Thursday, May 18, 2017

Looks in Romance Manga

It has to be said--

In Library Wars, Kasahara's tallness--specifically her
being taller than her leading man--is a recurring motif. 
It is handled cutely--and Kasahara herself grows to
appreciate her height. Dojo never minded.
A great deal has and is and will be written about how society and the media judge people's looks. Some of my students, usually young women, write about the pressure of having to live up to an outside, media-enforced standard--and they are often the most classically pretty and coifed of all my students.

A common trope in romance (and unfortunately in reality) is when a potential suitor decides to "nobly" sacrifice his dream of a beautiful woman hanging on his every word by "settling" for a smart, plain girl. The potential suitor as well as the plain girl's family, friends (and presumably her hamsters) then expect her to be profoundly grateful, even indebted to him, for his choice. Even if he himself is totally ordinary looking. And even if he himself is so tedious it makes her brain want to die.

Mr. Collins is alive and well. 

American romance struggles with this issue. Heroines are sometimes beautiful, sometimes plain, sometimes average, sometimes cute, sometimes unusual. Sometimes, as in Persuasion, beauty is in the eye of beholder (Wentworth is convinced at the end that he never said anything disparaging about Anne's looks). Sometimes, as in The Grand Sophy, Sophy's extroverted hutzpah accompanied by handsome looks make such a strong and disarming first impression that issues of looks rarely enter the story (kudos to Heyer--this approach is somewhat unusual). Sometimes, as in Jane Eyre, looks are not supposed to be the point (since Rochester is supposed to be "not handsome" and Jane is supposed to be "plain") yet keep cropping up as Rochester and Jane compare themselves against possible rivals.

And the list goes on.

Ukes in Yugi Yamada's manga are often
quite gentle looking. Sometimes they are
are actually more like Seyun (see below)
but Shoichi  is as gentle as he looks.
The issues never truly fade, no matter how "advanced" the writer (in fact, many times, a progressive writer is more self-conscious, dwelling continually on looks rather than simply describing everybody as beautiful and moving on). And although male looks are customarily raised, the issues almost always revolve around the woman's sense of indebtedness. If she is plain, then she should be grateful for being noticed (or work really really hard to be "unique" and "nice" so the universe will forgive her for being plain). If she is beautiful, she should be grateful to the man who looks beyond her beauty and judges her for the sake of her inner self.

It's the sort of thing that makes one understand why teenage girls go all Gothy and read depressing literature about people falling out of buildings or killing everybody at the prom.

My problem: I like romances. I'm also enough of a realist to know that human beings being what they are, looks have and are and will be common discussion fodder, not only in the media but in literature and art (I draw my own personal line at gossip based on comparative statements).

Seyun is a sweet-faced uke who fights
like a demon. The disparity is part
of the plot/relationship.
Japanese romance is no different in this regard. Looks are discussed! What makes manga slightly more appealing is that the emphasis is not on the indebtedness of the plain person but, oddly enough, on the conspicuousness of the good-looking person.

For instance, male characters in yaoi (with some exceptions) are often handsome, tall, and reserved (Darcy all over the place). These traits are mentioned. However, at the back of the comments is the soft implication that standing out for being so handsome is nice and all but couldn't it be kind of, well, show off-y?

The same is true for beautiful girls in shojo. Is it really such a good thing?

That is, the cultural default isn't "everybody should be handsome." The cultural default is "isn't it amazing when people are handsome." The beautiful girl and handsome guy are certainly the objects of attention (squeals and adoration) but that attention can backfire.

Ordinary people don't have to apologize for being ordinary, which seems, considering the number of ordinary people in the world, a far more civilized approach than not.

Rivals will comment on Akihito not being as classically handsome
as Asami, but Akihito is more concerned with Asami's
nutty lifestyle than his looks. He dismisses the rivals as
jealous and short-sighted--their preoccupation
with looks/appearance is a sign of their
literal inability to function in society.