Deborah Shamoon’s Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls’ Culture in Japan traces the development of girls’ literature and, eventually, Shoujo manga from the end of the 19th century through the 1970’s, with particular attention to the girls’ magazines of the 1930’s, the Magnificent 49-ers and the birth of Shoujo, Josei and BL manga. Shamoon addresses Yoshiya Nobuko’s writing, but does not talk about “Yuri” as a genre. Nonetheless, anyone interested in the formative years of Yuri and its literary precedents may want to read this book. There is some definite value in here, and I promise to spend time on the good points, but before we get there, there are several major negatives with this text that I want to address, in ascending order of importance.
The first serious problem I encountered with Shamoon’s work is her tendency to dismiss all theories but her own, particularly if she can hold up a shield of a Japanese scholar’s work to support her theories. You might not see this as a problem, unless, like me, you have an issue with absoluteist thought.
At no point in time does Shamoon ever imagine that another interpretation – especially that of the audience which reads the work – might be as valid as her own. Any suggestion, any filter other than her own is immediately dismissed, something that strikes me as…kind of ridiculous. When I am repeatedly cautioned to stop interpreting what I read through the filters that make up my life experience well, there’s really no polite response for that. Instead of acknowledging that other scholars have other interpretations, she brings them up only to wholly, completely, utterly dismiss them.
Whether I actually agree that girls’ literature revolves around a “culture of sameness” as Shamoon does, I would not here suggest that this is a terrible idea. Tween and teen girls culture is, largely, defined by the pressure to fit in. In that sense, I agree with her, but in the sense that Shamoon proposes her theory to define the illustrative style for early 20th century Japanese girls’ lit, I would say that she’s missing a major factor here. Which brings me to my second point.
It’s not until well past the first half of the book, into the chapter about Takahashi Makoto’s (Sakura Namiki) influence on Shoujo manga, that Shamoon acknowledges the literary and artistic constraint of commercial art. As a friend so succinctly put it, “Commercial art must sell.” Well yes, and Shamoon acknowledges this has an effect on Takahashi’s art. But she completely fails to acknowledge what every commercial artist knows…deadlines are brutal. There is not enough time in the world to get things done, so we create macros, templates, stencils, tones and other shortcuts. Some of the illustrations she chooses to make her “culture of sameness” point could far more simply be explained as artistic stylings made sensible by deadlines. Anyone who reads manga knows that manga artists often begin with the same face or one of a few body types, then elaborates on instantly identifiable characteristics. Change hair and skin tone slightly and you have a new character (or the same character pretending to be differrent, as Sailor Moon fans all know.)
Which brings me to my third and most important point.
This is what my copy of the book looks like:
What you can’t really see is that I began making notes on these cute little sticky strips, then graduated to the small sticky pads, then the 3″x4″ size, then, in a moment of crisis switched to a 7″ note pad, entire pages of which were filled. I eventually moved back to the small stickies, but *a lot* of them. And here’s why:
In Shamoon’s chapter on Yoshiya Nobuko’s work, she begins by “cautioning” us to not use the obvious filter of reality and allow Yoshiya’s actual life with an actual female partner to cause us to mistakenly interpret her work as in any way lesbian. She then follows that eye-roller up with the conclusion that because Yoshiya does not write about a separatist vision of society, or exhort her readers (tween Japanese girls of the 1920s and 30’s,) to adopt a separatist vision of society, her works cannot be seen as feminist.
Let me refer back to my second point – commercial art must sell. Yoshiya was a female writer, living on her writing, in early 20th century Japan. Her work was subject to male editorial supervision and had to be approved by government censors. And even within the restrictions of writing stories that would sell to their target audience, on deadline, that would be approved of by male censors and editors, she wrote a novel in which two women chose to step away from society and make a life together (Yaneura no Nishojo), one in which a woman creates an alternative adoptive family for herself, after redeeming her reputation which has been smeared (Ban-sensei) and told tale after tale of young women growing up, some marrying, some not, but all finding their way into adult life (Hana Monogatari Volume 1, Volume 2.) Creating one’s own family outside the constraints of society is, IMHO, the very essence of feminism…the right for every woman to choose for herself what her love, her family…her life….will be. If we take off the incredibly narrow blinders Shamoon would have us wear, Yoshiya’s work is unremittingly feminist in nature.
I did say that there was value in this book. And there is. Shamoon’s more factual passages, historical discussions of girls’ literature, magazines and manga are exceptionally useful to a student of Yuri or BL. As a result of reading this book, I have recently concluded reading Otome no Minato, by Yasunari Kawabata (for which I have a posted a 2-part special review.) And I’ve added Ban-sensei to my to-read pile, because I can already see some great analogies with manga and anime series you’ll know in what appears to be a very Dickensian tale. So, yes, definitely worth the time it took me to read it. But I would have loved it, had Shammoon not been so intent on refuting all other scholars and insisting that Yoshiya could not be read as feminist (much less lesbian) because none of her books follow Straw Feminist doctrine.
Value as a Chronology – 8
Overall – 6