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Comics for women, by women

May 28, 1999

Yukiko Kishinami
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The huge number of comics created by women for women and girls is a unique aspect of manga. The uninitiated often dare not enter this realm--they are put off by the peculiar-looking, often impossibly slim, starry-eyed characters gazing vacantly from the pages.

Yet once you get used to the style and learn the grammar, you strike a cultural vein that is perhaps even richer than manga for male readers.

American anthropologist Matt Thorn is one of those readers.

"I think I've read so many girls' comics that it's hard for me to get into a lot of boys' comics," Thorn, 34, said at his Kyoto home, where he lives with his Japanese wife, also an anthropologist, and 7-year-old son. "When you get used to that girls' comics drawing style, boys' comics look so ugly and violent. Strange, I know."

Thorn teaches comparative popular culture at Kyoto Seika University, which recently proposed to the Education Ministry that it be allowed to create the country's first department of cartoon and comic art from April, 2000.

Thorn's first impression of manga was about average for a foreigner. He was disgusted by adults reading pornographic comics on the trains. Reading classics such as Osamu Tezuka's Hi no Tori (Firebird) and Sanpei Shirato's Kamui-den (The Kamui Legend) gradually changed his perceptions.

But it was a girls' comic that really bowled him over: Moto Hagio's 1975 classic Toma no Shinzo (The Heart of Thomas), a complex story of love, life and friendship set in a German boys' school.

"That just completely shattered all my ideas about what a comic book could be or is," Thorn said. "It sounds like an exaggeration, but it really changed my life. It's a difficult story, certainly not for children. Almost philosophical and also very subtle."

The experience led Thorn to conduct research into readers of girls' comics in Japan, which he is currently compiling for his doctoral thesis to be submitted to Columbia University in New York. He is now reading the same author's latest work in progress, Zankoku na Kami ga Shihaisuru (After Us the Savage God), which appears in a bimonthly comic magazine for young women, with keen interest.

Although unisex comics have been around for some time, Japanese comics can still be largely divided into two genres, one targeted at men and the other at women. This division dates back to the origins of modern manga, which started in children's magazines. From the early 1950s, both magazines for boys and those for girls began carrying cartoons, which then developed into comic magazines such as Shonen Jump for boys and Ribon for girls.

The emergence in the late 1960s and 1970s of talented female artists on the girls' comics scene is regarded as the main reason that the genre thrives in Japan. As the industry has matured, it has become more diverse, and there are now a lot of different styles and forms of girls' manga, catering to the complex and diverse tastes of readers of many ages.

According to the Research Institute for Publications, the amount of money spent on girls' and women's comic magazines in fiscal 1998 was only about 20 percent of all manga, but there are about the same number of titles published as for boys and men.

"One thing I like about manga is that it's really one artist's individual expression," Thorn said. "Most artists have assistants, but I think that what makes manga special, particularly girls' manga, is that it's a forum for self-expression."

At the same time, the artists' individualism was partially derived from readers' feedback. Prof. Chizuko Ueno of Tokyo University once wrote, "Running serial comics in popular, commercial magazines enabled the artists to get feedback from readers of similar age (to themselves)...The works that survived can be regarded as being a kind of coproduction with the readers who witnessed the development of the works in real time, rather than products of solitary work by a few, prominent creators behind closed doors."

Thorn thinks manga for girls and women will be around as long as there are societal gender divisions. "I think it's a good thing that women artists have a forum for talking to girls, young women and other women. This is a very rare thing in the world, and I think it's a valuable thing," he said.

According to Thorn, there was a great potential for comics geared toward adults of both sexes in the United States, too. But that was killed under the influence of McCarthyism in the mid-1950s by the comics industry itself, which created the extremely restrictive Comics Code Authority to appease government censors. Female artists' romance comics came under attack for being immoral because they often touched on sex and extramarital affairs.

Thorn, who has translated several Japanese comics into English, has a Web site on girls' comics (, on which he introduces some major hits of the genre and gives a brief, well-researched history of Japanese manga.

Yomiuri Shinbun, May 28, 1999

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