ADULT MANGA: PRO-ESTABLISHMENT POP-CULTURE AND NEW POLITICS IN THE 1990S
 
1999
 
Sharon Kinsella


Published in Media, Culture and Society 1999, Vol. 21


approx 5 - 8 pages


Manga was a child of the sixties. Like rock and roll, it records the imagination (but not the voice) of radical drop-out life. Across its pages have flowed most of the most extreme, individualistic and uncontrolled expressions to pass through the Japanese media in the post-war years. To the extent that the best of its millions of volumes have been preserved (only just), manga remains a record of the special qualities of euphoria, desire, disappointment, yearning, weariness, aspiration, depression, loneliness, madness, banality, and satire, that characterise the mood of Japan in the post-war era.

While manga - which contains very little advertising - has not been filled with the images of products for sale, it has been filled with images of people. It has been a very sociable medium. Its pages teem with characters, whose aspirations, frustrations, and adventures form the substance of manga series. Manga characters tend to embody aspects of characture, they have exaggerated facial expressions, they swoon, they sweat, they cry, they bleed, they are visibly excited, shocked, distraught, embarrassed, and amused. It is possible that highly expressive and emotionally readable manga characters have held a particular attraction in a contemporary environment which has encouraged high levels of self- discipline and a more controlled mode of physical and facial expression.

The superfluity of expression in manga make it a superb point of entry into the subjective mood of post-war Japan. In an advanced industrial society in which the volume of information, culture and intellectual attention focused on national ideology, national psychology, corporate organisation, technology, and aesthetics, has overwhelmed any serious interest in real people and contemporary creativity, manga culture has been an important extra dimension for communicating new attitudes and dealing with subjective issues. The focus on how people felt has given manga an unwitting humanistic value.

The skeleton history of manga is similar to that of pop-music in Anglo-American culture. Like pop- music, manga has some aesthetic roots in a pre-war folk culture, but was itself developed by early pioneers of the contemporary form, story manga, during the 1950s. Story manga expanded rapidly during the 1960s, when it also became linked to political radicalism and counter- cultural experimentation. Commercial manga continued to expand and diversify throughout the 1970s and 1980s, during which period its contents also matured to meet the changing tastes of its original readership based in the baby-boom generation. In the 1990s the broad popularity of manga was challenged by the rapid expansion of computerised games, computers and the internet. While mass events, perhaps comparable to rave culture in Europe, flourished around the amateur manga medium, the professional manga world tended towards a self-conscious crisis of form and direction. In the 1980s the difficult relationship between manga and Japanese society began to change. This article examines how it was that manga became a favourite cause of museums and institutions after decades of running alone in the wilderness.

From the mid-eighties large corporations, cultural institutions, and government agencies in Japan reached out towards the manga medium and attempted to draw it closer to the state. This happened through two superficially antithetical trends - a censorship movement and an active process of cultural assimilation. The general process of assimilation by educational and cultural institutions has been aptly described by manga critic, Kure Tomofusa, as the granting to manga of 'cultural citizenship', after a long period of 'outsider' or 'immigrant' status. Tezuka Osamu's pedagogical manga stories, new wave gekiga, and new genres of political and economic adult manga, and information manga, were central to this official promotion. The selective assimilation of specific genres of manga continued alongside a closer government regulation of the contents of all categories of manga concentrated, particularly between 1990 and 1992.

Between these twin campaigns of depreciation and promotion a new and official definition of good manga was carved out, and an institutional apparatus established for separating out good from bad manga. According to this official categorisation and, increasingly, in reality, the medium became bifurcated into two virtually separate streams. Manga which did not fit the criterion of 'national culture' was criticised, blacklisted and eliminated. Fortified regulation strongly discouraged the commercial production of such manga, in particular sexually explicit and highly contemporary genres of girls' manga, including yaoi and Lolicom, which did not conform to the new definition of high quality (j˘hin) culture (bunka). As female manga artist Morizono Milk detected - 'Before 1990 none of the companies censored sexual imagery, there was just a big taboo against things about politics and gossip about the emperor' - there had been a basic shift in the type of manga which provoked concern or praise amongst government agencies. Renewed manga regulation was accompanied by new political values which favoured greater flexibility over the themes of 'old politics', such as the Emperor system, and less flexibility over the themes of 'new politics' (Beck 1992), namely those of gender and sexuality.

Not only did this shift in the focus of manga regulation capture the transition from one political era to another, it also recorded a shift in the organisational location of political activity. In general manga regulation was carried out by local government and local organisations such as prefectoral branches of NAYDS (National Assembly for Youth Development), and community and women's groups attached to local government agencies and resources. However, the promotion of manga was orchestrated largely through national government agencies, such as the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, national cultural institutes such as the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art, and the national news media. The regulation movement was propagated by older political interests based on local government which had been quite central to the 'grass roots' structure of LDP rule in the post-war period, while the manga promotion movement was fostered by national organisations attempting to strengthen a new, more centralised political leadership. While the movement for stricter censorship and the movement for greater cultural status did, in the case of specific individuals, represent a clash of values, at the level of society the two trends dovetailed into a general process of increasing interference in the manga medium and the imposition of new agendas and values on manga by the bureaucracy.

The increasing amount of attention paid to manga by government and business was one indication of the extent to which these governing organisations felt it imperative to find new means of communication with society. From the mid-eighties, there appeared to be a desire amongst large corporations and institutions to formulate new social and cultural values which might help to cohere society. Following the publication of Japan Inc. An Introduction to Japanese Economics in Manga in 1986, these corporations and institutions began to both use and promote manga. Manga became the medium through which they attempted to communicate their ideas to employees, young people, children, or society in general. In the absence of political discussion or political movements connecting individuals into national politics, large organisations concerned to understand more about the society around them, and to create new lines of communication with unorganised individuals, turned to the arena of pop-culture. Adult manga provided corporations and agencies with an alternative means of both presenting their ideas to the public, and of gathering insights into contemporary attitudes and experiences which had found expression in manga but not in intellectual discourse.

Through the promotion of manga to the status of national culture, Japanese government agencies and institutions demonstrated, and perhaps tested, the potential for a more inclusive, modern and flexible style of government policy which employed cultural as much as political symbols. Accepting adult manga as a part of the national cultural heritage carried the strong implication that the government had become willing to recognise and work with political ideas and social groups, historically linked to adult manga, namely those associated with the Left. Individual politicians, such as Ozawa Ichiro, the president of the New Frontier Party, positively identified themselves with political adult manga in an attempt to express the modern character of their ideas.

At the same time as large corporations and government agencies experienced difficulties relating to society effectively governing it, adult manga editors also experienced what was eventually the same problem, in different ways. Editors believed that they faced the problem of reproducing a medium created in a period of social movements and social expression, in a society in which apathy and individualism had reached a point of apotheosis. The disappearance of even nostalgia for mass movements and accompanying forms of social consciousness was a problem for these producers. At the end of the post-war period, editorial confidence about what high-circulation magazines should look like, and who their readership was, had clearly been eroded. Ministerial insight into how politics should be carried out, and what in fact the nature of contemporary society really was, had become correspondingly tentative. Essential assumptions about how individuals and social consciousness should be organised, inside and outside of culture, had broken down.

The negative characterisation of amateur manga which emerged during the nineties, and which was linked to broader debates about social fragmentation and the decline of a sense of social awareness amongst youth, also influenced adult manga editors in their own judgements of the manga medium, and stimulated their anxieties about how to produce commercial manga. Manga publishers noted the absence of large nation- wide manga hits and the increasing frequency of minor, and less profitable hits, amongst small, fragmented readerships. Many felt that this problem had its roots in the particularism of youth engaged with a diverse consumer culture or amateur manga subculture. Young artists at the spontaneous cutting- edge of the manga medium appeared to be too individualistic and subjective. They were judged to be incapable of producing stories with universal or social themes, with mass appeal, which could be published in large quantities. Moreover, the majority of amateur manga was in fact parody based on series which had already been published in commercial magazines. The amateur manga medium, which had released cohorts of leading manga artists during the 1970s, was no longer thought of as a rich source of exploitable ideas and artists for manga magazine publishers.

Instead, some adult and boys manga publishers attempted to turn manga into an innovative new cultural medium which could thrive in new social and political circumstances. The enhanced status of manga increased the possibility of producing manga magazines for more culturally-conservative readerships - for precisely the type of people which would not previously have wanted to read manga magazines. Commitment to shrinking traditional readerships and popular manga themes was gradually supplanted by conservative, political and social themes, which might appeal to a more political and culturally mature new manga readership.

Manga publishers responded to the rapid promotion of adult manga within society by producing more respectable and 'cultured' manga over which they exercised greater intellectual control. The appropriation of manga by cultural and educational institutions and powerful corporations was directly linked to the appropriation of key intellectual functions of manga production by company editors. The social perception of adult manga, the social relations of its production, and its intellectual contents, were different aspects of the same process. The transformation of manga took place across society and connected individual manga artists, publishing companies, cultural and educational institutions, local and national government bureaucracies, quasi- governmental organisations, the national news media, the literati, politicians, academia, local citizen's organisations, feminist organisations, and manga fans.

In order to overcome the problem of manga artists who appeared to be unable to produce new forms of political and social realist manga, editors took over the role of thinking up and researching new manga series. Creating a more respectable and cultured form of adult manga involved the concentration of new intellectual functions in manga editors. Between the mid-sixties and the mid-nineties the direction of flow of ideas in adult manga reversed. From originating amongst (extraordinary) ordinary individuals in society and moving upwards during the 1960s - a flow which faltered during the 1970s - ideas for adult manga themes started to originate with editors in highly privileged positions in society, and filter downwards into amateur manga, where they were turned into parody by amateur artists. Corporations, government agencies and publishing editors became relatively more powerful in determining the contents of manga, while manga artists and readers became relatively less able to contribute. The balance of intellectual power within manga shifted significantly during the nineties. The relocation of the social origins of intellectual expression, traceable in one of contemporary Japan's largest and most intellectually diverse and inventive cultural formations, reflected a broader process of intellectual re-alignment taking place across Japanese society in the 1990s. During this decade broad swathes of society ceased to have any active role in intellectual and political exchange whatsoever.

Editor-centred manga production influenced the political ideas embodied within manga stories. As a group, editors tended to be relatively alert politically and they were, moreover, sensitive to new styles of discourse which emerged particularly during the Gulf War, from August 1990. Editorially inspired manga tended to be both moralistic and politically correct, and pro-establishment. New political ideas were expressed in series' run in Morning and Mister Magazine magazines, such as Silent Service, or Kaji Ryűsuke's Principles. Manga serialised in these magazines tended to have purposively realistic themes and distinctive political plots. Key concepts - the need to take individual and national 'responsibility', show 'strong leadership', reform political and corporate 'factionalism', and re- establish the Japanese military, - which were ubiquitous to political discussion during the 1990s (Ozawa 1994) featured strongly in the themes of adult manga series. Editorial offices favoured political artists who could match their own interests and values, even where these artists were unusual and not representative of the general attitudes of other manga artists. As the artist of both Section Chief Shima Kosaku and Kaji Ryusuke's Principles published in leading adult manga magazines, Hirokane Kenshi, himself pointed out, there simply were not any other manga artists with conservative political persuasions equivalent to his own in circulation in the manga industry.

Realistic political manga, which appeared in adult manga magazines from the mid-eighties onwards, marked the return of explicitly political themes, accompanied by the realist gekiga graphic style, for the first time since the early seventies. However in its second life, political adult manga had changed in disposition from being anti-establishment to pro- establishment. For some individuals who were active in the first explosion of adult manga at the beginnings of the commercial manga medium, and who have been willing to produce essentially conservative or uncritical corporate manga in the gekiga style in the recent period, the reversal of political ideas in adult manga has represented a final abandonment of Left-wing objectives. Comic Box publisher, Saitani Ry˘, and veteran manga artist, Nagashima Shinji, use the pre-war term tenko to describe 'the political conversion' of adult manga magazines during the 1990s.