MIT Yoshiya UTENA Presentation by Dr. Sarah Frederick
Asst. Professor of Japanese Literature, Boston University
(These are just my lecture notes. Please do not cite without permission.)
Intro. – The history of Shoujo ?? concept in Japan, and Yoshiya as the “mother” (only with irony) of the shoujo fiction genre. Space between childhood and adulthood – or more specifically between when a girl is entirely under her parents’ supervision and when she is under her husband’s supervision – in part created by modern school system, and particularly boarding schools where girls from middle to upper class girls could live (not very common now).
Yoshiya’s place in the development and creative use of this category:
Yoshiya herself lived in a YWCA dorm and this is thought to be very influential in her depiction of the girl in her series of “Flower Stories” and novels like “Two Virgins in the Attic,” which seems to have the strongest influence on UTENA. [Although I think there might also be reference to another work, “To the Ends of the Earth“].
She had contact with Christianity through schools, and often depicted the exotic, European and American imagery (roses, and other non-Japanese flowers; European furniture and architecture; the Virgin Mary, Ave Maria; music (pianos, violins), etc. – all of this in turn gets associated with women, and schoolgirls in much of her work. The plethora of roses and rose garden at the school in UTENA remind me very much of this. And in the anime the look of the scene where Bara no Hanayome (Rose Bride) plays the piano and talks about playing with her brother as a child – the flashback sequences of a piano in a rose garden and western-style house look to me to be right out of Yoshiya’s stories, Flower Stories (Hana monogatari), which are full of such imagery. There are also similar stories of siblings, orphans, friends in exotic settings.
The school and dormitory as space for fantasy and power for girls, slippage of identity – not unlike the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Princess where the poor girl is REALLY the daughter of a rich man off in the colonies and the tension in the plot is over finding him and discovering that. In so much of girl’s anime and manga, it seems there is this sense of “regular schoolgirls” having another world, a complicated and magical past beyond the banality of school life. This is both in the themes and even the architectures of the schools. In UTENA this is the long stairway up to the sky, that makes school exciting and gorgeous. It is also the spaces where the characters seem to be able to go to have more intimate moments. Nooks and crannies and spaces where teachers or parents never seem to be and where sexuality can be explored – and this is really where I think Yoshiya’s “Virgins in the Attic” (Yaneura no ni shojo, 1919) was so formative – where the ATTIC (written in English in several places in the text as if to emphasize even more its status as both exotic (space from European/American style houses and as significant). This is where the two girls in this novel are able to have a physical relationship and a space to themselves away from the demands of the school or requests for marriage. (Showed some images from Utena manga along this lines).
Marriage and the family. This is a final area where I see a real link between the themes of Yoshiya’s shoujo fiction (not to mention her personal life) and shoujo anime and manga, and UTENA in particular. It may have important consequences that such a formative writer of early shoujo fiction, which need not have been critical of the marriage plot necessarily, was a lesbian and, whether for that reason or not, usually refused to solve with marriage even her completely heterosexual romance plots. There is a lot one could say about this whole topic, but in this short time I just wanted to mention the importance of the family institution and marriage as a theme in her work (or absence in some cases). Her “marriage” of sorts to her lifetime partner Chiyo was done through creative manipulation of the family institution whereby she adopted her so that they could share the same household registry. UTENA – her being so disturbed about the fact that the Bara no hanayome has to be sex slave to whomever wins the battle – significant that it is put in rhetoric of marriage, being “engaged.”
Discussion of Yoshiya’s view on “gender” – shouldn’t ignore that she could be very essentializing about “females,” who are basically always good at the core while male characters are basically always evil at the core. The only fairly positive male characters are in some way other special – for example in a post-war novel the man is mentally handicapped and so very nice, and in a wartime novel, he is Japanese in Vietnam, and so allowed to be good in contrast to the French colonists and local men. (Some of her work during that time is disturbing, and many fans started to distance themselves from her after the war too, when she was in favor of remilitarization of Japan). I think a lot of manga and anime has used her embracing of cute and feminine images as not necessarily weak in a positive way and echo Yoshiya her sympathetic portrait of girls and the ways they have a rough time and can have a variety of sexual desires. I think that many have gone beyond her sometimes frustrating simplistic view of the relationship between sex and gender.
At the same time, there is often a gap and sense of irony in this and that she wants to represent both this “typicality” of experience and its lack of universality. Her very short essay that recollects being eleven and seeing a beautiful woman in her garden. Her friends said, that’s a “mistress/ kept woman” (o-mekake). When she asked her mother what that was, she said “it’s someone who does not become and wife or mother and lives alone even when she grows up” – Yoshiya had thought, she writes, what’s wrong with that, but at the same time respected her mother. When she became a novelist, she said, she worked to “get married” and “be a mother” with full passion in her fiction, while not becoming a wife or mother in real life. – sense of separation. Also great essay “If I were born a man” – whole description of how she would be an architect, and give lots of books and discuss ideas with his wife. And would clean up after himself at home, etc. There is a “postscript” apparently in the voice of her partner Chiyo saying, that’s all fine and good, but you’re terrible at math and science so I don’t think you would make it as an architect any better than you would as a women; and as for cleaning up after yourself at home – “I can’t say you’re very good about that even as a woman!” I wonder if you don’t all see some examples of this kind of exploration of possibilities and humor in contemporary shoujo anime and manga.
– Yoshiya didn’t really live to see shoujo anime, but in a way it is not surprising that she is an influence given her stress on being a writer of “popular” (taishuu) genres rather than what sometimes gets called “pure” fiction – this despite the fact that she did win that sort of award for a “pure fiction” work “Foxfire” and was very well connected in the literary establishment. (quote about writing only popular fiction as her goal: )
The illustrations of her works were also some of the first visual images of the “shoujo” in modern Japan. These are not drawn by her but based on the imagery of some of her adolescent fiction and published in the early magazines aimed at shoujo – [such as Shoujo kurabu] and show overheads. You can see that many of these do have an affinity w/ later manga styles although they are very much of the 1920s too.. (showed some illustrations) I am not suggesting that there is any direct influence on UTENA artists, but I think those of you who have seen a lot of this genre can feel the affinity that seems to flow through the shoujo art/ fiction tradition.