“Rica ‘tte Kanji” and Lesbianism in Manga

I think for a majority of American otaku, the word “yuri” conjures up only a few images. There’s the boy-turned-girl by aliens stuck in a love triangle between two other girls. Or the girl in the huge black witch’s hat flirting with a female swordsmen. Or probably the image of Catholic school girls adjusting each other neckerchiefs.

For the most part, my experience with yuri has only been these highly erotic stories obviously targeted to a male reader, and that turns out to be general description of the word by professional manga translator and genre expert Mari Morimoto.

“It’s kind of like live-action lesbian porn in the US,” she explains to her “Gay” Manga 101 panel at the recent MangaNEXT convention. “Most of it is just girl-on-girl action for the straight man.”

But every once in a while, an actual lesbian artist will create a comic targeted toward the lesbian community, and it just so happens that a pioneer in this genre was a guest speaker for the convention that weekend.

When Rica Takashima began serializing her comic Rica ‘tte Kanji for the lesbian magazine Anise in 1996, she broke the mold of what was considered yuri. Instead of a highly erotic story of “forbidden love” between two women, she created a super-cute tale of realistic lesbian lifestyles and relationships.

I read through the book when I arrived at the convention that weekend, and found it to be really different than any other manga I’ve read before. So I had plenty to discuss and ask when the convention hosted a “Book Club” session with the artist herself the next day. We all sat at a large round table, and Morimoto joined us to translate for Takashima. Such an intimate setting allowed us all to dive deep into the comic and the subject matter behind it… sometimes a little too close for comfort.

Rica ‘tte Kanji, which roughly translates to, “How do you write ‘Rica’ in Japanese?” is a semi-autobiographical story based on Takashima’s personal experiences. Rica, a naive country girl, makes her gay debut when she moves to Tokyo and ventures into Shinjuku Nichoume, the city’s gay and lesbian district. On her first night at the local gay bar, she meets the cool Miho who helps her understand the lesbian community. As the story progresses, the two begin to form a romantic relationship.

It was most certainly the first time I’ve seen a lesbian story portrayed like this, and it was hard for me to really classify it as the “yuri” I’m familiar with. But then again, just how familiar was I with yuri?

When it comes to same-sex subject matter in anime and manga, yuri has always seemed to take a back seat to her big brother, yaoi. In fact, I find yaoi to be very popular among American convention goers while yuri has still been fairly unknown. Morimoto felt the same way about the genres even in Japan.

“Yaoi has most certainly made it mainstream in Japan, but yuri still remains pretty much only a subculture.” But it appears to be changing, as Morimoto noticed small yuri sections forming in major bookstores during her visit to Japan earlier this year.

But the problem with yaoi and yuri, at least from the point-of-view of the gay community, is that they inaccurately portray the gay lifestyle. Yaoi, in particular, is almost entirely made by straight women intended only for straight female readers. “Sure, it’s got guy-on-guy action,” Morimoto says, “but that doesn’t make it gay to me.” Although she has noticed a very small yoai fanbase among the gay community, she doesn’t enjoy it at all, and even has some issue with yuri manga that is clearly intended for straight men.

“It was annoying,” Takashima tells the book club by way of Morimoto’s translation. “There were all these stories that I wanted to read about lesbianism, but they were not available. The reason why I decided to draw Rica ‘tte Kanji was that so I could finally read something that I wanted to read and not depend on this other yuri material.”

Although she used to draw comics back in middle school, Takashima never considered becoming a professional manga artist. She did her first professional comic when she was 30, which is much later than most artists begin their careers. But she has continued working on yuri comics even after moving to America, and also draws gag strips for a local Japanese language newspaper in New York City.

The one thing I found the most interesting about Rica ‘tte Kanji was just how nonchalant it was about dealing with lesbianism and homosexuality. So during the book club discussion, I brought this up with Takashima herself.

As I had controversially mentioned in my last post, I believe that America is still a very homophobic society and the subject is still considered very taboo over here. With all the news about gay rights and the recent release of the movie Milk, the tragedy of the homosexual community has really seemed to have taken center stage as of late.

So going into reading a comic about “real lesbianism”, I was pleasantly surprised to see such an upbeat look at the culture. It was just two women forming a sweet and caring relationship. I was honestly expecting the issue of prejudice and inequality to show up at some point in the story, but it never did.

“Really?” Takashima responded when I told her this, and Morimoto jumps in clarified her confusion. “Those of us within the gay community are just so inundated with it that we just don’t consider it to be a taboo anymore.”

But this could have also been because the Japanese culture looks at homosexuality differently from Americans. When Morimoto is ask to name other lesbian manga artist besides for Rica, she honestly has a hard time doing so. “Japan, for the most part, is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ country. People don’t really care about what you do behind closed doors.” But in exchange for this type of privacy, the Japanese gay community is not able to be as open and vocal about their sexuality as Americans have become. This appeared to be something that the Japanese gay community really admire about American culture.

But the issue of inequality came up once again as Takashima talked about the future of her Rica character. Now that Takashima had experienced a lot more in her life since she began the comic, she wanted to go in new directions with the story. For example, what would happen if Rica and Miho get married? Or what about if they decided to have a child together? This line of thought ultimately lead to a discussion about Proposition 8.

Proposition 8 was a ballot measure in California that would ban gay marriages in that state. The election was going to take place a few days following the MangaNEXT convention, so it was quite a hot issue at that time.

Gay rights is probably the only political issue that I publicly advocate for, so even though I live on the opposite end of the country from California, I was still keeping a close eye on it. I explained my disgust and disappointment over the issue to Takashima and Morimoto, relating it back to my statement about American homophobia. “I think the fact that Prop 8 is actually being voted on is proof that there is still a lot that mainstream America is willing to fight against.”

“But the fact that Proposition 8 exists is a testament to the progress that the gay activists have made,” Morimoto retorts. “In order for Proposition 8 to exist, there was something that had to be there for them to fight against.”

Unfortunately, the proposition won the election the next week and gay marriage was once again banned in California. However, the result of that election is still being contested and appealed even as of the time of this writing. And not long after that election, gay marriage became legal in Connecticut, a state that borders New Jersey and New York.

So maybe there is something to optimism of Takashima and Morimoto. It’s most certainly a much more enjoyable view of the gay community than what has been portrayed recently.

Another interesting thing I noticed about the comic was that for a story all about sexuality, there was very little sex in it at all.  Rica purposely chooses to use the cute art style in order to keep the story very positive, upbeat, and most of all, innocent of the graphical sexual nature of most yuri comics. In fact, she has only drawn and published one pornographic comic in her entire career.

“I had to change my style a little bit because I don’t think that the cute look of Rica ‘tte Kanji would really fit into a sexy story such as this.” She passes around a copy of an English anthology with this explicit comic published in it, and I take the time to read through it.

Although it is not nearly as cute as the art in Kanji, the look and feel of the story is most certainly more adorable than any other pornographic comic I’ve seen. However, the comic still depicts sex between two women, and presents it in a very detailed and explicit way. I found this combination of the cute art style and detailed sexual depictions to be incredibly arousing, and lost all track of the book club discussion until…

“What do you think?” Takashima asks, snapping me out of the trance and back to reality. Like a child caught sleeping in class, the rest of the group laughs as I stumble to come up with a response.

“I- I think I need to read a little bit more of it.”

But Morimoto clarifies why Takashima was asking me this. “Well, you’re blushing a little bit.” And she was right. I was caught red handed getting aroused by a pornographic comic, and I was caught by the artist herself! (>_<)

Takashima presents a little of the Japanese modesty at this point. “After I wrote it and reread it, I realized that maybe I was not meant to draw sex scenes.”

“Well… it works,” I sheepishly admit to her to the group’s laughter again, and she thanks me for enjoying the comic. Clearly, this kind of embarrassment was something that I’m not going to experience that often in my otaku career.

But I left the book club discussion a little more uneasy for a reason other than this episode. “Actually, I have a question for you,” another member of the group directs towards me. “Would you recommend Rica ‘tte Kanji to all your friends?”

I think he singled me out because I was the most vocal person in the discussion. We had clearly established that I was the straight man still unfamiliar with the homosexual community, but still very interested to learn more about it.

But man, what a tough spot to be put into. Takashima was sitting across the table from me, and I have to say if I enjoyed her comic or not. But the answer is not so simple, so I tried my best to convey my opinion without having it sound negative.

Rica ‘tte Kanji is so unique and unlike anything I have seen before. The art style breaks from a traditional manga format and resembles more like a daily gag strip in a Japanese newspaper – very cute and silly. And with a story that takes place in both Japan and within the gay community, it is set in a world that I’m completely inexperienced with.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After collecting and reading so many Japanese comic books over the past eight years, I have seen so much of the same thing being done over and over again. So to encounter something original like this was a very pleasant and noteworthy experience.

But would I recommend that to my friends? The same friends who obsess over the latest Naruto or Code Geass episodes? Of course not. How about those otaku friends who like yuri show like Simoun or Maria-sama ga Miteru? Probably not. In all those cases, I can’t really see something like this reaching out to that audience.

So then who would I recommend it to? Well, Morimoto had at one point mentioned how she gave a copy of Rica ‘tte Kanji to her mother, so yeah, I would probably recommend it to my liberal thinking mother or stepmother. An artsy friend of mine into cute Japanese pop-art would also get a kick out of a cute story about lesbians. In general, I think anyone wanting to explore something unique and creative would find Rica ‘tte Kanji to be interesting, but I can’t really say it’s your typical manga.

Reading a comic like this was an experience in itself, but then being able to talk about it and its subject mater with both Takashima and Morimoto was an even greater experience for this otaku.

So while the word “yuri” may conjure up a few erotic images of girls engaging in “forbidden love” to many, I don’t think I could ever qualify that as lesbianism. Takashima’s comic is about lesbianism, and with her bright and cheery attitude about it, it’s most certainly a happier view of the homosexual community than what the media seems to be portraying it as these days.


UPDATE: I have received a few emails from people wishing to know where they could find Rica ‘tte Kanji. It is published in English by ALC, an independent publisher run by Okazu‘s Erica Friedman. You can purchase the book via Amazon.com or through ALC.

UPDATE 2: And speaking of Erica Friedman, she emails me with her comments on the positive tone of Rica:

Speaking as the publisher of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, I wanted to add something to your comments. I chose to publish “Rica’ precisely because it is extremely cheerful and positive. It might seem obvious that the legal and economic situations for lesbians is not nearly as rosy as portrayed in the book, but it also gets exhausting being angry all the time about injustice and inequality.

As a reader, as a lesbian, I want to read stories about lesbians that are not struggles against the machine, not painful coming out stories, and not angry, angry angry. I want to read stories – at least occasionally! – about two women who meet, fall in love and live happily ever after.

As much as the reality of GLBTI existence is not roses and champagne, it’s not going to make the world a worse place if we portray ourselves as happy, functional and successful in both life and love. And who knows – it *might* make the world a better place!

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