The trouble with josei

27 09 2008

Manga is immensely popular with young female readers and many of them have been reading manga since it began to be integrated into public library collections in the early 2000s. These readers are now in their late teens and are familiar with manga and comfortable with its format and conventions. It could be expected that they will continue to read manga but be interested in more sophisticated subject matter and narratives. More good quality josei translations are becoming available in North American to meet this demand and there has been a precedent set by the integration of many seinen titles into public library collections. Despite this josei titles are currently under-represented in many public library collections.

There are a few potential reasons for this.

Providing access to mature material in a comic book format presents a challenge to public libraries. In North America comics are still primarily perceived as being for children and young adults – mature content in this medium can provoke controversy. Josei could be perceived as inappropriate for the public library patrons it might attract but despite the potential for censure public libraries regularly purchase both classic and current seinen titles that would generally appeal to a male demographic. Manga like the revered classics Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike (violence! non-consensual sex! single parenting!) and Akira by Katsushiro Otomo (violence! non-consensual sex! mutation!) and newer titles like MPD Psycho by Eiji Otsuka (just think of the worst thing you can imagine!) contain violence and sexual themes. The “mature content” warnings affixed to these materials during cataloguing and processing can be expected to deter some patrons (and attract others) regardless of their age. These titles are included in public library collections based on their cultural and artistic merit or by public request and they are potentially accessible to inappropriately young readers. Clearly, this is a risk that selectors have been willing to take in adding seinen titles to their collections. Public libraries make these purchasing decisions because they have a mandate to provide diverse materials to their patrons and existing policy allows for the incorporation of comics that contain mature content into public library collections.

Reservations regarding mature content should not be a deterrent to providing access to josei. If the aesthetic extremes of seinen have been judged acceptable for public library collections there must also be a place for the decidedly more humane and often humorous mature content represented in josei.

Another facet of comic collection development is that the established readership for comics in North America is still predominantly young men. Public libraries must always consider the needs of the communities they serve. Without a demand for comics marketed for women there is no impetus for public libraries to provide them. Manga, however, has reached a level of acceptance with young women the far exceeds their interest in North American comics. While North American comics have failed to attract a significant market of loyal female readers the potential exists for young women who read manga to retain their interest in the medium. While many public libraries shape their collections based on popular demand there may be a lack of awareness amongst female manga readers that genres other then shojo exist.

Public libraries could be positioned to facilitate awareness of the some of the josei titles that are available to their patrons through recommended reading and personalized title referral services. With a bit of judicious purchasing josei could become a legitimate and popular part of public library collections.

Images: image from the anime television series based on Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino, panel from Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa, character art from Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa

An important tangent – Seinen

27 09 2008

The demographic compliment to josei is seinen (SAY-nen) or men’s manga.

Seinen skews to a more mature demographic then shonen but generally retains the more youthful genre’s emphasis on adventure. In some cases it can be difficult to discern what makes a manga seinen rather then josei as the topics addressed and the way they are handled seem appropriate to either demographic. The gender of the mangaka is not a good genre indicator as there are many examples of women who create seinen narratives and men who write josei (thought there seem to be fewer). The differentiation seems to come down to the art style and if the manga is published in a seinen or josei weekly publication.

It’s often easier for a North American audience to grasp the difference between shonen/seinen then shojo/josei because the shonen/seinen duality generally fits Western censorship templates. Seinen has more graphic depictions of sex and violence then it’s youth-targeted counterpart. However, it would be misled to think that even the more explicit examples of seinen can be dismissed as prurient and exploitative. There is also a lot of textual complexity and themes intended to appeal to older readers (not just men).

The seinen genre strongly influenced North American comic artists in the 1980s and lead to the first wave of the self-reflective and genuinely artful “super hero” redux. Much of durability of Batman’s and Wolverine’s cultural credibility is owed to seinen comics.

Two seinen titles that are in the top five “Top Viewed” titles on the fansub site One Manga are Bitter Virgin and Gantz. Taken together, these two titles are a good illustration of diversity of seinen.

Bitter Virgin by Kei Kusunoki is about a young man who inadvertently finds out about the troubled past of one of his female classmates. The story is seinen in the way it appeals to the protagonist’s (and the reader’s) sympathetic and protective response to the shy, unfailingly adorable and fragile young woman. However, the story reaches a surprising and intense narrative peak with a heartbreaking sub plot based directly on the manga-ka’s (artists) experience with the stillbirth of her first child. (Thanks to Solaris-SVU for all their work on the Bitter Virgin fansub.)

Gantz by Oko Hiroya has recently been optioned by DarkHorse and it is therefore harder to find scans online. Gantz embodies everything that parents are afraid manga is about. It has an interesting premise, good plot development and the art and page design are creative and compelling. It also begins with the graphically rendered decapitation of the two main protagonists. (Sorry, if you can’t imagine where the story will go from there, you’ll have to read it yourself to find out.) Gantz is nightmarishly violent and there are lots of depictions of enormous breasts.

Images: Gantz v.2 (cover image) by Oko Hiroya, character art from Bitter Virgin by Kei Kusunoki, panel from Gantz by Oko Hiroya

A bit of methodology

27 09 2008

This is a brief survey based of the OPACs of a selection of four public libraries in major cities in both the United States and Canada. With one exception (Toronto) the criterion was that the city had a “Book Off” – a Japanese used-book chain store. In both North American and Japan a generous portion of these large stores is devoted to used manga (predominantly in Japanese).

The public library OPACs I searched were:

Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL)

New York Public Library (NYPL)

Toronto Public Library (TPL)

Vancouver Public Library (VPL)

Nana by Ai Yazawa: LAPL, NYPL, TPL, VPL

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya: LAPL, NYPL, TPL, VPL

Paradise Kiss by Ai Yazawa: LAPL, NYPL, TPL

Pet Shop of Horrors by Matsuri Akino: LAPL

Suppli by Mari Okazaki: LAPL, VPL

Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa: [none]

A review of the collections at these public libraries indicates that there has been investment in established josei titles like Nana, Nodame Cantabile and Paradise Kiss but that it isn’t comprehensive. Three of the more recently released josei titles currently available in North America are not well represented. The popular and critically well received titles Pet Shop of Horrors and Tramps Like Us are almost completely neglected.

Images: panel from Yotsubato! by Kiyohiko Azuma (I know, it doesn’t fit the genre, but I love her so much!)