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“Manga Before Flowers”

Here is our new weekly manga columnist, Danielle Leigh – BC.

Like a lot of women who are in their twenties and read manga today, I can trace my love of shojo manga (simply put: Japanese comics targeted to girls) to an animated show called Sailor Moon. Whether or not I knew it was Japanese then, watching it in high school, I remember feeling embarrassed and enthralled by its unapologetically girly nature. The show’s plot was fairly simple — a group of fairly normal junior high school girls were actually superheroes who transformed to fight evil antagonists and save the universe. They may have been a reincarnation theme, as well, who can remember…. The main character, Serena (her name was Americanized for U.S. television) was annoying, a whiny cry-baby klutz who happened to transform into a superhero — “Sailor Moon” — who could somehow save the universe.

Even now I have a hard time understanding what attracted me to this series considering its simplistic plot-lines and dialogue (it first began airing in the U.S. when I was 15, already older than the characters it represented). I do know I probably wouldn’t have loved it so much if I hadn’t first learned to love superheroes and animation in the early and mid 1990′s through exposure to animated shows like Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, and Spider-man: TAS, X-Men. But unlike those shows, Sailor Moon’s plots stunk.

Why, then, did I fall in love with this series? While the show was absurdly popular in Japan, I did not know that it also fell into an entire genre of Japanese anime and manga entertainment known as “the magical girl.” The magical girl genre follows a girl’s transformation into a superhero in order to battle the forces of evil to save the world. Although on U.S. television I had my choice of superheroes (even a teenage Peter Parker in case I tired of adult superheroes like Batman and Superman) I didn’t have an animated series that revolved entirely around female life – even a fantastical female life. And while I had female superheroes through X-Men and Superman’s Lois Lane was a strong female character without equal, what I didn’t have was a show about personal relationships first, and saving the world second.

I can see now that the show’s fairly conventional “magical girl” dynamic is not what attracted me to the show. What I glommed onto as a teenager was a show which emphasized human relationships and emotional bonds over exciting – even, at times, coherent – plot-lines.

What I would later learn was that there was a whole body of sequential art novels and animated texts which focused exclusively on personal relationships. And female experience. And they were Japanese in origin. But it wasn’t animation that caught my heart and set it on fire for shojo. It was comics, manga, whatever you want to call those charming graphic novels you can now find in every chain bookstore in America for less than 10 dollars a pop.

In spring of 2005 I happened to pick up a volume of Hot Gimmick (published by Viz in the U.S.) from my local library. At the time I was reading American comics on the edges of superhero life (Y: the Last Man, Runaways, Sleeper, Gotham Central) but hadn’t yet made the connection between the sci-fi anime I’d watched in college and the small, but growing, manga section located in my comic book shop. Hot Gimmick wasn’t like my American comics – it was about a dippy, but sweet, teenage girl named Hatsumi who was continually getting pushed around by the not-so-sweet-boys-next-door and who couldn’t find a sense of self-determination if it ran her over in the street. The boys in her life tricked her, messed up her life, ordered her around and did many other bad things I won’t describe. The series was trashy and anti-feminist in the extreme and yet, god, it was interesting.

I, who wouldn’t read romances published in English, was simply a goner. I would end up buying and later selling the entire series, as many people would end up doing who like me followed this neighborhood soap opera over the course of 12 tortuous volumes. Finding Hot Gimmick wasn’t necessarily about finding a great comic so much as it was about finding comics that felt as if they were created just for me.

And, boy howdy, were these comics girly. There were big eyes, flowery backgrounds, pixie pink covers, pretty looking boys and impossibly pretty looking girls – every cliche mainstream American has about Japanese manga was right there ensnaring me. But people can mistake this art style as insipid or ridiculous – for me, what shojo does better than any other comic genre I’ve ever seen is represent the dynamism of human emotion. The story-lines run the gamut from ridiculous (how many people do you know have childhood friends who become a) models, b) famous actors, c) famous musicians…I think you get the picture) to the sublime (watching the title character of Emma do something as simple as explore the world around her for the first time with corrective glasses is a moment of beauty and power in which not a single word is spoken.) Whether or not I can identify with a particular character’s plight isn’t as important as the rush of feeling I get when the emotions leap off the page and accomplish feats I didn’t know pop art was capable of.

My interested in and affection for shojo continues, even if I’ve become more discriminating as I’ve learned to target what I love about the genre and what I find less appealing the more time I spend with these texts. While I also read manga and U.S. comics intended for boys and adult men, I never feel so much at home as when I crack open one of the “girly” books originally intended for Japanese audiences. In March I’ll have been reading manga for three years and while I still yearn for the time U.S. publishers will bring over Japanese comics actually targeted to women my age, I know that even if they did a part of my heart would still belong to the beautiful and melodramatic worlds I find in shojo.

31 Comments

Welcome aboard, Danielle. My students will be pleased to see a regular manga presence on the site.

*waves* Thanks for the welcome, Greg! (And now you are my first comment on the blog!)

Do your students like particular manga titles/genres?

Do your students like particular manga titles/genres?

At the moment, they’re all about Naruto. Inu-Yasha and Ranma 1/2 are also favorites that get mentioned to me consistently over the years. Fruits Basket and Bleach are also starting to come up in class again.

My classes are mostly girls, so really any shoujo stuff would work for them.

You know, when I see the name “Brian Cronin” and then “Like a lot of women who are in their twenties …” I start to wonder about our Dread Lord and Master. I think Danielle needs a password to post under her own name!

(I tried posting earlier but something happened, sorry if I double post!!)

Wow, you just told my life’s story from the beginning to the end. Of course, I was ten years younger so the attraction to Sailor Moon was like a bee to a bright red flower but nonetheless, I grew up with the love of all comics, especially the shoujo genre as well as defending its merit. There really is nothing like opening a great girly book with great big girly eyes and great big girly circumstances.

You officially rock

It’s always a bit jarring when there’s no indication of a guest/new poster within the text of the post itself. Maybe that’s just me though.

I enjoyed your post, Danielle.

Very nice piece, Danielle. Welcome aboard!

Brianna —

There really is nothing like opening a great girly book with great big girly eyes and great big girly circumstances.

Amen to that! This column is a way to embrace my shojo-love instead of closet it and I’m so glad to hear your experiences match up to mine (it really is amazing how many of us are here because of Sailor Moon!)

Da Fug — good point, I’m new to this so I wasn’t sure how much explanation would be needed (I suspect I’m going to feeling like I’m introducing many aspects of manga culture in my columns so there might be an “introductory” feel to a lot of my posts).

Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it!

Thanks, Brian, for the warm welcome — I’m very glad to be on the “team”!

“In case the “by Danielle Leigh” part didn’t explain it, here is our new weekly manga columnist, Danielle Leigh – BC.”

Awwww. Look people, he listens. Now see, I think that makes new/guest poster posts a little more readable. Though, in this case, I’m not sure whether I was snarked at or not ;)

I was around the same age when I discovered Sailor Moon too, I was in high school & would set my vcr to tape it when it would come on very early in the morning. I wasn’t into superheroes yet and the only comics I’d read up til that point had been Archie & Katy Keene when I was a kid in the late 80s/early 90s.

Maybe part of the attraction for me was it reminded me of some of the cartoons I watched as a kid. She-Ra with her dual identity and cool transformation sequence and Jem and the Holograms with her (again) dual identity. You know Jem kind of had an old skool Superman vibe with Rio taking the Lois Lane role….with him being involved with both Jem and Jerrica and how he used to practically swoon every time Jem showed up.

It’s like what you said though…besides the heroics there was the human relationships…friendships, romance with Tuxedo Mask…all that stuff.

I also started reading manga in 2005! After having read superhero comics after seeing the first X-Men movie (I really liked the relationship between Rogue & Wolverine & people told me that in the comics it was more like his friendship with Jubilee so I sought out those back issues until I eventually started buying current comics as well) I was starting to get burnt out on them….it seemed like all the joy was getting drained out of them. I love drama & heartbreak (I love shojo afterall which has a ton of it!) but without any joyful moments to make the painful moments worthwhile it just started to all bleed into a dreary mess for me.

After having constantly heard for the last few years (a neverending conversation that still goes on today) “Manga is taking over! How do we get them to read superhero comics?” I decided to go the opposite way and try out some of the manga that had for so long been treated like the menace that was destroying American comics and I found that it was….

just what I was looking for! Fruits Basket was the first shojo I read and it’s still my favorite. I loved the introduction of all the characters in each new volume, their relationships with each other, and their growth. All their painful and joyful moments.

Well, I could say more but this comment is long enough. I’m looking forward to reading more from you!

Awwww. Look people, he listens. Now see, I think that makes new/guest poster posts a little more readable. Though, in this case, I’m not sure whether I was snarked at or not ;)

Heavens, no! ;)

I am just being responsive. :D

Actually, I think we should all post as “From the Comics Should Be Good” hive-mind, and make readers guess who’s writing what.

every cliché mainstream American has about Japanese manga was right there ensnaring me. But people can mistake this art style as insipid or ridiculous – for me, what shojo does better than any other comic genre I’ve ever seen is represent the dynamism of human emotion.

Which, more’n ANYTHING else, is what I think good cartooning should do. One of the strengths of comics, I think, is that the artist can run a string of contrasting emotional textures. It’s much harder (and takes longer) to change the mood of a film or novel than it is of a comic. And while you can certainly get more emotional texture in a painting, unless you’re working in some kind of serial format, you can’t provide immediate contrast the way you can with comics.

Also

boy howdy,

This is my new favorite phrase, and I resolve to use it at least ten times a day in everyday life.

Amy —

I was around the same age when I discovered Sailor Moon too, I was in high school & would set my vcr to tape it when it would come on very early in the morning.

Oh dear, I did the *exact* same thing. And felt some amount of shame since didn’t this really show I was too old for this kind of thing? It didn’t matter — I loved it enough to tape it and race home after school to watch it.

you know, Jem really came to mind when I was writing this but the truth was, I couldn’t really remember what the show was actually *like* (it was during the late 80′s? Or have I got the wrong decade?) and in many ways I don’t really remember much about Sailor Moon SAVE the relationship stuff with Tuxedo Mask (like, seriously, did they have powers? And what in the world were they?). I guess in the end I remember what moved me and next to nothing about what didn’t.

Your comments about X-men are interesting since Wolverine’s relationship with Jubilee was a real draw when I used to watch the cartoon as a kid.

just what I was looking for! Fruits Basket was the first shojo I read and it’s still my favorite. I loved the introduction of all the characters in each new volume, their relationships with each other, and their growth. All their painful and joyful moments.

Fruits Basket is a real favorite of mine was well — it starts out so *ordinary* and somehow became one of the most extraordinary shojo manga in my collection. And the art! Oh how painful the first few volumes are — much too cluttered and rather unpretty. It isn’t until much later in the series the artist can take my breath away with her sense of composition, but the wait is so worth it.

Thanks so much for commenting — it is nice to hear from folks who really share these experiences.

MarkAndrew — thanks for the nice comment, it is so hard to express *why* shojo manga moves me the way it does and I think you nicely hit the potential sequential art has to change the mood on a dime. I hope to post scans in the future to get at real examples the “emotional dynamism” I refer to just generally.

This is my new favorite phrase, and I resolve to use it at least ten times a day in everyday life.

Ha! Glad to share the love….

Nice to have you onboard Danielle. After reading that piece, I am all the more grateful for your presence. Here’s looking forward to more exceptional manga articles. ^_^

I got totally enthralled in Sailor Moon back in the day. It seemed like a whole new perspective on ideas about superheroes and mythology, and its bizarre logic was fascinating – of course the villain is an older woman, of course Sailor Moon’s boyfriend gets captured all the time, of course they change into superheroes with magical make-up compacts. All so obvious, yet seemingly so original at the time. And while I accept that the show is flawed, I will say in its defense that the main character is a lot more likeable in the Japanese version.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 12, 2008 at 11:02 pm

Actually, I think we should all post as “From the Comics Should Be Good” hive-mind, and make readers guess who’s writing what.

It’s too easy though – You always tangent out of control, Brad Curran never double checks his own posts, Greg B annoys everyone, Greg Hatcher reminist.ces, Brian either asks questions or writes Recommended/Not recommended at the end and Pol and Bill don’t post.

Danielle Leigh,

The first volume I read of Fruits Basket was actually #4 because at that time my small bookstore had an even smaller manga section and this was even before they had given it its own section so they were still being placed among the sci-fi books. By that time I think the art had gotten really good (although not as sublime as it would get in later volumes) but in my opinion the art was only really painful in the first volume. You can already see a difference in the second volume. Another neat thing about manga is you oftentimes get to see a mangaka’s work grow as a series goes on.

I also really loved how gender and sexual lines blurred. From Momiji happily prancing to school wearing the girls uniform to Ayame telling the story of his student council president days where at a conference about the male students having visited the red light district his solution to the problem was “From now on…direct your passions at me!”

Definitely not the kind of thing I’d read in comics before! Now I see characters types like Ayame & Momiji all the time in shojo and I don’t get the same initial shock & thrill that I did then but I still get the same kind of happiness when the characters are done well.

Oh, I also wanted to say I’m happy for what you said at the end of your article. The same goes for me. As more josei is released here I’ll be happy to read more and more of it but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading shojo just because it’s not intended for my age group. The shojo that transcends age and even just the ones that have *something* unique about them whether it be the humor, art style, or character quirks…I’m never going to stop reading those.

A lot of people see shojo as something people have to “graduate” out of. I’ve read superhero, indie, and even manga fans talk about shojo fans moving on to more adult fare but I don’t see shojo as something you have to give up, not when it still entertains you.

[...] Comics Should Be Good has a new manga columnist, Danielle Leigh, who kicks off her “Manga Before Flowers” column with a look back at how she came to love manga. [...]

oh happy day, right above this comment is a referral link from one of my favorite blogs!

Johnathan — thanks for the kind welcome and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

Sanagi — oh, you don’t have to defend Sailor Moon (the character or the show!). I suppose I was trying to get across how unlikely (to an American at least) Serena was as a heroine.

Amy – Oh, I also wanted to say I’m happy for what you said at the end of your article. The same goes for me. As more josei is released here I’ll be happy to read more and more of it but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading shojo just because it’s not intended for my age group. The shojo that transcends age and even just the ones that have *something* unique about them whether it be the humor, art style, or character quirks…I’m never going to stop reading those.

Oh yes, I’ve found a fellow traveler. Right now I’m having trouble justifying my love of “Gakuen Alice” (just recently released by Tokyopop in Dec). Unlike Fruits Basket which clearly has something to offer to the older comic book reader sometimes I can’t quite wrap my head around reading about elementary school students (with powers!!! of course) with such affection. But I know there is something there — and if I can share that “there” with the readers at this blog, perhaps get them to pick up a manga book they wouldn’t have otherwise I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.

Thanks for the lovely conversation and I’m so glad you spoke up and shared your love of shojo with me. (And your analysis of the little things that make Fruits Basket so great make me shiver in happiness.)

Welcome, Danielle! Nice introductory column; I look forward to reading more of your stuff. I also have an affection for shojo, even though I’m male and almost 30 years old. I even have a subscription to Shojo Beat, and I do a review of each issue on my blog. There’s so much manga out there, I always feel like I’m behind on the series I want to read, but I’m working on catching up. Anyway, keep up the good work; I can’t wait to see what else you’ve got to talk about!

I was another teenager who found myself watching Sailor Moon everyday without knowing why. And I had watched all the other superhero shows before it too! Interesting. I look forward to reading your reviews and suggestions. The only manga I’ve ever read is a few of the Lupin III books and I would love to get into more of it.

I caught on a bit late to the Sailor Moon gig and watched it all on the subbed DVDs. But man, did I love it. I still do, truth be told. And is there anything better than a Marmalade Boy marathon (either manga or anime)? I think not!!

One slight correction I might make is that Emma is not shoujo – it’s seinen.

Matthew — I love reading your blog, particularly your Shojo Beat coverage…Really, shojobeat may be the girliest thing in my entire life (certainly girlier than I am!) but I really look forward so much to its arrival each month, it really brightens my week up.

Thanks so much for stopping by to tell me you enjoyed my first post!

You seem to be off to a great start, and I’ll also be looking forward to checking out more of your stuff. I think you’ve pretty accurately summed up the rabbit hole phenomena that accompanies manga readership (and the slippery slope from captivated kid to manga columnist!) (Although in my case, it all started with a single volume of Cardcaptor Sakura at a FNAC bookstore back in the 90′s…)

yay! thanks a million greg!

[...] [Commentary] Danielle Leigh explains how the Sailor Moon anime introduced her to the world of manga. [...]

Good read Danielle, I followed the link from MangaBlog.com and ended up reading all the comments to your column – I discovered a lot today!

It is not only extremely refreshing to have females writing about manga and comics, it is urgently needed. I would have guessed it was going to be inevitable after manga gained much of its growth from new female readers. This happens in Europe (I’m from Spain) as much as in the US I think. The advantage you have in America is numbers. Here each country has its own manga revolution, but language differences prevents them from getting together and forming the multiregional momentum you guys have in the States with potential readership in the millions.

What we need is a female multinational manga revolution!

Now, a challenge… what boys manga do you read?

If anybody reading this reads Spanish, please follow the link to my (abandoned) manga blog. I plan to revitalize it soon. Would you want to read an English version of it?

[...] “Manga Before Flowers” by Danielle Leigh – 2/12/08 The Sailor Moon Effect [...]

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