Recently, a friend of mine joined the ranks of Japanese anime culture lovers. He has been excitedly telling me all about his new findings, most especially his surprise at the large differences in relationships between Japanese and Western culture.
For instance, how important confessions of love are. Also, that following a confession of mutual feelings, the relationship naturally progresses into one of officially, exclusively, dating.
I sighed and simply observed his shock as he recounted these observations to me. To me, these weren’t shocking in any way. Although my formative pre-teen and teen years were spent in North America, I had grown up with these ideals captured in Japanese anime/manga culture. My expectations of society, high school, relationships and more were significantly shaped by my heavy consumption of Japanese manga; creating a little bubble that cushioned me from North American practices until I confronted them head on at a later stage in life.
Japanese manga/anime culture (I have lumped the two distinct media together as genres, themes and even plots or series are shared between the two) encompasses a broad range of genres, but the one I sunk my teeth into as a female pre-teen/high school student was (unsurprisingly) shoujo. Shoujo directly translates as “young girl”, which refers to its target audience.
Many shoujo plots are set in un-extraordinary, every-day settings like contemporary Japanese high schools. Romance is almost always core to the storyline and achieving it tends to rely on a few recurring themes and plot devices.
The “high school debut” is one of these common themes. Entering a new high school, which makes up the last three years of secondary education in Japan, offers characters an opportunity to start afresh and embark on new adventures. A huge hype builds around entering high school because characters are able their past flaws or leave behind dark histories to present their ideal selves to their new surroundings: their peers at high school. Whatever first impressions characters leave can drastically impact their social life, making or breaking their important high school experience that marks a bittersweet transition into adulthood (further education in university or work).
Having said that, the high school debut is quite flexible because it doesn’t necessarily have to take place at the start of high school, it can take place during high school as well. In many cases, this ties in the makeover (another common theme). Similar to entering a new school, the makeover offers the character new opportunities as it redefines the relationships the character has with their surroundings, given the change in their appearance or personality (e.g. increased confidence, resulting from the change in appearance).
Both the debut and the makeover work towards the single most important goal of shoujo manga: romance.
To compare it with North American culture, I’d say that the high school debut idea in Japanese manga/anime is quite like college films. More than North American high school films, college films seem to capture the excitement of new surroundings and finding a place in life. As for the makeover idea, that’s common enough in North American culture as well!
So, the high school debut can happen at any point during high school. And oh, how I hoped and kept hoping for my time to shine. Be it my first day in high school, school dances, camps, special field trips – I saw all these breaks from regular school as opportunities for a change in the relationship between myself and my peers. To finally make my high school debut, a splash that would signal a new chapter of my life and hopefully, the beginnings of romance.
And yet, nothing.
I never confessed. Never dated. Never had any romance or near-romance of any sort that made me incredibly anxious or nervous like it made the female protagonists in the dear mangas that I read on a daily basis.
I finished high school, subconsciously slightly disappointed at how lacking my experience was in contrast to all the expectations I had. I never had a high school debut, makeover, or romance where I blossomed into the full expression of myself.
A few pages from the sketchbooks I kept throughout high school – further evidence of how deeply anime/manga permeated my life, inspiring me to emulate the drawing style and copy favourite characters in my art.