On a small island nation across the Pacific Ocean, there is an intriguing art form. While most people in the United States would scoff at the notion of comics as an art form, the Japanese certainly believe that these comics, called "manga," deserve the title.
Whereas American comics are directed towards a younger set, manga is at the level of film or literature, covering the entire gamut of age groups and genres. The artwork of manga is often just as important to the reader as the storyline, and both can vary wildly depending on the genre and the artist that produces each manga. Manga production is an industry in Japan, too large to be covered in just one paper, and so this paper is to focus on one genre, shoujo (girls') comics.
Shoujo manga are specifically directed at girls and young women, from ages six to eighteen. The genre accounts for what could be considered a surprisingly large percentage of manga produced, ranging from fifteen to thirty-five percent of the comics printed in Japan yearly. (http://www.aestheticism.net/mangaglossary/gloss.html, Usenet Manga Glossary) Another note of interest is that, unlike the female minority in the comic fan-community in the United States, the overwhelming majority of women and girls in Japan will admit to being avid readers of manga. It may seem peculiar that there is a genre dedicated to stories geared toward young girls, but more items make this stand out than the story line, which is varied in itself. The artwork style and publishers are different than those that publish manga for boys or men, and so are the sizes of the compilation volumes.
Most manga series (of all types) are run in larger magazines at first. Shoujo manga are published in what are usually referred to as "phonebooks," large volumes on thin newsprint paper that can range in color from pastel pink to grey. "Phonebooks" such as "Ribon" and "Nakayoshi" are published on a monthly or on a seasonal basis, ostensibly so that the artists can put more time into the detailed story and artwork that they are forming. "Circles" of artists, such as the group known as Clamp work together on the art and storylines, allowing for more diversified and enriched works. If a series is successful in a monthly publication, it is published in compilation volumes and distributed throughout Japan in that fashion by publishers who in turn support the popular artists in hope of more good works.
The first manga to be drawn were for boys only, in the post-World- War-Two times. During the mid-nineteen fifties, men began to expand the industry by drawing funny comic-strip-like shorts and longer series with simple stories. These were directed at young girls, aged ten and under. There were a few women working in the business, but they were by far the minority. During the later nineteen sixties, a gender revolution took place in Japan, and shoujo manga began to be drawn by women for the first time.
Something had been missing in shoujo manga, which caused it to be lost on the teenage girls of Japan. The stories had been light and cheerful, but the female (and the remaining male) artists began to introduce romance stories to the genre, and fantasies with heroines taking the lead. Interestingly enough, during this time, it was a man who introduced the new style in the shoujo manga world. "Ribon no Kishi" ("Knight of the Ribbon") by Osamu Tezuka changed the shoujo side with his tales of drama, adventure, fantasy, tragedy, humor, and romance, all written for girls.
The genre proceeded to expand and mature, as artists played with concepts of human nature, morality, and sexuality, reaching into fantasy, science fiction, and high drama. However, the story that has stayed with and been incorporated into many shoujo manga is the ever popular "boy meets girl."
Drama and romance stories prevail in shoujo manga, but they do not encompass the entire genre. Though emotions and complicated plots or characters play a significant part in most shoujo manga, there are many tales of fantasy or science fiction, horror and mystery. Stories are just as likely to be set in ancient China as they are to be set in modern-day Japan. A manga such as "Cross Oneself", which tells the story of a young Christian exorcist can sit next to a story about a girl's problems in everyday high school life such as "Aishite Na~ni?"
Girls in shoujo manga come with several different characterizations, which would seem to reflect the changing views the Japanese have of women. Some people in the western world would probably consider many characterizations as anti-feminist but they are quite normal for shoujo manga. There is the classic damsel in distress, who must be rescued by the males in the series every single time a problem comes up. This has become somewhat less prevalent, but it is still common in shoujo manga. In other manga, girls are competent, but are always convinced and are expected to be convinced that they will always be less than men, no matter what they do. It is only in more recent comics that girls are shown to be independent and still be respected characters.
Men and boys in shoujo manga tend to be heroic, romantic types or shy, easily embarrassed people. They tend to be on the stubborn, thickheaded side, but almost always athletic. There is more of a tendency to be emotional than men generally in American fiction, and this is especially noticeable in series that have especially feminine men. As is explained later in the section on artwork, some men tend to be at least a bit androgynous in shoujo manga, some to the point of being practically indiscernible from the female personalities in the series. This is such a prevalent theme that the Japanese have a word (bishounen) that literally means "beautiful boy." In some series with many pretty boys, there are virtually no females at all, which doesn't bother the female readers in the least.
There are also several common plot devices, more commonly used in the drama or romance stories, but staples that appear in most shoujo manga which, other than the company and the artwork, help to differentiate shoujo manga from the rest. A Valentine's Day scene/segment is a must in most shoujo manga, where girls are often main characters. In Japan, girls give the boys they like chocolate on Valentine's Day. This creates a lighter interlude in a serious series, or a chance for humor in a series with a lighter tone. Often times in stories centered on high or middle school students, the parents are conspicuously absent at all times. In a science fiction or fantasy series, this saves the teenage characters from worrying about their parents finding out about any supernatural happenings. However, in drama or romance series, this can be a cause for distress as characters feel they have no support in their lives.
Another common plot device is to have a character in the series who just happens to be famous. Popular singers called Idoru (Idol Stars) are often involved with or happen to be the main character. Along with this is the unusual prevalence of crossdressing, often used for humor in lighter-toned manga. A girl may dress as a guy to make herself popular, or as in "Mint na Bokura" school registration may be mixed up to force a boy to dress as a girl. This causes humorous situations as the character tries to hide his or her secret from others, and usually serves to complicate the romantic plot in many shoujo manga.
The art style used in shoujo manga can differ greatly from artist to artist, but there are a few major themes that are widely seen. Clean, defined, curving lines and detailed backgrounds support artfully detailed characters and foregrounds. These have been used since the original "manga" or "random drawings" that were done in earlier times by Buddhist monks on scrolls. The art can be considered eclectic or out of proportion, but it is formed and compiled gracefully into scenes, which many find to be quite beautiful.
The backgrounds in shoujo manga tend to be either highly detailed or not detailed at all, leaving the back of the scene simply shaded or blank. Special care seems to be taken with backgrounds that include nature scenes, such as a forest, lake, or cherry trees in a public park. Actually, the Japanese in general seem to have an affinity for cherry trees, and there is usually at least one scene in a shoujo manga series where the characters end up going to view the cherry blossoms, a spring ritual of Japan. Another way that backgrounds are handled is used in romantic scenes in shoujo manga, where flowers, most often roses, frame the scene and make up the background for the two characters who are a couple.
Characters in shoujo manga are stereotypically seen as having oversized eyes and odd proportions. The tendency to large eyes is a convention in the art of lighter-toned shoujo series, but less prevalent in more serious, dramatic works. It also reflects what is said to be a common thread through much of the human race, a tendency to appreciate a higher eye to face ratio. Hairstyles and hair colors in shoujo manga range from the mundane to the stylish to the bizarre. Black, brown and blond hair colors are common, as most Japanese have black or brown hair, and the Japanese seem to like people with blond hair. However, the various hair colors found can range through hot pink, turquoise blue, and lime green. Styles go from "Mary Tyler Moore" to "punk rocker." The clothing in shoujo manga will depend on the series, because some are set in certain periods of history, but in the oft drawn romance and drama series, school uniforms are the norm. The most noted type of girls' school uniform is called a "sailor outfit" which consists of a pleated skirt with a white shirt, and a large colored bow on the chest. When not wearing a uniform, the characters are almost always well dressed, even more if the if the series contains a person who is famous.
The girls in shoujo manga tend to be graceful and extremely feminine, but in a few series they also tend to have rather exaggerated figures, impossibly thin with too-large bosoms and the unlikely hairstyles. This isn't the standard, however. The girls tend to be quite pretty, but not to the point of exaggeration, which makes the shoujo manga that do contain those exaggerations quite popular with young men.
The boys and men in shoujo manga are surprisingly different from the American view of male beauty. Males tend to be at least a bit androgynous, and in some shoujo manga, an inexperienced reader would not be able to tell the men from the women. Men are usually taller, at times impossibly tall, and have smaller eyes than the girls. The "beautiful boys," as were mentioned earlier, seem to capture the female population in Japan, as they have enormous followings comparable to that of Hollywood stars of the United States. Overall, it seems to be an impossibility for a character to be truly ugly in manga, no matter what comments other characters may make about appearance. Everyone is attractive in shoujo manga, except for the token nerd of the series, who wears thick, huge glasses with spirals in the lenses.
Japanese comics, of course, reflect the Japanese mindset. Traditions such as viewing the cherry blossoms in spring to common gestures such as pulling down the lower eyelid and sticking out the tongue. (The latter is the Japanese version of simply sticking out one's tongue.) There is a wealth of culture that suffuses the manga, and it reflects the land as well. Women are not as high on the social scale as men are, as reflected in characterization. The entire aesthetic scale is different in Japan as feminine beauty is highly regarded by females in both women and men.
However, as a resident of the United States, one has a different view of some symbols than that of a native Japanese. How are people in the United States to interpret things such as Children's Day, on which all children in Japan are given a special day for themselves? It is commonly shown in shoujo manga, and most often explained away in translation. However, the tendency in shoujo manga that may be most confusing to people in other parts of the world is the use of crosses and other Christian imagery. The authoress of one manga in particular, Zetsuai 1989, is fond of using crosses in her artwork. However, these are by no means connected to Christianity, nor are they supposed to be symbolic of the characters in religious roles. This, more than many things, shows a tendency in all manga, especially shoujo manga, to draw things simply because they look attractive or provocative. Many people like the image of crosses, and if the manga artist thinks that two of her characters look good in a position that mimics the Pieta, others probably will too. This is not to say that Japanese don't use symbolism, but it is not quite as prevalent, and it is rarely Christian.
The Japanese have a tendency to borrow from other cultures, shown first by their assimilation of much Chinese tradition in earlier times. In shoujo manga, this shows up with the prevalence of western- looking characters and mentions of western music. Japanese fashions are tending towards what is popular in the United States, and the little symbolism that is contained, mostly connected to what certain flowers mean, is also borrowed from the west. Japanese like wedding scenes in churches because it is the way things are done, not because they are devout Christians, and all of these things, from weddings to popular music, are reflected in shoujo manga, to keep up with the times.
Shoujo manga are an industry. The women of Japan love their comics, and so too are they used to having those comics fashioned in the way that they have been since the nineteen-fifties. This unique genre, with its detailed art and deep storylines has captured many of the minds in a country across the Pacific and, with the boom of the popularity of manga in the United States and Europe, may move on to captivate the women of the world.
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[Online] Available http://www.aestheticism.net/mangaglossary/gloss. html, April 22, 2000.
[Online] Available http://library.thinkquest.org/3177/gather/manga. html, April 22, 2000.
Thorn, Matt. The Shoujo Manga Homepage. [Online] Available http: //www.ky.xaxon.ne.jp/~matt/, April 22, 2000.
Schodt, Frederik L. Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga. Berkley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996
Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. New York: Kodansha International. 1986
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