Shojo Manga Exhibit Reaction

I’d like to welcome a guest poster to the site. Ed Sizemore went to an exhibit on shôjo manga in Washington, DC, recently, and I asked him if he’d mind sharing his thoughts. I’m very grateful to him for taking the time to put together the following piece.

Johanna has asked me to write a review of the Shôjo Manga! Girl Power! exhibit, but I really don’t know how to evaluate an art exhibition, so I’m offering a description of my experience with some personal thoughts.

The exhibit is on display at the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC) in Washington DC until March 16th. Unfortunately, the JICC is only open Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Since I live in Richmond, VA, this means I had to take a day off to see the exhibit. This lack of weekend hours is my biggest complaint about the exhibit. Also, if you’re planning on attending and have young children with you, be warned that there are some erotic pieces on display. There is no fee to enter the JICC, but you do have to go through a very sensitive metal detector (my belt buckle set it off) and a bag search.

The exhibit features 23 artists and is arranged chronologically. Each artist has a short biography and picture, if available. There are about 200 pieces of art, with 75% of these being color pages, and half of the exhibition is cover illustrations. My impression is that the exhibit is designed to show the evolution of shôjo manga — not just simply how the art has developed and matured but how the storytelling and subject material have also followed a similar progression. There is a small sub-display talking about how to understand comic art, but it is too short to be of any real help to the novice, and it feels tacked on.

What struck me most moving through the exhibit is how color artwork progressed from being heavily influenced by cartoons and comic books to being influenced by fine art. In the 40s and 50s, the line work is thick with everything distinctly outlined. The palette is mostly primary opaque colors. By the early 70s, the line work is delicate and outlining is used sparingly. The palette is mostly pastel translucent colors. The human figures no longer stand out against their background, but blend in with and are overlapped by the background. The paper goes from bristol board to watercolor paper. Once you move into the 80s and beyond, you see such diverse influences as Hindu religious art, Ukiyo-e prints, and European art comics.

Overall, I enjoyed the exhibit. It was great opportunity to see orginal manga art and to get an appreciation for the history of shôjo. I would have liked to see more commentary about the history of shôjo and how the pieces on display fit into that history, especially how the pieces demonstrate some new direction in art or storytelling. When I’m looking at so many pieces of art, I like to have a narrative to connect them and help me move from piece to piece. But this is a minor complaint at best.

What the exhibit does best is show an American audience how shôjo manga is just as popular and creative an art form as shonen (boy’s) manga. It serves as an indirect critique of the American comic companies that abandoned their female audience in the 60s. Most powerfully, the exhibit shows the unlimited potential of comics as a storytelling medium regardless of national origin or intended audience.

There is an exhibit catalog that can be ordered by mail. The catalog reprints the 23 biographies and about a third of the artwork from the exhibit. The 12 articles that comprise the first half of the book are a mixed bag. The first two articles needed further editing and rewriting. The Trina Robbins piece feels like a verbal slap in the face to DC. The Sandell piece isn’t about shôjo manga but covers an America female painter using the Ukiyo-e style to paint Japanese girls influenced by American rap culture. The remaining pieces are well-written and very informative. Nagakubo’s piece on yaoi helped me understand the genre. Schodt’s piece is a sober warning that American interest in manga may be growing, but manga sales in Japan have been on the decline for almost a decade. The book is $18.95 with shipping, so I can only recommend it for people who want a complete collection of academic pieces about manga.


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