Boys dressed as girls – girls dressed as boys – boys dressed as girls in love with girls dressed as boys – incestuous twins – mafia heirs dressed in maid fetish uniforms. This is neither a scene from cutting edge queer cinema nor the milieu of a Hollywood fetish club, but rather an average episode of the wildly popular 2006 Japanese animated television series Ouran High School Host Club (Ouran). Critics of Japanese girls’ comics and animation (shôjo manga and shôjo anime, respectively) have long acknowledged homosexuality, cross-dressing and gender fluidity to be common tropes of the shôjo genre which are particularly popular amongst female fans. Ouran plays on these popular tropes and pushes against their boundaries by poking fun at the tropes themselves and the fans who enjoy them. In doing so, Ouran engages two important aesthetic traditions, both of which explicitly question traditional sexualities and gender roles, the queer practice of camp and the fan practice of parody.
Both camp and fan parody complicate traditional narratives by appropriating and refiguring them. In each case, a marginalized group seizes on an iconic cultural production and draws attention to its ridiculousness through playful, often reverent, exploitation. In the western tradition of camp, this move is often associated with queer appropriations of popular culture, the most obvious being the overdramatic drag queen, who calls attention to the role playing associated with the female gender by overemphasizing it to a degree that, in the right hands, can be sublimely ridiculous. Similarly, the more recent Japanese tradition of fan parody is associated with anime and manga fanatics who both undermine and pay homage to popular mainstream anime and manga by creating their own counternarratives that involve well-known characters in fantastic, often absurd, situations and unexpected homoerotic pairings, creating a subtext that complicates and questions the inclusiveness of the master narrative. Thus, while Ouran seems innocuous (and often even somewhat condescending toward both fan culture and cross-dressing), its engagement with these fundamentally disruptive traditions suggests a subtle undermining of Japanese patriarchal and heteronormative traditions.
Manga, Anime and the “Boys’ Love” Tradition
Despite the entrenchment of established gender roles in Japanese society, manga and anime have long been fertile ground for experimentation and the flouting of cultural taboos.1 The experimental tradition in manga and anime largely began around 1970 with the boys’ love, or shônen ai, genre. In a departure from earlier manga, which were largely penned by men, shônen ai manga were penned mostly by female mangaka (manga artists) and prominently featured male cross dressing, effeminate (almost unrecognizably male) men and male-male homoerotic (occasionally sexually explicit) relationships. An offshoot of shôjo, shônen-ai often revolves not around the exploits of girls, as one might expect, but rather around “beautiful boys,” or bishônen. The bishônen is a liminal figure who is “visually and physically neither male nor female; his romantic and erotic interests are directed at other beautiful boys, but his tastes are not exclusively homosexual; he lives and loves outside the heteropatriarchal world inhabited by his readers” (Welker 842). In the earliest examples of the genre, such as Tekamiya Keiko’s2 The Song of the Wind and the Trees3 and Hagio Moto’s The Heart of Thomas,.4 the liminality of the bishônen was further emphasized by the use of European boys’ school settings – places far removed from the everyday environs of the Japanese schoolgirls who were reading the works.
Even before shônen-ai was gaining popularity, another boundary-pushing theme was coming into prominence – female-to-male cross-dressing, a genre that was also dominated by female mangaka. Most critics of manga agree that “the seed that mythically spawned […] shôjo manga was […] Princess Knight, (Ribon no Kishi)5 penned by the revered (and male) manga artist Tezuka Osamu. […] Princess Knight tells the tale of Sapphire, a girl born with a boy’s heart who is raised as a boy so that s/he can ascend the throne of a kingdom that visually suggests the magical realm of Disney films” (Welker 846). Roughly fifteen years later, one of the best selling and most beloved shojo manga of all time took female-to-male cross-dressing to a much further extreme, incorporating historical storylines and elements of what would eventually come to be known as shôjo-ai (girl’s-love) and yuri (lesbian – literally “lily”). The Rose of Versailles6 is set in the court of Louis XIV (practically the birthplace of camp, according to Mark Booth) and features Oscar François de Jarjayes (Lady Oscar), a noblewoman raised as a man so that she can eventually take over her father’s position as Palace Guard. Lady Oscar consistently performs male gender, despite the fact that her biological sex is no secret. She leads the guards, routinely beats the men of the palace in armed combat and takes female companions to court balls (much to the chagrin of the many women who admire her, including Marie Antoinette, whose care she is charged with). The Rose of Versailles mainstreamed the very gender ambiguity that allowed for the figures like the bishônen and the cross-dresser to become staples of manga and anime, and while it did little to promote the yuri genre (Lady Oscar eventually falls in love with her loyal servant and companion André Grandier), it set the groundwork for the lesbian themes that are just now rising to prominence in both mediums.
While the figures of the bishônen and the cross-dresser may seem cutting edge by American standards, they raise few eyebrows in Japanese society given the long history of gender performativity on the Japanese stage. In traditional Kabuki, which has been male dominated since the 1600s, male actors known as onnagata are responsible for playing female roles. Like bishônen, the early onnagata struck a chord with the female audience and “became, ironically, the arbiters of female style among the urban population, and their skill at onnarashisa (‘female likeness’) represented a model for feminine expression and behavior that women found compelling, and which they sometimes emulated” (Fiorillo). Likewise, in the all-female Takarazuka Revue, founded in 1913, particular women, known as otokoyaku, are designated to play only male roles.7 A disproportionately large number of otokoyaku become enormously popular and use their work in the Takarazuka to transition into film and television careers. However, unlike the onnagata or the otokoyaku, the bishônen in particular rapidly became associated with adolescent explorations of gender and identity.
After more than thirty years, critics (particularly those in the West) still struggle to understand the popularity of shônen-ai manga and the bishônen with young girls. Three theories emerge as the most widely accepted. The first, a largely feminist reading, indicates that young women beginning to struggle with the circumscribed gender roles laid out for them by the highly patriarchal structure of Japanese society displace their fantasies of power and liberation onto feminized male characters who display female personality traits yet enjoy the freedoms of the traditional male. The second pivots on a more practical concern: shônen-ai began to gain popularity during a period when the very suggestion of sexualization of the adolescent female was considered highly taboo, thus making it impossible to depict erotic relationships between heterosexual teenagers and forcing the mangaka to utilize (specifically male) homosexual pairings if she wished to deal with physical relationships. The third theory is related to coming-of-age. It suggests that adolescent girls, afraid to face their own burgeoning sexuality, cope with their new found impulses and desires by projecting them onto a male character, thereby making the sexual conduct in shônen-ai manga less threatening and more attractive to the shôjo reader than a heterosexual relationship would be. Each of these theories has merit, and together they begin to strike at the complex interplay of forces that make shônen-ai manga so popular with teenage girls, but none consider the actual process of sexual and gender identification that takes place within the readers of the genre.
As James Welker describes, early shônen-ai manga had a significant impact on the formulation of queer identities for Japanese teenagers, both female and male, in the 1970s. That publications like Allan, June and Luna, which serialized early shônen-ai works routinely received and published reader photographs, mostly of young women dressed as bishônen characters, and letters from predominately female readers describing fantasies of male-male and occasionally female-female desire, suggests that a clear correlation was taking place between the beautiful boys and their readers (857). One reader notes that she has decided, based on reading a number of shônen-ai manga, that she “wants to marry a homo” (864). In fact, many contemporary Japanese lesbian activists assert that shônen-ai manga had a significant impact on their understanding of their sexual identities:
Oê Chizuka, for instance, explains that she turned to these manga given the lack of representations of female-female desire and that she “really identified with or saw [herself] in [manga] works by people like Hagio Moto and Takemiya Keiko.” […] Activist, scholar, and manga fan Mizoguchi Akiko goes further, declaring that she “‘became’ a lesbian via reception, in [her] adolescence, of the ‘beautiful boy’ comics of the 1970s.” (843)
Both women specifically credit The Rose of Versailles and The Song of the Wind and the Trees as pivotal works. Thus, it is clear that cross-dressing and shônen-ai manga are capable of profoundly affecting readers’ sense of sexual identity, thereby destabilizing Japan’s strict sexual and gender roles.
In the thirty years since the publication of early works like The Heart of Thomas, Song of the Wind and the Trees and The Rose of Versailles little has changed – innovations in manga and anime continue to be a site of identity formations that challenge Japan’s patriarchal heteronormativity.
Parody Dojinshi: Otaku Culture Camps it Up
For more than a decade, one of the most pervasive symbols of not only the subculture of manga and anime fandom but also the growing rift between older, traditional Japan and the more freethinking, younger generation has been the otaku. More than a symbol of avid consumerism, the otaku represents a significant (though sometimes temporary and age related) shift in cultural norms. Though the term otaku itself is most closely aligned with the English word nerd or geek (with a more than slight overtone of maniac),8 the otaku is a surprisingly vexed figure in Japanese culture.
Though the term otaku can refer to any type of avid fan, and has in the past even been used politically as a marker for the lost youth of Japan in general, it is most commonly associated with the manga otaku or the anime otaku, as it is these particular otaku who control and contribute to one of Japan’s largest sites of underground economy and thought. Since its inception in 1975, the Comic Market, where otakus congregate several times per year to distribute amateur manga known as dojinshi (literally “niche journal”),9 has been a mecca for fans of subversive manga and a site of panic for Japanese authorities. Over the past thirty years, the popularity of Comic Market has contributed significantly to the growth of dojinshi production groups. At the time of Sharon Kinsella’s study on otaku subculture, in the early 1990s, Comics Market boasted more than a quarter million attendees semi-annually and amateur dojinshi groups numbered between 30,000 and 50,000, producing upwards of 25,000 dojinshi titles per year (298, 296). The dojinshi industry is such big business in Japan that it maintains its own bookstores and presses and has become increasingly separate from the mainstream manga market. As Kinsella points out, the amateur manga market has all the markers of being what John Fiske would call a “shadow cultural economy,” which provides “individuals lacking in cultural capital […] and the social status with which it is rewarded with an alternate social world in which they have access to a different kind of cultural capital and social prestige” (qtd. in 299). Thus, the otaku community, which is looked down on by mainstream Japanese media as a symbol of dangerously misguided youth, has created its own counter-economy by producing narratives that undermine the values of the society that looks down on them.
What many Americans might find surprising is that the amateur manga movement has traditionally been run by and for female fans. Historically, most dojinshi manga fall into the category of yaoi, or explicit homoerotic content between male leads, and one of the most popular genres of yaoi dojinshi is the spinoff genre known as Captain Tsubasa. As Matt Thorn explains, the Captain Tsubasa genre emerged when female fans of the boys’ soccer manga Captain Tsubasa created their own stories in which the two male main characters were lovers. The term now refers to a genre of yaoi dojinshi that specifically focuses on alternate narratives of homoerotic relationships between male characters in established mainstream, non shônen-ai, manga. The counternarrative trend established by Captain Tsubasa dojinshi has paved the way for the more satiric spinoffs, which have become a staple in the contemporary amateur manga market.
One of the most pervasive elements in yaoi manga is parody. Unlike early examples of shônen-ai and cross-dressing manga, which pushed the boundaries of sexuality and gender in a very serious manner, parody dojinshi, in much the same way as Western camp, uses homoerotic and transgender themes to poke fun at the circumscribed gender roles in Japanese society:
Parody manga often contains an element of satirical humor that makes light fun of the seriousness of the masculine heroes in commercial boys’ and adult manga series. While on the one hand, parody positively celebrates these favorite manga characters, on the other hand it also pierces their authority and aloofness by inserting scatological humor or embarrassing jokes about their sexual desires. […] This aspect of the amateur manga sense of parody is similar to aspects of the Anglo-American sensibility of camp. Both of these cultural modes are based on the subversion of meanings carried in original, and frequently iconic, cultural items. Moreover, in the case of both parody and camp, this playful subversion is focused particularly on cultural items that contain strongly identified gender type. (Kinsella 304)
Since most of these parodies of traditional depictions of Japanese masculinity are penned by young women, the most marginalized figures in Japanese society, it seems a critique of the traditional roles represented by older generations is taking place. Responding to the disconnect between their desires and the circumscribed roles laid out for them by society at large, female fan artists are creating a paper world in which their work, their humor and their acceptance of non-traditional expressions of gender and sexuality directly undermine patriarchal authority. And the mainstream, for better or worse, is taking note.
Since the late 1960s, young women have been object of peculiar moral concern in Japanese society. Young women are often considered a mirror of Japanese culture as a whole, and their growing interest in more mainstream, less submissive roles for women has long been considered the penultimate symbol of Japan’s perceived moral decay and break with tradition. Thus, the otaku movement, and its association with subversive texts published by young women, gives Japanese authorities pause. The amateur manga movement was brought to light when serial infant murderer Miyazaki Tsutomu was found to own a large collection of amateur girls’ manga. Since Miyazaki was somewhat active in the dojinshi scene and a frequenter of Comic Market, attention turned to the amateur manga movement as a symbol of the hopelessness of modern antisocial youth in Japan. Police raided amateur manga bookstores and printers and reporters and sociologists lamented the “danger of a whole generation of youth who do not even experience the most primary two- or three-way relationship between themselves and their mother and father, and who can not make the transition from a fantasy world of videos and manga to reality.”10 Otaku have come to represent a “Peter Pan syndrome, or the refusal to grow up and take on adult social relations. […] Without social roles, otaku had no fixed identities, no fixed gender roles, and no fixed sexuality” (Kinsella 308-12, 314). As such, the gender play and sexual freedom depicted in parody dojinshi is seen to have considerable power to undermine the traditional family structure in future generations of Japanese youth.
The notion that fan parody is analogous to Western camp warrants further examination, as the inclusion of this specifically Japanese medium can add new contours to our understanding of camp and the subtle ways it works to undermine oppressive cultural norms. In a 1978 essay on camp cinema, Jack Babuscio sets up four basic features of camp: irony, aestheticism, theatricality and humor. Irony is an “incongruous contrast drawn between an individual/thing and its context/association,” with the most common contrast for camp being masculine/feminine (119). The masculine/feminine contrast is clearly at play in the figure of the bishônen, however, because they place patently straight, alpha male figures in homoerotic relationships and undermine these figures’ traditional heroicness through the use of ridiculous storylines, embarrassing situations and scatological humor, dojinshi manga make the most use of heterosexual/homosexual and high/low status binaries which Babuscio also associates with camp irony. An important element of aestheticism is its emphasis on exaggerated stylization which emphasizes incongruities (122). Again, one of dojinshi manga‘s key features is its excessive use of the symbols associated with shônen-ai manga: roses for male-male love, lilies for female-female love, the dark-haired alpha male paired with the blond bishônen. The overabundance of these symbols helps dojinshi call attention to the subversiveness of their narratives by acting as signposts that broadcast each and every departure from the accepted mainstream. Theatricality is perhaps the most well-known feature of camp, as exemplified by its focus on role-playing and emphasis on the performative quality of gender roles (123). Likewise, in dojinshi (and, indeed, more traditional manga) liminal figures like the bishônen and the cross-dresser demonstrate that one’s gender is entirely dependent on the role one wishes to play and can often times be completely fluid, changing from one situation to the next – the line between the bishônen and the drag queen is truly a narrow one. The final, and most important, element of camp is humor, which Babuscio calls “the strategy of camp: a means of dealing with a hostile environment and, in the process, of defining a positive identity” (126). Queer camp humor, according to Babuscio, consists primarily of “bitter wit,” a cutting irony based on the knowledge that society’s joke is on you and a comic downplaying of resultant frustration and fear. In this case, the parodic qualities of manga are distinct. The humor of dojinshi is overtly playful and silly, often with an emphasis on over-the-top eroticism and gender-play. Yet both use their marginality to destabilize the mainstream by pointing out its incongruities.
Though camp has long been specifically associated with Western culture, the Japanese phenomenon of dojinshi parody clearly belongs to the same tradition, and argues for an expansion of camp that reaches beyond the Eurocentric. Furthermore, it challenges the notions of critics like Sontag who suggest that camp is a purely homosexual phenomenon. While dojinshi flaunts its queer elements, it is not strictly a queer output – it is created primarily by heterosexual women and is also invested in feminist and pro-youth arguments. Thus the inclusion of dojinshi would encourage a more inclusive view of camp such as the one suggested by Mark Booth: “To be camp is to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits” (69), or Andrew Ross, who defines camp as “persistently subordinate [in] relation to the dominant culture” (317). This view of camp encompasses the queer association with camp as well as some of the more confusing factors, such as camp’s revelry in bad taste and blatant cheap consumerism. It also re-emphasizes the element of self-parody already existent in camp and demonstrates how that element can be used to make an essentially subversive genre more palatable to the public. An excellent example of just such a feat can be found in the recent Japanese manga-adaptation Ouran High School Host Club.
Ouran High School Host Club: Dojinshi Goes Mainstream
Ouran High School Host Club is one of a handful of otaku parody anime released during 2006.11 However, it is the only anime of its genre to openly incorporate and play on shônen-ai, yuri and cross-dressing themes, and its send-up of otaku culture and the dojinshi market is far more overt than others of its kind. Based on the manga by Hatori Bisco, Ouran was voted one of Japan’s 100 Favorite Anime by TV Asahi viewers just months after its original release and continues to be a fan favorite, spawning a dating simulation game for Playstation 2 in mid-2007.
Though a mainstream anime, Ouran engages in the style of camp/parody that is generally associated with dojinshi: It plays on earlier cross-dressing and shônen-ai manga by incorporating names and elements from famous series; its central character is a cross-dressing woman; it includes overt and excessive symbols associated with shônen-ai manga such as roses, lilies and the black/blond binary; and it constantly alludes to homosexual attraction and potential (though unrealized) homosexual relationships. Furthermore, Ouran routinely reminds the reader of its ties to dojinshi by featuring an otaku character who believes she is the Host Club’s “manager” and constantly dreams up new cross-dressing and costume play routines for them as well as a retinue of swooning fan girls who eagerly await each potential moment of homosexual lust (and often buy photos to commemorate them). For the sake of brevity, I will focus on just one episode: “The Manageress Invades,” where otaku extraordinaire Hôshakuji Renge attempts to turn the Host Club into a live dojinshi.
“The Manageress Invades” opens with an image of Renge, at her home in France, sitting in a dark room surrounded by dolls and posters of a character she is trying to woo on a dating simulation game.12 After she learns that her father has just met the son of a business colleague in Japan who happens to look exactly like the character, she immediately boards a private jet to live in Japan where she is determined to win the heart of her newfound “fiancée,” Ohtori Kyoya, the vice-president of the Host Club. Already, Renge’s obsession with dating sims and extreme devotion to her favorite character place her in the character of the under-socialized otaku who spends all of her time obsessing over manga and anime rather than developing social ties. Immediately upon her arrival at the Host Club, Renge takes it upon herself to criticize each of the hosts for not living up to the correct image of a romance hero (this is particularly ironic, as each character in the Host Club is already modeled after a popular shônen-ai stereotype). Claiming that the hosts lack a “shadowy side” and that all “fair maidens are suckers for the traumas of handsome men” Suoh Tamaki, the Host Club “king” and the Casanova figure among the group is transformed into the troubled and “lonely prince.” Hitachiin Hikaru and Hitachiin Kaoru, who specialize in an incestuous twin act, are refigured as basketball players who close themselves off in their own world. Haninozuka Mitsukuni, aka Hunni-Senpai, the adorable sweet, loving, bunny-hugging loli-shota13 character, who looks and acts like an elementary school child despite being an eighteen-year-old karate master, becomes a cute face with a vicious fiend inside (a prospect that makes Hunni cry). Hunni’s devoted friend and protector Morinozuka Takashi, the strong, silent, devoted type, becomes Hunni’s maltreated henchman. Female-to-male cross-dresser Fujioka Haruhi, who is universally adored by the hosts and their clients, becomes the victim of bullying. Even more amusing than their transformations is the fact that the hosts immediately take up their newly-designated roles despite already having identified Renge as an unhinged otaku. Like a true dojinshi artist, Renge has taken mainstream characters and easily adapted them to her own counternarrative. In the meantime, Ouran has played a clever trick on its viewers: by juxtaposing its already subversive characters against Renge’s more bizarre role models, it has minimized their subversiveness by making the initial roles appear to be the norm. But Ouran adds yet another layer of complexity when Renge decides to film the Hosts in their new roles, prompting Kyoya to break her camera and confiscate the film, eradicating all traces of the hosts in their dojinshi guises. Initially, this seems to be a nod toward the need for a single defining master-narrative – until Kyoya edits the tape and begins to make a tidy profit selling it through the Host Club. In this instance Kyoya, who is often referred to as the “evil manager” or the “demon lord” of the Host Club, seems to play the role of the mainstream authorities who are threatened by not only the subversive content but also the alternative economy represented by amateur manga. Like much good camp, Ouran‘s ridicule is so couched in a layer of humor and over-the-top silliness that it easily slips under the radar. In a single episode, Ouran pokes fun at the conventions of shônen-ai manga, has a laugh at the dojinshi tradition of parody from which its characters are clearly drawn, and takes the mainstream manga market to task for oppressing counternarratives and fan economies, all without seeming to have said anything serious at all. In the meantime, it has established incestuousness, cross-dressing and gay identities as normative narratives to be played against rather than questioned. Such facile undercutting of potentially controversial issues demonstrates how clearly the mediums of camp and parody can be used (and indeed are used in Ouran) to undermine heteronormative traditions without appearing to even question them. Because of its mainstream marketing and parodic appeal, a show like Ouran has the power to reach a far greater audience than niche shônen-ai and yuri anime, which claim shorter runs and much less acclaim, thus its seeming lack of seriousness – its campy queerness – allows Ouran to relay its critique to a wider variety of viewers.
The success of parodic anime like Ouran High School Host Club can give Western viewers a greater insight into the tradition of camp by drawing our attention to parallel traditions in non-Western cultures. By looking at the dojinshi market that has spawned these popular parodies and studying its parallels to Western camp, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of how camp works, how well it works and how it can be effectively segued into mainstream cultural critique. The moral panic over dojinshi and otaku culture in Japan proves that camp and parody have an immense amount of power, while shows like Ouran High School Host Club demonstrate that one of its greatest powers is what Mark Booth calls its “self-mocking abdication of any pretensions at power” (74). Its very silliness downplays the seriousness of its messages. The success of shows like Ouran proves that camp still has the power to impact the mainstream one knowing smirk and wink at a time.
Babuscio, Jack. “The Cinema of Camp (aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility).” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999: 117-35.
Booth, Mark. “Campe-toi!: On the Origins and Definitions of Camp.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999: 66-79.
Core, Phillip. “From Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999: 80-87.
Darlington, Tania and Sara Cooper. “Truth in Miracles: Gender and Sexuality in Japanese Anime.” The Essential Manga Reader. Ed. Toni Johnson-Woods. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, forthcoming.
Fiorillo, John. “FAQ: Onnagata.” Viewing Japanese Prints. 2007. University of California, Berkeley. 19 Nov. 2007. <http://spectacle.berkeley.edu/~fiorillo/texts/topictexts/faq/faq_onnagata.html>.
Ouran High School Host Club. Dir. Takuya Igarashi. 26 episodes. Prod. Bones/Animax, NTV. 2006.
Kinsella, Sharon. “Japanese Subculture in the 1990s: Otaku and the Amateur Manga Movement.” Journal of Japanese Studies 24.2 (1998): 289-316.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Ed. Fabio Cleto. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999: 53-65.
Thorn, Matt. “Unlikely Explorers: Alternative Narratives of Love, Sex, Gender, and Friendship in Japanese ‘Girls” Comics.” MattThorn.com: Shojo Manga. 2004. 1 Jan. 2007. <http://www.matt-thorn.com/shoujo_manga/sexual_ambiguity/index.html>.
Welker, James. “Beautiful, Borrowed and Bent: Boys’ Love as Girls’ Love in Shôjo Manga.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 31.3 (2006): 841-70.