Monday, September 21, 2009

Manga: Love @ First Sight

What am I missing?

I must be missing something, something cultural when it comes to Manga and Falling In Love and Confessions. I keep rolling my eyes and feeling ancient as I overflow with disbelief over all this 'fall in love at first sight / first look'.

I keep wondering: Do they mean 'OMG I'm finding someone physically attractive this is a big deal!!!' ? And if so, why is it a big deal? Of course my questioning / this interpretation assumes that there's something subtle in the kanji, maybe something different between the way a word is used generally and how it is understood when spoken and what it means when written or SOMETHING.

Because how superficial is it to have all these romances running on a plotline of 'My attraction to someone's physical appearance equals falling in love'.

Is it an age gap thing? Did I just miss the bus where physical attraction and sexual stirrings became, a close feeling of bonding or ties to another individual wherein their happiness is equal to your happiness? Does someone have the moment that changed happened captured for posterity on film or something?

I've finally caught a clue that kissing is or at least is accepted culturally to be a big deal in Japan (and possibly the other nations in that region), especially one's first kiss - far more so than what I'd observed about American culture. Or at least American culture when I was growing up. These days it seems the big deal is about 'pedophile bait's first blow job'. But y'know, I'm not about to get into the sexualization of childhood right now. That's a rant of a different colour for another day.

But I will pause to say: { Apparently WHITE TEENAGERS ARE SOLD CAUSAL SEXUALITY as relevant to their lives. It's just the white teenagers are all sold that lifestyle as the thing to do among trust fund babies. Having not read the books, I don't know if any penis veins were involved. I also don't know what if any agency the female characters have when it comes to sex or whether or not they face sexual abuse.}

But, moving past that - or wait, are these things connected? Superficial declarations of love based on physical appearance tied with hypersexualized marketing techniques creating a hypersexualized world?

When a character in a manga claims to have fallen in love with another character, at first sight, is that 'fallen in love with' equal to when people claim love of objects? As in "The moment I saw that sweater/jeans/jewelry/commodity I absolutely fell in love with it and had to have it."

In which case, can someone clue me in on the manga where girls do this and boys become the objects? Because what I've seen so far is what I'd called crushes on teachers or senpai's (older students) with suggestions the girl in question has been watching the individual for a while so presumably there is some attraction to the personality being presented and the girl's nerves stem from confessing interest in more than friendship - breaking the polite established status quo.

Which by the way seems normal, even when it's phrased as a confession, because I guess it is a confession of harbouring more than aquaintence or friend type feelings.

But let's jump back a bit. Because confession of feelings needs the feelings themselves to form in the first place. And again I'm seeing an awful lot of male characters say things like:

  • "From the moment I saw you..."

  • "You were the girl on the corner/on the tv/in the library/ who never smiled and I have loved you since..."

  • "I'm in trouble. I met a girl today and now I'm in love..."

What cultural cues am I missing here? Am I supposed to be reading that as lust no matter what a translator or scanlator says? Am I missing cultural societal cues that would reinforce the concept of a love based on physical attraction? Thus setting up social standards that girls are passive and pretty and if they're passive and pretty/cute enough boys will come to them based on physical attraction?

Which might be a little different from Americanized (Westernized?) thin and sexy - but not by much.

Are there many different words in Japan that mean love? With variations and gradations based on object or person and how much? If so, why isn't that notated? Do translators think it's somehow romantic to have someone looking shallow and arousal focused?

This will be the oddest reason ever for me to attempt to learn Japanese - especially given my own personal frustration with languages.

[Comments On]


  1. Hrm. I've always just thought of that as a romance trope? I see it less in romance novels now though.

    Assuming that this is high school shoujo, I think we are supposed to be reading it as love/like, not lust, but that is mostly based on the HUGE deal high school shoujo makes of kissing, hugging, and anything involving physical intimacy, much less sex.

    I also suspect they're saying "Suki desu," which feels more like "LIKE like" to me. I tend to read it in high school shoujo as "I have a crush on you." But I also know people do use it as "I love you" as well.

    Sorry, not sure if any of this is helpful. Because despite all the explanations, I think you are spot on with instant falling in love having to do with the girls as objects.

  2. Yeah, I guess I'm not really seeing the disconnect between Japan and America on this one, since I've long since lost count of the number of American stories in which the boy loves the girl from afar whom he's never actually spoken to (Peter Parker with Mary Jane Watson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man), or the girl falls in love with the boy the instant that they first meet (Vicky Vale with Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton's Batman) - both of which, as you say, basically rely on a definition of "love" that means "physically enamored," minus knowing anything about that person.

    It's not even a new thing, since I remember this sort of shit storytelling being standard when I was an adolescent myself, and it appealed to me probably as much as it appeals to modern adolescents, because it's selling an incredibly simplistic, superficial, unrealistic definition of "love" to an age and maturity demographic that literally doesn't even know what "love" is.

  3. There are indeed several words that might be translated into English as love - of the most commonly used, "suki" is closer to like/love, "ai" is romantic love. You would "suki" an object or a person, you would "ai" a person. For older Japanese people, "ai" is not often used; for younger Japanese people (under 30) it's used pretty often. But there's still a difference between "I love (suki) that dress", "I love (suki) that person" and "I love (ai) that person" and I don't know what translators are doing about that! And you're not wrong about girls (usually) being cast as passive objects for the boys to approach. One difference, to me, is that teenage love is not necessarily framed as being lifelong love, whereas in Western romantic narrative, it often is. (Japan also has very low teenage pregnancy and marriage rates, but I don't know how all that fits together.)

    Have you read Nana? It's strongly romance focused, but also has a very important friendship between the two main female characters, and both these characters chase the boys they want, and talk about being passive or active in romance.

  4. There ARE different words meaning love, though I'm not sure whether that will help.

    "Suki" is the most common, and the one that is almost certainly being used in any school-age romance. It can mean "like" or "love," depending on context. It can be used to talk either about a person or a favourite food or TV show.It's ubiquitous.

    "Koi" is another one. I'm not sure how it's used, as I've rarely heard it in context except once or twice in pop songs. It IS the form used in the Japanese word for sweetheart/lover: "koibito" (love-person).

    "Ai" is the big doozie, the hardcore passionate romantic one, the madly truly death-do-us-part-ly one, and it is NEVER SPOKEN. Or hardly ever. The Japanese find it unseemly to blab deeper feelings too much, and speaking "ai shiteru" ("love is being done," the equivalent of the English I Love You) is both a huge deal and highly embarassing. It's something those weird foreigners do. Couples can go their whole lives without ever using this one.

    I think the thing with love at first sight is that it's an old-fashioned idea of romance. Like, Cinderella and her Prince old-fashioned. Fairy-tale romances were popular in a time where the audiences knew it was almost certainly never going to happen, when marriages were built on family obligation rather than love. The fantasy of love striking hard and fast and overturning all that, bringing together people and castes that wouldn't normally interact, was an appealing fantasy.

    Its popularity probably persists, in Japan, especially, partly because some of that obligation-marriage does still happen, with marriages to cement ties between companies, or people who want to get married but don't have time to date arranging marriage-meetings. It's also partly because, from a narrative standpoint, love-at-first-sight is easy and quick to write. In comics for kids and teenagers, especially, who are in love with the idea of love, it lets you cut right to the chase.

  5. I'll be really interested to see other people's answers to your questions. Being pretty new to manga (and mostly reading action or mystery-oriented titles), I hadn't come across this 'love at first sight' trope outside of Western stories (where I never had much patience with it anyway).

    I've read enough manga (and other translated materials from various languages), though, to be just developing an awareness of how big the gaps can be between the intent of the original author and what the translator communicates - then there's another gap between what they communicate and what I pick up. These gaps are subtle, yet could contain a lot of significance. I wonder how many people really pay this stuff the attention it deserves...

  6. My general impression was that this was about the same as Western "love at first sight," being some kind of mythical thing where people who meet Just Realize They Are Soulmates and they can skip all the hard work of actual getting to know each other.

    I think it's mostly done by folks who either haven't done much real relationships or who idealize the stuff to a ludicrous degree.

  7. Dejadrew:

    The fantasy of love striking through despite caste or status or other elements juxtapositioned against royal or familial obligations makes some sense. Well, a lot of sense from the point of view of fantasy.

    And in fact one of my favourite tropes to read is when two people discover they unexpectedly fit together/understand things along the same lines/have the same kind of motivations. I call it 'The Unexpected Soulmate'. Of course I don't think it is solely the domain of romantic relationships.

    But I guess maybe especially for kids and teenagers it very much disturbs me to have love at first sight used as a storytelling shortcut. To me the only experience kids and teenagers have with that kind of love, is via their parents if they're lucky and even then, there's nine months of wooing, so to speak, until that first sight moment.

    Given that parental love is encouraged societally as a bedrock, it just feels wrong to have things set up between two peers with that as an unspoken implication. Knowing that there are possibly other words being used besides LOVE (as I understand the word in English) is a relief. Also knowing that perhaps traditionally deep bonding love was something that people weren't expected to put into words, within Japanese culture is also somewhat helpful.

  8. lilacsigil:

    "One difference, to me, is that teenage love is not necessarily framed as being lifelong love, whereas in Western romantic narrative, it often is."

    I was not aware of that at all. That does shed a different light on things, if teen romances are culturally known to be in the context of (I guess the English equivalents would be) First Loves or Childhood Loves.

    I have not read Nana, but now it is something I must hunt down. It sounds very intriguing, both because of the friendship and the topics these girls are apparently discussing.

  9. Kirk:
    American stories in which the boy loves the girl from afar whom he's never actually spoken to (Peter Parker with Mary Jane Watson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man), or the girl falls in love with the boy the instant that they first meet (Vicky Vale with Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton's Batman) - both of which, as you say, basically rely on a definition of "love" that means "physically enamored," minus knowing anything about that person.

    I'm glad you gave examples, except that they, unfortunately, aren't examples where I don't already have bias. Granted I thought Vicky Bale was frivilous and purely put into Burton's Batman because Americans like damsels in distress, especially blonde ones. And if they were going to have a damindis, then they might as well make her the type of idiot woman who believed she could fix what was wrong or broken or warped in a man by the power of her love (or vagina - or both). And Batman was already set up as the intriguing and dark, silent, manly man, knight-type.

    Eh. Just remembering her makes me roll my eyes.

    As for Movieverse Spiderman, I think maybe I missed some cultural cues. I thought the set up was that they were childhood friends, having lived next door to one another for most of their lives. When I was in highschool, I lived in Queens, in houses just that close together where you couldn't help knowing what was going on nextdoor to some extent. And a neighbourhood friend isn't necessarily an in-school friend.

    But it gives me a different angle when thinking about the movie-verse.

    As for crap storytelling in general - as I mentioned in a comment to someone else, I'm more offended by it when it is being directed to young adults, because they don't know any better. Granted my childhood was such that I knew the difference between performance and real caring. But it wasn't as if I was a savant at authentic relationships, and even in not believing the lit hype, I was still being affected by it.

    Maybe it's just one of those things that just bothers me - the concept that someone could care about another person without knowing a damn thing about them. I mean even movie-verse Parker had some idea about factors in MJ's life. I mean she was clearly trying to live a Cinderella dream with school as her constant ball and the jock as her Prince - in order to have balance to her homelife.

    Have you got other examples of the western trope? And even better in text? Because outside of Fairy Tales, I'm not coming up with many. And I'd rather be wise to it.

  10. oyceter:

    I only very recently started replacing things as I read with 'Crush' to replace 'Love'. Which made me less grr in reading. On the other hand, it upped the middle school and highschool atmosphere and led me to noticing the girls as objects way more often than I had before.

    Which is why I thought to obi-web-kenobi, because I wanted to figure out if I was viewing things through distinctly Western eyes and missing possible cultural modifiers.

    Someone below you mentioned that the young people's relationships are understood to be first loves - which helps my comprehension. The only modifier I could think of on my own is also Western in the concept of 'Courtly Love' and I wondered if there was something similar and if it was tied into what TV Tropes calls - Yamato Nadeshiko. Where I'm not meant to see the girls as passive so much as lady-like, and where the performance of love/infatuation has a prescribed role between participants of certain ages in Japan.

  11. Oh huh! I actually don't agree with the comment on young people's love in manga as first love instead of forever love, just because I've read a fair number of high school shoujo series in which the featured couple ends up getting married right out of high school and/or there's a marriage proposal by the series' end. It's not the majority, but it's definitely there enough that I'm no longer surprised by it, even if it still makes me want to chuck the book at a wall!

    So huh! Not sure...

  12. One of the classic Western examples of love at first sight is "Romeo and Juliet," at least on Romeo's part. When the play begins, Romeo is madly in love with a girl named Rosaline who is never seen on stage. But one look at Juliet across a crowded ballroom has him going "Rosaline who?" when the friend who was twitting him about his romantic obsession with her earlier next mentions her. Juliet doesn't reciprocate Romeo's feelings instantly once they actually meet, but is pretty easily persuaded. Of course, considering both young lovers end up dead by the end of act five, Shakespeare isn't exactly unequivocally endorsing the concept.

    A famous real-life case of love at first sight was the "Divine Comedy" author Dante, who claimed to have fallen in love with the then nine-year-old Beatrice the first time he saw her when he was a child himself. Although Dante wrote about his love for Beatrice and, I believe, depicted her as a prominent resident of Heaven in the "Paradiso" section of "The Divine Comedy," supposedly he never actually exchanged more than a few words with her throughout their entire lives. In any case, she married somebody else and I've never heard of any allegations that she gave him any particular encouragement, much less slept with him. So this particular love at first sight appears to have been one-sided on Dante's part, and bears a strong resemblance to the official version of medieval courtly love, in which the male poet adores the beautiful aristocratic lady from afar, allegedly hoping only to receive some chastely non-sexual indication of favor such as a smile or a kind word. (Ironically, in real life, the ideology of courtly love is thought to have frequently been used as a sort of "overpowering passion made me do it" justication for extramarital affairs.)

  13. Margaret:

    Actually the whole concept of falling in love at first glance and then continuing to watch after and pine for, over a period of years - strikes me more like STALKING these days; where one person is convinced there's a relationship of some sort going on, but it is all in their heads and the object of their obsession is clueless and many times in danger should they point out the fallacy of the fantasy.

    I don't think there really is a real life, modern day equivalent of courtly love - and my understanding of courtly love anyway has always been that the individual being praised/put on a pedestal was -aware- of who was playing court to them and that they had the choice of acknowledging it, perhaps giving some small favour like a smile or lock of hair, or kerchief etc.. or quietly and subtly shooting the individual down by not acknowledging their suit at all.

    And then there's the part where even if one doesn't want to call it a game, it was an interplay that was known and acknowledged by not just the individuals involved but society itself.

    With something as complex as that deemed part of social behavior / manners etc... it seemed possible to me that something similar might exist in another country/culture and have been passed down into modern times; a kind of step 1, step 2, step 3 that focused on specific chase behavior protocols to deal with hormonal teenage attractions.