Thu, Aug 29, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Pretty young things

The art of Japanese ‘bishojo,’ or pretty young girls, captures the fantasies and neuroses of a nation

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Yumeji Takehisa, White Plum (1927).

Photo courtesy of Museum of National Taipei University of Education

When a 35-year-old Japanese man married a hologram of teenage virtual idol singer Hastune Miku in November last year, the news felt to me like a turning point for humanity. Beautiful girls have always been objects of desire, but we’re now in an age when technology and social alienation can together stoke the flames of fantasy into something never seen before.

In Bishojo: Young Pretty Girls in Art History, a new exhibition at the Museum of National Taipei University of Education (MoNTUE), that modern fantasy is given historic context. Two-hundred years of Japanese visual culture reveal the dynamic roles that bishojo (literally “pretty young girls”) have played as consumers and products, as symbols of tradition and progress, as objects for others’ aesthetic pleasure and subjects with their own psychological complexity.

That’s serious food for thought, but MoNTUE is likely also banking on Bishojo’s content being approachable enough to attract an audience outside of the usual museum-going milieu. Visiting in the opening week, I spotted several groups of unchaperoned teenage girls, as well as two bright-eyed elementary school boys with their mother. “So cute!” cooed two 30-something-year-old women as they left the exhibition.


Men and women alike will pay to see a pretty girl, so Bishojo turns out to be as much about consumerism as it is about art history. The line between high and low culture is ripe for breaching with this subject matter, and curator Takeshi Kudo of the Aomori Museum of Art exploits that for entertainment and scholarship.

Several artworks are a nod to the massive industry around shojo manga, or comics aimed at young girls — think Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. Others comment on lolicon (“Lolita complex”) culture, which services sexual attraction to prepubescent girls. And lest you think these are exclusively modern-day perversions, the number of Edo-era woodblock prints of beautiful women in bijinga (literally “pretty person picture”) genre will put that notion to rest.

Exhibition Notes

What: Bishojo: Young Pretty Girls in Art History

When: Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6pm, and until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Until Nov. 24

Where: Museum of National Taiwan University of Education (MoNTUE, 北師美術館), 134, Heping E Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市和平東路二段134號), tel: (02) 2732-4084

Admission: NT$280

On the Net:

The connection between girlhood and consumerism is most evident in a remarkable archive of early 20th-century commercial illustrations from shojo magazines assembled in the basement of the museum, which is also the recommended starting point for the exhibition.

Riding a wave of shojo culture that peaked in the 1930s, artists like Yumeji Takehisa and Kasho Takabatake created portraits of attractive young women who exude glamor, sophistication and adventure, but also innocence, friendship and domestic virtue in turn. Even now, there’s a lot to admire in their rich colors and finely-drawn features, many of which exhibit Western markers of beauty such as fair hair.

In the wake of Hannah Montana, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the growing commercialization of tween girls (aged between 9 and 12) in contemporary society. But curatorial notes make it clear that even in pre-World War II Japan, girls saw the women in shojo magazines as aspirational figures and followed them for the latest fashions. As it turns out, tweens have long had purchasing power.


This awareness of young girls as a distinct social and consumer class forms the basis for approaching the other five sections in the exhibition, each of which examines a particular representation of girls in visual culture. For example, character designs for Hatsune Miku — the aforementioned virtual idol singer designed never to age beyond 16 years — turn up in a section on feminine divinity and mysticism, in a nod to her potency as a modern-day priestess with a devoted following.

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