Japanese Food in Anime and Manga and Reaching Students

Japanese Food in Anime and Manga and Reaching Students

I love cooking and eating and that is largely because of anime and manga (and video games).

It’s only recently I made this connection. Food and the act of eating is something that was fraught with anxiety for me as a teenager. In middle school, my shifting body and American standards of beauty in the 90s and early 2000s collided to give me an eating disorder. I struggled with it into my twenties, and even now I have to work hard to avoid slipping into disordered patterns of thought. This is a frequent reality for our students, who also contend with unhealthy options and food deserts wherein junk food with dull flavor profiles mean that their relationships with food are inherently problematic, political, and often unhealthy.

It was only through the act of learning about Japanese food and food culture that I found myself building a positive relationship with food, and in turn, the body that food nourishes.

American society ascribes a certain level of shame to the act of eating and the enjoyment of eating. We’ve gotten better in recent years, but students may often feel disconnected from food or the experience of trying new food. I want to explore how food and its portrayals in Japanese media can help students build a more positive relationship with the fuel we put in our body, deepen student enjoyment of these media, and even provide opportunities for personal enrichment and career opportunities.

First, though, let’s talk a bit about Japanese food culture.

You can’t talk about Japanese food without cooked rice, or gohan (ごはん). Rice is the center of Japanese food culture, to the point that the word for meal is the word for cooked rice. Japanese households are almost guaranteed to have a high quality electric rice cooker. These appliances cook rice perfectly and keep it warm for days (if necessary, although the odds of the rice not being eaten in that time span are slim). Rice is eaten for all three meals, and Japanese cooking has a variety of methods of eating it, from a plain side dish to onigiri (rice balls).

There’s a lot of talk about what it is that makes a Japanese diet so healthy, although it basically comes down to a diet high in fish, fermented foods, and vegetables. As an island nation, meat and dairy products are less accessible. However, Japan has its fair share of sweets and junk food. Some of my favorite Japanese foods are patently unhealthy: karaage (a fried chicken dish), tamago sando (an egg salad sandwich which has the benefit of using Japanese mayo, which is lower in fat, but also calls for an addition of sugar to the mix), and an unending list of sweet “pans” or breads. What seems to play into the relative health of the Japanese as a nation, though, is that healthier options are just as readily available as the less healthy options. At a Japanese 7/11, you can get all of those dishes, but you can also get a variety of far healthier options. YouTube is filled with videos documenting the offerings at conbini (convenience stores), if you’re curious. I personally recommend videos by TabiEats, run by a couple living in Japan, which is comprehensive and also includes very accessible recipes.

The guys from TabiEats show off a dinner from a 7/11 in Japan- vastly different from the offerings at our North American convenience stores.

The key is that Japanese people have more options if they’re too busy for home cooking.

These panels from the Girl Food manga anthology show a young girl delighting in her kawaii (cute) bento (lunch box).

But what stands out to me is how joyous manga characters are when eating. Food is seen, through this lens, as a gateway to bliss. In American media, a character actively eaten is seen as piggish and greedy, or at the very least, irresponsible. Think of Homer Simpson and his donuts. Think of every time you watched a cartoon character eat. Generally, it would have been to excess, and other characters would regularly deride that character for poor decision making.

Jughead displays the typical American cartoon gluttony.

What Japanese media does, in general, is to celebrate food. The Japanese (and, honestly, most Asian countries) simply have a different relationship with food. Perhaps it has to do with food being integral to ceremonial aspects of Japanese life, or to a complex history involving famine and times of economic hardship. My husband, whose mother lived through famine in North Korea, has instilled within him a need to clean his plate and not put food to waste. Americans, nowadays, are perhaps removed enough from our Depression-era anxieties that we have lost our great-grandparents’ anxieties.

An important early scene from my life as an anime fan was the below scene from InuYasha. Upon returning to her world after many mishaps in feudal Japan, Kagome is ecstatic to find out her mother has made oden. At the time, my relationship with food was probably the worst it ever was. I was in treatment for an eating disorder. I didn’t bring lunch to school, opting instead to just eat the crusts from my best friend’s turkey sandwiches. I was given lunch money, but I was blowing it on Mountain Dew. Seeing Kagome so eager to eat made me curious. What was this magic food that caused such effusive joy?

Kagome, the protagonist of InuYasha, revels in the presence of oden, a type of nabemono dish consisting of various fishcakes, proteins, and vegetables in dashi broth.

The episode I saw had a bad translation, and it translated oden as udon. So, I went on a hunt to get udon noodles. Udon is very different from oden. Oden is a hotpot or nabemono dish, so it’s closer to a stew. It also has fishcakes in it. Oden, is, honestly not the most approachable to an American palette. In a Japanese context, it makes perfect sense for a scene of homecoming and celebrating home cooking. It’s a comfort food, traditionally eaten on cold nights. It would have been fairly impossible for me to try at the time, so the mistranslation was almost helpful. Udon noodles are insanely versatile. Thicker than popular Italian pastas, it’s really good at being simple and filling, and grabbing onto sauces. A quick search for udon on Google will bring up a seemingly infinite number of dishes.

The ease with which udon could be cooked and simply put in a simple sauce made it a perfect beginner dish. I also tried soba and somen, and of course I ate ramen. I began to develop a positive relationship with food based in curiosity: can I like food the way that character likes food? I wanted to know what made food less fuel and more joy. And for me, anime was what got me there.

Nowadays, I’m a fairly proficient cook. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur… my brother is a Cordon Bleu trained chef who works for Disney and has won cooking competitions. But I don’t know if I would be so proficient in the kitchen if it weren’t for the curiosity I had.

Students often express that same curiosity. It may be even more pronounced because food based manga and anime has become in vogue lately. I regularly pack bento boxes, and if a student sees me eating from it, they get curious. I’ve even been asked if I can teach them how to do it.

Which brings us to what we can do in the library to foster this curiosity and help our students to have a positive relationship with food.

Bento box making looks complicated, especially if you’re looking at what’s called “decoben”. These are works of art, and are either for making food more appealing to children who are picky eaters or for purely artistic purposes.

From Little Miss Bento.

However, a regular bento box can still look cute but not require hours of careful assembly and cooking. In the resource list, I’ll share some YouTube videos which give a basic rundown. A bento making program would be a lot of fun. I’m lucky enough to have a culinary program on campus, so we’ve talked about teaming up the program and the anime club for a quick bento program.

Trying various Japanese snacks also helps students to experience Japan without cooking. If you’re near a Japanese supermarket, this can be fairly easy to accommodate. If you’re not, your local grocery store is likely to have the most popular Japanese snack among foreign otaku: Pocky. I’ve even seen this once hard to find snack in WalMart. While Pocky isn’t really the best indicator of Japanese food, it’s something to bring a bit of Japanese flavor in. You can also try a Japanese food subscription box or order snacks online.

Resources

The following are blogs, YouTube channels, and books related to Japanese food which can help you plan your own programming. I’ll publish a list of manga and anime with descriptions separately later this week.

Blogs

Little Miss Bento: Primarily a showcase of bento designs, there are recipes available.

Just One Cookbook: An outstanding blog (and YouTube channel) with easy to follow recipes and great explanations.

YouTube Channels

TabiEats: This Japan-based couple is dedicated to sharing delicious food from their life in Japan and travels around the world. Their recipes are very easy to follow, and they also regularly review strange cooking gadgets.

Cooking With Dog: An excellent Japanese home chef cooks delicious homestyle Japanese food with narration from her dog, Francis. Francis did pass away within the past couple of years, but he continues to narrate the recipes. Honestly, I refer to this channel a LOT in my own cooking. Every step is clearly outlined, and the presentation is all about the cooking.

Just One Cookbook: The YouTube channel for the blog listed above.

Books

Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond: A Cookbook by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Published by Ten Speed Press. 2013. ISBN: 1607743523

Yum-Yum Bento Box: Fresh Recipes for Adorable Lunches by Maki Ogawa and Crystal Watanabe. Published by Quirk Books. 2010. ISBN: 9781594744471

Review: Flying Witch

Review: Flying Witch

Title: Flying Witch (ふらいんぐうぃっち)

Mangaka: Chihiro Ishizuka いしずかちひろ

US Publisher: Kodansha USA

Status: Ongoing.

Level: All ages.

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Slice of Life, Humor, Magic, Fantasy.

Anime: Crunchyroll.

Content Warnings: None.

Last night I made fiddlehead fern tempura, and it occurred to me that I had not reviewed the manga that actually inspired me to get foraged plants.

Flying Witch is not about eating fiddlehead ferns. What it is, honestly, is the height of the type of content I tend to read for my own pleasure: gentle slice-of-life stories with just a hint of the unusual. Technically, it’s shōnen (honestly, the older categories are starting to not work for many newer stories), but it has a universal appeal.

The story is very simple: Makoto, a young witch, moves in with her extended family in the countryside to train and learn. It’s obviously slightly inspired by Kiki’s Delivery Service. There’s the idea that young witches need to spend time away from home to train, an adorable black cat who serves as a mascot, and a sense of magic built into the everyday. Makoto’s extended family members are not witches, although her younger cousin has some interest in learning to be a witch. Overall, it’s incredibly gentle and refreshing. Makoto studies things like gardening and plants, and there’s a lot of discovery of normal everyday things as special mixed in with the mechanics of magic within the world of the story.

What is nice about Flying Witch, alongside its general celebration of the magic of daily life, is its general disinterest in romance or moe. Makoto is designed to be cute, but she isn’t a moe character. Her sister’s design is a bit more provocative, but she’s also lazy and flighty, while also being very skilled.

Flying Witch is also a comedy. Makoto is sometimes a bit flighty or dense. She has a bad sense of direction, and she has a tendency to do silly things seriously.

In all, this is a highly recommended series. It’s a gentle and fun read with a great sense of humor. It’s perfect for any manga collection in a school, and is the type of book you really don’t need to think twice about checking out. It’s the rare series that I would recommend to elementary school librarians to have.

Oh, and the illustrations of food are good enough to make you want to order a rare vegetable from your grocer.

How I Select Manga

How I Select Manga

I’m currently bedridden with a nasty stomach bug, so I thought I’d talk about how I decide what manga goes on my school library’s shelves.

First off, because I’ve been reading manga for so long, I honestly came into my school library with several “essential titles” in mind. But, for the purpose of helping less voracious readers of the format, let’s talk about what I consider for titles that are not in my favorite genres or that I may not have read.

Rating

Manga, like video games and film, has a ratings system. While a little arbitrary and sometimes confusing, it’s still a good jumping off point for collection development. Here are the ratings and their meaning:

E: Everyone / A: All Ages: These two are interchangeable. Basically, this means the manga is intended for all audiences, like a G rating. Think of titles like Chi’s Sweet Home.

Y: Youth, Age 10+: Think of this as Upper Elementary, Middle Grade. There might be some mild cursing or violence. Many of these titles are actually made into Saturday morning cartoons, such as Gundam Wing.

T: Teens, Age 13+: Many titles fall into this range. This is very equivalent to PG-13 films, with potential for sexual innuendo and violence. Most shōnen battle manga falls into this age range.

OT: Older Teens, Age 16+: These are a hit above T, with sometimes explicit sexual content and violence. These titles can vary a lot in terms of appropriateness.

M: Mature, Age 18+: These can be either super violent or fall into the “hentai” or “ecchi” category. The good thing is that the M category is generally (but not always) a good rule of thumb to avoid in a school library, whereas the teen categories are subject to more fluidity. If it’s not hentai, the violence is going to be intense and quite graphic. These titles aren’t intended for a younger audience, and are better left for readers to discover on their own.

Which Anthology Magazine Was It Published In? OR What Publisher?

In Japan, manga is released in big anthology magazines. The most well-known is probably Shounen Jump, the publisher of many popular titles such as Naruto, My Hero Academia, and Dragonball. These magazines publish at varying rates from weekly to only once. They’re printed on lower grade paper, and they collect multiple titles. These magazines have editorial boards who have a vision for what type of work they put out, and knowing who published the work in its first run can be helpful. For example, I know that Hana to Yume and Lala have published some of my favorite series in the past, so I like to keep an eye on what they put out.

If you’re not a crazy otaku, then that might not be super helpful. So, I’d say to also look at who’s publishing over here in the US. There are more of them than you’d probably guess. VIZ Media is one of the biggest, and I will say they’re pretty responsive to school librarians. When a volume of Death Note had a manufacturer’s error, I contacted VIZ and they sent me a new volume. They publish all of the Shounen Jump titles, and also publish a large amount of shōjo titles under their Shoujo Beat imprint. That said, there are other publishers, some of which are known for picking up more sophisticated titles, and others which are anxious to import anything. Publishers that I think do an amazing job of translation and presentation include Kodansha USA (their Eternal Editions of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon are works of art), Vertical, and recently Seven Seas Entertainment.

Who is the Mangaka?

There are various reasons to consider the mangaka when purchasing. Many mangaka have distinctive styles of not just art, but also storytelling. Just as we often will consider the authors of YA novels and graphic novels, it’s important to consider who is writing and creating manga. I know I can trust Takahashi Rumiko, for example, to give stories with a strong balance of action and gentle romance.

I also know that Watsuki Nobuhiro (Rurouni Kenshin) was found guilty of possession of child pornography, and that his work will never be on my shelf despite its popularity.

Field Trip!

For me, the art is half the joy of manga, and I prefer to read physical volumes (although digital publication is on the rise). Also, I find many great new manga via just perusing shelves.

I’m lucky enough to live in NYC, so I like to browse at Kinokuniya and Book Off, but their English sections are actually smaller than that of Barnes and Noble. Barnes and Noble, honestly, has an excellent manga selection, and they frequently run sales. Also, Barnes and Noble will just let you sit and read for a long time, which is helpful for when I’m trying to get a sense of a title. While there, it’s easy to preview titles. The manga section is often where you’ll see young manga fans reading, sitting on the floor. I like to be a little nosey and see what they’re drawn to, which also can be helpful now that I’m a bit removed from what’s hot with the teens.

If you don’t want to leave your computer, though, many manga are now available digitally. Shounen Jump titles have free chapters available, usually the first three or four and the most recent few. It’s a good way to flip through digitally and get a taste.

If There’s an Anime, Watch Episode One

This is also an easy in. That said, not every manga gets an anime adaptation, and adaptations may vary in quality and accuracy. Sometimes the anime is better. Sometimes the anime is an abomination. A lot of the time, the anime only gets one season. However, the anime can give you a working knowledge that can let you know what’s going on.

Hopefully this gives you an idea of some ways into making selections. Obviously, you can also check reviews and other traditional selection tools as well.

Review: Fruits Basket

Review: Fruits Basket

Title: Fruits Basketフルーツバスケット

Mangaka: Natsuki Takaya 高屋 奈月

US Publisher: Formerly TokyoPop, now Yen Press

Status: Complete.

Level: Middle School, High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Grief, abuse.

Anime: 2001: Funimation, Hulu.

2019: Funimation, Crunchyroll.

Content Warnings: Discussions of mental and physical abuse.

Fruits Basket, commonly referred to as Furuba (フルバ), is one of the most beloved manga of all time. Like Ouran, Furuba is one of my absolute favorite manga series of all time, and one that I think is essential to a good manga collection. I thought now was the time to talk about Furuba because the new anime has just started airing in simulcast, so school librarians may get an influx of requests for it.

The premise of Furuba is initially relatively simple, but the manga has a complexity and undercurrent that really makes for compelling storytelling. It also has one of the most satisfying conclusions I’ve seen in a manga.

Tohru Honda is a young girl who has recently lost her beloved mother in an accident. When her paternal grandfather, her guardian, needs to live with his family while his home is being renovated, he asks her to stay with friends. Not wanting her friends to worry or be put into a difficult spot, Tohru opts to live out of a tent. The land she chooses to stay on turns out to belong to the Sohma family. Yuki Sohma is Tohru’s classmate, and he and his cousin Shigure live in the house on the property. When Tohru’s tent is buried in a landslide, they offer to let her stay in exchange for doing the cooking and cleaning (something they hate and Tohru loves). Tohru’s such a polite young girl they don’t have to worry about her hugging them out of nowhere- something they are desperate to avoid.

It’s all going very smoothly until Kyo Sohma bursts in through the ceiling, demanding to fight Yuki. Tohru goes to stop him, trips, and accidentally embraces him from behind. When she does so, the Sohma family secret is quickly discovered: when hugged by members of the opposite gender, they turn into the animals from the traditional legend of the Chinese Zodiac. Kyo is the cat, the one animal not included in the Zodiac.

Initially, the manga follows Tohru learning more about the Sohmas and their curse. As it progresses, the relationships among the various members are more parsed out, and it becomes clear that the curse isn’t all cute animal transformations and fun. Furuba ultimately is about healing and moving past grief. It’s about connection, both of the past and the future. It’s also a story of chosen families, escaping abuse, and breaking cycles. It’s a story about how bonds can sour, and how people need space to grow.

I’m going to say, emphatically, that Fruits Basket is a must-buy for a school librarian looking to build a collection of manga. It’s sweet and gentle. It can be quite dark, especially in later volumes, but there’s nothing inappropriate. The darkness comes more in the form of emotional torment and manipulation from the character’s pasts, and in the form of heavy doses of romantic angst as one of the boys falls for Tohru. It all ends, though, with healing and understanding. Everyone, even the perpetrator of much of the abuse in the series, breaks free of a cycle born out of misunderstanding and longing in order to build a fresh new future.

Some readers complain that Tohru, the main character, is a “doormat”. But personally, I’ve never interpreted it that way, and the newer translation is much clearer that Tohru’s weakness is that she’s self-sacrificing to a level that is harmful to her. Tohru has to learn to be more selfish as the series progresses. In my teens and twenties, I had a lot of the same traits as Tohru. I was the “mom” of my social circle, and eventually learned that this was not sustainable or healthy. When I originally read the series, it went over my head that I was in a similar mode and that I needed to learn to practice self care. In my reread of the series, the distance I now have helped me realize how similar my younger self was to Tohru, and that I could have possibly pulled some lessons from her progression.

To understand how beloved this series is, I’d like to point out that the new anime is a prestige anime with beautiful animation, simultaneous release in Japanese and English, and screenings in theaters. It’s basically all the otaku community was talking about since the press release that it was going to be released. The first anime was good for 2001, but it came out before many of the reveals of the series happened, so things were animated and voiced incorrectly. It ends well before the resolution of the plot. (We’re now four episodes in, and I have to say that it is absolutely perfect. The amount of care and love the series is getting from the production is wonderful.)

Anime adaptations like the original Fruits Basket are incredibly common. There are many series that you never got an adequate conclusion from if you didn’t go to pick up the manga. It’s very, very rare for a story to get a second shot in animation. It’s becoming slightly more regular, but mostly shōnen titles get that chance (exceptions being Sailor Moon and Here Comes Miss Modern). For so many resources to be put into the new Furuba is pretty big for the industry, and does a lot to value the impact of shōjo. And if anyone would like to ask, I have a list of other anime I think needs a remake- and others I think it would be a crime to touch.

In short, get this manga, if you don’t have it already. Students love it, and it’s a beautiful story. It’s about finding your place and connecting with others. It’s funny, sad, and thought-provoking.

Review: Tokyo Ghoul

Review: Tokyo Ghoul

Title: Tokyo Ghoul 東京喰種

Mangaka: Sui Ishida 石田 スイ

US Publisher: Viz Signature

Status: Complete.

Level: Upper Middle School, High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: Violence, body horror

Anime: Funimation.

Content Warnings: Lots of violence and gore.

Honestly, I didn’t get the appeal of Tokyo Ghoul until I sat down and watched the anime. I read the first volume some time ago, to write a review for this blog, and I just couldn’t get into it. It’s not that I don’t like horror, because it’s an issue of the opposite problem. I love horror. I’ve written in the past about Japanese horror in particular. My husband and I watch a lot of Asian horror films (here’s his review of the excellent One Cut of the Dead, which everyone should watch). I’ve been a fan of Junji Ito, an amazing horror mangaka whose work is probably way too graphic to put on my school’s shelves, for a very long time. And the first volume of Tokyo Ghoul is… okay.

The premise is that Ken Kaneki, a college student, survives a deadly date with a ghoul only by receiving organs transplanted into him from that ghoul. Ghouls are creatures who look like humans, but can only survive by eating human flesh. Kaneki finds out that he has been transformed into a half-ghoul, and desperately craves human flesh. He tries to subdue that desire, but eventually has to give in to his new nature.

My students LOVE this series. I was thinking, originally, that they oversold it to me. The manga is fine, but didn’t exactly rock my world. The violence is tamed by the art style, which is both gorey and contained. That might seem strange to say, but Ishida uses a lot of effects, which obfuscate the more explicit gore. There’s a lot of blood, but that blood honestly creates a barrier. In this double page panel, where a character has had a construction beam fall on her, the gore has been reduced by the effects.

The gore levels are honestly fairly on par with most American comics. The fast pace keeps you from really focusing on individual panels.

When I went to watch the anime, though, it was the same story, but visually different. The manga is dark and difficult to parse through at times from the amount of ink on the page, but the anime is vivid and visually engaging. The pacing is also improved.

So, the question that you’re really looking for an answer to with these blogs is whether you should buy it. And I’d say Tokyo Ghoul is perfectly fine to purchase, and that students really love it. The violence might be a bit much for some, but it’s no more violent than a standard issue of Batman or a book like Not Even Bones. There’s nothing sexually explicit, and the story gets vastly more complex and interesting past the first volume. Female characters are powerful and complex, which is a pretty big deal for seinan manga. There’s a lot going on in regard to being an outsider, and finding power in being an outsider, which is where I feel students really connect with this story. After all, this really isn’t about whether I like it or not- it’s whether this manga is something which school librarians should purchase. And ultimately, I’m on the side of buying it. I’d also say the anime is a good one for clubs to watch.

Because this is seinan, it is written with older teens in mind, but I believe it could work for some middle school populations, due to the lack of any sexual content.

Review: Food Wars!

Review: Food Wars!

Title: Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma 食戟のソーマ

Mangaka: Yūto Tsukuda 附田 祐斗

US Publisher: Viz Media

Status: Ongoing

Level: High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: partial nudity, sexual content

Anime: Crunchyroll.

Content Warnings: This series contains explicit scenes of people reacting with sexual orgasm to consuming food.

Oh, Food Wars!, you sure do know how to take a very tame premise and make a lot of people uncomfortable.

Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma is a shōnen manga that is honestly a bit controversial. The central premise is that Yukihira Soma, a teenage boy who runs a traditional Japanese restaurant with his father, goes to an elite cooking school wherein students compete to be considered the top in their field. They have to participate in matches, which determine their ranking. Naturally, Soma wants to be considered the best.

But what, you may ask, is so controversial about that?

Well, it’s not the premise or the food battles that are problematic. Honestly, that part of the story is really interesting, and the illustrations of food in this manga are amazing. The recipes actually work, and my brother (a chef) confirms that it’s very accurate to how restaurants work and how various cooking techniques are deployed. This manga should be an insta-buy! But, it isn’t. Because what Food Wars! is best known for in the manga and anime community is its constant, unrelenting fan service. When people eat Soma’s food, they orgasm. Their ecstasy is shown in detail just vague enough for the Japanese tastes. It’s moe run amok.

Make no mistake, the OTT explicitness is all part of the joke. But it’s also constantly there, particularly objectifying female characters, even when they are supposed to be seen as culinary geniuses wielding great skill. Every female character is subjected to this treatment, some over and over again. And honestly, the joke gets old.

I have one volume of Food Wars! on my shelf. It was donated, and I’m okay with monitoring the circulation of one volume at the moment. One of my schools has a culinary program, and I feel like older high school students can get the joke and make the connections to the better parts of the story. I will not, however be buying any more volumes of this manga. For one, I know for a fact that the first volume is relatively tame, and the joke gets pushed further and further. Also, there are alternative titles which cover food and cooking as a topic. Off the top of my head, I can think of Kitchen Princess, a shōjo manga that features a young girl who loves to cook. The storyline is vastly different, but it also includes recipes and amazing illustrations of food.

I won’t go so far as to say you shouldn’t buy Food Wars!, but in a school setting, it’s probably best to select something else (and I’d say it probably isn’t appropriate for middle school). If you want school competition, get My Hero Academia. If you’re looking for food-related manga, go for Kitchen Princess or Sweetness and Lightning. There are so many titles, and I leave it to the public library to purchase titles like Food Wars!, which is also available online through Shonen Jump. If someone really wants to read it, it’s $1.99 a month to access Shonen Jump.

Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride

Review: The Ancient Magus’ Bride

Title: The Ancient Magus’ Bride /魔法使いの嫁 Mahō Tsukai no Yome

Mangaka: Kore Yamazaki ヤマザキ コレ

US Publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment

Status: Ongoing

Level: Middle School, High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: depression, suicide, abuse, substance abuse

Anime: Crunchyroll.

Content Warnings: Frequent discussion of character suicide, some body horror.

I have to tell you about this manga, because it is SO GOOD. I had plans to cover other titles, but picked this up for my personal reading. I read all of what’s available in a couple of days, and I’ve watched most of the anime on my commute.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride is the story of Hatori Chise, a Japanese girl who has been ostracized by her family and society for her strange behavior. Chise is able to see fairies and spirits, which follow her and frequently terrorize her. When she is about to complete suicide by jumping from her school building, she is approached by a stranger who convinces her to put herself up for sale in an auction instead. She is then sold to Elias Ainsworth, a being that is not quite fairy or human. Elias takes her to his home in England, and he informs her that she is his apprentice and future wife. Chise, it turns out is a sleigh beggy, a human who can tap into unlimited magical power. This comes at a price, though, as this unlimited magical energy drains her physically, and will ultimately kill her.

As the story progresses, Chise becomes more assertive and makes connections with others in ways that make her cherish life. We learn more about the characters and their motivations, which are complex and interesting. Yamazaki weaves various folk traditions in such a way that are respectful of the original tales but also give a unique point of view. This is a story about valuing life and others, and it’s beautiful. Most of the characters have been broken in some way, but they are fixing each other and themselves.

I want to point out that The Ancient Magus’ Bride is a shōnen series. There is no moe, no sexual objectification, and the story features a female protagonist who is able to show both vulnerability and strength. The setup was something that held me off from reading this, but Chise is not a slave and Elias clearly doesn’t understand what a wife is. They have a positively chaste relationship.

I highly recommend purchasing this series. It has enough action and drama to really hook students, and it’s alternatively heart-wrenching and hilarious. I recommend treading carefully, though. Suicide is a frequent topic. There’s also a character who was once made to take and sell drugs by her parents, and there is discussion about what it was like for her to detox and recover from that abuse. That topic in a popular shōnen manga was a big surprise to me- Japan has a very conservative attitude toward drug abuse, and the character is treated with a lot of respect.

I believe a lot of titles have been engaging in ideas around suicide in Japanese culture recently in a way that shows attitudes around mental health are slowly taking a turn. More and more titles are centering around the affirmation of life and connecting with others. I’ll get around soon to talking about mental health in Japan, but in my next post, I want to get back on schedule with Food Wars.

Moe: A Quick Primer

Moe: A Quick Primer

In my post yesterday, I threw out a word that I realized might have basically no meaning without context. This word was moe (萌え).

Moe is when you feel a strong feeling of affection or attraction toward a character in a piece of media. Usually there is a cuteness or kawaii (かわいい) factor. It’s very emotion-driven term. The word comes from moeru (萌える), which means to “blossom”. There’s a pun involved, though, because the word moe (燃え) means “burning”. If you didn’t notice, these words were written differently in Japanese.

Moe is something that actually gets the anime community a bit worked up. Some people argue that it’s ruining the genre. Others are obsessed with their animated waifus and husbandos. It’s a… complicated thing, to be honest.

Part of the issue is that moe is generally manufactured to explicitly appeal to men. The term started off as just a general affection that cannot be suppressed by otaku, but now tends to mean a very specific type of female character. She’s hyper cute, possibly clumsy, constantly flustered, and innately innocent.

Moe characters can be highly problematic. Some of them are obviously sexualized, which is disturbing when another key element is that they are childlike in most depictions. Moe can also be highly confusing to people outside of the community. For example, there’s a series of manga, anime, video games, and light novels about personified game consoles battling for dominance. It’s called Hyperdimension Neptunia (超次元ゲイム ネプテューヌ). Trying to explain, in depth, what these games are is a daunting task. And if I’m honest, these games are about building up the moe in the fanbase until they reach a fever pitch. It’s how they’ve managed to make sixteen games based off the premise. Fans get figures and body pillows of these characters.

If one’s moe for a character reaches a fever pitch, a fan might consider her his “waifu”. I want to make something super clear, by the way, because this is not a solely Japanese phenomenon. This is unified across many, many otaku from all nations. The idea of a waifu (or a husbando) is that she is who the living human being considers to be their actual significant other. Otaku build shrines to their waifu. They buy them birthday cakes.

A shrine to Mio from K-On!, courtesy of Reddit.

Sometimes, they marry them. Kondo Akihiko married Hatsune Miku in 2018. Hatsune Miku is a virtual reality singer designed by Crypton Future for their Vocaloid software. Kondo has a Gatebox, which creates a hologram and AI of Hatsune Miku and their own character, Azuma Hikari. Miku-chan and Hikari-chan are polygamous: Gatebox reports that they have issued 3,700 wedding certificates to owners of their product.

Moe as a concept for which it is difficult for me to come to a definite conclusion. I consider myself a lover of kawaii, or cute, culture. There are characters who are made to appeal to moe fans who I like. A lot of the anime which cashes in on moe depicts a solely female cast, with female friendship at the core. K-On! (a definitively moe title) is a tale of a group of girls learning to play instruments. Three of the songs from K-On! are on my favorites playlist. But sometimes, like when I tried playing Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection years ago, I get the distinct impression that this thing about girls is not necessarily for girls (mostly when I was tasked with giving one of these girls a bath and I quickly turned off the game). And I get uncomfortable with the idea of someone sexualizing these characters, or deciding that they have more value than real women.

I would like to point out a series which has moe characters which I believe has a lot of value. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is a deconstruction of moe and magical girl tropes. It actually gets quite dark and the cuteness comes with a terrible price. I’ll talk about the series later down the road.

Next up, though, is The Ancient Magus’ Bride.

Manga and Women: Buying Manga for School Libraries in the #MeToo Era

Manga and Women: Buying Manga for School Libraries in the #MeToo Era

When I talk to other school librarians about manga and anime, many of them voice a similar concern: the manga they see has horrible treatment of women. These are not invalid concerns, especially as school librarians are working to make their collections more inclusive and affirming. And when students are requesting series that depict sexual harassment and assault as comedic occurrences (I’m looking at you, Seven Deadly Sins), or at the very least, series which treat women solely as sexual or romantic beings, I can’t blame my colleagues for their hesitation.

That said, there’s a lot to unpack with this debate. There are elements of Japanese society that are inherently different from American society. Many school librarians also know nothing of the distinctions between genres of manga, or have only heard of what’s most popular among their patrons. Manga is often seen as the way to get boys reading, and so masculine titles tend to be extremely popular for purchasing. What I’m going to do is try to unpack these things, piece by piece, to try and provide some context- and maybe show my peers that the stereotypes of shōnen manga are not all there is out there to purchase.

Societal Differences in the Perception of Gender

If we all work from the supposition that gender is a social construct, then perhaps it might be easier to understand that Japan’s constructs are similar and different to Western constructs. Japanese media can come across as being both freer and stricter with gender roles. Here are a few things you need to understand about Japan in relation to women:

  • Japan is ranked 110 out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum’s annual report on gender equality.
  • There is only one female member of the Japanese Cabinet.
  • As of 2017, only 3.4% of executives in Japan were women.
  • The ratio of female-to-male physicians in Japan is 21%.
  • Japan has been trying to improve the standing of women in society, but it’s been difficult.
  • Japan is only recently starting to think critically about these issues.

Japan has a long history of having a traditional gender balance of labor wherein women are expected to raise children and take care of housekeeping, while men are expected to work. Japanese society generally has a very heavy line down the center in this division, much more so than there currently is in the West. Since 1986, the Equal Employment Opportunity Law has been in place to try and provide more gender equity in the workplace in Japan, but it’s been a struggle. Part of the problem is that there was no penalty for employers who did not adhere to the changes.

Japan, also, has a serious problem with the way it handles and reports sexual harassment and assault. Certain occurrences which Western women consider assault are not necessarily seen as such by Japanese women. In her article, “Shifting attitudes toward sexual violence in Japan”, Masami Ito describes her experiences:

When I was in junior high school, a young man who lived in the same apartment building flashed me in an elevator, blocking the entrance as he did so.

When I was in college, a middle-aged man cornered me in the box seat on a train and masturbated in front of me.

When I was in my mid-20s, a man pressed himself against me in the aisle of a convenience store and then followed me home. I had to call my father for help that time.

And, of course, I have been groped on trains many, many times.

Until recently, I never considered these incidents to be sexual assaults, nor did I ever view myself as a victim. I told myself that such things happened all the time and I was never physically hurt. I compared my experiences to those of other women and I considered myself lucky.

In Japan, there’s even a word for men who grope women on crowded trains: chikan. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department reported 1,750 cases of groping on the trains. (I attempted to find figures on this particular crime in NYC from the same year, but was unable to find any exact report of figures.) It’s such a common occurrence, it’s often a plot point in manga. In My Love Story!! the protagonist meets his future girlfriend by stopping a man from groping her.

Viz Media. Let me say right now, before I move on, that I absolutely love My Love Story!!.

I want to be clear, and maybe the panels of My Love Story!! do something to show this, that the problems of sexual harassment in Japan are seen as problems by people in the country. There are Japanese feminists and citizens who want things to change. Last year, the BBC released a documentary titled Japan’s Secret Shame, which went into the experiences of three different women who were raped in Japan. It’s not available at the moment, but if you can find a way to see it, it may give insight into the issue if you want to know more.

Shōnen, Shōjo, and So Much More

The complaints I hear the most are in relation to what is known as shōnen manga. Shōnen is geared toward boys between ages 12 and 18. There’s a reason this stuff flies off the shelf with our male-identifying patrons: it’s literally made for them. The longest running series in Japan are shōnen manga, and are household names here in the West (you’ve probably heard of Dragonball Z, I presume). Typically, these are high-action, hyper-masculine stories. And while there are exceptions, such as My Hero Academia, there’s a large history of “fan service” in shōnen. There’s also some pretty big issues with some of the creators of shōnen titles.

For example, the author of Rurouni Kenshin was found with an enormous backlog of child pornography DVDs. Not only did he have this material, he admitted his attraction to young girls. His manga is currently still in publication, after he paid a fine of only ¥200,000 (about $1,800 USD). No, I am not joking.

I don’t want you to come away from this thinking shōnen manga is evil, by the way. What I want is for fellow school librarians to know that what they’re seeing is just a fraction of what manga has to offer. Some shōnen has female protagonists (Yotsuba&! features a mostly female cast with little to no fan service, as its main character is a child). And a lot of women and girls read shōnen.

Shōjo manga is the counterpart to shōnen: manga written for girls between the ages of 12 and 18. Honestly, shōjo can have its own issues. Some titles feature girls whose identities revolve solely around romance or a desire to get married and make babies. Kidnapping and threats of sexual assault can be normal (the idea being that these girls need to be saved by their boyfriends, who frequently are much older than them). There’s a whole slew of manga revolving around schoolgirls having romantic relationships with their teachers. So, I also don’t want you to think that being labeled shōjo makes the content automatically appropriate for students.

I recently reread a manga I loved as a teen, Ayashi no Ceres. It featured multiple rather explicit sex scenes and the main character dropping out of school to have a baby. It was an easy decision to select other series over that one, although I still consider it a classic. I leave it to students to select series with those sort of themes at their own pace through alternate pathways such as the public library, bookstores, or manga apps.

However, I do want to point out that shōjo manga is a category in which feminine fantasy and identity is often at the forefront. And while this is the case, there are many shōjo manga which widely appeal to boys. Titles which spring to mind are Escaflowne and Magic Knight Rayearth.

There are other categories as well: seinan (for adult men), josei (for adult women), kodomo (for children), and gekiga (for adults, with a more “artistic” and “literary” reputation). The differentiation between adults and teens has more to do with the difficulty of the Japanese than the content or target demographic. Gekiga is probably the most “different”, because it strives to be taken more seriously. (I have a plan to talk more in-depth about each category in their own posts).

Look For Women

When purchasing, if you are looking to move away from the pure moe that is popular among certain titles, I’d suggest looking for women who are mangaka. The likelihood that problematic behavior will be present is lower, and honestly, women creators can always use the boost. Series that are beloved by boys are written by women: Fullmetal Alchemist, Inu-Yasha, and Ranma 1/2 are examples (admittedly, the latter two were both written by Takahashi Rumiko).

Note: I kept this fairly pared down, so if you’d like to know more or have any questions, please don’t hesitate to comment. If you would like me to go more in depth on any topic, please let me know, and I will do an expansion in a future blog.

Review: Ouran High School Host Club

Review: Ouran High School Host Club

Title: Ouran High School Host Club / Ōran Kōkō Hosuto Kurabu桜蘭高校ホスト部

Mangaka: Bisco Hatori 葉鳥ビスコ

US Publisher: Viz Media

Status: Complete

Level: High School

Reader’s Advisory Tags: humor, school stories, shoujo, non-binary character

Anime: Funimation, Netflix, Hulu.

Content Warnings: Some light innuendos, occasional comedic violence.

I’m very biased about Ouran High School Host Club. It is one of my favorite manga of all time, and one that I have the entire set of on my library shelf. I think it’s a masterpiece of the genre, and I’m not alone in thinking so. So, I just want to be clear: this review is totally biased and driven by a profound love.

Ouran is the tale of Fujioka Haruhi, a scholarship student at Ouran High School. Ouran is a prestigious school for the ridiculously rich, which Haruhi is attending to pursue her dream of being a lawyer like her late mother. One day, struggling to find a quiet place to study, Haruhi stumbles across the Host Club: a group of affluent boys who run a club where they entertain young ladies of the school with nothing better to do. Because of Haruhi’s sloppy clothes (she can’t afford the uniform) and haircut (a neighborhood kid stuck gum in her hair, so she cut it out), she appears to be a nerdy boy to the members of the Host Club. When she accidentally breaks an expensive vase, she finds herself in debt- and is forced to do menial tasks for the club. It isn’t until the end of the chapter, after a makeover which gives her the appearance of a cute boy, that the reader and the members of the Host Club are made aware that Haruhi is a girl. What follows, over the next eight volumes, is a farcical comedy of errors and ultimately heartwarming tale of expanding horizons. The Host Club struggles to keep Haruhi to themselves, and Haruhi struggles to understand the boys of the Host Club.

What makes Ouran so unique is the characterization of Haruhi and the various members. Haruhi is actually a very sensible and intelligent character, and sees herself as essentially androgynous. It’s very easy to argue that Haruhi is nonbinary. Her father is a trans woman, proclaiming that he is in fact bi (I use “he/him” for Ranka because those are the pronouns used in the text), and that Haruhi’s mother was the only woman he would ever love. Crossdressing is not unusual as a plot point in shoujo manga. Another classic, Hana Kimi, features a girl crossdressing in order to enter an all boys’ school. What makes Haruhi unique is that her androgynous personality is what throws her into the situation. She’s not a girly girl hiding out to have access to this harem of dudes- in fact, most of the time, she finds them slightly annoying.

Viz Media.

Haruhi is a character who is honest, straightforward, and determined. While all of the male characters inevitably fall in love with her, it makes sense that they would. She gives these rich boys a lot of levity, and understands them in all their idiosyncrasies. She’s the only character allowed to see them outside of their performances.

Each of the boys has a unique personality. Suoh Tamaki is the president of the Host Club, an earnest but dense character with narcissistic tendencies (he’s highly lovable despite being a bit of an idiot). Ohtori Kyoya is the vice president, and the person actually pulling the strings. His strategic maneuvering seems sinister but ultimately has positive goals. Hitachiin Kaoru and Hikaru are twins who are incredibly close and mischievous (there are many similarities between them and the Weasley twins). Haninozuka Mitsukuni (aka “Hunny”) appears to be a cute little boy, but is in fact a senior with killer martial arts skills. Morinozuka Takashi (aka “Mori”) is a quiet and strong young man who waits upon Hunny (their relationship is a callback to traditional Japanese tropes of servitude among samurai). Each boy has an interesting backstory and personality, and expectations are regularly subverted by the text.

Ouran also does a lot of playing with tropes of the genre, and is a direct send up of female otaku culture. The series is a playground of feminine fantasy, while also making clear how ridiculous some of those fantasies can be. The story also blossoms across the eighteen volumes, into a sweet love story and a tale of human connection. Haruhi does eventually fall for one of these boys, but in a genuine way that never sacrifices her personal goals for herself. The ridiculous scenarios are hilarious, and the artwork is gorgeous. Hatori is a master of facial expression, and has a delicate hand. Every illustration is lush and detailed. Images from Ouran are permanently etched into my mind.

I can promise that if you buy this series, it will circulate and that it’s worthy of circulating. Ouran is a classic of the genre and has a lot of meaning for many fans of manga. When I put our set out, I had multiple students thank me for it. It’s an 18-volume series, and it can be cost prohibitive to actually buy for yourself.

I’ll add that the anime is also considered a classic, and is well done. It’s not perfect, and I’m not a fan of how the series wrapped up (it went completely off script from the original manga), but it’s still very good. With Fruits Basket getting a full story animation this year (we’ll talk about Fruits Basket soon), I’m hoping that Ouran may be due for a full story animation as well.