Words from Mr. Matt Thorn: This paper captures the essence of my research on the meaning of shoujo manga to ordinary readers. This will form the core of a chapter in my dissertation, so any comments or criticisms are very much welcome.
What Japanese Girls Do With Manga, and Why
MATTHEW THORN--Department of Anthropology, Columbia University
This is a working draft, presented at the Japan Anthropology Workshop ("JAWS") at the University of Melbourne, Australia, on July 10, 1997.
I have become more or less inured to the way Western journalists treat manga, or Japanese comics. They have an agenda, and that is to titillate readers and viewers with sensational reports of the "dark underbelly of Japan." What never ceases to disappoint me is that so many Western scholars, including some anthropologists, treat manga in essentially the same way. The scholar's agenda is usually different. She starts from the assumption that manga, like all mass media, are the opiate of the masses, and that by exposing them as such, she is performing a public service. (She also flatters herself that she is not one of the masses, but that is presumably not her conscious intention.) Like the popular journalist, however, she usually does only the most superficial research, picking out one or two texts for a narrow analysis or asking a handful of people loaded questions, and then draws broad conclusions, that happen to reinforce her preconceptions, about the sociocultural signficance of the manga. You would think that at least anthropologists might think to actually try to find out what the manga--or any mass medium, for that matter--mean to their readers, rather than resorting to techniques of armchair inference that predate Henry Morgan.
Sorry. I had to get that off my chest.
So it is that, six years ago, disappointed by the dearth of ethnographically-grounded work on the ways in which people engage with popular media, and inspired by the little work that had been done by pioneering scholars such as Janice Radway, Angela McRobbie, and Henry Jenkins, I determined to undertake an ethnographic study of the place of shoujo manga in the lives of Japanese girls and women. This was and is an unabashedly personal undertaking. I have been in love with this genre since first encountering it a decade ago, and have been driven by a desire to share it with an English-speaking world in which the term "girls' comics" itself could be seen as an oxymoron.
I would take this opportunity to plug my book of shoujo manga translations, but unfortunately that book is now out of print for reasons I am not at liberty to discuss... but which I will anyway if plied with enough free drinks before I leave for Sydney this evening.
What follows, then, is not an objective analysis formulated by a scholar who stands apart from and above the "phenomenon," but is rather an analysis by a person who is himself an avid reader of the genre, yet who nonetheless tries to examine the genre and its readers critically and from multiple angles, not only for the purpose of telling you what "they" do, but to contribute a transnational perspective to an ongoing discussion of what we do as participants in popular culture.
In fourteen months of fieldwork conducted in 1994 and '95, mostly in the Kobe area, I interviewed dozens of girls, both in group and one-on-one settings, some of them several times over a period of months. Typically, an interviewee would seem nervous or dubious for the first few minutes: after all, what could she possibly anticipate from a foreign, adult man wanting to talk with her about the comic books she reads? In most cases I began an interview by asking the girl to tell me her life story. This allowed me to place our later discussion of manga in the context of her life experience, and gave her a chance to become comfortable talking with this foreigner. My informants were surprisingly frank, perhaps precisely because they saw me as an utter outsider to whom they could open up without fear of social consequence. They told me about pivotal episodes in their lives, people who had influenced them deeply, intimate friendships, divorced or widowed parents, difficulties with peers or family members, rivalries, first crushes, failures, successes, and future aspirations.
When the discussion turned to manga, the girls would at first speak cautiously and in general terms, assuming that I wouldn't recognize specific artists' names or titles. When they realized that I do in fact know the genre well, they would usually react with surprise and amusement. But very quickly, when they further realized that I not only know shoujo manga but also appreciate them as a reader, on the same level they do, any "foreigner/native" distinction or sense of distance would crumble--or so I imagined--and we would begin to speak as fellow readers about the way shoujo manga fit into their lives. (And mine, as well.)
Through countless discussions with readers, as well as with artists, editors and retailers, and through my own experiences, I have identified a number of features in the way readers engage with shoujo manga that make the genre important to them in ways that transcend simple entertainment: it is a "long engagement" (to use Professor Plath's term) that can only be fully understood in the context of a reader's biography; it is a vehicle for a reader to define her individual identity; it is 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 subtly over decades in response to broader historical changes.
Many of my informants can easily trace their biographies in terms of the manga magazines they have read. When this reading history comes up in conversation, girls and women will half-jokingly categorize themselves and each other on the basis of this information: "Ah, so you were the Nakayoshi-type. I was the Ribbon-type myself."
So common is this trope that for one magazine's special feature on shoujo manga, a writer and illustrator made a comical life-course chart showing the various destinies that lay in store for girls based on the manga magazines they read at different points in life. For Tokyo girls who begin with the magazine Ribbon, they trace a number of possibilities including: coming down with AIDS and making a documentary film featuring oneself; quitting one's job to begin one's own company; becoming an "ecology housewife" and spending one's days recycling milk cartons; and becoming a high-ranking member of a cult. (This predated the Sarin terrorist attack.) For girls from smaller cities who begin with Nakayoshi, they trace only two paths: the one who loses her virginity and "graduates from manga" in middle school ends up as a pudgy housewife who works nights at a bar; while the one who moves on to ladies' comics is taken in by a sweet-talking man who convinces her to embezzle from her employer, and then absconds with the money, leaving her to face prison alone. In this chart, those who abandon manga don't fare very well, ending up, at best, as a happy housewife working a cash register part-time at a local supermarket, or, more likely, neglected by her husband and searching in vain for identity at a local "culture center."
In fact, though this chart is hardly meant to be taken seriously, the reality is complicated by the shifts that can take place in magazine readerships within a space of just a few years. Aware of girls' "long engagements" with the genre, publishers create shoujo manga magazines geared at different age-groups, and would, of course, like readers to move from one to the next in lock-step fashion. For the giant publisher Shueisha, for example, this traditionally meant moving from Ribbon in primary school to Margaret in middle school...
... to Special Edition Margaret in high school and from there to one or more of their manga magazines geared at various categories of adult women, such as Chorus...
... or You.
But readers have minds of their own. Girls tend to become attached to particular artists. Combine this with the fact that publishers tend to encourage artists to make popular stories as long as possible, and the additional fact that as artists grow older they often feel a desire to create more sophisticated stories, and you can guess what happens: readers stick with a magazine for several years longer than publishers had intended them to, and they become an older readership with more mature tastes that cannot be ignored.
So it is that for the past few years, Ribbon has run a wide range of material geared at very different age groups.
This phenomenon, found in other magazines, too, has wreaked havoc on the magazines originally intended for early-teen readers. Since preteen girls have already been exposed to fairly sophisticated love stories before middle school, they leapfrog those magazines that were supposed to offer simple, conservative introductions to the romance genre, and move straight on to magazines geared at upper teens.
Whereas girls once had but a few "tracks" they might follow in their growth as shoujo manga readers, they now have many. The distinction between lower and upper teens has all but disappeared and, instead, girls now choose the magazines they will read as teenagers based on their individual tastes, and publishers have followed suit by creating a wider range of niche-specific magazines. In the late sixties and seventies, shoujo manga was shoujo manga, but today shoujo manga reflect an increasingly heterogenous society and a much larger manga industry. The individual reader's long engagement with manga magazines, and manga generally, must therefore be seen in social and historical specificity.
But even in the seventies, specific tastes in shoujo manga helped a girl (and later, woman) define her individual identity. Girls and women of various ages all described very particular likes and dislikes when speaking of artists, manga stories, and magazines. Some prefer wispy lines and a minimalist style, others heavier lines and greater attention to detail. Some prefer sweeping epics or fantasy, others stories of ordinary girls in ordinary circumstances, and yet others subtly tragic portrayals of more marginal characters, such a "juvenile delinquents."
This specificity of taste helps account for the fact that girls, more so than boys, tend to become attached to particular artists. Readers often feel a bond with favorite artists, and it is not uncommon for them to send artists letters or even gifts.
Artists, in turn, communicate with readers, not just by replying to personal correspondence...
... but by adding asides to the margins of their manga in which they address readers directly, thanking them for support or mentioning recent events or developments in their lives. The artist generally draws herself as cute but frumpy, lazy or irresponsible, a source of exasperation to her assistants and editors. Such representations (never mind that they may be accurate) make the unseen artist more human to the reader. She becomes an "ordinary girl," like the reader herself.
This loyalty to artists in turn accounts for the fact that girls tend to prefer paperbacks...
... which contain a story or stories by only one artist, over magazines, which often contain many stories by artists they don't like at all. Much to their chagrin, editors have discovered that girls are unlikely to buy a magazine that does not contain at least three stories they want to read. If there is only one or two, girls will read those in the bookstore without buying the magazine, a practice called tachiyomi ("standing-reading") that is particularly prevalent among teenaged girls.
Tastes also help define relationships with other girls and women. It is common for intimate pairs or groups of friends to have similar tastes in manga, or, if they do not, to define their differences in terms of their different tastes. More importantly, girls share manga, both magazines and paperbacks, to a degree that is depressing to publishers and editors. This practice, called mawashiyomi ("passing-around-reading"), serves to bond girls with their friends, or with sisters or even mothers. This sharing of magazines and paperbacks can bring different girls' tastes closer together, partly through extended exposure, but also because the girls discuss what they read and learn to see a manga as the other sees it. Thus, manga become a manifestation not only of individual identity but of group identity as well. Accordingly, reading habits can change when a pair or group is split apart by circumstances or conflict, and the manga left behind, or the manga picked up in the process, become associated in the girl's mind with that time in her life and that friend or group of friends.
Because girls grow up reading shoujo manga together, and because shoujo manga so often deal with the subject matter of their daily lives, it is only natural that there should arise within and around shoujo manga a shared "language," what I referred to earlier as a repertoire of shared idioms, which is to say, culture. This culture is shared nationally, transcending regional differences, and binding girls and young women who will never meet into what might be called a "media community." To be sure, Japanese girls and women read the same fashion magazines and novels, watch the same television shows, and listen to the same music (if we can gloss over differences of taste for the moment), and this constitutes cultural practice as well. But my observations and experiences suggest to me that, on the level of human relationships, the predominant idioms are those that have evolved within shoujo manga in the half century since the end of the Pacific War, and particularly since a group of innovative artists re-invented the genre in the early and mid seventies.
One of my informant's, nineteen year-old Makiko, made the following observation:
I have friends who are so influenced by manga, without even realizing it their own way of thinking and such becomes the same as that of the manga they read.... Maybe it's true of me, too, and I don't even realize it. I think you don't realize it until after the fact. For example, you read a manga, and then, sometime later, you have a similar experience, but at the time you're not thinking of the manga at all. Then later, you go back and read it again and think, "Ah! I had the same experience. I did the same thing." It's almost like make-believe. You know, when you're little you make believe you're a princess or whatever. It's like you're playing out the manga you've read.
Makiko's phrasing suggests that it is manga that "influence" the cultural practice of girls, but when we consider that the artists are themselves former (and often current) readers, who were once very much like the girls they now create for, and when we consider that the content of shoujo manga are determined as much by readers as by artists and editors--in the form of letters to artists and editors, responses to questionnaires, and, ultimately, purchase choices--it is difficult to declare that the "influence" is one-way. Whether life is imitating art or art is imitating life is a false, chicken-or-egg question.
But beyond providing a frame of reference for interpreting or modelling daily experience and relationships, manga can also be a source of more profound inspiration or catharsis. This is by no means unique to shoujo manga, but because shoujo manga readers are accustomed to a certain congruence between the manga they read and their daily lives, and because they identify more directly with the characters, they may be more open to more sublime resonances, as well.
At a recent dinner party at what was then my Manhattan home, I was talking with guests (all Japanese, all adults) about manga when someone mentioned IKEDA Riyoko's 1972 classic Berusaiyu no bara ("The Rose of Versailles"), a fictional account of the French Revolution from the viewpoint of Oscar, a young woman who was raised as a soldier, and dresses and behaves as a man. When BeruBara (as it is known to manga fans) was mentioned, a 32 year-old woman friend became impassioned. "BeruBara," she said, "defined my view of history." She then launched into a discussion about Oscar's relationship with Andre. My friend was furious about the way the manga had been translated into a television anime series, and gave as an example Oscar and Andre's first and only night spent as lovers. She described--or rather, performed--the scene in such detail ("Soko de soto no ki ga 'sawasawa, sawasawa'") that I ran and got my copy to see if she could really be telling it accurately. But of course she was. Her performance was campy and she teased herself for being such a "mania," but it was clear that this manga held profound significance for her.
Another woman friend, also 32, read a lot of adventure-oriented manga as a child, but had stopped reading manga a decade earlier. Talking with me renewed her interest, and so I lent her the manga that is dearest to me, HAGIO Moto's 1974 masterpiece, Tooma no shinzou ("The Heart of Thomas"). Tooma is set in a German boarding school in what seems to be the early 20th century, and begins with the suicide of 14 year-old Thomas, who sends a final letter to Juli, the upperclassman who has responded to his persistent declarations of love with only cold rejection:
To Juli, one last time
This is my love
This is the sound of my heart
Surely you must understand
The plot is complex, but revolves around Juli coming to terms with Thomas's death, and acknowledging that he had in fact loved Thomas, but had felt that a gang-rape he (Juli) had endured two years earlier at the hands of upperclassmen had made him unworthy of anyone's love. In the end, Juli makes peace with himself, and leaves school to enter the monastic life.
The next time I saw my friend, she gave me a letter. In it, she said that Tooma had resonated with her own experience to a devastating degree. Like Juli, she had been sexually abused as a child, and had grown up feeling that she was unworthy of love. Reading the story forced her to confront things she had repressed for two decades, and allowed her to see a recently ended relationship in a new light. She became determined to be more open to others, and to accept love from others. Clearly, reading Tooma had been a cathartic experience for her, and though it was painful, she was grateful for it.
Needless to say, I was deeply moved by her letter, but it had special significance for me because reading Tooma for the first time back in 1987 had been a cathartic experience for me, too, though for entirely different reasons that I still do not fully comprehend. All I knew at the time was that the story made me weep in a way that I hadn't wept since reading The Catcher in the Rye in the eleventh grade. It was then that I became convinced that there was something valuable about shoujo manga as a genre that I needed to share with others. In retrospect, however, I believe that my strong reaction stemmed from a resonance between Tooma and my own life at the time: not a direct and literal resonance such as my friend would experience years later, but an indirect and subtle, yet powerful, resonance.
This may be why, when my other friend said BeruBara had changed her life, I did not dismiss her claim as hyperbole or "fanaticism." I have heard similar stories from dozens of other women and girls, as well as a number of men, and I have had a similar experience myself. If I had never read Tooma, or had read it at another time in my life, I would probably never have been drawn to shoujo manga, and may never even have gone into academia. This experience, of course, shapes the way I interpret this genre, and media engagement in general (such catharses are hardly unique to shoujo manga), but nonetheless it has convinced me that when we examine any work of any genre of any medium, we must look not at any supposedly inherent quality of the work but rather at the biographical, historical, and mundane context in which an individual is exposed to and interprets it.
Note: Copyright permission of article above was granted by
owner of this article, Mr. Matt Thorn, to Thinkquest team C0115441.
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