After developing something of an addiction to shojo manga, Japanese comics written specifically for a female audience, this past year I became consumed by a nagging thought: Why is it that the male characters, particularly those who serve some sort of romantic purpose, all remind me of David Bowie?
It didn't seem like a conscious reference to the rock 'n' roll god, but so many of the elements were readily apparent: the lanky physiques and thin, slightly angular faces; the penchant for glam rock-inspired clothing, sleek suits and cutting-edge hairstyles; the air of sophistication that seems to hover around the characters. Is there a correlation here or have I spent too much time listening to Heroes?
In keeping with this theme, we matched up several popular manga characters with corresponding personae from Bowie's career.
Persona: Glam Rock Bowie
Deb Aoki, About.com's manga guide and a frequent panelist at conventions, notes that one fairly common manga character is “the sensitive bad boy— the guy who is kind of honorable, brave and sweet — but is also has a touch of being cool / dark / dangerous / misunderstood,” which is an appropriate way of describing Shin, the bassist for BLAST in the rock star saga Nana. Like Ziggy Stardust, Shin is an outsider, although instead of being a “starman,” he's Swedish. Like Bowie's Aladdin Sane incarnation, he's a wild spirt and, as with the Diamond Dogs characters, a child of the streets. He's a teenage runaway semi-masquerading as an adult and an up-and-coming rock star with a past of— how do we say this delicately?— servicing older women. His interest in women, alcohol and, occasionally, drugs, could pose problematic in a subplot of the manga that reads like a glam-teetering-on-punk epic.
Character: Tamaki Suoh
Manga: Ouran High School Host Club
Persona: Thin White Duke
The Thin White Duke, associated with the album Station to Station, was seemingly conceived as a snooty, bored aristocrat. But long after Bowie retired The Thin White Duke, the name lived on as a general description of the singer, referring more to his appearance and rock icon status than the negative connotations of the character.
Though not nearly as controversial as The Thin White Duke, Tamaki Suoh is, in his own way, a snooty, bored aristocrat. He is a character largely out of touch with the outside world, treating the staples of the common people's diet as exotic fair and making remarks that are frequently insensitive to those who are not as privileged as him. Perhaps unlike The Thin White Duke, though, Tamaki means well.
Nancy Thistlethwaite, an editor for Viz Media, notes that Ouran High School Host Club is intended as a parody of the genre where “the leading men are extreme versions of the type of male characters that can be found in shojo manga.” Consider Tamaki, then, a send-up of “prince” characters, where you could also view The Thin White Duke as Bowie's satirical take on the idle rich.
David Bowie “Station to Station,” live rehearsal, 1976
Characters: Zero Kiryu
Manga: Vampire Knight
Persona: Vampire Bowie
Angst-ridden vampires are a dime a dozen, but few have the panache of John, the 18th century cellist-turned-'80s goth in The Hunger. Like John, Zero from Vampire Knight harbors a deep love for a female of the species much more powerful than he is. Both too are facing their demons, John is rapidly aging while Zero is wrestling with the knowledge that he's both a vampire hunter and a vampire. Naturally, there are romantic jealousies involved as well. With his goth moods and elegant posturing, perhaps “Bela Lugosi's Dead” should be Zero's theme as well.
Manga: Return to Labyrinth
Clearly, there are more people in this world who think of David Bowie as a manga character than just this writer. Return to Labyrinth isn't a shojo title, but rather an original English language (OEL) manga that continues the story of the famed fantasy film Labyrinth. The plot follows a teenage Toby (the kidnapped baby from the film) and his own dealings with Jareth, King of the Goblins. Is there a Bowie sub-section of American otaku?
But what's the real reason behind the look of shojo manga's heroes?
“A funny phenomenon, perhaps a cultural difference between Japan and America is that the ideal guy seems to be slim and elegant, and sometimes the smartest guy in school,” says Deb Aoki. “You rarely see girls go ga-ga over the school jock or muscle-bound guys in Japanese manga.”
Despite cultural differences, shojo manga has become quite popular amongst young women in the US. The wide range of titles available domestically often revolve around romances and friendships and, like both American and Japanese comics geared towards men, they have their own set of conventions devised to heighten the fantasy, which are often called “fan service.” Aoki mentions “a view of a bare chest (no hair), and bedroom eyes looking out from a fringe of long-ish straight hair” as two common elements. Both Aoki and Nancy Thistlethwaite mention the “reverse harem” or “male harem,” where one (typically geeky) girl is surrounded by hot guys longing to catch her eye. Thistlethwaite is quick to point out that in the realm of shojo manga such characteristics are there primarily to service the plot, noting that “enticing scenes are held within an emotional or humorous context.”
David Bowie and friends “All the Young Dudes/The Jean Genie,” David Bowie's 50th birthday concert, 1/09/97
Reading manga from a completely American perspective, where the prevalent image of the ideal male is buffed and typically doing chores in really tight jeans and no shirt (see soap operas for proof), it's hard not to view the guys in shojo manga as an alternative for girls. Like rock's debonair bunch, beginning with Bowie and Brian Ferry in the '70s and continuing through to Morrissey and Peter Murphy in the '80s and '90s and, more recently, Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos and Placebo's Brian Molko, their fashionable demeanors and knack for infusing stories with sophisticated romance makes them a bit rebellious. Maybe some see manga characters the same way.