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Sweet and Sour in a Frilly Dress: Gothic Lolita Hits the U.S.

This story originally appeared in PW Comics Week on Sept. 27, 2005

Kai-Ming Cha -- Publishers Weekly, 9/27/2005

Manga is a lot more than super cute aliens or magical Japanese school girls. The continuing growth of manga sales (and the proliferation of new titles) means the market is beginning to reflect the many categories and stylistic trends that make up the broad popularity of Japanese shojo (girls comics) and shonen (boys comics) manga. The newest category of manga to hit the U.S. is Gothic Lolita, an aesthetic sensibility that has roots in Japanese punk style.

Offering a combination of frilly, girlish whimsy twinned with a brooding sense of evil, Gothic Lolita manga stylishly focuses on the darker elements of human society while managing to promote elaborate wardrobes of flouncy Victorian-era clothing, be-ribboned ringlet hair-dos, parasols and precarious platform shoes.

"I think the gothic Lolita genre could be very successful in North America as manga continues to expand its audience," says Kuo-Yu Liang, v-p, sales and marketing at Diamond Book Distributors. "As readers become more educated about the category, they will look for new and more sophisticated fare beyond your average shojo titles. This is already happening with the rise of Yaoi as well as the smaller but growing sub-genre of J-horror."

While the sweet and sour Lolita look has casually graced the pages of girl's comics in the past, Tokyopop drew attention to the category with the publication of Mitsukazu Mihara's 2004 series Doll. Other publishers were not far behind. Del Rey has its own Gothic punk manga, Othello by Satomi Ikezawa. It's the story of Yaya, a timid high school girl who dresses as a punk Lolita (black lace instead of white) on weekends and discovers her alter ego, Nana, a punk rock rebel who stands up for herself/Yaya and commands respect. This fall Viz Media distributed the live action movie, Kamakaze Girls, which features a loli-girl heroine, and Viz will follow the movie's release with a manga and anime series as well as a prose fiction series, all based on the movie's themes, beginning in early 2006.

In Doll, Mihara draws a world where androids have become a natural part of human society. Dressed as Lolitas or dandys as the boys are called, the androids are essentially life-size dolls who are abused by their human owners. Many of Mihara's fans, most of them teens and young women, wear short Victorian dresses trimmed with lace and ribbon to look like characters from the book. Most of its readers are drawn to the series for its morbid twists and beautiful dresses. The sixth and final volume of Doll, will be released this October. TokyoPop will continue working with Mihara and plans to release four stand-alone manga, Beautiful Peoplestarting in February, 2006.

Gothic Lolita has also made its way into the American manga category (also called Original English Language, or OEL manga), a budding creative movement around comics produced in the U.S. by non-Japanese creators who have been much-influenced by the licensed Japanese manga that dominate the U.S. market. In Tokyopop's new OEL release,Bizenghast, author M. Alice LeGrow, a winner of Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga contest, draws on a Gothic and Lolita aesthetic sensibility, mixing the worlds of the living and the dead.

Both Tokyopop and Viz Media both have projects with punk-style manga writer/illustrator Ai Yazawa. Volume three of Princess Ai, a Tokyopop original and joint project with rocker Courtney Love and DJ Milky, comes out in February 2006. Love was America's original Gothic Lolita, wearing torn baby-doll dresses when she was performing with the band Hole. And Yazawa's NANA, a huge punk hit in Japan, is being serialized in Viz Media's new monthly magazine ShojoBeat.

But the U.S. manga market is still very young and Liang offers a word of cultural caution about the ultimate potential of the category. "Gothic Lolita will probably not be as huge in the U.S .as it is in Japan," Liang says, chuckling just a bit. "In the U.S we just don't have a sanctioned national obsession with young girls."

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