Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Special Guest Edition: Passion Fruitby Shaenon K. Garrity,
Special Guest Edition: Passion Fruit
Josei, manga for adult women, has been slow to catch on in the U.S. Even in Japan, the smallest of the four major manga publishing categories is frequently derided as little more than cheap thrills for bored housewives, the manga equivalent of bodice-ripper romance novels—or, worse, outright pornographic redicomi, “ladies’ comics.”
The genre got a bad rap in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, its period of peak popularity, when josei magazines hit a total circulation of over 120 million. The 1980s satirical manga-about-manga Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga blasts “ladies’ comics” by comparing the plots to Tetris, complaining that “character development and plots are only excuses for sex!!” and bemoaning the fate of the nice guys who get passed over for handsome gigolos by the fickle heroines. By the 2000s, however, the josei market was changing, aiming at a younger audience of college girls and young career women, metamorphosing from the manga equivalent of romance novels to the manga equivalent of chick lit.
Here in the States, several josei manga have found followings, especially the series that are basically just slightly more mature versions of shojo manga—manga for college-age readers like Chica Umino's Honey and Clover, Tomoko Ninomiya's Nodame Cantabile and Ai Yazawa's Paradise Kiss. (It's indicative of the sometimes thin line between shojo and josei that Yazawa's other major series, Nana, is technically shojo, despite being arguably more mature than Paradise Kiss.) On the whole, however, josei has been a tough sell in the American market. Most of the josei titles popular in Japan have a fair amount of sex and nudity, but look very much like shojo manga, setting up a potential marketing/PR nightmare. Add to this the general difficulty in selling older-readers manga in the U.S., and it's no surprise that American publishers have generally shied away from josei.
Not that some brave publishers haven't tried. One early effort was Tokyopop's Passion Fruit line, which launched in 2005 and died after producing only two volumes of manga. But what manga. Both Passion Fruit titles, Sweat & Honey and Galaxy Girl, Panda Boy, are short-story collections and true “mature” manga, delving into the thickets of human relationships—not just romantic—with sensual but elegantly understated art.
Sweat & Honey, the first of the Passion Fruit manga, collects short manga by Mari Okazaki. Okazaki's more recent series Suppli, about the life of a single career woman, is one of the most interesting josei available in English, and Sweat & Honey explores some of the same problems of young women reconciling their personal relationships with their own inner lives. The strongest (and longest) story, “The Land Where Rain Falls,” follows the intense and claustrophobic relationship between two teenage friends who retreat from the mundane world of high school to experiment furtively with lesbianism and incest, building a private “sweet, sweet, wonderful place…the kingdom of girls.” The dreamy, faintly menacing atmosphere recalls the Peter Jackson movie Heavenly Creatures, although things don't end quite that badly.
Most of the stories in Sweat & Honey involve powerful, painful relationships between women. In the title story, a young woman is slowly seduced by a gamine cousin who has nothing but detached distaste for men: “Their voice gets deeper, and they get big and boorish…then they use their voice to tell lies, and talk about themselves. Only themselves.” In “Sister,” a teenage girl channels her insecurity about dating and boys into an obsession with the single status of her disorganized thirtysomething neighbor. In the magical-realist fantasy “About Kusako,” a woman finds a girl growing out of the ground like a plant and nurtures her. The final story, “Iced Tea,” about a teenage boy's crush on his sultry music teacher, exits the kingdom of girls; the tone is so different that it's no surprise to see it's adapted from a story by another writer.
While Sweat & Honey descends into the private depths of intense relationships between women, the stories in Galaxy Girl, Panda Boy, by Junko Kawakami, are all about young people nervously reaching outward, trying to connect to offbeat communities where they don't quite fit in. Most of the volume is taken up by the long story “Club Hurricane Adventure,” about twin siblings left to fend for themselves in a strange, remote boarding school in the countryside, a place that seems to be a dumping ground for kids whose parents have forgotten them. As the brother tries to make friends with his eccentric classmates and contact his parents (who have moved on, leaving no forwarding address), his sister retreats into silence. In the title story, a girl becomes exasperated by the unique problems of growing up in an isolated, possibly magical New Age-y commune where “there are always rainbows in the sky. And there are old men there who say they've seen dinosaurs.” When the village holds a public ceremony to celebrate her first period, she finally loses it. The shortest and weakest story, “The Laid-Back Person I Will Never Forget,” involves a woman's frustration with her carefree surfer boyfriend.
Kawakami's stories are laced with fantasy, whimsical details and dreamlike fairy-tale logic (what is that remote hippie village? Where did all the parents go?), but beneath them runs a thread of loneliness, melancholy and frustration at the inability of people to communicate. Galaxy Girl, Panda Boy is the only one of her manga available in English translation, although more of her work has been published in France, where she currently resides.
Both artists have sensual, evocative visual styles, with Okazaki's art tending more toward the sexy (her characters have pouty lips and bedroom eyes) while Kawakami's is more detailed and wryly humorous. Both are lovely-looking manga. If they have a fault, it's that, in both cases, the visual storytelling is sometimes vague, making it unclear what exactly is going on.
The Passion Fruit line appeared, however briefly, at a time when Tokyopop was constantly spinning out new publishing projects, throwing one idea after another at the wall to see what would stick. Judging from its mayfly lifespan, Passion Fruit was not one of the sticky ideas. But when I think about why I'd like to see more josei manga published in the U.S., these are the first two books that come to mind. There's a lode of smart, poetic, thoughtful manga by adult women, mostly for adult women, that's barely been mined. I reread Sweat & Honey, and Galaxy Girl, Panda Boy, and the Nouvelle Manga of Kan Takahama, and the long-out-of-print stories of Keiko Nishi (collected by Viz, oh so many years ago, in Love Song and Four Shojo Stories), and underground artist Yuko Tsuno's haunting short story “Swing Shell,” and I want more.
Some bodice-rippers would be fun too.
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