No Middle Sliders: Body Diversity in Anime

When I lived in Japan, I rarely bought clothing. At 5’4” and 140 pounds, I was on the smaller side of average for an American woman, but finding clothes that fit, let alone flattered, my hips or shoulders was a chore to find at best and a self-esteem-destroying battle at worst. The only jacket I bought there is size XL and is loose everywhere but the shoulders. The story was the same for most of my foreign female coworkers, and we generally did all our clothes shopping on visits to our home countries. It was frustrating, but it was just one of those things you have to learn to deal with when living in a foreign country.

As an American feminist, body positivity and the struggle for diverse bodies to be respected and represented in the media is a huge issue. However, when I’m watching anime, it’s probably one of the things I pay the least attention to when considering the show’s representation of women. I prioritize the themes and roles they play within the story, and whether they reinforce gender stereotypes or break away from them. Physical appearance is rarely something I concern myself with except for how it relates to those things.

Let’s face it – the primary purpose of most anime featuring girls and women is to appeal to the male gaze in order to sell models and other merchandise, regardless of whether or not female fans identify with the characters. In a country that values thinness as a major component of a woman’s attractiveness, chunky characters are a tough sell outside a narrow set of fetishists. Anime character designs have two sliders: height and boob size. They can occupy a large range between short and tall, flat-chested and grotesquely busty, but no matter what, they are almost always slim.

So, when DOES it matter?

When it does things very, very right…

If an anime does have women with a believable variety of body types, I’ll pretty much fall all over myself praising it for that. After all, it means that someone went out of their way to design women outside of the default cookie-cutter shape. Princess Jellyfish is a story about fujoshi who have given up on society, and their shapes range from lanky and angular to short and rounded – none are traditionally attractive other than the “Hollywood ugly” main character – and even then, she is far from shaped like a model.

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The cast of Princess Jellyfish

Even better about displaying women with diverse body types is Please Tell Me! Galko-chan. Now, I’ve already written a lot about this show, and I think it’s an unfortunately rare perfect example body diversity in animation. Galko-chan puts a huge variety of body types on display, from short and skinny Otako to curvy Galko to average-build Ojou. Galko isn’t just skinny with huge breasts but genuinely curvy, with a booty to match as well as a thicker middle and broad shoulders. The show also sympathetically discusses how she gets backaches because of her breasts, the difficulty of finding cute bras in her size, and the chauvinistic assumptions her classmates make about her because of her shape. Also, her breasts don’t move like water balloons attached to her chest! It’s a beautiful thing. On top of Galko herself, several background characters also show a multitude of body types. My favorite is Nikuko, a fat girl whose name translates literally to “meaty child.” Fat women in anime are often portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, or falsely confident in their own attractiveness. In contrast, Nikuko is cheerful and athletic, nicknamed “Sonic Meat” because of her speed. When we see her in her underwear, she has believable proportions including large, round belly, but she is never the subject of mockery or cruel jokes about her weight.

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Please Tell Me! Galko-chan is unafraid to put larger bodies on display

Positive portrayals of diverse bodies in Please Tell Me! Galko-chan are important because it’s a show about bodies. Much of the show is spent discussing breasts and vaginas in such a matter-of-fact, frank way, and it’s essential to the show’s message to teen girls – that all these things, in all their gross glory, are normal – to depict so many different body types as being worthy of recognition, of appreciation, and even of celebration.

Or when it does things very, very wrong

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HELP HER BOOBS HAVE ESCAPED AND ARE TRYING TO STRANGLE HER

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The anime for which the phrase “calm your tits” was invented

Okay, a lot of anime distorts female bodies to the point of grotesquerie for the sake of fan service. The appeal of the infamous Eiken will always be a mystery to me, as are the rippling water balloon breasts of recent shows such as Valkyrie Drive. The increasingly insane proportions of the women of One Piece and its conflation of obesity and villainy were a factor in why I stopped reading it. However, these shows are all aimed at the male gaze and honestly, they’ve become more of a quaint curiosity than a point of contention to me. No, the one series where the lack of body diversity always bothers me is Shirobako, because it is otherwise such a rare treat.

Shirobako gained critical acclaim when it premiered for its wonderful depiction of a group of fully-grown women working in the anime industry. The women are intelligent and competent, and their career struggles are sympathetic and believable, such as an animator having difficulty making ends meet or a producer covering for her thoughtless colleague. Much of the male secondary cast is based on real people, allowing for unusually realistic character designs. The side-by-side comparisons are incredible, and it’s fun to watch and see how these individuals’ personalities and passions have made the world of Shirobako simultaneously colorful and completely believable.

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Too bad the main female cast all have identical infantilized same-faces!

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Maybe they’re identical quintuplets?

The show handles everything else so masterfully, so it creates an odd disconnect with the female character designs. It doesn’t ruin the series by any means, but it is distracting and takes away from the narrative of capable adult women breaking into a tough, competitive industry. Instead, it carries the nasty reminder that anime production remains a boys’ club. If a female character doesn’t sell models and other fanservicey merchandise, no matter how much a viewer may relate to her or even look up to her, she is worthless from the studio’s point of view. “Don’t lie to yourself,” it whispers to me. “This is not for you.” Their lives may not revolve around men, but their existence does.

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Otakon 2016 Cosplay Gallery

There was a ton of great cosplay at this year’s Otakon! The most popular property I noticed was Pokemon, as well as quite a bit of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. This year, I decided to take the time to interview a few cosplayers when I had a moment. As I write this article, I’m discovering that the quality of photos taken by my note-taking app are somewhat… sub-par, so apologies for that.

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Victoria as Anthy Himemiya from Revolutionary Girl Utena
“What made me want to cosplay as this character was growing up, I never knew how to come out of my shell and be myself. I had friends who said you’re beautiful and great, and that helped me a lot. I was drawn to Anthy because I think in that show, Utena really helped Anthy in that way and you know, that was like my life.”

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Tabetha as Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds
“I chose to cosplay her because of her boobs. [Love the honesty!] Cosplay is just for fun, so if you have fun doing it, you just should do it!”

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Lanie Williams as Lisa Lisa from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Battle Tendency
“I love Lisa Lisa, and I love Jojos. I love how she’s an empowering female in a series.”

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Hunter as Mako Mankanshoku from Kill la Kill
“She’s the type of person I’d like to be, even if I’m not as ostentatious or energetic as I am, especially around strangers. The costume helps me be more like her. She’s a good friend.
Also, her costume wasn’t as skimpy as anyone else.
One thing I do like is in the series, they hook all the guy fans and then the guys all get naked and they get uncomfortable.”

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Taylor and Kristie  as Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Venus from Sailor Moon
“Sailor Venus is my childhood superhero. I loved Sailor Moon as a kid, but I especially loved Venus because she’s the leader, she has a very complex personality that’s very bright and cheerful. I also like that she was the first Sailor scout. I also like that she stands for Venus – love and beauty.”
“I love Jupiter because – mostly actually because how tall she is. Especially in anime , a lot of characters who are feminine are small and petite, so I really like how Jupiter owns how her body has a larger frame, it makes her more tough, more sporty, but she’s still feminine, and I think that’s really important to a lot of girls, that you can live your body as you are.”

And now the ones I unfortunately did not get a chance to interview. (Many of these photos are courtesy of Rose Bridges.)

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Kaylee as “Hipster Little Mermaid”

 

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Tsukimi from Princess Jellyfish

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Totoro and Mei from My Neighbor Totoro

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Evangelyne from Wakfu

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Michiko from Michiko and Hatchin

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Princess of the Crystal from Mawaru Penguindrum

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Otakon 2016 Report

I’ve been to Otakon three times before this year. During college, it was the yearly meeting point for my group of friends online. As I drifted apart from that group and lost the free time that being a college student on summer break brought, Otakon fell by the wayside. I had some great times in that Inner Harbor, but my time and money were demanded elsewhere. I figured I probably wouldn’t be back, but when they announced this would be the con’s last year in Baltimore – at least for the foreseeable future – I decided to make it work and have one last hurrah in the Charm City.

I’m so glad I did.

The weekend kicked off with Thursday’s free matsuri in the Inner Harbor, several blocks away from the actual convention center. I spent most of the day a few miles away, working on the Awesome Women in Anime panel with my co-panelist, Rose Bridges of Anime News Network. Eventually we did make it to the park, where the heat was absolutely sweltering even as the sun went down. The Lotus Juice/Shihoko Hirata set was late, since according to our friends, one of the earlier performers had run very long, and the previous performer was still going. I wasn’t too interested, but he did sing a slow rendition of the Pokemon theme song, which was pretty great. Lotus Juice took the stage after a while, and his performance had great energy, but I wasn’t familiar with most of the songs and I’m not super into hip-hop without specific context. He also mentioned that he grew up in New Jersey, explaining his perfect English. My interest picked up a bit when Shihoko Hirata took the stage, but they were beset with technical problems as the computer playing the backing track kept cutting off. It was frustrating, but it did lead to her singing Reach Out to the Truth with only Lotus Juice beatboxing as her backup and the audience singing along, which was actually really cool.

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Lotus Juice entertains the crowd

The general assumption for cons is that west coast cons such as Anime Expo and Sakura Con are best for Japanese guests and industry, while east coast cons like Otakon and Anime Boston have better fan panels. It’s certainly not a hard-and-fast rule, but with the industry presence in California and the greater proximity to Japan, vs. the northeast’s concentration of colleges and universities, it makes a lot of sense. It also lines up with my experience – while Sakura Con had some guests I was thrilled for, I often found myself with large swathes of free time when there were no panels that excited me. On the other hand, I attended only a single guest panel at Otakon this year, but my schedule was packed with fan panels. The majority of the ones I attended were great and well-researched, but there were a couple duds mixed in.

Girl Power: Feminism and Magical Girls was one of the first panels of the convention, held by Tumblr user otapleonehalf. Her presentation was intelligent and well-researched, citing information from several sources, including Japanese media feminist Kumiko Saito. She presented the concept of magical girls and their importance within social contexts such as the role media has in shaping our perceptions, historical female gender roles in Japan, and the increasing sexualization of its young protagonists. I won’t go into too much detail out of respect for her decision not to post her panels until she decides to retire them, but if you see this panel on your con schedule, I highly recommend attending.

Gen Urobuchi: Magical Girls, Riders, and Puppets, Oh My! had apparently been wait-listed until only a couple days before the convention, but they put on a decent presentation nonetheless. They postulated that, for all his reputation as the nihilistic “Urobutcher”, Urobuchi’s stories actually are largely hopeful. They supported their thesis through discussing the recurring archetypes that Urobuchi uses and their roles within his stories. Overall I thought they did a good job and presented their arguments well. Their slides had no text and I struggled with paying attention to a mainly verbal presentation, but most people aren’t sleep-deprived and already addled with an attention disorder, so that was probably just me.

Anime News Network was a basic Q&A that I attended mostly because I had a number of friends sitting on the panel. They did a great job! Good job, friends. Not much else to say about that one.

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Left to right: Christopher McDonald, Mike Toole, Lauren Orsini, Rose Bridges, and Gabriella Ekens

Women in Anime was the sole guest panel I attended, populated by voice actors Caitlin Glass, Stephanie Sheh, Alexis Tipton, Lisa Ortiz, Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld, Sarah Natochenny, and Haven Paschall – a mix of veterans and newcomers, all speaking about how they feel about women in anime. I was nervous when they revealed they didn’t have a planned presentation and that the panel would be entirely Q&A, but the audience did a great job asking intelligent questions, and the panelists obliged with opinionated answers that warmed my heart. At one point, an audience member asked how they felt about the word feminist, and all of them spoke out in strong support. Other interesting moments included: Glass saying that when she gets the chance to play young boys, she feels free in a way she rarely does otherwise, since every female character is drawn mainly to appeal to main fans; Sheh talking about how she ended up in voiceover in part because casting directors don’t know what to do with a 4’9” Chinese woman; how Lisa Ortiz has occasionally worked with the producers to shift some lines, because little girls will remember what the show taught them as they grow up; and calling out why fan service-oriented shows are only specifically categorized as fan service shows, instead of by their primary genre, when they’re for women. “Free is about swimming. Do you swim with your clothes on?”

I don’t have too much to say about Anime’s Craziest Deaths. Daryl Surat of Anime World Order hosts this panel every year, and it’s mostly clips of, well, very violent deaths in anime. It was fun, but the couple noisily making out in front of me was quite distracting.

Hayao Miyazaki: A Storyteller’s Journey is a classic Study of Anime panel, and one he’s obviously done many times before. He traces the themes of Miyazaki’s films through the lens of what was going on in the director’s life when he made each one. It’s fascinating stuff and a great look into the psychology of one of the most influential voices in anime. BUT there was a cringeworthy moment where a man climbed onstage singing and publicly proposed to his girlfriend. I know not everyone feels this way, but I hate public proposals. Absolutely despise them. Good presentation, otherwise.

Rose and I did our Awesome Women Making Anime panel, and I think it quite went well considering our relative inexperience as panelists and how unrehearsed we were. There was a heart-stopping moment when we didn’t have the right dongle to connect the Macbook to the projector, but the tech guy found one in time. The panel ran about 20 minutes short, so next time we’ll be able to expand it a bit.

That’s Gay! Anime and Manga for the LGBT Audience got off to a bit of a rocky start when someone yelled and stormed out of the room when the two panelists, a pair of women in a relationship, admitted that they were not trans and thus not authorities on the topic. After that, however, it went great. They presented sections on gay men/yaoi, lesbians/yuri, transgender, and asexual representation; each section was divided into stereotypes, tropes, target audience, early exampls, mixed bag representation, and progressive representation. Each segment was well-thought out and covered the history and social context well. Some of their recommended series include Yuri Kuma Arashi, Whispered Words, and Wandering Son.

Fractured Persona: Identity in the Persona Games was the second Study of Anime panel I attended that weekend, and I believe it was their first time presenting it. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by it. Persona 4 took up the majority of the panel’s time, which I was fine with – it’s by far the most psychologically complex game in the series and touches on issues of identity in ways the previous ones do not. However, while Naoto and the male characters get discussions of their gender identity, sexuality, and so on, Chie and Yukiko were discussed only in reference to the archetype of “the goddess”, which Dunbar seems uncomfortably obsessed with, and who their personas represent. While that’s all well and good, it had an oddly objectifying feel to me – how the others were defined by their arcs and who they are, but Chie and Yukiko, who are just as complex and interesting as humans as Yosuke and Kanji, who struggle with their own identities, are defined by what they represent. Rise barely even came up! It was a scattershot approach and I wish he had picked one or the other.

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I also got my sole bit of dealer’s room merch for the weekend

Anime Gets Trippy: Psychadelia and Surrealism in Anime was a late-night, adults-only panel and I was half-asleep for most of it. It presented some truly bizarre clips from series like Space Dandy, Belladonna of Sadness, and Cleopatra, the latter of which included unsettling animated talking heads superimposed on live-action bodies. The audience was pretty obnoxious, including the one guy who yelled, “WHAT?” when a vagina transformed into a flower on-screen. It’s a pretty common symbol, my dude.

I regret dragging myself out of bed early to see How Meta Destroyed the Anime Industry, since that panel was a complete disaster. I don’t remember too much about it, since the presenter was utterly unmemorable, but mostly he talked about the history of Gainax, showed Daicon IV, and then transitioned straight to some vague discussion of self-referential moe and quotes from Hideako Anno disparaging it. The presentation was hopelessly out of date – apparently, he made it in 2009 and hasn’t really updated it since. It’s a shame, because it could have been an interesting topic, but instead it was dull and dry and didn’t come close to covering what it promised.

Answering the Call to Adventure: the Road to Becoming a Magical Girl was yet another Study of Anime panel, and fell somewhere between the Miyazaki panel and the Persona panel quality-wise. It still had a healthy dose of “The Goddess!” but I have to admit, it did make sense in this context, especially when discussing shows such as Madoka Magica. The panel discussed magical girl mythology in context of Joseph Campbell’s influential hero’s journey cycle, which is a subversive concept considering how unconcerned Campbell was about women other than their positioning relative to the male hero.

I Want to Know More! Books on Anime: A Guided Tour was a pretty straightforward breakdown of academic writing on anime. Great stuff for a nerd like me who reads academic writing for fun.

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Post-con shenanigans with Brady Hartel of Discotek Media

Socially, this was easily the best con I’ve been to. As a teenager, my con-going days were exciting and fun, as I often went with large groups of friends unsupervised by adults, but beset by drama typical of that age. As I grew older, they became increasingly subdued and I often found myself going it alone while my lower-energy friends begged off, but they rarely ended in tears. I was ready to accept the quieter cons a side effect of my age, but this year’s Otakon was truly magical. This was in no small part due to the companionship of Rose, whose congoing style is very similar to mine, and to the many other amazing people I met who are as passionate about anime as I am, if not more. So, if you’re someone I spent time with this year: thank you, and I hope to see you again next year!

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Baku-“Man Dream Big, Need Supportive Woman”

Summary: As Takagi and Moritaka prepare to graduate middle school, they begin to dip their toes into the world of Weekly Shonen Jump by submitting one-shot manga to the anthology. Meanwhile, Moritaka’s romance with Miho gently coasts along as their feelings grow, and Takagi gets some attention of his own from the ladies…

Content Warnings: Despite the virulent sexism, things are pretty mild

Would I recommend it? Still a big, big, big no

A lot of stuff regarding Takagi and Moritaka’s manga getting published at Shounen Jump happened in this volume of Bakuman, but I’m not going to go much into that because it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s a vaguely interesting look at how the sausage gets made, bogged down by the editorial staff fawning over the main duo. No, I continue to be interested solely in Bakuman’s treatment of women, which, though it isn’t as severe as the first volume, is still quite cringeworthy.

After Moritaka and Takagi’s meeting with a Shounen Jump editor, the story jumps to the start of their second semester. In a move that totally defies suspension of disbelief, their homeroom editor announces that he’s changing the seating arrangement so that the boys will be paired up with the girls, supposedly to “erase the bad image of Class 2 that the boys and girls don’t get along with each other.” This has never been brought up before, and exists solely so that Moritaka and Miho can end up sitting next to each other. This movement brings them mixed joy and fear as, in what is actually kind of a cute moment, they both wonder, “What if my stomach makes weird sounds during class?”

Sitting next to each other deepens Moritaka and Miho’s relationship, insofar as they actually interact with one another. Moritaka writes notes asking her banal things like her favorite season. Miho never initiates a note or writes a response, responding only with smiles or hand signals. Eventually, Moritaka is so taken with her – or rather, his ability to make her smile while she contributes nothing to the conversation – he suggests they forget about their pact not to speak or touch until their dreams are realized. Miho bursts into tears in the middle of class, much to Moritaka’s horror, but then writes down her e-mail address for him. CndvMEMUAAA4XFNFrankly, I’ve been trying to puzzle out her reason for giving him her e-mail address at this point, with no success. Moritaka and Takagi discuss the move but can’t figure out why – are we, as the reader, supposed to agree that teenage girls are mysterious and illogical creatures? My instinct says it is because Ohba couldn’t come up with a better moment for her to do it, and to yet again create a forced moment of dramatic tension as Moritaka stands outside her window, unable to bring himself to text her. The next day, he writes, “We will be together after I become a manga artist, whether you have become a voice actress by then or not!” When she sees it, she “cried a bit again… but it seemed like her mouth was smiling.” I’m no fan of their relationship or their promise – I think I’ve made that explicitly clear – but his disrespect toward her goal here is infuriating. He thinks that his goal is the only one that matters. After all, it’s a man’s dream! Miho only dreams of being a voice actress because that’s a popular dream for girls. It’s convenient, but nothing genuine. Miho’s response of crying a little bit, but smiling with her mouth seems less like one of acceptance than resignation.

This volume also brings Kaya Miyoshi, Miho’s best friend, to the forefront as Takagi’s girlfriend. Miyoshi is, in many ways, the opposite of her friend: tall, curvy, violent, and pragmatic. She enters the story in earnest when Moritaka comes over to Takagi’s house and finds her and Iwase, the girl who Takagi compared unfavorably to Miho, sitting there. Takagi talks enthusiastically about his manga plans, ignoring the two of them until Moritaka asks what . He mutters, “I don’t know what to do. That’s why I said you came at the perfect time.” According to him, Miyoshi is worried about him after he punched out a classmate, and Iwase, the girl is convinced the two of them have been going out for the last three years since the two of them shook hands on the first day of freshman years. When Iwase asks Takagi if he hates her, he says he doesn’t, despite only a few weeks ago having called her stupid behind her back for working hard to get good grades. The two girls shout for a while, forcing him to choose between liking and hating them; when he says “choosing between the two extremes”, he likes both of them, they get mad. Those wacky, illogical girls! Unable to conceive of a guy being totally neutral on them!CndyFFkUsAAJDFz When Takagi announces his ambition to become a manga writer, Miyoshi cheerfully agrees to “be his cheerleader”, since she “like[s] guys who have big dreams.” Iwase wants him to quit, and tearfully tells him he’ll regret his his choices, even though he says he would regret it even more if he didn’t try. This brings us back to the idea “men have dreams women can’t understand” line of the first volume. Iwase doesn’t understand Takagi’s big dreams, and can only see him as setting himself up for failure. In her stupidity, as Takagi sees it, she doesn’t realize her place in the relationship would be to support him and instead would only drag him down as she forced him into a boring, normal life. This brings up parallels to a story he told about his mother in the beginning of the volume, who whispered to him as he was studying that he must get revenge for his father, who was laid off. Eventually he exploded at her, and she dropped the subject forever. Miyoshi, on the other hand, is a girl who knows her place, understands her position is to support a man and his dreams and act as his cheerleader. She may never understand those dreams, but she can support them. Women in Bakuman are either supportive angels or evil obstructions, but never people in their own right.

Miyoshi is the exact kind of character I like – spunky, spirited, and practical – so I’m gearing up to see her downfall. Her level-headed bafflement at Miho and Moritaka’s relationship is refreshing. When Miho refuses her invitation to visit them at Moritaka’s studio, she says, “I knew that Miho was shy and a little naive, but this is ridiculous. Getting married once your dreams come true… we’re only in ninth grade. Why would you promise to marry each other…?” At Christmas, a lover’s holiday in Japan, she says, “If they’re thinking about getting married, they should be going out and making memories.” She’s not just confused as a normal teenage girl, but also as Miho’s best friend. Cndz74fUMAAj8SBShe sees her friend entering into a strange, uncertain relationship, and worries about her. This uncommon display of common sense must be quashed, so Takagi and Moritaka rebuff her concerns. Takagi tells her, “This is something Saiko and Azuki decided on together, so you shouldn’t butt in.” As Miho’s best friend, Miyoshi should trust her instincts that Moritaka and Miho’s arrangement – I can’t even call it a relationship in good faith – but instead, she’s told that she needs to mind her own business. 

Takagi, on the other hand, is convinced that Miho and Moritaka’s relationship is a sign of exactly how much they love each other. He tells Miyoshi, “Unless Saiko is mistaken, I think those two are in love beyond our wildest imagination.” His interpretation is that “if they started dating now, Saiko’s all she’d be able to think about,” and thus she must keep her distance. Once again, this is not what love looks like. Real, lasting love is borne of familiarity and comfort, not nervousness or holding each other as an eventual goal. A supportive relationship should bring comfort to Miho during the difficult times of working toward her goal, not distract her. What Moritaka and Miho have is obsessive infatuation. Confusing infatuation with real romantic feelings is fairly common in all forms of media, so I can’t pretend this is a particular defect of Bakuman, but it bothers me nonetheless. This is a series that prides itself on realism and the intelligence of its protagonists, so idealizing an “engagement at arm’s length” like Moritaka and Miho’s is extra disturbing. Instead of leaning on one another, Moritaka and Miho hide their struggles from each other. Miyoshi is the one who informs Moritaka that Miho is moving to Hachioji, a fairly distant suburb, and even then it’s against Miho’s request for her silence. Moritaka pretends this doesn’t bother him, saying that they weren’t going to see each other anyway, although secretly he’s hurt, because in the world of Bakuman, expression of emotions is a sign of weakness.

All of this comes to a head after the characters’ middle school graduation. Moritaka catches up with Miho on her way home, and the two proceed to not say anything or look at each other for a full half hour. After this agonizing stretch of time – enough that a couple passers-by remark, “Oh, they’re still there…” Finally, the only words Moritaka can get are, “How long will you wait for me?” Miho, as she walks up the door to her house, replies, “I’ll wait. I’ll wait forever.”Cnd3aUtUMAEJqHh From the tension in her body, this is clearly meant to be a huge, romantic moment for the two but considering the lack of a real connection, the scene just made me groan. She’s committing herself to a partner who she barely knows, who she has never had a meaningful conversation with. Miho is the romanticized girlfriend who patiently waits and endures separation until her partner can be with her, whatever the circumstances. Moritaka, on the other hand, makes no such promise, even though Miho has her own dream she’s working toward, one that requires just as much dedication and hard work. The image of a young man waiting for his lady love isn’t one that resonates with Bakuman’s young male audience the way the ever-enduring, faithful girlfriend is.

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Awesome Women Making Anime!

As presented at Otakon 2016 with Rose Bridges

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Video available here

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Video available here

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Video available here

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Posted in Conventions | Tagged | 3 Comments

Baku-“Man smart, woman dumb”

Summary: Moritaka Mashiro likes to draw, but it’s not what he considers his defining trait. After his uncle, a formerly-popular mangaka, died of overwork trying to replicate his own success, Moritaka never really considered art a serious endeavor. One thing he does take seriously, however, is his crush on his cute classmate Miho Azuki. When the smartest boy in his class, Akito Takagi, finds a sketch Moritaka drew of Azuki, he suggests they team up to create manga together. Moritaka has misgivings at first – trying to break into the field is too big a gamble – but before he knows it, the two grow determined to get their manga into the popular Jump magazine.

Content warnings: a whole lot of sexism, but nothing worse than that

Would I recommend it: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no

Note: I apologize for the quality of the images – I took pictures of the book using my phone

I’ll be honest here – I did not go into Bakuman in good faith. I started it knowing full well about Ohba and Obata’s disdain for women. The series is well-loved and critically acclaimed enough that I’m sure that there’s plenty to like about it, but since I am specifically taking aim at the parts that frustrate and anger me, I’m pretty much blind to those elements. No, I read Bakuman expecting to hate it and, shockingly, was correct.

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It’s also incredibly masturbatory

There’s a lot of ways for media to be sexist. Objectification and male gaze are constant sources of irritation even in otherwise good series; and with some series it’s as simple as forgetting women exist beyond decorations and failing to give them a role to play in the story. I wouldn’t describe any of these as actively misogynist so much as thoughtless adherence to pre-established tropes and expectations.  That’s what makes it  frustrating that it’s as prevalent as it is. That also has the side effect of making it shocking to come across a series that doesn’t just ignore or marginalize women, but treats them with active scorn. That’s why when I read the first volume of Bakuman, by the same writer/artist team as Death Note, I was taken aback by its naked misogyny.

Some months ago, a former Studio Ghibli producer came under fire for saying, “Women tend to be more realistic and manage day-to-day lives very well. Men on the other hand tend to be more idealistic – and fantasy films need that idealistic approach.” Bakuman holds this attitude not just as an opinion of the characters but an undeniable fact. Take for example, the patriarchal decision-making process of Moritaka Mashiro’s parents: when Moritaka wants to do something or needs advice, he asks his mother, who asks his father, and then relays to him the answer. She has little power in her own household, acting only as a messenger between the men. “I’ve never really had a serious conversation with my father,” narrates Moritaka, but that same father is the one who makes all the most important decisions. It idealizes the idea of the father as the distant patriarch who hands down decisions from on high, while the blame goes to the messenger – his mother. On the other hand, it seems to me that the system is in place simply so that a single exchange can take place. When Moritaka tells his mother he wants to draw manga, she tells him immediately, “No,” confident that her husband will agree. However, when Mr. Mashiro arrives home, it only takes a few minutes for his wife to come to Moritaka’s room. With a resigned, sad expression, she delivers her husband’s decision: “Let him do it. Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand.” In Bakuman’s worldview, women are dull and prosaic, incapable of achieving or even understanding true ambition or idealism.

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Her dullness is reinforced by her unflattering haircut and t-shirt

And as far as Bakuman is concerned, that’s a good thing. One of the series’ main subplots is the romance between Moritaka and Miho. Miho is cute and sweet, but average in every other way. She dreams of being a voice actress, a popular goal for young women, and gets average grades. According to Takagi, this makes her the smartest girl in class, reasoning that, “Azuki naturally knows that a girl should be graceful and polite and because she is a girl, she should be earnest about things and get good grades. She knows by instinct that a girl won’t look cute if she’s overly smart.” He cites her family’s large home as proof that she comes from exceptional stock, and thus is herself exceptional, even though there’s nothing to make her stand out. She wants to be a voice actress specifically because it’s a common goal, and that she “doesn’t feel any pressure like [they] do about the future,” and that even after she’s married, she’ll be graceful and polite. That speech is one of the most commonly-cited examples of Bakuman’s sexism, and it’s abundantly clear why. His list of qualities that are ideal in a girl – being graceful and polite, not too smart, and generally unremarkable beyond being cute and demure by “instinct” – is dehumanizing and archaic. Adding insult to injury, he contrasts Miho with Iwase, the girl in their class with the best grades: “Iwase is pretty good-looking, but she’s not very likable, is she? She’s the smartest girl in class grade-wise, but I don’t like how she takes pride in that. That’s why I actually think she’s really dumb.” The message comes through loud and clear: girls who have ambition, who work harder than men, who worry about their future, who in short do not center their entire lives around training to fulfill the “good wife and wise mother” ideal, are wasting their time and thus are dumb, no matter how intelligent or capable they may be. This speech is reinforced when Miho is talking to her friend Miyoshi, and they discuss how Iwase isn’t popular with the boys. Despite her good looks and intelligence, she’s “snobby” and unlikable. Because she doesn’t put effort into being cute and approachable, she’s undateable.

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Not only is Miho an insulting yamato nadeshiko cipher, the relationship between her and Moritaka reflects an authorial obsession with purity. When Moritaka and Takagi visit her house to talk about their dreams, they decide to intertwine their goals: the boys will write a successful manga, and Miho will star in the anime adaptation. Inspired by his uncle’s letter-writing romance with a former classmate that ultimately went nowhere because of their mutual reluctance to confess their feelings, Moritaka proposes that they get married if both their dreams come true. Miho turns red and runs back into her house, and Moritaka begins to beat himself up when proposing when he’s not even in high school. However, Miho begins to talk to them through the intercom and accepts, but makes Moritaka agree not to see her until they’ve both fulfilled their goals. Supposedly, it’s to make sure neither of them becomes distracted; however, they are in effect putting their relationship into stasis. They’re only 14; they have so much growing and maturing to do, it’s impossible to tell whether they’ll be compatible by the time they reach adulthood. They’ve never actually dated or shared their innermost secrets – Moritaka didn’t find out about Miho’s dream until a few days ago, and third-hand. It’s not totally unbelievable that a pair of junior high school kids would make an agreement like this, but the writers seem just as fooled as the characters that they are in love rather than simple infatuation, swept away by the moment. No one expresses doubt about the healthiness of such a relationship or arrangement, and Miho’s mother, who turns out to be Moritaka’s uncle’s former letter-writing companion who married another man (and just happens to be another perfect specimen of feminine beauty and charm), gives them her blessing. It’s a forced situation engineered so that Moritaka can go on idealizing Miho and treating her as a goal without Ohba and Obata ever having to actually write her like a human being.  By holding each other at arm’s length, they are spared the work of having to get to know each other. What’s more, Miho’s purity and innocence, so essential to her characterization as the perfect young woman, will not be violated until the two marry. This allows not only Moritaka, but also readers who identify with him, to keep her on a pedestal.

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Miho’s mom has got it going on

A common defense of Bakuman’s treatment of women is that the views of the characters don’t automatically align with those of the creators. That’s true, but unless the text goes out of its way to refute their views, it’s a flimsy excuse at best. Maybe they will be proven wrong and get to know women who are just as ambitious and capable of themselves. However, given the series’ reputation for sexism, I doubt that will come to pass. We have nineteen more volumes get through, so only time will tell.

Posted in Analysis, Manga | Tagged | 3 Comments

Read or Die

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OVA

Summary: If you met Yomiko Readman on the street, you’d think she was a shy, awkward young woman who lived her life in the pages of a book. You’d be right, of course, but you probably wouldn’t guess that she’s also The Paper, an agent of the British National Library with the power to wield paper as a weapon. When a group of superpowered clones known as I-Jin attack, determined to get their hands on a copy of Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved Yomiko picked up by chance from a used bookstore, it’s up to Yomiko and her new partner, Nancy “Ms. Deep” Makuhari, to stop them.

Content Warnings: Abusive relationships

Would I recommend it: Sure! It’s a fun little action romp.

In 2002, the OVA of Read or Die was released in the US, despite being a sequel to a manga that had not been commercially translated into English. Despite the lack of context, it seemed to be tailor-made to be a hit with Western audiences, driven primarily by exciting action set-pieces with superpowers and the sci-fi twist of villains based on historical figures. Its slim 100-minute running time leaves little for character development and, considering its status as a sequel, doesn’t really prioritize it. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, there is an effortless sense of characterization, allowing first-time viewers to get a sense of its two main characters as people. Yomiko Readman and Nancy Makuhari could easily have been a helpless moe girl and a fan service vehicle respectively, but are instead given a surprising amount of depth.

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The first episode opens on Yomiko Readman waking up to a phone call offering her a substitute teaching job. Yomiko’s apartment is dirty and cluttered, with books stacked floor to ceiling. It becomes clear that she has trouble taking care of herself – there are sticky notes scattered around reminding her to do basic things like eat and get out of bed. With the promise of income, she pulls money out of one of her books, ignoring the note exhorting her, “Save this up! Up! Up!” She heads out, her hair a tangled mess and almost getting hit by a car, and travels from bookstore to bookstore, buying even more books. Though the show downplays it after the intro, Yomiko’s apartment and obsession over books makes it clear her problem borders on compulsive hoarding, a serious mental illness. The plot centers around the I-Jin, superpowered clones of famous historical figures, trying to steal the book Immortal Beloved from Yomiko, who chanced upon it in a used bookstore. Throughout her battles, rather than focusing on defeating her enemies, Yomiko struggles to find a chance to ask them politely for the book. Even when her life depends on it, she is reluctant to use the pages of the book as a parachute to escape a rocket rapidly approaching orbit. Yomiko’s bibliomania may come across as a cute quirk, but it seriously strains her ability to function day-to-day.

Yomiko’s partner is Nancy Makuhari, codenamed Ms. Deep, a femme fatale in an impractical outfit with the power to phase through solid matter. Though her demeanor is icily professional when they first meet, she warms up when she sees how formidably Yomiko wields her power to control paper. While most action shows featuring women use fights as an excuse for fan service, with jiggling boobs, strategically torn clothing, and exploitative camera angles, Read or Die avoids that and provides interesting, well-choreographed fights instead. Sure, Nancy’s costume leaves a lot to be desired, but other than a comment from their support technician Drake Anderson (“Today is my lucky day!”), the show rarely dwells on it.

The relationship between Yomiko and Nancy is the emotional cornerstone of the show. The two connect after their first battle together, when Nancy goes from strictly using code names to telling Yomiko her real name. Her choice to go by Nancy can be seen as analogous to switching from surnames to first names in Japan. Some people do it casually, but for others it’s considered a big step even for a couple that has been dating for months. Open and sweet-natured Yomiko cheerfully introduces herself as Yomiko Readman rather than “The Paper,” but must earn the more guarded Nancy’s trust before she is willing to reciprocate. 0f9417cbf41886df0954dfb097e3300bThe next episode shows the two of them relaxing together in the lounge of a submarine. Their bond is almost palpable, with Nancy braiding Yomiko’s hair as she reads a book, then gently tickling her face. Yomiko is so absorbed she hardly notices, but as most women can attest, playing with hair is a common form of casual contact between female friends and a sign of trust and closeness – after all, you are vulnerable when someone has your hair on their hands. The two talk about love and romance – Nancy is dismissive of the romance novels Yomiko is so fond of, saying that, “real love is more complicated,” and asks Yomiko whether she would have real, complicated love, or read the more simplified version in a book. Yomiko, after ruminating on it for a few minutes, says she would rather have real love, because “you’re always the main character.” Her attitude is sweetly naive, but also self-centered. Romance isn’t a story in a book, and there is no main character, after all. She views the world through the lens of fiction, expecting things to function in terms of arcs and protagonists.

When Nancy is hurt while fighting the clone of Genjo Sanzo of Journey to the West, Yomiko flies into a rage, throwing hundreds of razor-sharp index cards at him until she drives a paper airplane into his mechanical heart. Genjo survives the blow, and manages to steal the book despite their efforts, and in the hospital, Nancy apologizes for allowing that to happen. Tearfully, Yomiko tells her not to worry because, “We can look for the book again. There’s only one you,” unaware that Nancy is actually a clone herself and thus there is, in fact, more than one of her. However, the sentiment still carries weight – bibliomaniac Yomiko is concerned for Nancy’s life more than her precious book, while only days ago she was politely begging a crazed clone of Otto Lilienthal for her book in midair. Yomiko, for the first time in her life, experiences love outside of the pages of a book. Their relationship has strong romantic overtones, such as Yomiko blushing after Nancy pinches her cheeks. Her concern for Nancy, to the point of sitting by her bed without sleep for two days, shows how far she’s come even since the start of the episode. When Nancy is revealed to herself be an I-Jin of Mata Hari, Yomiko is devastated.

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What good friends!

Nancy, however, had her own specific romance in mind when she described real love as complicated: a love triangle between herself, the leader of the I-Jin Ikkyu Soujun, and a second clone of Mata Hari. This relationship is where Read Or Die begins to unravel a bit. Nancy and Ikkyu are lovers, but since he replaced her with another, more loyal clone of Mata Hari, their relationship is… strained, to say the least. In fact, he laughs after the second clone calls her a “traitorous bitch” and appears to kill her by reaching into her body and squeezing her heart until she collapses and sinks into the floor. “Maybe she’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean,” he chuckles. Yomiko, meanwhile, witnesses all this as she’s tied up in a room slowly filling with water (in classic spy thriller fashion). When she implores Nancy, “I know you love him, but this is wrong!” she refers to Ikkyu’s plan to commit worldwide genocide, but her statement could refer just as easily to the two’s relationship. Nancy may be torn about her relationship, but Ikkyu has no such internal conflict. He’s already replaced her with a version of herself better suited to his needs: the same powers and physical appearance, but unquestioning in her loyalty and single-minded in her devotion.

In the climactic scene, Yomiko, Drake, and Nancy – who survived her clone’s assault – fight to reach Ikkyu before he can broadcast Beethoven’s Death Symphony and force most of humanity to commit suicide. While Yomiko and Drake fight other I-Jin, Nancy ends up locked in battle with her clone in order to protect Yomiko. She literally fights herself, protecting Yomiko and humanity versus seeing her lover’s plan through to fruition. It’s not just a good action scene – it’s symbolic of her internal struggle over whether or not to betray Ikkyu. True, protecting her love spells the doom of humankind, but for the single-mindedly devoted part of her, that doesn’t matter. After all, what does it matter if the rest of humanity is dead, as long as the two of them remain? But that’s not the path that Nancy chooses. The good side, the side that loves the strange girl obsessed with books who can control paper, wins out and saves the day.

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This all could have added up to the most satisfying character arc of the OVA, but in its last moments, it comes apart. As Yomiko leaps from the rocket with Nancy to safety, Nancy releases her hand with a sad smile, staying behind on the crumbling rocket. Yomiko must learn to let go and convert the book she has chased halfway around the world into a parachute; Nancy, meanwhile, clings to the last vestige of her past. She takes the corpse of the man she killed, the man who abused her, replaced her,  and plotted genocide, into her lap and says, “You were such an evil, cold, and brutal man. But it would be impossible to face an eternity of loneliness.” In the dub she tells him, “Not even you deserve to die alone.” In that instant, instead of a woman overcoming her past, she becomes a widow throwing herself on the funeral pyre. Her future could have held so much, yet she chooses to die alongside a man who discarded her like so much trash. It’s a jarring, disappointing end that ignores a huge amount of character growth.

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Read or Die seems to be largely forgotten, and that’s a shame. It’s not often you get such straightforward, well-made action vehicle starring women that aren’t specifically engineered to get male otaku to want to protect them.

Posted in Analysis, Anime | Tagged | 6 Comments