Friday, 1 July 2011

Sazae-san and Four-frame Comics

During a trip to Fukuoka, I spotted an interesting monument. Fukuoka is located in southeast Japan, and is one of the seven major cities of the country.

"The place of invention of Sazae-san"

Sazae-san is one of Japan’s most respected four frame comics, and it has won its author Machiko Hasegawa the People’s Honor Award.

“Sazae-san” is the name of the series’ leading character: a house wife whose husband Masuo-san, son Tara-chan, brother Katsuo, sister Wakame, mother Fune and father Namihe, all live under the same roof. Such arrangement of course is considered rare in modern day Japan.

The names of the family members each have an sea-related origin:

Sazae-san: “sazae” means turban shell
Masuo-san: “masu” means trout
Tara-chan: “tara” means cod
Katsuo: “katsuo” means bonito
Wakame: “wakame” means seaweed
Fune: “fune” means boat
Namihe: “nami” means wave

Each episode is made up just four frames, illustrating the misadventures of Sazae-san and her family. As its animated series has been broadcasted on television for 50 years, the fact that the comic was first published by Asahi Shimbun is seldom known today. Initially, Sazae-san was published by a local evening newspaper in Fukuoka called Yukan Fukuichi in 1946. The comic was then acquired by Asahi Shimbun. Originally from Saga in Kyushu, Machiko Hasegawa spent her high school years in Fukuoka, then moved to Tokyo, but when war broke she returned to Fukuoka where she debuted with Sazae-san. A simple “home of Sazae-san” is seemingly more appropriate than the awkwardly worded “Place of invention of Sazae-san.” But perhaps it has something to do with Machiko Hasegawa’s notoriously particular copyright policies.

Sazae-san was first serialized after Japan’s defeat, which was more than sixty years ago.  The eccentric hair dressing Sazae-san and Wakame may seem unusual today, but in fact they were right on trend back in the day. Fune’s white apron, worn over her kimono is called a kappogi, and Namihe’s felt hats as well as Masuo’s round glasses were rather fashionable at the time.

Today, four-frame comics are still serialized in most newspapers. Japan’s leading newspaper, Asahi Shimbun publishes Ishii Hisaichi’s Nono-chan (Tonari no Yamada-kun) in its morning paper, and in the evening Shiriagari Joji’s “Chikyu boeika no hitobito” (currently on break) takes the stage. The bestselling newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun publishes Masashi Ueda’s Kobo-chan.

A deal with a large newspaper is a great honor for these authors, as not only do they receive immense publicity, but for most authors the contract is literally permanent, meaning, they are rarely replaced unless the author wants to. Comics are easily serialized for 20 to 30 years, and many authors literally take them to their grave. And needless to say, they are paid rather generously.

Despite its popularity today, the four-frame comic suffered during the seventies, when the gekiga genre dominated the scene. It became all about realism, storyline and drama, meaning that longer comics were now in, and four-frame comics were so out that they practically became extinct.

Enter Ishii Hisaichi and the comic world saw the drama they wanted, but in the form of audiences’ responses to Ishii’s four-frame comic “Baito-kun.” “Baito-kun,” which roughly translates to “part timer,” is about a young man who, amidst the height of the student movement, shows an utter lack of interest in politics, and spends his days at various part-time jobs. It was published in a local job hunting magazine in Osaka. The comic was full of nonsense humor, and completely ignored the concept of four-frame comics through excessive dialogue.

 The comic was self-published, and the "new" four-frame comic became a hit. This wasn't only a comeback - the until then "tedious" four-frame comic revolutionized the entire comic industry.

 The first to notice this new talent was Futabasha, giving Ishii a serial comic deal with Weekly Manga Action. This was Ganbare!! Tabuchi-kun!!, a series of the hilarious misadventures of a baseball player modeled on Koichi Tabuchi . Ishii's success continued as he challenged various genres, from the historical Ninja Mugeicho to sci-fi Chiteijin.

Next emerged Masashi Ueda. His Furiten-kun, which was about a lazy and immature business man whose daily routines involved setting up childlike pranks around his office. The hilariously genius "prank ideas" captivated its audience, and soon other successful comics followed, such as Kariage-kun and Otoboke kacho.

Ishii and Ueda's success began a new trend, and suddenly, young authors such as Mikio Igarashi, Shigeki Ando, Koji Aihara, and Sensha Yoshida emerged. This is known as the golden age of four-frame comics, and today these authors are published in major newspapers. Yet the strict policies of these newspapers mean that the comics are moderated, so many of today's generation have only seen a flash of the original. As the years go by, four-frame comics are becoming less and less popular. Perhaps the industry is ready for another revolution. It has been thirty years since Ishii, after all. 

Monday, 18 April 2011

Ooku and the Fujoshi Fantasy

The most talked about winner of this year’s Shogakukan Manga Awards was Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga, whose film adaptation at the end of last year was largely successful. The story takes place in the Edo period at the historical Ooku (the residence of wives and mistresses of the Shogun), except for the roles of men and women have been reversed. In other words, the Shogun is a woman, and is surrounded by handsome samurais. Such scenario, called the “if” genre, have been seen in numerous novels. Although seemingly the story is a feminist depiction of women rising to power in society, I don’t believe this to be true.

Ooku actually targets the increasing population of ‘fujoshi’ women, whose fantasy involves being surrounded by beautiful men and throwing demands at them. The concept isn’t so ambitious. But thanks to her talent, Yoshinaga has created the kind of realism in the drama that readers have been unable to resist.

A fujoshi (‘fu’ means rotten, and ‘joshi’ means girl) is a play on words with another Japanese word of the same sound, meaning “woman” or “lady.” The term describes a woman whose passions are manga and anime, but unlike the ‘normal’ otaku, their fantasies are vile and always sexual. Accepting that their sexual fantasies are utterly inappropriate, they call themselves “rotten girl.”

Most shojo (girls’) mangas are romantic. A girl who reads such comics will relate themselves to the main characters of the mangas, fantasizing that one day, like the fictional prima donna, fate will take her to Mr. Right where an extraordinary romance awaits. But as the reader grows up, the gap between reality and fantasy becomes larger and larger. She realizes that such man does not exist. Even if he did, there is no way he would behave exactly the way she wants him to. With this realization, the girl decides to stay inside the comforting world of manga and anime, where she’s protected from getting hurt. Unable to get out, her fantasy grows bigger and bigger, her age older and older. She eventually creates a world that is so far off from reality that she is trapped. She is the Ooku reader.

But isn’t Ooku for young girls? Isn’t it a little too juvenile for a grown woman’s liking? No. In fact, shojo manga readers span from ten to fifty-year-olds. Whatever their age, the Japanese do not stop reading manga. This is a nation where most of the population grew up reading manga and watching anime, and there is a growing trend of mangas that allow readers to escape reality and find comfort in the two-dimensional world of fantasy.

Without digressing too much, the readership of shonen manga is also becoming older. Perhaps surprisingly, 40% of those who read shonen manga is actually women.

 Currently, keitai (cell phone) manga, where readers can read manga on their cell phone screens, is extremely popular. The most successful of the kind is undoubtedly BL or ‘Boys Love,’ targeted at fujoshi. As opposed to the conventional male-female romance, Boys Love illustrates romance between men – not any men that is, but “beautiful” men. The readers, I must emphasize, are not gay. In fact they are straight women. The appeal is that since the men are so unattainable, it is the furthest thing from reality. Hence it is completely harmless to fantasize about them, and they can go as far as they like. Does that sound rotten to you?
The Boys Love boom in Japan is currently at its peak. From manga to anime and novels, the genre is a massive hit, and no one really cares who the author or creator is, as long as it’s quality BL. As most fujoshi have careers, they are happy to spend. “Seize the fujoshi” have become the motto in the Japanese publishing industry.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Shogakukan Manga Award

March was a long, long month. So many things went on in the four weeks that it felt like half a year had gone by the end of it.

 (The invite to the Shogakukan Manga Awards and 
the commemorative coloisonné plate)

First of all, on March 3, I attended the 56th Shogakukan Manga Awards and the celebratory after party, both held at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Japan is home to numerous manga awards, but the Shogakukan Manga Awards represents one of the four largest awards given each year, others being the Japan Media Arts Festival held by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize by Asahi Shimbun, and the Kodansha Manga Award by Kodansha. The Bungeishunju Manga Award (awards for one and four frame manga as well as nonsense manga) was also one of them, until it was sadly canceled about a decade ago.

Now, back to the Shogakukan Manga Awards. After a speech by the president of Shogakukan, the winners were announced.

(The award winners, from left: Natsumi Matsumoto, Ken Sasaki, Fumi Yoshinaga, Chuya Koyama, Shohei Manabe)

Children’s Category
Natsumi Matsumoto for Yumeiro Patissiere

Shonen (Boys’) Category
Ken Sasaki for KING GOLF

Shojo (Girls’) Category
Fumi Yoshinaga for Ooku

General Category
Chuya Koyama for Uchu Kyodai
Shohei Manabe for Yamikin Ushijima-kun

Rival publishers like Shogakukan and Kodansha who publish popular manga magazines rely heavily on their sales of manga, therefore most of the award candidates are selected from their own catalogues of manga and artists. Yet on many occasions, such publishers have given out awards to manga published by their rivals, allowing the awards to gain credibility. This time, for example, Shogakukan has awarded Shueisha’s Yumeiro Patissiere and Kodansha’s Uchu Kyodai. Over a thousand guests attended the after party, including a number of prominent manga artists like Naoki Urasawa and Go Nagai as well as editors of manga magazines from such publishers like Akita Shoten and Hakusensha. The drinks, the meals, and the dishes whipped up by sushi chefs were all of top quality. I can say that such luxury in manga parties is unique to Japan. 

End of March

For my last entry of the month, I have two personal announcements. On March 6, I received shodan ranking in Iaido, which I’ve been practicing for a year. On March 8, I celebrated my birthday. Perhaps I deserve a little omedetou, or congratulations from myself.

Long, long March is ending soon…

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Tohoku Earthquake

  Since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, the death toll has reached over ten thousand, with another ten thousand missing. Over 130,000 people have been forced to evacuate. As for the nuclear disaster, we can’t even foresee what will happen. While the entire nation is deeply saddened by the events, we are grateful for the support we’ve received from around the world.

 From Dragonhead to Breakdown, Survival, Hyoryu kyoshitsu and Hadashi no gen (Barefoot Gen), Japan has seen various works of manga based on themes of natural disaster and radiation. But reading such mangas should be a wakeup call when everything is peaceful. Today, I can’t bare the thought of turning the pages.