Brain Diving Fujoshi and the Pussycats
by Brian Ruh,
I always find it fascinating how much otaku like talking about themselves. Perhaps it's because we all have big egos – I know I have a tendency to think highly of myself. Just think of how many anime and manga are out there that are about anime, manga and fan culture – just off the top of my head there's Otaku no Video, Comic Party, Genshiken, The World God Only Knows, OreImo, and Otaku no Musume-san. I'm sure there are other titles I'm forgetting, but it seems like quite an odd phenomenon that doesn't really occur in many other fandoms. I mean, there are films like Galaxy Quest that is both a science fiction film and a comedy about SF fans, but it's not quite the same. I can't think of any science fiction films or series that are both proper SF films and simultaneously about SF fandom, but there are plenty of anime and manga about being otaku.
One thing that we tend to forget over here is the stigma placed on being otaku in Japan. The last few years have seen the ascendancy of geek culture within society at large, and we sometimes tend to think that this is universal. However, many otaku in Japan (as well as more casual fans) would never reveal their covert hobbies to their friends. Perhaps this is a one of the reasons otaku like talking about themselves through their hobbies. It's a “safe” avenue of expression, and they know that they'll be reaching a sympathetic audience.
This brings me to the subject of this week's book, which is the first volume of the light novel My Girlfriend's a Geek (Fujoshi Kanojo in Japanese) by Pentabu. The novel is presented in the form of a series of blog entries by a young man in college who is dating a woman who is a big fan of anime and manga. More than being obsessed, she is a fujoshi – defined in the novel's glossary as “a self-deprecating term referring to female fans of yaoi (or BL).” In other words, fujoshi are not just female anime and manga fans, but fans who are specifically interested in male homosexual pairings. Although the main fujoshi of the story does seem to have a predilection toward such things both in fiction and in real life, she is also interested in more general otaku stuff as well. (And the glossary notes that the word is sometimes used to denote female otaku in general.)
Although we skipped a Read This! recommendation last week (did you think you had escaped?), for this column I'd like to point you toward an article called “Eureka Discovers Culture Girls, Fujoshi, and BL: Essay Review of Three Issues of the Japanese Literary Magazine, Yuriika (Eureka)” by Tomoko Aoyama. It was published in the Australian online journal Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific. (They consistently have some really good stuff, and they've published quite a few articles on anime and manga. In fact, check out the rest of the issue that Aoyama's article appears in—titled “Japanese Transnational Fandoms and Female Consumers”—for more articles on otaku and boys’ love fans.) Despite the rather unwieldy title, it's an intriguing look at how the Japanese literary magazine Eureka has begun focusing more in recent years on female writers and topics female readers might be interested in. As mentioned in the article, the fact that the stereotypical otaku is male and that most talk about anime / manga centers around male consumers is rather odd given that the majority of Comiket exhibitors and participants have been female. Although the article mostly summarizes things that Japanese authors have said about women's culture, yaoi, fujoshi, BL (boy's love), and the like, this is still important because it helps for fans who may not read Japanese to be aware of the kinds of debates that are going on about and within otaku culture in Japan.
My Girlfriend's a Geek by Pentabu
My Girlfriend's a Geek isn't the first time new media (blogs, forum postings, etc.) in Japan has been turned into old media (books). The most famous of these was Densha Otoko, or Train Man. This was a supposedly real thread that originated on the Japanese 2-ch forum in 2004 involving a romance between an otaku and an attractive woman he saves from a drunk on a late-night train. The online message chronicled his encounter with the woman and subsequent relationship, and was later compiled and published as a book, including multiple manga adaptations, and film, and a TV series. However, a number of commentators have raised some questions about whether or not the events portrayed in the message postings actually happened. Maybe it's just that I'm inclined to be skeptical, I'm getting a similar vibe from My Girlfriend is a Geek. It's not that the book couldn't actually have happened in real life, but I just when such supposedly true events cannot be confirmed, it makes me a bit uneasy. Does it matter to your enjoyment whether or not such stories actually took place? Probably not – as Stephen Colbert would say, these stories have a truthiness to them, but it does make me activate my BS detector, which might not be the best way to approach such a novel.
Like Train Man, My Girlfriend's a Geek has had multiple adaptations. From the original blog came the two-volume light novel series (the second of which is slated to come out in English from Yen Press in March next year), a shoujo manga series (also coming out in English from Yen Press), and a film version also known as My Geeky Girlfriend. Odds are, if you've heard of the title already you're probably familiar with the manga version. I haven't read or seen any of the other versions yet – since the blog / novel was the original source, I didn't want to muddy the waters with additional takes on the material.
A plot synopsis of the book is simple enough, since very little actually happens. It's about the unnamed narrator (a young college man in his early twenties) who is in a relationship with a slightly older woman (called “Y-ko” for privacy's sake) who also happens to be an otaku. The man maintains a blog, in which he chronicles their misadventures and misunderstandings, often for comedic effect. The narrator will often end each entry on a comically exaggerated note, as if the otaku exertions of his girlfriend are pushing him bit by bit over the edge into insanity. Some of the concluding lines to the first few entries include “So, um, where is my life headed?,” “Where are you trying to take me?,” “There are limits to injustice,” “I just want to cry,” and “This futility that makes me want to cry.” (The narrator seems to be doing a fair amount of crying. Later in the book one of Y-ko's friends says he has “plenty of uke characteristics,” so maybe there's something to it. And for those not familiar with the term, according to the book's glossary, an uke is “the ‘receiver,’ or submissive member of a homosexual relationship in BL.”) Most of the entries seem to follow a standard pattern: narrator mentions how much of a fujoshi his girlfriend is, girlfriend does something outrageous or potentially embarrassing, narrator writes about his exasperation.
There's not really a whole lot to the book beyond chronicling how much of a geek the narrator's girlfriend really is. At least initially, there is very little character development, and even less reason why the reader should believe that the narrator is sticking with his girlfriend. He begins by calling their relationship a “battle” in the first entry and provides little evidence how this changes. Since she is older and employed full-time (they met when she was his supervisor at a part-time job), he often defers to her, sometimes against his better judgment. Halfway through the book, I was honestly surprised when the narrator writes that he felt very lonely because Y-ko went back home to visit her family for New Year's. Based on everything that came before, I would have thought he would be been ecstatic to have to time to himself and not be continually harassed by this woman with the strange hobbies.
It was around this point that I almost gave up on the book. The fact that the narrator felt lonely at New Year's was the final straw – it seemed to be unearned emotion for characters that had been shown to be essentially blank archetypes. However, something surprising happened in the book right around this time. Until then, the book had mostly taken place in the confines of their rooms, but right after New Year's Y-ko invites the narrator out to her hometown. Maybe it was the brief introduction of a couple new characters in the form of Y-ko's family that did the trick, but I found the narrator and Y-ko becoming slightly more interesting, which continued on through the remainder of the novel.
In the end, I didn't hate the novel as much as I thought I would when I started. (How's that for a pull quote? Feel free to use it in your promotional material for the second volume, Yen Press.) A lot of the problems with the novel have to do with the fact that we're presented with the story as a series of blog entries. It's probably a safe assumption that nobody is going to try to jump into a novel right in the middle, but the same cannot be said for a blog – who knows which entry is going to be a new reader's first? Therefore, we have entries even in the latter half of the book that begin by introducing the relationship between the narrator and Y-ko, as well as her obsessive hobbies. Although this may have been how the blog was originally written, in novel form it gets tediously repetitive.
I'm honestly surprised that an American publisher took a chance publishing a book like this, and I think for this Yen Press should be commended. The novel doesn't look like your typical Japanese light novel, in that it doesn't have a lot of manga-esque illustration on the cover or within its pages. (Every so often there is a small drawing at the bottom of the page of the narrator and Y-ko saying lines from one of the blog posts, but that's about it.) Although the cover it may look like a contemporary teen romance novel, it's actually faithful to the original Japanese cover. However, these aesthetic choices are hiding the massive amounts of anime and manga references and allusions to Japanese culture that are packed within. Based on the way some of the English sentences read, I'm sure there was a bit of Japanese wordplay that got lost in translation as well. It's certainly not a book I would recommend to someone new to otaku culture. Although some of the allusions are explained in the blog posts themselves, there is also a glossary at the back of the book for those who need a bit more explanation. I'm certainly no newcomer, and I found myself scratching my head at some of the conversations between the narrator and Y-ko.
One of the downsides of the book is that it's continually about the narrator as an outsider looking into fujoshi culture. This perspective gives the narrator a perfect vantage point from which to talk to a general reader, but it doesn't provide much depth into the fujoshi he meets or fujoshi culture in general. All of the women certainly seem to be of a certain type, giving their all to their hobbies and seemingly paying attention to little else. Of course, since the narrator meets them through Y-ko in the context of a shared passion for anime and manga, this is of course what he could expect to see. Still, it would have been helpful to have been presented with a more well-rounded view of the fujoshi phenomenon.
Like many of the otaku-oriented works out there, My Girlfriend is a Geek walks that thin line between truth and fiction. It's certainly plausible that people like this exist; we may be in classes and working with the every day and not know it. This is even more likely in Japan, where there is greater societal pressure to keep quiet about one's geekery. Even after a whole volume, though, I'm still not sure what makes these particular otaku tick. After a slow start, I'm probably interested enough to pick up the second volume when I get around to it, but it's far from a must-have for me.
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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