The following is a paper I presented at Le manga, 60 ans après..., Paris, March 15, 2008. A Quicktime version (218.3 MB, 800 x 600 pixels) of the accompanying Keynote presentation, including my dreadful reading of the paper (recorded later, in the privacy of my apartment), can be viewed here.
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The Multi-Faceted Universe of Shōjo Manga
“I’ve been thinking for nearly six months.
“Thinking about my life and death,
“And about a friend...”
“That morning, Thomas Werner deposited a single letter at the post office.
“Spring was close at hand.
“The snow made a watery sound and melted beneath his shoes.
Page two. A boy stands atop a crosswalk, looking down at the tracks below. A train approaches, its whistle blowing. The boy pauses, a melancholy expression on his face. He pushes against the steel, widening a gap where the fence has been torn by accident or mischief. His face is implacable as he leaps into the gap.
Page three. The boy falls gracefully, like just another snowflake. The tracks rush up towards him. He opens his mouth. He shouts a name. “JULI!”
Pages four and five. An older man stands with a young boy in a rolling, flowered field, pointing to the horizon with his cane. The face of the boy who’s death we just witnessed fills half the sky, looking far off in the opposite direction. In the other half of the sky hang these words, whose author and origin the reader will not learn until much later.
I’ve been thinking for nearly six months.
Thinking about my life and death,
And about a friend.
I’m well aware that I am but an adolescent child.
And so I know that this boyhood love
Will be flung against
Some sexless, unknown, transparent something.
This is not some simple gamble.
And the problem is not that I loved him.
He must love me.
Right now, for all intents and purposes, he is dead.
And if it means bringing him to life,
I think nothing of having my own body shattered.
They say a person dies twice.
First comes the death of the self.
Then, later, comes the death of being forgotten by friends.
If that is so,
I shall never know that second death.
(Even if he should die, he will never forget me.)
In this way,
I shall always be alive
In his eyes.
Thus begins Tōma no shinzō (トーマの心臓), “The Heart of Thomas,” a shōjo manga (少女マンガ), or Japanese girls’ comic, created by female cartoonist HAGIO Moto (萩尾望都) in 1974. Just twenty-four years old at the time, Hagio had no way of knowing that she was helping to mold the history of late Twentieth Century Japanese culture. “The Heart of Thomas” is now considered a classic of shōjo manga, a genre poorly understand outside Japan, yet as important to understanding contemporary Japanese women and gender relations as is any social, cultural, economic, or legal development you could name.
One common misconception is that shōjo manga were “invented” by TEZUKA Osamu, the so-called “God of Manga,” best known for such works as Astro-Boy 『(鉄腕アトム』), Kimba the White Lion (『ジャングル大帝』), Buddha (『ブッダ』), and Phoenix (『火の鳥』). Tezuka’s 1954 shōjo manga Princess Knight (『リボンの騎士』) was indeed an enormously popular and influential work, but was by no means the first shōjo manga. Simple humor strips for girls had existed since at least the second decade of the Twentieth Century. By the 1930’s, these strips had become increasingly sophisticated, arguably climaxing with MATSUMOTO Katsuji’s 1934 “The Mysterious Clover” (松本かつぢ「？(なぞ)のクローバー」), a 16-page adventure story featuring a young girl playing a role similar to that of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro.
It is important to remember that in the case of Japan, what we now call shōnen manga and shōjo manga magazines evolved from general magazines geared at boys and girls, respectively. Just as girls and boys were educated separately until the end of World War II, the magazines they read were also segregated, and though coeducation is now the norm in Japan, boys’ and girls’ manga magazines remain, with few exceptions, distinct, at least superficially.
Since these magazines and the manga they included evolved along very different paths, there are marked differences in the two genres of manga. Whereas shōnen manga tend to be action oriented, shōjo manga tend to focus on human relationships. Heterosexual romance is of course the most common theme, but friendship and family relationships also play prominent roles, and there is a whole subgenre of manga, most commonly known today as “boys’ love,” comprised entirely of stories of male homosexual romance, created by female artists for female readers.
The emphasis on relationships has been prominent since the first simple strips began to appear in the early Twentieth Century, but, while it may be difficult to imagine now, heterosexual romance was rare--indeed, almost taboo--until the 1960s. In the prewar period, readers of manga were small children who had not yet learned the pleasure of reading text-only fiction and non-fiction. Even after the war, when Tezuka had launched a boom in thematically sophisticated “story manga,” it was assumed throughout the 1950s that children would “graduate” from manga by the time they were thirteen or fourteen. And since the heroines of shōjo manga were almost always girls between the ages of ten and twelve, romance occurred only between older supporting characters, such as elder siblings.
Whereas manga for boys have always been about action and humor, shōjo manga have undergone several dramatic metamorphoses. Prewar shōjo manga were short humor strips, usually set in the home, neighborhood, or school. The artists were all men. In the wake of the postwar Tezuka revolution, however, the creators of shōjo manga were under pressure to create longer, more dramatic stories. While some chose to simply create longer humor strips, others turned to popular girls’ novels of the day as a model for melodramatic shōjo manga. These manga featured sweet, innocent preteen heroines, torn from the safety of family and tossed from one perilous circumstance to another, until finally rescued (usually by a kind, handsome young man) and reunited with their families.
By the mid 1960s, however, manga were becoming more and more popular, and it was now common for children to continue reading manga well into their teens. These older girls were no longer interested in stories of passive little damsels in distress. They wanted stories that were relevant to their real lives. It was NISHITANI Yoshiko, one of the few women creating manga in the early 1960s, who gave them what they wanted, and in doing so created the genre that is still the mainstay of shōjo manga: the school-girl romance. Nishitani’s stories featured teenaged Japanese girls dealing with friendships, family, school, and, yes, falling in love.
By the end of the 1960s, manga had developed into a mega-boom. What had been general children’s magazines had gradually transformed into manga magazines. The growth in popularity of these magazines accelerated when publishers, in order to compete with the new medium of television, switched from a monthly format to a weekly format. But the demand for manga could not be met by the artists of the time. New talent was needed. At the same time, societal attitudes towards women had changed. The solution to the publishers’ problem was obvious. What had been a trickle of women manga artists in the 1950s and early 1960s became a flood as the decade ended, and attention soon focused on a vaguely defined group of young artists who came to be known as the "Fabulous Forty-Niners," because many of them were born in or around 1949. Artists such as HAGIO Moto, OH’SHIMA Yumiko, and TAKEMIYA Keiko began to experiment with new themes, stories and styles, rejecting the limitations of traditional definitions of the shōjo manga genre and appealing to increasingly older readers. They played with notions of gender and sexuality, adapted such "boys' genres" as science fiction, and explored some of the weightiest issues of human existence.
By the end of the 1970s, shōjo manga had ceased to be a monolithic and homogenous genre. A number of subgenres, such as fantasy, science fiction, and boys’ love, had become firmly established, distinct from the “mainstream” of school-girl romances, which themselves had become more sophisticated and less governed by taboo. As the upper age-limit of shōjo manga readerships continued to rise, the 1980s saw a trend towards increased specialization and more narrowly-targeted magazines. Magazines geared at adult women also appeared. Though initially dominated by soap-opera style stories, many of which were notoriously pornographic, by the early 1990s manga for women had developed into a richly diverse and sophisticated field.
It was throughout the 1990s that I carried out my own anthropological fieldwork on the readers of shōjo manga. Through countless discussions with readers, as well as with artists, editors and retailers, and through my own experiences, I identified a number of features in the way readers engage with shōjo manga that make the genre important to them in ways that transcend simple entertainment: manga reading is a life-long practice that can only be fully understood in the context of a reader’s biography; shōjo manga can serve as a vehicle for a reader to define her individual identity; it can also serve as a vehicle for socializing that binds friends and family members; it provides a frame of reference, a repertoire of idioms through which a reader can interpret and model experience; it can be a source of inspiration and catharsis; and its nature has changed over the decades in response to broader historical changes.
Shōjo manga continues to change. Since 1995, sales of manga magazines, along with sales of all magazines, have steadily declined. Sales of manga paperbacks have fluctuated, but have so far managed to escape the fate of magazines. Why have sales of magazines declined? We can identify several factors, such as: the growth of the Internet in Japan; the increasing sophistication of video games; a lengthy recession that forced consumers to be more frugal; the rise of massive used bookstore chains, not to mention twenty-four hour manga cafes, that do not pay royalties to publishers. But the biggest single factor in the decline of magazines in Japan is this: the cell phone. Fifteen years ago, you would board a train in Japan and see dozens of people reading magazines, including manga magazines. Today you board a train and see everyone hunched over their cellphones, reading or writing e-mail, surfing the Internet, buying concert tickets--almost anything you can do on a personal computer.
For more than thirty years, the manga industry has been structured around a model that seemed unshakable. Magazines editors solicit work from manga artists for a modest page rate. The manga is then serialized in cheap magazines with few advertisements that are essentially sold at cost. Serials that prove unpopular are cut short. Those that prove even marginally popular are republished in paperbacks. Ten percent of the cover price of each copy sold is paid to the artist as royalties, and the rest of the profit goes to the publisher. The magazines, in other words, are extravagant advertisements for the paperbacks, which are the primary source of profit.
The quandary for publishers is that, in this digital age, Japanese consumers are no longer inclined to buy a large paper object that they will eventually discard anyway. Since the magazines themselves are not a direct source of profit, on the surface this would not seem to be a problem, but the fact is that these magazines are the pivot, the fulcrum, the center of gravity of the entire manga industry. The extinction of the printed magazine is inevitable: not a matter of “if” but “when.” The implications of its extinction are both devastating and exciting, but that is a subject for another talk.
What I want to discuss in closing are some of the implications of these changes for the genre of shōjo manga. I spoke earlier of several metamorphoses. The first was the transformation from simple to humor strips to melodramas featuring little girls and their families. The second was the literal “growing up” of heroines into teenagers in love. The third was the conquest of the genre by female artists who transformed it from “kids’ stuff” into a genre as sophisticated as literature or film.
One metamorphosis, though, never occurred, and that is the corporate metamorphosis in which women would take over editorial control of the magazines from stodgy, middle-aged men with outdated and sexist notions of who their readers are and what those readers want. I waited for that metamorphosis for fifteen years, and even tried to help bring it about by arguing for it in my writings and public lectures in Japan.
But the death of the magazine will render that metamorphosis moot. Even those who work in the giant manga publishing houses--Shueisha, Shogakukan, Kodansha--acknowledge that those corporations are dinosaurs, massive and slow, unable to turn quickly or adapt to sudden changes in environment. That is why the glass ceiling against which female employees bump their heads remains firmly in place, and that is why these publishers will follow the printed magazine to extinction.
In a digital world, female artists who have been restricted for decades by male editors who think they know best what female readers want, will find a very different landscape. We have only glimpsed the borders of that Undiscovered Country, and it will no doubt be a harsh frontier. Many artists, accustomed to the old ways, will no doubt follow the printed magazine and the publishing dinosaurs to extinction. But others will surely make their way and create a place for themselves where they can connect directly with their readers, without worrying about whether or not their work “adheres to editorial policy.” You can get a taste of what that Brave New World might look like if you attend one of the hundreds of comic markets held across Japan every year. There you will see vast gatherings of women--in some cases, tens of thousands--buying and selling self-published manga, utterly free of editorial constraint.
Of course, these physical gatherings of women vending printed books have only a few points of commonality with the experience of using an electronic book hardly bigger than a sheet of paper to wirelessly download any kind of content you desire, any time you desire.
But I think it is safe to say two things: one, the shōjo manga artists in that new world will not be answering to middle-aged men in neckties; and, two, those artists will show us new worlds of sequential art we have never dreamed of.
©Matt Thorn 2008