The Western bible for understanding manga is Frederik L Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Of classic shojo, Schodt says: “Unlike boys and men’s comics…girls comics have an unstated rule that all characters…must be physically beautiful…”
Shojo consistently features an “idealised” kawaii (cute) female figure – long limbed, slender and moon-eyed and its frequently blonde female protagonists that cater to every possible clichéd little girl fantasy, are chiefly models or princesses, or sports stars, or ballerinas. And while the sexuality in these comics has long been far more progressive than any all-ages comics you’ve likely read, its heroines generally chase or are chased by equally slender, oddly androgynous male love interests. Even ‘cooler’ examples of modern shojo like the massively popular Nana that features a punk rock singer, cannot shake this idealised body type and aesthetic; it just gives shojo-chic a tattoo and nose-ring.
Where things take an interesting and even subversive turn, however, is with josei, or women’s comics. Perhaps a response in part to the bullshit stereotypes found in shojo, josei can get extremely dark and transgressive. The best, darkest josei holds a mirror up to not only Japanese pop culture and fashion industries, but also to the monstrousness of much of shojo’s girlish dreaminess. Here, idealised beauty and physical perfection become toxic, the wide-eyed anorexic nymphs are repulsive, both in their virtually post-humanly sharp, angular physicality and abhorrent moral character. The desire for perfection is ruinous and a hatred for, and horror of the flesh itself is worthy of an early Cronenberg film.
Two josei classics, Helter Skelter by Kyoko Okazaki and In Clothes Called Fat by Moyoco Anno are available in English from Vertical. Taken individually, they are each a brain-jolt of nastiness. Taken together, they present a truly ugly side of not only Japan, but of the very nature of kawaii itself. Cuteness has never looked or felt so repugnant.
Helter Skelter was rather ironically serialised in a monthly josei magazine titled Feel Young. It stars Liliko, a supermodel extraordinaire, a paparazzi-stalked waif who appears to have it all as one of the most famous and beloved people in her country. She has a famous, wealthy boyfriend, numerous endorsements and is the very face of fashion itself. The problem is her beauty is manufactured by more than just the mass media; Liliko the result of illegal experimental surgical techniques and cosmetics made from aborted foetuses. Having been sculpted into the superstar she is, “her beauty is a montage of images” as one character remarks.
The more surgeries Liliko has, the more rapid her decline. Bruises and welts appear on her body and her breasts become discoloured and misshapen; her cripplingly low self-esteem and generally horrid personality externalising itself. Okazaki’s loose, sketchy lines add an extra layer of macabre uneasiness to the work, infecting the clean, cutesy lines of shojo with some deliberate roughness. Characters that should be adorable are awkward and off-putting and the shojo body is ridiculed.
One would think that experiencing such trauma would at least create some empathy in a person, but not so Liliko who orchestrates acid-attacks on other women and screws her long-suffering assistant Michiko Hada’s boyfriend.
Enter fifteen-year-old Kozue, who cracks the seams of Liliko’s sanity open even further. Liliko knows Kozue’s the next big thing’ and is immediately threatened. “No matter how pretty the bunny, it’s just a lump of meat when it’s skinned,” Liliko muses, but this says more about herself than Kozue, who possesses an innate charisma and an ability to reel people in instead of repelling them. Kozue is also well aware of her own shelf life in this commoditised world and looks forward to her own eventual expiry date, a notion Liliko cannot comprehend.
The best, darkest josei holds a mirror up to not only Japanese pop culture and fashion industries, but also to the monstrousness of much of shojo’s girlish dreaminess
Tragically, following the original serialisation of Helter Skelter in 1996, Kyoko Okazaki was hit by a drunk driver. Having suffered both extensive physical and mental injuries, it appears that she remains in therapy to this day.
But the spirit of Okazaki’s work lives on. Moyoco Anno, who was once Okazaki’s assistant, creates works that bare a striking similarity in art style and subject matter. Her 2002 masterpiece, In Clothes Called Fat, features Noko Hanazawa, a meek, hardworking and overweight young woman struggling to keep herself together amongst fashionably attractive co-workers who are nice to her face but horrible behind her back. Her male bosses yell at her frequently because she will not stand up for herself and lacks the physical requirements to keep them dumbstruck and cowed.
Noko’s issues cause her to overeat. She has a long term, slender, handsome boyfriend named Saito – cut very much from shojo cloth – who’s a mover and shaker in a trading firm. Saito’s acceptance of Noko’s weight has nothing to do with his attraction for it or his love for Noko herself, it’s solely derived from the fact that if Noko is heavy, no other man will want her and she will be his sexual object/comfort blanket for as long as it suits him.
When Saito and Mayumi, Noko’s blonde, slender co-worker and chief tormentor, begin a torrid affair, Noko decides its time for a change. A heartbreaking path of expensive crash diets and eating disorders follow. The genius of Anno’s artwork is in how un-shojo, how human Noko looks. Clearly severely overweight at times, she is also physically the most relatable character. Her eyes are comparatively normal sized, even somewhat curved and narrowed to indicate her ethnicity – a true rarity for this material, for all of manga in fact.
As her weight drops further and further, her physical transformation becomes about far more than just weight loss—she transforms herself into the idealised female Japanese cartoon. Her eyes widen horrifically, her features become overly angular and sharp. If Liliko is the shojo body mocked, Noko is the shojo body in its full horror. The book’s chapter breaks illustrate this further, with skeletal, bug-eyed models, looking as though they’ve been drugged and dragged over from some shojo, gape at the reader with zombie-undeadness. Behind them: cosmetics, fashion, shoes, lingerie, all the things you need to be a successful and beautiful slice of sleek modern femininity.
In the West, the work of Kyoko Okazaki and Moyoco Anno has been treated as not only a highpoint of intelligent manga but also as highly-literate, almost specialised comics, moved away from their thoroughly mainstream Japanese heritage and placed inside an indie art-comics bubble. Whilst it’s extremely gratifying to see female-created and female-led comics proliferate and succeed in the mainstream, notably the wonderful Ms Marvel with its Muslim writer and teenaged lead character, it’s a shame that Helter Skelter and In Clothes Called Fat don’t enter the representational dialogue more than they currently do. Considering their point of origin, they present the endgame of the pursuit of beauty and the danger of falling for society’s expectations for women – both real and fictional – with shocking boldness. One way to encourage empowerment is to show its dark underbelly, the trap of migrating to what JG Ballard called the mass media landscape. In Okazaki and Anno’s work, this darkness is painfully exposed and these traps are blindingly illuminated.