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Crossing Genres, in Style : Clothing in Action-Adventure and Slice-of-Life Manga

The majority of characters in mainstream comics and bande dessinée are not especially trendy when it comes to their clothes. The same phenomenon can be observed in Francophone bande dessinée. Regarding manga, one might be inclined to say, at first glance, that the situation is identical but the role of clothing in popular manga of various genres is more complex and layered than it seems, and is thus worth exploring further.

 Valérie Cools

Crossing Genres, in Style : Clothing in Action-Adventure and Slice-of-Life Manga

It seems safe to say that the majority of characters in mainstream comics and bande dessinée are not especially trendy when it comes to their clothes. Looking at North American comic strips, we find that the characters in such strips as Hagar the Horrible, Peanuts, Blondie, Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Zits, to name a few, are usually seen wearing the exact same outfit day in and day out. The same phenomenon can be observed in Francophone bande dessinée : the eponymous characters Lucky Luke, Asterix and Obelix, Gaston Lagaffe, Spirou and Fantasio (until fairly recently), Quick and Flupke, Corto Maltese, and of course Tintin (whose only change in wardrobe has consisted in trading in his trademark golf pants for a pair of brown bell bottoms in the series’ final installment), all sport the same clothes throughout their adventures. One must also mention American superheroes, who invariably perform their heroic duty in the same, often flashy costume, although the latter may be subtly altered, along with the series’ graphic style, as new artists take on the series. Although there are clear exceptions, such as Roger Leloup’s heroine Yoko Tsuno, there appears to be a dominant tendency towards consistency in wardrobe for characters in popular sequential art. There is no doubt that one of the reasons behind this consistency is that it helps enable quasi-instantaneous recognition of each character : a red cape and a blue suit, for instance, are immediately associated with Superman. In this manner, clothing becomes part of a character’s iconic quality (Groensteen, 2007 : 44).
Regarding manga, one might be inclined to say, at first glance, that the situation is identical. Indeed, some characters are nearly impossible to dissociate from their usual wardrobe : Toriyama Akira’s Dragon Ball’s Goku, for instance, is nearly always seen wearing a bright orange gi (martial arts jumper) ; the ninjas in Kishimoto Masashi’s Naruto are also seen wearing the same combat gear day after day. Additionally, a great number of manga (Hana Yori Dango, Fruits Basket, Kitchen Princess, Sailor Moon, Tenshi Nanka Ja Nai) revolve around high school students, who are thus often seen wearing the same school uniform. However, we begin to notice a distinction here, between combat or adventure manga (such as Dragon Ball and Naruto) and what can be generally called slice-of-life manga, i.e. series which unfold in a realistic setting (which can nevertheless include a dose of fantasy), and offer a primary focus on everyday life (such as the other series mentioned, along with many others, such as Nana and Maison Ikkoku). In the former, clothing tends to be stable, whereas in the latter, the characters are quite often seen wearing different outfits : high school students, for instance, are shown spending time outside of school, in varying casual or stylish attire. It would be easy to trace this distinction down to a difference in genre characteristics : adventure manga are epic by definition, and thus have little need to attend to clothing-related realism ; slice-of-life manga, by contrast, necessarily have a more realistic dimension, as they unfold in everyday life, and thus the characters are visually portrayed in as plausible a manner as possible. However, while there is some truth to this explanation, the situation is not quite so clear-cut : indeed, one soon realizes that certain series, while belonging predominantly to the adventure genre, also feature slice-of-life scenes (such as Bleach, Inu Yasha and the afore-mentioned Naruto), in which the characters are seen wearing different clothing from day to day.
This would suggest that the role of clothing in popular manga of various genres is more complex and layered than it seems, and is thus worth exploring further. I will attempt to undertake this throughout this article. I will focus on the two broad manga genres previously defined, action-adventure and slice-of-life, and will attempt to show how they are both distinct and intertwined, taking clothing as an illustration of this. Actually, it would be wiser to speak of “modes,” rather than “genres,” for as we have seen, an action series can feature slice-of-life scenes. I will first examine the implications of changing outfits in manga, namely at the level of establishing more rounded characters. I will then move on to demonstrate how each mode involves different fetishisms of clothing, or of the characters through their clothing. These various fetishes are invested with meaning in different ways, yet they populate manga in a manner that transcends genre and thus contributes to manga’s general (as opposed to genre-specific) appeal.

The everyman’s style : A foothold for identity and intimacy

Globally, characters in manga appear to change clothes more often than in other sequential art ; this applies mainly to slice-of-life manga but, as I have mentioned, action-adventure heroes are also seen wearing different outfits when “off-duty.” In some cases, clothes are not merely featured as a necessity for realism, but are exploited by the artist as both an aesthetic and expressive vehicle. Two prime examples of this process would be Kubo Tite’s Bleach, a fantasy action shounen (“boys’ manga”) and Yazawa Ai’s Nana, a romantic shoujo (“girls’ manga”). Both series unfold in modern day Japan, and feature a cast of characters who change their attire on a daily basis (except when, in Bleach, they are off to battle soul-devouring monsters or other villains).
Fashion is clearly a prime concern in Nana : each character has a distinctive style, suited to his or her personality traits or penchants. The members of a punk rock band, for instance, are seen wearing outfits and accessories explicitly designed or inspired by Vivienne Westwood, while their number one fan, Misato, adopts a frilly Lolita look [1]. Another main character, Komatsu Nana, who is portrayed as both romantic and wishy-washy during the first part of the series, changes her fashion style many times throughout the series as her interests evolve and she matures from an aimless dreamer to a determined mother-to-be. While it would be an exaggeration to conclude that the clothes make the characters, it is certainly fair to say that they contribute to expressing the latter’s personalities, in a visual manner that is just as important as the way dialogue and actions do. In fact, when Misato temporarily adopts a formal, business-like look, her appearance is staged as a surprise for the reader : Misato’s face is hidden, and the reader is not meant to recognize her in this garb until her features are shown (vol. 14, 14-16). Similarly, characters in Bleach each have a specific fashion style ; this is evident in the drawings themselves, but is also stated in the bonus pages at the end of every volume, which often consist in character profiles. In addition to the various physical data (height, weight, blood type, etc.), the author includes likes and dislikes, including fashion-related ones : one character likes flower-printed dresses, while another has a preference for Capri pants, and so forth. ¬_ Thus, we can see that clothes have been consciously designed for the purpose of adding insight into the characters’ personalities, as a way of fleshing them out. Clothes are a manner of expressing a character in a manner that is both intimate (as it reflects characters’ quasi-unconscious, personal likings) and subtle (as it is less clearly articulate than words). In other words, if style is that through which we, as individuals, advertise our traits and our cultural allegiances, via recognizable signs (Maffesioli, 1997 : 31), manga artists attribute a fashion style to their characters for the same purpose. While this technique is certainly used in other media such as film and television, it does not appear to be quite as frequent in other types of comics. Thus, it would indicate a richness of certain manga belonging to both genres, an ability to go beyond the merely iconic and to build characters who evolve in a thick world of objects and make choices within it.

Costumed Heroes and the Everygirl’s New Clothes

As previously mentioned, heroes in American comics are often bestowed with a costume partly in order to be more easily recognizable. This applies to manga as well : although most action manga heroes do not wear costumes in order to protect their identity (unlike superheroes), they nevertheless wear the same outfit when they are fighting, either because it is the standard uniform for their activity (e.g. the military in Fullmetal Alchemist) or because these clothes are presumably more appropriate for physical combat. However, this association of a hero with his or her costume has an effect on the reader which goes beyond mere practical concerns. Indeed, the costume, or combat attire, becomes a visual crystallization of the character’s strength and combativeness. When Goku (Dragon Ball) puts on his orange gi, when Ichigo (Bleach) morphs into a death reaper, donning a black kimono, when Usagi (Sailor Moon) transforms into a magical heroine and changes her outfit in the process, the clothes serve as a reminder of each character’s position as a powerful warrior. These specific clothes become a kind of visual shorthand for power, and their function thereby goes beyond the merely decorative or esthetic. The case of Bleach’s sword-wielding protagonist Ichigo is particularly interesting in this regard, as this character possesses different levels of power ; when he increases in status, his weapon changes (which is only logical, given the role weapons play in combat), but so do his clothes, in certain cases. We can clearly see here how clothes and power are implicitly linked.
So far, these observations are not specific to manga, and could certainly be expressed regarding American superheroes (indeed, they doubtless have been). But this process of subverting the basic function of clothes (covering one’s body with a relative degree of estheticism) and investing them with a new power is not found solely in heroic action manga. Indeed, a somewhat similar process can be observed in slice-of-life manga. In such cases, it is not physical strength or magical abilities which are associated with the clothes ; rather, the clothes themselves appear to posses transformative properties, with the power to simultaneously objectify and empower a character, albeit in a non-supernatural way (although we will soon see that this interpretation must be nuanced). The context of such occurrences can vary. Sometimes, characters have clothes forced upon them, for display purposes. This takes place at least twice in Takaya Natsuki’s shoujo Fruits Basket. In one instance, Yuki, a popular high school boy with delicate good looks, is forced by his adoring fangirls to put on a dress and be put on display for the school festival, much to his dismay (vol. 2, 64-71) ; the appeal of such cosplay [2] lies in the Japanese popularity of kawaii, a concept which corresponds to cuteness and vulnerability (Winge, 2008 : 59). In a later volume, Tohru, the female protagonist (who usually dresses quite plainly), is similarly talked into putting on a white Sweet Lolita dress, at the insistence of two eccentric shopkeepers who wish to highlight her innocent charm (vol. 6, 172-188) ; when she reappears wearing the dress, she is very embarrassed. In other contexts, characters can decide for themselves to wear something uncharacteristic which happens to make a strong impression on others. In Fumizuki Fou’s romantic shounenAi Yori Aoshi, a traditional young Japanese woman decides to change out of her usual kimono and wear Western clothing for an evening, in order to please her fiancé, who is touched by the gesture (vol. 3, 43-47). In Nana (vol. 8, 24-27), as in Toume Kei’s Sing Yesterday for Me (vol. 4, 8-11), we encounter the trope of the “woman in yukata.” Indeed, it is traditional, during Japanese summer festivals, for women to wear light cotton kimonos ; male characters in manga seem to consistently fetishize the yukata, and look forward to seeing the girl or woman they fancy in this attire, while female characters are usually well aware of this.

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