Perhaps the failure of the book as social commentary has something to do with the American approach to stories with political content, which tends to be heavy-handed to the point of tendentiousness. It turns out, though, that there is a latent tradition of feminist science-fiction comics in Japan that began—at least in my admittedly limited experience—in the late sixties with Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth, continuing to this day with Fumi Yoshinaga’s Õoku – The Inner Chamber, and includes such works as Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven. Each of these works has something real to say about the sexual politics of their day and each does so in an entirely unique and surprisingly sophisticated way. Moreover, these three comics are successful in part because they relegate the social commentary to a position that is secondary to, while also being a function of, their respective narratives.
Swallowing the Earth is the first of Tezuka’s long-form narratives aimed at an adult audience and typical of these works it turns on a seemingly unnecessarily complicated plot, which at times stretches the reader’s notions of plausibility. Of course, this is the central mystery of Tezuka’s greatness; the surface moral simplicity and convoluted plot structure belie the deep human truths and sophisticated moral universe he creates. The basics of the story are these: In 1932, Zephyrus, the daughter of a French scientist, marries a nefarious German—Tezuka regular Acetylene Lampe—who intends to sell his father-in-law’s research to the Nazis for military purposes. In the early forties, with France under German military occupation, Lampe steals the scientist’s work, sells it to the Nazi authorities, leading to the suicide of Zephyrus’s father and driving Zephyrus to flee to the tiny island of Mamoo off the coast of Guadalcanal with her brood of seven daughters. On Mamoo Zephyrus is joined by Miss Chritos, a scientist who worked for her father and who also suffered mightily at the hands of a man and the two of them, armed with the enormous horde of gold found buried beneath the sands of Mamoo and Chrito’s invention of a synthetic skin—Dermoid Z—that will enable anyone to completely change their appearance, devise a plan to destroy money, morality and men. And this is where things really begin to complicate.
Zephyrus’s plot to destroy the world order hinges upon the greed, lust and avarice of men. The fact that the women succeed in upending civilization attests to Tezuka’s pessimistic view of things. But this dim view of the males of the species alone isn’t enough to conclude that the book is ultimately feminist in its outlook. The harsh fate that is doled out to the rebellious Milda by her sisters for the crime of falling in love with the dopey alcoholic Gohonmatsu shows the latter to be more vengeful than anything else. But what is really at stake in this pot-boiling war of the sexes are the traditional gender roles that society has prescribed and how they are manipulated by the worst of our instincts. Of course men, being the traditional arbiters of power, are generally the beneficiaries of these manipulations. Tezuka's ultimate solution to this systemic injustice is to completely subvert this system by wiping away this age-old code of gender relations.
This is demonstrated in the book’s coda, which takes place twenty years after Gohonmatsu is executed by the sisters and Milda is taken back to Mamoo. When Milda urges Ropponmatsu, her son by Gohonmatsu, to make a pledge to revenge the wrongs done her by her sisters, similar to the pledge that they made to their dying mother, he simply laughs in her face. As he explains to Milda, whom he stubbornly refuses to call “mother,” such notions as sons, mothers and revenge no longer have meaning in their wholly altered society and thus her request is absurd. The significance of this rests not so much in the dissolution of traditional family relationships as in that of the baggage of manipulation and control which had become attached to them. Zephyrus was manipulated by her husband in his quest to attain money and power and she, in her turn, manipulated her daughters out of a desire for revenge. In the course of doing this, however, she robbed her daughters of their own humanity. That Ropponmatsu refused to perpetuate this cycle is testament to the relational purge that has resulted from the Zephyrus plot.
They Were Eleven differentiates itself immediately from Tezuka’s work, first in the relative tautness of its narrative, but more importantly in the fact that the feminist aspects of the book can be read as more or less intentionally capital-F Feminist. The story concerns a group of ten prospective students at Galactic University taking what is the final portion of the school’s entrance exams. This exam requires them to spend 53 days on a spacecraft adrift in an alien solar system, without anyone dropping out and without scrambling to be rescued. A wrench is thrown in the exam from the first moment when it is discovered that there are eleven students on the ship, instead of the expected ten. This immediately sows an environment of suspicion amongst the students, which is especially problematic for an exam which essentially turns on their ability to cooperate.
Moto Hagio is a pioneer of shojo manga that challenge accepted notions of gender and sexuality. Hagio explores these issues in They Were Eleven through the character of Frol, who by all external indications appears female, but is in fact a meneer, or an individual who is hermaphroditic in early life and only develops into one sex or another in adulthood. Frol comes from a polygamous planet in which the ratio of males to females is artificially maintained at 1:5. Only the first child in any family may develop into a male, the rest being hormonally induced females who are married off to a lord upon reaching adulthood. Frol is the youngest in his family and as such, should be fated to spend his life as one of several wives of a neighboring lord and this is precisely why it is so important that he gain acceptance into Galactic University, which would allow him to escape his wifely fate.
Although ultimately secondary to the narrative as a whole, the tenuous position Frol negotiates both on his home planet and on the ship is perhaps the most interesting part of They Were Eleven. Despite the fact that, as Gunga points out, the culture of women is highly developed on Frol’s home planet, Frol has seen plenty of his sisters’ weddings and they pale in comparison to man’s coming of age ceremony. As Frol says of his reluctance to settle into the feminine role his society demands: “If you only get to live once, I’d rather become a man and have that kind of fuss made over me.”
Of course, it’s not simply about having fuss made over him. Frol has made it to the final portion of the university’s entrance exam, an accomplishment that less than 0.1% of applicants achieve. Completion of a course at Galactic University will open all sorts of doors for Frol that would simply not be opened for the women of his planet. But first the group has to pass the exam and Frol’s outwardly feminine appearance is a major obstacle to that goal. The presence of eleven examinees on the ship means that everyone is under suspicion and the presence of an apparently female student when they are all supposed to be men brings Frol immediately under suspicion.
But it is really in the book’s final moments that it’s commentary about gender and sexuality move from a sort of standard lament of women’s positions in male dominated societies to something more forward looking and sophisticated. Having learned that they passed the exam, Tada is suddenly saddened by the realization that if Frol becomes a man, they will be unable to marry. But at this point, it is almost academic whether Frol ultimately becomes a man or a woman since he has passed the exam, which gives him a level of self-determination that was previously unavailable to him. Thus, Frol can choose to become a woman and marry Tada and still complete the university’s pilot training course and this changes his story from being one about how it is better to be a man than a woman, into one in which the value is placed on personal freedom and empowerment.
A whole lot of virtual ink has been spilt on Fumi Yoshinaga’s new series, so I think it will suffice to say that the story that it tells is an alternate history of Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate, in which a disease that only infects young men has wiped out 75% of Japanese men. In response to the feminization of the society, the typical gender roles are reversed, with women stepping into the traditional positions of power, up to and including the Shogunate itself. In the world that Yoshinaga has created, men are subjected to the sorts of sexual commodification that women have been subject to throughout history. Young men are sold for sexual purposes by their families, although in this case the impetus for paying for sex is generally reproductive, rather than libidinous. And the circumstances of the Õoku, the hidden chamber that was populated solely by women during the historical Shogunate, are simply reversed.
What makes Õoku’s investigations of the implications of gender stand out is that they do not simply rest with these more quotidian details, but extend into the geo-political ramifications of women taking power in what is still, outside of Japan, a male dominated world. When a foreign dignitary is granted an audience with the Shogun, the latter must hide behind a screen and her words are spoken for her by a male attendant. Thus, even though necessity has dictated that women assume the reigns of power inside the country, it is deemed politically untenable to make these circumstances known to the outside world.
Another curiosity of the world created in Õoku is the fact that even though the initial epidemic of the man-killing disease only occurred a couple of generations back, it seems that those who orchestrated the shift from a male-dominated society to one in which the positions of power are held by women were able to do so in such a way that nobody remembers it being any other way. The older people in the villages talk of a time when men were more abundant and dominant, but these take on the character of myth. Thus when the no-nonsense Lord Yoshimune finds herself thrust into the role of Shogun when the previous ruler suddenly falls ill and dies, she decides to satisfy her curiosity about the strangely masculine nature of the titles and ceremonies of the aristocracy by mining the historical record for answers. This situation might at first strike a contemporary reader as somewhat implausible, until one considers that in a society that is largely illiterate, the process of manipulating history is that much simpler.
Though it is ancillary to my larger purpose here, it is impossible for me to focus at any length on this particular comic without at least commenting on the unfortunate translation. Though there were undoubtedly cues in the original version that led to this decision, the choice to render the dialogue into some approximation of Shakespeare’s English as it might have been spoken by Yoda was an unfortunate one to say the least. It is difficult not to conclude that lines such as, “Come here ere it gets dark, thou hearest?” are played for laughs, which is problematic in a comic dealing with subject matter as serious as this. I actually began two or three unsuccessful readings and had determined to give up on the book until I decided to write this very post. In all of the responses to this book that I’ve read, I don’t think one of them made mention of its faux-archaic language and I still can’t quite get my head around that. I’d much prefer to read a comic like Northlanders #17, in which characters set in historical periods talk like inner-city toughs, circa 2009, than one in which a writer badly reproduces a vernacular that nobody really knows anyway.
Setting aside the fact that each of these books employs the conventions of science-fiction in order to comment on the current state of gender politics, we are looking at three wildly divergent books. I think it highly unlikely that Tezuka sat down with the intention to write a feminist story. At the same time, as Frederick Schodt points out in his introduction to the Digital Manga Publishing edition of the book, Tezuka was writing in the annus mirabilis of 1968 and was clearly responding to the times. The youth of the Western world was enthralled by the counter-cultural juggernaut and free love, LSD and revolutionary politics were in the air—all of which show up in Tezuka's book.
Both They Were Eleven and Õoku were written and drawn by women and thus the feminist stance of each book is more fully realized. Here too, however, the differences outweigh the similarities. Hagio's story feels the most optimistic of the three, which perhaps is a function of its being a space comic. The students could be suspicious of each other and discuss the idiosyncrasies of their various cultures, but at the end of the day they would be signing up at an elite, pan-galactic institute of higher learning, with all the suggestions of a lower-case brave-new-world that entails. Further, being a shojo comic, one can interpret events as they relate to Frol and Tada as being in service to their romantic happily-ever-after ending, or one can read broader socio-political significance into them, as I have.
Having read only the first volume of Õoku, it's impossible for me to predict where the story will go or what conclusions it might make about life in our times. Be that as it may, it is clearly the product of a world in which a black man and a woman can be the chief competitors in the American presidential primaries, as opposed to one in which women in executive management of major companies were still more or less unheard of. Despite the many problems that women continue to face, we are now in an era where women can and do become heads of state of major nations and could conceivably hold any position of power. Thus Yoshinaga's decision to create a story which asks whether women will fulfill the promise of their trailblazing forebears when they finally achieve positions of power or will they simply repeat the mistakes of men is truly of-the-moment.
As a genre, science fiction has always lent itself nicely to working some of the complicated social and philosophical problems that people face. In the best cases, films such as Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running and Duncan Jones's Moon; novels such Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and comics such as these, artists combine tightly-drawn, entertaining stories with insightful commentary on what it means to be human at a particular time and place. Whether it’s Tezuka’s crude sophistication, Hagio’s dewy-eyed space-optimism, or Yoshinaga's realpolitik in kimono and stays, the talented comics artists of Japan have been churning out great, oddball science-fiction with a feminist bent for more than four decades.