Juliet Looks Through a Fishtank at Romeo: Romance Manga Aquarium

Tomoko Taniguchi, Aquarium, CPM 2003/My Birthday 1990

Tomoko Taniguchi, Aquarium, CPM 2003/My Birthday 1990There’s a sweet and lovely feminism to the shoujo romance stories found in Tomoko Taniguchi’s Aquarium. Femininity is their strength.

Tomoko Taniguchi was active in the Japanese market by the early nineties, but those same stories experienced a second, translated wind a decade later, in the bubble days of the American manga market. There’s very little English-language information available about her. These three shorts in Aquarium came, sleuthing suggests, from the shoujo magazine My Birthday, a high-femme periodical that’s no longer published. Hooked up with English-language manga publisher CPM by Colleen Doran, as related in the preamble to this Anime Fringe interview, her “classic shoujo” style informed a lot of what western markets recognise as girls’ romance manga in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century. Her characters’ gentle insistence on being their authentic selves mean that these largely forgotten stories from a quite specific cultural perspective are worth revisiting. They were good when they were first penned in 1993, they were good when American girls got them in 2003, and they remain good now. Romance, as it’s said, is a tale as old as time.

Aquarium is a collection of three shorts, all centred upon a budding relationship between one teenaged girl and one teenaged boy. Ages range from around fifteen to around nineteen; two high school students and one recently-graduated air hostess relate the stories of how they came to trust that one particular cute boy might really, truly like them. There is no kissing in this book. There is no formal acknowledgement of status, no “ah, you and I, we are dating, it’s serious, now.” These stories almost take that for granted — they’re about the feelings and growth that inform that decision, about what comes before the decisive action: the personal expansion that allows for romantic engagement to begin. Three short stories about coming to terms with oneself as a potential romantic agent: what a treat.

Each story also relies heavily on context. Romance without personality is pointless, a signifier of definition but nothing active. A failure. So each girl has a number of friends, family, colleagues — her own personal emotional environment, in which she has an existing perception of herself, and existing reflections in her peers attitudes towards her. The boy, his new sort of interest in her: that’s a catalyst. Naoka, heroine of the first and titular story, is unhappy because she failed to gain entry to her first high school of choice (Japanese school entry exams being as competitive as university ones in America and the UK, or indeed the eleven-plus exam of the latter. Taniguchi’s omake note to the readers shares her worry that the intensity of feeling Naoka experiences about school choice won’t be understood by American readers, but also her hopes that the emotional content will carry. She need not really have worried).

Naoka’s not just unhappy, she’s humiliated and appalled with herself, and lovesick for a handsome ex-classmate who did get in to her school of choice on top of that. She’s suffering from an obsessive perspective, hating her runner-up environment and silently judging her peers without realising how warped she’s being, or how that judgement is further impeding her ability to thrive. The character profiles that precede the comics in the volume blurb her love interest Haruki like so: “perhaps he can help to ease the pain in her heart.” This sounds like regressive nonsense, right? All she needed was a man to set her straight; a woman’s place is in the girlfriend aisle! But no– Haru eases Naoka’s pain by seeing it, respecting it, being nice to her and showing her how to integrate social vulnerability into a confident, whole self. Then he also has feelings for her, as humans do on the reg. He likes her as a person, covers for her as a friend, and fancies her as a teen.

Tomoko Taniguchi, Aquarium, CPM 2003/My Birthday 1990

Haru’s positive influence is tag-teamed with the open, good-natured overtures of some of Naoka’s new classmates. A girl, who Naoka wrote off as trashy and mean, brings round catch-up work to Naoko after a self-harm crisis, and reveals herself as working to correct the disconnect between her intentions and her loud mouth. She apologises for having accidentally upset Naoka. Her “gaudy” mode of dress and style of grooming don’t need to be changed or apologised for, because Naoka was wrong to judge it — this goes without saying. The old silent criticism just sinks into the water. This girl is a ready friend, and perhaps first impressions can be wrong. Wrong because of misunderstandings, sure (as when Naoka sees Haru buy a rose for another girl and thinks he is a shallow playboy) but also wrong because one’s value set is poorly calibrated. Naoka wanted to attend the school she did because the uniform was cute and the handsome boy was handsome. Is that worth existential misery? Is a friend to be overlooked because their hairstyle is aggressive? What’s your problem, kiddo? Why not get over it?

Story two, The Flying Stewardess, follows Shoko as she meets her old school friend Egawa and they rekindle the cosy after-school snack sessions the gang used to have as cosy after-work two-person dalliances. Shoko’s struggle is to evaluate whether or not Egawa is interested in her, or in what she represents. Shoko and her fellow stewardesses spend many scenes discussing how the general public relate to them in their professional image: glamorous, benevolent, sexily maternal. The stewardess brand is strong, and being treated as a fetish or gratifying novelty can take its toll. They get fan letters from teen girls who want to join their ranks, which is precious, and gifts of phone cards from male professionals who want to “date” them for their image, which is less so, but still nuanced. The panel below is especially meaningful.

Tomoko Taniguchi, The Flying Stewardess, Aquarium, CPM 2003/My Birthday 1990
Aligning one’s own generosity and instinct with one’s desire not to be taken for granted is hard

This is what I mean by sweet and lovely feminism. I am all for ugly and rude feminism, of course, but do we not contain multitudes? We do. To be insistent on personal dimension and complex respect whilst also being pleasant, giving, soft-spoken — what a fine experience. What a relief to see reflected as an option. No, it’s not good to be required to be pleasant as an expectancy of womanhood. Nevertheless it is nice to be pleasant, often, and to be true to oneself should not always have to be a painful or tiresome thing. Of course it can feel bad to be pleasant, or pleasantness can be used as an authoritative shield. Pleasantness isn’t “just” pleasant. These facets of feeling and the nuance of niceness are all visible in this short comic, and all suggested as intrinsic to a femme experience. Nothing is made weak, here, except perhaps, with a smile, the foolish and outrageous assumptions of men.

Matsushita of the last story, The Heart is Your Kingdom, has a crush on a boy. She’s kept it for years, since childhood. The standout aspect of this story is that she has a resentful rival. Honda, a more maturely beautiful classmate, stakes a claim to Suzuki and knows that Matsushita is, as the saying goes, after her man. Honda is not hated, belittled, or judged. She loses out, of course; Suzuki liked Matsushita all along and only accepted Honda’s gift and love confession because he “wanted a cute girlfriend.” Which is a bum move, but they’re young. Honda’s jealousy and frowns aren’t used to make a fool out of her. She’s neither definitively, traditionally evil in her role as “the other woman,” nor a casualty of corporate feminism. She’s not demonised through scenes which make her a bitter loser with (what a bitch) internalised misogyny. Giving a character “internalised misogyny” is often a cunning way to perform regular misogyny, I think. Honda is understood by Matsushita’s narrative — she likes a boy, she really wants him to like her, she wants things to be simple and nice and for nothing to endanger her romantic daydream. So she frowns at a girl who likes her boyfriend, and waits for the boy, marginalised and not pretending to be happy (lovely subtle expression on her — watch the eyebrows, below, and how she looks out from under them), while he’s having fun with little miss “just friends.” Fair play, Honda. It sucks to be you, and I mean that with earnest compassion. So does Taniguchi, I think. Once Matsushita and Suzuki come to an understanding, Honda has been allowed to fade out of the story to lick her wounds in private.

Matsushita actually owes Honda’s proactive pursuit of Suzuki. When she feels she’s “lost” him, once he has a girlfriend and things are no longer teetering on the eternal cusp, she loosens up around him, able to laugh, able to get on with being a real person instead of frozen, pre-performance, romantically. So at last they can get to know each other, at last they can discover how to communicate.

There are many criticisms of romantic fiction and the industry of romance. There are many ways to design a regressive mind trap into your me + u = 2 entertainment diversion. But there are many methods to the contrary, too. There is strength and self-respect to be found in the girly and the giddy. When criticising girls’ fiction and romantic whirlwinds one must recall that girls who like boys are real human people, with emotional demands and complex social needs, and that perhaps romantic fiction can excel at providing both of those in its strongest forms. Love making you happier is not a facile charade. It is a recognition of new lenses, new social maps, new input; increased comprehension of how one is seen and how one might be able to see. Romantic love interplays with one’s sum context, contributes to growth, and is itself rewarding. Taniguchi does not shy away from depicting her heroines reliance on influencers from all areas of their lives, does not suggest that romantic relationships are the lone or solely necessary aspect of her girls’ emotional lives. She does not need to disrespect comradeship, family, professional regard or self-perception to rejoice in the particular pleasure of romantic affection. Through Aquarium’s three short tales, Taniguchi projects, and protects, feminine humanity.

Tomoko Taniguchi, Aquarium, CPM 2003/My Birthday 1990

Claire Napier

Claire Napier

Critic, ex-Editor in Chief at WWAC, independent comics editor; the rock that drops on your head. Find me at clairenapierclairenapier@gmail.com and give me lots of money