Nickelodeon

Nickelodeon Blue

Title: Nickelodeon
Japanese Title: ニッケルオデオン (Nikkeruodeon)
Artist: Dowman Sayman (道満 清明)
Publisher: Shōgakukan (小学館)
Publication Dates: 11/2010 – 10/2014
Volumes: 3 (赤・緑・青)

I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past ten years of my life trying to find another Azumanga Daioh: a set of girl-centric stories that are weird and funny and touching without being male gazey. I love Azumanga Daioh‘s cute artwork and bizarre situations and perfect ratio of dark to sweet humor. Having read my way across a large swath of its many, many imitators, I’ve come to the conclusion that Azumanga Daioh is one of a kind. But I’ve found something close, yet different – and just as enjoyable.

Dowman Sayman’s Nickelodeon series is, on the surface, nothing like Azumanga Daioh. Each of the manga’s stand-alone stories is exactly eight pages long; and, aside from a few inconsequential crossover references, they have nothing to do with each other. Whereas Azumanga Daioh was all about the daily lives of high school girls, the subject matter of the stories in Nickelodeon ranges from grotesque fantasy to sci-fi spoofs to sarcastic magical realism. Unlike Azumanga Daioh, which has few male characters of note, the cute girls of Nickelodeon are more than adequately balanced by cute boys. What Nickelodeon does have in common with Azumanga Daioh is the tone of its unique style offbeat humor, as well as the artist’s ability to imbue stock characters with unexpected depth and feeling.

At the core of each of the stories in the series is a relationship between people, with “people” being a relative term. These relationships can be friendly, or romantic, or antagonistic, or a mix of all three. Boys are paired with girls, boys are paired with other boys, girls are paired with girls, girls are paired with tigers, boys are paired with flesh-eating demons, high school students are paired with clueless angels, conjoined twins are paired with blind dates, and ghosts of all sexes are all over the place. There are robots, giants, mad scientists, wish-granting devils, zombie princesses, and seemingly normal people with all manner of strange hobbies. The artist is like Scheherazade, spinning a seemingly infinite number of stories out of contemporary pop culture tropes, but all of his stories are refreshingly original.

One of my favorites is the cover story of the “Green” volume (pictured below), “Hickey & Gackey” (Hikkī & Gakkī). The piece opens with a girl named Otowa delivering a set of handouts to her classmate Sengoku-san, who seems to have become a hikikomori some time ago. Sengoku-san lives alone in her house, which has become a gomi-yashiki (trash hoarder’s den). After speaking briefly with Sengoku-san, Otowa promises to come again next week, but Sengoku-san tells her that this is the last time they’ll meet, as the city is sending an enormous garbage disposal unit named “Duskin Hoffman” (Duskin is a Japanese company that makes Swiffer-like cleaning implements) to her house to dispose of her like the rubbish she is. Suddenly, the ground starts shaking, the blades start whirling, the trash starts flying, and Otowa reaches out to Sengoku-san, making a last desperate confession. It’s absurd and ridiculous but somehow manages to punch you right in the feels, and the ending is beautifully open to interpretation.

Nickelodeon was serialized in Shōgakukan’s recently defunct IKKI monthly alternative seinen magazine, and its readers were thus expected to be genre-saavy and open to weirdness. The manga also contains moments of overt sexuality – it’s nothing that could even remotely be considered pornographic, but some of the characters are shown engaging in adult thoughts and behaviors, and there is occasional cartoonish nudity. The humor is for the most part good-natured, and the author emphasizes and plays on the silliness and personality quirks of his characters, not the sizes and shapes of their bodies. However, because male and female humans are portrayed as having nipples (the horror!), I don’t foresee Nickelodeon being licensed in North America. If you can speak a little Japanese, though, it’s fairly easy to read. In fact, I assigned a chapter to my fourth-year Japanese class this past fall, and the students seemed to really enjoy it.

Nickelodeon is almost perfectly bespoke to my own personal tastes, so it may be that I’m biased, but I think the three-volume series represents many of the great pleasures of manga written for an adult audience. Downman Sayman is wonderfully talented, and I’m expecting great things from him in the future. Hopefully one day his work will find its way into English!

The artist has two other two-volume seinen series, The Voynich Hotel (Voinicchi Hoteru) and Paraiso (Para☆Iso), available on Amazon.co.jp, and you can also find him on Twitter. Although he hasn’t updated it in some time, he has an account on Tumblr, which is cute and hilarious (but not entirely safe for work).

Nickelodeon Green

In Defense of Fujoshi

Content warning for discussion of rape fantasies, illustrations of penises, and strong irony regarding sensitive topics.

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I’m really serious about the content warning.
This essay is potentially triggering and extremely NSFW.

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At the Toronto Comic Arts Festival last weekend, Picturebox announced their plan to publish a bara manga anthology titled Massive. This news has been met with congratulations from all corners of English-language manga fandom, which is fantastic, because congratulations are in order.

What this excitement has occasionally been accompanied by, however, are snide comments about BL manga. To summarize and simplify these comments:

Male sexuality is BEAUTIFUL.
Female sexuality is GROSS.

Pornography drawn by men is ART.
Pornography drawn by women is TRASH.

Male sexual fetishes are EXCITING AND REVOLUTIONARY.
Female sexual fetishes are DESTROYING FEMINISM AND/OR LGBT RIGHTS FOREVER.

In other words:

Bara manga is GOOD.
BL manga is BAD.

This sort of mentality is often accompanied by essentializing statements such as:

All bara manga is AUTHENTIC.
All BL manga is HOMOPHOBIC.

The idea behind the above sentiment seems to be that, while all bara manga is always, by its very nature, an accurate depiction of the realities of the gay male lifestyle (note that there is apparently only one gay male lifestyle), BL manga, because it is always drawn by straight women, cannot accurately depict the concerns of gay men.

Okay, so if bara manga is always an accurate depiction of the gay male lifestyle…

Tagame Gengoroh - Standing Ovations

…then Tagame Gengorō’s one-shot manga “Standing Ovations” (pictured above), which is about a boxer who is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience, is apparently an accurate representation of the reality of what it means to be a gay man.

In another of Tagame’s stories…

Tagame Gengoroh - Arena

…titled “Arena” (pictured above), a boxer is drugged and forced to become a slave and repeatedly raped in front of a live audience. Except he’s eventually chemically lobotomized, and he ends up loving the rape, so it’s not really rape anymore!

Wow. I had no idea that all gay men everywhere in the world are either attending or participating in these sorts of rape battles.

This makes me wonder about bisexual men, or straight men who participate in group sex. Do those guys have their own separate rape battles, or are they just not invited to the rape battles? What about transgender men? Do they still get to go to the rape battles? And what about the gay men who aren’t interested in rape battles? Do they still get to be gay? Or am I just being a silly vagina-head by assuming that all gay men are not all totally alike?

But wait! It turns out that Tagame also wrote stories that were published in BL magazines like June, as well as magazines that have a balanced male/female readership, such as Kinniku otoko:

“I wrote ‘Hairy Oracle’ knowing that half of the readers were going to be women, so I tried to include some elements of romance and lightheartedness,” explains Tagame. “When I write for gay men’s magazines, it’s primarily about the hero’s initiative and interiority. When I know that women are also going to be reading it… they’re more interested in seeing actual relationships and coupling. So that’s a big difference when I go for writing for one or the other.”

Wait… So Tagame Gengorō has written BL manga… And BL manga is not authentic, because it’s all written by straight women… Which means that Tagame Gengorō is a straight woman?

My head just exploded.

Anyway, let’s consider the sick fantasies women have about gay men…

Kagurazaka Hanko - Hitotsu yane

…like gay men in monogamous relationships raising children.

SO GROSS.

The really terrible thing about these twisted women is that they’re not content with stand-alone BL manga; they also have to get their dirty lady cooties on mainstream media as well. For example, Azuma Kiyohiko’s series Yotsuba to, which manga critic Kamiya Kōsetsu has called an “eternal summer vacation” meant to provide adult men with an escape from the real world, is a huge hit with adult women, who are attracted to the role-reversal of a single father raising a child and the strong friendships between the female characters. When these women get their filthy lady hands on the manga…

Ookina hanayasan

…they write dōjinshi fanzines that turn the escapist fantasy of the original manga into a serious exploration of adult male gay relationships and the social constraints against two men raising a child in Japan.

HOW DISGUSTING.

I am one hundred percent certain that it’s entirely possible to use different examples and thereby demonstrate how bara manga is not all about bondage and rape fetishes (it totally isn’t) and how some BL manga is nothing more than shallow, disposable pornography that conflates homosexuality with sexual deviance (some of it totally is). There is a great deal of porn in the world, and there is more than enough to go around. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a wide variation in both bara and BL manga, and it’s useless to make absolute statements about the people who read and write manga belonging to either category.

According to Dan Savage, author of The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, gay men can be kinky and enjoy porn and raise children in stable families. In other words, gay men can have sexual fantasies and still be “normal” people; it’s not an issue of either/or.

So what about fujoshi, the women who read and write BL manga?

Here is a common conception of fujoshi:

Fujoshi Stereotype

The above image may seem like a caricature, but many critics have extremely uncharitable opinions of women who read manga.

In his Neo review of the BL manga periodical Dear+, Jonathan Clements mocks the magazine’s readers, saying, “one imagines an audience of shelf-stackers, burger-flippers and NEETS, smiling dreamily at the thought of a world where everyone can wear, and afford, posh clothes, and gets to sit in an office all day thinking of ways to sell perfume to people like them.” In other words, the women who read Dear+ are useless, lazy slackers who can’t get real jobs but like to fantasize about what a high-powered professional life in the creative industry is like through the bodies of the men who have these jobs in the real world. Right. Let’s put aside the realities of the professional world in Japan, where men do in fact hold jobs women are strongly discouraged from attaining, and assume that the glass ceiling exists because women are too wrapped up in the fantasies of BL manga to be functional adults. Obviously.

Clements concludes his essay with the argument that BL contains elements of homophobia:

Dear Plus follows a format familiar to us from other magazines in the boys’-love genre, running the gamut of possible relationships in a single issue from chaste adoration to hardcore sex. But as noted in earlier Manga Snapshot columns on boys’ love, sometimes one detects that oddest of undertones, an arguably anti-gay assertion that all of this man-on-man action is merely a phase, and that what these lonely boys are really waiting for is the right girl to come along. In other words, these men are only snogging each other because the Reader hasn’t met them yet.

This is, we might say, another appropriation from the mainstream world, where myriads of lonely manga boys have suddenly received the girl of their dreams by some fiat of the fates, in which she drops out of the sky, appears in his wardrobe, or otherwise manifests through deeply unlikely means. In denying, however subtly, the desire of men who truly love men, Dear Plus suggests its true colors as a publication that is really aimed at lonely, heterosexual girls.

To summarize, all of these BL manga readers are terribly lonely (maybe because they’re such losers), and all they really want is a man of their very own. That sounds like an extreme projection of male heterosexuality to me, but it’s not as if Clements is the first man in the world to state that girls just wanna have cock.

In any case, it’s bizarre to me that Clements would identify fujoshi as man-hungry, lonely women, especially since the vast majority of scholarship on these women identifies them as participating in highly active homosocial communities. For example, in her monograph Fujoshika suru sekai, Sugiura Yumiko argues that the reason Ikebukuro became a fujoshi paradise (as opposed to somewhere like Nakano or Kichijōji) is because it’s a centrally located area that’s a convenient place for women to meet each other. In Ikebukuro, women can shop for both clothes and dōjinshi and then meet up with friends afterwards to have coffee in the cute and trendy cafes that dot the neighborhood. These women were early adapters to social networking sites like Mixi and Twitter, which they use to organize casual meetups. In fact, there’s a trend of fujoshi using Skype and Google Hangouts to talk to one another while and immediately after their favorite shows air live in the evening. It’s not that these women don’t have husbands and boyfriends, but rather that they also have female friends with whom they share their interests and hobbies.

Slash and BL fan communities in the West are highly social as well, with friends often forming offline clubs and art circles to share and promote their hobbies. In the vast majority of these communities, straight and gay men are totally welcome; and, in the artist alleys of American (and Canadian! and British! and French!) anime conventions, one is just as likely to see boys both in front of and behind the tables of artist collectives selling homegrown BL manga and fanzines. In some of the more commercially successful Western BL comics, such as the erotic comedy Teahouse, one can even spot the mention of the artists’ husbands (and partners) on the acknowledgements pages.

I am not saying that everyone who reads and writes BL manga is female, straight, and cisgender. That’s a common assumption, but it’s not true. Even if it were true, however, it would not be an excuse for the misogyny that pervades opinions about manga not explicitly targeted at men.

So seriously guys? Cut that shit out.

People who read bara manga are okay.
People who read BL manga are okay.

Maybe you personally prefer one over the other. That’s okay too.

Non-normative sexualities are okay, and other people’s fantasies are okay, and there doesn’t need to be some sort of weird war on the internet over whose gender is the most “authentic.” Everyone is perfectly free to mock the ridiculousness of both bara tropes and BL tropes until global warming renders such trivialities inconsequential, but please take a moment to consider whether writing homophobic and misogynistic things about people who read comics is really the most productive exercise of social justice before you waste your time trying to convince women that girls are yucky.

Yotsubato!

Title: よつばと!(Yotsuba to)
Artist: あずまきよひこ (Azuma Kiyohiko)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 9)
Publisher: 電撃コミックス (Dengeki Comics)
Pages: 225 (per volume)

Let me get this out of the way first: Yotsubato! has no story. It is not “about” anything. There is no point. It does not go anywhere. The manga could be classified as falling within the genre of comedy, but it doesn’t really try to be funny. The reader never really learns anything about the characters, and the relationships between the characters show almost no development. Nothing important or exciting happens.

Let me also get this out of the way: Yotsubato! is one of my favorite manga in the whole wide world.

I have been fond of Azuma Kiyohiko’s four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh ever since the translation was released in America in 2002. I also enjoyed the anime based on said manga. When defunct American manga publisher ADV Manga started releasing translations of Yotsubato!, Azuma’s new project following the completion of Azumanga Daioh, I picked up the first volume immediately. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a fun manga to read. I didn’t get it. The dialog was translated in a way that was supposed to be wacky and zany, but I didn’t think the manga itself was that funny. The art was a little weird, too. A year later, in 2007, I went to Japan to find Yotsubato! featured prominently at almost every major bookstore in Tokyo and Yokohama – most memorably at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which had an entire wall devoted to Yotsuba paraphernalia. The cover of the Japanese publication of the manga was approximately five hundred times more appealing than the cover of the translation, so I picked up a copy. While reading it on the train home, I fell in love.

Yotsubato! follows the daily life of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Having been orphaned on an island somewhere outside of Japan (the circumstances are never made clear to the reader), Yotsuba has been taken in by a man named Koiwai, who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties and makes his living as a translator. At the beginning of the first volume of the manga, Yotsuba and her adopted father move into a new house in the suburbs of a city assisted by Koiwai’s friend Jumbo, a florist with a preference for Hawaiian shirts whose name reflects his comically enormous stature. After moving in, Yotsuba and Koiwai (and Jumbo, who visits from time to time) become friends with the family living next door, which consists of a mother, a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, and a daughter a year or two older than Yotsuba (the father of the family never makes an appearance). Although other friends of Koiwai and the next-door neighbors are occasionally introduced, Yotsubato! mainly revolves around this core set of characters and their interactions. The manga moves slowly from day to day. Over the course of nine volumes, its leisurely pace has taken it from the middle of summer to the very beginning of fall.

What I love about this manga is this very slowness. I wouldn’t describe this work as “contemplative,” however; Yotsuba herself is very curious and energetic, and her adopted father is something of a character as well. There is nothing boring about the manga, but its focus on the mundane allows the reader to take a step back from his or her own presumably hectic life and enjoy an endless summer full of daytrip adventures and small discoveries. This is not to say that Yotsubato! somehow resembles something like My Neighbor Totoro. The manga is written from an adult perspective, and the reader is constantly encouraged to identify with the people who surround Yotsuba rather than with the girl herself. The occasional jokes that the manga makes are sophisticated, and the adult speech and relationships are not sanitized or downplayed.

The attention to detail expressed in every aspect of the manga finds its most visible outlet in its gorgeous artwork. As I noticed when I first read the manga in America, it takes Azuma several chapters to settle on his character designs, which are drawn in his unique style. The rest of the visual realm, however, is drawn in an almost photorealistic way, from the tiniest detail of the interior architecture of Yotsuba’s house to the products lining the shelves of a neighborhood convenience store. Aside from the shade of Yotsuba’s unique hair, there is almost no screen tone used in the manga; everything is conveyed in understated ink work, which miraculously never clutters the page or busies the panels. The slightly cartoonish characters provide a pleasing contrast to this sort of detailed background. I feel like the background art in this manga captures the essence of a Japanese suburb far away from Tokyo; so, even while I was reading this manga in Yokohama, it made me feel nostalgic for living in Japan.

I suppose you could say that I enjoy this manga because of its pace, its narrative tone, and its art. I’m not really sure, though, what makes Yotsubato! different from any other “slice of life” manga, but it is different. I have said before that I think manga can be considered literature, but Yotsubato! is not literature. It is a masterwork of an entirely different medium of artistic expression. Really, I think Yotsubato! stands alongside the works of Urasawa Naoki and Asano Inio as an exemplar of what manga is capable of.

Although I am a great believer in translation, I feel that Yotsubato! is much more enjoyable in the original Japanese. Thankfully, even beginning students of Japanese should not find the dialog in the manga to be prohibitively difficult. For those readers who have no Japanese language background, however, a new English translation of the manga is currently being published under the title of “Yotsuba&!” by Yen Press.

I think the following two pages demonstrate the style of the manga. In the middle of a late summer typhoon, Yotsuba runs into the storm to warn her next door neighbors to be careful. In her haste, she forgets her umbrella, so her adopted father runs after her to give it to her. Upon catching up with her, he finds her already drenched, so….

Solanin

Solanin

Title: solanin
Japanese Title: ソラニン
Author: Asano Inio (浅野いにお)
Translator: JN Productions
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 428

Is manga literature? In some cases, like Urasawa Naoki’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, one could make a very strong positive argument. Some manga, however, like Bleach or Yuzawa Ai’s Nana series, are nothing more than once promising but now over-bloated cash cows. On the other hand, many of my favorite manga, like Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&!, are not literature simply because they are masterpieces of a completely different art form.

But Asano Inio’s 420 page work Solanin is literature, no doubt about it. Like many Japanese narratives, it is driven not so much by plot as by character development and a fascination with the beauty of everyday life, which sounds like a Hallmark greeting card but is actually quite gritty and satisfying. Unlike a great deal of manga, Solanin deals with the problems of Japanese young people who are not sailor-suited schoolgirls and have already passed through their fun and fancy-free college years. In other words, the protagonists of Solanin have already grown up, or at least are trying to. I suppose that, in this way, Solanin is like a more focused and mature version of Umino Chika’s popular shōjo manga Honey and Clover, which chronicles the struggles and heartbreaks of a group of friends who have just graduated from art school.

As I said, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plot (although there are some fairly gut-wrenching twists in the story), but the basic premise of the manga is that the protagonist, Mieko, who has just graduated from college and moved in with her boyfriend, has gotten sick of her boring office job and creepy boss and decided to quit working for a few months. During this time, she focuses on her friends and boyfriend, who had formed a rock band together in college. Mieko wants her guitarist boyfriend Naruo, who also feels suffocated at work, to get the band back together and be more serious about his music and his dreams, which drives the story forward but causes tension between the two. What ends up happening is way beyond what the characters – or the readers – suspect. The ending of the manga isn’t happy, necessarily, but it is fulfilling.

Although the focus of the narrative is on Mieko, occasionally chapters will be told from the point of view of another character, like Mieko and Naruo’s friends Rip (the drummer) and Kato (the bassist). These chapters rarely have anything to do with the main story but are still interesting, especially in how they highlight different aspects of the group dynamic within the circle of friends. The alternate narrative chapters also provide the majority of the manga’s comic relief, which is actually quite funny in a quiet sort of way.

Although the characters and narrative style alone make Solanin worth reading, what really made me pick up this book and buy it was the artwork. The character designs, though simple, are very appealing. I also feel that, within the limits of Asano’s personal style, they are realistic in the way they depict different body types and facial expressions. The background art is wonderfully realistic, which is extraordinary when you realize how much of it there is. Unlike most manga, which only provide a panel of background art every page or two, Solanin is filled with beautiful drawings of the scenery and landscape of the Tokyo suburbs. Even if you think Solanin’s story is just basic Banana Yoshimoto style angsty emo crap (although, in my mind, it never gets that bad), the artwork makes the whole thing worthwhile. Really, it’s gorgeous.

So, although the cover isn’t that appealing, and although the $17.99 price tag is pretty hefty, I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m really happy I gave it a chance, despite my misgivings.

Just to give a feel for the art style, I’ll post some images from the manga. I apologize for the poor scanning quality…

Solanin Page 1

Solanin Page 2