A girl from a poor Japanese family wins a scholarship to an exclusive secondary school. When she gets there, she is teased and bullied by the rich students, especially the boys. But the girl stands up to the bullies, winning arguments against them with her superior wit and intelligence. Soon, one of the bullies is captivated by the girl’s spunky spirit, and he falls in love with her.
This plot line, from a story called Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers) – a teen girl using courage and intelligence rather than physical beauty to find love and happiness – is a recurring theme in Shojo manga, a wildly popular comic book craze among women in Japan, as well as other Asian countries and in the United States.
Anne Fritzon ’16 has been a big fan of manga comic books since she was 12 years old. And this summer, under the auspices of Vassar’s Ford Scholar program, Fritzon is studying compilations of numerous Shojo stories and analyzing the impact of the manga craze on Japanese culture.
“I love the romance of Shojo manga – there’s love everywhere,” says Fritzon, a Japanese and psychology double major from Sharon, MA.
Fritzon and her advisor for the Ford Scholar project, associate professor of Japanese and Chinese Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase, say manga’s rise in popularity corresponded with the infusion of western culture that began with the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II and continued with the modernization and globalization of the Japanese economy in the 1970s and 80s. Over the past 60 years, women’s roles in the culture have evolved from principally being wives and mothers to much fuller participation in life outside the home. As early as the 1950s, young girls – and older women, too -- began to identify with the powerful, outspoken young women in the Shojo manga stories. Some of the stories even address traditional taboos such as homosexuality.
“Gender is often a very fluid concept in these stories,” Dollase says, “although when these issues are addressed, they often are depicted in places other than Japan.”
Some of the stories border on the pornographic, Dollase says. But when Japan recently outlawed many forms of pornography, manga comics were specifically excluded from the new statutes.
Fritzon is helping Dollase prepare a narrative that will accompany an exhibit of manga art to be held jointly in November at the Palmer Gallery on the Vassar campus and the Washington Gallery at Dutchess Community College. The exhibition is part of a tour of manga art organized by Professor Masami Toku of California State University at Chico. “I thought it would be best to have an explanation of manga, rather than just present the artwork in a vacuum,” Dollase says.
Dollase will also use some of Fritzon’s research when she presents a paper on Japanese popular culture at Ochanomizu University in Tokyo in August. “For a long time, manga wasn’t taken seriously as a form of art or literature, but now it is a legitimate field of study in Japanese colleges and universities,” she says.
Fritzon first became interested in manga when she and her brother watched Japanese anime cartoons on television. Many of the stories in anime are based on manga comics, but Fritzon says the ones she and her brother watched were more often based on Shonen manga – a more action-oriented “male” version of the genre. A few years later, she discovered Shojo manga, and she’s been hooked on the stories ever since. She says she’s thrilled to be able to spend her summer doing something she loves.
“The girls in the stories are valued for their strength and character, and I love that,” she says.