Thanks to recent shojo manga bestsellers like Fruits Basket and Nana, graphic novels for girls is now all the rage in the U.S. publishing world. But for Japanese comics readers, shojo manga has been entertaining generations of girls and women for over fifty years.
Now a retrospective exhibit featuring the artwork of 23 top shojo manga artists from Japan is making its final stops in it's two-year North American tour. Entitled "Shojo Manga: Girl Power!," this show shows a broad range of manga art and storytelling styles, from the fairy tale adventures of Ribon no Kishi (Princess Knight) by Osamu Tezuka to the modern yaoi romances by Fumi Yoshinaga (Antique Bakery) and lush fantasy adventures by CLAMP.
Curated by Dr. Masami Toku, a professor of art education and art history at Cal State Chico, this exhibit is briefly showing in Los Angeles, with a final North American stop in Vancouver, Canada in fall 2007 after touring eight Canadian and American cities, including New York City, Toronto and Minneapolis. The show will be on display at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in downtown Los Angeles from August 18 – 26, 2007 with its next stop at the Japanese Canadian National Museum in Burnaby, near Vancouver Canada from September 13 – October 20, 2007.
A few weeks prior to the show's Los Angeles opening, I corresponded with Dr. Toku to ask her about shojo manga, her goals in putting together this show and her take on what makes these comics so appealing to U.S. readers.
Q: What inspired you to pull together this exhibition? What were your goals?
Masami Toku: Japanese comics is more than just a part of Japanese visual pop-culture, it has become a world phenomenon. With so much manga-related animation, toys, TV series, computer games, and film available, it's safe to say that manga is the center of modern Japanese visual culture.
There are two purposes of this project. One is to examine the worldwide phenomenon of Japanese comics, not only in Japan but also other countries (including the U.S.). The second purpose is to enlighten audiences - teachers, students, and community- to develop their media and visual literacy.
Briefly, I wanted to introduce the diversity of manga to U.S. audiences by focusing on shojo manga since catering to different genders is one of the major characteristics of manga. Manga is developed based on gender, age group, and different styles and themes, etc, which is quite different from other comics.
It is said that the themes of shojo manga reflect Japanese girls’ and female’s expectation and desires. So this is not only a shojo manga show, but also the show about the history of Japanese women. Through manga, this exhibit shows how the role of women and their desires have been changed for last 60 years since World War II by showing more than 200 artworks from 23 artists who are representatives of shojo manga artists in Japan.
Q: Was it difficult to get your hands on so many original pieces of artwork from the artists/publishers?
MT: Many female artists are so sensitive since they had bad experiences that many publishers did not respect their artworks and they lost some original pieces. Because of this, many of them did not want to participate in the show at first. Also, in case of female artists, they tend to belong to one particular publication company, which makes it difficult to collect artworks from different artists who belong to different companies.
But this show goes beyond those limitations. So I spent two years to develop good relationships with them to make it possible to have this show with 23 artists who are representatives of the world of shojo manga.
Q: How did audiences react to this show, especially viewers who aren't familiar with shojo manga? Did you experience any unusual or surprising reactions that you didn’t expect?
MT: I was surprised that many of people in the US did not know the differences between anime and manga.
Although manga is becoming very popular in the US, only a few people, mostly between the ages of nine to fifteen and some core manga fans (otaku) really know manga.
Q: What do you think about U.S./non-Japanese artists drawing shojo manga stories?
MT: They copy the visual characteristics of shojo manga (or simply manga), but the story is still simple, compared to that of shojo manga in Japan. Also, the composition (the way of using flame and balloons) are different from that of Japanesemanga.
Japanese manga stories are also more complex than American versions. They cover diverse themes including politics, religious, historical, social and cultural issues, so they're more than just good vs. evil type stories.
Q: What do you think U.S. readers find so appealing about shojo manga? What can American comics learn from shojo manga?
MT: Shojo manga doesn't just target female / girls’ readers and the variety of stories resist stereotypes. This keeps it interesting for shojo manga readers.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception U.S. readers have about shojo manga?
MT: They think that shojo manga is just a simple love story, but as I've explained in my articles, but it is more than that.
Q: Which are your personal favorite shojo manga series and/or artists and why?
MT: I cannot say it here (^_^).
Q: After Los Angeles, where will the show be displayed next? Can venues contact you to bring the exhibit to their city?
MT: The next place after LA is JCNM (Japanese Canadian National Museum) in Burnaby, Canada, near Vancouver. The exhibit will open on September 18 and continue through November 10, 2007. This is the 9th and the last North American venue for this exhibit.
The show started in October 2005 at California State University - Chico and it has been traveling around North America for two years. After that, all of the artworks will return to Japan for a one-year tour starting in February 2008.
At the same time, the South America tour might starts in conjunction with the 100 years ceremony of Japanese immigrants in Brazil in 2008. We are still discussing the possibility.