blue by Kiriko Nananan is an example of an experimental work that plays with many of the generic markers of shojo manga. The plot of blue concerns a doseiai romance between two students, Kayako and Masami, at an all-girls’ high school. Nananan illustrates this very conventional do seiai narrative with an unusually flat, unornamented art style. By breaking the link between standard shojo narratives and standard shojo manga art style, she is able to give her story a remarkable freshness and a surprising level of emotional and psychological depth. In other words, Nananan breathes new life into a standard shojo manga story by embracing the limitations of the genre, namely, sameness and flatness.
Nananan’s artwork lacks many of the aesthetic traits of classic shojo manga but still evokes the sentimental mood associated with the genre. She uses closed, rectangular panels rather than splintered, opened, or layered ones. Rather than flowers, clouds, or abstract emotive lines, she exclusively uses stark backgrounds, punctuated only with solid black or gray screen tone. The overall impression is of a striking contrast between black and white and of an extremely flat picture plane, because of the lack of background or shading. Within the rectangular frames, however, Nananan makes extensive use of white space, which still imparts a dreamy, floating atmosphere, even without accompanying flower or cloud motifs. In spite of the flatness of the art style, the combination of the extensive use of empty space with the standard doseiai story imparts a sense of longing and nostalgia.
Another dramatic departure in aesthetic style from classic shojo manga is the way Nananan deliberately hides or obscures the girls’ faces. The faces tend to be obscured most often during emotional high points in the story. For instance, when the girls kiss for the first time, their faces are completely obscured.
Nananan also frequently shows only the lower half of the face or the back of the head in a panel. The careful arrangement of the figures frustrates the reader’s attempt to identify with the characters. More significantly, by obscuring the face, Nananan hides the characters’ eyes. Even when the eyes are visible, they are quite small, black, and flat, without any of the highlights usually associated with shojo manga.
The huge, starry eyes of both male and female characters are one of the most important generic traits of shojo manga. The large eyes not only impel the reader to identify and empathize with the characters, but also signal a thematic interest in the characters’ emotional lives. Both visually and narratively, the large eyes are another example of the attempt to add depth to shojo manga.9 Azuma points out that the stylized manga/anime eye has become more than a simple representation of a body part, but an “object of empathy” (Murakami 2000, 149). Because of their symbolic, overdetermined status, however, Azuma argues, the eyes of anime characters do not “look back” in the way that viewers might expect in more mimetic art styles. Azuma takes the proliferation of anime eyes in Murakami’s art as another example of the Derridean “spectral”; he writes, “[W]e are unsure whether they are living or dead, watching or being watched” (Murakami 2000, 151). Because the manga/anime eye is so ubiquitous and symbolic, blue cannot exist outside the generic conventions that call for it; even the absence of the eye is overdetermined.
By obscuring the faces and making the eyes flat and unreflective, Nananan also forces the reader to look to other body parts, or to other images in the frame, for expression of emotion. Furthermore, by drawing a flat rather than a symbolic eye, she reorients the body of the shojo manga character so that all body parts can be equally expressive. In particular, the girls’ hands become one means of conveying emotion. For instance, on the double-page spread just after the girls kiss, the middle left frame shows their fingers slightly entwined. While classic shojo manga would have shown the characters looking meaningfully into each others’ eyes, here the entwined fingers speak to the girls’ hesitant desire. Later, when Kayako sleeps over at Masami’s house, there are several close-ups on the girls’ hands with their fingers entwined, emphasizing their growing friendship (Nananan 1998, 90–91). When they argue, there is a close-up of Kayako pushing Masami’s hand away (Nananan 1997, 145), then of her pulling her wrist out of Masami’s grip. In obscuring the eyes, Nananan does not forsake sentiment; instead, she moves the emotional symbolism to the hands. The very simple line drawings of hands suggest an emotional response equal to any in shojo manga, in spite of the very flat picture plane.
Although the art style is flat and the narrative is sparse, the extensive use of interior monologue, placed outside word balloons, highlights sentiment and connects blue to the shojo manga genre. As in classic shojo manga, the interior monologue outside word balloons approximates the first-person narration of Kayako in her relationship with Masami, and blue operates on a discourse of longing, nostalgia, and purity. The disconnect between the depth of the characters’ emotion and the flatness of the drawings gives the manga a melancholy tone. The standard doseiai theme paired with a non-shojo manga art style also invites the reader to feel a sense of slightly jarring, displaced recognition. Indeed, this may be Nananan’s purpose. blue originally appeared in the manga magazine Comic Are!, which is aimed at adult readers and not associated exclusively with the shojo manga genre. Although blue is a story about teenage girls, it appeared in a magazine marketed to readers in their twenties and thirties. These readers might consider the conventional aesthetic style of shojo manga trite or childish, but they embrace the sentiment of shojo manga with nostalgia.
Nananan makes this standard shojo story relevant to older readers both through her flat art style and by combining the rhetoric of shojo sentiment with the harsh realities of contemporary high school life. Toward the end, in an interior monologue scattered in fragments over a completely empty page, Kayako’s thoughts read: “I’m sure we are completely pure/That’s all/And even if we have done dirty things/Are they really so bad?” (Nananan 1997, 172). As Kayako implies, the girls are far from “pure” in the strictest physical sense. Masami has had an affair with a much older, married man, become pregnant with his child, and had an abortion. Even Kayako, the more innocent of the two, casually loses her virginity to a boy she hardly knows. By the standards of shojo culture, which emphasizes the purity and innocence of virginity above all else, the girls are certainly “dirty.” But Kayako rejects this judgment, saying, “If you love someone, no matter who it is, you can’t help yourself. You’re not the only one. It’s not your fault” (Nananan 1997, 168). Nananan inserts the uncomfortable reality of unhappy sexual relationships into the standard shojo manga story, but by affirming the spiritual purity of the shojo characters, she reassures her readers that even if they are not virgins, they are still shojo. Moreover, by making the doseiai relationship the center of the plot, she reaffirms the importance of love, even when heterosexual love proves disappointing.
Contemporary shojo manga and its many generic offshoots, including experimental manga based on sho jo conventions, are a key site of cultural production in Japan. They provide a space for women artists to explore the tensions and contradictions of sho jo identity. This medium would not have existed without prewar girls’ magazines, which developed a narrative and aesthetic idiom for the private discourse on girlhood. But with this legacy, shojo manga also inherited certain generic limitations from girls’ magazines, in particular a reliance on sameness and certain difficulties in portraying realistic heterosexual romance narratives. In blue, Nananan responds to those limitations not by challenging or inverting them, but by expanding and magnifying them, using flatness and do seiai to create a more sophisticated, socially relevant story that still speaks to female readers, even if they have outgrown the shojo manga stories of their teen years.