Kitagawa Utamaro, Courtesan with Client Resting his Head on her Arm, woodblock colour print, Tikotin collection
Modern Manga and Traditional Japanese Art
February 4th - November 25th, 2006
Curator: Dr. Ilana Singer
Foreigners visiting Japan often encounter groups of teenage schoolgirls, many of whom can be seen on the trains, absorbed in thick manga boolets such as the special edition of Betsuma-Maagareto (Margaret) or Gekkan Lala (Monthly Lala). They are reading shoju manga - comics for girls. A quick look over a shoulder reveals figures dressed in fashionable gear, staring at each other out of round, sparkling eyes, and flowers floating about for no apparent reason. However, after closer study, we find ourselves magnetized: it is not always possible to decide which of the figures is male and which is female. This phenomenon is accepted without question by the readers of shoju manga, but those who are not familiar with them are obviously disconcerted by it. Researchers of shoju manga are very conscious of this sexual ambiguity in the medium. It seems to be there for no apparent reason, as a secondary theme in tales that have completely different story lines.
Sexual ambiguity, both in art and in literature, is an expression of a traditional Japanese aesthetic element, according to which everything that lacks clearly demarcated definition is considered mystical, beautiful, intriguing. Metamorphosis in which figures could easily be either male or female is an artistic contrivance intended to create an aesthetic blurring that entices the viewer to active study of a work of art. The current exhibition incorporates examples of traditional Japanese art and of modern manga in which use of this strategy is evident.
Japanese mythology includes the story of a contest between the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami and her brother, the storm god Susanoo no Mikoto. The contest was to decide which of them was more powerful. They agreed that whoever gave birth to sons was the winner. The goddess, dressed in warrior's armour and holding weapons, asked her brother for his sword, the symbol of manhood. The storm god drew the sword from its scabbard and gave it to his sister. She broke it into three pieces, chewed them up, and spat them out as three beautiful daughters. Then Amaterasu withdrew from her hair and her arms a purse of precious jewels called Yasakuni no Magatama (the concave soul jewels), the symbol of womanhood. She emptied the purse above the well of heaven, and the jewels splashed into the water. Susanoo rinsed them, chewed them between his teeth, and from his mouth five sons were born. The storm god thought he had won the competition, but the goddess told him - "The seed from which your sons sprang is mine, so there can be no doubt that they are my sons. As concerns the three girls - they were born from the pieces of your sword, so they are definitely your daughters". This myth thus tells us that the gender of both deities was ambiguous - both/either male and/or female.
In the Heian period (794-1185), the goddess Amaterasu was identified with a masculine deity - the Buddha Dainichi (The Buddha of Light). Albert Kempfer, who visited Deshima at the end of the 17th century, described Amaterasu in masculine terms, and even added that the Japanese did not know who was his spouse.
In paintings and sculpture, the gender of Buddha and the Bodhisatvas is also ambiguous, as can be seen in a painting by an anonymous artist of the 14th century in the exhibition. Perhaps this is because one of the signs of Buddhist enlightenment is the absence of dichotomy (body/soul, good/bad, life/death), so that perhaps the male/female dichotomy also disappears with enlightenment. Kannon was originally an Indian deity who became a goddess in China and then in Japan. Even today he is presented as having no definable gender, and this is evident in the painting by Terazaki Kogyo. The Bodhisatva Monju is also depicted thus.
In the literature of the Heian period, amorphous sexuality-gender became an artistic construct for creating interest and humour, arousing the reader's curiosity to interpret a text in many ways. There are many examples of this, in which one finds a continual binary ‘switching' of gender - wo/man. From the literary aspect, this is not intended to create a third gender, but to modify the contextual prism so that the subject can be viewed from various angles.
In the "Tosa Diary" (Tosa nikki, 935), continual sex-changes occur. The diary describes the return of the Tosa governor Ki no Tsurayuki to Kyoto. The figure described in the text who represents Tsurayaki and the woman who begins it are not two storytellers appearing at different times, but a two-gender continuum sharing the textual space. In other words, Tsurayaki is both the male author describing the woman who tells the story, and a male poet reciting a poem in a voice that is not his own. The result is a stratification of sexual identities. Do they cancel each other? Do they combine to form a third gender? Do they meld into a hermaphrodite? Personally, I believe that they all derive from the same literary convention and actually retain their own identities, though the changes contribute to the narrative presence of the reader, who is also part of this continuum.
All this is even more apparent in the story Ariake no wakare, translated as "Parting at Dawn", written in the 12th century. It tells of the maiden Ariake, who grew up as a "tomboy" and became commander of the palace guards. Ariake's sexual identity is constantly blurred, changing, sketching a sensual-provocative, mysterious and ambiguous figure who is almost supernatural. She has the power and attraction of both a man and a woman at the same time, which was considered the aristocratic ideal of that period.
The modern manga Berusairu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles) by Ikeda Ryoko (b.1947), which first appeared in 1972, is very reminiscent of Ariake's story. Ikeda was one of the first manga artists to use gender ambiguity as an artistic tool. Oscar, the protagonist of the manga, is actually a girl who has been reared to behave and dress like a man. She was educated to become commander of Marie Antoinette's army, and is, naturally, courted by men and women alike. Ultimately, she resumes her own sexual identity, but even Andre, the last of her suitors, never learns whether she is a woman or a man, because he is blind.
Contrary to what one would expect, there is a large dose of humour in both the art and literature of Japan. Gender-switching certainly has an element of amusement, rather shocking, and sometimes quite offensive. The humorous and satirical tale Torikaebaya monogatari (The Tale of Torikaebaya) from the end of the Heian period is an example of this. It describes the life of a family at the emperor's court during that era. The father, a minister, allow his son and daughter to grow up according to their nature. The boy identifies with the female sex, and the girl is raised like a boy. The (wo)man becomes the lady-in-waiting of the emperor's daughter and makes her pregnant, while the boy who is really a girl becomes pregnant by one of her lovers and has to hide away until she gives birth. Ultimately, the two resume their real identities.
At the end of the Heian period there appeared in Japan dancer-prostitutes known as shirabyoshi ("white foam"). They danced in the costumes of male warriors with sheathed swords. This brings to mind the sun goddess who met her brother in competition wearing armour. There are certainly erotic, elegant and aesthetic aspects to wearing the clothes of the opposite sex.
The Japanese language does not differentiate between masculine and feminine "Tenno" ("emperor" or "empress"). Nor do the names given to either of them after their death. In China and in Japan, the first rulers were women - Himiko, Toyo, Yamato Hime, Jingu Kogo, Itoyo-ao no Kogo, and others. From 593 to 779 CE, Japan had six empresses. The Empress Suiko was the first to carry the title "Tenno". Even though, from the end of the 8th century until the 17th century, no expresses were crowned, the feminine attributes of the rulers were maintained. Professor Ben-Ami Shilony insists that the image of the ruler had far more maternal than paternal connotations. The emperors retained the female aspects of their task, leaving the actual government of the kingdom to others, as is expected of women, remaining passive rather than assertive. Furthermore, unlike other rulers, the emperor did not take part in battles or in hunting, but in writing poetry, calligraphy, and painting. An Emperor often came to the throne while still a child, and was surrounded by women. Algernon Mitford, an English diplomat who met Emperor Meiji, then aged 16, in 1868, was astounded by the latter's feminine appearance. In his writings Mitford described him as "..dressed exactly like a woman...his eyebrows had been shaved off and penciled in higher up, his lips were rouged, and his teeth were blackened..."
At a coronation ceremony (daijosai), the throne (shinza: sacred bed) is decorated with feminine motifs - a comb, a fan, and during the actual coronation ceremony the new emperor is only accompanied by women. Tributes of cooked rice are offered to Kami (deity) in two halls inside the sacred precincts (daijogu) - in the yukiden before midnight, and in the sukiden after midnight. At each end of the roofs of these halls two beams are attached to form a diagonal cross (X). At one end the beams are sliced horizontally, and at the other vertically. The horizontal cut, as can be seen in the temple of the sun goddess at Ise, signifies that the temple is consecrated to a female deity, while the vertical slice, like those on the beams at Izumo, signifies that the temple is that of a male deity. The crossed beams on the yukiden and sukiden symbolize their union. Carmen Blaker states that, in the coronation ceremony, the emperor is re-born, his soul is joined to that of the ancient empress spirit of goddess Amaterasu Omikami, and thus descends from generation to generation.
Ukon Genzaemon (active ca. 1630-1670) is considered, in the annals of the Kabuki Theatre, as the first onnagata. A poem describes him as: "..the first onnagata to use his sleeves in a dance, like a man from the olden days (mukashi otoko). He looks like a woman, but he is a man. His appearance is exactly like that of Narihira". The poet Ariwara no Narihira (825-880) was considered the embodiment of male beauty, which included a refined femininity. The poem plays with the assonances of futa-narihira (bi-sexual Narihira) and futa-nari - a hermaphrodite. Ukon Genzaemon, who looked like a woman but was actually a man, is equated with the bi-sexual figure of Narihira.
In the Edo period, the epithet for the male hedonist was Tsu (the complete sophisticate). In the 1770s the term was applied to the man who was well versed in the pleasures of life (ukiyo), visited the pleasure quarters and theatres, was a dandy, elegant and refined, knowledgeable, mannerly, and informed about the classic arts. The type is also depicted in the art of the period. Indeed, he looks refined, effeminate, often with rouged lips, as depicted in the prints of Utagawa Toyonobu and Kitagawa Utamaro.
This aesthetic tradition of sexual ambiguity is frequently present in modern shojo manga (girls' comics). Until the end of the 1960s, these manga were usually written by men. In the early 1970s there was a sexual revolution in the industry. A new generation of young female artists replaced the men, and was known as the Nijuyo-nen-Gumi "The 24th Year Group" because most of its members were born in the 24th year of the Showa era (1949). Although sexual ambiguity had already been apparent in the shojo manga Ribon no Kishi (The Knight of the Ribbon), first published in 1953 by the founder of modern Japanese manga, Tezuka Osamu (1928-1989), it was the 24th Year Group that developed gender blurring as one of the focal elements of shojo manga.
A pioneer of this medium was Ikeda Ryoku, whose best-known manga is "The Rose of Versailles" (see above). Ikeda was one of the first to deal with heterosexual love and young boy's love in her creations. Crossing the boundaries of sexuality and gender is very evident in manga. The protagonist whose sexual identity frequently changes creates an insecurity that threatens the sexual norm. It also creates complexities in the love-life of a figure attractive to men and women alike.
In 1973, the manga of Hagio Moto (b.1949) Tooma no Shinzou (Thomas's Heart) first appeared. It still has many aficionados today. It is a story about love among boys at a boarding school in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. It commences when Thomas commits suicide at the age of 14 because his love for Yori, an older boy, is not reciprocated. The images of Thomas and the other boys in the manga are very ambiguous. They have fair, curly hair and slim bodies like those of young girls. This is also evident in the manga Kaze to Ki no Uta (the song of the Wind in the Trees) by Takemiya Keiko, first published in 1974. Takemiya was openly concerned with what Hagio Moto only hinted at - boy lovers, and this already predominates in the very first episode of the manga. The story is again set in a boys' boarding school, this time in Provence in 1880, and deals with a passionate romance between Serge and Gilbert.
Contemporary Japanese popular culture is filled with images of sexual ambiguity: the singer Izam, who wears women's clothing and is a member of the famous Shanza male troupe; "Peter", who is one of the interviewers on a popular TV programme; Maruyama Akihiro (b.1935) whose career took off in the 1960s, and who still appears on TV to promote cosmetics, kimono and expensive accessories for wealthy housewives; the famous Japanese enka singer (chanson) Mikawa Ken'ichi (b. 1946), who appears on stage in elaborate and colourful garments, wearing jewellery and lipstick, and using feminine diction to comic effect.
Ambiguity of sexual-gender identity is also connected today with the concept of kawai (cute), in which the feminization of masculinity among the youth of Japan is accepted. As in other parts of the world, young Japanese men have begun using the beauty salons and reading the journals that encourage them to tend their bodies as women do. This apparently derives from the world of music, and is known as bijuaru kei (visual orientation), by many singers who use make-up and adopt a feminine appearance. They do not intend to become women, they merely integrate this refined, feminine look that is considered so appealing. Isn't that a revival of the aesthetic principles so familiar to the Japanese long, long ago?