It is a truth universally acknowledged that manga will circ.
Manga flies off of school library shelves when it’s present. We stock up on Naruto, Fairy Tail, and My Hero Academia like crazy, knowing that it will circulate and bring students through the door. But I often hear a lot of trepidation from my peers about manga when they first start to actually look through the pages. In forthcoming deep dives, I’ll go into why this trepidation is not unwarranted, and what can be done to deal with some of the issues many professionals may run into with manga.
In this first post, I really want to focus on my relationship with not only manga, but the general world of Japanese pop culture and where my knowledge comes from on the topic.
To start off, I am not Japanese. I’m a white woman who grew up in Orlando in a lower middle class household. I cannot speak for Japanese people, and my framing is going to focus on taking in the media in an American cultural context, so that we are best servicing our school populations. I’ve studied Japanese culture, and I have basic skills in the language. My husband is half-Korean, which is in no way the same as Japanese. This is a vital cultural distinction which I impress on my students, because there is a history which needs to be acknowledged in Asia between the various cultures and people. We’ll talk in a later post about the rise in interest in Korean pop culture among fans of Japanese pop culture, and what we as school librarians can do to educate our students to be sensitive to those historical and current issues. Studying and enjoying a culture can be fun and positive, but only when it’s done sensitively and with context. Something which all teachers deal with in our classrooms is creating context for comprehension.
So, let’s rewind back a couple decades to when I started taking in Japanese culture. To be honest, I had been “into anime” from an early age, starting with Sailor Moon. The difference was that I didn’t know it was anime. I just knew I liked it. In general, I’m a fan of mahou shoujo 魔法少女 or magical girl content. Sailor Moon has always been a positive energy in my life, and many people my age who identify as women can look back on Sailor Moon as their first exposure to a story about girls working together and supporting each other. I can look back fondly on other shows which were syndicated in the US that I also enjoyed: CardCaptor Sakura, Escaflowne, and others. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered manga and “subbed” anime (anime subtitled by fans for fans). I don’t remember my moment of discovery, honestly. One day, I was just passing manga like Fushigi Yūgi and InuYasha around with my friends and camping out in Borders bookstores for hours. My hours spent waiting for the release of Order of the Phoenix were dedicated to reading a metric ton of shōjo manga (shōjo is aimed at girls, which is actually the translation of the word).
With an interest in manga and anime came an interest in Japanese fashion (I was a lolita, stopped for a while, and now am a classic lolita who only dresses up for special occasions), food, and dressing up in costume. I also was an avid video game player, and my favorite games came from Japan. My rapidly mounting obsession was fueled by the rise on the internet of communities for the sharing and discussion of these interests on LiveJournal and other smaller forums. This is the story of most Western anime fans my age.
Many fellow educators share that they feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the subculture. For a teen who is just starting an interest in Japanese pop culture, the available content is infinitely deeper and broader than what I had available. We didn’t have Crunchyroll or manga available at the public library.
As time has gone by, my interest hasn’t really waned. My preferences for genre have changed. Now, I like what is called josei 女性 manga, which is written for women in their twenties and thirties. I prefer slice of life anime, meaning anime that focuses on the trials and absurdities of daily life. While I used to wear cosplay and sweet lolita fashion, I put my kawaii interests more into my accessories and home decor. I also have learned, through an extensive education and background in literary criticism and librarianship (as well as classroom teaching) to read content from Japan far more critically. And when I offer material to students, even if it’s something they’re already reading, I need to at least browse it. For me, it’s easy. My interest in Japanese pop culture is part of my social life.
I’m not a fan of Black Clover, Fairy Tail, or any of the other titles that students read obsessively, but I’m aware of their basic gist, current status in the community, and creators. I know the tropes of shōnen 少年 manga, and thus what to talk about. Students also know that I’m a fan of manga, and it’s easy for me to say, “Hey, I really loved this title” and guide students toward gentler reads or engage them in conversations about the way they treat female characters.
If I notice an anime is picking up in popularity, I’ll watch the first episode on Crunchyroll or Netflix. And I’ll be honest in my criticism of certain elements when I talk with students. I think my open admission that some titles aren’t for me and why gives students a way to examine these texts. Some will give a defense, some will admit that they also noticed certain things. As a librarian, my job is to provide the text. As a school librarian, my job is to deepen students’ analysis of text.
Moving forward, I’ll be reviewing individual titles, but will also do deep dive explanations about genres of manga, cultural elements, and issues. The first title I’ll be reviewing is one that I feel is great for the high school library: Princess Jellyfish (also known as Kuragehime 海月姫). And our first deep dive will come in a couple weeks, where we examine the treatment of female characters in popular manga titles.