Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan

Title: Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan
Author: Amanda C. Seaman
Publisher: University of Hawai‘i Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 230

This guest review is by Tyran Grillo (@tyrangrillo on Twitter).

Amanda C. Seaman’s Writing Pregnancy in Low-Fertility Japan is a masterfully written and timely monograph. It explores the role of pregnancy, if not the pregnancy of roles, concerning women as subjects within, and creators of, Japanese literature in a time of social restlessness around questions of procreation.

In her first chapter, “Write Your Mother,” Seaman seeks to define the practical and symbolic overtures of pregnancy as literary trope. Summarizing not only the large amount of literature on pregnancy and childbirth, but also the media blitz on Japan’s falling birthrate and rising aging population, she rightly asks: Does there continue to be a national obsession with all things baby? None have given this question proper attention, and Seaman’s work provides a compelling response. In addition to a widespread media blackout on this question, even less attention is paid to “cultural, artistic, and intellectual responses to and representations of pregnancy and childbearing in the ‘low fertility’ age” (1). This, Seaman claims, lenses a unique perspective on pregnancy as a metaphorical site for the actual bodies undergoing misunderstood changes.

Seaman is concerned with how women writers are using storytelling as response mechanism, and to make this point focuses on works of Takahashi Takako, Itō Hiromi, Ogawa Yōko, Tadano Miako, and Hasegawa Junko, among others. While politicians and other policy makers have taken it upon themselves to make pregnancy a matter of intense public interest, these writers make it matter of intense private interest, albeit in the decidedly public format of mass-market publishing.

Seaman’s book opens with an erudite summary of the scare regarding declining birth rates from the end of the Pacific War to the present century. Despite surface-level concern and efforts, Japan’s government has done little to promote childbearing in any way amenable to actual women. As the media continues to propagate a sugarcoated version of marriage and childbirth, the realities explored by Seaman’s writers of interest reflect an unabashed landscape of “danger, repression, destruction, or pain” (4). Their focus on bodies as continents shifting to the seismic activity of public opinion ensures that the self becomes not simply a beacon but a lightning rod to political provocation.

Explicit discussion on the printed page of women’s fertile bodies in such intimate terms is a relatively modern concession, and before its advent women’s bodies were relegated to a relatively impressionistic realm of unclean impulses and male-defined mystery. Yosano Akiko, notes Seaman, was instrumental in bringing an embodied approach to pregnancy and childbearing in the early 20th century, as well as for addressing the suffering involved in both. Her call was not taken up by many, although it did spark the “maternal turn” promulgated by such writers as Okamoto Kanoko. After the Pacific War, women’s maternal roles were more intimately associated with carbon-copied nuclear family archetypes. Only in the 1960s and 1970s did a “new wave” of women writers emerge. Among them, Tsushima Yūko reclaimed motherhood, in all its ups and downs, as something distinctly women’s own. Pregnancy manga soon followed in the early 1990s, and Seaman includes analyses of quintessential examples.

The title of Chapter Two – “Hey, You, Get Out of My Womb!” – references pregnancy as both a literal and metaphorical cipher of invasion. In this chapter, Takahashi Takako, Takekawa Sei, and Ogawa Yōko are shown to focus on the alien aspects of pregnancy. Seaman opens with an poem by Yosano Akiko that pays homage to folkloric themes newly applied to pregnancy. This sets a precedent for writers to come by exploring the ambivalences of the womb and using horror as a device of interruption. By capitalizing on the latter tropes, these writers challenge the characterization of pregnancy as uneventful. In Takekawa Sei’s “Tsuki no nai yoru ni” (On a moonless night), we encounter fantasy as manifestation of fear of sexuality in tandem with childhood trauma. And yet, Seaman concludes, “nothing can supersede the maternal instinct, not even the personal wishes or well-being of the maternal subject herself” (26). Takahashi Takako’s “Kodomo-sama” (Holy terror), on the other hand, takes fears of pregnancy into monstrous dimensions, while Ogawa Yōko’s “Ninshin Karenda” (Pregnancy diary) is alienation incarnate. Seaman characterizes the latter story as a modern fairy tale in its evocation of a collective unknown as it spirals into a pseudo-scientific and occult-like framing of family bonds and communication. She further notes an overarching ambiguity at play in all of these stories.

Chapter Three, “And Baby Makes One,” examines pregnancy and its connection to notions of escape and reformation of personal identity. Both Hasegawa Junko’s “Museiran” (The unfertilized egg) and Tsushima Yūko’s Chōji (Child of fortune) deal with women treating pregnancy as an escape and motherhood as a “type of personal salvation” (52). Seaman reveals motherhood as a leitmotif throughout Tsushima’s oeuvre in constant negotiations of opposites – both in the physical and emotional sense. The 36-year-old protagonist is on the cusp of losing her womanhood (at least from society’s point of view), and the narrator recalls the indifference with which she treated her present daughter, finding peace only when her maternity slips away from conscious reiteration. Hasegawa’s “Museiran” goes further in its depiction of a painful hermetism, but both authors make use of dreams and fantasies, using the power of pregnancy to go beyond the playing field of romance in the shadow of failure.

Pregnancy as a way to partnership is the subject of Chapter Four, “Manual Labor,” which discusses millennial writers Kakuta Mitsuyo and Tadano Miako. Seaman sees both as challenging what she calls “canonical pregnancy,” by which is meant the “ideals and practices promoted by pregnancy literature” (81). Such literature “trains” expecting mothers to become realizations of the ideal, as if such extraneous knowledge were only available in magazines, books, and guidelines and not in the hardwired mechanisms of the female anatomy, which are carefully monitored by doctors and, after a child is born, education systems. Everything the mother does during pregnancy is believed to have a direct outcome in the birth and subsequent development of the child, even as little is said in such literature about a mother’s relationships with others in her life.

Kakuta Mitsuyo’s Yoteibi wa Jimi Peiji (My due date is Jimmy Page’s birthday) and Tadano Miako’s Sannen migoromu (The three-year pregnancy) rework the canonical pregnancy as “an emphatically social enterprise” (85). In Kakuta’s novel, a seemingly textbook pregnancy churns the protagonist’s mind into a slow, diaristic unfolding of ennui over, and alienation from, her growing fetus. Paradoxically, the story underscores and unravels restrictive pregnancy norms as she settles into the reality with relative peace and acceptance. Tadano is less introspective and more humor-oriented, choosing instead to follow surreal sequence of events, thereby underscoring folkloric tendencies and problematizing the notion of self-made mothers.

Chapter Five, “Riding the Wave,” moves on to tropes of pregnancy manga, texts that allow Seaman to discover novel ways of depicting the pain of childbirth in their deft mélange of humor and critique. From Itō Hiromi’s illustrated 1984 manual Yoi oppai, warui oppai (Good breasts, bad breasts) to the manga collection of 12 short stories, Go-shussan! (Birth!), published by the editorial collective known as “Cream Puff” (Chou Crème), Seaman notes a metaphorical hyper-realism at work. Using symbolic imagery “in favor of an affective but rather static emphasis on motherhood” (129) in personal narratives that challenge medicalized notions of pregnancy in dealing with a matrix of pain for which they feel ill prepared, while their use of humor, as Seaman observes, “counteracts the impression that the pregnant body is grotesque or abnormal” (143).

These themes are deepened in the sixth and final chapter, “Em-bawdy-ing Pregnancy,” which offers a deep reading of Uchida Shungiku’s eclectic blend of critique and family values-focused conservatism. Her controversial book of autobiographical fiction, Fazaa Fakkaa (Father fucker), examines a life of abuse at the hands of an unnamed stepfather. Seaman looks beyond the obvious sexual perversions of the novel to its catalytic pregnancies. The manga series Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru (We are breeding) is an optimistic yet no-less-frank examination of pregnancy. Uchida’s experiential mixture of realism and exaggeration makes manga a suitable vehicle for self-expression, by which she delineates personal experience outside the trigger-happy realm of politics.

In her Afterword, Seaman concludes on an open-ended note: “It remains to be seen whether literature can offer a similarly [i.e., to manga] compelling, challenging, and idiosyncratic account of what it means to become a mother in millennial Japan” (182). The keyword in Seaman’s statement here is “account,” which underscores the importance of personal experience. The implicit question of this study, however rhetorical, inspires us to think beyond the script of pregnancy in search of individual connections and to view said connections not as objects of fetishizing scholarship but as the voices of living human beings.

* * * * *

Tyran Grillo is a Dorothy Borg Postdoctoral Scholar in East Asia and the Americas at Columbia University (link). Tyran received his doctorate in Japanese Literature in 2017 from Cornell University, where his research focused on (mis)representations of animals in Japanese popular culture, as well as intersections of Asian Studies and Posthumanism. He has been a professional translator for over a decade, translating twelve books of Japanese fiction into English to date, including Parasite Eve by Sena Hideaki (Vertical, 2005), Paradise by Suzuki Kōji (Vertical, 2006), and Mr. Turtle by Kitano Yūsaku (Kurodahan Press, 2016). Alongside his academic life, Grillo is an avid arts critic, having written over one million words of impressionistic reviews and essays on music, performance, and film on his website, Between Sound and Space.

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Marshmallow Bungaku Girl

Title: Marshmallow Bungaku Girl
Japanese Title: ましまろ文學ガール (Mashimaro bungaku gāru)
Alternate Title: Mädchen Marshmallow Literatur
Artist: Amano Taka (天乃 タカ)
Publisher: enterbrain (エンターブレイン)
Publication Dates: 6/27/2011 – 2/15/2013
Volumes: 2

In the late Meiji Period, as Japan undergoes the process of modernization, Hoshino Mone is a student at an all-girls private high school in Tokyo, where she lives with her male guardian, Sei. Although a young woman’s duty is to be beautiful and modest so as to become a suitable bride, Mone has a different dream – she wants to write literature! Literature (the bungaku of the manga’s title) is believed to corrupt women, so Mone cuts off her braids, dons schoolboy clothing, and joins an all-male literature club. Although she must face a bit of drama concerning her choices, the friends Mone makes help her hone her talents and offer her inspiration as they take her on adventures around town. The handsome young literary illustrator Nasuhito knows Mone’s secret but believes in her potential. Nasuhito’s respect for Mone as a fellow artist is not the only source of his warm feelings for her, however.

Although Bungaku Girl was published in the seinen magazine Fellows! – the former name of Kadokawa’s prestige-format monthly serial Harta (ハルタ) – it reads like a shōjo manga from the 1990s, when the influence of series such as Fushigi Yûgi and Cardcaptor Sakura injected elements of gender bending and bishōnen harems into even the most prosaic romance stories. All of the young men in the literature club are impossibly gorgeous, and everyone is decked out in immaculate period dress. There’s a hint of yuri provided by the radiant high school princess Sono, another literature fan who becomes enamored of Mone’s courage and independent spirit, but there are no elements of the male gaze to be found in the manga’s story or art. Instead, there are touches of Mori Kaoru in the close attention paid to historically accurate fabrics, interiors, street scenes, and city vistas.

Bungaku Girl is less about Mone’s cross-dressing and gender identity than it is about her commitment to doing whatever it takes to find a supportive community for what she loves. Many of the story’s most powerful moments occur when the characters are being creative – when Mone is writing, or when Nasuhito is drawing, for instance – and these moments are reinforced by being framed within the sense of belonging to a group of people all working together to share their ideas and produce something tangible. For us nerds who have studied modern Japanese literary history, there are pleasurable echoes of the student groups, coterie magazines, and research trips into pleasure districts associated with real-life literary figures.

This two-volume series is only available in Japanese, but it would be really cool if someone were to license it in North America. The story is simple and charming, the characters are adorable, and the art is clean and attractive. Bungaku Girl offers love, drama, and interesting imagery, not to mention encouragement to leave your comfort zone and live your dreams!

Bungaku Girl Volume 1 Page 23

I… want to join your literature club!

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

Cross-Dressing in Anime and Manga

This past April, the ever-amazing Leah of The Lobster Dance and I gave a panel on cross-dressing in anime and manga at Sakura-Con in Seattle. Because we had an enormous turnout and not enough time to say everything we wanted to say, we decided to expand our talk and post it online.

Our essay is meant to be friendly and welcoming to newcomers to the fascinating field of Gender Studies, but readers should be advised that some portions of this essay contain mild spoilers for the series under discussion. For those of you who are looking for recommendations for anime, manga, and formal academic scholarship, feel free to jump ahead to our conclusion in Part Seven.

Dan Savage Drawn by Ellen Forney

Part One
The Superpositionality of Gender

Gender plays a strong role in the life of each and every human individual from the moment of birth, even despite our difficulties in defining what “gender” is, not to mention our inability to agree on what qualities constitute the characteristics of and differences between genders. We participate in a constant reinforcement of culturally prescribed gender roles, which we perform and challenge not only in our everyday lives but through our art as well. Because gender is such a major element of how we construct our identities, it’s only natural that we explore it and test its boundaries through the stories we tell ourselves. Anime and manga, which facilitate character development by playing with and transforming images, are fertile grounds for gender play.

Takarazuka Production of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Part Two
The Theater: Kabuki, Takarazuka, and The Rose of Versailles

Cross-dressing has a long and colorful history in Japanese drama. The all-male kabuki theater and the all-female Takarazuka Revue queer our views of the gender binary by demonstrating not only how gender can be and is performed but also how difficult it is to limit ourselves to only two genders. One of the most popular figures in contemporary Japanese theater, Oscar François de Jarjayes of Ikeda Riyoko’s manga The Rose of Versailles, is especially interesting and thought-provoking in her disruption of tropes surrounding women who cross-dressing as men. While many gender-focused narratives are centered around coming-of-age and coming-out stories, Oscar is an adult who is ultimately satisfied with her identity; she generally doesn’t question who she is but rather what she can do to fulfill her potential.

Ouran High School Host Club

Part Three
Cross-Dressing and Humor(?)

While a woman can gain access to spaces of power and privilege by donning the clothing of a man, a man cross-dressing as a woman has little to gain but everything to lose. At least, that seems to be how many comedic anime and manga suggest that we view cross-dressing men. Instead of being empowered, these characters are instead acutely uncomfortable, and we find their discomfort amusing because the story presents them as powerful men temporarily forced into a position of weakness by means of the guise of femininity.

Meanwhile, the world of Ouran High School Host Club is by and large respectful of gender expression as well as lacking in anxiety about gender fluidity. Hatori Bisco subverts heteronormative shōjo tropes through the enjoyable antics of Haruhi and her friends, and the humor generated by Haruhi’s lack of concern about stereotypical gender roles pokes fun at the artificiality of the gender binary.

Le Chevalier D'Eon

Part Four
Gender Trouble and Phantom Femininities

Setting aside shōnen humor and moé sex appeal, there are two main categories of habitual male-to-female cross-dressing in anime and manga: boys who don’t want to cross-dress but are forced to and then get used to it, and men who cross-dress in order to preserve the memory of a woman who has vanished from their lives. What we see in many anime and manga series involving male-to-female cross-dressing is an insinuation that certain feminine feelings can only be expressed through female bodies, and that men can never truly become feminine as long as they maintain male bodies. In other words, such phantom femininities suggest that gender is not fluid and that it takes more than clothes for a man to escape his physically mandated masculinity.

Wandering Son

Part Five
Wandering Son: What You Can’t See

Wandering Son serves as a point of constrast in our series on cross-dressing. First, by presenting both acts of cross-dressing and transgender identities, Shimura Takako allows the reader to differentiate between social delight in situational cross-dressing for humor and the very real fear of transgressing gender norms via a more permanent movement along the gender identity spectrum. Second, the series covers issues of transmisogyny and masculine privilege deftly and realistically. While many cross-dressing characters in anime and manga are ensconced in the realm of comedy or speculative fiction, Wandering Son‘s setting in a naturalistic portrayal of contemporary Japan allows the author to critique social norms directly instead of through metaphor.

Ōoku

Part Six
Ōoku: Cross-Dressing in a Matriarchy

Ōoku‘s narratives about cross-dressing and gender are able to go beyond those of many other works of speculative fiction because of the breadth and depth of the work, which shows over a century of social change with a large and diverse cast of characters. Yoshinaga Fumi illustrates the constructedness of the gender binary by showing us how another version of the binary must be rebuilt piece by piece in a world in which women wield political and sexual power.

The Rose of Versailles

Part Seven
The Endless Potential of Gender Performance

Gender and sexuality are incredibly complex, fluid, and personal. The possibilities are endless, and they don’t fit neatly into predefined boxes. While this can be scary and overwhelming to think about, it’s also thrilling and wonderful. Many anime and manga explore the excitement of this endless potential of gender performance, and there are plenty of scholarly resources to draw on for anyone who would like to dig deeper into cross-dressing and nonbinary gender.

*****

If you’re looking for more of Leah’s writing, check out her cooking and food culture blog I’ll Make It Myself!, and feel free to follow her on Twitter as well. Leah is too awesome to be confined to her own blogs, and she has been a guest blogger on Have You Nerd? and Comparative Geeks. She also updates The Lobster Dance page on Facebook regularly with links to her own work and to other fantastic essays from all over the internet. Leah is easily a top contender for the title of Most Interesting Person on the Internet – go check her out!

The Princess of Tennis

The Princess of Tennis

Title: The Princess of Tennis
Author: Jamie Lynn Lano
Publication Year: 2014
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 203

The Princess of Tennis the Jamie Lynn Lano’s non-fiction memoir of the year she spent working as an art assistant for Konomi Takeshi’s mega-popular manga Prince of Tennis, which has been serialized in one form or another since 1999. If you’ve ever wondered about the gritty details of the manga industry in Japan, then this the book for you, as the author’s account of her apprenticeship to a successful manga artist is rich with colorful descriptions enhanced by numerous photographs and illustrations.

The book jumps right into Lano’s position as an art assistant without much preamble: she applies for the position on page 3, gets a callback on page 6, and is being driven to Konomi’s studio on page 9. The reader is able to piece together details about her life outside The Princess of Tennis over the course of the following pages as she plunges headlong into her new job. She has graduated from art school, she has never drawn manga-style illustrations using professional tools (such as screentone and a maru-pen), she teaches English in Japan, and she doesn’t speak much Japanese. She’s also more of a fan of the Prince of Tennis anime than she is of the manga, thus rendering her qualifications as an art assistant for Konomi somewhat dubious. Still, she takes the opportunity when it is offered to her, and she ends up having an amazing experience. As she writes in her prologue, “This book is for anyone who has ever wondered if they should make a choice to take the scary but tempting new opportunity in front of them.”

Lano promptly quits her job teaching English, and from that point forward she gets paid to draw, to play golf with Konomi and the other assistants, to draw, to watch a live performance of the Prince of Tennis musical with Konomi and the other assistants, to draw, to drive around Chiba prefecture with Konomi and the other assistants, to draw, to go out to eat with with Konomi and the other assistants, to draw, to attend the JUMP Festa industry-sponsored fan event with Konomi and the other assistants, to draw, and so on. Along the way, Lano learns professional manga illustration techniques such as how to trace backgrounds and how to draw speed lines. She also enjoys several chances to express her talent and creativity, especially concerning character design, and she ends up influencing critical visual aspects of the manga, such as the logo and patterns that adorn the jerseys worn by the main characters. Along the way, she becomes friends with her fellow assistants, her fellow fans, and even one of the actors starring in the Prince of Tennis musical.

The main tension of Lano’s narrative comes in around halfway through the book, when the sparkles have faded from her vision of Konomi Takeshi and the star-studded universe that revolves around him. Although many of the miscommunications in the first half of the book are related to Lano’s self-proclaimed lack of proficiency with the Japanese language, the miscommunication in the latter half of the story stems mainly from industry-standard assumptions regarding the role of manga art assistants, who are apparently allowed very little freedom and personal space while they’re on the job. Assistants eat, sleep, and bathe in the studio, and they aren’t really allowed to leave the building, even when they have no work to do. This is especially hard on Lano as she struggles with relationship and visa issues. After the initial heady rush of drawing marathons and group outings, the frustration arising from the paradoxical combination of impossible work deadlines and being expected to kill time in the studio despite pressing personal concerns forces Lano to question whether she wants to continue her job as an art assistant to Konomi. Her doubts are complicated by similar disappointments on the part of her coworkers, not to mention Konomi’s own admission that he himself hated being an art assistant. Although the reader knows from the beginning that Lano will resign, I still found the details surrounding the ending of this particular chapter in her life to be unexpected and dramatic.

As someone who reads self-published Kindle singles the way that some people eat potato chips, I have encountered my fair share of author-edited writing so awful that it would make any respectable connoisseur of fan fiction cringe with shame and embarrassment. Despite being self-published through Amazon’s CreateSpace independent publishing platform, The Princess of Tennis is beautifully edited and perfectly formatted, with no typos or grammatical errors to be seen. If you’re intrigued by Lano’s story but worried about the presentation of a self-published memoir, fear not; everything about The Princess of Tennis is polished and professional.

Lano’s style is colloquial without being breezy, and her mixture of exposition, explanation, dialog, and interior monolog is fast paced and reader friendly. It’s true that certain aspects of the text, such as emotional reactions rendered in caps lock sentence fragments, are reminiscent of the style of blogging common to fannish social networking hubs like Livejournal and Dreamwidth, but I found such instances of internet language humorous and charming. If you feel that occasional asides such as OMG HOW EMBARRASSING!! inserted into otherwise cleanly structured prose are a deal breaker, then you’re probably not the target demographic for this book anyway.

For the rest of us, The Princess of Tennis is an entertaining glimpse into the lives of the creators working at the top of the manga industry in Japan, not to mention an artfully presented memoir tackling the theme of dealing with intense emotional conflict while following a long-cherished dream. Even if you don’t know anything about the Prince of Tennis manga, it’s still worth checking out Jamie Lano’s lovingly crafted book.

The Princess of Tennis can be purchased as a print or a digital edition on the American and UK Amazon websites, as well as in a digital edition on the Australian Amazon website. Lano frequently updates her blog Living Tall in Japan with illustrated essays on manga and the manga industry, so check her out there too if you’re interested!

From Five to Nine

From Five to Nine 1

Title: From Five to Nine
Japanese Title: 5時から9時まで (Goji kara kuji made)
Author: Aihara Miki (相原 実貴)
Publication Year: 2010 (ongoing)
Publisher: Shōgakukan
Pages (per volume): 190

From Five to Nine is the current project of Aihara Miki, whose manga Hot Gimmick and Honey Hunt have been published in English translation by Viz Media. Like Aihara’s earlier titles, From Five to Nine is a drama-filled exposé of the love lives of gorgeous young people going about their business in the trendy districts on the southwest side of Tokyo. From Five to Nine is serialized in Monthly Cheese!, an unfortunately named magazine that serves as a bridge between a shōjo readership of tweens captivated by stories of pure love and a josei readership of young women interested in the more physical aspects of romantic relationships. In accordance with the magazine’s house style, all of the characters in the manga are well dressed and ridiculously attractive, emotional and sexual tensions always run high, and chapters end on cliffhangers more often than not. In other words, From Five to Nine is highly entertaining, addictive reading. It’s designed to be.

What I think is interesting about this manga is the way it explores the conflicts between different gender roles and expectations of femininity through the love affairs of its main protagonist.

Sakuraba Junko, the leading lady, teaches during the evenings at an English language conversation school (Eikaiwa gakkō). Because of her friendly professionalism and almost native fluency, she’s considered to be one of the top instructors at her workplace, and her dream is to save up enough money to study abroad in America. Since Junko has passed through her early twenties without having settled down with a man, her grandmother has started to set her up on dates with potential marriage partners through a somewhat formalized process known as miai. To appease her grandmother, Junko spends her twenty-seventh birthday out on a miai date with a Buddhist monk named Hoshikawa Takane, who graduated from Tokyo University with a major in Indian philosophy. Junko is put off by what she sees as Hoshikawa’s snobbishness; but, thinking that their date is a one-time thing and that she’ll never see him again, Junko ends up sleeping with him on a lark. For Hoshikawa, however, that one night is the beginning of TRUE LOVE FOREVER.

Because this is a manga by Aihara Miki, Junko is fated to be the unfortunate object of nonconsensual manly persuasion concerning a relationship that she doesn’t particularly care for. Immediately after Junko gets back from her one night stand with Hoshikawa, she realizes that the deadline to move out of her apartment, whose building is slated for renewal, is fast approaching. When she goes to her grandmother for help, her grandmother suggests that she take temporary residence (geshuku) in a temple with connections to the family. Unfortunately, this temple is headed by Hoshikawa, who now wants to make Junko his temple wife (tera no yome). Being a temple wife is a full-time job, and a marriage to Hoshikawa would require Junko to give up her position at the English conversation school where she currently works, as well as her dream to study abroad. Essentially, if she were to marry Hoshikawa, Junko would have to give up the pleasures of her existence as an independent urbanite and spend her days cooking, cleaning, dressing herself in traditional clothing, setting out flower arrangements, and entertaining guests. Needless to say, she wants none of this. Hoshikawa won’t give up on her so easily, however, and he takes to stalking her, abducting her, and harassing her at both at home and at her workplace. One particularly unpleasant stunt Hoshikawa pulls is to lock Junko up in a small guesthouse separated from the main temple compound by an ornamental garden. In order to escape, Junko agrees to marry Hoshikawa; and, to keep him fooled regarding her true intentions, she makes a show of waking up early to devote herself to cleaning, all the while scheming of ways to get away from the temple.

Meanwhile, her college friend Mishima Satoshi, who has been assigned to his company’s branch office in America, shows up at Junko’s school in order to brush up on his English. Mishima has feelings for Junko and harbors a secret desire to take her to America with him; but, as Junko becomes more aware of Mishima’s intentions and her own reciprocal feelings for him, she surprises herself by becoming conflicted over leaving Hoshikawa and the life he’s offering her. Junko has also attracted the interest of one of her younger pupils, a wealthy student at an elite high school who cross dresses so effectively that only a small handful of his friends know that he’s actually male. This student, Satonaka Yuki, dislikes both Hoshikawa and Mishima and wants Junko to be able to stand on her own two feet outside of relationships with creepy stalker monks and alcoholic playboy salarymen.

This is high melodrama, of course, but what is interesting about Junko’s love life is how aptly it represents the push and pull between traditional and contemporary women’s roles. Should Junko give into social and sexual pressure and relinquish her independence and her dreams, or should she take advantage of a potential romantic partner’s kindness in order to break free of the constraints of living in Japan? Is it possible for her to somehow fend for herself without a social and economic safety net? Because of the romantic drama, the reader is able to experience the emotional attraction and anxiety of all of these possibilities. For example, when Hoshikawa does something ridiculous in order to (sometimes literally) lock Junko into a traditional gender role, the denial of agency that Junko suffers is viscerally upsetting to the reader. As it gradually becomes clear that Hoshikawa genuinely cares for Junko, however, it also becomes clear that Junko’s spirited resistance might be able change the way he sees the responsibilities and aspirations of the women of his generation. In this way, Hoshikawa serves as a representative of a society that is still primarily dominated by phallocentric interests. He’s scary, and his behavior is obviously psychologically unhealthy, but he can be persuaded to change by a woman smart enough and tough enough to take him on, even if she’s coming from a position of relative disadvantage. The sort of “he can change” mentality Junko comes to embrace is presented as being just as dangerous in the fictional world of the manga as it is in real life, but the alternative – “he will never change” – would be a bleak prognosis on the sort of patriarchal mentality Hoshikawa represents. The possibility that Hoshikawa can change himself as he learns that women are people too (gasp!) is an element of social optimism that serves as an emollient to the seemingly misogynistic sexual drama of the manga.

Two other female employees at Junko’s workplace, Yamabuchi Momoe and Mōri Masako, act as counterpoints to Junko’s situation by providing different attitudes towards employment, love, and marriage.

Along with Junko, Momoe is one of the most professional and sought after instructors at the conversation school, but she has a reputation for being standoffish and emotionally chilly. Although she’s all business in the office, she secretly loves yaoi manga. When Arthur Lange, a blond-haired foreign instructor from Britain, discovers Momoe’s hidden interests, he uses the threat of revealing her identity as a fujoshi to her boss to blackmail her into a relationship. Although Momoe enjoys fantasies of attractive, foreign-looking men being sexually aggressive and emotionally manipulative, the enactment of her fantasy is much more unpleasant in real life than it is in the pages of yaoi manga. Momoe is older than Arthur, but she has never had any romantic experience, and she constantly second-guesses her reactions to his teasing and bullying. She therefore often finds herself in the position of wondering how a woman her age should behave towards men, even though she wants nothing to do with them.

Masako, a receptionist at the English conversation school where Junko and Momoe teach, is a recent college graduate who, more than anything, wants to settle down with a boyfriend and become a housewife. Her coworkers tease her by calling her “Zexy,” a nickname taken from the title of a wedding and bridal magazine. Since Masako is attractive and intelligent, her standards for a partner are high, and she can’t find anyone her own age who meets them. Unfortunately, having cultivated an attitude of flirtatious approachability, she finds herself the constant target of unwanted male attention, especially in the form of sexual harassment from middle-aged men.

Junko’s English conversation school is thus a microcosm of Japanese society staffed by different women with different expectations, goals, and challenges concerning their futures. Although the manga focuses on its three main female characters, the male characters are also allowed enough interiority for the reader to see them working, talking to each other, and thinking about their own dreams and romantic problems. All of these characters work at cross purposes because of the artificial drama created by the manga artist, but their attitudes and emotional conflicts ring true to real social expectations and gender roles.

From Five to Nine is a fascinating exploration of contemporary Japan with enough intersecting plot lines, character development, and thematic subtlety to keep even the most demanding readers engaged. The obi bands around the manga covers tout the series as “a Tokyo version of Sex and the City,” and that should be recommendation enough for anyone seeking a fast-paced, hormone-fueled examination of gender roles in the twenty-first century.

From Five to Nine 2

JManga

JManga Splash Page

This review was going to be about the manga Aoi Hana (translated as “Sweet Blue Flowers”) and how much I love it and its author, Shimura Takako (who also wrote Hōrō Musuko, released by Fantagraphics as Wandering Son). I was delighted when JManga announced that it would make Aoi Hana available in translation, and I visited the website immediately to see how the translation and presentation looked.

I have had trouble with JManga in the past, but that was about a year ago, and I figured that the site would have fixed most of its problems since then. Alas, I was horribly mistaken. Instead of talking about Aoi Hana, then, I’d like to talk about my experience of using JManga.

I am basing what I’m writing on my experiences of accessing JManga during the past eight days (November 26 – December 3) using a laptop running Windows 7 and equipped with a 13.1″ screen. My main browser is Firefox, but I tried using Opera and Internet Explorer as well. All three browsers are the most recent releases and running fully updated versions of Java and Flash. I experienced the most problems with Opera and the fewest problems with Firefox. (For the record, the JManga site did not work on the Safari browser installed on my iPad at all, and JManga has no app compatible with Apple devices.)

First, let’s look at a preview of Aoi Hana

JManga Preview Page

Well, that’s informative.

I tried to access previews of five other titles but could only find a working preview for one of them.

I suppose I came to the site knowing that I wanted to buy this manga, so I went ahead and bought it.

These are some samples of how the manga appears in full-screen mode on my laptop…

JManga 1

JManga 2

JManga 3

JManga 4

As you can see from the above images, unless you’re reading the manga on a huge screen, it’s almost impossible to read the text.

The image quality in general isn’t that sharp to begin with. Here’s a sample from Hatarake Kentauros, which is offered by JManga under the title “Working Kentauros”…

Working Kentauros

Even though this manga uses a different font, and even though the panels are larger and the text is less dense, it’s still difficult to read.

It’s possible to zoom in onto the page and drag the image around your screen. If you do this, however, before too long your screen will freeze into something like this…

JManga Frozen Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser (and possibly your computer) to get your browser to work again.

If you need a break from reading the tiny, blurry, headache-inducing text on JManga and leave the reader open but untouched for more than sixty seconds, you’re in for a surprise when you come back and try to turn the page…

JManga Loading Screen

…and you’ll have to restart your browser to get JManga to start working again. Since the reader has no bookmarking function, you’ll also need to flip through all of the pages you already read from the beginning to get to where you left off.

Even if you don’t step away from the reader, sometimes you’ll get the loading screen between one chapter and another, or even randomly as you try to turn the page in the middle of a chapter. Even with a lightning fast internet connection and a secure network, making it through even a short book on JManga required me to restart my browser several times.

Reading manga on JManga is not impossible, but it’s not easy, either.

So, is it worth it?

On JManga, manga are purchased with points. As of today (December 3), Aoi Hana cost 499 points. Unfortunately, the minimum amount of points you can purchase is 1000 (which costs $10.00). What this means is that, if you only want to buy one volume of Aoi Hana, it’s going to cost you $10.00. If you do buy this volume and have 501 points left over, you can use your points for another manga, which seems fine until you realize that the next manga you want to read costs either 599 or 899 points.

What this model should be paying for are added incentives. Unfortunately, the JManga site itself is poorly organized, and it’s difficult to find what you’re looking for unless you already know where to find it…

JManga Search Results

The site design is brash and busy and filled with pop-up ads: Read this manga!!! Check out this article!! Have you subscribed to our weekly newsletter?!?!?!

One especially annoying pop-up…

JManga Pop-Up

…persistently urged me to “update your info” so that my account on JManga looks like a profile on Myspace.

In conclusion, browsing JManga and using the site to buy and read manga is a thoroughly annoying and disappointing experience. This makes no sense to me, as many of the titles available on the site can easily be found on scanlation websites (a scanlation of Aoi Hana is the second result of a Google search for the title) that offer high quality images for free without the necessity of restarting your browser every five minutes. The people who buy manga on JManga are thus choosing to spend money to support the site instead of simply finding and reading scanlations for free. I don’t think anyone, no matter how young or internet-saavy, wants to come off as an entitled fan, but the experience of using JManga almost makes it feel as if people who choose to use the site are being punished in some way.

I have no problem with the concept of digital manga. I love reading translated manga on my iPad through the Viz Manga app, the Yen Press app, and the Digital Manga Publishing app. I’ve also had good experiences with the Sublime Manga site, whether reading manga on the site’s browser-based reader or downloading manga as a PDF document. Even the experience of reading manga on a Kindle has improved as titles are reformatted and updated to accommodate larger screens with higher resolutions. I love the Shonen Jump Alpha and Yen Plus magazines, and I loved Viz’s Sig IKKI site back when it was still updating. Digital manga is a wonderful advance in publishing that helps to support the translation and release of manga in America while giving titles such as Aoi Hana a chance in the American market.

JManga has updated its site and user policies according to reader feedback in the past, and I hope it will continue to evolve and improve in the future. Although the site doesn’t currently meet the standards set by other digital publishing platforms, it features some great titles. Still, I think both these manga and their readers deserve better treatment.

Dreamland Japan

Title: Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga
Author: Frederik L. Schodt
Publication Year: 1996
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 360

In his write-up of this summer’s Otakon convention, Ed Sizemore briefly mentions a panel held by the Anime and Manga Research Circle, in which Frederik L. Schodt’s classic work on manga was discussed. “I was glad to see Fred Schodt’s Manga, Manga! The World of Japanese Comics mentioned,” Sizemore says. “For a while, it seemed like there was a concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist even though it’s foundational to the study of manga in America.”

I’ve never been able to get my hands on Manga! Manga!, but I love its updated successor, Dreamland Japan. In fact, I love it so much that I read it for the third time earlier this summer. I think Sizemore’s statement about the “concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist” perhaps betrays a difference in understanding concerning the academic value of Schodt’s work, and so I would like to offer my own assessment of Dreamland Japan.

Even though Dreamland Japan is full of interesting and useful information, it’s not an academic study. The book reads like journalism; and in fact, as Schodt explains in his introduction, he has drawn much of the material published in this volume from material published earlier in newspapers and magazines. As journalism, the writing in Dreamland Japan is marked by certain features that do not often appear in academic writing, such as personal anecdotes. For example, information about how Schodt once witnessed a certain manga artist enter a porn shop in San Francisco may add color to his description of the artist, but it doesn’t really serve as evidence to support Schodt’s argument that the work of the often overlooked artist contains substantial artistic merit. Some of Schodt’s statements also come off as contradictory over the course of the book, such as when he mentions towards the beginning of the book that most manga artists employ a studio system, yet argues later that a certain artist is unique because she employs a studio system.

Dreamland Japan is written in a very personal style, and the reader ends up learning all sorts of information about the author over the course of the book. Some of this information is completely random. For example, in his blurb about Okano Reiko’s manga Fancy Dance, Schodt reveals that one of his friends from high school has lived in a Zen monastery for almost twenty years. Um, okay. Some of this information is unintentionally hilarious. For example, in his chapter on Osamu Tezuka, Schodt brags that he is one of the only people to have seen Tezuka without his trademark beret – before mentioning a page or two later that Tezuka only takes off his beret in bed. Wow, okay. Some of this information is perhaps a little too much information, such as Schodt’s description of his physical reaction to all of the pretty ladies surrounding him at a major dōjinshi convention at the beginning of his second chapter, or how he feels like he knows the manga artist Uchida Shungicu intimately even though he has never met her. Uhh… okay.

To return to the point, Schodt’s writing is not academic. He’ll describe a certain artist as incredibly influential without giving any examples of who or what the artist influenced, he’ll refer to a certain art style as uniquely Japanese without explaining what such a thing might mean, and he takes the things people say in interviews as absolute fact without any further corroboration. He engages in hero worship. He does not consider alternate arguments or non-obvious interpretations of certain works. He’ll summarize complicated issues or topics in one sentence. There aren’t footnotes or references explaining where he got his data. None of this makes Schodt’s work any less interesting or informative, but it’s not “academic.”

This is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that Schodt’s work isn’t worthwhile reading both for manga fans and for people with a more than casual interest in Japanese popular culture. Not only is Dreamland Japan an invaluable resource, but it’s also an absolute pleasure to read.

The book has an interesting layout. Five short chapters sandwich the bulk of the volume’s two longest chapters, a 54-page catalog of manga periodicals and a 96-page catalog manga artists.

The shorter chapters, which gather together bite-size essays on subjects such as “Modern Manga at the End of the Millennium” and “Manga in the English-Speaking World,” serve as informative editorials and snapshots of manga fandom as it existed in the early nineties. In his opening and closing chapters, Schodt covers topics such as censorship and self-regulation in the manga industry, the amateur comics scene in Japan, how manga can be used as propaganda, the panel layout and cinematism of manga, and the first generation of anime and manga fan conventions in the United States. Reading these shorter chapters is like listening to someone who is deeply knowledgeable give an informal lecture on a topic very near to his heart. Not only is Schodt remarkably well read and well informed about the manga industry and fandom on both sides of the Pacific at the time he was writing, but his opinions have also aged well. Schodt’s tone is urbane and polished; and, as I mentioned earlier, his essays are given flavor and texture by his personal anecdotes, many of which are quite fascinating. You have to respect a man who sought out the official store of Aum Shinrikyō after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in order to investigate the manga the organization was creating to educate potential members, after all.

The essays contained in Schodt’s shorter chapters are fun and informative, and they don’t feel dated in the slightest. What about the two longer chapters, then?

As Schodt states in his introduction, “fans of manga should not expect to see many of their favorite works here. There are no extended commentaries on Ranma 1/2, Akira, or Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon.” Indeed, most of the manga creators Schodt profiles in his “Artists and Their Work” chapter would probably be unknown to Japanese manga fans. These artists create what might be called “independent comics” or “small press comics” in the West, and they are just as fascinating as they are obscure. There is at least one high definition example of each artist’s work accompanying his or her profile, with translations provided by Schodt. Even if it’s nigh impossible to get one’s hands on the work of these specific artists outside of Japan, Schodt’s discussions of them deal with broader topics, such as the more specialized genres of manga in Japan (like manga about Japanese law and business strategy).

The “Manga Magazine Scene” chapter, which provides information about ten specific manga periodicals and two subgenres of manga periodicals, was probably the most interesting to me, as Schodt’s treatment of each topic functions as a small case study of how the manga industry finds and grooms talent, targets a specific demographic, and then sends its content out into the world in the form of different types of media. Many of the manga magazines Schodt covers, such as Weekly Shōnen Jump, Nakayoshi, and Morning, are still industry leaders; so, even if the circulation data given for each publication is no longer current, the demographic and historical information is still pertinent to someone interested in contemporary manga.

In conclusion, while Dreamland Japan feels a bit dated and obscure at times, and while it’s not exactly a scholarly study, it’s a useful resource to anyone interested in manga in any capacity, and it doubles as entertaining reading material for anyone interested in popular culture in general.

An Otaku Tour of Kansai

If you’re an otaku, Tokyo is the best place to be. No other city on the face of the earth can hold a candle to Tokyo in terms of vibrant subcultures and amazing subcultural experiences that are completely open to anyone who stumbles upon them.

Kansai is awesome in its own right, however, and the region is well worth visiting, even if you’re not interested in rich cultural traditions, gorgeous architecture, and delicious food. There are plenty of things for an otaku to do in Kyoto, Osaka, and Takarazuka.

If you’re headed to Kansai, do yourself a favor and get an Icoca card from the JR automated ticket machines as soon as you exit the Shinkansen into the station. The Icoca is the Kansai equivalent of Kantō’s Suica card. Like the Suica, you pay need to pay 2000 yen for an Icoca. 500 of that yen is a deposit that will be returned to you if you turn in the card at a station office, and the rest can be used to go anywhere, anytime, on any vehicle. You can put more money on your Icoca at any station, and your remaining balance will be returned to you along with your deposit when you return the card. If you already have a Suica, you can use it for all JR rail lines in Kansai, but it doesn’t work anywhere else. Since the best way to get around Kyoto is by bus or taxi, and since the best way to get around Osaka is by subway, it’s definitely worth getting yourself an Icoca.

Kyoto

Besides being filled with temples and famous historic sites and traditional Japanese arts and so on, Kyoto is a tech hub and a college town populated by students, artists, and young professionals. The infinite alleyways snaking behind the main boulevards are lousy with ultra-modern restaurants, tiny theme bars, hostess clubs, host clubs, crazily decorated clothing boutiques, and art spaces the size of a hotel room. Alcohol of all types is cheap, plentiful, and delicious, and strange and fascinating things happen on the streets and along the Kamo River after dark, especially on the weekends. Kyoto is a great city to get lost in.

The top Kyoto attraction for otaku is the Kyoto International Manga Museum. This place is amazing. As an added bonus, it’s also bilingual and Anglophone-friendly. The permanent exhibit is a hyper-illustrated walkthrough of the history and development of manga, the tools and artistic techniques used to create manga, the publishing culture of manga, the genres of manga, and the internationalization of manga. The museum also hosts special exhibits showcasing the work of specific manga artists and illustrators, many of whom are local to Kyoto.

All along the walls of the museum are bookcases on which are shelved the most massive collection of manga I’ve ever seen (and I have seen some massive collections, such as the one housed in the Yoshihiro Yonezawa Memorial Library). Most of this manga is Japanese, but a sizable portion is foreign, including all sorts of North American and European translations and originals. The best part about this library is that you can take anything down from the shelves and read it for as long as you want. The museum also has a smaller library of academic materials dedicated to manga. Again, most of these materials are in Japanese, but there’s also a ton of stuff in English and other European languages. Was there some obscure manga exhibition in Germany? They have the catalog. Was there an issue of The Comics Journal from ten years ago that mentioned shōjo manga? They have that issue. The museum also publishes a few high quality pamphlets and periodicals that you’re free to take as you please (my favorite is a small magazine highlighting the areas of Kyoto featured in recent anime and manga).

To get to the museum, take the subway to the Karasuma-Oike Station, which is served by the Karasuma and the Tōzai lines. Take Exit 2 out of the station, turn to your right at the top of the staircase, and walk for a minute or two until you see the museum on your left. The museum is a converted primary school building, and you’ll know it when you see it. The pennants hanging from the telephone poles along the street in front of it help. Because the museum is awesome, they’ve posted an illustrated map explaining how to get there.

There are also a small handful of otaku specialty stores clustered along Teramachi between Sanjō and Shijō (these are all the names of streets/walkways). If you’d like to get to this area from the Manga Museum, go back to the intersection where you came out of the subway, cross the street, and turn left on Oike to go towards the Kamo River. Walk for about ten blocks (which actually isn’t that far) and enter the Teramachi covered shopping arcade on your right. To get to this area from anywhere else, start at the Sanjō-Keihan Station and cross over the Kamo River on the Sanjō bridge. Keep heading west on Sanjō for about two blocks until the street dead-ends into a covered pedestrian shopping arcade called “Sanjo Cupola.” Keep going straight through the Sanjo Cupola until you emerge into the open air (there will be a giant mechanical crab ahead on your right), and immediately turn left into the Teramachi covered shopping arcade.

After walking for awhile, you’ll see a Melon Books above a drugstore to your right. Melon Books sells hardcore pornographic manga and doujinshi for men, so enter at your own risk. Further ahead on your right you’ll see a bookstore called Manga・Can (漫画館), which is a great place to browse and discover new manga titles. A bit further ahead on your right is the Kyoto branch of Gamers, which has games (mainly of the erotic variety) on the fourth floor and manga and doujinshi on the fifth floor. Most of the merchandise stocked by Gamers is targeted at men, but the store isn’t as hardcore as Melon Books and caries many things of interest to female otaku as well.

Running parallel to Teramachi to the east (one street over to your left if you’re walking towards Shijō) is another shopping arcade called Shinkyogoku. Right before you emerge onto Shijō while walking along Shinkyogoku, there will be an Animate to your right on the second-floor level above a small open plaza. Like all Animate branches, the Kyoto store is distinctive. It has a large and well-stocked manga section that showcases work by local artists, work that has won regional manga prizes, and work appealing to yuri sensibilities.

If cross Shijō on Teramachi, you’ll find yourself on a small, uncovered street. Several dozen feet past Shijō, there will be a five-story Tora no Ana on your left and a five-story bookstore called Shinchō Shoten (信長書店) on your right. Both stores are custom-made for otaku.

Right next to Shinchō Shoten, in a tiny alley about twelve feet past the bookstore and leading off the right, is one of the best-kept secrets of Kyoto: a tiny vegetarian restaurant and sake bar called Mikōan (彌光庵). The food is cheap and delicious and varied enough that no two people will get the same meal even if they order the same thing. The décor and atmosphere are like something out of an urban fantasy novel. There are also several adorable, fluffy cats wandering around the restaurant at any given time, and they don’t mind being friendly if you engage them. Mikōan is all about how awesome Kyoto can be if you wander off the beaten path.

Osaka

Osaka never gets enough credit. Sure, it’s not as rich or as populous as Tokyo, but it’s still a huge city filled with interesting places to go. The urban landscape of Osaka resembles that of Tokyo, but it’s different in all sorts of neat ways. You really will hear people speak Osaka dialect here, which is lots of fun if you’re learning Japanese.

Nanba is the Osaka equivalent of Akihabara. This neighborhood runs alongside a broad avenue called Yotsuhashi-suji or, more appropriately, in the smaller streets and alleys branching off from either side of Yotsuhashi-suji. Nanba Station is an epic mess of stores and restaurants and hotels, and there are many ways to navigate your way outside, but the area you want to be in is on the northeast side of the station. Depending on what train line you’re coming from, it might be easiest to walk through the Takashimaya department store and exit the building from the main entrance. In any case, a small street called Nansan-dōri snakes along the west side of the station. Follow it until you see a Taito Station, and turn left past the arcade. If you keep walking west along the small road (which is still called Nansan-dōri even after if veers away from the station), you’ll begin to see otaku-related stores on your right. The area between Nanba Station, Nansan-dōri, and Yotsuhashi-suji is where all of the electronics stores, maid cafés, used video game stores, and specialty book stores are. You will find a Melon Books and a Yellow Submarine along these backstreets, but, if you want to go to the K-Books and Animate, follow Nansan-dōri until the big intersection and turn right on Yotsuhashi-suji. The K-Books and Animate will be down the street to your right, and the Mandarake will be across the street on your left.

If you’re looking for doujinshi, it’s definitely worth your while to visit the K-Books here, which stocks tons of work produced by Kansai artists. Doujinshi for large fandoms are more or less equally distributed across Kantō and Kansai, but work for small fandoms from small regional conventions doesn’t always make it to Tokyo. There are also a number of original doujinshi at the Nanba K-Books that don’t fall into pre-established genres and resemble nothing so much as they do North American indie comics.

For an otaku, I think the major attraction of Osaka is the Umeda Mandarake. According to fanlore, this is *the* Mandarake, the Mandarake to end all Mandarakes, and the One True Mandarake. The Umeda Mandarake is a sprawling three-story building stuffed to the gills with crap, garbage, and treasure. The building itself looks (and smells) like it should be condemned, and the soft, creaky floor literally sags under the weight of all the junk in the store. Otaku relics are lovingly displayed in glass showcases, while the dim overhead lighting flickers and throws shadows around the piles of unopened cardboard boxes stacked in the corners. The clerks cosplay, and there is a small stage for performances on the second floor that also serves as a dais for life-size renditions of pop culture icons. This place must really been seen to be believed.

Also, if you’re looking for original doujinshi drawn by artists like Yuki Kaori and CLAMP, this is the place to go. In addition, on the staircase landing between the second and third stories, there is a table with a few stacks of “Mandarake Note” notebooks in which visitors to the store can draw and scribble away to their hearts’ content with the art tools provided. If you take the time to flip through some of the old notebooks, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some really familiar names and art styles. If you’re an a creative mood, you can take over your own notebook page.

Fittingly for a quest of such magnitude, it’s a pain in the ass to get to the store. The easiest method is to take one of the south exists out of the JR Osaka Station (or the Hankyū Umeda Station across the street), get in a taxi, and pay the driver ¥660 to take you to the Osaka Tokyu Inn hotel. If you’re facing the Tokyu Inn, you’ll notice a Small Alley of Ultimate Sketchiness running alongside the right side of the hotel building. Turn left into the alleyway and keep walking until you emerge into a shopping arcade with the Mandarake right in front of you.

If you want to be adventurous, you can go on foot. Take the Mitōsuji South Exit from JR Osaka Station (which can be accessed from JR rail lines and the subway lines) and cross the street under the huge pedestrian bridge. Alternately, take the South Central Exit from JR Osaka Station and climb the stairs to get on top of the huge pedestrian bridge. Either way, you’re heading for the Umeda Hankyū Building. What you’re going to want to do, either by going around, going under, or going through, is to get to the other side of this building. At street level on the other side of the building you’ll see an intersection with a concrete island in the middle of it, and, on the far side of the intersection, a covered shopping arcade called “E Street.” This shopping arcade goes on for a few blocks and in the middle crosses over an open street and changes its name to Hankyū Tōtsū Shōtengai (阪急東通商店街). The Mandarake is on towards the end of the shopping arcade on the left. The shopping arcade itself is tacky and raucous, and any of the restaurants lining the passage can provide you with a ticket out of Sober City on the Cheap Alcohol Express, if you’re interested in that sort of cultural experience.

While you’re in the area, the Osaka Pokémon Center is on the thirteenth floor of the Daimaru department store above the South Central Exit of JR Osaka Station. The store has all sorts of special goods connected to Osaka and the Johto region that you can’t get anywhere else, as well as special Spot Pass promotions for fans who bring their Nintendo DS with them.

Takarazuka

Takarazuka is a mid-sized suburb located about a twenty minute train ride away from Osaka (and a forty-five minute ride from Kyoto, with one transfer in the middle). Not only is the area around the station interesting (it’s like an exaggerated fantasy version of the Europe described by Marcel Proust), but the city is also home to two major otaku-related attractions.

These two attractions are the Takarazuka Grand Theater building and the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum. Finding your way around is half the fun of an excursion to Takarazuka, so I won’t give directions. Let it suffice to say that you’re looking for the Hana no Michi (花のみち). This is an actual street divided by a raised walking path lined with flowers. It’s just as romantic as it sounds, and the Takarazuka Revue themed bronze statues along the path add to its charm.

The Takarazuka Grand Theater is the home base of the Takarazuka Revue, which is fabulousness incarnate. Even if you can’t catch a performance (if you do want to see a performance, you’ll want to book your seat well in advance), it’s fun to wander around the massive theater complex just to drink in the atmosphere. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see a fan club; and, if you’re even luckier, you might get to spot a performer. The Quatre Rêves gift shop, which is easily accessible from the Hana no Michi, stocks all sorts of CDs and DVDs, as well as tons of glossy print material. Of special interest are “bromides,” which are laminated photos of Takarazuka actresses dressed in the costumes of their famous roles. If you’re not interested in spending money on pictures of glamorous ladies, you can get all sorts of material for free in the form of pamphlets, leaflets, and promotional fliers. There are also television screens set up around the theater complex where you can chill out and enjoy videotaped awesomeness at your leisure.

At the end of the Hana no Michi and down the street a bit is the Osamu Tezuka Memorial Museum, which is marked by a giant sculpture of Tezuka’s Phoenix just outside the main entrance. The museum hosts rotating exhibitions in a spacious and well-designed gallery space, but the permanent exhibition of Tezuka memorabilia is also interesting. Not only does the museum display the usual array of photographs and animation stills, but it also showcases the notebooks that Tezuka kept as a young adult. Even if you’re not a Tezuka fan, it’s difficult not to be awed by the range and scope of the artist’s imagination as represented in these notebooks. The museum has a handful of interactive installations, but my favorite is the Animation Studio (アニメ工房) on the basement floor, where anyone can sit at a computer station, draw pictures with the tablet and stylus provided, and then animate them. There’s also an open library with editions of Tezuka manga from around the world, as well as ample space to sit down, relax, and read. You’ll see visitors dressed in Tezuka cosplay (with floopy berets and seventies glasses), and the entire building is covered with images, murals, etchings, and sculptures. Visiting the museum is a unique experience and well worth the trip out to Takarazuka.

In conclusion, Kansai is a great area to visit, and not just for temples and historical sites. Kyoto and Osaka and Takarazuka can be just as edgy, quirky, and fun as Tokyo, and there’s no reason for a short-term or a long-term visitor with otaku inclinations not to make the trip down to Kansai.

Hatarake Kentauros

Title: はたらけ、ケンタウロス!(Hatarake, kentaurosu!)
Artist: est em (えすとえむ)
Year Published: 2011
Publisher: Libre Shuppan
Pages: 160

Hatarake Kentauros is a one-shot manga by the BL author est em that contains eight stories and a kaki-oroshi (a short afterward section created especially for the tankōbon publication). The subjects of these stories are centaurs trying to make a living in contemporary Japan. The first four stories are about a salaryman centaur named Kentarō, the challenges he faces at work and while commuting, and his relationship with his human co-worker. The fifth story is about a centaur who wants to apprentice at a soba shop but can’t fit into the kitchen and is assigned delivery work instead. The sixth story is about a centaur craftsman who makes shoes even though he can never wear them, and the seventh story is about a centaur model who becomes depressed because his lower half is always replaced with human legs in Photoshop. The eighth story is about a young centaur graduate who is nervous about moving to Tokyo and beginning work at his first job.

The world created by est em in Hatarake Kentauros is largely homosocial; and, although nothing is ever expressly stated, the reader is encouraged to think of the male protagonists of the stories as gay. The salaryman Kentarō misses a day of work due to a cold and is visited by his male coworker, who prepares noodles while making observations on Kentarō’s kitchen, which was built to accommodate a centaur. The apprentice soba chef ends up bonding with an attractive apprentice ramen chef, and the two decide to open a portable street stall together. The centaur shoemaker rescues the son of his employer from an arranged marriage, and the two grow old together while operating their own business in a different city. The bonds between these male characters are gentle and subtle but no less powerful for not including overtly romantic or sexual elements.

What I like about the stories in Hatarake Kentauros is that they avoid a facile allegorical application of social justice by disallowing a one-on-one correspondence between “centaur” and “gay.” Although they’re just as “human” as anyone else, the centaurs created by est em are most definitely “other.” They’re too large to fit into crowded elevators. There are special lanes for them on the streets because they can’t ride in cars. They need to eat large quantities of food, and they have separate toilets. Centaurs aren’t just different from humans in terms of the shapes and sizes of their bodies; they also live for hundreds of years and take almost fifty years to mature into adults. It is therefore difficult to map categories of real-world otherness, such as gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality, onto est em’s centaurs. The reader is thus able to understand the characters in Hatarake Kentauros not just as platonic symbols but also as individuals.

At its core, Hatarake Kentauros is about the stories of individuals. It’s not about social justice or about men in love with other men. est em’s Equus (released at the same time as Hatarake Kentauros), on the other hand, is much more raw. In my opinion, it’s also more artistic. Some of the book’s stories have almost no dialog, and the impressionistic yet forceful lines with which the centaurs of Equus are drawn emphasize their muscularity and masculinity. These centaurs are sexy – especially when they’re having sex with each other. The stories of Equus do not limit themselves to contemporary Japan but look back to other times and places in which centaurs lived freely in the wilderness apart from human habitation or were inherited from father to son like slaves. Equus makes a clear connection between otherness, sexiness, sexualization, and discrimination, and it’s not afraid to hit the reader where it hurts.

I could write much more about Equus and Hatarake Kentauros, but, to make a long story short, these two manga are brilliant, genius-level works. If you can read Japanese – and even if you can’t read Japanese – it’s absolutely worth the ridiculous shipping rates of Amazon.co.jp to import these two books from Japan.

ETA: Hatarake Kentauros will also be available via JManga starting on Thursday, April 19.