It is set in the “Awajima Opera School.” Before you go Googling, you should know that there is no such place, and no such school. And, by the way, the word I translated as “opera” (“kageki”) does not actually mean “opera” in modern Japan. “Opera” is simply called “opera.” “Musicals” are simply called “myuujikaru.” “Kageki” is used pretty exclusively to refer to…well, to what is produced by a certain all-female musical theater troupe. There is also only one real “kageki school” in all of Japan, and that school is a part of the afore-not-mentioned troupe. Any Japanese person reading this manga would recognize what it is supposed to represent.
I’m not going to mention the name of that troupe. You could offer me a pile of gold–a veritable treasure mound–yet still would I refuse to name the All-Female Theater Troupe Which Must Not Be Named. Because a Shimura manga means pretty girls in love with other pretty girls, and if there is one thing which the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. does not like to be associated with, it is pretty girls in love with other pretty girls. A certain American scholar found that out the hard way when she wrote a (very good) book about the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. The A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. is owned by a large and powerful corporation, and if you piss them off, they can make your life difficult. And the quickest way to piss them off is to imply that there is the slightest connection between the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. and pretty girls in love with other pretty girls.
You see, the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. had a…well, they had a “pretty-girls-in-love-with-other-pretty-girls” problem back in the day. I mean way back in the day. Nearly a century ago. It seems some the troupe’s prominent actresses were seen on multiple occasions in bars and other disreputable venues, wearing gentlemen’s attire, and accompanied by pretty girls with whom they seemed exceedingly…intimate. And then some passionate love letters were revealed. Reporters and editors of magazines and newspapers were shocked–shocked!–at these goings on, so naturally they proceeded to milk the story for all it was worth.
Which, at the time, was quite a lot. Because in gender-segregated pre-war Japan, where secondary education for girls (and the girls-only schools it entailed) was expanding rapidly, same-sex romance was a standard rite of passage for any modern schoolgirl. The fiction of Nobuko Yoshiya (for whom same-sex love was not a rite of passage, but rather a way of life) was enormously popular, as were illustrations like those below, which could be found on the pages of any girls’ magazine (such as Shöjo no tomo) worth reading.
The A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. was chagrined by the publicity, and clamped down, hard. Actresses famous for playing men on the stage were not to be seen wearing men’s clothing in public. Nor were they allowed to cut their hair short. And it goes without saying that they were not to be seen engaged in PDA with other girls, nor were they to exchange passionate letters with fans or anyone else.
Fun fact: It seems the current politically correct term referring to homosexuality in Japan today, dösei-ai (literally, “same-sex love”) was coined by Japanese sexologists of the early 20th century specifically to describe this phenomenon of girls in love with girls, because existing Japanese nomenclature was generally male-specific, and also explicitly sexual, and, well, it was of course patently absurd to imagine that these girls could actually be having sexual relations…right?
Regarding the geographical name in the title, there are a couple of places (one an island in Shizuoka, the other the archaic name of a neighborhood in Tokyo) that use the same kanji, but both of those places are pronounced “Awashima,” not “Awajima.” No, “Awajima” brings to mind another geographical name: “Awaji.” (The first kanji is the same, the second means “road” rather than “island.”) Awaji could be the large island of Awaji-shima (which, come to think of it, is the birthplace of one the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. most famous graduates, who was rumored to be romantically involved with another very famous graduate), but it could also be another place in the Kansai area: Awaji Station. (Which, come to think of it, is owned by the…. Nevermind.)
But the connection to Awaji-shima Island would seem to be suggested on the very last page, which looks for all the whole to be a port of some kind. Awaji-shima also happens to be in the same prefecture, Hyogo, as…that other place.
Sorry. I have strayed from the topic at hand: Shimura’s One Hundred Views of Awashima. Just 28 pages in, and the scent of sweet dösei-ai already hangs heavy in the air (or do I just have an overactive imagination?).
This could turn out to be a lot of fun.
And not just because of the “girls in love with girls” aspect. Sorry, Erica: Yuri, per se, doesn’t float my boat. What does float my boat is beautifully, tastefully, sensitively, and more-or-less-realistically drawn stories of Japanese LGBT, created by and primarily for Japanese themselves. Mostly this is because such stuff is just plain good reading, but it’s also because, even in 2011, one can count on the fingers of one hand–one hand!–the number of famous Japanese women who are formally out of the closet. (The number of “out” Japanese men is somewhat higher, but considering that many of them are “professionally gay,” that’s a mixed blessing.) Manga–particularly those geared at women–fare better than most other media in terms of realistic and sympathetic portrayals of lesbians. Shimura is, of course, well known for such portrayals in her own work.
But what makes One Hundred Views of Awajima so exciting is the (anticipated) combination of “girls in love” with the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N., which anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of LGBT issues can see is queer as a plaid rabbit. The queer nature of the A.F.T.T.W.M.N.B.N. has been a secret hidden in plain sight for some seventy years, and only rarely (and at substantial risk) has anyone ever made the connection publicly, in popular culture.
One fun aspect of One Hundred Views of Awajima is that readers can add comments in colorful speech bubbles, sort of the way Nico Nico Douga always viewers to add comments that are scrolled across the screen at the moment specified by the viewer. And as with Nico Nico Douga, readers of Shimura’s new manga can turn these reader-added captions off, which is nice, since they can be hugely distracting. And reader’s are already all over the yuri nuances of chapter 1. Obviously, these reader comments must be subject to administrative scrutiny, but even those that pass muster are suggestive enough.
To top it off, Shimura has promised to set some episodes in the historical past, which is like crack for a shöjo cultural history addict (e.g., me). And we can apparently look forward to cameos by characters from other Shimura manga.
In the meantime, if you’d like to read Shimura in English, pre-order my translation of Wandering Son Vol. 1!