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

Magic as Metaphor in Anime

Title: Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study
Author: Dani Cavallaro
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: McFarland
Pages: 212

When Amazon recommended this book to me, I was really excited. What an interesting topic! I haven’t had good experiences with Dani Cavallaro’s work in the past, however. I felt that her books on the films of Oshii Mamoru (The Cinema of Oshii Mamoru: Fantasy, Technology and Politics, 2006) and Studio Gainax (The Art of Studio Gainax: Experimentation, Style and Innovation at the Leading Edge of Anime, 2009) were somewhat shallow and, to be frank, extraordinarily difficult to read. In these two books, Cavallaro has devoted five or six pages to films and television series to which other scholars have written thirty to forty page articles and chapters. Each of her essays reads like an outline – she skips from topic to topic with no development and little transition, using theoretical and philosophical terms without explaining what they mean in context and without giving examples. In this way, she can cover an exhaustive list of material, but it doesn’t seem like she has much to say. Since its table of contents would suggest that Magic as Metaphor focuses more on broader themes, though, I thought I would at least check it out from my university’s library and give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Magic as Metaphor is unreadable. I found so many things about this book frustrating that I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose I should start with the least damning of my criticisms: Cavallaro discusses an enormous number of titles. Her “Filmography” section at the back of the book lists forty-one primary titles (many of which are simply successive seasons of the same franchise). She’s got roughly seventy other ancillary titles listed, however, just in case the main forty weren’t enough. Even if we focus on the main titles, though, she still has less than 190 pages to talk about thirty or so anime franchises, which equals about six pages devoted to each of them. So yes, there is quite a bit of breadth, and I admire Cavallaro for being able to watch and keep track of so many titles (many of which came out quite recently); but again, it feels like she’s writing only marginally fleshed-out outlines, and the way she jumps from title to title and from concept to concept is disorienting. It’s also almost impossible to ascertain the main point of each chapter, and the way that various anime are included in the various chapters comes off as almost random.

In addition to her shallow discussions and poor structuring, I also feel like Cavallaro isn’t saying anything interesting. Certainly, she will quote key thinkers (like Tzvetan Todorov and Wikipedia) and then quickly move on without explaining what these quotes mean or how they relate to her argument, but most of her discussion is plot summary. Not explication through plot summary, but explanatory text that could be taken from an entertainment journalist’s review of a particular title. Her description of characters and themes often stems from the most simple and most obvious interpretation possible, as if it came off of the back of a DVD box. I am exaggerating, of course, but only a little bit. Certain sentences stand out as being insightful and useful and meaningful, but they are rare and isolated from one another.

The writing itself is terrible, ranging from overly flowery diction (“CLAMP’s passion for ocular impairment”) to purple prose (“whereas Lydia’s expression invariably exudes infinite kindness and compassion, Raven’s holds a malevolent light soaked with unspeakable sadness”) to condescension (“Earl and Fairy makes reference to so bountiful a range of magical entities as to occasionally come across as a concise guide to the spirit world for newbies”). Her paragraphs rarely have topic sentences, and there are no strong conclusions to be found anywhere. She quotes inane movie reviews as if they were scholarship and often uses these idiotic quotes (“Sousuke is ‘one of those adorable anime moppets with large round eyes’ amid ‘many a winsome tummy-poke and nose-wiggle’”) to close paragraphs. Things like this occur so frequently that I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I read. In short, the writing in this book toes the line between journalism and scholarship but, unfortunately, contains none of the pleasures of either.

You may be asking yourself why I read the book if it was so bad. The answer is that I didn’t. I read one chapter (“Magic Bildungsromans”) and then threw the thing against the wall. It may be possible that I picked the worst chapter to read, and it may also be possible that the rest of the book is sheer brilliance, but I highly doubt it. Cavallaro has six other books about anime in print through McFarland, and all of them have been published in the last five years. These do not include the numerous other works she has published on cyberpunk through other publishers in the past five years. Simply put, Cavallaro is a writing machine, and her output indeed reads like it was written by a machine. I have found some of her work, especially Anime and Memory: Aesthetic, Cultural and Thematic Perspectives (2009) to be useful as a guide for viewing recommendations. Otherwise, it’s best to approach her books with caution, and with a library card instead of a credit card.

In all fairness, Cavallaro’s books are more than capable of carrying their weight as reference guides to Japanese animation (as opposed to “critical studies”), but I myself prefer the work of British anime scholar Helen McCarthy, whose books are less pretentious and infinitely more enjoyable to read. They also have more pictures, which is always a good thing where visual media is concerned.