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.

Reimagining Japan

Title: Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works
Editors: Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler, and Heang Chhor
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: VIZ Media
Pages: 464

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty short essays on the future of Japan after an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown, and twenty years of economic stasis. The essayists brought together by this collection are mainly industry leaders and influential journalists, with a few academics and NPO-associated researchers thrown in for spice. In their essays, these luminaries speculate on what went wrong with Japan’s economic and social infrastructures and propose strategies to reinvigorate the country in the wake of the recent disasters.

I found this book to be infuriating. Here are five reasons why.

(1) The overgeneralizations. These generalizations tend to be made not about the economy, for which there are internationally recognized systems of characterization on the macro level, but rather about the Japanese people. Statistical demographic analysis is thrown to the wind as the reader is told, in essay after essay, that Japan is an aging society, that Japanese women don’t work, that there are no immigrants in Japan, and that the Japanese are a race of mindless automatons. Ironically, every other essay seems to offer the opposite set of generalizations. Women do work, Japan is filled with immigrants, and the Japanese are a highly individualistic people (everyone agrees that the population is aging, though). There are also generalizations about the relationship between the government and privately-owned industry and corporations. Government reliance on the private sector is good, government reliance on the private sector is bad. The government should regulate corporate activity, the government should not regulate corporate activity. This difference of opinion is not bad in and of itself, but when different people state radically different “facts” about the same issue, the validity of said facts is obviously called into question.

(2) The bad economics. Aside from a class in eighth grade and a class in my freshman year of college, I have never formally studied economics. I do not claim to be an expert on economic theory or practice. I genuinely respect people who do have this expertise. That being said, I don’t think telling an entire country of people how to behave constitutes a sound economic policy. An overwhelming number of the essayists in Reimaging Japan suggest that the Japanese economy will be revived if only “the Japanese” begin behaving in a radically different manner. There are some really strange examples of this type of thinking scattered throughout the book, such as when Pico Iyer obliquely blames the decline in Japanese economic productivity on women wearing makeup (with young women wearing makeup and older women wearing makeup being two separate economic issues, of course).

(3) Unchallenged assumptions. In an essay titled “Cool Is Not Enough,” Christopher Graves makes the following statement about Japan’s contents industry: “If Japan truly exports its wide array of anime and manga, foreign fans will discover that the content ranges from kawaii (super cute) to hentai (sexual perversion) interlaced with violence and dark apocalyptic visions. Real manga is not at all childlike and could cause an uproar in countries like the United States, whose people are likely to be outraged by scenes of rape or sex with an octopus.” In other words, most anime and manga in Japan is violent pornography, and Americans only tolerate Japanese popular culture because its true nature is hidden from them. I wonder, does Graves live in an alternate universe from our own, in which the vast majority of manga in Japan is indeed intended for a young audience, while a wide range of stories and genres are highly successful in America? How does the global CEO of a big-name international public relations firm make such silly and obvious mistakes, and why does anyone think it’s okay that his opinions and policy suggestions are based on such obvious and silly mistakes? These are questions I could ask regarding any number of the essayists in this book, who base their opinions on similarly ridiculous assumptions that they never question. A great deal of these assumptions come with no citations or corroborations, which is obviously problematic not just from an academic perspective but from the perspective of public and economic policy as well.

(4) An almost complete lack of concern over the environment. In an essay titled “Japan After People,” Alex Kerr goes off on one of his signature rants about how Japan is spoiling the beauty and sanctity of its natural heritage by lining its rivers with concrete and covering its mountains with sugi cypress trees. In the same essay, he laments the shrinking cities and rural depopulation caused by the country’s low birthrate. These two opinions, when placed side by side in a short essay, come off as somewhat contradictory. The last time I checked, fewer people means less strain on the environment, and more people along with less environmental destruction sounds an awful lot like having your cake and eating it too. Such environmental paradoxes appear throughout the book. Another remarkable contradiction is contained in the assertion, repeated across multiple essays, that Japan should emulate China. Not only are Chinese business practices not healthy on a social level, but they’re also terrifyingly destructive on an environmental level. The effects of global warming, such as extreme temperatures and drastically changing patterns of rainfall and drought, are very real and have a strong impact of economic stability. One might think that the incident at the Fukushima reactor would cause people to start taking environmental issues seriously, but all Reimagining Japan can offer is admiration of Chinese vitality and a call for more Japanese babies.

(5) Gender disparity. There are far, far more essays written by men in Reimagining Japan than essays written by women. While this may seem like a petty complaint on the surface, it becomes somewhat more troubling when one realizes that many of the issues addressed by these male essayists directly concern women. For example – where do all of those new Japanese babies that everyone wants come from? Also, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to answer demands for a diverse and stable workforce if Japanese corporations made it easier for the female (more-than-)half of the population to be full-time employees. One might argue that, in an essay collection representing the opinions of industry and opinion leaders, that there are simply not enough high-profile women to go around, but this is simply not true. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that something so obviously useful as female opinions on gender issues would be overlooked by the editors.

There are a few diamonds in the rough (such as the essays by John Dower and Kumiko Makihara), but this collection as a whole is repetitive and a bit ridiculous. I don’t enjoy writing such negative reviews (and in fact I almost trashed this one unposted), but I thought someone should stand up and say that the sort of intellectual laziness that pervades Reimagining Japan is not okay. Let me repeat that: this is not okay. Still, there is enough that is good and interesting in this collection to make it worth browsing just so long as one remembers to think about what she reads instead of simply taking it at face value.

ETA: I really enjoyed reading this review of the collection, which echoes many of my criticisms but contains more information about the actual content. The author of the review seems to have enjoyed some of the essays I found particularly problematic (mainly because of their inherent sexism), but he does an excellent job of detailing the book’s strengths and weaknesses.