Sailor Moon and Femininity

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

So says Jill Twisty at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy.

I agree with her. So much has been written on this topic that I don’t need to be convinced that such a statement is true.

But… What if there were no men?

Or what if men existed, but simply weren’t that important? What if we didn’t live in a patriarchy? What if we didn’t live in a world where men are assumed to be the standard normative subjects and the ultimate bearers of political, legal, social, economic, religious, and sexual power? What if “femininity” didn’t need to be defined according to its deviations from “masculinity” (which connotes maturity, power, authority, and rationality), and what if “femininity” weren’t something to be performed for a presumed audience of men (and women who wield a male gaze)? Would femininity still be perceived as a submission to oppressive phallocentric interests?

These questions form the core of why the manga Sailor Moon is so fascinating to me. A story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom, Sailor Moon is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.

Because the early volumes of the series are about young girls – and beautiful young girls (bishōjo) at that – their reception has not always been feminist-positive, however. For example, in his monograph Beautiful Fighting Girl, psychologist and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki discusses the anime version of Sailor Moon as a prime example of why the “beautiful girl” trope appeals so much to men. In America, cinema scholar Susan Napier and anthropologist Anne Allison both take issue with the series, finding it a stale mash-up of tropes characteristic of the mahō shōjo (magical girl) genre as it has existed since the mid-seventies. Both scholars also view the anime series in particular as catering to a male audience eager for sexual titillation. Napier, for instance, finds the Sailor Scouts “lacking in psychological depth,” while Allison finds it troubling that the “girl heroes tend to strip down in the course of empowerment, becoming more, rather than less, identified by their flesh,” a trademark visual feature of Sailor Moon that “feeds and is fed by a general trend in Japan toward the infantilization of sex objects.”

Unfortunately, these evaluations do not take into account the female fans of the series, who seem to be less interested in the sexual aspects of the short-skirted female warriors and more eager to identify with the empowered femininity they represent. These fans are also willing to tolerate the weak characterization in the opening volumes of the series in order to enjoy the opportunities presented later in the story for the female heroes to develop their individual talents, personalities, and bonds with each other. In Sailor Moon, the female heroes begin as girls, but they gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.

To celebrate the recent North American release of a new translation of the Sailor Moon manga, an eighteen-year-old blogger on LiveJournal wrote of the series that:

[Sailor Moon] is a world where femininity is not something to be ashamed of, it’s the source of POWER. The girls don’t use their pretty clothes and jewels and compacts as playthings to impress men – these things are all weapons against evil, and powerful ones. They declare themSELVES pretty, needing approval from no one. Our hero possesses all the typical “chick” attributes – emotional, tearful, forgiving, loving, nurturing – and she uses these attributes to triumph and kick ass. She burns monsters alive with the purity of her love, sends out supersonic waves that shake the villains down when she bursts into tears, and her friendship and forgiveness is the most effective superpower one could ask for. The “girly” emotions and affectations are not something to be ashamed of or suppressed, but the source of the power these girls wield. They don’t have to imitate guy heroes at all or act “masculine” to be taken seriously – girliness is just as powerful.

Although someone like Saitō might see Sailor Moon as nothing more than a smorgasbord of tropes that can be endlessly combined and recombined to suit any male fetish, and although prominent critics such as Napier and Allison echo his reading, female readers find something entirely different in the series: they see a group of young women who fight not for the approval of a father or a boyfriend (or a male reader), but rather to achieve their own goals and ambitions. Moreover, they learn that being female isn’t something to be ashamed of; and, according to later developments in the series, neither is homosexuality or a transgendered identity.

Far from regurgitating the tropes of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko overturned the conventions of both shōjo romance for girls and bishōjo fantasy for boys. Furthermore, the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men. The fantasy created by Sailor Moon is not an escape from the gendered conventions and restrictions of reality, but rather a safe space in which these aspects of reality can be tested and challenged. Perhaps this is why Sailor Moon has appealed to so many women outside of its target demographic, and perhaps this is why it has appealed to so many boys and men as well.

If you haven’t read Sailor Moon, the Kodansha Comics re-release is beautifully published and contains a wealth of translation and cultural notes that help make sense of the story and characters. The first two or three volumes of the series can come off as a bit childish; but, as the characters grow and mature, the story does as well. If you’re a girl or a guy, or if you’re a serious manga reader or don’t read many manga at all, Sailor Moon is worth reading simply for the experience of entering a world in which femininity is indeed ” is not something to be ashamed of” but instead “the source of POWER.” The manga is also an excellent introduction to an alternative realm of discourse (common in Japanese manga and spreading to Western comics – partially due to the influence of Sailor Moon) in which female writers and artists can tell their own stories without really worrying about how men are reading and looking at them.

If you’re intrigued, check out the Sailor Moon Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Sean Gaffney’s at A Case Suitable for Treatment over on Manga Bookshelf.

Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle

Title: Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
Author: Susan J. Napier
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 355

Although I consider myself a literature person, it might be better to call what I do “media studies.” I write papers about books, but I also write more than a few papers about movies, and at least half of the Japanese movies I watch and write about these days are animated. This is something I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be doing when I first entered graduate school. For whatever reason, however, I read the 2005 updated edition of Susan Napier’s book on anime during my first winter break and was so inspired that I decided to start writing about popular media, too.

I had taken a lot from Napier’s two earlier books on literature (Escape from the Wasteland and The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature) as an undergraduate, so I’m not sure why it took me so long to sit down and starting reading Anime. If I had to guess, it probably had something to do with the bad reputation the book had (has?) among anime fans. I didn’t have a particularly strong impression from the chapters on magical girls from the original 2001 edition that I had read as a freshman in college (probably because I was eighteen years old), and several people had said that the book is poorly written, gets plot points wrong, and doesn’t respect anime as a medium.

My experience of reading the book was completely the opposite of the bad rumors I had heard. The first chapter of the book (appropriately titled “Why Anime?”) explains why Japanese animation is amazing and exciting and well worth academic attention, and I feel like it conveys a great deal of appreciation and respect for the medium. Also, I’ve seen my fair share of anime, and I’m a member of the generation that is old enough to have seen most of the works Napier discusses in Anime. Upon re-reading the book this past semester, nothing jumped out at me as overtly incorrect in terms of plot or character summary (but, then again, I have never finished and do not plan to ever finish watching Ranma 1/2, so I am willing to admit that I could be wrong). Finally, I think the writing is wonderful. Napier’s prose is clear, precise, and easily understandable by anyone who has neither a long history of watching anime nor a long history of studying Japan. Her writing is also enjoyable to read, as it is occasionally augmented by clever and poetic turns of phrase and various well-placed rhetorical devices that help her make her argument.

Anime is more or less written as a textbook for university-level students. It covers about two dozen films, television series, and OVA’s, usually focusing on two or three primary works over the course of each 20-25 page chapter. The book is broadly divided into three parts according to what Napier sees as the three essential modes of Japanese animation: the apocalyptic, the carnivalesque, and the elegiac. Woven throughout these modes are the three themes of technology, the body, and history. Chapters have titles like “Ghosts and Machines: The Technological Body,” “The Enchantment of Estrangement: The Shōjo in the World of Miyazaki Hayao,” and “Waiting for the End of the World: Apocalyptic Identity.” Although many of the works she discusses could belong in multiple chapters, I feel that Napier chooses her primary works for each chapter extraordinarily well and uses representative works to make strong arguments about various trends in contemporary Japanese animation.

Is there a danger of occasional overgeneralization? You bet. But so must there be in any entry-level textbook. A casual reader might run the risk of thinking, for example, that all Japanese animated pornography is fantastically grotesque after finishing the chapter “Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Anime” (which discusses such classics as Legend of the Overfiend and La Blue Girl), but Napier is always careful to qualify her argument and choice of texts not only within her main discussion but also in her footnotes, which document the sources from which Napier is drawing her conclusions, alternate texts for consideration, and interpretations that are at odds with her own.

Napier reads animation like a literature scholar would read a book, although her focus, understandably, seems to fall on visual imagery. Her readings of the texts follow two lines: psychoanalytic and socio-historic. Since Anime is targeted at undergraduates, neither line of interpretation is ever allowed to become too esoteric. A standard knowledge of Freudian psychology and basic sociology should suffice for the reader, who runs no danger of being confronted with Lacan’s objet petit a or the superstructures of Frederic Jameson. Nevertheless, Anime is far from mindless, and anime fans looking for extended plot summary followed by commentary, insights provided by interviews with directors, or viewing recommendations would probably best be served elsewhere.

I firmly believe that Anime works very well as an introductory textbook. It’s filled with interesting general ideas, and Napier’s clear language and precise structuring make these ideas easy to understand and debate. You don’t have to take my word for it, though, since there are plenty of other opinions floating around the internet. William Gardner (a scholar of science fiction) is happy that the book doesn’t seem like it’s written for otaku; Adam Arnold (a reviewer on Animefringe) is unhappy that the book doesn’t seem like it’s written for otaku. A reviewer for the Anime News Network claims that the book can be enjoyed as long as one is willing to accept the academic context; a reviewer for Hofstra Papers in Anthropology claims that the book can be enjoyed as long as one accepts that the academic context is not rigorous enough. Wherever you fall along this spectrum, Anime is a fun and inspiring book, and it contains a lovely ten-page bibliography that’s good to browse through for further reading on both the fun end and the serious end of writing on Japanese animation.

From Impressionism to Anime

From Impressionism to Anime

Title: From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West
Author: Susan Napier
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Palgrave
Pages: 243

Let me start off by listing the obvious flaws of this book. First of all, the cover. It’s terrible. Whose idiot idea was it to take a crappy photo of crappy cosplay, run it through the “Impressionism” filter in Photoshop, and then put it on the cover of a book? According to the back cover, this monstrosity is the work of “Scribe Inc.” Shame on you, Scribe Inc., and shame on you, Palgrave, for letting them get away with it! Second of all, in a book primarily concerned with visual culture, there are surprisingly few illustrations. To be precise, there are ten, and only four of them are in color. This I am going to blame on the author, whose 2005 work Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is also surprisingly under-illustrated (while other Palgrave scholarly publications have no shortage of well placed, high-quality greyscale images). Napier has no excuse for this, especially since the cosplay culture she details so lovingly is all about getting pictures of itself published. Third, Napier’s scope is very broad, but her treatment of her many topics is, perhaps unsurprisingly, shallow. I did not find this to be the case with Anime (despite many critical accusations to the contrary), but I’m disappointed with what I found to be the lack of sustained intellectual rigor in Impressionism.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me be something of a fangirl for a second and say that I love all of Napier’s work, Impressionism included. Napier always manages to choose the most fascinating things to write about, and she always does an excellent job of explaining why her chosen subject matter is interesting and important. Her analysis is apt, penetrating, and lucid, and her work does not suffer from any of the structural weakness found in a great deal of recent academic work – you always know what she’s trying to say, and her way of saying it is both logical and artistic. Although her theoretical background is rock solid (her bibliographies are a bit intimidating), she doesn’t blithely toss around big names and critical jargon. Also, you can tell that, even though she occasionally betrays a bit of light-hearted sarcasm, she has nothing but respect for the topics of her studies.

This attitude of respect is very important for a work like Impressionism, which deals with some strange and, depending on one’s perspective, almost contemptible subject matter. The book is divided into eight chapters (not including the Introduction and Conclusion). The first four chapters each take up a different aspect of the West’s fascination with Japan during the last two centuries. The first chapter covers turn-of-the-century Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, who revolutionized the fine arts with a little inspiration from Japan, or at least the “Japan” of their imaginations. The second chapter goes into famous inter-war Japan enthusiasts such as Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Waley, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The third chapter follows the antics of post-war American writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michel Crichton, and William Gibson, and the fourth chapter is all about how Western men perceive and interact with Japanese women in works like Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha. The last four chapters, which I consider to be the true raison d’être of this book, deal with American anime fandom and all its various manifestations, from anime conventions to cosplay to slash fan fiction. Through all of this, Napier attempts to uncover the source of the West’s long fascination with Japan, all the while making astute references to the global political and economic climates during which this fascination has become manifest.

The first four chapters, while interesting, are, as I said earlier, somewhat shallow. Each topic that Napier covers in these chapters has been written about extensively by other scholars, a fact which she openly acknowledges. Her originality here lies in the fact that she documents what she sees as a trend, although she is cautious about saying that the various moments in the history of what I am going to call “Japan fandom” are directly related. The main point of interest for readers is the work that Napier has done on post-1980 American anime fandom, which is the culmination of many years of interviews and surveys. Mainly speaking through the voices of the fans she has contacted, Napier attempts to explain the appeal of contemporary Japanese popular culture to Americans, often in contrast to American popular culture. Although she offers no strong conclusion, the variety of insights Napier offers are invaluable.

My one real criticism of this study is that, although Napier hints at exposing the power relations underlying fan culture, she never really follows through. In other words, she is mainly concerned with the relation of fans to the world outside fandom (what she calls “the Muggle world”) and doesn’t delve into the hierarchies of power within the in-group of fandom itself. For example, I would have found an analysis of the term “weeaboo” (an American who loves anime so much that he or she wants to become Japanese) to be a pertinent addition to her discussion. Instead, Napier makes American anime fandom seem like something of a utopia; although she mentions the darker side of fandom by quoting scholars who bring up the concept of “fan pathology,” she never directly acknowledges that such a thing might actually exist in her own object of study.

Otherwise, I found From Impressionism to Anime to be a very satisfying read. It’s an excellent cultural study and could double as a perfect introduction to modern and contemporary Japanese history for someone considering pursuing the subject as an undergraduate – or simply as an intelligent, interested individual. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is actually a book you want to read!

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.

Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Fiction in Contemporary Japan

Title: Ōe and Beyond: Fiction in Contemporary Japan
Editors: Stephen Snyder and Philip Gabriel
Essays: 12, with an Introduction by the editors
Publication Year: 1999 (America)
Pages: 317

This book, while undeniably academic, is perhaps the most important resource for students of contemporary Japanese literature. Included in this book are twelve essays by prominent scholars on the biggest names in post-war Japanese literature. There are essays on political writers like Ōe Kenzaburō and Nakagami Kenji, feminist writers like Ohba Minako and Takahashi Takako, and contemporary popular writers like Murakami Haruki and Banana Yoshimoto. Each of these essays aims to look at the writer as a whole, considering his or her major works and themes, while at the same time attempting to evaluate his or her place in the larger body of modern and postmodern Japanese literature. Every essay is a sound piece of scholarly work, and none of the analyses rely on theory unfamiliar to a college graduate.

Because these essays are so general and yet so rigorous in their approach, I would like to recommend the collection to general readers, as well as specialists, who have cultivated an interest in a particular writer. You won’t be disappointed by what you find. The short introductory essay is also a wonderful introduction to the state of Japanese literature at the turn on the 21st century.

Here is a list of the writers treated by the essays, as well as the authors of the essays themselves. An astute observer (such as myself, haha) will notice that many of the essayists are their subjects’ primary translators, a fact which attests to their close relationship with the authors and their works.

1. Ōe Kenzaburō (Susan Napier)
2. Endō Shūsaku (Van C. Gessel)
3. Hayashi Kyōko (Davinder L. Bhowmick)
4. Ohba Minako (Adrienne Hurley)
5. Takahashi Takako (Mark Williams)
6. Nakagami Kenji (Eve Zimmerman)
7. Kurahashi Yumiko (Atsuko Sakaki)
8. Murakami Haruki (Jay Rubin)
9. Murakami Ryū (Stephen Synder)
10. Shimada Masahiko (Philip Gabriel)
11. Kanai Mieko (Sharalyn Orbaugh)
12. Yoshimoto Banana (Ann Sheif)