Revising History

In the quest for creating a visually appealing story, authors and/or artists may sacrifice adherence to historical accuracy, for example, the manga Oiran Girl, by Hibiki Wataru (Oiran being Japanese for a courtesan in the red light district). To give some background information, oiran were “prostitutes,” but they were also a little more than that. They went through rigorous training and were educated in the arts, practicing in calligraphy, the Japanese tea ceremony, and often played instruments and sung. There was a very strict sense of etiquette and manners, and customers could be thrown out for being rude. It was only after passing certain standards that a woman could sell sex, and even then, the suitor would be tested through adherence to etiquette and how much he could spend.

But oiran went through various styles throughout the eras of Japan, and in side notes, the author mentions that she is not as concerned about the historical accuracy of the depiction of the oiran. For example, their hairstyles and dress were rather plain for the target period, and that the style she uses in this story is actually from a much more recent period.

Here we see the elaborate hairstyle and dress that the mangaka chose to represent oiran.
Here we see the elaborate hairstyle and dress that the mangaka chose to represent oiran.

In one such author’s note, Wataru explains that “if you get too caught up in setting the story in ‘this stage of this period,’ you end up with very few choices of what you can draw.’” I found this very striking. Being “historically accurate” in the first place means that there are certain requirements and expectations that must be met. But it also provides a structure. The author did research on the time line of the Yoshiwara red light district (the setting for this manga), and had some idea of how the characters would be drawn if she had been more true to the time. The following author’s note (larger image can be seen here) includes a depiction of what a character might have looked like if drawn accurately to the time, as opposed to the previous image.

Author’s Note

My question is why didn’t she continue on the track of trying to be particularly accurate to the time? While the author may have been limited to certain styles, she certainly did have the option to draw the characters true to the period. That isn’t to say that she couldn’t have added her own flair to the work, but she seemed to choose a radically different route, so much so that she encourages the reader to view this manga as being “a sort of parallel universe.” For myself, I believe that a large part of it comes down to our current sense of beauty. While Wataru described the style of the oiran of that time as “plain,” this must be viewed through the lens of our current definition of beauty. It seems to me that the profession of an oiran necessitates having a beauty or a style of some kind in order to draw in customers, so surely during that period, the style and attire was not seen as “plain,” but actually quite beautiful. By drawing the characters in a more elaborate fashion, with more detail, it seems that she caters to a more modern sense of beauty.

In conclusion, I think it is important to note that historical accuracy does not necessarily equate to absolute truthfulness to the time. Dodge the Bullet Comics has an insightful and somewhat humorous blog on this. I believe it is important as readers to recognize these sacrifices. I’m not arguing that each and every thing must be correct right down to the last detail, but rather to question the motivations behind picking and choosing which details to depict, because we might just find that it reflects ourselves more than the subject.

Image Credit goes to mangafox for hosting and Hibiki Wataru, creator of Oiran Girl

  2 comments for “Revising History

  1. chocobunnysk
    April 12, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Balancing accuracy to imagination is very tricky. Go too far and fans of the original context will harp on you. Do too little to change it and you won’t be left with much to work with and you’d just be rehashing the story. There are several derivative works that are interesting to take a look at as well. Vinland Saga is one. This manga follows a character during the rise of King Cnut the Great during his conquest of England. It dramatizes the story with a lot of action sequences, but grounds the story with a lot of realism. The main character doesn’t always win fights. There are moral dissonances to modern times, such as the main character ignoring the rape of women by his comrades and the slaughter of entire villages. There are no super powers, or extremely advanced master plans coming from the main characters, it’s just plans all being mashed together by characters all with their strengths and flaws. No character is perfect, seeing as even the best character, the main’s dad, was a warrior. The main character himself took almost up to this point in the story to understand vengence wasn’t good. It wasn’t instantaneously either, and it wasn’t easy, because the target of his revenge died planed his own death. On historical accuracy, The Three Kingdoms story has been told over and over again through graphic novels, film, and in particular, video games. The Dynasty Warriors series started out as a fighting game akin to Street Fighter, but the following games by Koei always seems to struggle balancing historical accuracy with fun. Eventually they pretty much threw their hands up and diversified the characters, mixing in western influences with more white characters, and having characters fight with wackier weaponry, up to this point with a boat.

  2. elewan
    April 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    I think that it is very interesting that you question artist’s integrity with the historical accuracy of specific things. I find this to be very interesting because art is a way of interpretation but then if you change it the meaning could be completely different. I am curious though as to what other comics we have studied bring up questions of art vs. historical accuracy.

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