Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Japan's Finest! Fo'Shonen

It's time for another installment of Japan's Finest! Today I shall be discussing the concept of age and gender based artistic genres in Japanese comics. If the horrible pun in the title made absolutely no sense to you, this post should be as informative as it is entertaining. If you did understand it, thank you for reading further; I will endeavor to be more clever from here on out.

If it was not apparent from my examination of Monster Plagues, the Japanese are masters of demographic marketing, primarily because categorization is a huge part of their culture. The language has specific counting suffixes for foldable cloth objects and foldable paper objects for chrissakes. I cling to that factoid because I think it was the revelation which led my grammar to flee from Japanese in terror, forever refusing to learn anything further about it. I'm sure there is a practical purpose for this seemingly arbitrary distinction; the language is nothing if not practical. It is that relentless practicality that bothers me in fact: Things must not only be clearly defined, they must also have a clear framework to ensure that they fit in their proper place with regards to other things. In such a society, there would be no allowance for my semi-nonsensical digressions and attention deficiency.

Funny thing is, this emphasis on categorization is largely responsible for the appeal of Japanese art. Specific techniques are collected, distilled and refined into styles that are tremendously iconic and visually arresting. This is particularly true of the two most popular visual styles of manga art: Shonen and Shoujo. The former typically features jagged lines, breasts that are enormous even by anime standards (Sexy, but SFW), fairly-masculine looking guys, and lots of violence. By contrast, Shoujo features softer lines, eyes that are enormous even by anime standards, men so pretty they make Legolas look butch, and lots sparkles and flower petals. As you might guess, the tremendous visual difference between these styles can be summed up with a very simple distinction: Shonen is crafted with boys in mind, while Shoujo is for Girls.

That probably sounds politically incorrect to western sensibilities, and it is to a certain extent. The nearest cultural comparison for a boy who reads Shoujo is a boy who plays with Barbies instead of J.I. Joes, though after taking the Japanese emphasis on conformity into account, the teasing Shoujo-Kun suffers will likely be much worse. If the tremendous cross gender success of Naruto and One Piece are any indication, it seems more socially acceptable for girls to enjoy Shonen, perhaps because masculinity is regarded so highly in Japan. Or maybe there are other reasons? Whatever the case, it's hard to criticize the gender specific approach in comparison to the relentlessly masculine U.S. comic industry.

It also must be said that there is considerable variation between series in both Shonen and Shoujo, and that some series mix and match visual motifs. The seminal Rurouni Kenshin is one such example, with the titular character, Himura Kenshin, sporting two distinctive artstyles that vary depending on the situation. When the ol' urge to kill rises, he is represented in a fashion that is suitably badass and when he is his normal, happy-go-lucky self... well he's adorable. Insufferably so really.

In addition to the visual motifs I mentioned earlier. certain themes, premises and narratives have become recognized as distinctively Shonen or Shoujo recently, and I would like to spend the rest of the post discussing those plots. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Shoujo is extremely limited. We're talking like 3 episodes of Sailor Moon, 1 volume of Vampire Knight and The Ouren High School Host Club theme song on Youtube. So rather than offering a completely one sided discussion, I will touch back on Shoujo at a later date, and focus my attention on Shonen for the time being.

Like so many other American boys, Dragon Ball Z was my introduction to Japanese Anime, and it's plot is about as Shonen as Shonen gets. That is to say, it is about two things: A) Fighting B) Getting Stronger. Somewhere in the background of the fists, fireballs and bulging muscle is a justification about protecting people, but that is really all it is; an excuse for the good guys to fight bad guys with lethal force. Not that dying means anything in the dragon ball universe, where people can be wished back to life ad nausea. While it's not conceptually ground breaking, good fights make for good entertainment, especially when the participants are memorable and there are no dire real-world consequences, and DBZ meets both criteria just fine. Unfortunately, each fight, especially those towards the end of the series, take -forgive the pun- over 9000 episodes to complete. Again, that wouldn't be so bad if each fight was interesting and unique, but about half that time is wasted on exposition and reaction shots.

Fortunately, new challengers have arrived on the Shonen scene, allowing Goku to finally rest in peace. Naruto, One Piece and Bleach are the current kings of the Jump, the most popular Shonen compilation mag in Japan. Naruto is my personal favorite of the group, and my second favorite manga, behind Fullmetal Alchemist (which is technically also classified as Shonen, but really in a class of its own), though both series deserve a post all their own for discussion since they really push the genre into new territory. One Piece and Bleach are more direct descendants of Goku, in that both build on the ideas of fighting for protection and honor, so that they become legitimate themes as opposed to mere justifications. I was initially turned off by One Piece's goofy flavor, but trusted friends convinced me to soldier on, and I am still slowly warming up to it, but I'm still not too familiar with it, which leaves me with Bleach.

Originally, I found Bleach even more intriguing than either Naruto or FMA. he premise had me at the word go: A high school punk with a knack for seeing dead people has to play the role of death god, or grim reaper. Wikipedia can explain it better than I can, or better yet, track down the first couple volumes and see for yourself. The art style is sharp and hip, the world's lore is intriguing, and the first major arc of the story is extremely compelling.Unfortunately, it stagnates shortly thereafter.

While Kubo Tite has a real gift for story telling, character designing seems to be his real passion, and he expands the cast exponentially, though the only 'development' he affords characters is a tedious exposition of their powers and abilities before they are killed off and forgotten. This ever growing roster has proven to be a sort of cancer for the series, as it draws attention away from the existing characters and renders them shallow. I swear I'm quits with the series after each new installment releases, like a Smoker quitting after "one more pack." Of course next week I come crawling back, hopeful that the mangaka will eventually address the tantalizing plot threads which preceded this seemingly endless chain of superficial duels. But he never does.

That raps up this month's look at Japan's finest. As you can see, there's a lot more to discuss where on the horizon. Hope to see you again next week!

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