Exemplary text – Nodame Cantabile

26 09 2008

Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya (licensed in North America by Del Ray) is a josei title that has gained wide acceptance in North America (it ranks number 110 in popularity on the One Manga site) and is well represented in public library collections.

The plot unfolds at a music college in Tokyo and focuses on the relationship between the handsome and talented but arrogant Shinichi Chiaki and his fellow student Megumi Noda, nicknamed Nodame.

Nodame is extremely unconventional. She is unfashionable and inelegant, unapologetically covetous of other peoples’ food, shockingly slovenly and unwashed and often expresses herself through loud and unintelligible outbursts of noise. She would be considered unfeminine and even a bit repellent by most cultural standards but behaves in exceedingly sharp contrast to what would be considered ideal in a Japanese woman. Despite this Nodame is an intensely likable character. Her joie de vivre, non judgmental nature and her talent and sense of reverence for music are celebrated throughout the series. Nodame is an artist who neglects everything for the love of her art and the pursuit of its fullest realization. Creative and generous, she does not manifest the tyrannical and perfectionist qualities embodied by the more conventionally talented but self-entitled Chiaki.

When Chiaki first overhears Nodame’s piano playing he is struck by its intuitive and unique quality. Much of their early relationship revolves around his attempts to reconcile his fascination with Nodame’s technique and ability with his revulsion and frustration at her lifestyle and mannerisms. Upon discovering they live in the same apartment building Nodame unselfconsciously imposes herself on Chiaki. When Chiaki insists on cleaning Nodame’s filthy apartment he overhears her playing a song that she has spontaneously composed on her piano. They collaborate in re-constructing the piece and in the process Nodame recognizes the extent of Chiaki’s talent. In a rapture of artistic respect she falls into an earnest infatuation. Much to his own chagrin, Chiaki begins regularly cleaning Nodame’s apartment and cooking dinner for her. On one occasion he even washes her hair which has become so dirty it stinks.

As Nodame and Chiaki begin to spend more time together he helps to focus her skill and energy and she helps him to cultivate a more intuitive and creative love of music.

Ninomiya’s drawings are light and energetic and the page design effectively negotiates the problem of representing the auditory in a visual medium. The frequent illustrations people playing assorted musical instruments never seem redundant or stilted.

Images: character art from Nodame Cantabile by Tomoko Ninomiya

Transitional text – Nana

26 09 2008

Nana, the double-eponymous shojo manga by Ai Yazawa (licensed in North America by VIZ Media) is about two twenty year old women named Nana who meet on a train to Tokyo. They are profoundly different but strike up a friendly conversation. After arriving in Tokyo they coincidentally encounter each other again while viewing the same rental apartment (apt. 707 -“nana” is one of the words used for the number seven in Japanese). They are both short of cash and agree to share the apartment. As the two Nanas start their new lives they develop a complex and devoted friendship that helps them to negotiate their emotional, creative and financial challenges.

Nana Komatsu is given the nickname Hachi – another word used to refer to the number seven in Japanese. She is naïve, charming and impulsive. Hachi is the more conventionally girly-girl of the two Nanas and more subject to conventional ideas about lifestyle, relationships and consumerism. These potentially conservative qualities are outweighed by her energetic and generous disposition. She is the character who most embodies the Japanese Every Girl.

Nana Osaki is a singer and musician. She has a sharp sense of humour and a direct manner which is emphasized by her punk and goth-influenced style. She has learned some difficult lessons in the past and, while remaining a realist, Nana is deeply kind and empathetic. She is single-mindedly driven to succeed in establishing a career in music and upon her arrival in Tokyo she begins to seek out musicians for her band. Nana is a pragmatic iconoclast – both her demeanor and ambition set her apart from prescribed roles for Japanese women.

Ai Yazawa takes the “odd couple” template and develops a narrative that explores all the colourful vagaries of the pursuit of creativity and happiness. The duality of Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki provides readers with a character they can identify with (Nana K) and an aspirational character (Nana O). In developing the relationship between the two Nanas, Yazawa has a wide range of situations and relationships to exploit and the diversity in the narrative has kept Nana vital and entertaining through many volumes. Nana’s readership has grown up along with the characters in series.

Yazawa’s fluid line work and page design fits many of the general aesthetics of josei and has obviously been both an influence and influenced by the more mature genre. At the start of the series the characters were in their early twenties and are now moving into more adult situations and relationships. While it began as a shojo title Nana could now be comfortably described as josei.

There are some potential problems in introducing shojo manga like Nana into North America. In order to make the title more acceptable for young adult consumption occasional nudity and evidence of Nana Osaki’s chronic chain smoking have been somewhat curtailed in North American editions. Regardless, Nana is a title that is very popular in North American and is often included in public library collections.

There is potential that North American market could begin to reflect the Japanese one with many young women transitioning to josei as they mature themselves. Josei could easily find an audience in the young female readers who currently reading so much shojo manga. If a fun but realistic manga like Nana can become a popular addition to public library collections it suggests that more josei titles could also be included.

*Nana has been adapted into a series of live action films which are both are available on DVD in North America (I’ve seen the first one – it’s really good).

Images: panel and character art from Nana by Ai Yazawa

Josei has its own aesthetic

21 09 2008

Josei manga-ka (artists) often use a lighter, more consistent line weight – somewhat reminiscent of pencil sketch – that give the pages a very open look and sense of airiness and energy.

Faces tend to have a minimal amount of detail work and, unless it somehow contributes to characterization or expression, physical features are realistically represented. One notable exception to this simplicity is that characters in josei are often drawn with lips (though this depends on the artist) – a feature that is often completely absent from faces in other genres of manga.

Characters in josei often have big eyes. Just not unrealistically huge ones.

While black and grey tones are not absent from the page design, in josei much less contrast is utilized then in other manga genres. The reduced use of contrast gives the pages a more aesthetically calm, representational look.

Settings are often depicted with an eye for balance and economy but are usually very realistic. There are a lot of aspect-to-aspect panels in josei that feature power utility poles. Perhaps josei manga-ka (and, by extension, their characters) spend a lot of time looking wistfully skyward?

Images: series of panels from Nana by Ai Yazawa, photo: Power Pole by Frozen Elephant (flickr)

Josei is manga for women

19 09 2008

Manga has an extensive readership in Japan and people of all demographics consume manga. Being no exception, josei (JOH-say) is a complex genre that incorporates a number of sub genres – each with it’s own narrative and aesthetic conventions. The scope of this project will address that diversity only passingly in order to focus on titles that have potential for public library collection development. This genre overview is limited to josei titles that have been translated by North American publishers specifically for that market and titles that have been translated by fans and posted online (fansubs).

It’s difficult to make a general statement about the narratives and characterizations in josei. Like much manga it is marketed to a diverse demographic and can encompass a wide range of topics and sensibilities. Perhaps the best way to describe josei is to establish that readers who consume it have – due to age, experience or taste – moved beyond the demographic catered to by the shojo (girl’s comics) and shonen (boys comics) genres and express a consumer appetite for narratives that address more adult complexities. This is not to say that is no overlap in the topics that shojo and josei address but that the author and audience of josei cast a more sophisticated and, sometimes, nuanced eye on the subject matter. Josei often tells stories of people starting college, striving in their careers and, generally, struggling with the
human condition. It addresses societal expectations, family dynamics and the search, in a complex world, for an ideal object of affection.

Image: character art from Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa