mō ichido, shōjo. (70s, 80s & 90s shōjo manga retrospective)

How popular were the Year 24 Group?

  • or, The Otaku: its habitus and irrational hatred of the mainstream
Hagio Moto, Ōshima Yumiko, Takemiya Keiko, Satonaka Machiko, Ichijō Yukari, Ikeda Riyoko

A while back, I read a hilarious blog post containing scans and transcripts of some essays Hagio Moto wrote about the art of manga, Manga ABC (1974) and Watashi no manga-ron / My theory on manga (1976, neither have ever been collected into tankobon). In both, she talks about "maniacs"1, a subset of her fan base who were so, so deeply obsessed with her, they would call her at home (how did they get her number?), show up at her house (how would they get her address?!), ask her for autograph, and tell her that she "shouldn't write comedy, comedy is bad, manga must be art" and other such nonsense.

All that is quite funny (in hindsight; Hagio must have been quite bothered by it!), but what's interesting is how she talks about herself as a writer who attracts this "maniac" type of fans. In one of the scans from Manga ABC, you can see a magazine editor comment that "She's not popular at all, she always comes last in the popularity polls. But... she gets a ton of letters." Hagio adds, "This type of writer is referred to as being 'popular with the maniacs' and these letters are called 'love letters' rather than 'fan letters'."

This aligns well with the famous story about how Hagio's The Heart of Thomas was written: the series did so poorly in the popularity polls that it was originally going to get canceled almost immediately, but then the tankobon of Poe no ichizoku sold well, so the editors allowed her to actually finish the series. According to Hagio's essay collection Omoide o kirinuku toki, the series ended up doing okay towards the end of serialization, but only okay — around number 5 or 6 in the polls. It also aligns with what Takemiya Keiko has said about Pharaoh no haka: she started the series with the expressed intent of climbing to the top of the magazine's polls so she the editors wouldn't be able to say no to her writing Kaze to ki no uta, but she only managed to reach number one with the last chapter of the series. Takemiya did go on to write Kaze to ki no uta, which was later canceled.

Something hilarious that the blog uses to exemplify how "popular with the maniacs" Hagio was at the time (and comparatively less popular with general audiences) is the "manga maniacs" magazine Ducks (later known as Puff2). The top 5 manga writers as voted on by the magazine's readership in December 1978 looked like this:

  1. Hagio Moto
  2. Oshima Yumiko
  3. Tezuka Osamu
  4. Takemiya Keiko
  5. Matsumoto Reiji

The readership's top 10 manga included The Heart of Thomas, Poe no ichizoku, and They Were 11 by Hagio, as well as Wata no kunihoshi by Oshima, Kaze to ki no uta by Takemiya, and so on. And let's be clear: I think these popularity polls are actually quite good. There are many people and titles in them that I personally love. But there is no way these polls matched what was actually popular with general audiences at the time, which is made blatantly obvious by the list of top 10 worst manga as voted by the magazine's readership:

  1. Gakideka (gross comedy so popular with kids there was a PTA protest)
  2. Circuit no ōkami (car racing manga, massively popular and helped to introduce the "super cars" phenomenon to Japan)
  3. Candy Candy (one of the top best-selling, most popular manga and anime in the history of shōjo manga)
  4. Kyojin no hoshi (one of the most popular and influential baseball series in the history of manga)
  5. Tōdai icchokusen (the first hit manga by Kobayashi Yoshinori)
  6. Makoto-chan (massively popular comedy by Umezu Kazuo)
  7. Kaze to ki no uta (I can easily imagine Kazeki having many haters as well as fans)
  8. Macaroni hōrensō (massively popular and influential comedy)
  9. Ai to Makoto (massively popular romance by Kajiwara Ikki of Kyojin no hoshi and Ashita no Joe)
  10. Uchu senkan Yamato (you already know this one)

Holy crap! If I looked up the word "hipster" in a dictionary, the definition should be "people who voted in these polls". I haven't read most of these manga, but they're so well-known that I'd obviously know of them, and they were definitely some of the most popular series of the 70s (most of them were the top series in the magazines they ran in). Personal tastes aside, I can only imagine incredibly bitter people insisting they're the "worst" that manga has to offer.

Also, the prevalence of comedy, romance, and romantic comedy in the worst list is plainly ridiculous! It makes sense, to me, that the kind of person who voted in these polls would also walk up to Hagio and tell her to stop writing comedy, because manga had to be "art".

In the essay quoted in the blog post, Hagio goes on to harshly criticize these maniacs/otaku, well knowing they make up a large portion of her vocal fan base: "These maniacs are extremely intelligent. But they are lacking in creativity. Because they're intelligent, they see only faults in other people. But they would have so much more fun if they actually did something, rather than finding flaws in other people. So I look down on the maniacs. I feel that the general populace and general audiences possess so much more of a rich sensitivity to art and a rich imagination."

Another blog post exemplifies the attitudes and thought processes of these maniac fans even better: it turns out that back in the 70s, Ikeda Riyoko used to receive hate mail from fans of Hagio, Takemiya, and Oshima telling her to stop writing manga (!), and what's more, Satonaka Machiko once told Ikeda that she, too, was incredibly unpopular with maniac fans. When I read this, my mind immediately went to an interview with Ichijo Yukari about her seminal work Designer, in which she reveals that she used to receive letters from fans of Hagio and Oshima, telling her that she was ripping them off!

What one has to understand here is, Ikeda, Satonaka, and Ichijo were immensely popular writers of shōjo manga in the 70s and through the 80s. Ikeda had already had a massive hit with The Rose of Versailles and written several popular works such as Oniisama e... and The Window of Orpheus; Satonaka had made an explosive debut at 163 and gone on to write hits such as Aries no otome-tachi which broadened the scope of shōjo manga and heavily influenced the birth of manga for adult women; Ichijo's dramatic storytelling and ornamental art made a heavy impact on shōjo manga and she continues to publish hit series to this day. These three women were the faces of the magazines they wrote for (Weekly Margaret, Weekly shōjo Friend, and Ribon respectively), and were the leading forces of shōjo manga.

Keeping that in mind, what else but bitterness and petty jealousy could have made maniacs/otaku attack these writers and try to force them to stop writing manga altogether? It's so easy to imagine the same kind of person who wrote to Hagio telling her to write only manga they approved of, and voted in polls to degrade every popular manga of the time, would also tell the most popular shōjo writers to stop writing — because only manga that they approve of should exist, and they sure do not approve of anything funny, or exciting, or — god forbid — popular.

To get back to the point of this post, the year 24 group were not actually that popular. They didn't come first in the popularity polls; their series got canceled, or at least came close to it; some of their fans even went so far as to try to force the truly popular shōjo writers to stop writing. The Year 24 Group obviously played a major role in the development of shōjo manga, and their work is rightfully considered important and influential now, but I find it interesting to look back and get a sense of perspective about their work. I also find it incredibly fascinating that this isn't a case of the niche, "artistic" works gaining recognition in retrospect while the mainstream, "populist" works have long been forgotten — although that's probably what the maniac fans were hoping for.

  1. The word she uses is マニア mania. It was used back then in much the same way otaku is today, meaning someone deeply obsessed with a particular (usually nerdy) subject. In Japanese, the noun doesn't refer to the psychological mood as in English, but rather to a person. Interestingly, マニアック maniac is used as an adjective in Japanese.
  2. Puff was one of the most niche, indie, otaku manga information magazines in existence until 2011, when its publication was suspended.
  3. Both Hagio and Takemiya witnessed this shocking debut, and have later written about how impressed they were by Satonaka. Takemiya wrote in her essay comic Ashita no K-ko chan that she, too, had sent in a manuscript to the competition where Satonaka won the grand prize. Takemiya didn't rank in it.