Monday, May 03, 2004


The major artist I promised a while ago is coming, but it's taking me longer than I'd expected. In the meantime, here's a brief look at doujinshi. Those of you who have done a little reading on the Japanese manga scene may be familiar with the phenomenon of doujinshi, but probably few of you have ever actually seen one. My local anime club had a fundraising auction yesterday, and among the items being sold were some Rurouni Kenshin doujinshi. Out of curiosity I bought a couple, and here are my first impressions.

Doujinshi are manga created and self-published by fans, usually (but not always) using copyrighted characters from popular manga, a la "fan fiction." Like fan fiction, but unlike self-published comics here, most of the creators are women. And, again like fan fiction, a popular genre of doujinshi takes a pair of male characters from a popular manga series and depicts them as in love with each other. In the U.S., such doujinshi are usually called yaoi, though the Japanese use of this term may be slightly different (going by Schodt in Dreamland Japan). (American creators of so-called "Ameri-manga" sometimes refer to their work as doujinshi too, but here I'll be discussing only to Japanese works.)

Schodt translates doujinshi as "fanzine"; but the connotations of amateurishness this word implies are quite misleading, at least for the two doujinshi I bought. The first is called Himawari Kenshin (Sunflower Kenshin) by a creator with the pseudonym "Chaicrodapon." It's thirty pages long, and similar in appearance to an American comic book (though slightly larger), except it's bound with glue instead of staples, and the cover is of heavy stock. The interior paper, too, is better than that in most American comics. The cover is in color, but the interior is black-and-white. The other doujinshi I bought, Ken kyaku kurabu ichi (meaning something like "Ken party club one" or "Ken guest club one"), an anthology, is a more elaborate production. Physically it's indistinguishable from an "official" tankoubon (paperback collection): it even has an ISBN (4-931396-01-1). And, unlike Himawari Kenshin, the word balloons and captions are typeset (as "official" Japanese manga usually are).

Artistically, there is nothing amateurish about either of these. All the contributions are easily at a professional level. In fact, the average level of the pieces in Ken kyaku kurabu ichi is superior to that of many of the Japanese "phone book" manga I own. And the best artists there, Midori Katsui and Nanao Nakazawa (the names are written mainly in kanji, with no furigana, so I can't be sure how these names are read; these are my best guesses) are superior by any standards. It's tempting to make invidious comparisons with the average American self-published comic, but it would be unfair. For one thing, some of the artists might actually be established professionals working under pseudonyms, from what I gather. For another, I have no idea how typical of doujinshi these two books are.

I can't say much about the writing, since I haven't read any of the stories. I can say that many, though not all, of the stories do posit a homosexual relationship between Kenshin and Sanosuke, including the two I referred to above; and yes, there are sex scenes, though the "naughty bits" are never shown, even masked or mosaiced. Many of the stories are only a page or two long, though the longest is forty pages (the one by Katsui I mentioned), and there's another that's thirty pages long. As far as I can tell, they're mostly serious, rather than comedic. But there is one two-page story in which Kenshin dresses as Sailor Uranus, for some reason; and another very peculiar one in which the dumplings he is eating are suddenly transformed in his imagination into his dojo companions.

I should point out that these are not "underground" or clandestine comics. They are sold openly at conventions, even the ones that violate copyright, though the toleration of the copyright holders is conditional upon the print runs being limited. Nor do they correspond to American alternative comix (at least the doujinshi I've seen). It might be considered "subversive" to present established manga characters in a homosexual relationship, though male homosexuality in itself is accepted in mainstream manga. But the art, far from breaking free from, or trying to overthrow, the conventions of mainstream manga, aims to follow them as much as possible. These aren't rebels: whether they're aspiring (or actual) professionals, or simply practicing "the sincerest form of flattery," they're thoroughly imbued with the values of the establishment. At least that's my impression, for what it's worth (which probably isn't very much).

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