28b. Yamazaki Mari In and Out of a “Man’s” World

Last week, I broached but failed to delve much into the subject of manga demographics and the gendering of certain works that fail to fit neatly into the categories to which they are ascribed.  This week I want to look more precisely at the work of one particular artist, Yamazaki Mari, in both the seinen and josei categories 1) to get a better sense of the relative meaninglessness of the categories themselves and 2) to see how these demographic categorizations color otherwise seemingly gender-neutral works.

Nothing Like a Hot Bath

Yamazaki is best known for her award-winning comic Thermae Romae (TR) about a Roman architect named Lucius who periodically travels forward in time to modern day Japan, where he discovers the inspiration for innovative bath designs he takes back with him to the second century C.E. (or A.D. for the more traditionally inclined).  TR was originally published in the alternative monthly Comic Beam (Komikku bīmu) which, despite its relatively low circulation (~25,000), has over the years published a number of manga that have become bestsellers when collected in tankōbon paperbacks, such as Kaneko Atsushi’s Soil and Mori Kaoru’s Emma, which has the, to my mind, unfortunate distinction of having revolutionized the culture of maid cafes in Akiba.  TR itself has sold over half a million copies and was recently made into both an anime and a live action film starring Abe Hiroshi as Lucius.

There is much to love in Yamazaki’s multicultural take on the importance of baths, even if her Latin, at times, leaves much to be desired.  While not ungrammatical, at one point Lucius asks a young Japanese woman, “in quanam parte latrina est?” which she somehow manages to know refers to the toilet.  There are two things that make this question odd: 1) the awkward phrasing of “in which part…” (in quanam parte) rather than the more straightforward and colloquial “quo” (where) and 2) the use of the word “latrina” which in Latin could mean either the bath-as-tub-place or the bath-as-toilet.  Imagine for a moment you’re standing next to a tub, and the person in it asks you, “in what part is the bathroom?”  Sure, “bathroom” is commonly used euphemistically in English to mean “potty” or “toilet” or “porcelain throne,” but if you are, in fact, in a room with a bathtub in it, the question becomes rather perplexing.  I suspect Yamazaki is using “latrina” in the sense it has in Italian, since she studied in Florence for many years, where it refers only to, as it were, the latrine.

Thermae Romae vol. 1 p. 129

Thermae Romae vol. 1 p. 129

Lucius: Ugggghhh…

Woman: What’s wrong?!

Lucius: In what part is the bathroom?

Woman: Uhh? You mean the toilet…? Is that it…?

This reliance on Italian to Latin causes certain other problems.  While it would make sense in modern Italian to refer to a young man as Lucio, it makes little sense to use Lucius.  A name in Latin, at least during the Republic and Empire, had three parts: a praenomennomen, and cognomen.  The praenoman or pre-name is more or less a throwaway.  In the period in which TR is set only about a dozen praenomina are common, and Lucius is one of them.  It would make no sense in Rome to run around asking after Gaius or Marcus or Lucius, because far too many people have those praenomina for it to make sufficient distinction between people.  This is why Romans were given a cognomen, i.e. a name to be known by.  The nomen or “name,” then, is a family name.

All of this is beside the point, I suppose, because what makes TR interesting is the ways in which it exposes Japanese preconceptions of “foreignness.”  It is a matter of controversy what exactly gaijin means in Japanese.  Many try to make the claim that it is merely a contraction of gaikokujin, i.e. a “person of another country,” but in practice the word almost always is used to refer to Caucasians rather than, say, Chinese or Koreans.  Moreover, I have on a number of occasions overheard conversations among Japanese tourists in which they refer to all the gaijin mucking about, meaning not themselves or fellow foreign tourists but the native inhabitants of that particular locale.

ibid. p. 55

ibid. p. 55

Lucius: …

Caretaker: A gaijin, huh? / I guess that means you don’t speak Japanese. / HERE MONKEY ONLY!! / DIS IZ MONKEY BAHSS OKAY!?

In Lucius’ second excursion to the present, he finds himself in a natural hot spring reserved for monkeys.  You may find it odd that there are onsen dedicated solely to our simian brethren, but it is one way in which Japanese conservationists attempt to preserve their native mountain habitats (for tourists).  The caretaker who finds Lucius, realizing this incidental bather speaks no Japanese, tries to explain to him in Japanglish that this bath is for “monkey only.”  Lucius once again finds himself in the technologically advanced society of the, as he calls them, “flat-faced tribe” (hiratai kao-zoku) where he not only makes fruitful discoveries for his own bath ideas (e.g. onsen tamago) but where his mere presence undermines certain Japanese assumptions about gaijin.  First off, Lucius has no idea what the caretaker/resort employee is saying, because, well, not all gaijin  speak English.  The caretaker is doubly surprised when, handed a yukata, Lucius wraps it around himself like a toga.


ibid. p. 58

One way to look at TR is as a meditation on the Japanese as foreign, not in the “our culture is super special” way so often on display on Japanese TV but in the amorphous sense of gaijin.  It could be argued that the way gaijin is used does not allow for the Japanese to ever be included in that category outside attempts to portray someone as insufficiently Japanese.  To be gaijin is to be, at its simplest and most perplexing, not-Japanese (or East Asian), so the way in which Yamazaki re-centers the discourse, so to speak, is quite striking.  TR’s narrative emanates from a Roman whose experience of Japanese culture is analogous to that of the stereotype of the Japanese tourist I reproduce above, meaning Lucius as outsider closely resembles the trope of a Japanese abroad.  Yet, he is also gaijin, so by locating this trope in him, Yamazaki highlights the contradictions inherent in Japanese conceptions of “foreignness.”

Steve Jobs, Ladies’ Man

Thermae Romae is technically seinen, i.e. for young men, if only because it was originally published in a seinen monthly, but its expansion into anime and live action film, along with its incredibly large sales figures, propels it into an ambiguous zone where, like Morimoto’s Gokusen, gender/age demographics seemingly no longer apply.  Given Yamazaki’s own background, this ambiguous status makes perfect sense.  Though born there, Yamazaki has spent most of her adult life living outside Japan, and while TR was being serialized, she was living initially in Lisbon and then later in Chicago, where she came with her husband who was to study Comparative Literature (hikaku bungaku) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)–a fact which baffles me somewhat, because, as far as I know, UIC has no CompLit program.

Yamazaki’s ongoing series of essays for the josei monthly Kiss (titled Sweet Home Chicago) is more or less what you would expect from, say, any blog written by anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country: the weather is different, the food is different, the people are different, blah blah blah… CULTURE SHOCK.

Sweet Home Chicago vol. 1 p. 39

Sweet Home Chicago vol. 1 p. 39

Mari: What… is up with that outfit…

Kiss also recently began serializing Yamazaki’s manga adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the first chapter of which you can read for free on Kiss‘s website.  When I first heard about her Steve Jobs back in May, when it premiered, I didn’t think much of it, until I found out in this Guardian write-up that it was appearing in a josei anthology.  Sam Byford is quoted in the article as emphasizing that the story will be read through the lens of romantic fiction for which Kiss is generally known.  I haven’t read Isaacson’s biography, because I couldn’t care less about Steve Jobs, so I am in no position to make claims about how Yamazaki’s adaptation alters or remains true to its source, but I would like to interrogate this idea that Yamazaki’s Steve Jobs will necessarily be read in the rather narrow frame of romantic fiction.

Steve Jobs vol. 1 p. 8

Steve Jobs vol. 1 p. 8

Isaacson: You mean your life story…?

Jobs: Yeah!

Isaacson: That’s why you wanted me to come all the way out to Colorado to talk with you!

Jobs: Indeed. / Wouldn’t I make for a good subject…?

[A bit of a mistranslation, I’m afraid, for the word Jobs actually uses, hishatai, means “object,” as in, say, an object of analysis.  However, if I had translated it literally, I’m afraid it would be more confusing than need be.]

Byford rides the must-be-understood-as-romance a little too hard, as far as I’m concerned, and as such it comes off as more than a little sexist and presumptuous.  If this were true, that something in a josei manga anthology must be read as the stereotype of that demographic, then the same would hold true for Yamazaki’s Sweet Home Chicago, which is also serialized in Kiss.  As Matsuda Naoko’s Shōjo manga, itself coming from the josei demographic, shows, comics for women and girls can be read in any number of ways that have nothing to do with and in some cases openly flaunt the manner in which they are stereotyped.  Because Byford is so insistent on showing how Yamazaki’s adaptation conforms to tropes of high school romance, he completely overlooks the fact that Jobs’ “bad boy” image appears in the context of his discovery of electronics.

ibid. p. 38

ibid. p. 38

Larry Lang: With just this you can make a wireless [transmitter] or a radio or whatever you want!

Jobs: Whoa! This thing is amazing! / So this is a Heathkit… / with this I can make any sort of thing?…

Now, I do not mean to discount Byford’s point entirely, since it is somewhat odd that her adaptation would appear in a josei anthology, though one could, perhaps, explain it away by pointing out how Yamazaki was already doing work for Kiss.  The point I’m trying to make here is that to see her Steve Jobs exclusively through a rather limited purview of josei manga only nets you half the story and overlooks the fact that 1) there is more to Yamazaki’s text than romance fiction and 2) there is more to josei manga than the image of “relationship porn for women” that emerged in the 1980s.

If anything, josei manga are remarkably aware of the tropes of comics for women and girls and have a tendency to amplify or undermine them rather than simply reproduce them in accordance with a [male] reader’s presumptions.  It would be similarly short-sighted to say that TR is just a gag manga, even though it is often remarkably reminiscent thereof, because it is also a historical piece as well as a meditation on two “bath cultures.”  Of course, the difference between seinen and josei is that, because the one is regularly pigeonholed into certain narrow narrative frameworks while the other is not, with seinen it is, perhaps, easier to see these multiple modes of reading, because there are no stereotypes of the demographic that insist on one over the others.  With josei, though, and this extends in many ways to perceptions of all media “for women,” simplistic assertions about a wide range of media texts attain because, well, misogyny is institutionalized in the very way we think about these things.  I’m not sure how else to put it.

For this reason, then, it is of vital importance to closely examine just what is going on in the work of artists such as Hagio, Anno, Matusda, Morimoto, Yamazaki, and many others who, even as they appear to conform to tropes of comics by/for the female of our species, also seem to lay bare the facile assumptions upon which such tropes rely.

Next week: the “feminine” inversion of mukokuseki in Japanese media

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi


One comment

  1. One of my fave places in all Japan used as a TR joke? Must re-read!

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