Takahashi Makoto's The Rows of Cherry Trees is quite old—it's from 1957. It centers around three members of the table tennis club at an all-girl school. The story begins with the school tournament, where Yukiko faces off against first her rival, then her crush.
The Rows of Cherry Trees is best described as "delicate". It's a small volume, one filled with an emotional yet elegant love story. In the ping-pong team of one all-girls' school, sweet Yukiko nurse admiration for her "onee-sama" Chikage even when their relationship is threatened. Like many early girls love (and boys love) titles, this isn't a story of romance as we tend to think of it -- full of confessions and dating and sex -- but rather the tale of a passionate love, one that may never bloom into an official relationship but stays strong just the same. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much in
the way of characters to get attached to, and the story is quite simple, but that doesn't stop it from being a lovable little tale all the same.
Seeing as it's from the 1950s, the art style of this manga is quite different from what the modern reader is used to. The influential shoujo artist Makoto Takahashi's style is in full bloom here: character designs are all soft curves and wide eyes. Every detail of page of this series oozes a unique beauty, one full of flowers and careful poses and perfect backgrounds; I could stare at it forever. Perhaps thanks to the fact that artists such as Osamu Tezuka had not yet fully made their mark on manga when The Rows of Cherry Trees was written, page layouts don't have the flow that I expect from manga. The best way to describe it would be calling every individual panel a little masterpiece all on its own -- lovely, but sometimes alienating each image from the next. I would not want every manga series to look like this one, but considering it's the only English-translated manga of its time, it's an excellent look into the trends of the past and warrants a read just for that.
The typical manga reader is probably more interested in excitement and suspense, in new and unique ideas and characters. That manga reader probably won't have much to gain from The Rows of Cherry Trees; rather, it will seem quaint and silly, an old-fashioned story that later manga series told in a much better fashion. However, I am not that sort of reader, and if you aren't, either, this is a wonderful read. It's a rare look into very early shoujo (besides Princess Knight, it's the earliest shoujo title that has been translated into English) and the unique elegance that it had. Gorgeous and touching in its own way, The Rows of Cherry Trees is a different sort of masterpiece.
Popular belief states that Ribbon no Kishi (1954) by Osamu Tezuka was the first shōjo manga in history. The truth is that being strict this statement is flatly erroneous, and proclaiming it leaves in the forgetfulness the work of some artists who worked in the genre during the pre-war, being the best known Katsuji Matsumoto author of The Mysterious Clover (1934) and the very popular Kurukuru Kurumi-chan, which was in circulation from 1938 to 1940 in the magazine Shōjo no Tomo. And without forgetting Shosuke Kurakane, who during the first years of the postwar period published Anmitsu Hime (1949 - 1955).
Ribbon no kishi, born as
a result of the influence that the Takarazuka theater exerted in the life of Osamu Tezuka, certainly meant a step forward in the development of the genre both visually and thematically, emulating in certain way to what years before it achieved Shin Takarajima While Ribbon no kishi and the Tezukian style dictated the way for some other pioneers of the genre such as Tetsuya Chiba, Leiji Matsumoto and Shotaro Ishonomori, the facts are clear and the aesthetic that prevails today in the shōjo world did not drain from Tezuka's sources, but rather of those provided by Makoto Takahashi.
Strongly influenced by the art of Kashō Takabatake and Jun'ichi Nakahara, two of the artistic leaders of the girls' culture (Shōjo Bunka) during the first decades of the 20th century, Makoto Takahashi adopted the visual style of the magazines for pre-war girls to use it in the visual construction of its manga. Takahashi is recognized as the inventor of the "shojo aesthetic" that is represented in those pages with wide and open panels aswell as full-body characters which undoubtedly evoked the cover of girls' magazines.
Sakura Namiki was born in that new culture of girls that emerged after the Meiji period (1868-1912) mainly within the hermetic homosocial world of schools for girls, and that had its means of expression in the shōjo magazines of the time. This is not only reflected in the aesthetic aspect of the manga, but at the same time Takahashi uses the argument to explore, and takes as central axis of his narrative one of the most important elements of the girls' culture: strong emotional relationships between schoolgirls Unlike what he did in one of his previous works, Paris-Tokyo, where feelings of love are focused on the parent-child relationship, in Sakura Namiki these feelings are channeled into a relationship between girls (S kankei). These types of relationships (Called S relationships) were not only very common during the time, but were even motivated by teachers and other authority figures as a way to channel and ward off the heterosexual desires of girls. But the love between females was not given in a sexual way at all, but in a totally spiritual form (ren'ai).
In conclusion, Sakura Namiki is not only a manga that experiments with visual narrative and that lays the aesthetic foundations of the genre, but at the same time it is a beautiful and sincere journey through the immaculate world of girls during the first decades of the last century.
Recommended Book: Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girl's Culture in Japan