Posts Tagged ‘manga’

Rica ‘tte Kanji!?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s a little something in honor of National Coming Out Day: Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, an autobiographical comic about the unique challenges of coming out as a lesbian in Japan.

As Rica Takashima, the book’s artist, says right at the start, “I grew up out in the country. So, I’ve never met an actual lesbian.” Or at least, not that she was aware of. It’s a truism that since about 10% of the population is gay, most people have more LGBT friends than they realize. But whereas the U.S. at least has something like National Coming Out Day, the Japanese maxim “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down” reigns supreme, and Japan’s gay population in non-metropolitan areas remains invisible. One gets the sense that if Rica hadn’t moved to Tokyo to enter junior college, thereby gaining access to the GLBT-centric Nichoume district of Shinjuku, she might have gone her whole life without meeting another actual lesbian: “It’s the same for everyone in the beginning,” confirms Miho upon hearing the above line.

That general sense of desperation amongst the Tokyo lesbian community informs a lot of the book’s events. After making a quiet debut at one of the Nichoume clubs, Rica is taken to a women-only event at a larger club; there, as is standard for girls new to the scene, she gets an avalanche of passes by girls who don’t often see new faces in the crowd. Miho, one of the first girls Rica meets and the one who becomes her girlfriend over the course of the book, laments early on that she hasn’t found a girlfriend in the six months she’s been in the Nichoume scene, with the implied reason that the pickings are that slim. The only real challenge to their love comes when Rica briefly develops a crush on Kaoru, who turns out not to be a lesbian at all but a preoperative transsexual also active in Nichoume. (“You didn’t realize?” asks Kaoru to a bewildered Rica when the secret is revealed. “I thought you were just a fag hag.”)

Given that Rica ‘tte Kanji!? offers a rare perspective into a little-represented corner of Japanese society, it’s a bit frustrating that Takashima doesn’t expand her scope beyond her tentative romance with Miho. For instance, her area of study at the junior college is early childhood education, but although she gets a job at a foster nursery toward the end of the book, we’re never told whether her employers know or care about her relationship.

This may be a byproduct of Takahashi’s explanation in an afterword that “Ten years ago there were very few manga with lesbian stories. Only depressing stories, about ‘forbidden love’ with a break-up in the end. […] I wanted to read a HAPPY story.” (This was in 2003, and it’s been nearly ten years since then without a lot having changed in the manga world, as far as I can tell.) In this light, it makes sense that providing information about the gay Japanese lifestyle is outside the scope of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, which serves instead as a sort of proto-It Gets Better for young Japanese lesbians. (Then again, there’s a distinct possibility that some of these issues do come up in the frustratingly large amount of untranslated text pieces inexplicably included in the English adaptation.)

Even apart from the window into Rica’s particular subculture, it’s a cute book that tells a sweet story with breezily naive cartooning perfectly suited to its subject matter. It may not provide all the answers one might hope from someone with Rica’s perspective, but what she does reveal, both about herself and about her newfound social circles, is worth the read.

Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

In the Presidential election of 2008, I was largely in sync in Barack Obama’s policies and platforms. (No Catholic can ever be completely so, of course.) I liked what he said about war, race, education, science and technology, international relations, terror and torture, and civil rights. But even in spite of that, when I cast my ballot on that November 4th, some part of me wasn’t voting for Obama. It was voting for Kenneth Yamaoka.

Yamaoka is, not the star exactly, but certainly the central figure and enigma about whom Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, by Kaiji Kawaguchi, revolves. The star of the book, if you must know, is Takashi Jo, cub reporter for the Daily Maicho Shinbun in Japan. Takashi, it’s revealed early on, is also Yamaoka’s son, born of an intense relationship the candidate had on an Okinawa airbase en route to Vietnam. The family drama surrounding Takashi and Yamaoka’s family is pure potboiler material, meant to hook in Japanese readers who couldn’t care less about labor disputes or racial tension.

But the real meat of the book is the political machine. Yamaoka doesn’t even become the official Democratic candidate until the fourth of the five thick books. (Average page length: 473 pages.) The majority of Yamaoka’s struggle is–and stop me if you’ve heard this one before–vying in the primaries with the beneficiary of the Clinton legacy, though since Eagle dates back to 1997, that comes in the form of an Al Gore manque rather than a Hilary isotope.

As Yamaoka wends his way through debates, press conferences, and backroom deals, the ideology and argument on display is simplified and idealized, to be sure. Just as Riichiro Inagaki slowly and painstakingly lays out every rule and exception of American football for Eyeshield 21 readers coming to the sport for the first time, Kawaguchi couches political points in Eagle heavily in metaphors. There’s Yamaoka conning Al Noah into playing chess as the two of them trade sound bites about the intertwining issues of education and immigration policy. There’s George Tuck (Kawaguchi’s Dick Tuck stand-in) screening a campaign ad showing an inner-city kid being left behind on the side of a road by a station water, sports car, and space shuttle until Yamaoka pulls up driving a bus to ferry him “to the 21st century.” There’s Yamaoka speaking privately to Takashi amidst a backdrop of scenes frim his Vietnam tour, claiming that he’s “still in the jungle” when it comes to the bare-knuckled world of politics.

But for all their simplicity and digestibility, these are still recognizably American touchstones and issues. Kawaguchi didn’t phone this one in: according to a short interview in the back of volume 2, he engrossed himself in American political literature, leaned heavily on Japanese experts in the field at top newspaeprs, and spent months touring the country for himself and taking “what eventually amounted to 50 photo albums’ worth of pictures” for reference. All that work, translated by equally fervent research junkie Carl Horn, paid off.

So when the story goes to New York, where Yamaoka began his political career, and deals with a local politician who seems to have no political agenda beyond peddling influence and keeping himself reelected, it feels real. When Yamaoka struggles to keep the support of the military while not compromising on his hardline antiwar stance, it feels real. When the campaign heats up after the Democratic National Convention and Yamaoka is shadowed by fringe kooks leaving threatening messages and worse, it feels real.

And most importantly for those of us who voted for Obama two years ago, when Yamaoka lets the reader down, when he tosses aside a principle or two if it helps him jockey for position, when he’s shown to be only a man after all, that feels real too. When you start to notice that Yamaoka’s victory is built as much as anything on savvy media manipulation, demographic jockeying, and one grim-jawed get-out-the-vote organization, it rings unfortunately true.

But if you knew back in 2002 that this is who Yamaoka was, it took some of the sting out of it when you helped elect him six years later.

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