Are we ready to talk about josei again? I promise not to rant (too much) about how work by and about women is consistently undervalued in our culture. But it’s honestly impossible to talk about josei manga without coming up against this wall. I’d love to see some hard numbers on this, but even without that kind of rigorous data, it’s pretty clear that compared with the flood of shonen and seinen manga—genres targeted at and (mostly) written by men (boys)—the amount of josei and shojo—genres for and by (mostly) women (girls)—published in English is a mere trickle. And you can step right off with the argument that josei and shojo stories just aren’t as good or as well produced. Josei and shojo manga consistently win big awards—Yuki Ozawa won the Kodansha award for her incredible Sanju Mariko just last year, while Misato Konari is shortlisted for the Tezuka Cultural Prize and also snagged an Excellence Award at the Japan Media Arts Festival this year, and we’ll probably never see either of these excellent titles in an English translation.
There are a gazillion reasons why we see so little josei and shojo in translation, and I promised I wasn’t going to rant, so I won’t go into every one of them. But a big reason, and something you see all over the place not just manga in translation, is that works created by and about women are seen as for women only, while works created by and about men are for “everyone.” Work about/by women is denigrated at pretty much every turn. Little boys are taught that this or that book is “for girls” and thus they should never pick them up (remembering that YA author who talked about how some schools excused boys from her school visits since she wrote books “for girls” so of course the boys wouldn’t be interested, but I can’t remember her name, so if you know who I’m talking about, please tell me so I can credit her) (Update: Thanks to Mecque for telling me that I was talking about Shannon Hale!), and even when a woman author is recognized with a prestigious award, her win is cast in the light of a man author who lost. (Yes, I am thinking of Jennifer Egan’s pulitzer win and how every other article about it had a headline with Franzen’s name in it, too.) So when you have publishers and society cutting out half of the population as a possible readership for women’s work, you are going to have a hard time selling that stuff.
And this isn’t just limited to the North American market. Although a ton more shojo and josei makes it onto the shelves in Japan, this is mostly because the publishing industry in Japan is more robust and simply has more readers buying books. Stories by and about women are still not taken as seriously as those by and about men, as evinced by the fact that while women are winning those manga awards, they’re winning them about a quarter as often as men do. For an artist who wants her work to be widely read by both women and men then, a series in a seinen or shonen magazine is really the way to go, even if she’s writing about women and the series could easily run in a magazine aimed at women.
I feel like Torikai’s Sensei no Shiroi Uso is just such a title. Although it ran in the seinen magazine Morning, it takes as its protagonist a young woman grappling with her own womanhood and what it means to be a woman in a society that sees women as second class. And this is where I have to give you a chance to get out before things get too heavy. Torikai does not shy away from depictions of sexual assault and violence against women. If this is something you would rather not subject your eyes or your mind to, then this is not going to be the series for you. Go read the warm delight that is Witch Hat Atelier instead. It just came out in English and you will not be sorry you picked it up!
Back to Torikai. In the first volume, she lays the groundwork for the tumultuous relationships that intertwine and carry each other through the next seven volumes of the series. After a violent assault while at university, Misuzu, a 24-year-old high school teacher, is now afraid of herself and her own sexuality. Being a woman is to be afraid. Being a woman is to be assaulted. She feels like she brought the assault on herself by the mere fact of being a woman. So needless to say, she does not have the healthiest relationship with men in her personal life. When one of her students is rumored to be having an affair with a married woman, she is pushed by the school principal to talk to him about it so that he can deny it and they can put the whole thing to rest. But Niizuma not only doesn’t deny it, but tells Misuzu everything, including how he is afraid of a woman’s “down there”, bringing about a weird and uncomfortable new relationship between teacher and student.
Torikai explores sexuality in all kinds of ways in this series, almost none of them healthy. And while some of it borders on sensationalist and a lot of it is problematic as hell, knowing Torikai and her interest in exploring feminist issues in her work, I feel like she’s exaggerating a lot of the relationships depicted in these pages to dig deeper into what patriarchal views of sexuality and toxic masculinity do to both men and women. Misuzu’s rapist is a vile human being, and Torikai never tries to make the reader like him, but she does give us insight into what put him on this path, like the way his friends constantly cheer him on his sexual exploits and pay no mind to the fact that he is actually raping women. Another student in an incestuous relationship finds herself playing the whore and the virgin at the same time, until she is forced to confront the situation she’s in and very nearly commits suicide. Her classmate uses her beauty to manipulate teachers and forge ahead with a secret sexy modelling career. Another of the rapist’s victims falls utterly and hopelessly in love with this abusive man, the only way she feels she can have any control over the mess he has made of her life. And yes, there is the very not-okay student-teacher relationship in here, too, which Torikai uses as a way for both of the characters to eventually find their way to a good place, highlighting how messy life and relationships actually are.
By the end of this, no one is “healed” or living happily ever after. They’re maybe in better places, but they still have more work to do on themselves and their relationships. And getting to even this is a mountain of work and nightmares and tears. Torikai doesn’t tie her story up with a neat little bow—Misuzu doesn’t suddenly “get over” her rape. But she learns to live with it and not let it define who she is now and who she will be. Sensei is a painful interrogation of sexual assault and womanhood in a world that hates women, and yet managed to run in a seinen magazine for four years and have its eight volumes go into multiple printings. So please stop telling me that work by and for women is only interesting to women and doesn’t sell, and publish more of it already.