Thursday, April 4, 2013

Twilight + Yokai = Black Bird

In the year 2005 a new pop cultural phenomena was launched and spread throughout the world. It released a giant of a question onto the world at large: Are you team Edward? or team Jacob?

I am, of course, referring to the giant franchise that spans 4 books, 5 movies, was on the NYT Best Sellers list and propelled Kristen Stewart into almost every home. That phenomena would be Twilight.

Now, I am not really going to go on about my opinion of the books one way or the other. I have actually read 2 of the 4 books while I was in college. My suite mates and I were passing around romance novels my senior year of college and I remember reading Twilight, the first installment of the series, in a matter of hours. For a YA novel, it wasn't great by any stretch of the imagination, but it had heart, the situation was entertaining, and the writing was so easily read that my brain didn't have to engage at all. It was like reading a really good fanfiction that was bound in paperback.

In 2008 Twilight, the first book in the series, was translated and sold thousands of copies in Japan. My Japanese teacher, an older and very smart women, actually read them because her friends were talking about it. The series and the books were a huge success in Japan, which is not very surprising because when you read Twilight and you've read some old shojo manga, you recognize that the plots and characters are made very similar.

Which is why it shouldn't surprise you that I am going to be looking at how Twilight and Black Bird, are very similar in a lot of ways.

And the fact that the karasu tengu has been turned into a vampire isn't the only reason for that. When I was reading this manga, and granted the whole thing hasn't been scanlated yet, I was immediately reminded of Twilight. All we had to do was cast Misao as Bella and Kyo as a much funnier Edward. Seriously, I really felt that Black Bird was a funnier Twilight with a little less stalking.

Looking at the narratives, Black Bird and Twilight fall into the same genre: teen fantasy romance that focuses on love between two characters that are drawn to each other by some thread of fate. The story of Twilight would have fit perfectly into a shojo manga, right along with Fushigi Yuugi and most of Watase Yuu's manga. All three of these plots have over the top drama, romance, a group of beautiful and attractive men and mythology thrown together to create and fantasy romance that girls just swoon over. We can also throw in Vampire Knight into this mix as well. 

When we look at any romance or story that brings in a fantasy element, but remains in the modern world, there is already a need for secrecy and alienation from those who are not apart of that world. With Bella and Edward, Bella is pulled into that world after she moves in with her father and slowly becomes the obsession and hobby of Edward. She is integrated into the paranormal world, a secret society if you will, and is further pulled away into an insulated world where she can only really interact and communicate with a certain set of people. 

Throughout most of the books, Misao and Bella are very similar. They are pulled from further and further into that insulated world; for Bella it's the paranormal world of vampires and werewolves and Misao is pulled into the modern Yokai world through the karasu tengu Kyo who comes back to claim her not only because she is a mythic entity, basically an object, that can bring his clan prosperity, but she is also the woman he has loved since they were children. Misao has the added bonus of having blood that can cure illness and restore warriors with injuries back to perfect health. Though, to be fair, Misao does still have connection with her high school friends and the "normal" world through her parents.

Along with the more cosmetic and plot similarities of inter-clan fighting and the battle between good and evil prevails in both narratives, what really stand out to me is how similar in tone they both were. We have love triangles, good vs. evil, racial tension between paranormal beings and everything that a teen romance needs. The quiet moments between the couples were mashed together with fighting over the title girl and the almost too perfectly tied up endings they both have after what seems to be a horrible battle and the fact that there are half children in both books can only speak for itself. 

If we are going to look at all of these on a feminist level, all the narratives I have mentioned so far would be the kind of romance that, had your friend be apart of, you would be staging an intervention for to bring them around from how unhealthy their relationships are. While there is a building of a new family unit within each one, there is just too many moments of the female either being basically sexually assaulted in Black Bird and major stalking issues in Twilight. Indeed, I read that the i09 website puts forward how Bella and Edwards relationship fit all 15 signs of an abusive relationship as defined by the National Domestic Violence Hot line. 

Looking at Black Bird, that argument can be made when looking at the way relationships are showcased to readers. The website gives these 10 points as indicators of being in an abusive relationship:

  • Checking your cell phone or email without permission
  • Constantly putting you down
  • Extreme jealousy or insecurity
  • Explosive temper
  • Isolating you from family or friends
  • Making false accusations
  • Mood swings
  • Physically hurting you in any way
  • Possessiveness
  • Telling you what to do
When looking at Misao and Kyo, it would be easy to see how their relationship can be seen as abusive. For starters, Kyo is constantly keeping Misao isolated from others, while it be for her safety or just the fact that he is a rather jealous boyfriend. He deletes names out of Misao's phone, is very possessive, and constantly tells her how to conduct herself and how she needs to look out for other yokai, who coincidentally end of being male. Given her mythical powers to bring power and prosperity to his clan, we can double up the fact that she is a possession to him and to his clan as well. 

On top of this, when Misao does do something that gives her agency or to have some sort of power over a situation, she is often kidnapped or puts herself in danger as she has no real information over anything that is going on around her. It reminds you of all the video games you've played and books you've read where the main girl is the damsel in distress. Further showcasing Misao's lack of agency in her own life besides have sex with Kyo. In parts, this manga felt like a historical drama that had been spliced with Romeo and Juliet and any of those relationships would fall under the category of abusive and unhealthy.

Of course, it has to be stated that Black Bird ran in Betsucomi magazine, which is where the shojo manga that are in the grey area between Betsuma Margaret style manga such as Kimi ni Todoke, Yume Miru Taiyou, Orange, and Love Con and more josei level manga would fall. The Betsuma Margaret romances do not really touch on the physical and sexual side of shojo. Betsucomi is the home of the more sexually explicit manga, and then on top of that is Cheese! which is where manga such as 5 ji Kara 9 ji Made, Himitsu no Ai-chan, and all of Aoki Kotomi's series have all be published in. Black Bird falls into this magazine because of the sex scenes that pop up as well as the darker themes of possible rape and family drama. In theory, this would keep younger and immature readers from reading the material, but you can walk into most book sellers and convenience stores in Japan and open one up while you have 15 minutes between your Mom's shopping list. Not to mention the number of used book stores where most Japanese stand around and read manga for numerous hours a day. This classification helps to understand how Black Bird can fall and be similar to Twilight's level of sexual connection and the darker themes that are found with the depression of Bella as well as the fighting.

I am not saying that Black Bird is as bad as Twilight when it comes to the depiction of a "healthy" romantic relationship that readers ingest. What I am saying is that Black Bird leaves itself open to the same criticism and does fall short in certain aspects. Instead of being able to create her own opportunities, Misao is left rather powerless not only because of the "fate" based ideal that she is a mythical being; which already takes away agency on sheer principle of the philosophy, but also for how little power her own boyfriend gives her throughout the story.

Twilight should have and could have been a manga and that is why that series was so popular with women and girls in Japan. There was already a very big market and love of these paranormal fantasy novels not only there but in the American and English speaking market as well. Indeed, I have read many of them and I have found other series that showcase women's empowerment and how women can have agency in their own lives. The Allana The Lioness and the subsequent sequels written by Tamora Pierce are a major example of this point. I personally love the Protector of the Small series for this because it shows a young girl with no magical power raising to the top on her own power and proving to others that young girls can do what men do in the military organization of that world.

Shojo manga has been looked at by scholars, particularly American and Western scholars, for the last decade. Many of them have talked about how the magical girl retrieves agency while still falling into the confines of the rigid Japanese gender dynamic. I am just further looking at a popular series and what it does pass on to readers and how similar criticisms of Twilight can be seen in the popular series of Black Bird.


  1. Black Bird is one of my favorite series and one of the reasons for my Japanese, I read it obsessively for several years before kind of growing out of it. Then again, I love Twilight too. I have no taste. ^^;

  2. Well, just let me explain my situation first.
    I'm a brazilian girl (Hi! Don't care too much about my terrible english, please!), and here, in my country, we have that crazy Twilight's fangirls and, at the same proportion, so many haters too. But, at same time, Brazilian manga fan are a very fanatic group, to the point some debatable works are loved and staunchly defended, just like, you know, Black Bird :p.
    I got the same click about how much Twilight looks like a shoujo manga in a podcast about the serie, and if it was a shoujo manga people would love and staunchly defend it because, well, is a shoujo manga (not just a "bad" literature).
    I got the same feeling like you, are both great forms of entertainment, but, doubtful like good literature.
    Misao and Bela are created with the intuit to be a normal girl's representation, or, to be more exactly, like us (well, like 15 years old version of us), but both are so far away to be a acceptable protagonist. And I'm not saying we are boring or innocent or unbelivable stupid (because they really are), I'm just saying they a blank paper who just go with the flow, without great personality or great curse of action, for you and me fit in their roles.
    And we have the male protagonists, some kind of alpha-macho, so strong, so dependable, so inteligent, and, OHGOD, is willing to love you no matters who you are or what you do. And you, a boring-ordinary-normal-15-years-old-girl, just have to do only one thing, everything he demands, but you don't have to care, because a amazing man will be by your side. Is just me who seeing something very wrong?
    My great problem with both works is how they showing to innocent girl they have to be obedient to a man who are despicable (doing things like stalking, hurting, etc), just because that same man is willing to love you. And, just like you commented, is a problem of so much feminine mangas, they will starting to think that kind of guy is cool, when they not.
    But, putting my feminist way aside, I believe you and me (and the majority older readers, I expect) can look to these works with the right criticism.
    Both are a fun works, with great plots (that could be much better worked with the right author), and a good character or other but just that. Meyer and Kanoko don't know how to direct that powerful ideas they have, which take us to the very poor work we see.
    I, personally, don't like Twilight in any way (I just saw 3 movies, and didn't read the books, and, no, I won't read them in my life when so much good things have to read). And Black Bird, I read the 3 first volumes, and, well, I couldn't take the charism' lack of both protagonist and the stupidness of the entire history, so, I dropped too.
    Sorry about this long comment, but since I found your blog that I been training to comment something over here. You are my favorite manga'blog, I like how well you debate some mangas. I'm a great fan of yours :D.
    And I love the idea of someone who like, at same time, Gin no Saki, Orange and Ookiku Furikabutte, just like me <3.

    Thank you

    1. Carolina,

      First off, thank you SO much for the long comment! It made my day to see that I can have some direct dialogue with a reader! ^_^ Second, never worry about your English, which is amazing by the way, because I've taught English to Japanese kids for a couple years and I go to school at an international university, so never fear!

      I completely agree with you about how older readers would catch these thoughts like we did. It really did surprise me that there hasn't been more discussion on some of the less feminist points in shojo manga. There are a lot of good things about shojo manga that teach girls to work hard of something and to go for it, but those manga can be few and far between. We can only hope that some of the new shojo mangaka have picked up on that.

      Please feel free to leave any comments you have on any of the posts! ^_^ I love getting them and having some discussion with other manga fans, especially ones from around the world!

    2. Oh, thank you so much for replying me <3!!!
      Sorry, I know how much I suck at english, but I'm trying to improve every day.

      I pretty suprised about these few discussions (in english and protuguese, don't know to much about the japanese estudies). Some people here argue so much about how Twilight and derivatives has terribles protagonists in the feminist point, but surely will be much more angry with some shoujos, just take Yumaichi Shin, Kanan Minami and Mayu Shinjo's works. I dropped reading all them, because everything sound very wrong in their stories.
      But Japan gave us some great authors on other side, like Ai Yazawa, Io Sakisaka, Takano Ichigo, Fumi Yoshinaga, and much more. Their protagonist can not have strong personalities, but their history are great, and the characters grow up and mature like normal people have to.
      When I comment your post, I started to list genuine feminist protagonists in shoujo. In "slice of life genre" I just came with Kyoko from Skip Beat, Nana Oosaki from Nana, maybe (really MAYBE) Ayuzawa from Kaichou wa maid-sama. On "fantasy genre" we got a bit more, like the great protagonists from CLAMP, Utena from Shoujo Kakumei Utena and Oscar from Lady Oscar.

      I prettend to comment some other of your posts! You take some mangas knowed by so few people in ocident (especially here in Brazil), I don't feel lonely in my fandom anymore haha.
      I pretty curious about your life in Japan. Are you studing in Japan, right? PhD? Can I ask about your thesis?
      If I'm starting meddle so much, I'm sorry, feel free to refuse to answer ^^'.

  3. I really hate it when popular culture tells people how to act. Black bird and the twilight saga are telling a generation of girls (well those dumb enough to read them) that its ok for your boyfriend to be creepy or abusive and instead of sorting out your life you're self you run to him when your in trouble and he'll make every thing better.
    My personal favorite manga is Claymore, its a dark fantasy and a bit creepy but all the main protagonists (except for riki) are all strong woman

    1. Right on my anonymous friend!

      I need to write about Claymore soon; it really is such a wonderful manga. Keep commenting!