Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan (2012)

Front Cover

Much is made by the casual anime viewer of the ‘big eyes’ of some anime characters.  The sociological shorthand for this has been to claim it’s a desire for ‘Western eyes’ by Japanese.  Those who have done a bit of research have brought in more nuanced explanations, that behind the big eyes is the influence of Disney characters on manga artist, and anime pioneer, Osamu Tezuka.

But assistant professor of Japanese Studies at the National University of Singapore Deborah Shamoon’s research adds another layer of shadow to the ‘big eyes’ story in her engaging book Passionate Friendship:  The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan (University of Hawai’i Press).  Apparently, commentators have ignored Tezuka’s own claims regarding the primary influence on the prototypical eye shapes of anime, the elaborate eye makeup of the Takarazuka Revue players, actresses referred to as Takarasiennes.

Founded in 1913 by railroad magnate Kobayashi Ichizo as a tourist draw to the end of the Osaka line, the Takarazuka Revue (Takarazuka Kagekidan) is an all-female musical theatre troupe that has maintained a considerable popularity throughout its long run.  Tezuka grew up near Takarazuka City and was a fan of the Takarazuka Revue.  In fact, the manga credited with originating the shojo manga (girls’ comics) genre, Ribbon no Kishi, (a Genesis claim also challenged throughout Shamoon’s book), was Tezuka’s homage to Takarazuka. This influence eventually folded in on itself because many shojo manga stories, like Ikeda Riyoko’s hugely popular The Rose of Versaille (Berusaiyu no bara, serialized in Margaret 1972-1973) have returned the favor and provided inspiration for Takarazuka musicals.

Shamoon’s book demonstrates what can be illuminated when we treat a topic like Girls’ Culture with serious scholarship and respect. By doing so, she is not only helping clear up the discourse around big anime eyes and providing a more substantial history of shojo manga before Ribbon no Kishi, but also helping us to better understand the notorious shojo manga genre known by the abbreviations ‘BL’ (Boys’ Love) and YAOI (YAma nashi, Ochi nashi, Imi nashi – meaning roughly no climax, no resolution, no meaning). This is achieved by tracing the evolution of esu kankei (‘S Relationships’) – stories of spiritual, but not sexual, love between schoolgirls. These stories were tolerated by Japanese society and “coded as pure, innocent, and asexual” (p. 11) in the 1920s and 1930s, (a somewhat similar form still exists as ‘skinships’) and in the modern day are sometimes more hardcore in their depiction of a world of graphic sex between feminine-ly traited males, as read by fujoshi (literally meaning ‘rotten women’, but this works ironically since it’s a pun off of a homonym with different kanji that means ‘respectable women’). Shamoon has been able to tease out the historical moments that generated these art forms.

Through this scholarship, Shamoon challenges another accepted truth: the tendency particularly amongst  Wester scholars to see only present day Queer subjects in the dancing and singing couplets of otokoyaku (male roles)/musumeyaku (female roles) of the Takarazuka Revue rather than the influence of ‘spiritual love’  (ren’ ai) promoted in the early part of 20th century Japan.  Or a similar tendency for outsiders to see S Relationships primarily as sublimated lesbian desires rather than the romantic testing space within constraints around gender experienced by many Japanese girls of that time.  Finally to the present day, the likelihood of others quickly judging Boys’ Love as signs of homosexual desire amongst its readers.  We allow hetero males the pleasure of lesbian fantasies in pornography. Couldn’t then many fujoshi be fulfilling equal desires through the copulation found in YAOI manga?  Shamoon is not saying there isn’t queerness in these genres and those who consume and appropriate them.  She just wants to put a brake on the quickness to queer in today’s terms these practices and forums from a different time and place.

Anyone interested in the manga (and by extension anime) of any genre will find Shamoon’s book valuable. She pinpoints the importance of interactivity in the development of shojo manga as girls created community through the magazines letters and submissions pages, while laying out a solid history of the narrative and visual evolution of shojo manga. VCinema readers will be particularly interested in how Shamoon notes the importance of 1950s-1960s teen girl films in Japan, focusing specifically on the Three Girls (Sanin Musume) stars (Misora Hibari, Eri Chiemi, Yukimura Izumi) and the manga they inspired, Paris-Tokyo (1956), by the strongly influential artist Takahashi Makoto’s first work in manga.  Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan is a truly compelling read, underscoring the need to take Girls’ Culture more seriously to thwart off the media memes that too often misrepresent what Shamoon demonstrates is a thriving creative culture of interactivity well before the advent of the internet.