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

Bunny Drop

Title: Bunny Drop
Japanese Title: うさぎドロップ (Usagi doroppu)
Artist: Unita Yumi (宇仁田 ゆみ)
Serialization: 2005-2011 (Japan)
Japanese Publisher: Shōgakukan
American Publisher: Yen Press
Pages (per volume): 200

This review contains mild spoilers for the completed series.

Towards the end of October I presented a conference paper about Sailor Moon and Magic Knight Rayearth. My argument was that the “male gaze” should not be taken for granted in the study of such manga, and that an awareness of an active “female gaze” can change the way we understand contemporary Japanese popular culture. For example, while the male gaze sees infantilized sex objects in Sailor Moon, the female gazes sees icons of feminist empowerment. While a male gaze sees an undifferentiated slurry of popular “magical girl” tropes in Magic Knight Rayearth, a female gaze sees misogynistic narrative cycles being forcibly broken by the tragic end of the series. At the end of my presentation, I received a question that caught me off guard: Feminist empowerment in the realm of fantasy manga is all well and good, but what effect do these manga have on the real world?

Many feminist bloggers, journalists, and scholars of popular media have chronicled the negative impact popular media has on girls and young women. In Cinderella Ate My Daughter, for instance, Peggy Orenstein (the author of Schoolgirls) connects the rising rates of depression and eating disorders in pre-adolescent girls with stories marketed to girls and the associated conflation of self-objectification with a perceived sense of empowerment. If emotional investment in media and the resulting internalization of its underlying ideology can have a negative impact on the real lives of girls and the women they become, wouldn’t it also stand to reason that a positive impact might also be possible? Isn’t that why feminists fight for “strong female characters” and alternative literary, cinematic, and historical canons?

It seems to me that the real issue at stake here is not whether manga affects the psychology of its younger readers (which it most undoubtedly does), but whether it has the same capacity for social commentary and the same effectiveness as a catalyst for social change as “real” literature. It’s difficult (but far from impossible) to argue that a glam-and-glitter “monster of the week” story such as that which characterizes the opening volumes of the Sailor Moon manga is literature, especially when compared to massive, era-defining novels such as The Right Stuff and Freedom. That being said, I believe that manga does have the same power that literature does to allow its readers to experience social and political issues from different perspectives on both a visceral and an intellectual level.

This is quite a long preface for Unita Yumi’s nine-volume series Bunny Drop, which is one of the most striking and memorable manga I’ve read over the past three years. Bunny Drop is about Daikichi, a single man in his thirties, and Rin, the six-year-old girl he adopts. The first four volumes in the series chronicle Daikichi’s deepening bond with Rin as he deals with the challenges of raising her; and, in the last five volumes, the focus of the story shifts to Rin as a first-year student in high school as she learns to negotiate the challenges of the adult world, such as how to handle her emotions towards her mother and towards Daikichi. Although this is a “slice of life” manga, it’s about as far from moe (the male-directed aesthetic and narrative mode of many slice of life stories such as K-On! and Sunshine Sketch) as you can get. Without being too adorable (or, at the other end of the spectrum, too cynical), Bunny Drop depicts the trials and rewards of raising a child – although the narrative tension of the series comes mainly from the trails.

The manga opens with the funeral of Daikichi’s grandfather and the introduction of a strange and sullen six-year-old girl lurking around his house. The child, Rin, is purported to be the grandfather’s love child, and no one in the family wants to take her in. While complaining about the expense and trouble of taking care of a kid, Daikaichi’s relatives squabble over who has to put up Rin until they can find an institution to take her off their hands. When Daikichi suggests that his mom adopt the child, she angrily retorts that he has no idea what sacrifices she had to make for the sake of him and his sister. Having observed that Rin’s silence is a result of her shyness and sensitivity as opposed to some mental deficiency and increasingly frustrated by the selfishness of his family, Daikichi suddenly proclaims that he will take Rin home with him. The open panel depicting Daikichi standing handsome in a black suit as Rin runs to him makes it seem as if everything will work out for the pair; but, on the last page of the first chapter, a decidedly un-cool Daikichi is woken by a sleepy-faced little creature proclaiming, “Hey, hey, Mister [ojisan], I’m hungry!” Daikichi comically snaps that he’s not an ojisan (a term literally meaning “uncle” that is used to address a middle-aged man) yet, and that such an expression would better suit Rin, who is technically his aunt. Along with this light humor, however, comes Daikichi’s sinking realization that he can no longer back out of the responsibilities with which his spur-of-the-moment decision has saddled him.

Although Bunny Drop maintains a fairly light tone throughout the first four volumes, as the first chapter of the series demonstrates, it deals with some heavy issues. Daikichi’s frustration with having to glue name tags on every tiny piece of Rin’s first grade math set is amusing, of course, but it also illustrates all of the nonsense Japanese parents have to deal with when their children start school (which is part of the reason why mothers drop out of the work force and limit themselves to only one child). Daikichi’s panic over the lack of suitable daycare options in the area surrounding his suburban neighborhood is presented as laughable, but his mildly exaggerated reactions attest to a very real sense of unease concerning the lack of choices available to parents in Japan. Over the course of the Rin’s childhood, Daikichi makes friends with other parents, such as a working father, a working mother, a stay-at-home dad, and a single mother struggling to raise her son while keeping both feet on the corporate ladder. Daikichi, who himself has to request a demotion to a non-overtime position in order to be able to pick up Rin from daycare on time, swaps war stories, survival strategies, and anecdotes of small victories with these other parents.

Meanwhile, despite growing up in a non-traditional family, Rin develops into a capable and emotionally mature young woman. The fifth volume jumps to Rin as a teenager, and the reader is invited to understand her story not only from Daikichi’s perspective but also from her own. Rin has matriculated into the same high school as Kōki, her childhood friend from daycare. Although Rin has done fine in a single-parent household, Kōki, who has been raised by a single mother, has had problems. These problems, which involve dating a much older woman while still in middle school, are alluded to in terms of their lingering effect on Rin and Daikichi, who have become like a second family for Kōki. In the later volumes of Bunny Drop, Rin (and, by extension, Daikichi) must deal with Kōki’s ex-girlfriend, an ambitious college girl on her own who isn’t interested in long-term relationships. Meanwhile, Rin becomes curious about the mother who abandoned her, eventually meeting her and learning that she was a single mother who often left Rin with Daikichi’s grandfather, for whom she worked as a housekeeper, in order to pursue her dream of becoming a manga artist. Rin herself has already begun to think about her own future and is strongly considering applying to a college within commuting distance so that she will be able to stay home and take care of Daikichi as he ages.

The issues Bunny Drop tackles are thus the issues the manga’s readership – presumably women in their late teens and early twenties – must confront as they begin to make choices about the directions their lives will take. Is it necessary to get married? What does it mean to have a child? Is it possible to stay at your job even after you marry and have children? If your career is important to you, should you even have children? What preparations do you need to make in order to care for your parents? Child care, elder care, and how young women negotiate their education and careers – these are the themes of Bunny Drop, and the manga explores these themes through a diverse cast of fully developed characters.

The social observation and commentary of Bunny Drop is subtle and doesn’t immediately engage the reader at the same level as the interesting characters and compelling story, but it really jumps out when the manga is compared to other manga with similar premises, such as Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&! or Unita’s earlier Yonin-gurashi (which might be translated as “Family of Four”). Both of these manga, which also contain stories involving young children, are highly episodic in nature and display on the lighter side of caring for a child. In the world of these manga, children are always adorable all the time, and the only problems their guardians face are easily resolved within the span of a few pages. Neither the children nor their parents ever get old, and money (or work) is never an issue. Isn’t it wonderful to be a parent, these manga seem to suggest, or even, Isn’t it wonderful to be a child. In contrast, Bunny Drop employs a degree of realism that never allows the reader to escape into a comforting fantasy that will disappear as soon as she closes the manga. The awkward ending of the series, which abandons this level of realism and retreats into romance tropes common to both manga and mainstream literature, might even be read as a critique of fantasies that demand happy endings, or even of a society that demands that its women be wedded to an outdated and increasingly dysfunctional family system.

To answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay, then, I am sure that manga artists do not have the same ability to shape legal and political discourse as do lawyers, judges, politicians, bureaucrats, and the journalists and professors who publish in influential opinion magazines. However, as reading through periodicals like Aera and Chūōkōron (and made-for-export material like Japan Echo and Reimagining Japan) has convinced me, many of the major social issues currently facing Japan, such as a shrinking workforce, a low birthrate, and an aging population, directly concern women and the choices they make in their lives. Despite this, young women in the demographic represented by the readership of manga like Bunny Drop have little access to participation in public realms of political and legal discourse. It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that they will create their own realms of discourse to which they do have access. Becoming a politician takes money and connections, but presumably anyone can become a manga artist, or at least submit a postcard to Feel Young magazine expressing her opinions regarding Bunny Drop.

An individual’s consciousness of social issues is shaped by many realms of discourse, and it makes sense that young women would be more comfortable with realms of discourse from which they do not feel excluded. A manga like Bunny Drop, which examines important issues that pertain directly to its readership, should thus be considered a text worthy of being read and studied and even enjoyed. If Bunny Drop is not serious literature, then it at least performs many of the functions of serious literature through its use of narrative devices similar to those used by serious literature. A pastel-covered graphic narrative like Bunny Drop may not be a catalyst for social change, but it certainly does serve as a mirror in which young women (and men) can scrutinize their lives, the limitations imposed on them, and the choices available to them.

If you haven’t started reading this manga yet, I highly recommend it.

Twinkle Twinkle

twinkle-twinkle

Title: Twinkle Twinkle
Japanese Title: きらきらひかる
Author: Ekuni Kaori (江国香織)
Translator: Emi Shimokawa
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 1991 (Japan)
Pages: 171

About thirty pages into Twinkle Twinkle, I thought to myself, “Are all contemporary Japanese books written by women this depressing?” It’s an interesting literary trend. In America, writers like Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, 2005) and Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, 2004) craft literary paeans to female sisterhood, hope, and endurance, while contemporary Japanese female authors seem to be losing the struggle to gaman, or to deal with the hardships presented to them by Japanese society until they are able to claim some immaterial reward in the far-off future. In short, the new breed of Japanese women writers seems to be cracking under the strain of contemporary Japanese society, which has been slow to acknowledge new gender roles, even as the economic structures that have supported these gender roles have crumbled. Ekuni Kaori’s novel Twinkle Twinkle perspicuously demonstrates the effects of this societal paradox.

Twinkle Twinkle follows the fortunes of the newlywed couple Shoko and Mutsuki. Mutsuki is gay and quite in love with his boyfriend. Shoko is highly emotionally unstable and is quite open about the fact that she doesn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with anyone. Although the pair lives together, and although they are quite affectionate towards one another, their marriage is nothing more than a legal convenience. In fact, the only reason they agreed to marry in the first place was to escape from the pressure imposed upon them by their parents. Through the first months of their married life, Shoko and Mutsuki make friends and lose friends, battle their respective families, and learn how to live with one another in the strange situation they’ve created.

Because Shoko and Mutsuki take turns narrating the chapters, the reader is able to gain a very interesting perspective into their relationship and their individual personalities. I found myself becoming frustrated with the characters and sympathizing with them in turn. Mutsuki is kind, but passive and somewhat clueless. Shoko displays the classic symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which occasionally devolves into depression and alcoholism, but she is honest, true to her herself, and genuinely means well in her interactions with others. Both of the two main characters, as well as the cast of supporting characters, are expertly realized, and I felt that I came to know them quite well over the course of the novel, as if perhaps they were friends of mine in real life.

This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Yes, the characters occasionally have fun and enjoy each other’s company, but the challenges they face are quite real, extremely frustrating, and never entirely resolved. Although the novel has something of a happy ending, I found myself fearing for the fate Shoko and Mutsuki several years down the road. Also, I found it hard to accept Shoko’s extreme behavior at times, and the all too accurate portray of her emotional instability was difficult to deal with. The hardheadedness of her traditional Japanese parents was even worse.

Overall, though, I think Twinkle Twinkle provides a welcome antidote to the bubblegum fluff of shōjo manga, “light novels,” and the works of novelists like Yoshimoto Banana. Don’t let the bright cover of this book fool you – Ekuni’s novel contains more insight into the dark side of contemporary Japanese society than you may find comfortable.