It is believed that the word manga was first used to describe a picture book in the late 1700s. The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (remember the great big blue wave?) popularized the concept of ‘manga’or images, when he published a book of sketches in 1814. However, his pictures involved flora, fauna, and landscapes. Today manga has evolved into stories of super heroes and villains, involving action, crime, commerce, fantasy, love, romance, friendship and much more.
To state that manga characters are ubiquitous in Tokyo is an understatement. As I was browsing through the millions (no exaggeration) of manga publications and their associated figures, anime, games and videos, on display in one on the many high-rise buildings in the Akihabara district, I realized that they were more than just comics or cartoons, they were cultural artefacts of visual representations.
Interestingly, there are shonen and shojo manga, seinen and josei manga, corresponding to young men and young women, adult men and adult women. Curious to know more about the ‘gender’ divisions, or the balance rather, of comics and cartoon characters, I thought I would read up on Japanese manga to learn more about these intriguing products, the shojo in particular.
Shojo is the manga aimed at the female pre-teen or teen market. Apparently, shojo was a feminine ideal constructed in the latter half of the 1800s, under the Meiji era, and borrowed from Victorian England, in order to ‘direct’ girls into becoming good wives and mothers; the same subliminal messages in many of the serials and dramas that I have watched on the internet the past few years, I thought.
How fascinating, that well over a hundred years ago the Japanese were using a visual medium for identity construction, and possibly still are. Of course, it was solely the men who were the creators of the female manga at that time.
During the US occupation of Japan, 1945-1952, American comics began to influence manga production, and from 1950 onwards, manga readership too was on the rise, and there were a few mangakas, or female manga artists.
By the 1970s, a group known as the Forty Niners, as they were born in 1949, (otherwise known as the Year 24 Group) comprising of women, had entered the manga market as artists and restructured the form and content, engaging with more gender and sexuality issues, and thereby transforming the style of shojo, and creating it as a genre in itself. Since then, it is not uncommon for shojo to be produced by women for women, and very interestingly it has retained its male readership as well.
So, what does shojo manga in faraway Japan have to do with my life? I cannot even read or write Japanese. Well, I have now bid adieu to 2018 which ushered in the depressing narratives of the #MeToo, and reminded me of the under representation of women in politics and the bias against women in comedy, to mention just a few of the problems plaguing females the world over. This small but significant discovery of the journey of the shojo manga, which illustrates how women can take ownership of their stories and images, gives me a little bit more hope for 2019.
Happy New Year!
Chintamoni grew up in Dhaka, where she will always belong, but never quite fit in. She is an enthusiastic traveller, a compulsive procrastinator, and a contumelious raconteur.