Brain Diving
I Don't Wanna Grow Up

by Brian Ruh, Mar 15th 2011

It's pretty easy to demean people who are still into comics and cartoons past a certain point in their lives. I should know since I do it all the time. I mean, what's the deal with all those middle-aged people who are still into superheroes (or “underwear perverts” as Warren Ellis is wont to call them)? Of course I'm kidding, here – once we get on board this train of thought, the stations we stop at aren't particularly complimentary for anime and manga fans, either. Superheroes may be arrested adolescent power fantasies, but they're certainly big business at the Hollywood box office, which gives them at least a whiff of credibility to the general public. There's no such thing right now that gives the image of anime and manga an equivalent boost here in North America. It probably doesn't help that it's hard to get a grasp on the depth and breadth of Japanese popular culture (particularly manga) just from what's released commercially in English, either. We tend to get the most commercial manga over here, and we lack a cultural appreciation of comics as there exists in countries such as France. (Or maybe I'm just bitter because a lot of the series I want to read have gotten French translations but have yet to come out in English.)

The variety of manga in Japan means that there are a significant number of titles intended for an older audience. These are the kinds of titles Sharon Kinsella focuses on in her groundbreaking book Adult Manga: Culture and Power in Contemporary Japanese Society. The first thing I need to tell you is that this book isn't using “adult” in the standard euphemistic way to mean “sexually explicit.” Rather, Kinsella takes “adult manga” to mean manga that is read by adults, which encompasses a pretty large segment of the Japanese comics out there. (She describes her book's focus as “high-circulation, mainstream, non-specialist, non-pornographic adult manga, the great majority of which falls into the large statistical sub-category of ‘youth magazines’ and ‘youth comics.’”) Although the book is published by the University of Hawai'i Press, Kinsella keeps things pretty readable and doesn't assume that you're familiar with sociology terms. She does drop in a few scholars like Pierre Bourdieu and John Fiske from time to time, but unlike some academic writers she's not trying to show off how much theory she knows, so she keeps things pretty readable and descriptive.

This isn't to say that Adult Manga is not an academic book. Kinsella takes a rigorous approach to her subject matter and has a definite argument about it. As can be gleaned from the book's subtitle, her main concern is with how ideas of “culture” and “power” intersect on the playing field of manga. I have to say, Kinsella's is a unique take on making manga that I don't think I've seen very often. The main point that she's trying to argue is that manga has taken on a sizeable role within contemporary Japanese culture. I think that's a point that we can all agree with – in her introduction, Kinsella says that manga can be compared to oxygen for the way it seems to be everywhere and permeates the environment. Because of manga's role in Japanese culture, Kinsella is interested in who has the power within manga culture. We can think of manga artists, editors, fans, and readers as all having an interest in how power within manga culture is divided up, and Kinsella tries to figure out exactly what these power relationships are and how they came to be.

In order to clarify these points, Kinsella sets up the groundwork in the first couple of chapters. In the first one, Kinsella briefly details a history of manga. If you've done any reading on how manga came to be (like Frederik Schodt's Manga! Manga!), you're probably already familiar with this kind of approach. However, I think these kinds of histories are useful because they tell me how the author is approaching the idea of manga. I'm always particularly interested in the historical starting point in books like this. In Kinsella's case, I found it heartening that she comes right out and says “manga is a strikingly contemporary cultural phenomenon,” meaning that it's of relatively recent vintage. Indeed, Kinsella begins her history in the 1920s with early comic strip production in Japanese newspapers. I'm always a little skeptical when authors try to connect manga with woodblock prints or the “animal scrolls” of centuries ago. Although they may bear some similarities, they're really nothing like modern manga. Kinsella understands why Japanese critics would want to reach back so far into their past to make such a connection to an earlier artform, though. It's really a kind of defense mechanism against people who would criticize manga as worthless or frivolous – if manga can be tied in to such earlier works of art, then they are a part of the history of Japanese culture and as such should be valued rather than dismissed out of hand.

The second chapter in Adult Manga is on the “production cycle,” outlining the process and the stages in which a manga is created. Kinsella discusses the role of artists, editors and publishers as well as aspects of creating comics that most of us don't usually think of, particularly printing and distribution. She goes into plenty of detail in this section, reflecting the time she spent in the mid-1990s working in Japan on a fellowship sponsored by Kodansha. During this period she was able to see firsthand how manga was produced and was able to speak with many editors and writers, which gives her book added credibility.

In the third chapter, Kinsella begins to delve more deeply into the “manga as culture” idea, which is carried out through the remaining chapters. The basic idea is that in the 1980s the manga industry began to appeal to an older, more professional class of reader with the introduction of serious, informational comics, and manga focusing on economics and politics begin to proliferate. This had the effect of giving added legitimacy to manga since series like Division Chief Kousaku Shima and Silent Service were tackling serious topics intended for a more mature audience. Institutions began to recognize the value of manga within Japanese culture, and serious studies of manga began to be published.

Of course, not all was rosy for manga in the 1980s. As Kinsella describes in the fourth chapter, in 1989 the child murderer Tsutomu Miyazaki was captured, and it was revealed that he had a huge collection of anime and manga in his small room, setting off a moral panic regarding otaku. Even into the 1990s, Kinsella says many publishers and authors seemed to take a particularly dim view of otaku because such fans seemed out of control. Otaku slavishly followed their own obsessions, creating and selling their own doujinshi at amateur events like Comiket (which Kinsella also goes into quite a bit of detail describing). This was seen as subversive by the powers that be, since such manga fans were acting too individualistic and weren't behaving like good fans (i.e. consumers) should. We can see from this that the groups that had the power at the time (the publishers) were concerned about losing this power to the otaku.

The last two chapters of Adult Manga are about censorship and the editor / artist relationship. The former is particularly interesting these days in the light of Tokyo's Bill 156, which widens the categories for what may be considered a title unsuitable for sale to minors. Reading through Kinsella's descriptions of how manga expression has been threatened and regulated since the 1950s, it's interesting to note that measures like Bill 156 have been a standard course of action. It seems rare for there to be outright government censorship of manga, but instead we get restrictions placed on the titles that can be sold to general audiences. If you're looking to put Bill 156 in context, this chapter would be a pretty good place to start.

However, I found the final chapter to be one of the book's most fascinating contributions to the study of manga because the editor / author dynamic is rarely mentioned or is only discussed in passing. According to the details Kinsella provides, it seems like this relationship is a great example of how power functions within the manga industry. This is due to the fact that the increasing prestige of manga in the 1980s made many editors assume a more hands-on role in production. Consequently, adult manga began to reflect the views and backgrounds of the editors as much as the artist. As Kinsella puts it, “As manga editors took on more creative roles in adult manga production, the manga they produced became characterized by the fact that it was produced not by artists, necessarily living on the fringes of organized social and economic life, but by company employees immersed in white-collar corporate society instead.” For example, your average Kodansha manga editor is going to be well educated and have graduated from a top university. Such employees often rotate through various departments at the company, usually spending a few years in each position. This rotating schedule means that some people working as manga editors might not even like or respect manga, which could also have a significant impact on the finished product. In contrast, the majority of manga artists often come from lower- or working-class backgrounds, a similarity they share with their doujinshi-making brethren. This gives the editor the edge not only in position within the company, but also in perceived social standing. In other words, as manga has become more popular and recognized both in Japan and abroad, it has become more regulated by the major publishers, and it is often shaped by editors from elite social and educational backgrounds.

Throughout the book Kinsella provides great detail on the ways the manga production process works; she backs up her assertions with plenty of evidence as well as charts and graphs when appropriate. However, one point I could see Kinsella taking some flak for within the manga fan community is her discussion of lolicon manga (which she renders as Lolicom manga, a spelling that is equally valid). She brings up points that I hadn't really considered before, namely that a lot of doujinshi and lolicon manga has its roots in shoujo manga that emphasizes feelings and beautiful femininity rather than the more typically masculine gekiga, or story manga. It's a provocative idea that I hadn't really considered much before. However, even if you buy this argument, Kinsella is bound to raise some hackles with the large net she casts when talking about lolicon manga, including such titles as Gunsmith Cats and Ah My Goddess. This would suggest that lolicon manga to Kinsella doesn't necessarily need to be sexually explicit (which is what the term usually denotes for most fans) but rather displays a fixation on young, cute women.

If Adult Manga has a downside, it's that the information is a bit dated by now. The book originally came out in 2000, and Kinsella originally did her research in the early-to-mid 1990s, which means that some of the research in the book is easily over fifteen years old by now. There are a number of problems within the manga industry that the book sees on the horizon in the mid-1990s, most notably a decline in circulation numbers due to the increasing influence of video games and cell phones. Advances in printing and pre-production technologies have also probably changed the ways manga titles are handled in the production cycle as well. It would be fascinating for someone to now do a similar study to Kinsella's to see how things have changed in the intervening years. However, even in the beginning Kinsella admits that her experience in the manga industry may not be able to be replicated by scholars following in her footsteps due to the seemingly open nature of industry at the time.

As I mentioned above, if you have any interest at all in how manga is produced, Adult Manga provides a wealth of information. Unlike a lot of speculation and rumors out there on the internet, Kinsella's account is based on first-hand fieldwork and countless interviews with authors and editors. It's definitely recommended for your (hopefully increasing) bookshelf of smart titles on anime and manga.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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