It seems silly to refer to Hagio Moto as “lesser known,” when her status as a mangaka borders on legendary and when, along with Ikeda Riyoko, she is largely responsible for what shōjo manga has become in recent decades. Yet, despite Matt Thorn’s recent and not-so-recent translations of her work, she has not quite caught on in the English-language market. I would argue that this is mostly due to the limited range of manga titles that are translated and that have, over time, contributed to stereotypes thereof. Certainly, more avant garde or less mainstream works do get published and disseminated outside Japan, but their market is relatively niche when compared with those titles that do stick to stylistic conventions and genre stereotypes. One would expect that works out of the mainstream would have similarly small scale distribution outside their original market, but Hagio Moto’s works are mainstream and extremely popular–her status as “lesser known” is a fiction not merely of what does and does not get translated, since many of her works have been, but of the expectations of a market, both lay and academic, that pigeonholes shōjo manga into being a particular thing for a particular kind of reader.
A typical shōjo manga genealogy begins with Tezuka’s Ribon no kishi (Ribbon Knight), skips over the 1960s, and begins again with the Hana no 24-gumi (literally, “the flower of year 24 [i.e. 1949]”), a group of female artists born in or around 1949 whose seminal works of the 1970s reinvented what shōjo manga was and could be. Takemiya Keiko‘s homoerotic stories are largely responsible for creating the shōnen ai (boys’ love) subgenre, and Ikeda’s women-as-men (e.g. Oscar in Rose of Versailles), based in part on the performance aesthetic of the Takarazuka Troupe‘s otokoyaku, are reflected quite obviously in, say, the title character of Saitō Chiho’s Shōjo kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena). This “typical” genealogy, like most that take Tezuka as their godfather, overlooks the influence of illustrations of girls and young women in prewar girls’ magazines as well as the ways in which their articles and stories contributed to popular perceptions of what a shōjo is and how she should behave. For a more thorough take on this genealogy, see Takahashi Mizuki’s “Opening the Closed World of Shōjo Manga” in Japanese Visual Culture.
Hagio Moto’s contribution to contemporary manga is more difficult to pin down, in part, because it is not necessarily stylistic, like those above, but rather a matter of attitude and intellectual orientation toward the possibilities of what was otherwise understood as manga merely “for girls.” Like Shirato, whose “revolution” was political and thematic rather than visual, Hagio’s artistic style does not particularly stand out, and her early tendency to set her stories in specific historical periods, fantasy worlds, or the distant future (rather than an eternal here-and-now) had been done before her. Like others of her generation, she was strongly influenced by important figures such as Tezuka, Ishinomori Shōtarō, and Mizuno Hideko as well as by her love of literature, both high and low, from around the world. At first glance, her work appears to be downright run of the mill, but what sets Hagio apart, I will argue, is how she reinterprets (and undermines) the seemingly tight knit relationship between ideological constructs of “the” shōjo and shōjo manga.
Where the Girls Are[n’t]
One thing that regularly irks me in both Japanese and non-Japanese manga criticism concerned with shōjo manga is the persistent theoretical rediscovery and reinvention of “the” shōjo. There have always seemed to me to be many shōjo: mahō shōjo (magical girl), bishōjo (pretty girl), Saitō Tamaki’s sentō bishōjo (beautiful fighting girl), Miyasako Chizuru’s chō-shōjo (hyper girl), etc. Not all of these are meant for consumption and imitation by young girls. Pretty girl characters like those in Di Gi Charat clearly cater to the childish infatuation (moe) male otaku/geeks typically have for cutesy girl types, and Saitō’s theoretical construct of the beautiful fighting girl is a complex object of sexual desire that plays upon a tension between physical prowess and frailty. This runs directly counter to the now common understanding of “the” shōjo in the early modern period as a sexual blank, an asexual status transferred not only to girl characters but to the theoretical abstractions that seek to explain them.
One of Hagio Moto’s clearest examples of this asexual, cute, innocent type is also her most biting critique of it. In the short story Hanshin (“Half-God”), Hagio tells the story of a pair of conjoined twins, one of whom is the very model of “the” shōjo.
The other is a grotesque inversion.
Yucy’s “beauty” and “innocence” in “Half-God” are rendered an obvious result of her retarded mental development (as seen in her inability to speak, to feed herself without making a mess, or to play without aggressively flailing around) and of her physical disability. Yudy, the “grotesque” one, carries Yucy about, feeds her, and generally takes care of her beautifully incompetent sister. Her gaunt features and thinning hair are the result of Yucy’s half of their doubled body mostly hoarding what they need to live for herself, such that while outsiders see Yucy as an “angel,” Yudy thinks of her as a malevolent parasite:
Yudy is exceptionally bright, with a penchant for genetics–genetics are a recurring theme in Hagio’s work–and because her sister makes it impossible for her to run and play like most children, she spends most of her time reading and studying. There is an ambivalence in this story difficult to parse, for it is never as simple as “cute stereotype bad, ugly stereotype good, ugh.” From one perspective, the “beautiful” Yucy is a dead weight dragging Yudy down, but it is because of that fact that Yudy has been able to develop her intellectual acumen rather than squander it with childish things. Moreover, it would be easy to laugh at and mock Yucy’s dopey innocence, but it is her ignorance that makes her kind to others in a way Yudy is not. Both girls are and are not stereotypes, or rather in juxtaposition the easy characterization of each is undermined. Yudy’s liberation, noble, perhaps, in itself, can come only at the expense of Yucy’s life. As the doctor who performs the separation surgery explains, Yucy is incapable of processing their food on her own. As such, only Yudy has a chance to survive the operation. Yudy’s longing to be free reads both as a laudable desire for liberation and as a callous indifference to the death of her sister. As Yudy stands over her sister’s deathbed, she at first sees not Yucy but herself.
As Yudy recovers, her “grotesque” features begin to revert to the “beautiful” stereotype, but in becoming “the” shōjo of critical and popular imagination, she is anything but liberated.
When Boys are Actually “Girls”
From the heading alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I would close with the oft remarked upon gender bending and cross-dressing so common in shōjo manga. What I have in mind when I say “boys who are actually girls” are not the Oscars or the Utenas of manga and anime but rather boys, especially pre-pubescent boys, who appear as boys in their particular texts and yet who can be understood quite easily as “the” shōjo of critical imagination. In Matt Thorn’s interview with Hagio for The Comics Journal, she reveals something rather striking about the character Edgar in Pō no ichizoku (The Poe Clan): “I wanted to make him non-sexual, so I thought it would be best to have a character whose body had not yet changed [from child to adult]. But also, that was just the average age of the readers at the time, so it seemed just right. Long afterwards, it occurred to me that if I had made him slightly older, I could have had more story options available to me.” At first glance this sounds harmless enough, but her characterization of Edgar has three important features that link him to constructions of “the” shōjo: his asexuality, his one-to-one correspondence with shōjo manga’s hypothesized reader, and the limited narrative range this type seems to impose.
Despite this, earlier in the conversation, Hagio tries to make a distinction between doing the same thing with both male and female characters: “[w]hen I started making The Poe Clan, I found that the boy characters could say what I wanted to say so easily. They were standing in for me. It went very smoothly. It was so easy to make Poe. But once I had done that, I found that when I created a female character, I would put myself into her, and I was told that I was imposing my own notions of what a woman is on the character. I thought, ‘Ouch!” I was surprised at myself… It made me realize that I’m still bound by stereotypes.” Hagio’s description of her ease of expression with male characters and sense of constraint with female ones does not mesh well with what she says about Edgar. One could argue, I suppose, that the difference is not in what is done by the artist but in how they are read. The very same characteristics in a male or female character will be understood in completely different ways due to the gender expectations we bring to a particular text. This would also explain why such schrift is given to homoerotic relationships in shōjo manga, even when the stories of those couples closely resemble heterosexual ones. After all, there has been for some time a raging debate about gay marriage, even though the status recognition sought by gay and lesbian couples is thoroughly heteronormative.
The point of all this is not to elide critical takes on “the” shōjo but to show how diffuse and far reaching that monolith is, well beyond the narrow confines of “girls” in comics ostensibly “for girls.” Even Hagio Moto, who seems to understand the shōjo type and tries to undermine it, feels constrained by it, for to subvert a stereotype is also a use of it and, oddly, a perverse reinforcement. In trying to slip past the shōjo type, Hagio sees it staring back at her, like Yudy’s shock at seeing her sister-self reflected in the mirror.
Next week: Mizuki Shigeru, yōkai, and cartoony reality.
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