The Comfort and Disquiet of Transmedia Horror in Higurashi: When They Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) – Brian Ruh

It has been common in recent years for a Japanese entertainment property to encompass multiple forms of media. In fact, it has become unusual for a media product to not exist in more than one format. There are many different paths that this media progression can take – a manga (comics) series can be adapted into a TV anime (animation) series, a video game can receive a manga spinoff, a television drama can be adapted from a novel, as well as countless other permutations and extensions. In this regard, the case of the Japanese property Higurashi: When they Cry (Higurashi no naku koro ni) is an intriguing one. The media franchise began as a series of visual novels[1], which are computer software produced by the intersection of text, static illustrated characters, and background images. Some visual novels may have a degree of interactivity, in which the user makes choices that determine the outcome, although Higurashi did not. These visual novels wetrre sold at Comiket, a large biannual gathering in Tokyo for fans to buy amateur-produced goods, particularly comics. The popularity of Higurashi led to the development of the story being retold in multiple media – comics, animation, live-action film, and additional computer games. These subsequent media not only took the stories from the original visual novels and adapted them in different formats, but they expanded upon the narratives, sometimes showing different events or different aspects of the characters.

Figure 1: Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002

Figure 1. Menu screen of Higurashi: When They Cry visual novel, and the introductory screen to the Onikakushi-hen (‘Abducted by Demons Arc’), 07th Expansion, 2002.

Marc Steinberg proposes a specific approach to contemporary media properties in Japan that he calls the “anime media mix” that can help to explain what is occurring within the Higurashi property. Steinberg asserts that the media mix (media mikkusu in Japanese) in general is “the Japanese term for what is known in North America as media convergence.”[2] In the book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins discusses this phenomenon at some length. By this term, he means “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.”[3] One of the results of media convergence is the growth in “transmedia storytelling,” in which individual (and sometimes self-contained) narratives are communicated in different ways through multiple media that all contribute to an overarching story. According to Jenkins, this is “the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience.”[4] In other words, transmedia storytelling is the idea of using multiple media to tell a single cohesive story through various means, be it film, television, comics, online websites, and the like, all of which contribute to the singular “fictional world.” It should be noted that although Jenkins’s examples and the cases like Higurashi both involve a kind of storytelling across various media, there are some key differences. The examples that Jenkins describes, which are primarily American and in English, seem to fit what Steinberg would term the “marketing media mix,” which “aims to use the synergetic effect of multiple media in concert to focus the consumer toward a particular goal—the purchase of the advertiser’s product as the final endgame.”[5] In contrast, Steinberg describes the “anime media mix” as having “no single goal or teleological end; the general consumption of any of the media mix’s products will grow the entire enterprise.”[6] Since Higurashi as a media property has multiple points of entry, it has developed into a good example of the anime media mix, although as we will see it did not initially begin that way.

This article analyzes Higurashi as an example of contemporary transmedia horror, paying attention to how its horror elements are explicated across different media. In order to understand this, I begin by explaining in detail how the worlds of Higurashi are structured and the various media in which it participates. From these examples, I demonstrate that the function of the Higurashi media is twofold – through their use of the horror genre, the media both reassure and disturb the viewer. In order to analyze the dual functioning of horror in this manner, I proceed with an investigation of Kunio Yanagita’s early twentieth century ethnographic study Tōno monogatari.[7] Finally, I examine the theories of critics Hiroki Azuma and Eiji Ōtsuka and what they say about Japanese transmedia properties in order to explain how people interact with and consume a series like Higurashi. Through my analysis I will demonstrate that the transmedia horror of Higurashi is effective not only because of the tension between its familiar and unfamiliar elements, placing comforting nostalgia and isolating dread at odds with each other, but also because its multiple media forms allow the consumer to alternately experience enjoyment being around the characters and the shocks and gruesomeness of the deadly mysteries at the heart of the series.

The Structure of Higurashi

The story of Higurashi is intentionally complex and intricate, and its structure is worth analyzing in some detail. It was originally released as a series of eight visual novels from 2002 through 2006. Each visual novel was called a hen, or arc, and told part of the events that happened in the rural Japanese town of Hinamizawa in June 1983. There are certain plot elements common to all eight of the arcs. For example, in each one a teenaged boy named Keiichi has recently moved with his family to Hinamizawa and has begun making friends with four girls in his class – Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. There is an annual event in the village called the Watanagashi (or “cotton-drifting”) festival, around which has swirled mystery and whispered rumor. For the past few years, following the Watanagashi festival, one person in the village has been killed and one person has mysteriously disappeared. These events are said to stem from the curse of Oyashiro-sama, the local deity who protects the town. It is said the god is still angry that years ago there was a plan to build a dam in the area, which would have submerged all of Hinamizawa. (It is also said that the villagers are descendants of demons who originally rose up from a local “bottomless” swamp and were subsequently pacified and given human form by Oyashiro-sama.) All of the people who have suffered the curse were involved, either directly or indirectly, with the dam project. In June 1983, the curse strikes again when two people – Takano, a nurse from the local clinic, and Tomitake, a photographer who regularly visits the town – are both mysteriously killed.  While these narrative conditions are set, the arcs of the eight original stories that make up Higurashi take divergent paths.

For example, in the first arc, Onikakushi-hen (or Abducted by Demons Arc), Keiichi is tentatively beginning to become accustomed to village life. He seems to be good at making friends with Mion, Rena, Satoko, and Rika. However, he begins perceiving that his friends and the rest of the town are keeping secrets from him regarding the Watanagashi festival, and his suspicions only increase when he finds a sewing needle in some rice balls his friends have made for him. In the end, driven by paranoia, he bludgeons Rena and Mion to death with a baseball bat in his room. Soon after, Keiichi dies from blood loss after feeling compelled to claw out his own throat.

In the second arc, Watanagashi-hen (or Cotton Drifting Arc), the events set up in the previous arc play out in a different manner. For example, in this arc Keiichi meets Shion, Mion’s twin sister, who goes along with Keiichi, Takano, and Tomitake to sneak into a sealed building containing sacred ceremonial instruments during the Watanagashi festival. (These instruments all happen to be sharp, nasty-looking implements of torture.) However, when Takano and Tomitake end up dead after the festival, Keiichi and Shion are fearful that they will both mysteriously disappear like the others who have run afoul of Oyashiro-sama’s curse. In the end, Mion confesses to being involved in the murders, after Keiichi discovers she has abducted and imprisoned her sister. Shion is rescued by the police, but Mion escapes custody. She later seeks Keiichi out to talk with him, but ends up stabbing him. Although Keiichi survives, he finds out from the police that they had found Mion’s dead body on her family estate before she met with him. That same night, Shion is found dead, having fallen from the balcony of the apartment where she was staying. The story ends with a ghastly Mion clawing her way onto Keiichi’s hospital bed to kill him.

A full account of the remaining Higurashi arcs would be beyond the scope of this article, but they all involve a combination of comforting friendship (the bonds being forged between Keiichi and his classmates) and the horrors of one or more character eventually killing some of the others in often gruesome ways. Although the arcs seem to reiterate ongoing cycles of paranoia and murder, toward the end of the sixth arc, Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Atonement Arc), Keiichi seems to remember some of what happened in the Abducted by Demons Arc, even though it does not make sense to him and does not reconcile with the fact that he knows he did not kill Rena and Mion in his current world.

It is not until the penultimate arc of the visual novel series, Minagoroshi-hen (Massacre Arc), that the overall structure of Higurashi is presented to the reader in full. We learn that Keiichi’s friend Rika has been repeating her life in Hinamizawa in June 1983 for over a hundred years, remembering everything that happens each time around. There is always some variation to the repetition, and the various arcs that have been presented so far are reflections of how Rika has organized her knowledge. She had been despairing that she no longer had the will to keep repeating the worlds alongside Hanyuu, a young female god who is the actual Oyashiro-sama and whom only Rika can see. However, Keiichi’s ability to see across the worlds in the Atonement Arc bolstered her confidence that she could effect change and end the cycle of repetition. The remainder of the Massacre Arc as well as the final Matsuribayashi-hen (Festival Accompanying Arc) consist of the group of friends trying to figure out how they can all escape the endless loop of June 1983.

The openness of the Higurashi text has allowed for a wide range of adaptations and expansions through multiple media. The original eight visual novel arcs were adapted into manga as well as an anime television series that ran for 50 episodes in 2006-7. These new media also expanded on the original themes of the visual novels by introducing new story arcs along with the adaptation. Additional story arcs were later introduced in later visual novels that could be played on systems like the Nintendo DS.[8] The fact that Keiichi and his friends often get together and play competitive games (card games, board games, word games, sports) has enabled further spin offs that are thematically related to the original Higurashi property, such as Higurashi no naku koro ni jan (a mahjong game)[9] and Higurashi Daybreak (a third-person shooting game),[10] both for the PlayStation Portable. Such properties prominently featured the Higurashi characters while often downplaying the horror elements.

However, it could be argued that the horrific elements of Higurashi stem from the lengthy depictions of Keiichi’s everyday life and the close interactions among his friends juxtaposed with a creeping sense of dread, as well as the brutality of the acts of assault and murder that often happen later in the story arcs. This violence is expressed in different ways across various media. Since Higurashi began as a visual novel, its composition presents an intriguing challenge for the construction and sustainment of horror effects, and the genre is not typically associated with the medium. As mentioned previously, visual novels in general communicate their narratives  through a combination of onscreen text, background images, manga-style character images, sound effects, and music. There is generally little to no onscreen movement, as well as infrequent choices to direct the course of the story. In Higurashi, however, the user is not presented with the opportunity to branch or deviate from the story. In his analysis of the visual novel, John Wheeler asserts, “The most important function of the algorithm in Higurashi is the lack of freedom it affords the player within the game-space. In this way, Higurashi is nothing like a print or digital novel, which offers the reader freedom to peruse the text and search within it either via an index or by using a digital search function.”[11] Indeed, the only options one is given in terms of interaction are where to save your place in the story and the speed at which the text appears onscreen. Unlike a traditional novel, it is not even possible to skip ahead. (I unfortunately encountered the consequences of this when one of my saved files became corrupted. Even though I knew my location in the story, I had to start the visual novel from the beginning.)

In contrast to the limitations of the visual novel, both the manga[12] and the anime adaptations[13] of Higurashi are able to be more expressive due to their greater use of framing and distinct approaches to characters and backgrounds. Although the manga format is generally constituted of black-and-white line drawings on paper (with the occasional color plate), there can be great variation in things like angle and panel composition from page to page. While an anime television series gains elements like color, movement, and sound, it can be constrained by a budget that may limit the number of shots or drawings per second, resulting in a product that may appear flat or static in places. However, each medium of adaptation provides its own unique pleasures. According to Wheeler, “As few of the background story elements and characters change fundamentally from iteration to iteration, part of the appeal of Higurashi as a property becomes the medium-to-medium translation itself, seeing changes in the perspective and style used to essentially tell the same stories.”[14] He goes on to argue that the anime “retains some of the static qualities of the visual novel, and a degree of continuity of visual aesthetic is established across adaptations” yet it is with the manga that the series “gains a true visual depth that reflects both the psychological states of its characters and the striking horror of its storyline.”[15] However, what is most important to realize is that all of the various Higurashi media serve as valid entry points to the series. Although it is not necessary to, say, read the manga after one has watched the anime in order to understand the characters or grasp the series’ mysteries, the fact that the various media emphasize different elements of the series encourages fans to seek out and experience the franchise in multiple forms. Unlike the Jenkins’s conception of convergence culture, this is not to “fill in the blanks” of missing elements and to make a single storyline more coherent, but rather to experience multiple, yet similar, storylines that occur in subtly separate narrative worlds. It also allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters as well as see how the different media depict the tension and horror of the story. As we will see with Tōno monogatari, the twin effects of comforting and disturbing the viewer are rooted in an approach to Japanese folklore and ethnography.

Figure 2: Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Figure 2. Shion comes for Keiichi in his hospital bed in the Higurashi manga version, Ryukishi07, 2008.

Transmedia and Japanese Horror – Nostalgia and Technological Advancement

Another key aspect of the horror of Higurashi is cultural, relating to concepts of technological representation and the role that the rural Japanese village plays in conceptions of “Japaneseness.” As alluded to above, many of the plot points in Higurashi rely on the idea of the curse of Oyashiro-sama. At various times throughout the story, different characters believe that they have been cursed by Hinamizawa’s guardian deity. Such curses are far from uncommon in Japanese film and comics. As Jay McRoy states, “the onryou, or ‘avenging spirit’ motif, remains an exceedingly popular and vital component of contemporary Japanese horror cinema.”[16] As McRoy points out in his chapter on contemporary Japanese horror directors Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu, a great deal of current horror is intimately related to structures that are both comforting and confining (such as the family). For example, he identifies Shimizu’s film Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) as both conservative and progressive, saying that while “the film’s articulation of an apparent nostalgia for disappearing ‘traditions’ in the face of an emerging ‘modern’ socio-economic climate resonates with a conservative ideology that borders on the reactionary” it is also true that “the film advances a critique of a Japan still very much steeped in patriarchal conventions.”[17] Higurashi similarly walks the line between conservatism and progressivism. There is an emphasis on traditions, along with a fight to keep things the way they are in the village. For example, the Hinamizawa villagers are loath to have outside investigators looking too deeply into the Watanagashi incidents for fear it may either drive people away or may expose the people in power they think are responsible. Similarly, in one arc Keiichi has to stridently oppose the school and municipal systems in order to try to protect Satoko from her abusive uncle. He is continually told that he is being too much of a nuisance and that he should stop making waves. However, the solutions to problems in the Higurashi arcs often emphasize the need to rely on others and the power that comes from group action, emphasizing the power of love and acceptance, sometimes to an almost radical degree. For example, through persistence and hard work, Keiichi is finally able to rally the town to his cause and they are able to help Satoko escape from her uncle. Even though all of the characters of Higurashi have dark histories in one way or another, they are able to stand up for one another and brave seemingly insurmountable odds because they have acceptance and love for each other Such a scenario emphasizes the potential inherent in the “traditional” rural Japanese village that can occur when everyone is able to strive toward a common good. However, at other parts in Higurashi, the power of the village is suspect when Keiichi is trying to solve the mysterious deaths and he perceives himself as an outsider and that everyone is out to get him.

The fact that Higurashi was originally received on a computer screen as a kind of a “game” that required interaction puts it in good company with the themes of many other horror video games. (Although, as mentioned above, its interactivity was rather limited, the experience of the graphics, text and sound is probably closer to a game than it is to a book, comic, or animation.) Although the pairing of the video game medium and the horror genre is not unique to Japan, many such games are Japanese. As Chris Pruett writes, in games the “horror genre is home to a wide range of styles, including first-person games, third-person games, action oriented games, puzzle games, and even text-based games. Whatever the style of play, one fact cannot be ignored: the vast majority of horror video games come from Japan.”[18] Higurashi also shares commonalities of setting and subject matter with other Japanese horror video games. For example, Higurashi’s setting of an isolated Japanese village and the power and persistence of a local religion are similar to the Japanese game Siren, which was released in November 2003, shortly after the release of the first Higurashi visual novels. Pruett locates part of the source of the antagonistic horror of Siren in a tale from Japanese folklore: “The story of Yaobikuni involves a woman who eats the flesh of a mermaid and becomes immortal only to find that everlasting life is full of pain.”[19] However, in the case of Siren, it is the flesh of an alien creature that is eaten, rather than that of a mermaid. Interestingly, in the Atonement Arc of Higurashi, Rena has delusions that the Hinamizawa syndrome is due to an alien invasion, and that Oyashiro-sama is an alien, too. Similarly, Pruett argues, Siren demonstrates a contemporary Japanese discomfort with “cults and splinter religions.”[20] In Higurashi, Oyashiro-sama is, for the most part, discussed as something to be both respected and feared as a matter of precautionary common sense. However, characters who want to reinvigorate the widespread popular worship of Oyashiro-sama as a major deity are often depicted as antagonists. In many ways, this coincides with Jolyon Baraka Thomas’s analysis of representations of religions in anime and manga in which they have come “to be popularly associated with violence, brainwashing, and fraud.”[21] As demonstrated through these examples, references to mythology, folklore, and religion often play a strong negative role in Japanese media culture, and this is often the case throughout much of Higurashi.

In addition to religion playing a major role throughout Higurashi, the story makes specific references that situate the visual novels as specifically Japanese products. For example, in the second arc of the Higurashi visual novel, the group has a curry cooking competition at their school. They all fight their hardest, sometimes even resorting to trickery. In the end, Keiichi’s curry gets knocked over, and he ends up serving the judges rice balls with tea. Keiichi tries to convince the judges that “curry and the rice ball is virtually the same thing [sic]” He goes on to argue that “The Japanese have come up with many different dishes, but they all had one common theme: we are always looking for the best way to eat rice! … Both curry and rice balls are…the fruit of our precious culture!!” Mion then relates the story of a French chef who came to Japan and refused to use imported French ingredients, instead using what he could find locally. She says, “There should be no rules in the culture of food. It’s simply culture. If it comes to Japan, it blends with the Japanese culture and becomes something new. Therefore curry and rice balls are both part of Japanese culture.” Such references highlight Higurashi’s conceptualization as a Japanese product, but the franchise’s incorporation of Japanese folklore provides an even stronger emphasis.

In spite of its modern nature, Higurashi engages with a strain of Japanese folklore of the type seen in Kunio Yanagita’s famous Tōno monogatari  (The Legends of Tōno). This literary account of the oral folk tales found in the Japanese city of Tōno related to Yanagita by local informant and collaborator Kizen Sasaki, published in 1910, is often acclaimed as the starting point for Japanese folklore studies. In it, “Sasaki offers the vision of a typical Japanese villager who grows up in a world fraught with dangers from invisible forces and malevolent creatures shuttling between the human and animal kingdoms.”[22] As Ronald A. Morse points out in his introduction to the English translation, Yanagita’s account begins and ends with depictions of a festival, indicating the centrality of such events to village life.[23] The book details accounts of local gods who get jealous, people who mysteriously disappear without warning, villagers who violently kill other villagers, the behavior and worship of other local deities, and mysterious deaths as well as the return of people from the dead.

In Higurashi, one can see how these folkloric elements have been incorporated into a contemporary horror scenario. The life of the village of Hinamizawa depicted across various media still centers on a festival that celebrates the local guardian deity. Even the people in the village who are not active worshippers of Oyashiro-sama in their daily lives are shown according respect to such beliefs. Additionally, across the many Higurashi arcs, the line between the human world and the supernatural is shown to be thought of as being fluid. Even though many of the incidents depicted in Higurashi are later shown to be either delusion or the work of human actors, it is important that the belief persists that such events could occur. This is similar to Yanagita’s work in Tōno monogatari – the tales were related as factual not because the ethnographer necessarily believed they occurred, but because these were the stories that circulated in and around Tōno.

Not only are the stories in Tōno monogatari often seen as foundational for the field of Japanese ethnology, they are closely tied to concepts of the Japanese nation. Anthropologist Marilyn Ivy discusses that Tōno monogatari was written “at a time when regional beliefs and practices were being threatened by the comprehensive state ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment’ (bunmei kaika).”[24] It was around this same time in the early twentieth century that saw the building of communication and transportation infrastructure, as well as mass emigration from the countryside to the cities (particularly Tokyo). This increasingly technologized nation created official policies that extolled “’traditional’ agrarian lifeways all the more effusively the more its policies destroyed those lifeways.”[25] Stories like those in Tōno monogatari were held up as being quintessentially Japanese, even as the irrationality of the stories served as a counterpoint to the government’s emphasis on reason and rationality. Ivy relates Yanagita’s tales to Freud’s ideas of the uncanny, noting that the fact that they had been generated around the same time was not coincidental.[26] According to one translation of Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” “the nearest semantic equivalents in English” of the German word unheimlich “are ‘uncanny’ and ‘eerie’, but [it] etymologically corresponds to ‘unhomely.’”[27] Therefore, such stories are intimately related to a sense of comfort or home. Similarly, throughout the 1960s and 70s, Tōno and its stories became explicitly associated with the cultural idea of furusato or hometown. (This furusato concept can be applied in a general sense – it does not have to be one’s personal hometown.) Ivy writes, “Precisely because of the eerie character of its tales, Tōno became a particularly haunting and complex example of a generalized ideal.”[28]

In this analysis, we can further see in Higurashi that the horrifying allusions to Tōno monogatari and the sense of belonging Keiichi feels in the Hinamizawa as he makes new friends are in fact two sides of the same coin. The depiction of the rural Japanese town as both frightening and welcoming is not accidental. In fact, the two aspects necessarily coexist within contemporary concepts of the Japanese hometown. According to Ivy:

With the idea of Tōno as a furusato, then, there is a fusion of two horizons of desire. First, the desire to encounter the unexpected, the peripheral unknown, even (and even especially) the frightening–a desire that repeatedly reveals itself under the controlled and predictible conditions of everyday life in advanced consumer capitalism (in Japan as elsewhere); and second, a countervailing desire, pushed by an opposite longing, to return to a stable point of origin, to discover an authentically Japanese Japan that is disappearing yet still present, to encounter the always already known as coincident with one’s (Japanese) self. The desire for the different and unknown…is framed within the boundaries of a return to pastoral hominess, security, and (not the least significant) identity.[29]

In Tōno monogatari and its contemporary reception, elements of longing for home, horror, and identity exist in necessary tension with one another. These aspects also may be key elements that contribute to the attractiveness of Higurashi among consumers, as well as its longevity as a media franchise. Since the original visual novel was released in 2002, there has been a fairly steady stream of Higurashi-related media products and spinoffs. As befits Higurashi’s genesis as a product produced by a small team and sold at Comiket, this includes a significant number of amateur comics, many of which, but not all, involved portrayals of the characters in a sexual manner. This highlights the fact that, in spite of the fact that Higurashi is at its core a horror series, users will take the characters and appropriate them to fulfill their own desires.

Transmedia, Horror, and Desire

Due to the multi-arc structure of Higurashi, there are two aspects to the ways that the horror in the franchise is depicted – the narrative and the characters. In terms of the narrative, there are two levels. The first is the arc-level narrative, which encompasses everything that happens within a particular arc in the story. As mentioned previously, there were eight original arcs in the Higurashi visual novel series, but this has since been greatly expanded with additional arcs in anime, manga, and video games. Encompassing all of these arc-level narratives is a second, franchise-level narrative. Although the arc-level narratives have internal consistency, the larger franchise-level narrative cannot and does not reconcile the arc-level narratives. The number of arc-level permutations is near infinite, which means that the characters may undergo any number of horrific ordeals. However, these would not mean much to the viewer if they had become attached to the characters. The primacy of the Higurashi characters over narrative is particularly noticeable in some of the series’ recent incarnations. A four-episode direct-to-video anime series released in 2011-12 called Higurashi no naku koro ni Kira (dir. Hideki Tachibana) shifts the overall tone from horror to what might be called “erotic slapstick.” For example, the first episode is called Batsukoishi-hen (Penalty Love Arc) and is adapted from the epilogue of one of the original visual novels. It consists mainly of Keiichi and some of the other male characters fantasizing about the female characters dressed up in a variety of fetishized outfits. It has little to do with the plot of many of the other narrative arcs, but allows the viewer to spend more time with the characters and fantasize along with Keiichi. In this way, Higurashi points to the tension between two approaches to contemporary Japanese media properties – the theory of “narrative consumption” as put forth by Eiji Ōtsuka and the theory of “database consumption” put forth by Hiroki Azuma.

In his 1989 book A Theory of Narrative Consumption (Monogatari shōhiron), Ōtsuka analyzes how viewers interact with media properties. He asserts that such media succeed by “setting up their grand narrative or order in the background in advance and by tying the sales of concrete things to consumers’ awareness of this grand narrative.”[30] This grand narrative lies at the heart of a particular worldview, but is not something that can be directly sold and marketed itself. Therefore, “consumers are tricked into consuming a single cross-section of the system in the form of one episode of the drama, or a single fragment of the system in the form of a thing.[31] In other words, what is ultimately promised as the pinnacle of consumption in this media system – the grand narrative – can never be obtained by consumers. They can, however, access and purchase slivers of the narrative. In the case of Higurashi, Ōtsuka’s concept of the grand narrative is the overarching franchise-level narrative. However, in order to be able to access pieces of this narrative, consumers have to purchase a game, read a manga, or watch an anime episode. It must be said that the grand narrative in Higurashi is more fragmented than most Ōtsuka has in mind because is it not possible to reconcile all of the individual narrative arcs, due to the fact that they are permutations of possible worlds. This makes the grand narrative of Higurashi even more distant and difficult to access – not only are the fragments that the consumer can obtain pieces of a larger story, each larger story in Higurashi is an arc in an even bigger overarching narrative.

In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: otaku kara mita Nihon shakai) originally published in 2001, theorist Hiroki Azuma says that with the advent of postmodernity (a term he uses to “refer broadly to cultural conditions since the 1970s”[32]), Ōtsuka’s modern model of media consumption collapsed. Instead of a “tree” model, in which texts are derived from a deeper source with meaning, Azuma proposed a “database” model that solely works at the level of surface and does not point to a deeper meaning. According to Azuma, “As a result [of this shift], instead of narratives creating characters, it has become a general strategy to create character settings first, followed by works and projects, including the stories. Given this situation, the attractiveness of characters is more important than the degree of perfection of individual works.”[33] In such a model, “individual projects are the simulacra and behind them is the database of characters and settings.”[34] We can see that without Azuma’s theory of database consumption, some of the adaptations of Higurashi would not necessarily make any sense. For example, the Penalty Love Arc does not serve to advance the narrative of Higurashi in any way. The viewer does not discover anything new about the world or the characters. In the narrative consumption model, it is rather superfluous. However, in the database consumption model it makes perfect sense. Dedicated viewers have presumably spent many hours before the Penalty Love Arc watching and thinking about the characters, and perhaps fantasizing about them. Rather than presenting a part of a larger narrative world to consume, such texts present familiar and easily consumable characters.

Although Azuma presents his database consumption theory as a historical successor to Ōtsuka’s narrative consumption theory, it seems to fall prey to the assumption that the two models are in binary opposition. It seems more likely that, even in postmodernity, the two models can coexist. Higurashi is an excellent example of these two ways of theorizing media texts working simultaneously. There is certainly a narrative model at work in Higurashi, as the main emphasis of the original visual novel arcs is to try to figure out a way out of the curse of the repeating years and the gruesome deaths of the characters. The drive to solve this overarching mystery is at the heart of the consumption of Higurashi products. However, plenty of time is also spent with the characters as they interact with each other and help one another out with their problems. This then simultaneously emphasizes the characters, laying the groundwork for additional Higurashi products and adaptations that are divorced from the horror roots of the original visual novels.

Conclusion

As a franchise, Higurashi evolved from a small series of amateur-produced visual novels into a multimedia franchise in just a few years. As we have seen there are a number of elements that may have contributed to this rapid growth. Structurally, Higurashi uses the horror genre to constantly create a degree of threat to the characters the viewer is growing increasingly familiar with and attached to. By evoking the milieu of a rural Japanese village, Higurashi uses folklore to create a space that is both exciting and comfortable, unsettling yet familiar. Additionally, its multi-arc structure allows for near-unlimited narrative expansion, providing countless opportunities for fandom and consumptive practices. Within such expansive narrative spaces, though, there are definite constraints. Although some arcs in Higurashi take place before or after the events of June 1983, it is really only in that particular time period that all of the main characters are in the same place. This means that the majority of the narratives, both official and fan-created, will take place in this narrow strip of time, creating a kind of utopian space within the overall horror of the tragic events that the story is built around.

Existing in such paradoxical utopian spaces is not necessarily unique to the Higurashi franchise. In her analysis of the background art in Japanese games and anime, Kumiko Saito discusses the use of regional representations in the background art of Japanese anime and games, writing, “With the rapid introduction of digital technology to animation and game productions, the visibility of regional representation quickly grew with the success of anime / game works that feature background art by background art specialists.”[35] The emphasis on pastoral settings in so many games and anime “suggests an imagined locus of ‘middle ground,’ between urban and rural, or present and past” which “presents strong nostalgia toward suburban or rural everyday life, often presupposing the viewer’s non-diegetic knowledge that this happiness of mediocrity is ending soon.”[36] According to Saito, this is often associated with how such narratives play with concepts of temporality, including time travel, amnesia, and the ability to stop or delay time. Although Saito does not mention Higurashi specifically, it is clear that the franchise participates in these larger trends.

Even though Higurashi has its horrors, it still reliably provides the viewer with a comfortable space to which they can return and reunite with their favorite characters. As Saito asserts, “With multiple endings already tailored for repetitive gameplay, games and their anime adaptations, especially, invite the player to stay in the time loop between the beginning and the end, or between amnesia and recollection.”[37] Such contemporary media properties provide a way of remaining in a rarified space that exists outside of larger economic or geopolitical concerns. In the case of Higurashi, the perpetual June 1983 takes place before the bubble economy of the late 1980s, but still at a time of optimistic economic prosperity. However, as Saito puts it, continual engagement with such texts and franchises can have a negative impact on the perception of history, writing, “The regionalist narrative in popular visual media helps reestablish national pride in Japanese particularity, but only within the safe range of the personal and emotional without recovering the memory of Showa’s war and postwar periods or the nation’s geo-ethnic varieties. The inaccessible nature of background art as beautiful tableaus of Japan[‘s] paradoxical nature securely freezes the image of Japan.”[38] Perhaps it is this refusal to accept history and adapt, and a subsequent preference for continual states of play and the consumption of counterfactual worlds, that is the real horror.

Works Cited

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Dorson, Richard M. Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita, xv-xix. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Ivy, Marilyn. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema. Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008.

Ōtsuka, Eiji. “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative.” Translated by Marc Steinberg. Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116.

Pruett, Chris. “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading 4, no. 6 (2010): http://journals.sfu.ca/loading/index.php/loading/article/view/90/87.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Onikakushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Watanagashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005.

Ryukishi07. Higurashi no naku koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen. Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan Tatari. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan Sō. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan Rasen. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi no naku koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan Kizuna. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010.

Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1. New York: Yen Press, 2008.

Saito, Kumiko. “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present.” In Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, edited by John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons, 35-58. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013.

Sims, Higurashi no naku koro ni Jan. Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009.

Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Thomas, Jolyon Baraka. Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012.

Twilight Frontier. Higurashi Daybreak. Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008.

Wheeler, John. “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond.” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 25-29.

When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni). Directed by Chiaki Kon. 2006. Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007. DVD.

Yanagita, Kunio. The Legends of Tōno. Translated by Ronald A. Morse. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008.



[1] Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Onikakushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Watanagashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2002); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Tatarigoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2003); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni: Himatsubushi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Meakashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2004); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Tsumihoroboshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Minagoroshi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2005); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai: Matsuribayashi-hen (Tokyo: 07th Expansion, 2006).

[2] Marc Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 135.

[3] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

[4] Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 21.

[5] Steinberg, Anime’s Media Mix, 141.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kunio Yanagita. The Legends of Tōno. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[8] Such as the Kizuna series of visual novels for the DS, each of which included a new arc. Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ichi Kan “Tatari” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Ni Kan “Sō” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008); Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai San Kan “Rasen” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2009); and Ryukishi07, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kizuna: Dai Yon Kan “Kizuna” (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2010).

[9] Sims, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Jan (Tokyo: AQ Interactive, 2009).

[10] Twilight Frontier, Higurashi Daybreak (Tokyo: Alchemist, 2008).

[11] John Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code: Algorithm and Adaptation in the Otaku Industry and Beyond,” Cinephile: The University of British Columbia’s Film Journal 7, no. 1 (2011): 27.

[12] Beginning with Ryukishi07, Higurashi: When They Cry: Abducted by Demons Arc, Vol 1 (New York: Yen Press, 2008).

[13] Beginning with When They Cry (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni), directed by Chiaki Kon (2006; Long Beach, CA: Geneon Entertainment, 2007), DVD.

[14] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 28.

[15] Wheeler, “The Higurashi Code,” 29.

[16] Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Editions Rodopi, 2008): 75.

[17] McRoy, Nightmare Japan, 96.

[18] Chris Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear: Learning About Japan Through Horror Games.” Loading… 4, no. 6 (2010): 2.

[19] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 8.

[20] Pruett, “The Anthropology of Fear,” 9.

[21] Jolyon Baraka Thomas, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012): 125.

[22] Richard M. Dorson, Foreword to the 1975 edition of The Legends of Tōno by Kunio Yanagita (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008): xviii.

[23] Kunio Yanagita, The Legends of Tōno (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2008).

[24] Marilyn Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995): 70.

[25] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 71.

[26] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 85.

[27] Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. (New York: Penguin Books, 2003): 124.

[28] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing, 105.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Eiji Ōtsuka, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” Mechademia 5 (2010): 107.

[31] Ōtsuka, “World and Variation,” 109.

[32] Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009): 16.

[33] Azuma, Otaku, 48.

[34] Azuma, Otaku, 53.

[35] Kumiko Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism: Japanese Landscape in the Background Art of Games and Anime from the Late-1990s to the Present,” in Asian Popular Culture: New, Hybrid, and Alternate Media, ed. John A. Lent and Lorna Fitzsimmons (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013): 40.

[36] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 41.

[37] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 49.

[38] Saito, “Regionalism in the Era of Neo-Nationalism,” 48.

 

Bio: Brian Ruh earned his PhD in Communication and Culture from Indiana University in 2012 with his dissertation “Adapting Anime: Transnational Media between Japan and the United States.” He has contributed articles and chapters to journals such as Mechademia: An Annual Forum for Anime, Manga and the Fan Arts and Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media as well as books like Cinema Anime: Critical Engagements with Japanese AnimationEast Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, and The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Spirited Away. A second edition of his first book, Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in Spring 2014.

In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

Abstract: Since the international popularisation of anime and manga, the bishounen has been one of Japan’s best recognised archetypal figures. But where did this stereotypical look come from, and is it a purely fictional representation? This paper examines the bishounen not just as he appears on the page or screen, but also how he appears in the international fashion and music scenes, as well as the way in which he influences, and is influenced by, Western versions of himself.

Figure 1: The manga Princess Princess (Mikiyo Tsuda, 2006-7)

In the aesthetically distinct universe of Japanese animation, cultural constructs of gender and sexuality can be complex and challenging to navigate. However, perhaps no archetypal anime figure is as curious to the non-Japanese viewer as much as the bishounen. Best known for his physical attributes – a slender and willowy body shape, artfully arranged hair, narrow and angular features, and often pale, delicate-looking skin – the bishounen is, as the literal translation informs us, a beautiful young man, or ‘pretty boy’. His gender is often ambiguous, his sexual orientation even more so; even for those who watch anime or read manga on a regular basis, it can be difficult to discern whether his relationships with other characters lean towards romance or are merely affectionately platonic.

To those unfamiliar with a wider scope of Japanese popular culture, it is only within this fictive context that the bishounen would appear to exist. From an Anglo-American perspective particularly, it is difficult to take a cartoon character seriously, much less one that wears flamboyant clothing, makes over-the-top arm gestures, and who strikes seemingly casual poses with one hand placed on hip. Cross-dressing is also a common theme for the bishounen-centric manga or anime, for any number of reasons – most of them more on the ridiculous or humorous side, as in the likes of Princess Princess (in which an elite boarding school who elects students to take on the role of Princess in order to in order to break up the monotony of living in an all-male environment) and Gravitation (involving a male pop star who dons a sailor uniform in a ludicrous attempt to appeal to his aloof boyfriend), are nothing if not intentionally absurd. Anime such as Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), which depict male cross-dressing in relation to any realistic statement of self-identity, are relatively rare.

Moreover, if those same characters were to appear in just about any mainstream American film or cartoon, most would associate their various mannerisms with gay, or at least extremely camp, stereotypes. Western mainstream media is used to viewing stereotypically effeminate male characters through a homosexual lens, and this is certainly sometimes the case in anime, even when a title is not a yaoi or boys love one.[i] Given that Japan is a country where one’s sexual practices are generally understood to be a personal and therefore private matter, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the bishounen is a figure with little, if any, basis in reality.

In fact, such an assumption, however rational, would be a false one. The genre of boys love aside chances of an anime bishounen actually being gay are fairly slim. Anglo-American sexual and cultural limitations would seem to be ‘more threatened by depiction of intense same-sex friendships than does Japanese culture’, commentator Patrick Drazen notes. ‘The reason is that American pop culture often limits its options to “sex” and “not sex.” Japanese culture makes room for a much wider range of relationships’ (Drazen, 2003, p. 103).

Perhaps a more accurate way of approaching the bishounen is to look not at what messages he is (or is not) attempting to convey in terms of sexual orientation within the narrative, but rather to discuss what type of role he fulfils as far as the audience is concerned. In doing so, it appears evident that the bishounen’s job is not to make any sort of explicit statement about his sexuality, but rather to exist as a specific form of eye candy for his largely female demographic; a physical representation of one of the Japanese woman’s ideals of the perfect guy. The bishounen is by his very nature androgynous, and therefore an iconic symbol that has the potential to encompass the strength of traditional masculinity, as well as the grace and beauty of the stereotypically feminine. Regardless of whether anime bishounen are based on real historic figures (Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan), re-imaginings of Western stories (Romeo x Juliet), or entirely original characters (The Vision of Escaflowne), they are all therefore given the same intense beautifying treatment.

In contrast, the conventional image of what constitutes an attractive male in much of the West has often been muscular and assertively powerful, evoking perceptions of physical dominance, authority and control, while the attribute of ‘prettiness’ is considered a feminine trait – the opposite of being masculine or ‘manly’. In Japan, however, being pretty does not necessarily mean sacrificing masculinity, and more recently, the West has also seen a growth in this new image of what constitutes male attractiveness. It could be argued that this new masculinity has been influenced since the mid-1990s by the increasing availability of popular and mainstream anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.

In order to explore how modern conceptions of the bishounen character arose, it is first necessary to pinpoint when and how he came into being within the mainstream culture of his birthplace. The term itself is first found in the Meiji period (1868-1912), where it was used to describe especially beautiful pre-adolescent boys, who were often involved in homosexual relationships (Pflugfelder,  1999, pp. 221–234). Although the word was not in usage prior to this, we might also be reminded of the popularity of Japanese theatre over the previous two centuries, where gender reversal was commonplace.

After women were banned from the kabuki theatre stage in the mid-1600s due primarily to problems arising from prostitution, physically effeminate male performers took on the role of women in their place (Bullough, 1993, p. 242).[ii] Such actors often maintained their dress outside the theatre, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played, many from early childhood. At its height of popularity, some kabuki actors became so sought-after that they became leaders of women’s fashion. While the actors who played women’s roles emulated the manners and dress of high-born ladies, the audience, largely made up of peasants and townspeople, created a space in which performers could potentially become trendsetters in bearing and clothing (Scott, 1999, p. 39).

The temptation to view men who cross-dressed as a part of their art outside the theatre as homosexual is a natural one for many in the West today, and that many of these performers were indeed engaging in male/male relationships is probable. However, Anglo-American culture lacks a common understanding of when and why labels of sexuality are applied in Japanese culture. Whilst alternative sexual practices in Japan today, including those with long historical traditions such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transvestism are not widely publicly accepted, there has consistently been a large gap between how one is expected to behave in the outside world, and how that same person may act while taking on the role of entertainer. In a country where standing out from the crowd in any way is usually thought of as socially undesirable, anything that occurs within a framework of fiction – from kabuki and opera to anime and mainstream television – is not considered to be an accurate reflection of either an individual or society as a whole. Consequently, a transvestite who appears in a film is seen as a performer rather than a demonstration of an individual’s real expression of sexuality, and a drag queen depicted on a show lives only in the land of television – a world from which most Japanese feel detached (Buckley, 2002, p. 94).

For example, whilst the televised portrayal of a character named Hard Gay, as played by comedian Masaki Sumitani, depicted a man dressed in a black PVC fetish outfit who ran around the streets of Japan performing acts of charity for unsuspecting bystanders, the show gained national attention and popularity, and was deemed suitable to air on a Saturday evening variety show. Of course, Hard Gay is an overt homosexual parody (in reality neither gay nor a fetishist), and not a bishounen by any stretch of the imagination; his television persona serves to illustrate the ambiguity between screen and reality. In contrast, Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi is a modern example of a figure that embodies the bishounen aesthetic, yet is not spurned or ridiculed for how he dresses, speaks, or behaves during his performances. Well known for playing both beautiful young men and women, Saotome was trained from a young age in the field of female impersonation. An official fan club was established in 2006, and tickets to his kimono dance performance at the Taishokan theatre the following year sold out within a day.

Figure 2: Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi

Nonetheless, the real-life depiction of the bishounen dates back much further than popular Japanese theatre, and can be traced to the tenth century where the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) held sway. The Heian Court was the centre of aesthetic sensibilities of all varieties: Japanese music, poetry, calligraphy, and clothing fashions all found their deepest roots here, where aristocrats were obsessed with the pursuit of beauty. It was not simply that cultivating beauty meant a person was sophisticated or fashionable – it also implied a sense of morality. George Sansom, a pre-modern Japan historian, writes: ‘The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality … even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste’ (Sansom, 1958, p. 178).

Standards of aristocratic male beauty here were in many ways similar to those for female beauty. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder, blackened their teeth using a liquid made up of acetic acid and dissolved iron, and prized a rounded, plump figure in order to physically display the leisure and riches that the peasantry – those with leaner figures from less food intake and darker skin from labouring outdoors – could not afford to obtain. It was fashionable for men to have a thin moustache or tuft of beard at the chin, but large quantities of facial hair were considered especially unattractive (Topics in Japanese Cultural History).

Naturally, Heian beauty is interpreted in a more contemporary, bishounen-esque framework as far as anime and manga are concerned: The Tale of Genji, originally written by Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period, has had several adaptations, the most recent of which was an 11-episode anime series in 2009. While most of the characters have the creamy white skin of the Heian-period principles of beauty, there is physically little else to tie the anime and Heian ideals of attractiveness together. Genji, with his slender silhouette and narrow features, has nothing that sets him visually apart from any other bishounen that might be seen in any other mainstream anime production, historically-themed or otherwise.

While the bishounen ideal may have been cemented in the Heian era, a quick survey of Japanese popular culture today, even disregarding the anime and manga industries, reveals that far from being a storytale figure, the bishounen also exists as a true world representation. Host club workers, although a far cry from what has been depicted in the extremely popular Ouran High School Host Club anime series, are perhaps the most obvious example to draw from, with many of these young men looking almost like a parody of anime bishounen caricatures. Similar to their hostess club counterparts, where male customers pay for the attentive company of beautiful young ladies, host clubs employ men who are paid to converse, pour drinks, light cigarettes, entertain by means of fun stage performances, and generally flirt with their female clientele. Upon a first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a menu of each host on offer for her to decide which host she like to meet first. Once she has chosen the host she most prefers, she designates him her named host, with the employee then receiving a percentage of all future sales generated by that particular customer. Most clubs operate on a permanent nomination system, and a host cannot be changed once they have been nominated excepting under special circumstances. Regular payment is determined by a host’s commission on drink sales, and for this reason, the environment can be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales (pripix).

The typical host look, made up of an appropriately dishevelled dark suit and collared shirt, bleached hair, and expensive silver jewellery, is paired with a stage name often taken from a favourite film, manga, or historical figure that may describe their persona. The overall effect is usually one of an anime bishounen made flesh and blood. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, 2006), a documentary-film interviewing several hosts and their customers in a popular club in Osaka, paints a very pragmatic picture of the host club industry – one which survives by seducing customers without having to depend on the more overt sexual appeal of strip clubs or brothels. ‘For girls, we are products’, states one such worker. ‘If she wants a humble, cool guy, I can be like that. If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.’ ‘Let’s say I do fuck her. That girl will probably never come back’, another points out. ‘At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her … Knowing how to give them satisfaction without sex – that’s the point.’ While hosts can and sometimes do have sex with their clients, this is clearly not the purpose of this institution’s existence.

Tajima Yoko, a professor of women’s studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, explains the host club phenomenon by the conventional Japanese male and his lack of true listening to the everyday concerns of his partner. ‘Men, married or not, in our culture do not listen to their female partners’ problems carefully … They only tell women what they want them to hear. Men don’t consider women equal partners’ (New York Times). Although there is no official count of the number of individual clubs, the host club industry employed an estimated twenty thousand men in total as of 2005 (Japan – Facts and Details). Some of the larger and more commercial clubs, such as New Ai (New Love) in Shinjuku, Tokyo, employ approximately eighty workers whose sole job it is to fulfil the emotional needs of the women who frequent the club, in part by existing as beautiful objects of fantasy (New York Times).

Such a concept is alien to most of the rest of the world, suggesting that outside of Japan, the majority of countries do not have the numbers of the right type of customer – that is, one willing to spend several hundred or thousand dollars per visit purely to be kept company by a score of pretty men – to support such an industry. While the idea of paying for sex is universally understood, the thought of paying an equal amount or more for the pleasure of someone’s company is simply baffling to many people. In turn, although some host workers are foreigners, host clubs are generally not known about, or else poorly understood, by overseas visitors, and very few customers are non-Japanese. As with the Japanese sex industry, there is a very distinct preference for both the customer and the host to be Japanese, and it is not uncommon for many bars and clubs to have signs outside saying “No foreigners admitted.”

Tellingly, a great deal of the reactions by foreigners to the business of host clubs has tended to be negative. ‘Even if they had equivalent in the UK I don’t think I’d go’, reads one response to an online article. ‘British guys (sorry to say this) don’t really seem to maintain their looks or interest in a womans [sic] needs for long enough.’ ‘I don’t find them attractive in any way, and I don’t want to pay for the “companionship”’, states another (UK Fashion, Lifestyle & Beauty Blog). Keywords commonly associated with host fashion outside of Japan include “tacky”, “fake”, “creepy”, and “sleazy”.

However, in other entertainment industries, the cultural crossover in terms of what women find attractive in a male is more evident. The music business is one such industry, and in Japan, the most extreme form of the bishounen can be found here. Visual kei – literally visual style – is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic music movement inspired by Western glam metal bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister (High Music XRD). What these bands inspired in visual kei was, as the name of the movement implies, the importance of appearance as an essential part of the musical style, sometimes even above the music itself in terms of importance.

Bands including The Gazette, Versailles, and Alice Nine are today known less for their music and more for their eye-catching make-up and wardrobe in some circles. The visual kei look is ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk, often all at once. Many artists are particularly effeminate in appearance, and it is not uncommon for some to pose explicitly as females, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. Their ‘maleness’ as we might understand it comes across strongly in their vocals, which are usually anything but gender ambiguous.

Figure 3: Visual kei band Versailles

First emerging in the late 1980s, the visual kei movement was pioneered by acts such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, and D’erlanger. By the mid-1990s, a boost in popularity throughout Japan meant that the most notable of these bands were achieving high commercial success, with the likes of X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay, and Malice Mizer receiving large amounts of media attention. This last group became especially famous for their live performances, which featured lavish historical costumes and stage sets. Mana, co-founder of Malice Mizer, would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” (Steele and Park, 2008, p. 54). He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the Lolita fashion scene, yet retains his mysterious persona by rarely speaking in public. In most interviews past and present, Mana is known for whispering his answers into the ear of a band member or confidante, using Yes/No cards, or expressing himself in mime.

Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as an actor and solo artist, and is currently one of Japan’s best known pop idols. Since his time apart from Malice Mizer, Gackt has been making regular alterations to his style: his hair has morphed from straight, long, and jet-black to blonde and spiky in the blink of an eye, and he has experimented with nearly every shade of red and brown in between. His naturally brown eyes frequently change colour thanks to habitual use of green or blue contact lenses. Yet whether he plays a gang leader (Moon Child), samurai warrior (Bunraku), or feudal warlord (Fūrin Kazan), the main trademarks of Gackt’s appearance has remained the same – pale, slender, and virtually ageless.

It is therefore no surprise that Gackt has styled himself on, and even provided a model for many bishounen of the manga, anime, and video game industries. Characters from The Rose of Versailles, Rurouni Kenshin, and Final Fantasy VII, among other titles, have all been incorporated into his look at one stage or another, to Gackt’s rising popularity. Sentiments like those referenced by anthropologist Laura Miller in Beauty Up towards stars such as Gackt (‘He has a body so beautiful it’s like an art object … I’m filled with fantasies of the excitement that would happen if we were in bed’) are far from unusual among fans (Miller, 2006, p. 156). Strictly speaking, the cut-off age for bishounen-hood is eighteen, at which point one becomes a biseinen instead – a beautiful man, usually described as more handsome than pretty. Now in his forties, Gackt, still flaunting the cool delicacy of his features, is living proof that age is not necessarily a barrier to adhering to the bishounen style.

Neither are Gackt’s charms restricted to a female fanbase. In 2010, Gackt announced that his live performance at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, would be for men only, reportedly in an attempt to reverse the recent trend among Japanese males of shunning traditional male stereotypes to get in touch with their feminine side, and instead celebrate ‘the way of the man’ (Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion). Over one thousand men attended the sold-out show, while sixty women listened from the lobby and countless others from outside, cheering the men on as they entered (Ningin).

Other Japanese musical stars have found their fame through group collaboration. While the boy band fad in the West has died down somewhat since the 1990s, pop boy bands in Japan are among the most successful of all genres of Japanese music. J-pop found its way into major mainstream success during the same decade, gaining a commercial peak with individual female artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru as well as with idol units (popular singing and dancing groups), many of them all-male. In particular, the talent agency Johnny & Associates, which exists exclusively to train and promote male idol groups, produced several extremely high-profile groups during this period such as SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi. American boy bands such as The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync likewise debuted in the 1990s, only to peak and then either disband or sharply decline in popularity in the first years of the new millennium. In comparison, Japanese boy bands continued to grow in number and reputation, with huge acts like EXILE, NEWS, KAT-TUN, and Hey! Say! JUMP joining the idol unit craze.

Like the Western boy bands of the 1990s, aesthetic appeal continues to be a significant factor in the popularity and marketing of these all-boy Japanese groups, and it is easy to see the similarities between The Backstreets Boys and Hey! Say! JUMP, Westlife and KAT-TUN, or ‘N Sync and Arashi not only in terms of sound, but also in general style. Posters, album covers, and promotional photos depict these bands casually standing or lounging about dressed all in white, for example, as they gaze coolly at the camera. Other images show the band members in jeans and black leather jackets, long coats with scarves draped nonchalantly about their necks, or with the slightly ruffled suit-and-tie look.

Figure 4: Boy bands N Sync and Arashi

However, looking past some of these blinding similarities, there are also some significant differences. For instance, it is difficult to find members of any of these household-name Japanese boy bands with facial hair, while there usually seems to be at least one, and sometimes two or three Western boy band members sporting a well-groomed beard or goatee. The same contrast can be seen with regards to boy band members with piercings or tattoos; the resident ‘bad boy’ of the group is usually evident in a Western boy band, while that figure is conspicuous only by his absence in the Japanese version. Hair tends to be a little longer in Japanese male idol groups, with a particular emphasis on eye-covering fringes and painstakingly placed wisps, whereas only one or two boy band members out of any given group in America might be known for their longer locks.

Overall, Japan’s male groups are typically gentle in appearance, perhaps a little more friendly and accessible. Whilst not precisely androgynous, they are a less extreme version of the bishounen of the visual kei scene. Where The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync took pains to keep from appearing too pretty by balancing out the more delicate-looking members of the group with a couple of tougher, more traditionally masculine individuals (and presumably thereby avoiding any gay slurs), the members of KAT-TUN and Hey! Say! JUMP make their living off being beautiful.

Furthermore, groups like this earn their idol status not only by singing, but also by acting in television dramas, appearing on variety shows, hosting charity events, and endorsing products such as Coca-Cola, KDDI Corporation mobile phones, Wii video games, and the Japan Tourism Agency. They are a constant, inescapable presence in nearly all aspects of Japanese daily life, and they take pains to form an image based on their individual talents or personality traits as being a part of a cohesive unit. Predictably, their female fans are both numerous and extremely passionate. In 2010, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist wrote:

Then there is Arashi who celebrate each other’s birthdays and vacation together. It seems incredible that Arashi is popular worldwide for simply being good buddies but this kind of interaction is so rarely seen in celebrities. In Japan, the interaction is rehearsed and simulated. Overseas, variety shows specialize in people openly feuding. With these types of entertainment, it is no wonder that the good-natured humor of Arashi, along with their sappy sweet pop songs, is healing the world’ (The Asahi Shimbun Digital).

The young men of Arashi may be a little too conventional to indulge in cosplay or model their looks after specific anime characters, but their style cannot help but be at least indirectly influenced by the bishounen aesthetic. Very few anime bishounen have any trace of facial hair, and as has been previously discussed, these types of characters are well-known for their slender frames, unblemished skin, glossy hair that falls just so over the eyes, and a coolly tantalizing aura. The similarities are not hard to overlook.

It is apparent that there has been some crossover of the appeal of the bishounen in today’s Western entertainment industries with newer boy bands such as British group One Direction, although the most notable increase with regards to the popularity of pretty boys has been seen in the film industry thanks to the widespread popularity of franchises like Twilight. Although most non-Japanese teenage girls may not know the meaning of the word bishounen or have any understanding of what anime or manga is, the traditional sex appeal of the rough, tough, rugby-player style body currently competes against the slim, milky-white skinned young male as so obviously embodied in the character of Edward Cullen.

The film versions of the Twilight novels chose to amplify the tension already seen in book format, where two young men compete for one girl’s romantic interests and the heroine constantly bounces between the two, who are physically complete opposites. Edward is exceptionally slim, pale to the point of being sickly-looking, and has an aura of cold intensity about him even after becoming romantically involved with Bella. The very name Edward, which roughly translates to ‘wealthy guard’, conjures images of English nobility and old world romanticism. Conversely, Jacob Black is of Native American descent, and has dark hair and eyes and russet skin. A tribal tattoo on his right arm completes the slightly roguish look. Although he is originally described as tall and lanky in the first book, the films portray him as relatively muscular; a fact that is only accentuated by his usual style of clothing – or lack thereof. Where Edward is cool, Jacob is passionate and adventurous, and where Edward turns into a sparkly, ostensibly prettier version of himself, Jacob quite literally transforms into a wild animal.

As was no doubt the intention, the competition between Edward and Jacob transcended the screen and became embedded in popular culture. Did main protagonist Bella – and by extension, the audience – lust after the beautiful, sharp-edged Edward, or did she prefer the brawny, more earthy charms of Jacob? Did fans desire pretty, or lust over handsome? Posters, shirts, and an array of other types of merchandise proudly display an allegiance of either Team Jacob or Team Edward, and have been snapped up by teens and tweens in their thousands.

Ultimately, however, it was Team Pretty who won the race, winning not only the girl but also, in overwhelming numbers, the most fans. In a poll carried out in 2008 by Novel Novice Twilight, a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Twilight series and its fans, Team Edward won by nearly double the score, earning over five thousand votes (Twilight Novel Novice). In 2009, Robert Pattinson was chased into traffic on a New York City street by a mob of frenzied fans, and the following year, People magazine listed Pattinson in their “World’s Most Beautiful” issue because of his ‘pale, otherworldly complexion’ (New York Daily News, People).

Unsurprisingly, the amount of anime bishounen who also fit the unearthly beautiful vampire mould are numerous: Zero, Kaname, and just about every other male vampire from Vampire Knight, Solomon Goldsmith and Hagi from Blood+, Shido and Cain from Nightwalker: Midnight Detective, and Trinity’s Blood’s Abel and Cain Nightroad, to name just a few. This is not to suggest that Stephanie Meyer was directly influenced by anime or the figure of the Japanese bishounen, but rather that due to the current influence of anime in international popular culture, non-Japanese audiences are becoming more receptive to the pretty boy as one ideal of male beauty.

Figure 5: Trunks from popular male-orientated anime Dragonball Z

However, although the sheer popularity of characters such as Edward Cullen would appear to indicate that the West is becoming more open to pretty young men being an acceptable form of heterosexual attractiveness, it also illustrates that we are far from being able to think of prettiness as a form of real masculinity. The hate that has been directed towards Patterson/Edward Cullen suggests that traditional notions of masculinity have not been eclipsed, and there is a substantial reaction against bishounen-type characters in the West despite the undoubted popularity of the figure amongst teenage girls. While we usually insist on polarising prettiness and masculinity, in Japan this does not seem to be an issue. Japanese studies Professor Kenneth G. Henshall points out that ‘deliberately enhanced “effeminate”, flower-like, graceful beauty has rarely been considered the antithesis of manliness in Japan, either by women or men themselves’ (Henshall, 1999, p. 4). Mainstream notions in Anglo-American society that correlate being pretty and being homosexual are gradually changing, yet slurs such as “pretty boy”, “queen”, and “fairy” are still commonly applied to men who are perceived as being too feminine in appearance, or who are especially fastidious about their physical presentation – regardless of whether this has any kind of connection to sexual orientation. In contrast, Miller has written, ‘I do not see current male beauty practices [in Japan] as a type of “feminization” of men … but rather as a shift to beautification as a component of masculinity’ (Miller, 2006, p. 126).

Given that manga, while rising in awareness and popularity in America and elsewhere, is nowhere near approaching the types of sales figures in Japan, this should not come as a surprise. Manga makes up nearly forty percent of total book sales in Japan, and to a large extent is responsible for normalising the bishounen aesthetic (Craig, 2000, p. 110). The bishounen has been a central figure for much of manga and anime’s modern history and is not limited to genre or demographic, even appearing in titles aimed at a primarily male audience such as Trunks from Dragonball Z, Sesshomaru from InuYasha, and Sasuke and Itachi from Naruto, as well as the conventional female-orientated fare. However, the influence of the young female consumer in Japan cannot be underestimated, and much of the entertainment industry caters to her tastes and desires. Whilst the stories depicted in anime and manga may not be a direct reflection of Japanese society, the prevalence of the bishounen has undeniably gone a long way in giving society the okay to emulate the look without being frowned upon or ridiculed for it.

Perceptions are gradually shifting in the West as well, and in many cases it appears that pretty is becoming the new brand of sexy for men. However, without the same sort of normalisation that Japan enjoys, it is doubtful whether the gap between male beauty and stereotypes of weakness and femininity will be bridged to the same extent in the near future. The bishounen outside of Asia is beginning to gain some currency, but ‘safe’ Western notions of duality – masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual – may be too ingrained to ever be disregarded completely.

Notes


i Both yaoi and boys love are popular terms used to describe fictional media (usually referring specifically to anime and manga), that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. The genre is largely created by and for a heterosexual female audience, and is distinguishable from what is commonly known as gei comi, bara, or mens love, which caters to a gay male audience and tends to be created primarily by homosexual male artists.

ii Eventually, still finding similar problems, all male actors became required by the authorities to shave their hair in the style of mature men so that they would be less attractive to their audience.

 

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Bio:

Christy Gibbs is a graduate from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and has recently completed her doctoral thesis whose topic explores representations of sexuality in contemporary Japanese animation. She is currently working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and is also a regular columnist for Forces of Geek, a blog focusing on a variety of pop and geek culture worldwide.