By Keith Maillard
Published in 17.1
Sailor Moon is the biggest crybaby in shōjo. But we should never underestimate her power.
Girls don’t read comics—that was a truism, a nugget of tried-and-true wisdom. Oh, they might have read a few Archies in elementary school, but they’d never turn into full-on, wide-eyed, gonzo fans the way boys did. But Sailor Moon smashed that wisdom—it sent me and my daughter Liz into a comics store for the first time in our lives. We had a lot of company. Girls, it turns out, will read comics—if they’re manga—and they’ll even read them backwards, right to left, the way they were published in Japan.
Once Sailor Moon had broken down the door, a flood of manga poured through to North America—many of them from that wonderfully diverse, continually evolving genre called shōjo. In Japanese, that word means simply “girl,” and these were comics written for girls. The three times that I visited the Anime Evolution convention, the majority of the participants were girls. If they continue to be part of the fan community, they will eventually be reading every kind of manga—thrillers, adventures, romances, boys’ love stories, and whatever’s going—but what brought them there in the first place was shōjo. For many critics who write about these things, it has almost become a technical term—as in “shōjoesque” and “shōjo-ness”—but shōjo is central to their project, “girl” as a social construction.
I asked my grown-up daughter Liz to tell me what she liked about Sailor Moon. After an initial, “Oh, Dad, I don’t remember,” she mulled it over, and then told me that she liked the team of girls who trusted and depended on each other; the way they transformed, each with her own secret identity; that they were different, each with her own personality and special colour-coded uniform; and something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on, that the story was out there in the world, mysteriously, continued on its own, was bigger than any of the episodes or even all of the episodes—that it would go on whether she was watching it or not. Puzzled: “Do you know what I mean?”
It’s Anime Evolution 2009, held this time in downtown Vancouver at the Convention Centre, and once again the majority of cosplayers are girls, most of them high school kids, from the looks of them, students at Gladstone or Lord Byng, Eric Hamber, John Oliver, Kits, or Sentinel—schools where girls are simply made into girls—but today they have written themselves elsewhere. An astonishing number of them have transformed themselves into Japanese schoolgirls. These costumes are not ad hoc, rough and ready, like something slapped together for trick-or-treating on Halloween; they’re honest-to-God seifuku with bows and sailor-flaps. This image may be Japan’s most successful export—appropriated by everyone from fledgling singers in rock bands to Quentin Tarantino—but these kids are wearing their school uniforms with no sense of irony, in a cool matter-of-fact way that says, “To hell with you. This is ours.”
At least one of these Japanese schoolgirls is a boy. He, too, has recreated the seifuku perfectly. He’s visibly nervous, but he doesn’t need to be. The “real” Japanese schoolgirls have no problem with him; they’ve met him plenty of times before in the gender-bending stories in manga and anime. As I watch him walk away, absorbed into a crowd of his sisters, it strikes me that there might be any number of boys playing girls, but if they’re doing it accurately enough, I have no way to distinguish them. A half dozen boys-as-boys—they’re in their late teens and seem to be young samurai—are cheerily addressing each other with Japanese honourifics attached to their names, using “kun” and “sama.” When they meet an older gent in a robe, they call him “sensei.” Then Naruto drifts by on silent ninja feet; small, fierce, and deadly, he’s played by a girl. Cued by a ripple in the crowd, I look up and see a fabulous princess floating down toward us on the escalator. The train on her highly elaborate gown is so long that it takes a page to hold it up.
Other popular costumes are French maids and gothic Lolitas. Contextualized by the event, these florid images have been reclaimed from fetish-land, rendered curiously cool in the sense that Marshall McLuhan used the word when he called the 60s miniskirt “cool.” Writing about the movie Shimotsuma monogatari (released in English as Kamakaze Girls), critic Mari Kotani sees the main character’s Loli-dresses producing the fantasy of shōjo, resulting in the “nowhere girl.” Wearing these dresses is foolish behavior, she says, but “I think that the foolish adoption of costumes has immeasurable potential for girls.” Then, anticipating our objections, she adds: “Seriously…
“For the character Momoko, who cooly ignores her parents, Lolita fashion is a suit of armor that protects her. Still, the meaning of Momoko’s Loli-dress does not stop there. To protect oneself is also to protect one’s world, including its future. Loli-dress is the trigger that sparks the creativity needed to write her world.”
When I was ten, I arranged to have myself photographed in a professional studio. I did not think of what I was wearing as a costume; I thought of it as a uniform. I was dressed as a space cadet, complete with ray gun. Cosplay is the writing of narrative onto one’s body.
In 2010, Anime Evolution returns to the University of British Columbia Student Union Building and I’ve arranged for several UBC instructors to give talks. Sharalyn Orbaugh, my colleague from Asian Studies, presents a paper called “Why Are Japanese Cyborgs Always Female?” Sharalyn doesn’t have to explain much of anything; this audience of cosplayers knows Japanese popular culture far better than most UBC students and instantly gets her references. The most intelligent questions are asked by a pink rabbit. Sharalyn tells us that we’re all cyborgs already.
Sharalyn references Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg and the protagonist of a narrative that everyone knows, The Ghost in the Shell. Major Kusanagi is no shōjo—far from it. Partially machine or not, she’s drawn as a sexy, big-breasted woman.
The anime of The Ghost in the Shell has a dark, brooding quality—the evocativeness of a deep blue cyberpunk rendering of a future Tokyo, the edgy, disquieting electronic music on the soundtrack—and Major Kusanagi is a less sexualized, more troubled figure than she is in the manga: “Sometimes suspect I am not who I think I am, like maybe I died a long time ago and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place.”
At the end of Major Kusanagi’s narrative, she fuses with the sentient AI called the Puppet Master to morph into a new, superior, and as-yet-unknown being. We see her looking out over a night-time cityscape. Where is she going? her companion asks her. “The net is vast,” she says.
I don’t want to idealize fan culture in North America. It’s easy enough to see what’s wrong with it. If we wanted to suppress fan culture, we could argue something like this: “This whole phenomenon is based upon the creation of infantile fantasies propelled by capitalist greed. These kids are passive consumers of manufactured cultural objects with no more significance than Barbie dolls. They’re the nerds and geeks of their schools. Their so-called culture is the shared fantasy of losers. What these kids need is to grow up and confront the real world.” But to an argument like that, I would ask: Who gets to define what’s real?
Children and adolescents read for what they need and use what they can. As science fiction did for me, imported Japanese pop culture can provide contemporary kids with a “counter-mythology”—a way of constructing the world that’s more engaging, immersive, and useful than the official, authorized mythologies. Fan culture can also offer something that I didn’t have (solitary kid that I was): the possibility of genuine community.
If you want to use it that way, there’s more than enough juice in manga/anime to undermine our officially constructed world. You could start with false binaries—those nasty knots that occur when you’re offered only two choices when there should be many. A false binary is often presented as obvious, self-evident: Of course there’s only two choices; what did you think?
But these are mental constructions, and if you’ve been watching anime, or reading manga—or science fiction, for that matter—you could imagine them differently, as two poles on either end of a continuum. And you could imagine that we have the ability to move fluidly back and forth across that continuum, or to occupy several positions on it simultaneously. For readers of shōjo, the easiest binary to recognize as false is male/female. Others are less obvious but just as significant:
The folks on the dingbat right know a threat when they see one. Lou Dobbs, a Fox commentator, holds forth on the premise that “the president’s liberal friends in Hollywood are targeting a younger demographic, using animated movies to sell their agenda to children.” He uses as examples an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Lorax and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Karigurashi no Arrietty (The Secret World of Arrietty).
Dobbs sees these films as “plainly demonizing the so-called 1 percent and espousing the virtue of green-energy policies, come what may.” He has invited three talk-show hosts to join him in a brief discussion. The connection between President Obama, liberalism, the Green Movement, the Occupy movement, and these two particular cartoons for children is obvious to all of them. “We have to fight back against the message,” one of them says. “We don’t want occu-toddlers.” That coinage is a real thigh-slapper—so good that it gets repeated. What’s obvious to us—the viewers of this spectacle—is that none of these four middle-aged white men could have ever watched a single anime.
One of the greatest strengths of the Occupy Movement is its stubborn refusal to define itself. As Major Kusanagi says, “If we all reacted the same way, we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation. What’s true for the group is also true for the individual. It’s simple: overspecialize, and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.”
The most ongoing, expansive, out-there narratives take on a life of their own, independent of their original creators. They have usually begun as manga, might have continued as a TV series, even generated a movie, but it takes the fans to keep them alive—the passionate kids who will continue to write variants as doujinshi, post clips to YouTube, debate the intricacies of the plot on the forums, wear the costumes and act out the rituals. Any narrative that the fans love will live forever. Because the legends that have grown around King Arthur are too big to fit into one book, or even into a series of books—because they are alive and changing—we call them the “Matter of Britain.” It’s Anime Evolution 2010, and I, and others, have gathered here together to celebrate the “Matter of Sailor Moon.”
All that the organizers have done is post the time and place for Sailor Moon cosplay. No one knows who will show up or what will happen. Costumed as an outside observer, I arrive early. A good dozen Sailor Scouts show up. There are several Sailor Moons and at least two Scouts for every one of the other usual characters. Even the mysterious and rarely seen Sailor Pluto has abandoned her duties guarding the Gates of Time so she could be here with us. No one has to organize these kids. They understand who they are and what they have to do, because they share the narrative.
They ooh and aah over Princess Serenity, exclaiming about how lovely she looks in her white gown. Two boys, with top hats and roses, have appeared to play Tuxedo Mask. A dad and his young daughter—she looks to be about twelve—have been standing well back from the center of things, watching. The little girl is shy. “Do you need a Chibi Moon?” the dad calls out. Of course they do; she’s essential to the recreation of the royal family of the Kingdom of the Moon. She runs forward and is absorbed into the group. Everybody is included—even the grown man who, with a laugh, and at the last minute, whips off his cape to reveal himself as one of the villains. The girls range in age from little Chibi Moon up to young women in their twenties. They’re a rainbow of races. Thin or plump, pretty or plain, each has a part to play.
I realize that I’m not an outside observer at all; my presence is essential. With my camera and notebook, I’m one of those witnesses whose job it is to document the event. I’m in the outside ring with a scattering of friends and parents, with several other photographers. Various groupings form on the steps of the old library, are photographed, and fade away, leading to other groupings. Two sets of the lesbian Outer Scouts, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, climb the stairs to be photographed. Both girls playing Sailor Uranus have reproduced her with startling accuracy—her height, her athletic figure, her short blonde hair. As the four of them stand in the sun and face us, the kids begin to chant, “Kiss her, kiss her!”
“Oh, my girlfriend is going to kill me!” one of the Sailor Neptunes laments, but the two pairs kiss to the click of the shutters.
After the event, the Sailor Scouts drift away, some taking off their shoes to walk barefoot in the grass or to cool their feet in the shallow pool below the clock tower. We devolve back to secular life, to the high, hot sun of August, but the Matter of Sailor Moon continues. Long live the once-and-future Princess Serenity—her story has been told now as it will be told again. Each of us has given to the story what we have to give, taken from it what we need. The Sailor Scouts are propelled constantly forward into their own narrative because they can dimly remember and still dream their past lives in the Kingdom of the Moon. Who wouldn’t want to go with them? The Kingdom of the Moon is where we will discover who we really are.
Keith Maillard is the author of thirteen novels and one book of poetry. His literary awards include the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Gerald Lampert Award. He is the chair of the UBC Creative Writing Program.
Subscribe to Ricepaper, to get your quarterly fix of Asian Canadian cultural awesomeness.