115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Dead Mommy Manga: Paternal Precarity in Postbubble Japanese Boy Culture 

David John Boyd, University of Glasgow (Scotland)

This essay examines current gender and family conflicts in Japanese boy culture, specifically analyzing a handful of manga and anime produced during the twenty year economic recession. In my estimation, the rise of 'dead mother' origin stories in these series not only depict the transformation of a delinquent boy into a heroic man, but, most importantly, they interrogate the precarity and anxieties of growing up inside and outside of the heteronormative Japanese nuclear family.


Between the past two decades, the most popular Japanese shōnen (boys’ comics) including One Piece (Oda Eiichiro, 1997 –), Naruto (Kishimoto Masashi, 1997 – 2014), and Bleach (Kubo Tite, 2001 – 2016) have been exemplar templates for the global rise of shōnen series. They are also importantly the foundational manga texts for the second generation (Heisei millennials) affected by Japan’s asset bubble crisis and subsequent economic recession that lasted between 1991 and 2011. These series allegorically engage with dominant themes of precarity, including youth displacement and the rise of urban orphans, adult abuses of power against the youth manifested in corporate or governmental corruption, and the overall distrust in traditional disciplinary institutions including schools, factories, and most importantly, the nuclear family. It is no wonder that this moment in Japanese history is often referred to as ushinawareta nijûnen (two lost decades) among the entire Heisei generation. Due to the very real effects of the asset bubble crisis, the Heisei generation fell through the cracks of consumer capitalism, leaving the youth to find new strategies in everyday life. While the first Heisei generation (Gen-X) was armed with political skepticism and nihilistic outlooks, depicted as “dark matter, lost in disillusioned space” (Christine Hensler 1), this second generation sought to think beyond the darkest avenues of precarity to explore means of escape. Thus, unlike their stark earlier predecessors that envisioned the heroic boy as an existential loner outside of institutions, these manga series focus on the empowering rise of post-familial affiliations that actively challenge all institutions constructed by the Oedipal construct. In other words, bloodlines in these series are often ideologically (and narratively) fraught. To undermine the power of blood and family, the heroes escape family bonds by becoming a member of ragtag groups of outsiders and orphans. By forming anarcho-syndicalist or communitarian alternatives to hierarchized social structures, the pirate, ninja, or ghost communities of One Piece, Naruto or Bleach become strong enough to openly oppose and destroy Oedipal fascistic institutions ranging from ancient kingships to modern corporations.

However, while these series are clearly concerned with the failings of the family that Michel Foucault’s “Introduction to the Non-Fascist Life” and Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) extensively catalogue and analyze, these boy heroes cannot seem to overcome the restrictions of the Oedipal family until they mourn their dead or absent mothers and acknowledge the revolutionary legacy of their fathers. They eventually overcome the failings of their fathers by seeking the souls of their lost mothers, and in doing so, they destroy the patriarchal evils of the big baddie; however, after learning how not to be, they become domesticated fathers themselves in the concluding chapters (Naruto and Bleach). It is in this context that we see a conflict in post-familial ideologies: while the anarchic impulse of these series is compelling and inspiring, these boys are split-subjects amidst the current gender and labor concerns of postwar and postbubble Japan. By examining this trend in shōnen media alongside current research from Marxian feminists Chizuko Ueno, Tomiko Yoda, and Anne Allison, this paper seeks to expose this contradictory genre cliché and trope in contemporary Japanese boys’ media not merely as a narrotological alibi like many fans and scholars argue, but rather, as a popular enunciation of economic precarity that negotiates these new constrictions on postfeminist, postpaternal, and postfamilial impulses and desires. 

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