Some thoughts on the shifting perception
of female beauty in Japanese art

Ukiyo-e and manga geishas

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is a traditional Japanese form of art which consists of woodblock printing. The name translates into the lovely phrase "pictures of the floating world". One of the sub-genres within the art form is bijin-ga (美人画), which are "pictures of beautiful women". These images usually show their subjects engaged in various activities, many of them related to the enhancement of their appearance. One such form of beautification consists of painting one's teeth black, a practice called ohaguro (お歯黒).

Although ohaguro seems to have disappeared in Japan (rather surprisingly, given the extravagant, anything-goes nature of the country's street fashion), it serves to highlight the enormous shift of the female aesthetic in Japan. This contrast is most accentuated when comparing the traditional form in which women have been portrayed in the past (bijin-ga), against the current, popular depiction of women in manga (漫画) and anime (アニメ).

In my (admittedly limited) experience I have noticed certain ambivalence in how Japanese people view both old and modern rendering of female beauty. The older style does not seem to be regarded as being attractive, and not only has the practice of ohaguro been disavowed in favour of the opposite trend (teeth whitening), raven-black hair is perceived to be old-fashioned, at least judging by the high percentage of women who dye their hair.

Performing ohaguro

Sketches of Women: Women Gathering for a Tooth-Blackening Ceremony (1803)
Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿)

On the other hand, Japanese people (and perhaps the women in particular) also appear to have conflicting feelings by the manner in which females are drawn in manga and anime (although, as in the case of bijin-ga, this is certainly not a universal sentiment). This is not really surprising, given the usually sexist imagery that permeates both mediums and the truly unattainable physique which is considered beautiful by today's artists: impossibly large eyes, gravity-defying hair of various colours, an elongated and yet still voluptuous body (although child-like figures are also common, particularly so within the lolicon [ロリコン] sub-culture).

Furthermore, there seem to be varying degrees of disdain for the more fervent admirers of manga and anime, who are labelled by the word otaku (おたく) (although the term is not exclusive to fans of these particular art forms: there are, for example, pasokon otaku, who are computer hobbyists). Hence there is another layer of complexity regarding the perception of the female aesthetic in art: bijin-ga prints are considered national treasures, and to admire them (and their subjects) denotes a certain sophistication and appreciation of what is "beautiful". Admiring the anime female, however, treads dangerously close to the socially outcast otaku.

As a note of interest, while manga and anime images are appealing to a lot of people in Japan (and throughout the world, given their enormous popularity in many other countries), it is undeniable that a person with anime-like appearance would look rather grotesque, as depicted in the ANIKORA series by Ryoko Suzuki (鈴木涼子). In this regard bijin-ga women, although still stylized, are a more faithful representation of reality, but whether that works in their favour insofar as how they are perceived as a standard of beauty is debatable.

Shown below is Oh, My Goddess! (ああっ女神さまっ), the archetypical "magical girlfriend" manga & anime, one which is famous for its beautiful girls (Belldandy [ベルダンディー], the goddess in the middle, was voted "No. 1 Favourite Female Character of the Year" in 1993 by both Animage and Newtype). Compare with the ukiyo-e where three beautiful girls from the Kansei Era (1789 through 1801) are shown. I wonder which portrayal would the average person nowadays find to be more attractive?

Three anime beauties Three ukiyo-e beauties
Oh, My Goddess! (1993-94)
Kōsuke Fujishima (藤島康介)
Three famous beauties (1792-93)
Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿)
Iori cosplayer

Unknown cosplayer dressed as Iori from I"s (see below)

One activity which further clouds the attitude towards females in manga and anime is the popularity of cosplay (コスプレ), a hobby in which people (sometimes meticulously) make the characters' costumes and wear them in public, often imitating the behaviour of their role model. Cosplay is mostly practiced by teenage girls in North America, and given the self-conscious nature of women in that age bracket I think it's fair to assume that they find the appearance of the characters to be quite appealing. Note that cosplay is also popular amongst males, and people who are both younger (pre-teen) and older (twenties and early thirties), although it's not nearly as widespread as within the teen demographic (at least that I've noticed at the Toronto conventions).

The idealization of female beauty is of course not restricted to Japanese artworks. Furthermore, there are many other forms of artistic expression which deal with aesthetics in their own particular way (sculpture, photography and video games, for example). What I believe makes Japan an interesting example is the worldwide notoriety its culture seems to elicit, the fact that the contrast between bijin-ga portrayals and those in manga & anime is so dramatic, and the uncertainty people have in judging the beauty of their subjects (or rather, the artists' perception of that beauty, although there is a critical difference between the old and the new: an anime character is not a portrait of an actual person).

Art is in constant flux, sometimes even rebelling against the current state of Japanese pop-culture and harkening the older styles (the so-called Superflat movement, for example). There is also a middle ground, a less stylized type of illustration which can be found in both bijin-ga and manga:

Realistic ukiyo-e Realistic manga
Before the Mirror (1916)
Shinsui Itō (伊東深水)
I"s (1997-99)
Masakazu Katsura (桂正和)

Shinsui Itō (伊東深水) is one of the exponents of modern ukiyo-e (called shin hanga [新版画]), and his Before the Mirror shows an austere scene of a woman draped in a red kimono looking at herself in a mirror. It is a portrait of pleasant proportions of an everyday person, with little facial detail and lacking exaggerated features. To the right is Iori (伊織), a character from the I"s manga by Masakazu Katsura (桂正和). Unlike the cosplay picture shown above, Iori is now depicted in a realistic fashion, with an appearance similar to that of a typical Japanese girl. It may be that these interpretations may provide a less contentious (albeit perhaps also less interesting) imagery of what could be viewed simply as a beautiful woman.

Notes

In addition to the various references hyperlinked, I consulted the book Japanese Prints by Gabriele Fahr-Becker (Taschen, 2007). Many thanks to Nahoko Miyamoto-Alvey (アルヴィ宮本なほ子) for her explanations regarding the practice of ohaguro. Feel free to send me comments at: marco@reimeika.ca. Text licensed under a Creative Commons License (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike). All images belong to their respective authors ("fair use" for the win, I hope). Last revised: December 26, 2007.

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