Erica Ostlander celebrates a pioneer of Japanese artistic culture
My muse is… Rumiko Takahashi
She is… A world-renowned mangaka who has permanently changed the landscape of manga and Japanese pop culture. She is nicknamed the “Princess of Manga” or the “Queen of Shōnen” and is the creator behind popular series like Inuyasha, Ramna ½, and Urusei Yatsura. She has been a frontrunner in the anime industry since 1978 and allowed the industry to gain global appeal with her universal stories. She started off running a series in the Weekly Shōnen Sunday magazine, which is a publication tailored for young boys in Japan, and eventually branched out by introducing romantic comedies to the magazine, after the rapid success of her series. This sudden change of genre caused her to be harshly criticised by the industry and its fanbase, forcing her to remain anonymous during the onset of her career. However, her stories transcended a standardised audience, creating characters that can reach all types of people-- regardless of gender, age, and typically favoured genres. She continued providing stories and art that changed how pop culture was consumed in Japan, creating a space for art that can be appreciated by everyone. By focusing on imagery and visual flair rather than dialogue, she was able to communicate to her audience on an international level, creating a new understanding of Japanese culture. Her iconic art style will forever be associated with the 80s manga boom and the sudden swell of female empowerment in the entertainment industry. Now she is one of the wealthiest women in Japan and is the winner of the Grand Prix d’Angoulême award in 2015 for lifetime achievement, and is the second manga artist to have ever won this prestigious award. She is a role model as not only an artist, but for her ability to use creativity to inspire change and action.
I first learned about her when… I first started taking an interest in Japanese pop culture and comics, I noticed a strict divide between gender and age in the creation of manga. Each magazine fell under four categories: shonen for young boys, seinen for older men, shojo for young girls, and josei for older women. This clear division between age and gender is something that struck me as odd, but upon further reflection, this divide can also be seen in western media in the form of subtle marketing and other types of promotions. Despite the continuous onslaught of unnecessarily gendered media, I wanted to see if there were any exceptions to this structure of genre in Japan to satisfy my own curiosity. I was already a fan of her more popular series such as Inuyasha, and after discovering its ‘shonen’ origins, my curiosity was officially piqued. I now see her as one of the best cartoonists of all time and I admire the power her art has to transcend societal norms.
I am obsessed because… To put it simply, her stories have defined an entire artistic wave of cross-connecting genres and cultures, allowing her to become the inspiration for the new generation of creators. Her character designs have a retro flair that persists in the modern continuations of her work, promoting a sense of content nostalgia in all of her viewers. It has survived the cutthroat industry of manga and has come out on top through stories that are simple in nature but continue to hold and maintain an audience’s attention for years. For someone like me who tends to overthink plotlines and actively looks for faults in a story, she is able to whisk away any pessimism that may distract from the light-hearted stories she creates. She has an almost innate way of leveling the viewer’s mind to accept what is presented to them without continuous questioning regarding plausibility or realistic character dynamics. She is a strong believer in the power of “simple and fun stories” and she has converted me to become a true “slice of life” enthusiast. In art, it is easy to get swept up in the endless metaphors, philosophical roots, and dark twists hidden behind a piece of art. However, there is beauty in simplicity, and is often more difficult than one thinks to create something that is so simple it can be enjoyed by anyone.
My favorite work by her is… Ramna ½ which is a story that combines the genres of martial arts, comedy, and romance. It is about a boy training to become a martial artist whose gender changes once making contact with hot or cold water. Having a sex-changing protagonist first appears to be a difficult task, especially in terms of marketing in a strictly gender divided form of media. However, this franchise was immensely popular, has multiple TV seasons, and two movies coupled with the long-running manga series. Each character has a beautifully fleshed out persona that allows ample room for showcasing comedy and drama in a scene. The martial arts aspect is perfectly balanced with the romantic web between the characters in the show. It is the ideal example that proves how much we limit ourselves to genre and audience when creating art and can inspire others to reach beyond the standard template for entertainment.
The work by her you absolutely have to check out is… Rumiko Takahashi has produced multiple works that have the ability to define a career, but Inuyasha is unquestionably her most successful series. It is a series following a fifteen-year-old girl from modern Japan who suddenly finds herself able to go back in time to the Feudal era. It is an adventure and romance epic that has 193 episodes across two series, four feature-length films, one OVA, in addition to the new series which premiered last month about the next generation of characters in this fictional universe. It is a series with a hugely passionate fanbase that refuses to let come to an end and is regarded as one of the most popular anime franchises of all time. The story on paper appears to have an elaborate premise, as it is extremely easy to overcomplicate a story centred around time travel. However, Takahashi once again takes her audience away from the logical side of themselves and crafts a happy and pleasant atmosphere. The fights and power systems are consistent and entertaining, and the quality of the art is kept up and well-managed throughout the series. This could be considered the magnum opus of her career and is a great introduction to the Queen of Shonen herself.