English-language writing on Japanese comics is not by any means a new thing or even a recent thing. Fred Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics is 40 years old this year, and a couple of journal articles and book chapters are even older. But if we look at the way book length studies of Japanese comics written in English have developed over these last 40 years, one thing that’s easy to notice right away is that these studies can be grouped together around several common themes and approaches. Three recent titles simply bring together “explorations” and “perspectives” (Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime, Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives, Manga Vision: Cultural and Communicative Perspectives). Two analyze boys love manga / boys’ love manga. And four others have as their subject “ladies comics”, women’s comics, shojo manga, and “shojo and shojo manga”.

Examples of a different kind of focus can be found in Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, Rewriting History in Manga: Stories for the Nation, and The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft. One particularly interesting thing, though, these are all studies of particular kinds or genres of manga – compared to the more comprehensive ways that scholars have been approaching Japanese animation the way Susan Napier does in Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. Rayna Denison’s  Anime: A Critical Introduction, and Christopher Bolton’s Interpreting Anime are similar examples.

One title that is a definite exception to this is Manga: A Critical Guide, just published earlier this year. And another, though it dates from a couple of years ago – and is more complex than an overview, is Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze. With it, Kathryn Hemmann (who currently teaches in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and writes on a variety of topics at digitalfantasydiary.com) sets out to make the point that while when we think of visual popular culture in general, and Japanese visual culture in particular, we often assume a “default” male audience, it is crucial to consider the female creators and female audiences. “The female gaze” is how female manga artists depict female characters, but as it turns out, this gaze, and essentially, what it reveals simply by virtue of treating “women as subjects instead of objects” then can challenge some of the standards approaches to “trends in the consumption of (Japanese) entertainment media” that (male) theorists such as Eiji Otsuka, Hiroki Azuma, and Saito Tamaki have presented.

The first example Hemmann introduces as the archetype of “women creating and consuming bishoujo characters” is the original Sailor Moon manga. This then makes Sailor Moon one of the original drivers for the female gaze concept as applied to manga.

Shallow characterization and short skirts alone, however, do not make a work inherently sexist

Short Skirts, Superpowers, and the Evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl, p. 30

To support the argument, Hemmann points out the evidence – anecdotal, but nonetheless, plentiful – that Sailor Moon was widely popular with female fans, who were attracted to the “themes of female empowerment expressed through its cast of female characters”. Another example is Magic Knights Rayearth – Hemmann uses it to demonstrate how a female author (or rather, a team of female authors) can reach drive a plot towards a conclusion that is explicitly feminist, and moreover, can be read as a critique of how gender conflicts are resolved in many other manga.

Then, Hemmann expands the analysis to demonstrate how the female gaze can be applied to two manga that are themselves closely related – Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic, both also by CLAMP, and notable for the way they incorporated cross-over elements, characters, and settings. The key argument here is that Tsubasa essentially follows the patterns of a shonen manga – but with a female main character, who, over the course of the narrative, learns to “abandon the role of the innocent shojo”. Similarly, xxxHolic meets many of the expectations of seinen manga. In this case, the female authors introduce a female main character who, although a “witch”, is also a nurturer who uses her position to highlight the limits of simplistic and naïve ideas of girlhood or shojo.

The same chapter continues with a more thorough reading of another and rather different CLAMP title – Chobits. Placing the female android Chii as the main character, in conversation with the reading that Thomas Lamarre proposes in The Anime Machine, Hemmann argues that Chobits is meaningfully different from other bishojo works. A “feminist interpretation” emphasizes that it will actually be Chii’s decision to launch or trigger an apocalypse, and Chii herself, as a bishojo representative of the apocalypse” makes it easier and more comfortable for readers to consider – and accept – a post-human future, rather than one that is defined simply by oppositions between the ideas of “human” and “non human”, post-human, or cyborg.

By framing Chobits as a love story about a computer and her human boyfriend, CLAMP encourages readers to undertake the affective labor of imagining a positive posthuman future…

The Maiden and the Witch: CLAMP’s Subversion of Female Gender Tropes, p. 71

Following this are a pair of  short chapters that, although excellent on their own, are a bit of an awkward fit for the book. Here, Hemmann directly engages with several scholars who have written on BL subcultures, such as Wim Lunsing, Midori Matsui, and Tomoko Aoyama.

Nevertheless, many frequently cited essays on BL subcultures casually attribute female fans with homophobia and misogyny

Beautiful War Games: Transforming Genders in Video Game Fancomics, p. 104

The argument Hemmann presents is that when looked at in a certain way – with a female gaze if you will – BL manga can and should be interpreted as something more than fetishism. Rather, the narrative patterns that are present in BL manga, even simply taking two characters who in an official or canonical storyline are presented as antagonists whose purpose is to fight to the death, and depicting them as lovers is an inherently political act of “resistant reading” The same chapter touches on how non-Japanese fans reacted strongly and negatively to what was perceived as a stereotypically sexualized design for a new female character – a design that could only possibly exist to cater to a male audience and a male gaze. Japanese audiences, on the other hand, had no reason for a particularly strong reaction. A new female character was nothing particularly noteworthy, and a sexualized female character was just one possible approach of many. Fans and fan artists could embrace that character and essentially have fun with it, but were also not limited to it. In fact, Hemmann uses this to make the point that in general, the Japanese “content industry” is “structurally organized according to the assumption that any given title will have a sizeable female audience”. This leads into a brief chapter on fan comics related to the videogame The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild videogame (primarily created by non-Japanese artists, but not all) in which fans emphasize other aspects of characters that are not prominent in the “canonical” representation/narrative, but that are certainly possible – such as issues related to disability

So, where does all of this come together – if it does? Hemmann concludes with The cross-cultural pollination of shojo manga. One part of this chapter is an overview of the triumph of “the iconography of shojo manga” in mainstream North American culture, with the success of Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and Bee and PuppyCat, all directly influence and inspired by Japanese comics.

…it is far more accurate to think of fans as producers of content – not merely as consumers

The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shojo Manga, p. 165

And the final point is that in the future, the culture of media production that has been developing in Japan and has taught fans to critically engage with mass media works/properties, interpret them, and potentially, to create new works can itself grow outside of Japan, and significantly expand the extent of what is possible for anyone, in any country, or culture, who is looking to participate in some sort of creative fan activity or practice.   

Evaluating this book is not easy. One thing is clear – the author is enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and passionate about the topic. I was particularly impressed by how thoroughly and expertly Hemmann builds a conversation with a wide range of other scholars, across several different fields. The references sections that follow each chapter include citations to the perhaps expected works in both feminist theory and Japanese popular culture studies, but also other texts in areas such as fairy tale studies and fan fiction studies, a large number of what are essentially primary sources – blog, Twitter and Tumblr posts – and several scholarly monographs that are only available in Japanese. And perhaps precisely because the author is so knowledgeable, to some extent, the whole book is built around a paradox. In “manga cultures”, or at least in Japanese manga culture, the female gaze is not anything that is particularly extraordinary or remarkable. So is this, and the extent to which Japanese comics are created by female artists and writers, and created specifically for female audiences even something that needs to be explored, and something that manga fans need to be reminded of?

I believe that this is because many Japanese fans see no reason to take a straight male gaze for granted in their reading and reception of any given text

Beautiful War Games, p. 117

At the same time, again, while the author is very knowledgeable about both manga in general, the history of manga, and how manga is created and sold, and specific titles, the readings themselves are fairly cursory, with epic, multivolume series reduced to a couple of scenes and several bullet points. Furthermore, the author never really provides a good framework or guideline for a female gaze analysis. And, there is always the unasked question – how useful or effective would this kind of approach even be when applied to another manga created by a female artist, especially one that is not explicitly trying to be resistant. For what it’s worth, and for their importance and influence, manga like Sailor Moon and Tsubasa are only one kind of manga, and do not represent the wide range of genres and approaches that are possible in manga. Putting the question bluntly, can thinking about something like Sailor Moon be useful for for thinking about a high school romance. And, is thinking about manga from the 1980’s and 90’s, and at most the early 2000’s useful for thinking about manga in the present? Some of these questions, incidentally, are essentially what Lucy Fraser and Masafumi Monden are aware of when, in The Maiden Switch: New possibilities for understanding Japanese shojo manga (girls’ comics), they call to “expand the scope of studies of Japanese shōjo manga (girls’ comics) by examining  early 1980s and 1990s shōjo manga that were primarily targeted at the youngest band of readers, stories with early adolescent heroines in light, romantic, and fairytale like narratives”. As Fraser  and Monden note, these kinds of manga have received – perhaps unfairly – “little scholarly  attention thus far compared with texts that enact more explicit gender subversion.”

In this way, it would have been interesting to see a more in-depth reading of one of the manga, such as Wedding Peach and Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne that Hemmann mentions as “derivative” of Sailor Moon, but dismisses without asking whether just being imitations was enough, or if there were other successful effective ways to modify the original setup. And, just as a matter of style, Manga Cultures does not read like a single well-ordered and well-organized text. Rather, it has the feeling of a collection of seven individual essays, loosely gathered around a common theme that some are more directly related to than others, but with little in the way of connection between them. At times, it feels like the author is more interested in sharing a feeling of amazement at the intricacies of videogame Hyrule Warriors Legends video game than in any kind of literary analysis. And, in fact, both Short skirts and superpowers: The evolution of the Beautiful Fighting Girl and Queering the media mix: The female gaze in Japanese fan comics as appeared as stand-alone journal articles before Hemmann reworked them as chapters.

Nonetheless, Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze is a welcome new addition to the developing global literature of manga studies. It introduces an important new perspective and toolset to this area, and, importantly, contributes significantly to the ongoing international conversation about ways of interpreting and interacting with anime/manga. And we can already see its influence, in the Manga: A Critical Guide book that I already mentioned, in peer-reviewed articles such as “Do female anime fans exist?” The impact of women-exclusionary discourses on rec.arts.anime and Metalepsis and the role of domain experts in the wine manga The Drops of God, and in the introductory chapter to the new essay collection Media in Asia: Global, Digital, Gendered and Mobile. In fact, it may very well be that going forward, its biggest influence will actually be outside manga studies and even Japanese studies specifically, and will be in what it adds to thinking about possible ways of interacting with media and moving beyond simple frameworks of permanent opposition between producers and consumers.

ed. note: To date, Manga Cultures has received reviews in ImageTexT (“insightful book adds a much-needed perspective on our understanding of the field of Manga Studies and its interconnectedness to closely related disciplines and mediums”), the Journal of Popular Culture, Transformative Works and Cultures (“an important contribution within a research area that is often more narrowly focused on boys’ love, a homoerotic subgenre of shojo media, research that usually remains isolated from the interconnected flows of transnational media”) – and a significantly less enthusiastic one on AlltheAnime.com.

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