French festival exposes Japan's female manga underground

Underground mangas by Japanese women artists that explore the sordid and the absurd are getting attention at one of the world's biggest comic-book festivals.

"The Japanese underground covers a variety of suprising styles and this exhibition is a chance to look at mangas in another way," said Erwan Le Verger, coordinator of the manga programme at the Angouleme international comics festival.

Works by the biggest names in manga are on view at Angouleme, southwest France - despite a downturn in sales among French manga fans this past year - and the festival is also offering a taste of "J-rock" or Japanese rock'n'roll.

But it is the section titled Manga Underground: Women's Point of View that is eye-catching and provocative.

In turns, the storylines and characters can be shocking, virulent, violent, gothic, romantic, even naive, in settings that delve into reality or flee into fantasy.

"These artists are (cultural) sponges who retranscribe what they feel in an instantaneous manner in their words and action, with no editorial constraints and no public to please," said Le Verger.

With their bold and unusual work, the women underground artists at Angouleme are already well-known in their home country, where publishers have been bringing them to the surface in their quest for new talent.

They include Kahori Onozucca, who specialises in mangas in the "yaoi" genre that focuses on homosexual relationships for a female manga audience.

She concocts sexual intrigues in which sensuality and sentiments intertwine.

In a video interview for the festival, Onozucca described in Japanese how her album "Jornada" - drawn in the style of traditional romantic mangas - inverted the roles of men and women in pornography.

"Despite the contrast, readers found the result surprisingly authentic," she said.

Known as the queen of horror, Kanako Inuki has children tell worrying stories in which characters are often disfigured.

Akino Kondoh mashes up dream and reality, plays with the absurd and expresses a very sombre and introspective view of the world as seen by prepubescent girls.

Besides manga, she works in a number of other media, such as painting, video and animation.

Intriguing as well as disturbing, Junko Mizuno excels in the brutal tension between cute childlike drawing and sordid themes such as gentle baby dolls devouring children.

Many of her books are adult adaptations of fairy tales, including "Cinderella", and in France she illustrated the cover of "Bye Bye Blondie" by feminist writer and film director Virginie Despentes.

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