By Angharad Lodwick
I love anime. I remember watching Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura as a kid, then falling for Studio Ghibli classics like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke when I was older. There is something compelling about characters who are at once paragons of independence and yet still ultra-feminine. As I delved deeper into the genre I came across a stunningly beautiful but incredibly dark anime called Jigoku Shōjo—“Hell Girl”—a story about a beautiful young girl who, when summoned, dons her black flowered kimono and sends sinners to hell.
So when I saw that there was going to be a talk about the concept of shōjo at the National Library, Hell Girl was the first thing that sprung to my mind and I knew I had to go.
Dr Masafumi Monden, a recipient of one of the 2017 National Library of Australia Fellowships for research in Japan Studies, presented an amazing talk on shōjo, a concept that translated literally means “girl”, but in fact is a far more complex concept than that.
Dr Monden prefaced his presentation with an apology: he apologised to pop culture fans who may find it too academic, and he apologised to academics who may find it too heavy in pop culture. However, no apologies were necessary: the result was a perfect blend that was both intensely fascinating and incredibly accessible.
Shōjo was a concept constructed by the Japanese government to prolong youth and postpone marriage. Originally aimed at female students 12 and 17 years, shōjo gradually evolved from propaganda, to fashion iconography, to eventually, manga.
Dr Monden led the audience through this evolution of the concept of Japanese girlhood, using images from history, fashion and Japanese graphic novels to support his findings. Dr Monden shared some incredible images and books from the National Library’s Japanese collection, including the Melodrama in Meiji Japan exhibition which is showing until late August.
He explained some of the aesthetics of shōjo which, in manga, is all about large eyes, flowery backgrounds, highly embellished graphics. However, despite the overt femininity of many manga stories, the characterisation is often anything but stereotypical. Dr Monden shared examples of several manga featuring ambitious female protagonists obsessed with the power, beauty and influence of being a princess without any need for or want to be a prince.
Dr Monden also explored the persistence of shōjo as a concept in Japanese fashion. A surprising link to shōjo fashion came from an iconic Australian story: Picnic at Hanging Rock. Dr Monden pointed at the filly, flouncy and ribboned dresses that are still regularly featured in Japanese magazines as well as in street fashion. He also explained the contrast of shōjo’s “simultaneous denial of womanhood and emphasis of femininity”. Shōjo fashion draws attention away from the body by concealing its shape, but highlights the feminine identity embraced and manipulated by the girls themselves for their own purposes.
This was a captivating event, and the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience was second only to Dr Monden himself. A fantastic example of the breadth and depth of knowledge that can be found in the National Library’s archives, if you only know where to look.
Angharad Lodwick has been book blogging in Canberra for the past two years at Tinted Edges where she waxes lyrical about every single book she reads. Angharad runs a book-themed podcast called Lost the Plot and has been published in a number of online journals such as Feminartsy.
Angharad has a lot to say, and enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction pieces. She is a very familiar face at National Library of Australia author events and liveblogs them before lining up to get her books signed.
Angharad loves to get out and about in the Canberra community to chat to people about various book-related things like street libraries, the Lifeline Book Fair, book shops and book clubs. Her family also runs a book charity called Books for the World. Angharad recently upcycled books for an art project with Blemish Books at Noted Writers Festival 2017.
A Portrait of Shōjo: The Poetic Ambience of Japanese Girlhood
19 July 2017, National Library of Australia
Angharad is participating in the 2017 ACT Lit-Bloggers of the Future program, which is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre in collaboration with the National Library of Australia. Participants are mentored by Sue Terry of Whispering Gums.