The Allure of Gravure

agnes lum.jpgCommon to many Japanese magazines for the teenage male, Young Gangan features a “gravure” section – photo-sets of demure Japanese girls, posing in a sequence of fashions with occasional gormless texts.

As the name implies, gravure in Japan began with the conceit of amateur photography, giving new camera owners an excuse for titillating “research”. My recollections of early gravure are of rather sweet virtual dates, such as a pipe-smokers’ magazine from the mid-1970s that featured a photo-set of a rather prim, refreshingly plain young lady, sitting earnestly across a dinner table, perching on a couch, and lurking coquettishly near a lamp-post: the fantasy being simply that of her company, her attention, and presumably, her lack of complaint about the smell of smoke.

Later, racier magazines would go all the way, lurching from the public realm into the bedroom, with the virtual companion whipping off her clothes in a sealed bonus section. The game-changer for 1970s gravure, however, was the Hawaiian-born Agnes Lum (pictured), who parleyed her early appearances in Japanese magazines into a singing and modelling career. The fiercely attractive Lum was notable for her magnificent boobs, a feature less prominent in the Japanese girls of the day, which soon lured her photographers away from urban fashion shoots and into the realm of swimwear, all the better to show them off. This, in turn, incentivised beach locations, and it was not long before the expense and exoticism of teen photo-shoots began to spiral upwards. Wouldn’t you rather put a weekend in Hawaii on expenses? The male population’s panting obsession with a pneumatic, bikini-clad foreigner was soon satirised by manga creator Rumiko Takahashi in Urusei Yatsura and its iconic Lum-chan, a green-haired, sexually aggressive devil girl in a tiger-skin two-piece.

By the 1980s, a gravure appearance was commonplace for aspiring actress-model-whatevers, particularly among would-be idol singers. Such photo-sets are ten-a-penny in Japan, and have been largely unchanged for decades. One wishes, Viz-style, for a magazine that offers a little subversion – interfering passers-by, for example, a cameraman whose lack of ability becomes comically, rather than merely irritatingly incompetent, or a model who dresses like an Australian’s nightmare. Instead, they have merely limped along, sustained, one imagines, less from reader support than by the ever-present interest of music promoters in snatching page-space for their starlets, and by photographers’ desires to charge for weekend getaways with young soubrettes.

lumBut the U-rated images in Young Gangan are notable for how low-rent they seem: Rina Ikoma is pictured in someone’s back garden beneath a drab grey sky; Hinako Kitano has at least gone somewhere with a pool, although she oddly jumps in while keeping her clothes on. Then, she stands in the street and throws around a baseball. Don’t play in the street, Hinako! This is that most innocuous of “girlfriend experiences”, the simple presence of a female making eye contact, although also discreetly whispering that her new album is in shops now. It’s all about the male gaze, although the gaze one can’t help imagining is usually that of Alan Partridge, fumbling ineptly with a Canon 5D.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #156, 2016, as a sidebar to a Manga Snapshot article on Young Gangan magazine.

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