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Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005

BILINGUAL

Girls in need of direction get it from the comics


The business of being a wakai musume (young woman) in this country used to have just one subtext: There were no options. If she didn't get married she was less than a whole person; on the other hand, marriage meant abject obedience to her husband's household and an endless round of bone-crunching chores.

Times have changed, in a surreal kind of way. These days, to be a Japanese woman means options galore, plus the endless delights of self-analysis and soul-searching. An updated version of Cindi Lauper's hit song would be about how Japanese girls have more fun than anyone else. Aiding them in this mission is the world of garu komikku (girl comic books) -- a pop-culture phenomenon that has permanently altered the landscape of Japanese literature.

It seems like anything that's said in the printed word can be said with more immediate poignancy in a single frame of a girl komikku. Interestingly, women's fashion magazines are now touting them as "kokoro no sapuri (supplement pills for the heart)" or carrying articles with titles like "Garu komikku wa kirei ni kiku! (Girl comics have beautifying effects)." Like my friend Akiko always says, "Sokorahenno otoko to deto suruyori, hayaku kaette komikku yonda hoga toku (It's more profitable to go home and dip into a manga than go on a date with some ordinary guy)."

Sounds vaguely like a proverb, doesn't it?

Garu komikku gained high art status during the early 1990s with the works of Kyoko Okazaki; until then, komikku aimed at the female market were called "shojo (innocent young girl) manga" and were mainly about the fantastical, sugary world of Japanese girlie-hood that focused on finding one's true love and living happily ever after.

Okazaki, however, came out with a totally different style and world view: Her frames spoke of violence, betrayal, and sexual encounters every bit as bored and casual as buying cigarettes (menthol, please) and condoms (preferably United Colors of Benetton) in some seedy neighborhood conbini (convenience store). Okazaki's landmark comic book "Pink," traced the life of 24-year-old Yumi, who worked as an OL by day and morphed into a hotetoru (call girl) by night. Yumi lived in a swank studio apartment, kept a pet alligator and was a sucker for designer brands. Japan's young urban women gasped at how Okazaki tore down conventions seemingly with her bare hands. At the same time, she showed them a world so searingly nihilistic it gave them third-degree burns. Here at last was someone fearless enough to see into their real selves and tell it like it was.

Okazaki paved the way for other garu komikku authors, and from the mid-'90s to the new millennium the komikku scene flourished. It's now the norm for such works to carry explicit depictions of sex or unbearable situations of exploitation (a middle-aged salaryman sexually abuses and then keeps a 10-year-old girl chained to the bedpost in his room, etc.) One of the cliched complaints made against male commuters is how they read ero-manga (erotic manga) on the train, in broad daylight; pretty soon women are likely to be doing the same thing.

As any komikku fan will affirm, the contents are not a slur against womanhood but provide a way for women to get in touch with their innermost desires and fantasies. It's now joshiki (common knowledge) that Japanese women are far less inhibited and much more attuned to their sexual needs than men; the singles dating scene is full of stories about how men are teitaion (have low body temperature, i.e., not passionate), shokyokuteki (passive) and ren'ai-girai (disliking loving relationships).

There are accusations however, that the komikku scene has spawned a generation of women who are ren'ai izon taishitsu (addicted to love), and whose main concern is to match their personal lives to a komikku story as much as possible. In most cases this means throwing oneself in the arms of an equally passionate boyfriend, then moving on to tsugi no emono (the next catch) when the relationship gets too stable or tsumaranai (boring).

What happened to akirame (resignation) and nintai (endurance), once the twin pillars of onnano ikizama (woman's way of life)? All burned to cinders by the ferocious flame of girl-pop culture, no doubt.

No wonder the men can't keep up; perhaps it's not so much that they're teitaion but rather that the women are simply too hot to handle.



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