33. Shit You Might Want to Know #1 – Demographics vs. Genres

I had initially intended to title today’s post “Shit You Should Already Know,” but it occurred to me that some may be coming to this post out of simple curiosity and not because their particularly strange assumptions need to be corrected.  For I have returned from my indefinite hiatus, wherein I have been detoxing from being irritated all the time by writing on a canto of Dante’s Comedy every day, to collate important concepts that, if I am going to leave this blog idling for extended periods of time, need to be drawn out of their piecemeal locations into something of a straightforward, easily digestible form.  Consider these next few posts, as I intermittently submit them, the probiotic yogurt to my otherwise constipating flights of analysis.

Recently, I have tried to keep my mouth shut, wisely I might add, about a series of conversations I see popping up now and again with regard to what exactly would be the central texts and methodologies of “comics studies,” if that weren’t an illusory field made up of an eclectic array of scholarly perspectives from a variety of academic and non-academic domains, a state of affairs, I hasten to remind you, dear reader, that doesn’t especially bother me, seeing as, at the moment, comic studies is not really well situated anywhere so as to benefit from disciplinary constraints.  I am trying to keep my nose out of all this, because, in my experience, with regards to manga I rarely encounter someone of general interest in comics willing to do the basic work of reading the manga criticism in English that HAS ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN, be it blog or book or journal thing, much less try to think outside it.

However, my silence was inevitably just not to be.  The immediate context for today’s distillation of manga know-how into a fine, orange flavored liqueur is the submission of a hypothetical reading list to a comics scholars listserv for correction and critique.  I didn’t really see the point of it, but as an exercise in how to make comics studies a Ph.D. concentration, it was well enough.  What bugged me in this discussion was not that there could be a comics reading list for a comprehensive exam or even the idea that there ought to be a core competency in (largely American and European) comics but that when one person stepped in to try and correct the reading list’s representation of manga, this person only ended up perpetuating an equally narrow and misleading view of the broad manga landscape.  One misleading characterization in particular, the treatment of manga demographics as genres, will be the subject of today’s post.

The Four Major Manga Demographics

I say “major” demographics, because outside of the four following, it is also possible to identify many niche demos (salarymen, mahjong enthusiasts, so-called OLs or “office ladies,” etc.) as well as a general interest non-demographic, if you will, represented most obviously by yonkoma manga or comic strips that appear in newspapers and general interest news and culture magazines.  Bear in mind that even what follows is a rather incomplete picture but useful nonetheless for understanding how certain manga texts hypothesize and often misconstrue their readerships.

Thesis: Demographics such as shōnen, shōjojosei, and seinen are not genres, and it is a fundamental mistake to treat them as such.

The problem is, perhaps, most evident with shōjo, which is not only consistently termed a genre but is also, as a result, ascribed a narrow range of formal attributes that, one presumes, constitute the shōjo style.  It is inappropriate to regard shōjo as a genre, because this consideration then necessarily elides how the category shōjo includes many narrative genres: action (Sailor Moon), fantasy (Utena), sports (SWAN), science fiction (Star Red), etc., all in addition to the stereotype of romance with which shōjo-as-genre is typically saddled.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So, what are these four “major” demographics?

1) Shōnen: generally understood to be manga for pre- and pubescent, though not quite adolescent, boys.  However, as I have tried to show previously, the gendering of shōnen as expressly young and male is highly suspect, due both to the known fact of the current mixed gender readership of shōnen manga and the history of how mixed shōnen-shōjo manga magazines over time came to be redubbed simply shōnen.  It is also well know that the readership of shōnen manga is not even limited to youth (though many adults might be embarrassed off and hide their love of manga “for kids”), which has led me in the past to make the, to my mind, not indefensible claim that shōnen manga function in practice, if not in hypothesis, as a generic category for a generic readership, one that, importantly, is still distinct from the general readership that is regarded as such by those who create manga for newspapers and that ilk.  The presumption of a certain kind of “boy” reader then projects a certain idea of young-male-as-generic-young-Japanese into a broad readership that is fairly representative of the whole Japanese population.  You could argue that this, then, perpetuates certain misogynistic notions of Japanese-ness, but that’s an argument for a different venue.

Each shōnen manga weekly and monthly is rather limited in its range of genres, and readers both know what to expect for a given phonebook and also exert considerable influence in controlling the content of each manga periodical.  Shōnen JUMP, for instance, uses a voting system that both ranks ongoing titles and helps determine which new titles stay and which get the axe.  As a result, reader expectation for the kinds of titles you see in Shōnen JUMP helps reinforce a tendency already extent on the part of editors to hew closely to a certain grain, lest the readership shout down a title that varies too widely from the weekly’s assumed range.

2) Shōjo: perhaps the most difficult demo to delineate precisely because so many misconceptions about it abound not only in non-Japanese critical discourses but in Japanese ones as well.  We can begin from the conception that this demographic is “for girls,” but that does nothing to explain what is considered a “girl” in this context.  The “girl” here is generally assumed to be pubescent/adolescent with a kind of asexuality that is evocative of virginity and maidenhood.  This demographic assumption is precisely the reason why the overtly sexual and often homoerotic narrative content associated with the Year 24 Group of artists in the 1970s was so revolutionary, because they resisted this idea of a shōjo as virginal human chattel, as an innocent young girl pining away for romance, until the day her family pawns her off on some not-so-young man in the system of omiai or matchmaking that exists to this day, though in its current form it is (only) slightly less laden with the ideology of daughters as property to exchange.

Shōjo anthologies are similar to shōnen in their limited ranges and readerly expectations.  There are two stereotypes, though, regularly grafted onto shōjo manga that consistently engender critical laziness.  The first is the assumption of a shōjo style, if not strictly speaking a style of character depiction (though many would argue this) then a constellation of narrative tropes and means for representing emotion.  This style is pernicious not because it isn’t there in many shōjo manga, be it pointy chins or effeminate men or detailed splash pages of characters’ outfits or explosions of roses or even the more formally rigorous breaking up of the plane of the page into non-discrete units and repetitions of figures, but because its very presence in so many texts serves to invisibilize how not present it is in many other texts.  Mizuno Hideko’s visual style is highly evocative of Tezuka’s (or Ishinomori’s), which makes sense given she worked alongside him(/them) at the Tokiwa-sō.  Shirato Sanpei’s shōjo manga are not all that different from his other manga, and he (as well as Matsumoto Reiji) even uses the “starry eyes” motif with which shōjo manga are regularly associated to depict female and certain “femmy” male characters in manga that are in no way considered to be shōjo, long before those features had ossified into the lazy critical tropes we see repeated to this day.

The second stereotype is the genre/demo overlay I note above.  Because critics are so reliant upon this shōjo is genre is style matrix, they end up incidentally reproducing the very same limited (and limiting) assumptions about readership that so many shōjo artists over the years have sought to undermine.  Which leads me to:

3) Josei: a demographic that historically arose out of shōjo manga, as the story goes, when the “virginal” readers of shōjo manga became adults but refused to grow out of their “childish infatuation” with comics.  Because of the salaciousness of josei manga of the 1980s, when the demographic began to emerge as a distinct thing, josei came to be regarded as more or less “porn for women,” though this moniker makes even less sense given the josei landscape now than it did then.  It is important to see how josei has a symbiotic (perhaps parasitic?) relationship to shōjo, how josei texts regularly respond to and revise the expectations of how a “girl” is meant to understand the world, even if the rather simplistic logic of “growing up from shōjo” seems to undergird that claim.

Josei artists grossly undermine the idea of a shōjo style, in part, because the strictly josei artist is a phantom, which, even if you might identify a few, cannot make sense of those artists who produce work for other demographics in addition to “ladies.”  Consider, for instance, Hagio Moto, one of the most popular and highly regarded shōjo artists of all time, has also created (and is currently producing) josei work.  Her style as well as many of her narrative themes differ surprisingly little from one demographic to the next.  Anno Moyoko too, whether it’s for josei or for seinen, does not especially change up her visual style, even if the narratives differ for being more well suited for the magazine in which they are serialized.  But therein lies the key point, the variations are made amenable to the editorial policies of specific publications and not to some sense of a demographic-as-generic Gestalt.

The other fundamental way in which josei texts often revise assumptions about “girls” as readers lies in the way they adapt and complicate the trope of romantic fiction with which shōjo manga are consistently saddled.  An excellent example of how this works is Matsuda Naoko’s (unfortunately still untranslated) Shōjo manga, in which we are made privy to the perspective of a number of types of shōjo reader: and OL trying to navigate the politics of her office environment, an artist trying adapt her style to the demands of a frilly girl mag, a seinen artist who hides the fact she is a woman from her readers, a newscaster fending off a younger rival, and several others.  It becomes clear through Matsuda’s several perspectives that the uses to which shōjo manga might be put outstrip the narrow demographic assumptions with which shōjo titles are sent out into the world.  However, though titled Shōjo manga, the text is still josei, thus incidentally reifying the notion that josei might be understood as a shōjo outgrowth.

4) Seinen: I often see the Weekly Manga Times (Shūkan manga TIMES) listed as the first seinen anthology (and also, as it turns out, the first [postwar] manga weekly), which is misleading, since, though it is considered seinen nowadays, because it is still being published, it was in the 1950s simply regarded as being “for adults,” and that designation might be more appropriate today, given how many of its titles have been straightforwardly and unabashedly pornographic.  It is also misleading, because its initiation predates any sense of what seinen, which just means “youth” but typically refers to males in their late teens and twenties, might mean as a demographic.  Thus any sense of Shūman as seinen historically speaking must always be in retrospect.

Any sense of what seinen demographically entails is more properly (though not solely) located in Tatsumi Yoshihiro’s Gekiga manifesto, in which he imagines a kind of manga for seinen (used there with “young men” in mind) evolving out of but markedly away from the comics with which he and other artists like him grew up, Tezuka’s in particular, who in Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life is the clear precursor to everything he later tried to achieve.  In this, then, the evolution of seinen closely mirrors the later evolution of josei from shōjo, and it is entirely possible that the latter myth of demographic outgrowth is simply a repetition of the former.  Nevertheless, there was in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s the emerging sense of a kind of manga, perhaps best represented by the Garo artists, that was engaged with the world in a fundamentally different way: more politically and more literarily.

Yet, this historical origin does not mesh entirely well with a contemporary seinen landscape that is far broader and more institutionalized than the seeming “underground” or “alternative” milieu it once was.  Nowadays, seinen could be practically anything and, as I alluded to above, is cross-pollinated with the work of artists who operate in any number of manga demographics.  Thus, though seinen is often regarded as the masculine counterpart of josei, it is also worth thinking of it in terms of shōnen manga, especially as I have it above: a general demographic.  For, as Matsuda’s female seinen artist is quick to point out in Shōjo manga, women regularly read manga “for men,” but the sense of josei manga is that the converse is not equally true (i.e. men reading josei), even if yours truly disproves the rule that josei is strictly “for women” in both hypothetical and real terms.  I suppose you might discount my masculinity, but that is a different argument.

Should you have any interest in particular manga Shit You Might Want to Know, leave a comment below or contact me at uahsenaa@gmail.com.

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One comment

  1. A very important distinction regarding genres. It’s almost as bad as calling comics a genre.

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