Shonen no Na wa Gilbert: Keiko Takemiya

GilbertI freely confess I had no idea what this book was until I peeled the plastic off and started reading. I simply saw Gilbert coolly gazing at me from the cover, the title, and the author’s name, and I could not pick it up off the shelf at the bookstore fast enough. I slapped some money down on the counter and raced out of the shop with my precious treasure, wondering if it was perhaps a new comic by Takemiya, a spin-off of the beloved Kaze to Ki no Uta. Whatever it was, I was going to read it. And I was pretty sure I was going to love it, because of all the Forty-Niners, Keiko Takemiya is the star in my sky.

And I did read it. And love it. So no surprises here. But rather than a spin-off or some other manga tangentially related to the beautiful and troubled Gilbert, Takemiya surprised me with a biography of Kaze. I’ve never read the biography of a work of art before. I’ve actually never heard of a biography of a work of art before. But this is a thing that should be done more often because it was absolutely fascinating. Takemiya guides us from her arrival in Tokyo at the age of twenty in 1970 through to the start of the serialization of Kaze in 1976, offering many a glimpse into not just herself and her own life and upbringing, but also into the manga industry at the time and the state of Japanese society in the 1970s.

I knew bits and pieces of this story: how Takemiya tried for years to get it published, how it was rejected over and over (as the cover notes in large font), how it was too racy for its time, how editors believed girls did not want to read about boys in love. But this is honestly not even half of the story. Takemiya’s journey to finally serializing what she calls her lifework is more than just a battle against the legions of male shojo manga editors who could never understand what girls actually wanted to read, it’s a battle against herself, her own insecurities and shortcomings as an artist. It’s a young woman finding herself and her voice that should really be read by all aspiring artists if only to reassure themselves that even the greats are plagued with the inner voice of “no”. It’s also a beautiful tale of friendship and women coming together against a male-dominated industry to assert their voices and lift each other up. So yes, Shonen basically has it all.

Takemiya starts out as a manga artist when she is still in university and foolishly believes she can balance the two. She ends up working for all three of the big publishers, Shogakukan, Kodanasha, and Shueisha, but isn’t meeting her deadlines with any of them. They drag her to Tokyo from Tokushima and lock her in a hotel in the book district of Jimbocho to finish all the manga she is behind on, in the charmingly kidnapper-y manga industry practice known as “kanzume” (canning). Her editors confront her there, forcing her to choose one company to work for since she clearly can’t handle working for all of them. She chooses Shogakukan, thus setting herself up for a lifelong, frequently antagonistic relationship with the editor Y.

She is canned alongside fellow Forty-Niner Moto Hagio, and that is the beginning of another lifelong relationship. Takemiya is in awe of Hagio’s talent and thrilled when they end up working alongside each other, helping each other meet their deadlines. For the first time, she is able to really talk with someone about the nuts and bolts of manga and she loves it.

After her initial canning, she returns home to Tokushima, but she misses the close interactions with editors and artists she had in Tokyo, especially since this was a time when not only did they not have the internet, Takemiya’s family didn’t even have their own phone; the neighbour had to shout out for her every time her editor called from Tokyo. She persuades her parents to let her move to Tokyo, and she asks Y to find her a place in Nerima (my old neighbourhood!) near the café/workspace of her idol Shotaro Ishinomori.

But soon enough, she is moving in with Moto Hagio into the Oizumi Salon, a house also in Nerima that became the meeting place for many up-and-coming female manga artists. They live around the corner from Norie Masuyama, a true Tokyoite in love with all things cultural. She devoured movies, books, art, and became the harshest critic and strongest supporter of Takemiya, falling into something like a “producer” role. It was Masuyama Takemiya first shared the idea of Kaze with, on a marathon phone session that lasted all night. Masuyama was convinced that Hagio and Takemiya were going to bring about the revolution that shojo manga needed to move forward, and she was not shy about pushing them to do just that. The whole book is full of this feminist feel, the need for women to take over and revolutionize a culture ostensibly devoted to them. 

Takemiya gets into the nuts and bolts of manga in a very real way, describing her life drawing a weekly serialization, the differences in page rates for male and female artists, the overwhelmingly male roster of editors at shojo magazines at the time, and more, but she also looks to the broader picture, touching on events in Japan at the time to provide a frame of reference for the changes she and the other artists at the Oizumi Salon were making to the world of manga. More than anything, though, she shares the excitement and frustration, the dreams and aspirations of the new rank of shojo manga artists coming up in the seventies in a way that is so palpable and timeless. If you have ever tried to create something, you will relate to Takemiya crying that she will never be skilled enough to tell this story she is dying to tell. But then she was! So take hope, creators. 

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