Emancipated Anime

As Mai the Psychic Girl already knows, the future ain’t what it
used to be. In the Japanese comic books of tomorrow, the telepathic
protagonist is likely to have joined legions of heroines who have
changed the face of printed-page anime for generations to come.
Gone will be the fire-breathing men in tights, the beefy cyberpunk
revolutionaries, the Amazonian super-centerfolds for whom XX is not
a chromosomal pattern but a bra size. In their place, fully fleshed
out (and less flesh-revealing) female characters will appeal to a
novel readership prototype. A decade from now, the average comic
book nerd may be more intrigued by realistic narratives than sci-fi
adventures. He may be more fascinated by love stories than fight
scenes. He may, in fact, be a she.

With increasing numbers of female readers flipping through their
inked pages, Japanese comics (or manga, as they’re known
overseas) have already become the fastest-growing sector of the
publishing industry, with 2004 sales reportedly totaling more than
$120 million — up 20 percent from 2003. Writing in the
Village Voice Literary Supplement (May 2004),
Robert Ito observed that of the 700 fans who attended the San
Francisco manga convention Yaoi-Con in 2003, a majority
were women and girls. In part, this inverted gender gap can be
attributed to the rise of shojo, a subgenre of
manga that’s written by and intended for females.
Bust (Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005) noted that in the
mid-’80s, two leading manga publishers, Viz and Tokyopop,
released only four shojo titles between them; last year,
Viz released more than 300, while Tokyopop produced some 450.

‘It’s refreshing for a girl to read a story written by a girl,
who knows her sensibility, knows what she’s into, and can tap into
those feelings she has,’ Julie Taylor, editor of the girls’
manga division at Toykopop, told Bust. That
girl-power ethos feels like a coup within Japanese comics, which
often objectify and infantilize women as teddy-bear-hugging Lolita
stereotypes. By contrast, shojo protagonists behave like
normal girls: They rehash their dates in Happy Mania; they
contend with high school cliques in Boys over Flowers;
they start rock bands in Princess Ai, which was co-written
by manga aficionado Courtney Love. Plus, like good
wholesome girls the world over, they obsess over their favorite
after-school activity: sex.

And their libidos aren’t quite what you’d imagine. One wildly
popular female-oriented manga subgenre, yaoi,
focuses on hookups between men — though the same-sex protagonists
don’t seem any more authentically gay than the supposed lesbians on
late-night cable. As the Voice‘s Robert Ito notes, yaoi
men are often androgynous romantics with feminine features and
long, shampoo-commercial hair. Perhaps, then, all-male comics like
Kizuna: Bonds of Love and Selfish Love allow
female readers to fantasize about sexual relationships between
equals — the kind of partnerships that might seem unimaginable if
they were to take place between a man and a woman.

‘Make [the character] a woman, erase all the instances of sexual
harassment, and you’ve got a perfectly serviceable Hollywood
romantic comedy,’ Ito writes. Yet the standard also seems to uphold
the gender bias that has informed Japan’s erotic art for decades:
With no female subjects to identify with, readers are left to
assume that desire is something only men act upon.

Still, as manga meets 2005, and Del Ray Manga (a
division of Random House) kicks off the U.S. publishing industry’s
first Japanese comics program with works by the all-woman artist
collective CLAMP, it’s a good guess that the genre will continue to
diversify. For now, the average female comic book artist may feel
pressure to imitate the characters and story lines celebrated by
the boys’ club. But with shojo rising, she can still feel
proud to fight like a girl.

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