The Book of Yōkai

the-book-of-yokai

Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

* * * * *

Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure

Horses Horses

Title: Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure
Japanese Title: 馬たちよ、それでも光は無垢で
(Umatachi yo, sore demo hikari wa muku de)
Author: Furukawa Hideo (古川 日出男)
Translator: Doug Slaymaker
Publication Year: 2016 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 147

Furukawa Hideo, born in 1966 in Fukushima prefecture, is a prolific author who has won numerous awards for his work, which ranges from mystery to sci-fi to literary fiction. Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a memoir that defies genre as it responds to the March 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.

Horses is the story of a road trip that the author makes to Fukushima almost immediately after the disasters. Furukawa lives in Tokyo, and he was in Kyoto when the earthquake hit. He describes himself watching the news on the television in his hotel room, unable to process what he was seeing but unable to look away. “That’s when that period of steady gazing began,” he admits (19). Furukawa describes his continuing shock as living in “spirited-away time,” as if “the dates of the calendar disappeared” (6).

He is shaken from his torpor by the voice of a character from a novel he is in the process of writing, The Holy Family (Seikazoku). This character, who is from the Tōhoku region, tells the author to go there and see it for himself. Furukawa therefore gets in a car with two or three other people who are identified only by letters (as in, “Young S was driving”) and heads north from Tokyo, all the while commenting on the seemingly normal state of traffic, gas stations, and convenience stores. When he arrives at the affected area, however, nothing is normal. As Furukawa explains it…

We were overwhelmed by the sense of how powerful it was. The scene spread out before us, everything wiped clean away. There are no words for it. We didn’t just feel it, we were pummeled by it. I am ashamed to admit it – I want to spit at myself in disgust – but I was looking at the scene as if it were a great spectacle. I thought of air raids. And atomic-bomb sites. It hit me like a smack to the side of the head: it’s just like a city in wartime. I couldn’t help it. I exploded: “This scale, it spreads too far.” (41-42)

Although the disasters are never far from Furukawa’s mind, descriptions of its aftermath don’t form a particularly large portion of his narrative. Instead, he is concerned with his identity as a writer and his responsibility in chronicling what has happened. Throughout the book, Furukawa seems almost narcissistic in the way he dwells on the process of writing, as well as the invitations he receives to discuss it. This is not unique to Furukawa, of course; very rarely are artists’ statements anything other than validations of the artist’s ego. It’s what these meditations evolve into halfway through Horses that makes the book so interesting. Specifically, Furukawa tries to pick apart the various strands of meaning tangled up in the knot of Japanese identity, repeatedly returning to the question of how to approach Japanese history and myth. For example, he ponders…

How does one sing praises to this national land? Especially now, given that there is a second sun in the nuclear core? A meltdown that has taken its name from Fukushima. Can a name be given to this particular sun deity? (65)

Furukawa goes on to discuss how the vaunted warrior class, and specifically the great unifiers of the sixteenth century, were brutal and pitiless murderers. “Our history is nothing more than a history of killing people,” he concludes (78). When he writes about Japanese history in The Holy Family, then, Furukawa is writing “for the horses.” If the history of humans is a history of killing people, then the history of horses is a history of being killed in human wars. Just like the animals around the Fukushima reactor, the lives of horses are affected by events that are only tangentially related to them. Although the author never makes this parallel clear, he suggests that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the “otherness” of domestic animals and the “otherness” of the people who fall outside the political center of Japan.

Furukawa’s memoir is not challenging in the traditional sense of being difficult to understand, but reading it can be frustrating at times, as the author follows his train of thought without stopping for a full 140 pages. His style is not quite stream-of-consciousness, but he makes no attempt to order his thoughts or to impose structure to any sort of argument he might be making. Therefore, as a response to the disasters, Horses feels less like a polemic and more organic and sincere. The author ends his narrative on a somewhat surreal note, but Doug Slaymaker’s concise “Translator’s Afterword” neatly ties together the disconnected themes of the work, and I would recommend that the reader glance over it before embarking on the main text.

Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure is a trenchant and often surprising work of literary ecocriticism. Furukawa transforms both the immediate disasters in Fukushima and the broader historical currents that flow around them into deeply personal experiences, resisting large narratives as he argues for the validity of individual stories. Doug Slaymaker’s smooth and well-considered translation gives the text, in all its complexity, a compelling sense of forward momentum. Furukawa’s memoir is just as engaging as it is important, and it will be of immense interest to anyone concerned with how views regarding the relationship between human beings and the natural environment have shifted during the twenty-first century.

Manabeshima: Island Japan

Manabeshima

Title: Manabeshima: Island Japan
Artist: Florent Chavouet
Translator: Periplus Editions
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2010 (France)
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 142 (plus one amazing map)

I love French artist Florent Chavouet‘s 2009 book Tokyo on Foot, which captures the charm and vibrancy of my favorite city. Manabeshima: Island Japan was a tougher sell for me, as I’m not particularly interested in nature or rural communities. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the careful attention Chavouet brings to human habitats – garbage and vending machines and rusting powerlines and all – has carried over from Tokyo to Manabeshima. Regardless of whether he’s drawing the town or the ocean and forests that surround it, Chavouet transforms the mundane into the extraordinary with his gorgeous colored pencil illustrations.

Because he felt that he had only been exposed to a tiny fraction of the Japanese archipelago, Chavouet decided to spend a summer on an island he hadn’t yet seen, and he ended up in Manabeshima, Okayama Prefecture, population 326. According to the artist, the average age of the people living on the island is around 50 years old, and many of them are already well set in their daily routines. Chavouet observes them on their daily progress, taking careful note of their mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, as well as the props they use on the stage of their daily lives. His artistic interest is drawn not only to humans, but also to the island’s abundant wildlife, including cicadas, fish, and cats. These cats gradually become characters in their own right as Chavouet documents their small dramas and battles over contested territory.

My favorite part of Manabeshima is how the artist portrays architecture as a living part of the environment and the island society, with each room and table and upended bucket telling its own story. Cars and boats become palimpsests of personal history, and each garden and untended backyard is portrayed its own tiny ecosystem. Chavouet also pays particular obeisance to food, placing each meal in context, whether it’s a community barbeque or freshly prepared sashimi.

I must admit that a certain amount of anxiety underlay my reading of Manabeshima. As with any travel account, part of the pleasure of the experience involves imagining yourself following in the footsteps of the writer. Even if it’s something you have no intention of ever doing, like the hiking the Shikoku pilgrimage route, it’s still fun to pretend that you’re there along with the author, sharing her triumphs and sympathizing with her tribulations. In the case of Chavouet’s account of Manabeshima, this sort of identification was very difficult for me.

Although nothing in the book makes this explicit, Chavouet’s experiences are gendered. Within the first twenty pages, he makes it clear to the reader that he has been, after a fashion, accepted into the community. He is taken in by Ikkyu-san, the owner of a small bar and restaurant who plies him with food and alcohol, asking only that he sit and eat and drink with the regulars. He is invited to two religious ceremonies (a Buddhist ritual presided over by Ikkyu-san and an evening of Shinto kagura dances), where he is expected only to sit and eat and drink. He goes to the neighborhood association meetings, he gets invited to go out crab fishing, and he participates in the island summer festival. He seems like an extremely friendly person, and he mentions exchanging drawings for food and goodwill; but, if anyone ever requests that he do anything except enjoy himself, the reader never hears anything about it.

My own experience with small communities both inside and outside of Japan is that, in order to be included, I am expected to perform labor, such as cooking or laundry or childcare. Since I am an undomesticated animal who is not good at any of this, things always get awkward. If you asked me if I, as a woman, would want to spend two months in a tiny village on a small island, my response would be something along the lines of AW HELL NO. While Chavouet would be eating and drinking, I would more than likely be summoned to the kitchen to help do the dishes. I use the hypothetical example of being asked to help clean up because it’s actually happened to me enough times (especially in Japan) that I would almost be taken aback if it didn’t. In other words, the price of admission is gendered and – let’s be honest – unfairly so.

Again, there’s nothing in the book that suggests that the people on Manabeshima are old-fashioned sexist pigs, but Chavouet is definitely writing from a privileged position, and your ability to identify with this position will more than likely affect your relationship to the world Chavouet creates for you with his words and illustrations. Personally, I found reading Manabeshima to be a bit stressful because I couldn’t help waiting for the other shoe to drop, like, so when are they going to ask him to serve tea? (Spoiler: No one ever does.)

Don’t get me wrong – I am enamored of Chavouet as a kind and compassionate observer who can communicate the wonder and beauty of even the most commonplace objects and settings, and his already enviable skill in drawing and annotating his environment has tangibly improved since Tokyo on Foot. Still, I can’t help but prefer Tokyo on Foot, which pieces together a physical, social, and cultural landscape that even the most casual of readers can easily enter. While Tokyo on Foot collects a multitude of fragments and progressively demonstrates how they are all connected, everything is already a cohesive whole in Manabeshima, which, unlike Tokyo on Foot, has a cast of recurring characters and something resembling a narrative. On the other hand, although it’s harder for a reader to imagine entering this narrative herself, the easy flow of the story renders Manabeshima a more satisfying extended reading experience.

The best part of Tuttle’s lovely softcover edition of Manabeshima is that it comes with a huge map folded into a pocket on the back cover. This map is intensely detailed, showing every house and garden and boat on the island and labeled with references to people, landmarks, and events from the main text. I spent at least an hour with the map alone, catching new details each time I opened it and spread it out over my kitchen table.

If you have kids in your life, and if you’d like to get one of those kids (or their parents) a really cool present, consider handing them a copy of Manabeshima, whose every page celebrates the thrill of exploration and discovery.

A review copy was provided by the good people at Tuttle Publishing.

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Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums

The Art Lover's Guide to Japanese Museums

Title: The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums
Author: Sophie Richard
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: The Japan Society
Pages: 176

According to the good people at The Japan Society, art historian Sophie Richard’s The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums has been very popular, quickly selling out of its first print run. Between its convenience as a guide and its beauty as a physical object, it’s easy to understand why.

The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is so titled because it’s aimed at serious art appreciators who are willing to go off the beaten path in order to visit smaller museums that offer a more personalized and intimate experience. Richard skips the large national institutions and instead highlights private or regional galleries that would be worthy of a day trip or that necessitate a willingness to venture off the beaten path in urban and suburban areas. Based on my personal experience with several of these museums, the trip will definitely be worth it.

The main body of the guide is divided into five sections: Tokyo, Around Tokyo, Kyoto Area, West, and East (with “West” designating the area from Osaka to Hiroshima and “East” designating the area from Nagoya to Aomori). 29 of the 52 museums profiled are in or around Tokyo. In some cases, a location “around Tokyo” might require a long train ride and an overnight stay, but most are well within the city limits or accessible by commuter rail.

Most of the entries are two pages long. Each opens with the museum’s address in English and Japanese and general information (hours, holidays, access, website). This is followed with three paragraphs of description. The content of varies but can include information about the museum’s history, the highlights of its collection, and the availability of English text or audio guides. The short “In the neighborhood” section at the end of every entry tempts the reader out into the open to take in the layout of the town, the local cuisine, nearby temples, and even other museums. Each entry also includes two or three full-color photographs of the museum space and representative works from its holdings. The occasional four-page entries are usually longer because of their inclusion of more pictures, all of which are gorgeous.

Even if you’re not planning on visiting Japan, browsing through The Art Lover’s Guide to Japanese Museums is still enjoyable, as Richard’s articulate prose guides the reader through the experience of visiting the galleries. For example, writing on the Chichu Art Museum designed by Andō Tadao, Richard offers this intriguing description:

The museum’s complex space includes passageways and stairs set at sharp angles and a courtyard with evergreen plants that contrast starkly with the grey concrete. The interior of the building is lit with natural light alone. At the heart of the museum, five monumental paintings by Claude Monet from the late Waterlilies series appear to float mysteriously in a serene space gently illuminated by the sun’s rays, which are diffused through channels in the ceiling. Security guards wearing futuristic white uniforms ask visitors to remove their shoes before entering the room, which adds to the compelling atmosphere.

As in the excerpt above, Richard does walkthroughs like Sherlock Holmes, albeit with less of an emphasis on dry facts and with more of an emphasis on atmosphere. If you’d prefer to travel from the comfort of your own sofa, Guide to Japanese Museums is a perfect companion.

Also included in the guide are a short “Introduction” in which the author explains her motivations for embarking on this project, an overview of “Museums in Japan,” a six-page essay on “Looking at Japanese art,” and a brief list of “Tips and advice.” These sections are useful regardless of whether you’re making plans to visit Japan or whether you’re already there. For instance, this is the first time I’ve heard of the Grutt Pass, a ¥2,000 booklet that provides one-time admission to several of the museums profiled in this guide.

I should add that Guide to Japanese Museums came with me across the North American continent twice during the past two months, and it’s still in pristine condition. The book is lightweight and flexible, and it can easily be slipped inside a backpack or a suitcase. If I couldn’t destroy it, it’s more than likely safe with you as well, so don’t feel as if you need to leave it on a shelf while you go and have adventures, whether those adventures are in Japan or at your local café.

Review copy provided by The Japan Society of the UK.

Cool Japan Guide

Cool Japan Guide

Title: Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen
Artist: Abby Denson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 127

Abby Denson is a comics writer who has worked on a number of high-profile and kid-friendly titles, such as the comic adaptations of Powerpuff Girls and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. She’s also drawn two graphic novels of her own, Dolltopia and Tough Love: High School Confidential, both of which I love beyond all reason. She has a quirky style all her own, and her charm shines from everything she creates.

I should probably get this out of the way first – Denson is a wonderful writer, but her art can sometimes be a little uneven. In Cool Japan Guide, the continuity between panels is inconsistent, and her characters all tend to have the same の∇の facial expression. The coloring is absolutely flat, and the bright primary colors can occasionally clash against each other violently.

Even if Denson’s art style isn’t to your taste, is Cool Japan Guide still worth reading?

It definitely is!

As you progress through the book, the art will grow on you, I promise. Denson has a special talent for depicting places and objects, and the details of each panel are fun and creatively stylized.

All of Denson’s travel advice is spot-on. Seriously, this woman has excellent taste – if she recommends something, then it’s definitely worth doing. By all means, check out the train-themed socks for sale at Tokyo Station! Try the sweet potato soft serve ice cream in Kamakura! Enjoy a cocktail at the 8bit Café in Shinjuku! Make plans to attend the Kaigai Manga Festa! Soak in the warm water and kitschy atmosphere of Oedo Onsen Monogatari!

Cool Japan Guide also offers a fair bit of reference material, such as websites with travel resources and smartphone apps convenient for tasks like train scheduling and quickly finding phrases in Japanese. Each chapter is preceded by eight or nine useful words or expressions, and the hand-drawn map of Japan at the end of the book is a treasure, especially for people planning longer journeys.

Cool Japan Guide is definitely not for the type of thirty-something hipsters who are into the Wallpaper* city guides or the type of forty-something yuppies who are into Fodor’s, but I can imagine a younger person smiling with joy while reading through the book. Since Denson takes care to ensure that the content is family-friendly, the book would make a great gift for a child or teenager. The gentle silliness and positivity of the guide succeed in making it enjoyable for older readers as well.

For more pictures, stories, and news, Abby Denson has her own website, and Cool Japan Guide has its own Tumblr.

Review copy provided by Tuttle.

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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