Manga's Powerful Feminine Mystique

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007

It isn't, I suspect, common knowledge that when Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of modern Japanese cartooning, created one of his best-known characters in 1951 (a prepubescent super-robot named Atom), he also gave him a sister, Uran. I didn't know that anyway.

I do now, thanks to "Girl Power! Girls' Comics From Japan," an exhibition at the Japan Information and Culture Center in Northwest Washington about the history of shojo manga, or Japanese comics geared specifically toward girls. From the sound of its title, you might think that the show is all about the various distaff equivalents of Astro Boy (as Atom was known stateside), from the post-World War II-era Uran to Card Captor Sakura, a contemporary third-grade pixie empowered with magical abilities who was created by Clamp, an all-female collective of shojo mangaka, or girls' comic book artists.

That would be a mistake. Although things have begun changing in recent years, love, rather than fighting (as boys' comics are known for), is still the dominant theme of most of the works on view.

Those works begin with images of Tezuka's Princess Sapphire, a poufy-sleeved gender-bender from the 1950s whose spirit is part girl and part boy but who, in her male incarnation of Ribbon Knight, still looks like Betty Boop in drag. And they end with the work of such present-day artists as Reiko Okano.

Married to Tezuka's son, filmmaker Makoto Tezuka, Okano is, perhaps ironically, one of the first comic artists whose work is not strongly influenced by her father-in-law's iconic style, which has today come to define -- some would even say limit -- much of manga art. Think oversize, saucer eyes and tiny noses for the girls, and spiky hair for the boys, most of whom, in this show, are shown not as action heroes but as objects of their dreamy heroines' affection. It's all part of what the wall text, courtesy of curator Masami Toku, associate professor of art and art history at California State University at Chico, somewhat pretentiously refers to as the "semiotics" of manga cuteness, in which, for example, dark hair indicates a Japanese character, and white, a foreigner.

The pixie Card Captor Sakura, by the all-female collective Clamp, follows Tezuka's style.
The pixie Card Captor Sakura, by the all-female collective Clamp, follows Tezuka's style.(Clamp)
For the most part, the affection depicted here is as platonic as the largely underage audience of shojo manga would require. Still, one of artist Masako Watanabe's drawings on view, from a comic created for readers (if that's the right word) in their 20s and 30s, features a graphic sex scene more reminiscent of shunga, the erotic variety of ukiyo-e, or traditional woodblock prints. Another image, from "Chumoncho," a comic by the same artist, depicts a murder-suicide by a lovesick courtesan. With its delicate spray of bright red blood frozen in midair, it's among the exhibition's most striking pictures.

What is most interesting about "Girl Power!" is how the evolution of the girls' comics medium seems to parallel the societal changes in Japan in the past half-century or so, during which female empowerment has come, but slowly. Although set in the 19th century, Miyako Maki's "Tsuya Bokuro" tells of the struggle of a female printmaker to break into a male-dominated field. It's true that there aren't too many crime-fighting superheroes in this show. Making it as an artist in what is still very much a man's world may be powerful enough magic.

GIRL POWER! GIRLS' COMICS FROM JAPAN Through March 16. Japan Information and Culture Center, Lafayette Center III, 1155 21st St. NW (Metro: Farragut North). 202-238-6949. Open Monday-Friday 9 to 5. Free.

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