Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Rica Takashima and Yuri Monogatari
by Jason Thompson, Aug 26th 2010
Most people don't read yaoi or yuri for realism. (I guess the same could be said of all manga.) Some gays and lesbians enjoy yuri (lesbian) and yaoi manga, and some don't, but it's not meant to be a realistic depiction of gay life. In the case of yaoi (yes, I know they call it Boys Love in Japan) and gay manga, no gay-themed manga by actual gay male artists has been translated into English, and only a few yaoi mangaka, such as Fumi Yoshinaga and Hinako Takanaga, bother to talk about prejudices and problems faced by gay people. (Toru Yamazaki is one of the few out-of-the-closet gay artists, which I guess suggests that his horror manga Octopus Girl really is intended as camp.) In the case of yuri, a much smaller and newer market, a lot of what is called "yuri" is obviously intended for guys, but it too has actual lesbian fans, some of whom draw manga.
Yuri and yaoi share some of the same stereotypes. One is the "it's okay to be gay in the land of unicorns" theme. From the very beginning, yaoi was often set in unrealistic, faraway places, such as the European boys' schools in Moto Hagio's The Heart of Thomas and Keiko Takemiya's The Song of the Wind and Trees. So many boys gathered in one place certainly couldn't just be doing laundry and homework, after all. Other artists, such as Hagio, went for science-fiction settings, or worlds inhabited by androgynous or gender-switching beings. In both cases, the lives of gay people were imaginary and distant. The same formula carries over into yuri manga with the stereotypical girl's boarding school, popularized in the light novel Maria-sama ga Miteru ("The Virgin Mary is Watching"). The imagery of secret flower gardens, girls'-only sanctuaries, harem-like enclosures where giggly girls get it on, was duplicated in thousands of manga, and eventually parodied in Minari Endo's Maria Holic.
Another stereotype is that gay themes equal tragic, forbidden love: not the land of unicorns, but the land of vampires. These stories often involve characters who are repressed and unaware of their own sexuality, and usually they end with the gay character having a mental breakdown, being disgraced, getting gay-bashed or committing suicide. Tragic gay stories can be either pro- or anti-gay, or some mix of the two; some of them show the tragedy of prejudice, while others wallow in angst just for the hell of it or even suggest that gay people are pitiable victims, doomed by their very nature. Most of the few gay and lesbian stories of the early 20th century followed this pattern; by 1968, when people were first beginning to seriously talk about gay rights, it was such a cliché that a character in Mart Crowley's classic gay-themed play The Boys in the Band wisecracked "Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story." Modern yaoi and yuri manga aren't usually this angsty, but a lot of older ones were, such as Minami Ozaki's Zetsuai 1989. Even today, yaoi manga often has an elevated level of emo and suffering, and it's not uncommon to hear characters throw around antigay slurs.
But if yaoi and yuri aren't necessarily realistic or gay-positive, they aren't necessarily just mindless fake-lesbian cheesecake, like Burst Angel or a Katy Perry video, either. Straight male readers of yuri, and straight female readers of yaoi, read the manga to project themselves into the opposite sex, to get something they feel they can't get in their own gender. In yaoi, this is male sexual aggressiveness. Sure, there are some yaoi which are sweet and delicate, but the most popular yaoi are explicit and sometimes nonconsensual, full of sweaty rape fantasies and ripped gakuran. In a recent interview with Shaenon Garrity, Moto Hagio, the classic shojo mangaka who is considered a pioneer of the yaoi genre, expressed the opinion that yaoi was more popular in Japan because Japanese feminism was less developed. ("My question for you is, why is it popular here? Feminism is supposed to be more advanced here in the U.S., but are there still some things that cannot be said?") The implication: Japanese girls read about boys getting sexual because they aren't ready for stories about sexually aggressive, take-charge girls.
In yuri, the stereotyped gender trait is the exact opposite: passive, delicate pure love. If women are not encouraged to jump guys' bones, men are not encouraged to be 'sensitive', and yuri gives them an opportunity. To take some translated examples, look at The Last Uniform, Voiceful and First Love Sisters, stories in which the characters' love is so pure they barely do more than hold hands. It's not about sex; it's about having a friend, a companion, a soulmate. Sure, there are lots of yuri manga which don't fit this stereotype—the violent yuri of the Comic Valkyrie and Queen's Blade type, in which women's bodies are splayed and slashed; the self-parodying hyper yuri like Strawberry Panic! and Hayate X Blade, which gleefully reverse the clichés of straight manga romcoms, set in girls' schools where the students can barely keep their mitts off one another's heaving bosoms. In either case, a great deal of yuri or borderline-yuri manga is obviously intended for male otaku who have discovered the illicit joys of same-sex fantasies, a decade or so behind their fujoshi counterparts' discovery of yaoi. Perhaps it's a sign of gender equality that so many men now want to get off to the idea of being women? Or are the passive, girly-girl characters in so many yuri manga, and the cruel abuse inflicted on women's bodies in others (example: Kannazuki no Miko), just a way to reinforce gender stereotypes that women are soft, fragile flowers?
One of the few—very few—translated yuri manga which expresses an actual lesbian perspective is Rica 'tte Kanji!? by Rica Takashima, an openly lesbian mangaka. Despite the fact that there is 10 times as much yaoi published in English as there is yuri, there isn't a single translated gay male story to match up to it. Takashima herself, or a fictionalized Takashima, is the main character of her pseudo-autobiographical manga. Her manga has appeared in every single issue of Yuri Monogatari, the Japanese/OEL annual dojinshi anthology published since 2003 by ALC Publishing, except for issue #3 in which she only had a piece of spot art. ALC Publishing also released a collection of Rica 'tte Kanji!?, a slim book just 96 pages long. It's a collection of short comics which, as Wikipedia sez, originally ran from 1995 to 1996 in Anise and Phryne, two lesbian magazines in Japan.
Rica is the story of two young, out college students in Tokyo. Rica, girlish and cheerful, has just moved to junior college in Tokyo to study child development (it's a women's college, yet thanks to Takashiima's amazing restraint, there are NO school uniforms or dorms full of short-skirted girls in this story). Although she has no doubt she's a lesbian, she's never really known another out person, and she knows the lesbian world mostly through movies and books. With some nervousness, she goes to the "Lily Bar" in Tokyo's Shinjuku Nichoume district, where she meets a bunch of wanna-be lady-hustlers, a crossdresser or two, and Miho, a chainsmoking, short-haired art student who falls for Rica's cuteness. Miho has slept with half the neighborhood, but she finds herself attracted to Rica as more than a one-night stand.
Miho does most of the work in the relationship, asking Rica out and showing her around Tokyo, as Rica is an innocent virgin who is timid about sex and initially just wants a friend. "I don't understand why I love such a strange girl," Miho thinks. But after Rica sees Miho with an old crush, she starts to feel mushy, and makes a confession of love over the phone. Miho is so thrilled she jumps all around the room. "She said 'I can't get you out of my mind!' Rica-chan, Rica-chan, I love you! Aaaahh! I'll take a bath and cut and file my nails. I'll have to shave, too." With their love confirmed, the two of them grow closer; they work on art projects together, they see movies, and Rica makes soup for Miho when she's sick. By the end of the book, they are even looking for an apartment together, although Miho never does quite get into Rica's pants, at least not onscreen. (There are a few suggestive jokes, though.)
The story continues in Yuri Monogatari in a number of short comics and four-panel strips. Their relationship progresses, although not in a Mature Readers sense, and we also see bits of their pasts, including Rica and Miho in high school, when Rica peeked through lesbian magazines at the bookstore and came out to her parents. (Her dad isn't too pleased, but her mom is supportive.) Takashima is still working on Rica 'tte Kanji!? today, so the story goes on. The Rica 'tte Kanji!? solo book also contains a few untranslated bits, including an illustrated diary-style segment about Takashima's visit to a gay pride event in New York. For readers who don't read Japanese, these 8 or so pages are opaque, but perhaps the book was intended for a bilingual audience.
Rica 'tte Kanji!? is a cute love story intended as an antidote to all those other stereotypes of yuri. For one thing, it's very happy. For another thing, it's set in the real world. (Writes Takashima: "I wanted to read a happy story…All the lesbian manga were either set in a science fiction setting, where it was okay to love women as a woman because it was a fantasy, and was not based in any sort of reality. Other manga stories set in the real world always had sad endings.") It doesn't dwell on prejudice or any negative aspects of realism, but there are lots of little details about the local Tokyo scene. (Apparently "Hey, do you like Cutey Honey?" is a pick-up line.) Takashima's art uses the usual lilies and sparkles and shojo manga flowers (in a self-referential way: a margin note reads "conventional flower imagery"), but her style is cartoony, cheerful and simplistic, more like Keith Haring than an ordinary shojo manga. The art college scenes reminded me of Honey and Clover. It's a delightful alternative to all the more typical yuri stories about Sapphic love between assassin maid robots and bio-engineered catgirls and incestuous twin sisters.
Of course, one of the reasons that there isn't more realistic yuri or gay manga is that many readers aren't necessarily interested in it. They prefer the unicorns and vampires. In the foreword of Yuri Monogatari #4, Erica Friedman (okazu.blogspot.com), the publisher, explains "ALC Publishing was founded in part because Rica Takashima and I had a conversation about wanting to read a manga story about two women buying a refrigerator." Rica 'tte Kanji!? isn't about young lesbian crushes, or girl-on-girl action, or about prejudice and self-doubt; it's about a developing, maturing monogamous lesbian relationship. When the characters are talking about furnishing their apartment or adopting kids, it's pretty close to the experience of actual adult lesbians, but a million miles away from the stereotypical popular yuri imagery of sensitive 14-year-old girls talking to eachother on Facebook, or even of hot college students having steamy shower sex (Maka-Maka, anyone?). Yet I have to admit, deep in my heart, one of the things I like about yaoi and yuri is the angst, the adolescent turmoil and all the rest. It's the same reason I like Ariel Schrag's comics, which are about a high school girl's coming-out and sexual anxiety, but I never really got into Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For, with its grocery shopping and domestic scenes. (On the other hand, I love Bechdel's tragic repressed-homosexuality story Fun Home—what can I say.)
But I still love Rica 'tte Kanji!?. The book is now out of print, but ALC Publishing has recently announced that they are working on an omnibus edition which will reprint all the stories plus new material. The early issues of Yuri Monogatari are also out of print, but some of the later ones are available here. It's a unique manga, a charming story with fun art and subject matter that is tragically underrepresented in 'normal' manga, no matter how much fanboy yuri-cheesecake there is. That is the real tragedy of yuri and yaoi manga; 99% of it is produced for and by voyeurs, while actual gay voices are absent. There should be hundreds of manga like Rica 'tte Kanji!?, and tens of thousands of buyers to make them financially worthwhile to draw.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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