Teen Manga Tackle Tough Topics

From the Orange series

From deafness to gender identity, teen manga offer rewarding and complex treatments of fraught issues.

Orange: Complete Collection Volume 1

Publisher: Seven Seas
Length: 384 pages
Author: Ichigo Takano
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-01

Princess Jellyfish Volume 1

Publisher: Kodansha
Length: 376 pages
Author: Akiko Higashimura
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-03

The exploding popularity of Japanese manga among western audiences benefits more than just the publishing houses. For today’s generations of teens (and younger) growing up with easy access to an increasing array of new manga series, the thematic content of Japanese manga offer a rich source of diversity to the all-too-rigid norms of traditional North American young adult literature. While silly, action-packed fun like Attack on Titan is ubiquitous, there’s plenty of more complex fare for readers who look deeper.

Take A Silent Voice, a beautiful and powerful series by Yoshitoki Oima, whose central character is a deaf high school student who suffered terrible bullying in school. The series (which ran in Japan from 2013-14 and began appearing in English translation last year) has won plaudits from the Japanese Federation for the Deaf, and received other awards for its complex treatment of bullying.

Two other manga series that are now being translated and published for English-speaking audiences provide excellent examples of the complex themes with which teen manga (equally popular among adult audiences) now offer.

Orange, written by Ichigo Takano, was originally published in 2012 in Japan (where a live-action film version was also released late in 2015). The first volume of English translations hit stores in late January 2016. The series Princess Jellyfish, written by Akiko Higashimura, was originally published in Japan in 2009. The first English-language translation of that series was published in March 2016, with subsequent collected volumes slated for release later in the year. That manga has also produced an animated television series, which aired in 2010 in Japan and in 2012 in North America (originally on the Funimation Channel; the series is now available on Netflix).

Both series, written by women, are fun and lively, with plenty of light-hearted silliness (big eyes, dramatic effects, copious references to contemporary Japanese pop culture). Both of them also tackle more serious narratives beneath their surface veneer of light-hearted humour.

Orange: Poignant and Philosophical

Orange is a strangely poignant tale of a group of high school friends who start receiving letters from their future selves. The letters have a point though: one of their friends is going to commit suicide, and their future selves are trying to send along advice to help them prevent it.

A premise like this can’t help but lead to its share of emotional, even disturbing moments. What do you do when you know a friend is going to commit suicide -- you even learn precisely when and where? Would that change the way you act toward them -- and each other? What do you do when you discover that preventing their suicide would change other aspects of your intended future? How much of your present (and future) self would you be willing to change, or sacrifice, to avoid the regrets of a future self you’ve never even met?

Needless to say, the philosophizing becomes remarkably profound. The action alternates between the high school years (when the friends begin receiving letters from the future, and struggle to figure out how to prevent their friend’s suicide) and a future where the friend has already committed suicide, and the remaining friends have moved on to form new lives, relationships, families, careers. Yet they remain united by the shared experience of tragedy -- and a determination to understand what precisely happened to their friend and why.

At the same time, the high school friends discover something disturbing -- the more they follow the advice in the letters from the future, the more they wind up changing the future, with the end result that their timeline begins to deviate from that of their future selves. The upshot of this is that at some point, the letters cease being helpful; things have changed so much that the events are no longer happening as their future selves predict, and the high school friends are left to rely on their own instincts and feelings.

For all its pain and poignancy, Orange is filled with self-affirming themes. The high schoolers’ messages from their future selves are for the most part pleas to their younger selves to have the courage to do the things they were afraid to do: tell people their feelings, take on new challenges, say or ask things their youthful selves were too hesitant or self-conscious to do. The underlying message to the high-schoolers is: have the confidence to do the things you want to do; to say the things you want to say. Ultimately, when the time-lines begin to deviate, they have no choice but to rely on their own instincts -- and self-confidence -- to do the things they feel are right.

Princess Jellyfish: Gender Norms Up-ended

Princess Jellyfish is a stranger beast. Here, the plot revolves around a group of ‘fujoshi’ who live together in a communal apartment complex. One of the myriad Japanese youth subcultures, ‘fujoshi’ refers to female fans of manga comics with romantic gay male plotlines. Men are idealized and romanticized, but in an unattainable and idealized way that precludes actual real-life relationships.

The women inhabiting the apartment are geek girls who are proud to be single, and whose lives revolve around video games, manga and pop culture. They earn a loose living producing art for one of their cohabitants who is a manga author, but they largely live off the support of their parents.

Far from idealistic fantasy, Princess Jellyfish is an unapologetic, if self-mocking, book for millennials. “What does everyone here do for a living?” asks one character, who has just met the roommates. “I figured you were all poor college students at first, but it doesn’t seem like you go to school either. Wait, how old are you, actually?” (they’re all in their 30s, as it turns out)

“[We have] a perfectly acceptable source of income,” replies Mayaya, one of the roommates. “Our parents!”

“It is said that our parents’ generation, the baby boomers, boast the most wealth in all of Japan’s long and storied history. We, their children, had no choice but to spend the prime of our youth in the ‘lost decade’ after the bubble burst -- and because our generation is lost to the hiring ice age, securing enough income to be self-reliant is impossible. Thus, there is no shame whatsoever in receiving economic support from our parents’ generation.”

The pop culture proliferation is over the top, but hilariously so. “You’re white as a ghost! If this were the ‘80s, I’d ask ‘Who we gonna call’!” exclaims the irrepressible Mayaya, who also has a penchant for interpreting all of life's situations through the lens of the ancient Chinese Records of the Three Kingdoms.

Gender and sexual identity is complex in this series. The roommates refer to themselves as ‘nuns’, an empowering reflection of their rejection of real-life men (they still idealize and romanticize the fictional men of manga).

Their all-female girl-geek world is challenged by Kuranosuke Koibuchi, a biologically male cross-dressing ‘stylish’ who helps out the central character, Tsukimi, in a pinch, and then inserts themself into the life of the apartment. Kuranosuke’s identity challenges multiple boundaries the roommates have set: their rejection of ‘the stylish’ (women who present as stereotypically, and fashionably, femme), and Kuranosuke also shifts regularly between male and female gender presentation.

It’s never quite clear what Kuranosuke’s own preferred gender identity is; if anything Kuranosuke, who most frequently presents as female, appears to shrug off the issue, picking gender identity at will. Tsukimi, when she discovers the truth, tries initially to reject Kuranosuke and is fearful of the consequences if the others find out, but Kuranosuke doesn’t care and ultimately winds up using their expertise to re-style the roommates in femme fashion to take on the ruthlessly capitalist developers that threaten their neighbourhood and apartment building.

Kuranosuke’s femme presentation, doubly provocative to the fujoshi women of Princess Jellyfish, is challenging in multiple ways, transcending both gender and class lines. Jacqueline Rose, writing in the 5 May 2016 issue of London Review of Books, draws on the example of Caitlyn Jenner in her exploration of trans narratives (“Who do you think you are?”).

“There has been much criticism of Jenner, often snide, for decking herself out in the most clichéd, extravagant trappings of femininity,” Rose writes. “But her desire would be meaningless were it not reciprocated by a whole feverish world racing to classify humans according to how neatly they can be pigeonholed into their gendered place. This is the coercive violence of gendering…”

Kuranosuke is not Jenner by any means (Kuranosuke, so flamboyantly femme, is at times comfortable presenting as male), but there's an underlying mockery in Princess Jellyfish that corresponds to Rose’s critique of the socially perceived need to pigeonhole characters into their gendered place. There’s an implicit message to the reader: aren’t all these rigid categories -- ‘fujoshi’, ‘nuns’, ‘stylish’, ‘geeks’, ‘men’, ‘women’ -- both self-empowering and yet also silly? And look how easy it is to pick up a category, or transition between them! Does it really matter which category we inhabit? -- matter to anyone, that is, besides ourselves?

The messages here are more elusive, but the thematic challenges to normativity are strong. Gender-variance and gender fluidity is depicted as good; girl-geek-dom as a wonderful thing. It’s an empowering message for girls who don’t follow normative culture (the ‘stylish’ are the enemy), even while repeating some typically heteronormative tropes. Stereotypical (and biologically female) femmes are not only an abstract enemy, they are depicted as genuine villains.

Kuranosuke’s own gender identity remains vague, but is rejected as a woman by most of the characters. At the same time, Kuranosuke doesn’t really seem to care. This isn’t necessarily the regressive message it sounds like. In her article, Jacqueline Rose explains that “[t]here are strong disagreements between those who see [gender] transition as a means, the only means, to true embodiment, and those who see transgenderism as upending all sexual categories.” The characters of Princess Jellyfish, and principally Kuranosuke, clearly adhere to the latter position.

By depicting fluid and shifting gender presentations, and combining them with the self-mocking over-the-top drama of teen manga, Princess Jellyfish consciously rejects the deep seriousness with which a lot of western pop culture has come to treat gender identity (as a means to true embodiment). The narrative in Princess Jellyfish becomes less about accepting someone as a gender of their choosing, and more about acknowledging collectively the impossibility of fixed gender identities. Characters don’t insist on acceptance, but collectively throw their arms up in confusion: what does gender even mean any more? (not all of the characters, mind you: there are both men and women in the series who are transphobically appalled at fluid gender identities)

It’s a refreshing challenge to fixed gender identities; distinct from the traditionally serious quest for authenticity through embodiment (instead of demanding acceptance as a particular gender, Kuranosuke doesn’t seem to know, or care, what gender they prefer to be). Arguably, though, it’s simply a different and circuitous route to a similar end: ultimately, the author seems to suggest, what matters is a person’s own choice of self-presentation, regardless of whether that choice involves fixed authenticity and embodiment, or amorphous fluidity. If this leads to confusion and contradictory understandings of gender (although it’s couched in over-the-top humour, ultimately what the fujoshi women are struggling with is whether to accept Kuranosuke as a member of their female-only community), what matters in the final instance is acceptance.

So Princess Jellyfish is a complex beast, thematically speaking. It eschews the seriousness of western treatments of gender identity for the over-the-top ridiculousness of manga, but in doing so it sends a message that is perhaps more appropriate for youthful readers trying to make sense of gender: it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to not have any perfect answers, it’s okay to be confused and make mistakes, ultimately what matters is accepting people for who they are and forming friendships and relationships with the people who genuinely care about you.

Of course, these messages are couched amid other more problematic, if stereotypical, manga tropes: femmes-as-villains, heteronormative romance, objectification. But even these assume complex forms. Kuranosuke comes from an elite family of politicians. Shu, Kuranosuke’s half-brother, is concerned that Kuranosuke’s presentation of self as a woman will cause difficulties for the family politically, and urges Kuranosuke to dress as a man when their uncle, the prime minister, comes over to visit. Quite the opposite ensues: the prime minister appears to develop a fetish for Kuranosuke-as-femme, and doesn’t seem to care about their gender.

What’s the import of this message? Is it about an old man who enjoys lecherously leering at a young person (of fluid gender identities)? Or is it a message to lighten up, that yesterday’s worries about gender expression are no longer issues in today’s world the way they once were?

One can, of course, over-analyze manga. Ultimately Princess Jellyfish is a fun and challenging read that revels in its own confusion and refusal to stick to normative identities. That’s the most valuable message of all, that identities are fluid, confusing, contradictory, and up to us each to choose. And that friendship and love matter more than the identities of those who offer them.

Both series are full of manga silliness, but they also offer complex themes for readers of all ages. For adults, challenges to the conceptual paradigms they grew up with; for teens, tools with which to define self and identity in an age where those concepts are more fraught than they have possibly ever been.

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