The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga

Natasha Allegri Madoka PuppyCat

On January 18 of 2015, Ed Chavez, the Marketing Director at manga publisher Vertical, replied to a Twitter user’s question on ask.fm regarding whether manga is becoming a niche entertainment industry outside of Japan. Chavez’s response was a definite “maybe.” After stating that shōnen manga is selling just as well – if not better – than it always has, Chavez added the caveat that, “Unlike the 00’s, where a shojo boom introduced a whole new demographic to manga, there hasn’t been a culture shifting movement recently.” Johanna Draper Carlson, one of the most well-respected and prolific manga critics writing in English, responded to Chavez’s assessment on her blog Comics Worth Reading. She agreed with him, adding, “I find myself working harder to find series I want to follow. Many new releases seem to fall into pre-existing categories that have already demonstrated success: vampire romance, harem fantasy, adventure quests, and so on. It’s harder to find the kind of female-oriented story that [has always appealed] to me.” Meanwhile, the manga that stood at the top of the New York Times’s “Best Sellers” list for manga that week was the seventh volume of a series called Finder, a boys’ love story targeted at an over-18 female audience.

What we’re seeing here, from Chavez’s reference to a former boom in shōjo manga sales to evidence that even a title from a niche category for women can sell just as well as the latest volume of the shōnen juggernaut One Piece, is that girls and women in North America do care about manga, and that they are active participants in manga fandom cultures. What I’d like to do today is to provide a bit of background on how female readers were courted by manga publishers – specifically Tokyopop – and then to demonstrate how manga has influenced the women who grew up with it to reshape North American comics and animation with a shōjo flair.

I’d like to argue that, despite periods of relatively low sales in the United States, shōjo manga (and the animated adaptations of these manga) have had a strong cultural impact on recent generations of fans. During the past fifteen years, fan discussions and fannish artistic production have nourished diverse interests in Japanese cultural products, which are in turn beginning to exert a stronger influence on mainstream geek media. Using M. Alice LeGrow‘s graphic novel series Bizenghast and Natasha Allegri‘s animated webseries Bee and PuppyCat as case studies, I want to demonstrate how it is not only the visual styles and narrative tropes of shōjo manga that have increasingly begun to influence North American media, but the creative consumption patterns of shōjo fandom communities as well.

Tokyopop Smile Magazine July 2001

Before I talk about American interpretations of shōjo cultures, however, I’d like to skim through a bit of publishing history. In the mid-1990s, there was a Barnes-and-Noble-style big suburban box store called Media Play, which had an entire section devoted to manga and Japanese culture magazines. One of the most prominent of these magazines was fledgling publisher Tokyopop’s manga anthology MixxZine, which began serialization in 1997 and ran the manga version of Sailor Moon as well as the similarly themed fantasy shōjo series Magic Knight Rayearth and Card Captor Sakura. In 1999, the magazine changed its name to “Tokyopop” and began to target an older male audience by dropping its shōjo manga and focusing on shōnen and seinen titles. Tokyopop the magazine folded in 2000 but was survived by a publication called Smile, which was a bulky, 160-page monthly magazine that serialized only shōjo manga. In 2001, Media Play’s parent company was bought out by Best Buy. When Media Play stores were closed, Tokyopop lost a major venue for its magazines, and Smile folded in 2002.

Now that a large fanbase had been created, however, Tokyopop was able to launch a program it called “Global Manga,” which was kicked off by the 2002 “Rising Stars of Manga” talent competition. The winning entries were published in a volume of the same size and length of the publisher’s Japanese manga titles. There were eventually eight volumes of The Rising Stars of Manga, with the last appearing in the summer of 2008. During this time, certain winners were encouraged to submit proposals to Tokyopop, which published their work as OEL, or “original English language,” manga. By my count, about half of Tokyopop’s OEL manga were shōjo series. Examples include Peach Fuzz, Shutter Box, Fool’s Gold, and Sorcerers & Secretaries. Tokyopop promoted these titles with free “sampler” publications distributed by mail and at anime conventions, which were exploding in number and attendance in the United States and Canada during the 2000s. Although users of anime-related message boards and fannish social media sites debated the company’s use of the term “manga” to describe these graphic novels, Tokyopop was able to attract well-known American entertainment franchises to the medium, such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, World of Warcraft, and for the girls, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie’s Goblin King in all his spandex-clad glory.

Return to Labyrinth OEL Manga

One of the Tokyopop’s most popular OEL manga titles was M. Alice LeGrow’s eight-volume series Bizenghast, which, like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, is a shōjo story with shōnen elements. LeGrow’s story takes the adorable mascot creatures, monsters-of-the-week, cute costumes, adoring and beautiful young men, and powerful female villains of Japanese manga for girls and transplants them to the small Massachusetts community of Bizenghast, which becomes an Edgar Allan Poe-ified Gothic wonderland after dark. The art style combines the huge eyes and wide panels of fan-favorite shōjo manga like Fruits Basket and Fushigi Yûgi with steampunk Art Deco motifs and Edward Gorey-style line etchings. The artistic and narrative conventions of manga and the stylizations of Western fantasy are so delicately blended and intermixed that it’s impossible to tell whether Bizenghast is a manga with American influences or a graphic novel with Japanese influences.

Bizenghast Volume 1 Page 075

What I want to highlight is the way that the Tokyopop publications of each volume in the Bizenghast series included a section at the end for fan art and cosplay photos, thus encouraging and legitimizing reader participation in the way that shōjo magazines have done since the early twentieth century in Japan.

Bizenghast Fan Art Spread

Instead of eschewing or actively opposing fandom involvement, and specifically female fandom involvement, Tokyopop pursued it, allowing LeGrow to maintain her presence on the fannish artistic networking site deviantART, where she was able to interact with her fans. Due to the non-localized nature of the internet, LeGrow was able to build a fanbase that stretched around the globe, with Bizenghast being published in translation in Germany, Finland, Russia, and Hungary, as well as in several countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand. In addition to assigning Bizenghast its own dedicated website, Tokyopop released a light novel adaptation, an art book, and even a coloring book based on the world of the manga. Although Tokyopop shut down its publishing operations in May 2011, it continued to offer certain titles through a print-on-demand service managed by the online anime retailer The Right Stuf. The initial line-up of these titles included the massively popular manga Hetalia Axis Powers and the eighth and concluding volume of Bizenghast. What I’d like to emphasize here is that, in its publication and promotion of Bizenghast as an OEL shōjo manga product, Tokyopop actively promoted the sort of interactive fan consumption utilized by Japanese shōjo manga publishers – and this encouragement paid off, quite literally.

Multiple market watchers have located the peak of United States manga sales in the mid-to-late 2000s. Even though Tokyopop ceased its manga magazines earlier in the decade, Viz Media stepped in with an English-language version of Shonen Jump, which was paired with a monthly sister magazine, Shojo Beat. Shojo Beat, which ran from June 2005 until July 2009, also styled itself as a lifestyle magazine, running articles about clothing, makeup, and real-life romantic concerns. Although Shojo Beat did not include OEL manga, manga publisher Yen Press’s publication Yen Plus did. From its launch in July 2008, the editors of Yen Plus solicited reader contributions, which resulted in both one-shot and continuing OEL manga appearing within the pages of the magazine.

In addition, Yen Press’s parent company Hachette began releasing manga adaptations of some of its biggest young adult properties, including Gossip Girl, Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, and, of course, Twilight. For our purposes, it’s interesting to note that these manga adaptations all had a strong shōjo feel, as did other franchise manga revisionings created by longstanding American comics publishers such as Marvel and Vertigo. What these publishers seemed to be jumping on was the idea that manga could reach an audience of young women (and young-at-heart women) who may have felt excluded from traditionally male-centered genres like action comics and science fiction. These female readers increasingly came equipped with access to online and in-person fandom networks, which could help ensure the longevity and profitability of any given franchise, as was famously the case with Star Trek and Harry Potter.

Twilight Manga

What we’re seeing, then, is the creation and growth of an audience for shōjo manga that began in the 1990s and has extended throughout the past two decades. So – has this changed anything? I’d like to argue that it has, and that we’re starting to see a definite shōjo influence on mainstream entertainment media in North America.

One of the most interesting incarnations of this trend is Cartoon Network’s animated television series Adventure Time, whose producers have actively scouted young talent from places like comic conventions and fannish art sharing websites such as Tumblr. A number of these artists are women from the generation that grew up reading and watching shōjo series such as Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, and easily identifiable references to these titles occasionally pop up in the show. Rebecca Sugar, a storyboard artist for Adventure Time, ended up being given a green light by Cartoon Network to create a magical boy show, Steven Universe, that features all manner of references to anime, manga, and video game culture. Natasha Allegri, another storyboard writer and character designer for Adventure Time, launched a Kickstarter project backed by Adventure Time‘s Studio Frederator for a magical girl animated series called Bee and PuppyCat, which received an overwhelming amount of support from both Adventure Time fans and the enormous shōjo manga fanbase on Tumblr.

Lady and Peebles

What’s really cool about these three properties is that they all have separate monthly comic book incarnations published by Boom! Studios. There’s a lot to be said about these comic books, but what I want to emphasize here is that each monthly issue features shorts and variant covers by young and upcoming artists. The comic book version of Bee and PuppyCat is especially notable in that most of its contributing artists are female, and many of them include obvious stylistic and topical references to elements of Japanese popular culture such as Studio Ghibli character stylizations, magical girl henshin transformation sequences, and role-playing video games. Although Natasha Allegri has stated in multiple interviews (here’s one) that she’s a fan of manga such as Sailor Moon and Takahashi Rumiko’s supernatural romance InuYasha, and even though the influence of these titles is quite clear in her work, Bee and PuppyCat has not been promoted as a type of OEL anime but rather as just another cool new addition to the Studio Frederator lineup. In other words, the strong shōjo elements of the show and its comic book are presented as completely natural and naturalized to a North American audience.

I’m going to wrap things up by summarizing my main points. First, I think we can say that the iconography of shōjo manga and anime are entering American popular culture full force. Second, I believe that seeing better representation of diverse female characters in shōjo manga has encouraged more young women outside of Japan to seek careers in comics and animation. Third, although it’s difficult to make strong statements in the current market, I think it’s safe to say that the “reader participation” model employed by Japanese shōjo publishers has been fairly financially successful in the United States. Fourth and finally, I’m going to conclude that we will therefore see an even stronger embrace of shōjo-related narrative influences, art styles, and fandom cultures as the members of the Adventure Time and Bee and PuppyCat generation, who are currently in college, start coming out with their own work. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of shōjo manga, and I’m happy that young women and men are still as excited about shōjo-flavored comics and animation as I was when I first discovered Sailor Moon almost twenty years ago.

Bee and PuppyCat Comic Issue 06 Meredith McClaren

The above image is a scan of a page from Meredith McClaren‘s short comic in the sixth issue of the Bee and PuppyCat comic book series.

Anime Boobs

I was considering giving this post a more serious title, but “Anime Boobs” seemed to be the most fitting label for a visual essay that I hope will demonstrate that the female torso is fetishized in many animated films and television series from Japan. Since a major goal of much of the early critical work on anime was to show that the animated medium allows for a broad range of content and is just as capable of expressing art and philosophy as it is of being a visualization of juvenile heterosexual male fantasies, an argument that there is still a great deal of heterosexual male wish fulfillment going on might seem a bit reactionary. Still, I think it’s necessary to get some things out in the open, so to speak. Allow me to explain.

On March 6, this video from Kyoto Animation was posted to Youtube:

This is a promotional video for the studio itself, not for an actual anime series (they’ve done these before), but many female fans on Tumblr jumped right in and began enjoying themselves with various fannish activities, such as inventing relationships between the boys, drawing fan art, opening ask blogs, claiming characters for roleplay groups, and so on.

Male fans on Tumblr did not like this. Because of the way that Tumblr works, it’s difficult to link to specific comments and response threads, but some of the comments on the Kotaku write-up of the fandom reaction to the video are representative of the male outrage at this particular female-dominated culture of fandom:

Moist fat fan girls want stupid shit to fantasize about.

Piss off. People like you almost ruined Gundam.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Granted, these comments are tame, and the commenters are adequately called out on their meanness. Deeper within the internet, however, there was genuine outrage, which tended to be accompanied by accusations of reverse sexism (which is a classic derailing tactic, by the way). How dare women subject male bodies to the same sort of erotic gaze that (still, more than forty years after Laura Mulvey’s essay) dominates mainstream media.

To give an example from a discussion I observed:

If this was about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits would you be as benign about it? I bet you’d have a 10 page rant about the male gaze or something.

When someone pointed out that there are in fact a lot of anime “about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits,” the response was:

People say this kind of thing and it makes me want to watch anime, thinking it’s going to be nothing but tits, but every time I do I’m disappointed.

The fact that someone can in good faith state that anime, as a broad category of media, is not filled to bursting with many prominent examples of hyper-exposed cleavage is mind-boggling to me. I don’t want to make any value judgments or grand sweeping pronouncements, but I think discussions of the sexualization and objectification of characters in anime might run more smoothly if everyone can agree that “anime boobs” do in fact exist.

While I was waiting for the comment thread I mentioned above to update, I happened to be watching the thirteenth episode of Cowboy Bebop, which is titled “Jupiter Jazz (Part 2).” This episode takes place on the Jovian moon Callisto, which is apparently very cold. While the male lead, Spike Spiegel, covers his customary blue suit with a big fluffy coat…

Spike Spiegel

…the female lead, Faye Valentine, spends the majority of the episode dressed like this:

02 Faye 1

Faye Valentine 2

Faye Valentine 3

Spike gives her a jacket to put on later, thank goodness. I kept worrying about how cold she must be all throughout the episode.

Another candidate for “Wow, she must be freezing” is the character Neko from the recent anime series K, who spends a disproportionate amount of time completely naked. She’s actually a cat, you see, but sometimes she can take human form. This is how the viewer first sees her…

Neko 1

….and this is her as she playfully scampers around the male protagonist’s apartment:

Neko 2

Here’s Awashima Seri, another character from the same anime whose chest is somehow even more on display, even though she’s fully clothed:

Awashima Seri

Moving back in time, an anime classic that’s all about domestic disturbances of the “I just can’t stop tripping and falling into my housemates’ boobs” variety is Love Hina:

Love Hina

Love Hina is based on a manga by Akamatsu Ken, and it was so popular that the artist apparently had trouble ending it. Once it finally wrapped up, Akamatsu started a new project called Negima!, which had even more boobs to trip and accidentally fall into:

Negima!

The bold text at the top reads: “Is everyone looking at the ocean? Or are they looking at you?”

Even though the story is set in a Japanese version of Hogwarts, in both the manga and the anime versions the young male protagonist and his pretty female students find all sorts of opportunities to go swimming, whether it’s at the pool, the ocean, or a hot springs resort. And where there’s water, there are swimsuits… except when they accidentally come off!

Speaking of anime classics, does anyone remember Tenchi Muyo?

Ryoko Hakubi

How about Slayers?

Naga the White Serpent

There was also a cute two-episode Slayers knock-off OVA called Dragon Half:

Dragon Half

While we’re on the subject of old school OVAs, there was one particularly bodacious forty-minute one-shot inexplicably tiled Plastic Little:

12 Plastic Little

Around the same time there was another OVA on the U.S. market called Mezzo Forte:

Mezzo Forte

Like its spiritual forbearer Kite, Mezzo Forte is all about how prolonged violent sex scenes empower women with no chins to shoot things with huge guns in clumsily choreographed action sequences set to laughably bad background music. Oh anime.

“Girls with guns” is a popular theme in anime. For these types of shows, it tends to help the female protagonists’ mobility if they are wearing very tight clothing that is easily destroyed, as is the case with Canaan:

Canaan

Sometimes a woman doesn’t wield a weapon, however; sometimes her entire body is a weapon. In that case, it helps if she wears even less clothing:

Elfen Lied

The character pictured above, Lucy, is from the show Elfen Lied. After Lucy escapes from her laboratory, she can’t remember anything about herself, so the young man who adopts her calls her “Nyuu,” which is the only sound that she can make. Poor Nyuu doesn’t know anything about the real world; and, in the second episode of the series, she soils herself in the foyer of someone’s house because he hasn’t formally invited her in to use the bathroom yet. (I could make a joke about female empowerment here, but I’ll pass.)

While we’re on the subject of strange female-coded creatures being adopted by young men, the anime DearS is notorious for its portrayal of quasi-slavery. It’s okay, though, because the girls are aliens:

DearS

This isn’t to say that some anime boobs can’t be self-reflexive. Karina Lyle from the show Tiger & Bunny is well aware of how her “feminine assets” are used to market the character she plays on TV, Blue Rose:

Blue Rose

Moreover, it’s not as if female viewers don’t appreciate sexualized depictions of the female form. In the lesbian gag manga Tokyo Love~ Rica ‘tte Kanji!? (which you can read here, if you’d like a preview), there’s a joke about how proclaiming an interest in the notoriously boob-heavy Cutey Honey franchise…

Cutie Honey Flash

…is sort of like a pick-up line between women.

Still, some shows are just ridiculous. Take Battle Vixens, for instance:

Battle Vixens

There’s also Burst Angel

Burst Angel

…and Girls Bravo

Girls Bravo

…and Princess Resurrection:

Princess Resurrection

When the concept from Witchblade, a Western comic book series, was adapted into an anime, the studio apparently decided that the most important feature of its original lead character is her, um, identity as a mother:

Witchblade

Another fun action series is High School of the Dead:

High School of the Dead

Skintight schoolgirl uniforms are obviously the best defense against the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of girls in impractical armor, the female warriors in Sacred Blacksmith must buy their battle gear wholesale, because it’s always getting ripped to shreds:

Sacred Blacksmith

Scrapped Princess is equally bad with female armor…

Pacifica Casull

…as is the .hack// franchise:

Hack

If these titles seem too niche, I should mention that anime boobs also appear in mega-franchises such as Bleach

Orihime

…and One Piece:

Nami

One Piece is full of female character designs like the one pictured above. Maybe it’s just the way that Oda Eiichirō draws. This character design is quite common, however. See also the character Lucy Heartfilia, from Fairy Tail:

Lucy Heartfilia

There are plenty of anime boobs on display in Soul Eater, too:

Soul Eater Death

One of my favorite characters is Blair:

Blair

Blair mostly hangs out at home and invites the male protagonists to enjoy her company:

Bathtime with Blair

Despite not appearing much in the show, Blair is a fan favorite who has a large, dedicated fandom. Another character who is loved across broad swatches of anime fandom is Yoko from Gurren Lagann:

Yoko

Gurren Lagann was animated by Studio Gainax, which is still best known for the alpha and omega of all anime franchises, Neon Genesis Evangelion. As a franchise, Evangelion is often represented by a single character, Ayanami Rei:

Ayanami Rei

If Ayanami is not to your taste, however, Evangelion has other young female characters to appreciate. There’s also Asuka Langley…

Asuka Langley

…and, more recently, Makinami Mari:

Mari Makinami

If Evangelion isn’t artistic and philosophical enough for you, feel free to check out one of the most intellectually mature and thematically complex animated movies of all time…

Ghost in the Shell Movie

There’s also a television series based on the Ghost in the Shell manga. In the TV show, the lead character, Kusanagi Makoto, gets to wear a bit more clothing:

Ghost in the Shell TV Anime

Before I wrap this up, I should mention that interest in anime boobs isn’t limited to a small segment of fandom. In fact, the British publication Neo, which regularly features the work of renowned anime writers such as Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, occasionally puts the boobs right on the cover:

Neo Magazine Issue 92

In conclusion, anime boobs exist. It is entirely possible to watch a wide variety of animated films, television shows, and web shorts from Japan without ever coming across a single skintight outfit or low-cut halter top, but anime boobs are still out there.

I am not trying to say that all anime sexualizes and fetishizes the female form, because that is not true at all. In any given work that does feature anime boobs, it is also not necessarily the case that every female character will be subjected to the same treatment.

I am also not trying to say that all of the female characters displayed above are nothing more than sex objects, because that is not true, not even a little bit. Although I sometimes couldn’t help making fun of character designs and diegetic circumstances that are blatantly ridiculous, I am not trying to say that sexual depictions of female characters are bad or morally wrong or artistically weak, nor am I trying to say that sexualization and fetishization can’t serve multiple narrative and thematic purposes.

I’m obviously not trying to say that real women with real bodies are somehow ridiculous, or that any woman, real or fictional, should be defined by the shape of her body. Don’t even go there.

For the record, I’m also not saying that all male fans of anime are sexist pigs. Regarding the “swim club anime” with which I began this discussion, I read through a few conversations on Reddit in which people were surprisingly self-reflexive about the male objectification in the video in light of the studio’s other projects. (One of my favorite comments was “I’m a guy and I watched that video ten times,” to which another user immediately replied, “Don’t worry bro, we all did.”)

What I am trying to say is that there is a definite pattern of female bodies being sexualized in anime. It doesn’t happen all the time in every anime, but it happens frequently enough in enough prominent titles to be noticeable even to an impartial observer. The sexualization of female and male characters is a tricky issue; but, if we can agree on nothing else, let us simply come to the consensus that “anime boobs” really do exist.