The following are my comments, given on 7/19 at our screening of “Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl” at Washington University. While I cannot say I enjoyed the movie to the greatest degree (it’s just not my taste), I appreciate what Uchida Shungicu was trying to do with the story. Read on to see why.
Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, directed by Nishimura Yoshihiro
It is an vast understatement to say that Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl represents the best and worst of the horror movie genre. On the one hand, you have cute characters, strong female leads, great gags, entertaining one-liners, buckets of fake blood, fake dismemberment, gore, ghouls, and over-the-top fight sequences. On the other hand, you have disturbing portrayals of American Black culture, complete with age-old stereotypes and exaggerated facial features, linguistic markers, and social characteristics. Inappropriate at best, these images, however, have a purpose and can stimulate discussion–something I am sure that the prolific manga-ka and author, Uchida Shungicu, had in mind when she created the manga (the Japanese word for comic/graphic novel) from which the movie was adapted.
Uchida is well known for themes that are shocking–this is her intent. One of her works, Fazafakka, deals with a young girl, who was coerced to sleep with her step-father. This work is purportedly drawn from authentic experiences in her past; Uchida’s mother was a dance instructor and bar hostess who became involved with and began living with another dance instructor; when Shungicu was made to sleep with this man, her mother did not get involved.
Using manga, and other forms of literature, for that matter, to address and explore uncomfortable, shocking themes is a longstanding theme in the Japanese literary community. Authors such as Tayama Katai, Konô Taeko, Murakami Ryû, come to mind, as well as a host of others. This is true for manga and anime as well; the “god” or “godfather” of manga, Tezuka Osamu, routinely explored violent and sexual content, as well as ethnic stereotypes in material written for children. Tezuka wished to educate and inform children about the world–even with uncomfortable themes–from which American children are often shielded. The intention of Tezuka, and many who followed him, was to encourage debate and self-reflection rather than imitation and participation.
Thus, returning to the movie you are about to see, complete with its portrayal of black stereotypes and girls who cut themselves, there is a point to their invocation. Some young girls (and guys) with strong emotional, self-esteem, and control issues cut their skin to feel pain and feel in control of their body and their circumstances. Some who cut are also sufferers of violence, abuse, and bullying–we see this in America as well. It is generally hidden from view and the remaining scars are covered up with long-sleeves or pants. In some circles in Japan, there is a fetishization of black culture. Those who fetishize this culture neither understand it, nor what they themselves are doing; it is entirely based on images received from both American and Japanese media; far from the USA, there is no way such fetishizers could understand the real black culture.1
In the late 1990‘s, some zoku or “tribes” of young, urban Japanese females would dye their skin with makeup or excessive time in tanning salons in an attempt to emulate black skin tone; similarly, these ganguro (black faced) girls would select fashions considered African or African American. It was a fashion choice, just as easy as dying the hair blond and getting surgery to make eyes appear caucasian. As recent as 2009, some Japanese comedians made a blackface parody of President and First Lady Obama, and it caused quite a stir. Uchida (and the producers of this film) would certainly have been aware of these trends; coupled with her love of shock value, it may well be that she purposefully employed these inappropriate and uncomfortable images.
As you watch this movie, keep this in mind, especially during the introduction of the “pseudo-black” girls, the cutters, and without giving away too much of the movie, the makeup of the new Frankenstein girl. What constitutes her new body? Who is she? What may she represent? For that matter, how do you interpret Vampire girl? At first glance, this movie a wild ride: humorous, far-fetched, gross, and inappropriate. But, at second glance, while you may squirm in your seat at times, you will also be forced to deal with shocking themes that make you think. Sometimes this is just what we need. Thank you, and thank you for coming!
1 This is not to say that there are not Japanese participants in the global hip-hop culture who enjoy black culture but also respect it and do not attempt to subsume or parody it inappropriately. For more on hip-hop and its splendid growth in Japan, see Ian Condry’s Hip-Hop Japan (Duke, 2005).