Looking at Criticism: What Anibloggers can learn from Manga

I recently found a couple of copies of the Japanese literary magazine Eureka (romanized as Yuriika) at my school library. The book I checked out, the first volume of 2006, had a theme surrounding manga criticism, and strongly drew from an influential book published earlier in 2005 by Itou Gou called Tezuka is Dead. For those of you who’ve heard of the book, you’ll know that it is a fairly influential title that set the manga world ablaze. For those of you who haven’t, a brief quote from the introduction of Miri Nakamura’s translation of the foreword and opening chapter of Tezuka is Dead (found in Mechademia Volume 6) will introduce you to the author’s main topic.

A cultural critic, Itō problematizes the dominant position of Tezuka Osamu as the absolute origin of Japanese manga history, a view he argues has prevented the construction of a history of representation in manga… Itō criticizes scholars who have failed to recognize the postmodern underpinnings of manga and who have evaluated manga based only on its storyline and other orthodox, modern values. (Mechademia Vol. 6, p. 69)

One interesting topic raised by Itou is the idea of allowing representation in manga to stand in its own right as a field of study, rather than being significantly influenced by the historical modernist tale spun by previous scholars. According to Itou, Tezuka Osamu, hailed as the major artist in post-war manga that influenced all subsequent works, should no longer be the standard by which manga is understood; this argument is reflected in the book’s title, which plays on Nietzsche’s famous statement “God is dead” in reference to the elimination of the Christian God as an absolute source of morals. The idea of evaluating manga—indeed, all media in general—as the result of socio-historical and cultural progress remains to this day an important methodological tool in manga criticism, and many of us bloggers in the anime blogosphere frequently use this as a way of providing justification for our arguments (myself included) when discussing certain types of anime. Take for instance the notion of kuukikei, often equated with the term “slice-of-life,” anime such as Haruhi, K-On!, or Lucky Star, which have all been evaluated based on their relevance to contemporary trends among and regarding otaku in general. But shouldn’t we be a bit more wary of relying on such an analysis for understanding a genre?

Let’s return back to Eureka. Within Volume 1 of 2006 was a particularly interesting article that caught my attention titled “Yaoi is Dead.” It poses a particularly interesting objection to the current state of understanding yaoi:  It’s dangerous to extrapolate from a sociological or feminist critique of the genre, something that is frequently done to explain why a story with two guys falling in love appeals to so many women. The author, a self-proclaimed fujoshi, notes that the history of the term “yaoi” stems from the phrase yamanashi ochinashi iminashi, which means “no climax, no resolution, no meaning,” and betrays the notion that yaoi can be smut for girls at its widest definition or even simply defined as specific suggestive scenes within an already existing work (pp. 166-7). Furthermore, the traditional understanding of seme and uke (giver and receiver) in a relationship as a heteronormative representation of men and women is inadequate to describe the interesting complexities between different ships (of characters in existing manga) or the intricacies of different relationships in yaoi (pp. 168-169).

From Hoshino Lily's Pixiv.

The article proceeds to outline a systematic method for identifying the representation of relationships in yaoi works based off a two-axis system, with the vertical axis defined by differences in the body (height, eye size, shoulder width, etc.) and the horizontal axis defined according to narrative structure, which is distinguished at its two poles by what the author refers to as two-person geocentric yaoi(二者関係天動説やおい) and three-person heliocentric yaoi (三者関係地動説やおい).

Differences in body shape help signal to the reader the pairing of the couple in the story, often with the seme being taller, drawn with sharper eyes, and having broad shoulders, while the uke being thinner and have the eyes of a young doe to signify feminity. Manga artists, such as Nakamura Harukiku, author of Junjou Romantica, and Hoshino Lily, author of Harem de Hitori a.k.a. Alone in My King’s Harem and Mawaru Penguindrum character designer, who frequently employ this type artistic representation are contrasted with more recent and less standard depictions of males seen in slightly newer yaoi (pp. 170-172). This axis helps to compare how the personalities of each character compare and contrast with their character designs.

Narrative structure similarly provides a point of comparing story types, with the two-person geocentric yaoi embodying the archetypal conception of yaoi. Against all odds, a couple forces all other characters in a story to revolve around them, essentially relegating side characters to narrative tools for the sake of moving along the main romance story. In contrast, three-person heliocentric series often depict the complex relationships of other characters and/or relationships outside of the main coupling (pp. 172-174).

A third point in the article is that an enduring trait of yaoi is its ability to make fun of its own fandom and conceptions within itself, such as the case when series are released that purposely play on the expectations of the readers. The author provides an example in the manga Nekosamurai, which tells the story of a samurai who goes around searching for the man who will take away his virginity (pp. 175-176). This manga supposedly plays on the reader’s expectations for two reasons: 1.) seme are not usually actively going around looking for their loves, but are generally more passive and 2.) seme are not often depicted as manly samurai.

Aside from the yaoi-specific discourse, perhaps what I took as the article’s main point was the idea that critics and reviewers of manga need to be aware of multiple interpretations of how a text can be viewed, and that a systematic understanding of the relation between multiple elements of a work is necessary. I think this is actually a very important point to keep in mind for anime bloggers; often we like to analyze an anime and put down our thoughts, but more rarely is there a sort of higher-level review of the exact tools that we each employ in our analysis. Most bloggers do, of course, realize the areas in which their approach to anime may be deficient (hence the difference between music-focused, art-focused, culture-focused, etc. blogs which often approach the same series from varying angles).

Now, I’m not criticizing anibloggers for not being experts about absolutely everything anime related; rather, all I want to do is emphasize the need to be aware of how any deeper understanding of anime and genres within anime should stem from a more systematic and unified analysis at large. Any explanation for the success or failure of a show should bring together various elements involved in the creation of that show, or otherwise the analysis threatens to be too shallow. If we can all take a step back, look at the content we’ve written about in forums, on our blogs, and on Twitter, we can start getting an idea of which types or objects of analysis we tend to look at, and then take our writing or analysis to another level. Some of us may want to focus deeper on the subjects we like; others may decide to branch out by doing their own reading or finding more blogs that write from a perspective they’re more unfamiliar with. Whatever it is, I think we could all benefit from taking a step back and thinking about our own criticism and reviews.

Sources

Itou Gou, “Tezuka is Dead: Manga in Transition and Its Dysfunctional Discourse,” trans. Miki Nakamura, Mechademia 6 (2011): 69.

金田淳子  「ヤオイ・イズ・デッド」、 『ユリイカ』 vol. 38-1、青土社、2006年

7 Responses to “Looking at Criticism: What Anibloggers can learn from Manga”

  1. When I do “investigative” pieces, I usually don’t take anything from my own vault of knowledge, I rather seek new knowledge. What I find interesting is that critiques citing socio-historical and cultural contexts appeal to my sense of wonder far more than analysis, citing why a characters will evolve in such or such way because the author drew lines like this or that. I’m not a creator to really get different techniques, the message is far more important, and I guess that reeks a bit of modernist attitude. 😀

  2. “often we like to analyze an anime and put down our thoughts, but more rarely is there a sort of higher-level review of the exact tools that we each employ in our analysis.”

    I’m a bit baffled by this. I suppose it’s more or less the core of your article, but I don’t really get it. Could you explain a bit more about those tools, or how you see it ?

  3. Cyth:

    I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with a modernist framework; the main problem occurs when we collectively ignore the fact that an individual work means different things to different people. Representation at a meta-level arises from a relation between reader and object, so we probably SHOULD be aware when girls like a Shounen Jump series a lot, mostly because girls might be pulling out different things from the series than, say, the target audience.

    The biggest problem with socio-historical critiques is that sometimes their arguments are dated, forcing an analysis of meaning on more modern works within an overarching framework of “post-war” (in the case of manga) or “moe boom” (as is sometimes used for series possessing a certain quality after Haruhi).

    Aer:

    By tools I’m mostly referring through the lens by which we view our subject material: just as different blogs have writers with different backgrounds and interests, so too does analysis spring from the minds of individuals who hold varying lenses by which they may examine certain material.

    I think most people are aware of the fact that people write differently from them, and that often other bloggers can discuss something from an angle completely different from our own. This is a very good thing. On the other hand, let’s take this mentality and think of it from a more comprehensive point of view: When we write about anime, let’s be aware of the type of analysis we’re doing, such that we’re thinking about how other types of articles fit in or contrast with our own points. Perhaps refer not to individual blog posts, but sort of traditions and perspectives.

    Essentially, let’s not just link to each others’ posts, but also take a look out how each of our ideas fit into a broader system of understanding.

  4. I think this idea is a good one, idealistically. I mean, if we want to forward understanding, this is probably one of the most efficient ways to go about it. But to let my cynical side take over for a second (as much as I’m trying to suppress it), I doubt the anisphere will embrace wholesale changes in attitude to try to become better students of anime with a singular goal of better understanding if it means more work/effort. But I think we can all certainly make small changes to try to improve ourselves. Little by little.

  5. S-K:

    I’m just offering one way of understanding how each of us can view our own writing, geared more towards the ideas of introspective and self-challenging writers more so than the nature of aniblogging. I think my commentary in this post is applicable in a wide variety of areas, not only blogging. Seen in this way, I don’t think it’s asking much, though I certainly share your skepticism in a sense.

  6. Very insightful post, and loved that bit about yaoi. I’ve never really paid attention to that element of yaoi manga, but now it rings so true.

    Anyway, I agree. There’s so many ways to approach an anime; yet most bloggers only focus on one aspect. I think there might be another reason for this besides simply not being able to see past, say, plot or animation or culture or whatever we’re most comfortable with. There’s often consideration for post lengths. Anything that runs too long for blogging is often considered a no-no, and in risk of being “TL;DR.” The online readership has a limited attention span. And hence we all pick our niche.

    With that said, I’m all for wider understanding, and it’s definitely something I think we can work on, even if it’s not for blogging.

    And I learned something about yaoi today. ^ ^

  7. Typo? seme or uke

    “”the story of a samurai who goes around searching for the man who will take away his virginity (pp. 175-176). This manga supposedly plays on the reader’s expectations for two reasons: 1.) seme are not usually actively going around looking for their loves, but are generally more passive and 2.) seme are not often depicted as manly samurai.””

    That aside.. Any place for the full xlation of Eureka Volume 1 2006 “Yaoi is Dead.”??

    Sounds like an important source.. Did the Mechademia gang get their hands on it (so it can be stashed behind a paywall? – boo hiss)

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