Meta, Otaku Academy

What is the "Watchmen" of manga?

For American Thanksgiving, I visited Texas and read Watchmen. (It’s surprisingly pertinent Thanksgiving reading; there are a lot of very clever, very painful observations about family dynamics throughout.) I’ve been holding back on posting about it, mostly because I haven’t entirely digested it yet. This post at MangaBlog, however, made me wonder:

…what’s the equivalent of Watchmen in manga? What title made artists and readers re-consider the medium? Is there any manga title that simultaneously uplifts and undermines a whole genre (like superheroes), and proved to be a game-changer?

Ignore my verb tense agreement issues and consider this problem, especially that last question. I might argue that Evangelion did this for mecha anime, in that it (like Watchmen) proved how unnecessary and even harmful giant mecha would be, while also showcasing entirely new levels of mecha action. It was the apotheosis of the mecha genre, in many ways. But that’s anime, not manga. For that, we might have to turn to Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Utena, if you’ve never read the manga or seen the anime, has all the standard tropes of a shoujo (girls’) story: high school setting, multiple possible romantic partners, deep dark past histories, lesbian characters…the whole nine. In fact, when I first watched a few episodes, I rolled my eyes at how similar it was to other stories in the same genre. Years later I re-approached it, and my mind was changed. The aesthetics (much like those in Watchmen) are all window-dressing for a story that subtly undermines what we’ve come to expect about a given genre.

Most shoujo stories are about gender and power. That’s a given. (It’s also true of most YA entertainment for girls, East or West.) Where Utena differs from most stories is in how it proves, again and again, how ultimately limiting and harmful those standard meta-narratives can be for both girls and boys. Yes, by now we all know that forcing oneself into a “type” is a bad idea. But Utena takes that message above the level of “hanging out with the wrong crowd” and tells a story of abuse, both inside and outside the home, and how choosing one’s role can dictate one’s response to that abuse. Being a prince (or a witch, or a warrior) is easy, but being yourself? And being okay with that? That’s tough.

Which, as it occurs to me, is yet another message nestled inside Watchmen.