Last week for the shonen/seinen bracket, I wrote about how shonen manga cleverly taught kids a variety of fairly useful life lessons. I originally wanted to start the shojo/josei series the same way, but the “shonen/seinen/shojo/josei is not a genre” frustration stuck me at the right time and before I knew it I had an article. But there’s plenty of juice left in this battery, and 2 weeks left in the first round of competition. Let’s get to it.
There’s one theme I’ve noticed which shows up a lot in shojo manga (and still quite often in josei manga). Call it peer adversity, bullying, social stress, or whatever, but it’s fairly common for the lead character in manga targeted towards women to be on the receiving end of nasty treatment by her peers. They way different characters respond is a study in variety, and while my experience with shojo manga is by no means exhaustive, what I see shows me a medium with a mission of teaching women young and old how to cope and fight back.
Bullying occurs in many different forms, to many different people, in many different walks of life. So it makes sense that manga depicts many different ways of dealing with it. Not all of those ways are good ones, mind, but they’re certainly interesting to look at side-by-side.
In Masami Tsuda’s Kare Kano, leading lady Yukino ends up in a relationship with smartest/hottest guy in the class Arima after both realize the other is living a model-student facade and decide to be honest with themselves.
Eventually, there comes a point in this series for where a combination of jealousy for her relationship with the Arima, sense of betrayal at her casting aside her facade and acting more selfishly, and instigation from another girl envious of Yukino’s grades prompt the female half of the class to start giving Yukino the silent treatment.
How does Yukino react? Well, she’s understandably sullen and it takes her some time to get over it. Ultimately, though, Yukino does an admirable job of handling things. After going around and making some new non-clique friends to cope, she gets into can-do mode and talks down the class in general and the instigator in particular, taking the wind out of their sails and effectively restoring her life to normal. This may be a slightly rosier depiction of the effects of talking people down, but there’s definitely a lot of merit to directly confronting problems the way Yukino does.
One of my first shojo manga, and still one of my favorites, is Kawahara Kazune’s High School Debut, the story of a former softball ace who, upon entering high school, quickly realizes she’s comically inept at romance and hires aloof love expert Yoh as her pickup coach. I don’t think it’s going to really surprise anyone when I say the two end up a couple. Fortunately, that hookup only takes up the first ten or so chapters of a fifty-chapter manga, so there’s plenty of development from there on out.
Anyway, Haruna, much like Kare Kano’s Yukino, ends up going out with Yoh, one of the hottest guys in the school. This naturally creates some friction between Haruna and the many, many girls Yoh’s rejected in the past by saying he’s not looking for a relationship. And thus the bullying ensues; vandalized textbooks, glue in shoes, and the like. Haruna, being the chipper type, tries to brush it off.
However, as time passes, the bullies get more and more brazen and it becomes obvious to those around her what’s going on. So, again like Kare Kano’s Yukino, she ends up confronting her tormentors. In this case, though, it’s not student versus student but athlete versus kogals. She fights them all all at once, and beats them *all* up, classic fisticuffs and everything. The scene is extremely gratifying, and the message is simple and effective; facing up to problems is a much better way of handling them than ignoring them is.
If there’s one series that goes out of its way to make the bullying real and visceral, it’s Keiko Suenobu’s gut-shaking high school drama, Life. Life starts by following middle schooler Ayumu in her quest to get into the same high school as her best friend. Her best friend is of course happy to help, but doing so unfortunately lowers her grades and eventually causes her to just fail the entrance examination. She then overreacts and angrily cuts off all contact with Ayumu, saddling Ayumu with the loss of her best friend going into a high school a few notches abover her ability level (thanks to parental pressure, she can’t drop out). And then this happens for what is far from the last time in the series:
I won’t get too much more into the nitty-gritty of what goes on in Life. If you want that read it yourself; it is at the same time a horrifying and fascinating manga, a lodestone rock that pulls you in even as you know it’s going to leave you an emotional shipwreck.
Why the magnetism? There are a couple of points that Life gets across in telling its story that pertain to bullying, simple messages that resound profoundly through the material. First, bullies are people typically under a good deal of pressure themselves, and are shown to break down when exposed to extreme stress. Second, if you’re having a hard time, you’re not alone. People around the world have had your problems, and there is a way out. Lastly, regarding that way out, finding friends, asking for help, and confronting your tormentors are all good ways of handling problems. Hoping your tormentors will stop and cutting yourself in the wrists are not. Life may well be the hardest manga to read I’ve ever picked up, but these strong themes make it well worth it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least provide one example of how not to handle bullies. I’m just going to go with one of my two “how not to manga” defaults, the inexplicably terrible Sonnanjya Neyo. It’s a series ripping off the plot of Onegai Twins; the main character has a pair of incredibly-sexy-but-maybe-not-blood-related twin siblings, who are in love with their third maybe-sibling. Despite the fact that one twin was introduced banging another girl in front of his sister in chapter one. There are as many angles to rag on this manga as there are stars in the sky, but there’s one particularly relevant to this column. When the main character, Shizuka, gets bullied for having hot brothers, the solution she has is to stand there being helpless and sort of confused while her brothers solve all her problems for her.
Pretty much since childhood, actually
This perpetuates a notion I’ve seen more than I would like in more generic shojo manga, the idea that your problems will either go away or be resolved by someone else if you do nothing about them. I’m not any kind of feminist, but it’s even more depressing for me to watch a guy or group of guys be the solution to all those problems. When it happens over and over again, it’s formulaic and stale and adds the problem of bad writing on top of the already bad message. Dark magical boyfriend-type shows seem to be especially guilty of this; Black Bird specifically comes to mind, though in that case the problems are less catty kogals and more ravenous demons.
The adversity theme is hardly exclusive to manga targeted at young girls. One of my favorite examples of characters in a workplace who deal with a lot of bad mojo is Sumire from Yayoi Ogawa’s Tramps Like Us.
As a twenty-something-year-old with a college degree working at a Japanese company, the sources of Sumire’s stress are predictable. Men get promoted over her all the time, and guys won’t date her because they can’t handle feeling inferior to a woman. The source of stress most similar to clique-style bullying is the fact that female collegues constantly blow off work she assigns them, publically crying crocodile tears and claiming she doesn’t understand their difficulties when she does what any superior would have to do in her situation.
How does she deal with all that junk and nonsense? Try the three S’s: Smoking, Sass, and Sex. Sumire’s smokes off the small stuff, watches ProWres and plays KoF drunk with her freeloading roommate at home, and goes the full 15 rounds with her boyfriend at various points in the manga. Finding an outlet is one of the best ways to deal with small, petty people doing small, petty people things at work. Now, I’m not saying that smoking is healthy, but as a way of blowing off stress, it certainly beats self-injury or sitting in a dark room feeling terrible for hours. Of course, it doesn’t always have to be as extreme as the instances detailed above. One of the great things about Tramps Like Us is that it doesn’t always go for the capital s.
It’s my firm belief that manga, as a medium that reaches millions of Japanese youths on a weekly basis, has great power to inform. I’m really gratified to see messages with unequivocally positive intent in so many of them. Stress and the depression it brings are big deals, and nobody should have to go through that sort of stuff without help. Given the stigma that getting professional help still carries worldwide, every little bit really does help.