actively misogynist so much as thoughtless adherence to pre-established tropes and expectations. That’s what makes it frustrating that it’s as prevalent as it is. That also has the side effect of making it shocking to come across a series that doesn’t just ignore or marginalize women, but treats them with active scorn. That’s why when I read the first volume of Bakuman, by the same writer/artist team as Death Note, I was taken aback by its naked misogyny.