Fashion, Fighting and Literature: Hana no Asuka-gumi

Sometimes, the power of a series is in the details. The subtle moments, the deft stroke of a brush or subtle camera-work,  the sound of a voice catching at just the right moment.

In Hana no Asuka-gumi, the power of the series is in the grand scheme, the wide-angle view of a world that, whether it truly exists or not, will never be seen by those unaware of its existence.

We all know that in every great city, in every country, there is an underworld organization that runs the illicit businesses humans require. But what if there was, behind even that, another world, an even more obscure world, of gangs and drugs and phone texting competitions and boy bands – a world that extends through middle and high schools country-wide?

In Hana no Asuka-gumi, Asuka is both part of and an outsider to a pervasive underground organization that runs all the girl gangs of Tokyo. “Gumi” here means gang, so the translation can be “Asuka of the Flowers Gang.” However, the “Hana no” is most often translated as “Magnficent” as in the “Hana no Nijuuyo-nen Gumi,” the “Magnificent 49ers” the name used to loosely identify the mothers of girls’ manga in Japan. It would not be out of the pale to translate the series “The Magnificent Asuka Gang.”

Asuka was, despite her small size and age, before the series even begins, the second-most powerful person in this organization. The organization, known as the Zenchuu Ura, is run by the mysterious and charismatic Hibari-sama and closely resembles the organizational structure of the Imperial Court of Japan. Hibari-sama, veiled, curtained off from her court, is assisted by her Minister of the Left (Tactical) and Minister of the Right (Strategic.) As the story begins, Asuka has already left Hibari’s “court.” In the new series, one of her former body doubles has taken over as Minister of Left.

The gangs of Tokyo are arranged in 23 Wards, each with a Area Master, the daimyo of the organization, and there are four directional “Outside Groups.” Away from the direct influence of the Ministers and Area Masters is a group known as the Hibari SS, (nothing to do with the Nazi SS. It’s an Advisory Council that deals with non-gang projects like the Ranjuku Detention Center, fundraising through creation of Boy Band Mikoto 5 and…other projects.)

The series includes run-ins with the local “Business Group” – i.e., the local Yakuza gang, and other criminal types on the periphery of society. If this all feels a bit contrived and complicated then you can congratulate yourself on being sane. The series is indeed contrived, complicated and congested with characters.

The original Hana no Asuka-gumi ran for 28 volumes, 6 supplementary volumes, and two novels, over 10 years, from 1986-1995. It ended with Asuka leaving Tokyo to go to America to get away from all this craziness. 18 years later in our time it picked back up – 4 months later in series time. Asuka has returned from America and with her return, everything explodes. Hibari-sama seeks to draw Asuka back into her clutches (literally, it’s well-established that Hibari-sama desires Asuka physically) and wants to punish her for not playing along. The new series ran for 8 volumes, from 2004-2009.

For all of the complexity, for all the longevity of the series, non of these are why I consider it “literature.” For that, I turn Umberto Eco who, in his book On Literature defines as Literature any written work that surpasses its original medium. Hana no Asuka-gumi did that when it was turned into two OVAs and a Drama CD. OVA is short for Original Video Animation. OVAs were straight-to-video (now, DVD) releases that bypass any Television or theatrical release. Drama CDs are voice-only performances of the story…and my particular fetish. My Hana no Asuka-gumi Drama CD is one of my prize obscure possessions, with a cast of amazingly talented voice actresses. Ogata Megumi voices Asuka perfectly while Soumi Yoko voices Hibari-sama, her voice dripping with sweet poison…. The series was also turned into a live-action TV show and a movie…and recently a second movie was made starring the manga creator’s  own daughter as the lead character.

None of this why I consider it “literature.”

I consider it “Literature” because in an discussion with a Japanese friend who is my age, she mentioned that when the original series ran, it was *so* popular that girls on the streets of Tokyo started to dress like the characters in the book. When a manga affects popular fashion…now *that’s* Literature. Ichiko from Kamikaze Girls for instance, owes some of her bad-ass looks to Asuka. Sadly for teen fashion, when Asuka returned this century, Hibari-sama had succumbed to the lure of Goth-Loli and girl gang couture has not caught on again.

Hana no Asuka-gumi is over now – for good – but its spirit lives on everywhere gang girls with extra-long school uniform skirts, faces hidden by medical face masks and sarashi-bound chests can be found.

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