The most FEMINIST manga I know: Arte by Kei Ohkubo

Everyone in anime/manga fandom misunderstands demographic categories. For example seinen: often described as gritty, edgy stories with lots of violence and sex, and sexual violence. Always dark, always psychologically complex, manly stories for manly men.

And then they get confused when they learn that A Bride’s Story is seinen. And so is Chi’s Sweet Home. Haha.

Bride’s Story is sometimes misidentified as shojo or as josei, because it’s about women, and somehow there’s this idea that only women care enough about women to read stories with female protagonists. Which is a rather sad thought, you know?

I am by no means an expert, but I am kind of getting the impression that there’s actually an entire sort of genre of seinen manga that is blatantly about women and their struggles in society, past or present, in foreign places or domestically! So, let’s discuss one such manga, Arte by Kei Ohkubo.

I first took note of Arte because of the gorgeous cover illustrations. Look at them! The details, the colour, the atmosphere! I’ve read the first three volumes now, which is enough to form an opinion.

Arte runs in Comic Zenon. There are currently six volumes out in Japan, five in France, where it’s published by Komikku. Before I discovered manga, I didn’t know I’d ever be grateful for my tedious French lessons!

Arte tells the story of … well, of a girl named Arte, an aristocratic teenager in Renaissance Florence who wants to become an artist, and starts work as a painter’s apprentice against her mother’s wishes. Arte’s ultimate goal is to be able to live an independent life and make enough money to sustain herself – as an alternative to getting married and depending on a husband for the rest of her days.

Honestly, this is the most in-your-face feminist manga I’ve ever read. Arte hates it when people treat her differently because she is a girl. She pushes through every challenge, accepting no help … she even pretty much shuts down the character who has “love interest” written all over him (insofar that he is a boy of Arte’s age) when he goes “but you’re a girl, this is too hard for you, I must help you”.

You know the type of media analysis that almost feels like the writer is using a checklist of “problematic tropes / empowering tropes”? This is the one manga that I think might pass muster on all fronts. Whenever you think it steers towards a cliff, it proves itself to be totally aware of the implications and the message, and adjusts its course smoothly. Even Arte’s mother is not villified, despite her obvious purpose in the story to be some kind of early road block. No, she’s just another woman trying to assure her daughter a secure future in the only way she knows. And if you pick up on the fact that woman or not, Arte is still privileged thanks to her aristocratic background? The second volume deals with that issue, straight-up!

Does it sound like I’m gushing about this manga? I’m actually … ambivalent about all of this. Mostly … oh, I don’t know how to put it. Arte is so clearly about Arte, I kind of wish it evolved less around her, or that not every scene, character and theme was so transparently designed to demonstrate Arte’s perseverence, kindness and determination. I like it when stories align with my convictions, of course, but I prefer it when this feels coincidental. Yes, I know nothing is truly coincidental about stories. But you suspend your disbelief to pretend that a fictional story is real and that the lives of the characters matter, and it throws you off when things feel a bit too convenient, too designed. And maybe that’s what bothers me about Arte‘s very deliberate feminism.

On a completely different note, I also would have liked it if the manga was more about THE ART. There are manga that properly convey the main character’s fascination with a niche interest, in a way that makes you, too, want to become a pastry chef, play Go, tennis or football. Sadly, Arte is not like this. You shouldn’t expect Arte to be about art. That way lies disappointment. Arte often avoids showing the actual paintings that the main characters are working on, and while there’s period detail and some interesting stuff about the artists’ work methods, the focus simply isn’t on the art – it’s on Arte and on her journey.

This will always feel like a missed opportunity to me. In the first volume, Arte’s master has her redo a sketch again and again, until she realizes that in order to make her work pass muster and truly excel, she has to focus her thoughts on her client, not just on her personal enjoyment of drawing landscapes. Sadly, the manga doesn’t really adher to this idea at all.

Like I said … I’ve read the first three volumes, and while it’s entertaining enough, I don’t really feel a spark. The characters ar alright, but for the most part have nothing that makes them truly memorable. This isn’t really helped by the art, I think. Not that it’s bad – it’s really good. Ohkubo has a strong grasp on anatomy, perspective and image composition, she takes great care to invoke the setting via detailed backgrounds and clothes. But the characters’ faces just lack a certain something … They sometimes feel fairly awkward to me, like they are just there out of necessity, because a manga needs characters, but they just exist as props in Arte’s story, so who cares?

Arte‘s biggest flaw for me is that it’s so low-stakes and safe. Every new story arc sees Arte overcome a new obsctacle through force of will and determination. She wins over people who doubted her, she proves her worth, stands up for others, impresses the people around her, and I never wondered either “Will she succeed?” or even “How will she succeed?” because both of these things are obvious from the start. I don’t think I will continue reading because while I appreciate the girlpower of it all, I don’t find myself wondering what will happen next.

But still … I can’t be mad at this manga. It’s pretty. It’s strangely woke. If Kei Ohkubo could improve her character designs (faces!), I might be all over the art. Maybe one day! :)

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3 thoughts on “The most FEMINIST manga I know: Arte by Kei Ohkubo

  1. “Does it sound like I’m gushing about this manga? I’m actually … ambivalent about all of this.” Haha, I could tell! And I agree with you; when something like that is so blatant and feels like it’s checking off boxes on a list, it becomes too self-indulgent and boring. We are here to enjoy stories and characters, not read morality tales. Your description makes it sound like this manga is, at its core, the same as the Gary Stu fantasies you often find? Where every other character exists to pop up the hero and make him seem morally righteous and always correct? That sort of thing doesn’t magically become more interesting just because the protagonist is female or because we might agree with the morals being expressed (although that does make it less infuriating than stories about men who are always right even when they spew unintentionally awful garbage).

    I’m sad to hear this manga isn’t actually about art, because after you mentioned picking it up I saw it was out as an ebook in Japanese, and I was actually thinking of picking it up.

    • Yeah. When I first saw the manga’s title, I thought it would be about art, but it turns out that “Arte” is the protagonist’s name, and that’s what the manga is about! XD I’d be allll over a manga that really showed historical art production in detail. It’s not like you can learn nothing from Arte, but I would love a more in-depth take on this aspect of the story!

      I think what makes this much less annoying than the typical Gary Stu story is that no other character is put down in order to prop up Arte. It doesn’t have that mean-spiritedness towards its supporting characters that I expect of that sort of story, I think?

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