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Kwisatz Haderach, Princess Knight: Dune (2021)’s Shoujo Manga Vibes

So, I saw Dune for the first time a couple weeks ago, and long story short I now am determined to ride this sand brainworm (or brain sandworm?) where it takes me.  And where it is taking me is the fact that in my impressions, Dune, at least the 2021 movie, is incredibly reminiscent of shoujo manga.  Its sumptuous setting and costumes in a context of drama and intrigue, its depiction of ethereal, internal and abstract visions at peak emotional moments, the way it touched upon gender themes, all reminded me of touchstones I associate strongly with shoujo.  Even Timothée Chalamet’s broody but elegant period-drama appearance gives him the appearance of being straight out of a Moto Hagio or Riyoko Ikeda work, as I am not the first to point out. 

Still for those unfamiliar, I am aware that this might sound like kind of a strange connection, but please bear with me and let me explain my (extremely long and rambly)  train of associations:

What do I mean by “Shoujo?“

I’ll just link the Wikipedia page on shoujo manga for more technical definition, that it is manga aimed at young women & girls. As the article says correctly, shoujo strictly speaking does NOT indicate style of genre, but more a target demographic relating to publishing.  There’s a long history of shoujo,  which as a category is very diverse  and interesting and covers a lot of subjects and styles, including many series different than what I am personally associating with.

HOWEVER, in THIS post, the way I will be loosely referring to as “shoujo” will be as shorthand for some visual style and themes I associate with it, especially in its visual legacy and associations and influence in western media.  In short, while I try to be specific, it is ultimately about the “vibes,” and I hope that any manga scholars and long-time shoujo enthusiasts will be understanding of the idea I’m trying to convey. 


And what do I mean by “the vibes?”

Regarding shoujo, I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a direct fan, but I’ve read some series that are very meaningful and inspirational to me. Much of its influence and reach has been incredibly influential both in modern anime and manga as well as various niches of modern western cartoons and comics, so you might say aside from a few things, a lot of my consumption of shoujo is secondhand influence or academic, rather than as a fan. Shoujo I associate with a collection of visual storytelling centered around emotion and drama, usually with sumptuous visuals that are both metaphorical and extravagant. Sometimes it leans far into melodrama to the point of laughable absurdity in how seriously it takes itself, but it is always executed with great beauty and theatricality. This is something  I can’t help but be in awe of, even if the emphasis on beauty and heightened stylized emotion doesn’t necessarily connect with me on a personal level. I’m aware that not all shoujo series are like this necessarily—this association of “shoujo” in my mind is somewhat dated, based on a narrow frame of reference specifically associated with the Year 24 Group, a group of mangaka whose work revolutionized shoujo manga in the 70s. There were many members who could be said to be part of that group, but for simplicity’s sake and also just going off  what I do know, I’ll be referencing and discussing at least three well-known creators—Hagio Moto, Keiko Takemiya, and Riyoko Ikeda.

 
What did I know about Dune?
Perhaps the same can be said of Dune, which is a series I’ve been vaguely aware of for a while, if not directly, than at least aware of its legacy, in Star Wars and its many grandchildren. A few months ago after seeing the trailer my sister asked “What’s Dune anyway” and I answered “ a REALLY old book and movie” since that was what I knew best about it. (My father was dismayed at how much I emphasized it as “really old”). Like my secondhand impressions of the influence of shoujo artists, I was mostly aware of a handful of loosely related imagery and themes—the idea of science fiction deserts, of sandworms, warily orientalist depictions of Middle Eastern/North African inspired culture and scenery, visual strangeness and opulence in design.  I also kind of had an impression, accurate or not, of the series and related fandom being a kind of “boy’s club.” (Not that female fans DON’T exist—given how long the series has been around, that would be absurd! ) Just that the impression combined with sheer amount of lore was be kind of alienating. 

Also visually, this is a little silly perhaps but there’s something about vintage painted sci-fi cover art that just feels…kinda weird and gross to me. All respect to the original artists, they are skilled and I suppose they are effective works of art at creating a sense of an oppressive terrain and stunning sense of place, but I find them incredibly unnerving, like looking at terrariums. Also apparently HR Giger was tapped to be a part of an unmade adaption, and that guy’s art is great but also makes me nauseous, so who knows. I suppose i have some modern delicate sensibilities… 

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( a set of six well-worn used books of the Dune series, in the aforementioned vintage painted cover style. I’m sorry illustrator I can tell you did a good job but these just make me feel a little queasy)

I haven’t watched any of Denis Villenueve’s other work, though I’ve heard people rave about them before. So coming in to watching Dune 2021, I really was in for something very new. I came in definitely as someone with a specific background of Stuff I Like and Am Aware of, and well…here I am now. Picking my own brain and trying to organize my associations into something understandable. I enjoyed the movie immensely on its own without any previous knowledge, and loved how it communicated a lot of its hefty setting and context naturally through visuals and demonstration. As a singular creation, it left me with a definite sense of scale that I was satisfied with as a simple moviegoer, but also curious to check out the rest of the lore separately.

At the moment I am also now working my way through a Dune audiobook, as well as having listened to a handful of podcasts and movie reaction videos while trying to get an interesting breadth of different people’s thoughts—fans writing criticism re: social themes and concerns, casual newbies excited to be drawn to movie star power and cool visuals, long time nerds excited to pore every little detail, and film critic types there to analyze craft. Overall, I think the wide variety of perspective and reaction is very cool, and I write this sort of to give my own perspective. Which is I guess will inherently be a kind of weeb position, and one I’m excited to dig into.

Visual Elements

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The elegance and attention to detail in the costumes and design was very lovely and was part of what gave me that shoujo feel as well—in his scene breakdown, Villeneuve talked about approaching the designs as more of a stylized period piece feel than sci-fi outright (something that is shared with original and prequel trilogy Star Wars as well). The costume designers Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan also talked about referencing specific visual historical touchstones in their portrayal of characters too. In shoujo period pieces, it often is set in a historical-inspired setting, but the focus is less on relaying an accurate historical account, but more on using the idea of history as a medium from which to carve compelling characters and drama. One of the most famous and influential of works like this would probably be Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles, set before and during the French Revolution and focusing on both historical and fictional characters. While it’s based on the real life intrigue of its historical figures, historical accuracy is subordinate to its expression of internal human emotions, a lot of which is incredibly stylized and full of abstract, metaphorical page sequences full of symbolism.

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(page from The Rose of Versailles by Riyoko Ikeda)

  Given my relationship to the movie as well as my impressions of “shoujo,” an interesting thing I noted while looking up movie reviews was people talking about how it was elegant, but not necessarily emotionally resonant. I think there is truth to this; the movie feels very elegant, but distant, in a kind of elevated way. Personally I enjoy that kind of mood a lot, but I can also see how it could be frustrating or alienating. In a way I also feel that way about the various shoujo styles I’ve mentioned–I love and look up to Moto Hagio’s works, and they do explore interesting emotions, drama, and intrigue, but the highly stylized nature of it, and its emphasis on aesthetic beauty even when discussing bitter or traumatizing events does make it feel distant, rather than an invitation to embody or identify with the characters themselves. This is a bit more subjective of an interpretation, but to me it feels entertaining the way a stage play is entertaining–I find it interesting to watch the emotions and the drama play out using a unique visual language, even if it isn’t necessarily identifiable. Because of this affinity I felt with the movie, its sense of distance didn’t really bother me and I was able to appreciate the aestheticized drama for what it was.

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   (Page from A Cruel God Reigns by Moto Hagio)


Also, I think that in both shoujo and in Dune, a sense of distance actually helps to heighten the moments of intense emotion or vulnerability through the contrast it creates. A crucial part of the movie is when Lady Jessica and Paul are hiding in a tent in the desert, and Paul starts to react to the visions he has been having, about his future of becoming a powerful conqueror. He is overwhelmed by this and has an emotional outburst that is very striking compared to his more subtle and understated way he has been played up to this point. The small scale of the scene contrasts with the grandeur and distance of the scenes before–the cramped tent, as opposed to previous sprawling architecture and landscapes, and the intimacy and vulnerability with his mother as opposed to their more formal, social interactions earlier.


To me, something about the way Paul’s vision sequences were portrayed, and the way the story both felt very sprawling and grand, but also extremely internal and abstract in its scope, gave me similar vibes to some of the beautiful page spreads I’ve seen from Moto Hagio. In the movie, the images are loosely connected , with the ambient sound and music giving the sense of something flowing outside the scope of the Known world—in shoujo manga (or comics overall), this is usually visually accomplished by having elements flow outside the edges of ordered panels or extending off the edge of the page, or using metaphorical non-literal depictions that describe a character’s sensations in a heightened way. This contrasts with more straightforward, grounded styles of panel layouts that are more for conveying dense amounts of dialogue and viewing actions of characters in the world from a more external, “objective” point of view.

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(page from Marginal by Moto Hagio. This is the page I kept showing people to tell them about the shoujo feeling from Dune. I can’t really show stills from the movie bc I only saw it in theaters, and also I feel like the theater experience combined with sound/timing/motion is what contributed to the feeling, rather than any individual image on its own. So for those who have NOT seen the movie yet… source: dude trust me)

Gender!!!!
Explorations of gender is something that stands out in a lot of shoujo manga! It’s definitely something way beyond the scope of this writing, but I think it’s very important to note, mostly because it’s one of those influences that has strongly affected creators in the west as well. Structures of gender hierarchy and power, the conflict created by such structures, and characters who either fulfill or break out of such structures forms the basis of many a drama, and it’s one present in Dune in a variety of unique ways.

Princess Knight, by Osamu Tezuka

 
I’ve joked on twitter and elsewhere about hearing about the kwisatz haderach concept and thinking to myself “So this is like Princess Knight,” and I am being cheeky but also I think it’s an interesting way of thinking about it. Princess Knight is a series by Osamu Tezuka, an example of very early shoujo, and centers around  the Princess Sapphire, a royal who, due to a heavenly mix-up, was born with girl’s soul and a boy’s soul, who must take on the masculine role of prince to avoid her kingdom being taken over by her evil uncle. It’s a story that has interesting in trying to explore transgressions of gender, but also has some extremely dated assumptions about gender within it. Sapphire being good at both male and female actions is an anomaly that is explained by supernatural forces, and in cases where Sapphire loses her “boy’s heart,” she instantly loses half her skills. This focus on main characters who exist in ambiguous relationship to gender in society is a very common theme in shoujo, with some of the most famous examples being Lady Oscar from The Rose of Versailles, who is a royal captain assigned female at birth but raised like a boy, and who is viewed at different points as a man or a woman in different contexts. Moto Hagio has also explored gender with short stories focusing on intersex characters, as well as in Marginal where the lack of female characters leads to new gender hierarchies among men.

a tweet with a couple pages from “Marginal.” lots to unpack here but the singular “mother” of the series bring thought of as a separate class from “woman” in general leads to interesting plot implications explored in the world of this story

 
(Once again I have to stress that this is a VERY limited scope and that Gender in Shoujo manga and manga in general has a lot to offer and this is just my own associations and knowledge.)

 
The idea of Kwisatz Haderach is a lot more complex than this, and I’m sure there are better ways to extrapolate upon it, but the impression I got from both my reading of the book and in the movie was that it is something that is meant to transcend the separation of gender-specific power and roles (as the book calls it iirc, the ability to see “both male and female pasts.” Although the impression I got from the book was something of a “gender Avatar”. Who can master the Man Powers™ and the Woman Powers™ and Bring Balance to the World). I can’t help but be reminded of how the Japanese science fiction feminist critic Mari Kotani has also discussed, in her article “Space, Body, and Aliens in Japanese Women’s Science Fiction,” how in male-dominated sci-fi, depictions of women and femininity manifest through “images of monsters” that must be controlled and attacked in order to remain limited. In contrast, Kotani explains, stories with more female perspectives,  focus less on attacking the monstrousness, but “fabricating reasons to allow monsters to survive.” Her analysis in her paper perhaps oversimplifies and over-essentializes regarding gendered authors, but it is an interesting concept in conversation with gender, shoujo, and my perceptions of Dune. The Bene Gesserit are portrayed as extremely skilled and powerful, but their cunning is both admired and despised in relationship with their femininity.


In light of all this, Paul is a main character who exists in a gender-ambiguous space, with the pressure and frustration and enlightenment that comes from that. He is juggling different Gender Roles expected of  him from his birth—as a son, fighter, and male heir in a patriarchal empire, and as an inheritor of his mother’s female-specific legacy and practice. As well as whatever new culturally specific gender roles he will adopt from the Fremen culture. With this tension, it makes sense that Paul’s moment of emotional crisis in the movie can be seen not just in relation to the future plot, and his vision of himself becoming the powerful conquerer he is planned to be,  but also related to identity and gender. In his angry outburst to his mother, Paul accuses her of making him a “freak”—the monstrousness he fears in himself in the moment is related to the presented-as-sinister feminine influence and power. However, his embodying of both male and female skills and traits is what allows him to survive, to become monstrous or not. 

(Bonus: “The Rose of Arrakis” fanart by @EmmaHouxbois, that explores this crossover of themes through a transmasc interpretation)

 
This is all to say that, like in Princess Knight and its similar descendants, it is both extremely full of gender essentialist assumptions about what is “inherently” related to maleness and femaleness, but also is extremely queer. That tension is extremely shoujo, and problematic and frustrating as it might be, I find it very compelling, and I am here for it.

Other Influences and Conversation

Aside from simply explaining my own associations, I did some brief research and was pleased to find that my hunches regarding a Dune/Shoujo connection were at least partially reflective of reality. Both in the sense of other people making similar connections that I had, as well as learning that Dune did have at least some influence on shoujo manga creators.

 
For the first part, I did see  various Japanese tweets discussing the movie and making connections to shojo manga, particularly the works of Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, who are both famous for their shoujo and science fiction works themselves. These are admittedly anecdotal, non-fluent (google translate and Japanese keyboard to the rescue) and overall a non-exhaustive perusal of Japanese Twitter’s responses to the movie, but for me I found it neat that I was not alone in my comparisons and assessment. There were also, to my amusement, lots of tweets commenting on Timothée Chalamet’s appearance as being reminiscent of shoujo style protagonists.  

I was initially going to link either screenshots or links to tweets that I saved that I thought were interesting but since a lot of the tweets are just random individual people and I don’t know what the etiquette would be regarding linking/screenshotting/sharing other people’s tweets, I’ll once again have to default to [source: dude trust me]. 

That being said, if you are on twitter and want to check things out for yourself, just term search “DUNE 砂の惑星” along with “少女漫画” (shoujo manga) or the names of creators like “萩尾 望都” (Moto Hagio) or 竹宮 惠子 (Keiko Takemiya), even with Google Translate, you’ll get a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. 

In a twitter conversation between Kunihiko Ikuhara (one of the creators of iconic shoujo work Revolutionary Girl Utena) and mangaka Misaki Saito, they mentioned that various shoujo artists influenced by Dune, including Keiko Takemiya, shoujo creator of scifi series “Towards the Terra” as well as early BL works like “Kaze to Ki no uta.”  [tweet conversation starts here] Another tweet mentioned that Takemiya specifically mentioned Dune in an afterword to one of her books, including some although to be very clear these are all casual tweets, and I can’t find a verification for this particular fact. Ikuhara also tweeted a picture of what appears to be either Dune fanart, or Dune inspired character design by Takemiya (probably after the design of Shotaro Ishinomori, who illustrated the Japanese Dune editions.)  which is pretty neat. Once again I mention that I do NOT speak Japanese, am NOT an authority on the subject, and am probably missing out or misunderstanding some of the nuances of the convo, but even through the limitations of Google Translate I think it was a cool little conversation (and cute doodle) to see. If anyone who is a Japanese speaker would like to correct me on anything regarding any of this, please feel free, 

As for sources that are not necessarily restricted to shoujo, but still anime and manga related,  is also this interesting article from an early anime and manga magazine comparing Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa with Frank Herbert’s Dune , which may be interesting to some folks.  I also found this forum thread with the subject of Dune (the books, and 1984 movie) and how they’re received in Japan, which had some interesting insight, but unfortunately most of the links within it are long dead.

Despite this anecdotal evidence, it feels believable to me. It’s of course important to note that science fiction in Japan, and especially shoujo and women’s science fiction, very much has its own rich pool of historical influences and themes beyond just famous western science fiction. However I am definitely very pleased to see the record of cultural conversation and connection between these two spheres of work.

 
In Conclusion:

Shoujo is weird, Dune is weird, but they both give me aesthetic bliss.
While working on this post, I went to see Dune again in theaters and once again had the pleasure of letting its experience overwhelm me with its grandeur and stylishness. Even without prior knowledge I’m very glad that I was able to have a neat introduction to something so old and storied to many folks, but that felt very fresh and exciting to me. Part of that experience was being able to make connections with other things that have aesthetically resonated with me, and share that connection and excitement with other people. I decided to write this mostly because, well,  I hadn’t seen any other blog posts or articles exploring this highly specific intertextual angle, but also because if it possibly gets shoujo fans interested in watching Dune or Dune fans interested in checking out shoujo manga, even just casually, I think that would be kind of fun.  I still have not finished my read through of the book as of this writing, and didn’t want to discuss it much because I wanted to focus on the experience of the movie, but there are definitely aspects of the book that I can see through a shoujo lens as well, if slightly differently.

Obviously not everything is for everyone, and I’m aware that there are subjects and dimensions I have not touched on. But overall, I would be absolutely delighted to see more discussion from people interested in these subjects.

To end this, enjoy some of my original fanart based off this concept. If anyone else has anything in this vein, please do not hesitate to send to me!

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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