I’m not really much of a fan of writing reviews, though I read do occasionally read them. I know some people who read any and everything someone writes about them, which always seems to me to represent a kind of self-defeating narcissism: narcissistic, because judgments of one’s work always have to be viewed through how one appears to others, and self-defeating, because nothing is ever perfect, and second guessing yourself can lead to an almost insurmountable writerly inertia. Reviews are so often larded with idiosyncratic aesthetic judgments of good, bad, or middling that it’s nearly impossible sometimes to find in them any constructive criticism whatsoever.
The one time I’ve been in the position to write a review, I tried to avoid aesthetic judgments altogether and instead imagine reasons both why someone would want to read this text (it’s clever and occasionally visually interesting) and why someone would not (it’s not a terribly faithful adaptation of Dante). Unfortunately for the review, the reason why I thought one might not want to read it (as adaptation) directly contradicted the way in which Chwast’s book was being marketed. I was trying to suggest the book might better be read for itself than for having some necessary relationship to one of the major works of the Western canon. In hindsight, I am not even particularly happy with that approach to review, so today I thought I might try something else.
Coincidence and Serendipity
Last week I had in mind that I wanted to review something, though at the time I had yet to settle on a particular text. I thought this might make an excellent exercise, to get me to read something I might not otherwise and see what I might make of it with my limited knowledge. One of the books I picked up was a not too recent (2005) translation of Ariyoshi Kyōko’s popular though not terribly ground-breaking work SWAN. On a casual flip through it appeared to be more typical of 1970s shōjo manga than the more radical work of the so-called Year 24 Group. It’s “pretty” in that often cloying way that turns many people off shōjo, and its subject, ballet, seems tailor made to fit the expectations of princess fantasies and what have you that are stereotypically identified with “girls’ fare.” It’s frilly, flowers seem to appear out of nowhere, the plane of the page is a constant interruption of simple narrative sequence, all the boys are madly in love with the dopey young girl, and there are pretty costumes. I can feel my eyes beginning to roll into the back of my head.
SWAN ran off and on from 1976 to 1981 in the pages of Shūkan Māgaretto for a total of 209 chapters collected into 21 paperback volumes. Ariyoshi’s manga career is in many ways synonymous with Māgaretto, when you consider how most of her work has appeared there since her debut in 1971 with Koneko to shōjo. I had originally chosen to write about Ariyoshi, because her work seemed typical and the magazine she was working for one of the most stereotypical shōjo weeklies in the manga universe. Yet, as I read SWAN over the course of the week, certain things started to become apparent to me. SWAN was, in many ways, very atypical when compared with common shōjo tropes. At first I thought this might have something to do with my tendency, even when not consciously trying to do so, to find works that are peculiar for some reason. Certainly, dear reader, you have been subject to this tendency again and again, but I contemplated another possibility, namely that there is something fundamentally misleading about the tropes themselves.
In a recent email exchange with someone who had challenged one of my more polemic pieces as arguing against a phenomenon that no longer really exists (a not unreasonable assertion), I noted that what bugged me was not the overwhelming status of a particular artist (i.e. Tezuka, who has in many quarters been taken down a few pegs) but how certain critical assumptions about what manga is that are firmly rooted in his oeuvre have persisted despite the fact that critics have downplayed his importance in the history of manga. Tezuka may be dying a slow academic death (the worst kind!), but this has had little effect on formalist and historiographic assumptions that are rooted in how the very research that supposedly challenges his place gets done. One of the reasons I translated and discussed Tsurumi Shunsuke a few weeks back was to show that the way we think about manga now is not, in fact, ideologically neutral, an all too common academic assumption. There was a time when the assumptions were different, and it is only by looking at those other ways of doing manga studies that you can begin to see how narrowly constrained contemporary critical work truly is.
This page may not look like much, but it was my moment of revelation. It’s all too fortuitous that shortly after I should write about the visibility/invisibility of photography in comic texts that I should stumble across this. The main character, Hijiri Masumi, a country bumpkin from Hokkaidō who comes to the big city to study ballet, despite losing a recent dance competition that would have admitted her to a special training session with internationally renowned dancers, was made an exception and has been practicing under the tutelage of Sergeiev, the Russian dancer introduced at the beginning of the series. He has become annoyed with Masumi’s apparent lack of drive, so he scolds her and her training partner Yuka while showing them a film of real life ballet dancers Nadezhda Pavlova and Gelsey Kirkland. One way you could read this is as a recapitulation of what one sees throughout Japanese culture in this time period, a sense of striving with/against the West (even though the Soviet Union could only problematically be considered “Western”), which typically takes the form of needing to “catch up,” as it does here with ballet.
I don’t particularly care about that, though. What was revelatory to me was how surprisingly photo-realistic these images of Pavlova and Kirkland are. Unlike the saucer-eyed, pointy chinned tropes that are Masumi and Yuka at the bottom of the page, Nadya and Gelsey actually look like human beings with proportional features (and, more importantly, like the real persons portrayed). What gives? Well, it points to a few things: 1) that the distorted anatomies of your “typical” shōjo characters are a real design choice and not merely a repeated convention, 2) that the way in which shōjo was denigrated in the ’80s and ’90s as poorly drawn and shallow is neither fair nor accurate, and 3) that the variance one sees in character design allows for a wider range of depicting something rather elusive in narratives of any kind: mood.
Mood is normally something that has to be conveyed by what is actually happening in the story. The mood is serious, because shit just got real; the mood is happy/goofy because characters are joking with one another; the mood is intense because characters are confessing their love for one another, and so on. One of the real innovations of shōjo manga, and manga in general, is the development of visual cues to mark these shifts. You know a character is being silly, because suddenly she looks like someone out of Tensai bakabon.
Ariyoshi uses this sudden shift to photo-realism to make clear the shift in mood. I mention both Akatsuka Fujio’s classic gag manga and photo-reference, because all too often the visual cues of shōjo manga are characterized as a closed world, a semiotic system for and of girls. Articles then purport to explain this world to the vagina-less in an accidental game of seduction, where the shōjo texts themselves become an elaborate strip tease. What’s odd is how these unmaskings both participate in and perpetuate the very tropes that shōjo as a semantic category is saddled with. However, Ariyoshi is clearly appropriating visual/semiotic systems that are not at all limited to shōjo bunka but are, in fact, far more generic.
SWAN covers Masumi’s rise, step by step, from a nobody hailing from a nowhere town to an internationally renowned prima ballerina. Along the way, she stumbles, she fails, but these failures are always a prelude to her training even harder–harder than anyone else–to overcome obstacles etc. etc. Does this sound familiar? It should, because it’s one of the most common narrative tropes of… wait for it… shōnen manga. Again, what gives? Well, we can become so accustomed to our own critical tropes that it becomes all too easy to simply overlook that which openly flaunts our interpretive convictions.
This narrative trope of failure-training-success-failure-training-success-etc. is normally attributed to sports manga, and sports manga are almost synonymous with shōnen. The trope is so pervasive that it extends well beyond the likes of Ashita no Joe to texts whose “sport” is not terribly athletic, such as the once wildly popular Hikaru no go. Not only is this a sexist way of looking at things, it also has the virtue of being simply wrong. SWAN is, I would assert, a classic sports manga, replete with rivalries and the emotional ups and downs one expects thereof. Sure, waves might suddenly fill the background, or bubbles erupt about a character’s face, but the visual cues we have come to expect from typical shōjo manga do not alter the text’s basic character as sports manga.
Now, it would be easy to write this off, even if you agree with me about the particulars, as an anachronism, an interesting peculiarity, but if I haven’t pounded this point home enough over the life of this blog, the seemingly strict division between a world of shōjo manga and a world of shōnen manga is illusory at best. SWAN is perfectly typical, because there were shōjo sports manga: Ide Chikae’s Viva! Volleyball (Biba! Barēbōru), Shiga Kimie’s Sumasshu o kimero!, Jinbo and Mochizuki’s Sain wa V, etc. It’s not as if the existence of these texts isn’t known–I’m not revealing any great secret–but when it comes to constructing critical apparatus of what certain kinds of comic texts are and what features they possess, an amnesia washes over even some of the smarter people, one that I suppose you could explain as simple sexism but which I prefer to use as an example of critical laziness.
I point out this laziness as much as a reminder to myself as to anyone else. The interlocutor mentioned above had originally contacted me to point out a few errors of fact in my article. I had simply repeated what someone else had said about the size and dimensions of a particular early postwar manga title, something I had no reason to doubt given those features should have been obvious and were not normally what you would consider suspect. As it turns out, the critic I had relied on for this information was entirely wrong, and by repeating it uncritically I was actively contributing to this misinformation becoming an established and largely unexamined “fact,” a fact that the material evidence itself in no way supported. This is how these critical assumptions get circulated: something you have neither a reason nor a desire to call into question, something that may very well be a useful explanation of an interesting phenomenon, gets repeated often enough that it starts to take on the character of what Stephen Colbert would call truthiness. These assumptions become so completely embedded in a particular critical framework as to become practically invisible, so even when the text in front of you openly contradicts those assumptions, it is all too easy to overlook those salient features. It takes a particular kind of mania to be open to seeing something as other than what it’s typically received as, but it is only this mania that can provide a solid foundation for challenging your well worn frames of reference and modes of understanding.
Next week: another review!