A Brief History of Manga

A Brief History of Manga

Title: A Brief History of Manga
Author: Helen McCarthy
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: ILEX
Pages: 96

In the December 2014 issue of Otaku USA, Erin Finnegan opens her review of A Brief History of Manga by writing, “If you’re a librarian, buy this book! If you’re a school librarian, buy two copies!”

For the most part, I agree with her assessment. Helen McCarthy is a wonderful writer, and this cute little book is beautiful published, meticulously researched…

…and very unfortunately sexist.

If you don’t want to read a short essay in which I call Helen McCarthy’s work sexist – which I understand is upsetting – then feel free to scroll on by; but, if you’re still with me, please understand that the reason I’ve written this essay is because the sexism of A Brief History of Manga reflects many mainstream discourses on manga, and I find it concerning that no one has adequately challenged it.

Essentially, the vast majority of manga titles discussed in A Brief History of Manga are written and drawn by men. I counted all of the manga named in the text, and this is what I got:

Created by men: 104 titles, or 82%
Created by women: 23 titles, or 18%

Perhaps it’s simply the case that the author discusses more titles by the same big-name male manga artists but showcases many smaller, lesser known female manga artists? Nope. I counted all of the manga artists (and writers) mentioned by name in the text, and this is what I got:

Male manga artists: 87, or 81%
Female manga artists: 20, or 19%

Well, okay, but this isn’t a discussion of cinema, in which idiotic auteur cults erase the artistic contributions of everyone who isn’t The Male Director. There are plenty of people involved in the creation of manga and its promotion overseas, and they are all well worth mentioning in even a brief history of the medium. I counted all of the people who aren’t manga artists and writers mentioned by name in the text, from Frederik L. Schodt to James Cameron, and this is what I got:

Men: 64, or 95.5%
Women: 3, or 4.5%

For the record, the three women mentioned are Kurimoto Kaoru, the author of the Guin Saga fantasy series, and Yosano Akiko and Morita Tama, whose essays appeared in an early twentieth century magazine called Shōjo sekai.

What you may be wondering at this point is whether women are included in fewer numbers in a history of manga because there are in fact fewer important women in the history of manga, but oh my goodness, that is totally not true! Women have always been involved with manga, either directly as artists, indirectly as editors and assistants, or as artistic influences, cross-media marketing specialists, or overseas translators, editors, and licensing managers. There are also plenty of female manga scholars and historians – like Helen McCarthy herself!

To give you a sense of what’s been omitted by the overwhelming focus on men, here are a few key players in manga history that A Brief History of Manga glosses over or omits entirely:

* The Shōwa Year 24 Group, which includes hugely influential artists such as Ikeda Riyoko (Rose of Versailles), Hagio Moto (The Heart of Thomas), and Takemiya Keiko (To Terra). Not only were these women popular and groundbreaking manga artists, but many of them were political activists as well. They lived close to one another, worked together, shared ideas and inspirations, and changed the face of shōjo manga forever. Their work covers genres ranging from gothic romance to historical fiction to speculative sci-fi, and many scholars consider their manga to be the prototype of niche genres such as yuri and shōnen-ai. Although McCarthy devotes a two-page spread to “Fighting Females and Girl Heroes,” she spends the majority of it talking about Tezuka Osamu and Ishinomori Shōtaro, which is a shame.

* Sailor Moon. Takeuchi Naoko did not invent the magical girl genre, of course, but her work shaped it in a major way. Not only did the Sailor Moon franchise attract adult males to the genre, giving us titles such as Pretty Cure and Madoka Magica, but it was also successfully used by overseas licensing companies like Tokyopop to attract young women to anime and manga, and many artists and animators in Japan and abroad consider Sailor Moon to be a major influence.

* CLAMP. It’s true, McCarthy devotes one of her two two-page spreads exclusively featuring the work of female artists to Card Captor Sakura (she’s got thirty two-page spreads exclusively featuring the work of male artists, by the way). What McCarthy never mentions, however, is what an incredible powerhouse of artistic creativity CLAMP truly is, authoring such seminal titles as X:1999 and Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles while being intensely involved with high-profile anime franchises such as Code Geass and Blood: The Last Vampire. Their manga Chobits is particularly important in the history of manga, as it helped to spark two major trends: seinen series meant to appeal to a female demographic, and moé series about adorable innocent girls being cared for by slightly older yet socially awkward men.

* Fullmetal Alchemist. Arakawa Hiromu’s shōnen series was a major big deal in every global territory lucky enough to have it licensed. The demographic crossover appeal was engineered carefully by Square-Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan magazine, which championed titles that would prove to be equally popular with male and female readers. The magazine also went out of its way to promote video game titles to female readers, which was a pretty big deal in the early-to-mid 1990s and had a major impact on domestic and overseas fandom cultures.

* Fruits Basket. Takaya Natsuki’s 23-volume shōjo series was enormously popular in North America and paved the way for a slew of other shōjo titles in translation, from Nana to Ouran High School Host Club to Vampire Knight. Here in the United States, we also got a bunch of epic sci-fi and fantasy shōjo manga from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Tamura Yumi’s Basara and Shinohara Chie’s Red River. The enthusiastic reception of all this shōjo manga inspired Tokyopop to launch OEL shōjo series like M. Alice Legrow’s Bizenghast. Although Tokyopop eventually folded, Yen Press later went on to commission enormously popular shōjo manga versions of young adult novel series such as Twilight and The Parasol Protectorate.

* Yoshinaga Fumi. Not only is her work absolutely brilliant and worthy of mention on its own merits, but it also managed to create an audience for josei manga in Europe and North America, which is an impressive accomplishment. Although Yoshinaga isn’t currently writing yaoi as much as she used to, you might argue that discussions of semipornographic manga have no place in a book meant for a broad audience. If that’s the case, though, why does McCarthy devote so much attention to the work of Nagai Gō and the infamous Legend of the Overfiend?

I’m not trying to say that Helen McCarthy is stupid or lazy or evil, or anything silly like that, but rather that she has reproduced a male-dominated narrative that is extremely unbalanced. Women are a huge driving force in the manga world, and there’s no logical reason why they should be erased from its history.

The systematic paucity of representations of women in media is referred to by the term “symbolic annihilation,” which helps to convey the violence of eliminating women from our stories. In essence, by taking women out of the history of manga, McCarthy conveys the impression that manga is a medium for men and by men shaped primarily by the great men of the past and currently dominated by men. Not only is this not true, but it also sends a clear message both to young women (STAY OUT NOT FOR YOU) and to young men (WOMEN ARE WORTHLESS KEEP THEM OUT). Imagine what it’s like for a young woman (or even an older woman such as myself) to flip to the appropriate section of A Brief History of Manga, looking for the title that defined her life and her generation, only to find that obscure niche titles are more worthy of inclusion just because they were written by men.

So Kathryn, you might be thinking, if that’s so distressing to you, why don’t you go out and publish your own book about women in manga? I have three responses to this line of thinking.

First, that’s not the point. The point is for women to be included in mainstream history, not to be accorded a separate and secondary history. The history of women’s contributions to the world should be part of the core curriculum, not an elective.

Second, I shouldn’t have to. There have been plenty of books, articles, essays, and exhibition catalogs about women in manga written in English, French, German, and of course Japanese. I know from experience that many of these publications can be found in the library of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, where McCarthy did her research.

Third, I’m trying. It’s difficult to publish anything these days, and I haven’t yet found myself at the right place at the right time with the right connections. If you’re associated with a website, magazine, or press and want to publish my work, you know where to find me.

A Brief History of Manga is an amazing little book. It will teach you things you did not know, it will draw connections between people and events you had no idea were related, and the archival images the author has chosen to include are a world of information unto themselves. Still, the inherent sexism of the book’s dominant narrative is a major flaw that is impossible to overlook.

Again, I wrote this review not to cast blame or to point fingers – I will still read everything Helen McCarthy writes while stalking her on Twitter – but rather to illuminate what I see as a disturbing trend in the way that people from many countries and cultures write about manga. Women are just as important in the history of manga as men are. Previous histories have marginalized them, but future histories don’t have to. From now on, let’s include both women and men in the conversation, okay?

A Brief History of Manga Sample Pages

5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Manga

  1. So you want to know where the numbers came from? I’m glad you asked!

    I did not count any of the names or titles listed in the book’s back matter (meaning the permissions, references, and acknowledgments sections).

    I did not count fictional characters.

    I did not count Japanese manga magazines or overseas manga anthologies.

    I counted the sequels to manga titles (such as Dragonball Z, the sequel to Dragonball) as separate titles.

    I counted artistic teams (such as Fujiko Fujio, of Doraemon fame) as one artist.

    I counted manga script writers (such Ōba Tsugumi, who wrote Death Note) as manga artists.

    If couldn’t ascertain the gender of an artist, I didn’t count them.

    If I couldn’t ascertain the author of a manga, I didn’t count it.

    If a manga was created by a mixed-gender team (such as Kindaichi Case Files, written by Kanari Yōzaburō and illustrated by Satō Fumiya), then I counted it as “created by a woman” and not “created by man.”

    I tallied the men involved with Meiji and Taishō period illustrations and political cartoons not in the list of “manga artists” but in the list of “other people mentioned in the text.”

    I counted names and titles mentioned in the main text, in the left-hand sidebars, and in the captions describing the images. I did not count names and titles mentioned in the little factoid bubbles floating across the bottoms of the pages. There was a lot of overlap between these bubbles and the main text, but names would generally appear on bubbles either before or after the pages on which they were mentioned in the main text, and my memory was already being taxed enough as it was.

    The instruments I used to tally artists and titles were a ballpoint pen and a piece of paper divided into quadrants. I didn’t double-check my tallies with a second read-through, as doing it once already felt uncomfortably nitpicky. I tried to be careful, but it is entirely possible that I inadvertently counted an artist or a title twice.

    All that being said, the gendered trends of the text are still clear even within a wide margin of error and regardless of the rubrics used to measure them.

  2. Hello Kathryn, My name is Augusto Bejar and I am a Graduate Student of Asian Studies in Florida International University and I want to say that your essays and reviews are truly fascinating and inspire me to continue my studies more energetically.

    Going at the issue of the book you reviewed above, I have to say that I had big expectations for this publication and this is indeed due to the issue of leaving important issues aside, as you have eloquently showed in your review. I have not seen a section dedicated to Yuri and Yaoi Manga, she focuses on the animated shows most favored or more known by the mainstream fandom that actually tend to be mostly made by men for men. However there were many works that women did in “male-intended magazines”, from the great adventures of Rumiko Takahashi’s Ramna 1/2 and Inuyasha to Morinaga Milk’s erotic persception of sexuality.

    However, This book must have been very challenging for the author to write, and i am glad that you can see some merit in this work.
    let’s hope there will be a book about women’s role in the development of manga and anime soon, indeed.

    It is always a delightful pleasure on reading your reviews and essay, you are the best >^w^<

  3. When you manage to get your book published, I’d be delighted to buy it. If anything else manga is an industry that early on had super awesome ladies writing super awesome stories, so it’s really a shame when they are overlooked.

  4. Ugh. This is so, so depressing and yet so entirely not shocking. It’s such a familiar pattern that I almost have trouble stoking my outrage to get all frothy at the mouth about it. But it’s important that we do point these things out, especially when the oversights are so egregious. Glossing over/Omitting the Year Twenty-Four group is frankly dishonest when you are writing a history of manga. They were hugely influential! No history of manga is complete without a discussion of these women and the work they produced. Not to mention the other female creators you noted, all of whom radically altered the genres in which they work. *sigh*

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