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The Magnificent Forty-Niners

No, not the Eighteen-Forty-Niners of the California Gold Rush. The Nineteen-Forty-Niners, who created the golden rush of girls' comics in Japan in the 1970s. I was just reading the English-language Wikipedia article on the topic, and frankly it's pretty awful. Sadder yet: the Japanese-language Wikipedia article is even worse. (Japanese-language Wikipedia is generally pretty awful.) Since there seems to be confusion about the term, today I am posting an article I wrote on the subject for The Comics Journal, issue #269, July 2005. Hopefully someone will find it useful or at least interesting.


From the dawn of the dynamic Tezuka-style “story manga” in the early 1950s through the pre-hippy 1960s, the genre of Japanese girls’ comics (“shōjo manga”) was a backwater in which mostly male artists, unable to find better work, drew either light humor strips that were cute but forgettable, or sappy, formulaic melodramas about some pretty, passive little girl tossed by fate from one abusive circumstance to another, until some handsome, kind young man shows up to rescue her and reunite her with her mother (who would have looked for her earlier, but had amnesia until yesterday). Girls’ comics were of little interest to anyone other than their artists and editors and the elementary-school girls who were their readers.

Good work was being done by good artists, including two of the handful of women cartoonists working at the time: Fuichin-san creator Toshiko Ueda and Harp of the Stars creator Hideko Mizuno. Some men, too, such as Joh of Tomorrow creator Tetsuya Chiba, did work of lasting value in girls’ comics. But the genre was still bound by extremely narrow notions of what girls’ comics could or should be. In the mid 1960s, a young woman named Yoshiko Nishitani defied convention by creating girls’ comics whose heroines were neither little girls nor faraway princesses, but contemporary Japanese teenagers whose interests included (gasp!) boys. This was a reflection of the gradual rise in age of readers as well as the increasing prominence of baby-boomer teens in popular culture. But it was also a reaching out to teen girls who may have dismissed comics as “kids stuff.”

In the early 1960s, children’s magazines responded to threat from the new medium of television by introducing a weekly format and increasing the amount of photos, illustrations, and comics in their pages. In doing so, they created Japan’s first generation of comics addicts, reluctant to “grow out of” comics. This in turn triggered the comics’ boom of the 1960s, creating a sudden demand for talent to work in the many new magazines (which were rapidly transforming from general children’s magazines into comics magazines). This coincided with changes in societal views of the “proper roles” of women. If women could be elected to the Diet, why couldn’t they draw comics? Publishers opened the spigot, and what had been a trickle of young women artists became a cascade. Almost overnight, the male artists who had been creating girls’ comics moved over to the new boys’ magazines, and a generation of young women took over. (Considering that Americans tend to think of Japan as horribly backwards in terms of gender equity, it is ironic that this gender revolution took place thirty-odd years ago in Japan, but has yet to happen in the U.S.)

Despite the influx of women, however, most shōjo manga remained formulaic and unremarkable. What was needed was a revolution in the mindset of artists, editors, and readers alike—a revolution in the concept of what was possible in the genre of female-targeted comics.

Enter the “Magnificent 24-Year Group” (“Hana no nijuuyo nen gumi”). Incubated in the radical youth culture of the late 1960s and inspired not only by the best work of older girls’ comics artists, but also by European cinema and literature (not to mention American and British rock and roll), a number of talented, innovative, young female artists made their debut at more or less the same time. Who were the Magnificent 24-Year Group? It depends who you ask. If you ask the women who are said to be members—Moto Hagio, Keiko Takemiya, Yumiko Oshima—they will tell you that there is no such group: it is an invention of critics and fans. The name itself refers to the fact that the members are supposed to have been born in the 24th year of the Showa Era (1949 by Western reckoning), but, ironically, of the three whose names come up in anyone’s list (the three I listed above), only Hagio was actually born in that year. Some people include in the 24-Year Group any very popular female cartoonist of that generation, such as Rose of Versaille creator Riyoko Ikeda, or Sumika Yamamoto, creator of the tennis hit Aim for the Ace! Others include just about anyone who hung out in the apartment shared by Hagio and Takemiya from 1970 to 1972—even women who were not cartoonists! But most will agree that the Magnificent 24-Year Group is “all those artists who revolutionized girls’ comics back in the 1970s.”

Using this vague definition, it’s easy to see why Hagio, Takemiya and Oshima are at the top of every list.

Takemiya, who had strongly hinted at homoeroticism in her 1970 short story, “In the Sunroom,” shocked the nation in 1976 when she dropped the innuendo and portrayed—tastefully, but unambiguously—sex (as well as sexual abuse) between boys and young men in her devastating The Song of the Wind and the Trees. She also pioneered the genres of science fiction and fantasy, and even created a sci-fi romantic comedy, Fly Me to the Moon!, about a spaceship pilot and his nine-year-old fiancé who has supernatural powers (1980). The most accessible of the three, she has tried her hand at practically every conceivable genre, and continues to cartoon today, though her responsibilities as Professor in Kyoto Seika University’s Department of Comic and Cartoon Art leave her little time to do so.*

Yumiko Oshima is something of an enigma. Her drawing style is extremely spare when compared with her contemporaries, and on the surface her stories (almost all short stories) seem light-hearted, cute and mundane. But at their heart, they are profound, terrifying, and fantastic. Just to give you a taste, her mind-blowing Banana Bread Pudding features a young girl slipping into madness because her older sister is to be married, and won’t be able to accompany her to the bathroom after ten p.m. and stand outside singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Without this protection, she believes, a beautiful, androgynous clown will take her and run her through a meat grinder. Since her dream is to marry a closeted gay man and help him to accept his sexuality, her best friend convinces her playboy brother to play gay. As it turns out, the boy this best friend is in love with is an uncloseted gay who is in love with her brother. And this boy, in turn, is secretly being sexually abused by a middle-aged teacher who is a closeted gay man. Are you still with me? It may sound comical (and it often is), but I’ve had to swear off reading Oshima’s stories in public because I’ve never gotten through one without crying. Novelist Banana Yoshimoto considers Oshima to be her greatest influence.

Here are some other artists often counted among the 24-Year Group.

Ryoko Yamagishi: Among her other accomplishments, she was the first artist to portray lesbianism in girls’ comics with her short story, “Two in a White Room” (1971). She is best known for her ballet classic Arabesque (1971), in which she took the tired genre of ballet (which had been a standard since the ’fifties) and turned it into a laboratory for complex and erotically charged psychological explorations. In The Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun (1980), she turned the staid, semi-legendary Japanese historical figure, Prince Shotoku and portrayed him as a brilliant, beautifully androgynous homosexual with supernatural powers. Her recent Dancing Girl: Terpsichore has been nominated for the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for the past two years.

Toshie Kihara: Though she started off doing ordinary teen love stories, she made her mark with something completely different, Mari and Shingo (1977), a story of the bond between two handsome, talented, and charismatic boys coming of age in the days leading up to World War I. Though Mari’s love for Shingo is never fully requited, their friendship is never diminished by time or distance. Kihara has declared her current series, A Staff and Wings—a tale of the French Revolution starring Robespierre, the beautiful Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, and a fictitious woman with strange powers—to be her final long work.

Minori Kimura: Actually born in 1949, Kimura’s made her pro debut at the tender age of fifteen, in 1964. Preferring realistic, contemporary settings to the fantastic, and understatement to melodrama, she reveals the profound in the mundane through characters whose warmth and humanity seems to spill off the page. For the last decade and a half, she has passionately pursued issues of interest to women, including sexuality, work, and health. Since commercial publishers have an aversion to anything potentially controversial, she has created her own one-woman publishing house, and has also been commissioned by various NGOs.

Nanae Sasaya: Though she lacks the name recognition of Hagio or Takemiya, she is widely admired by those familiar with girls’ comics of the 1970s. Her occult and horror stories are truly terrifying. Her recent work includes the acclaimed Eyes of Ice, a documentary graphic novel about child abuse. She is still active today, though she has changed her pen-name from “Nanae” to “Nanaeko.”

Mineko Yamada: A pioneer in the genres of science fiction and fantasy in female-oriented comics, she got her start in the rental comics market around 1969, then worked for various commercial girls’ magazines through the mid 1980s, when she shifted her focus to self-publication. She remains a big name in the field of Japanese science-fiction fandom.

Junya Yamamoto: neither a cartoonist nor a woman, Yamamoto, former Editor in Chief of Special Edition Girls’ Comic and Petit Flower, is the invisible member of the 24 Year-Group, because it was he who brought so much of their work to the light of day. What any other editor of the day would have seen as flaws in these young artists, Yamamoto saw as enormous potential. In the face of pressure from above, he published one unconventional, controversial story after another, for no other reason than that they were interesting and well-executed. Although his contribution to the girls’ comics revolution was long known only to industry insiders, in 2004 he was awarded the Special Achievement Prize of the Japan Media Arts Festival. He served as Professor in Kyoto Seika University’s Department of Cartoon and Comic Art for the first four years of that program’s existence, from 2000 to 2004.


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