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Fushigi Yugi: Enemies Unseen/Looking for Yui

Episodes 7/8

Episode 9: Enemies Unseen

Last time on Fushigi Yugi: Miaka jumped back in the book in order to make out with Tamahome rescue Yui, and finds that relations between Kutou and Konan have gone sour, while her best friend is nowhere to be found. HMMM I WONDER WHERE SHE COULD BE????????

The episode opens just after the touching reunion between Miaka and Tamahome, when lights flash from the trees and a pair of hands reach out of the woods and pull her… somewhere? There’s literally no background drawn so it looks like she’s in another dimension. She bites the hand of her supposed attacker, hard, proving once again that she does have some fight in her when convenient. Her abductor, a fox-faced, goofy-voiced man informs her that she was under attack – in the English version he snarks that he should have asked before rescuing her, while in the Japanese version he just says he doesn’t blame her. Why is the dub so mean? He disappears into his hat, and despite all the strange things Miaka has seen, she’s confused.

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Just as Tamahome finds her, they hear a scream come from the woods and go running back to find Nuriko pinned to the tree by arrows while all the redshirts villagers Tamahome was protecting dead. That seems like an awful waste of arrows to kill just one girl! Nuriko says they got hit just after Tamahome went to find Miaka. I guess she waited five minutes to start screaming? Miaka is shocked and horrified that the position she’s in means that sometimes, other people get hurt because of her.

The trio continues on to the village, where Miaka snarfs down food as Tamahome explains that of course the enemy would be targeting her, since she protect the empire during wartime. Miaka wilts a little, like she hadn’t thought of this when impulsively taking on the role as the head religious figure of the country. He promises to protect her, and Miaka mentally sighs his name while surrounded by shoujo bubbles. It really isn’t romantic, however, considering that’s literally the role he was born to along with six other warriors, so it seems like he’s getting an awful lot of brownie points for merely stating facts. However, their touching moment is interrupted when someone comes to tell Tamahome that bandits are attacking the village yet again, and he gleefully trots off to fight them. Nuriko grumbles about his mercenary tendencies, and when the local man tells them that he charges very little for his services, Nuriko yells that he should do it for free. Nuriko, honey, the worldbuilding in the Universe of the Four Gods is weak as hell, but it appears to have some degree of a free market. It’s weird [read: bad writing] that she and Miaka condemn Tamahome for the mere act of trying to support himself. He must have some sort of motive other than paying for things like food and lodging, right?

That’s the conclusion Nuriko and Miaka come to, anyway, so the next day they decide to follow Tamahome and spy on him instead of, you know, ASKING him what the money’s for or just minding their own goddamn business. Turns out, he has an ailing father, a heap of siblings, and a failing farm to support. d1d8d3395bc7304020022fd16f404ece.pngThey sit weeping outside his window, moved by his noble heart, when his youngest sister Yuiren faints dramatically from a fever! Miaka jumps into the window and tells them to cover her with blankets so she can sweat it out, which is actually a terrible idea. When someone has a fever, it’s an internal issue caused by the immune system fighting harmful bacteria and viruses, so there’s really not much you can do – if anything, you should remove layers to try to at least superficially lower their temperature. She also seems to have some sort of fever reducing medicine on her, which is actually helpful. There’s some banter about his other little sister asking if Miaka is his wife and ugh, it’s just so forcedly precious. It’s always so obvious when fictional children are written by someone who has no idea what real children are like – asking conveniently cute-but-awkward questions and so on. Luckily, Miaka takes the opportunity to get some water for Yuiren from the lake.

Did I say luckily? Sorry, I misspoke. It was actually incredibly thoughtless of her! Due to her complete inability to recognize patterns, Miaka fails to realize that if someone tried to murder her last night and failed, they just might try again next time she’s alone. Instead, she’s consumed by thoughts of Tamahome and how happy she is that she was mistaken for his wife – even if he is a character in a book. 20148c5c913aee6afa433d0e98d63d1c.pngWhat about those men who died last night, Miaka? Were they just characters in a book, and thus their lives don’t matter? Either they’re real people whose lives and feelings are just as authentic as yours, or they’re just fictional ephemera. One of those characters in a book appears to threaten Miaka’s very real life, but luckily Tamahome is there to save day! Except not, because, another guy pops up out of the bushes. You can tell he’s really evil because he’s ugly and has a big black coat!

Just as he looms threateningly over Miaka, the fox-faced guy from earlier appears out of a hat and dispatches him quickly, then scolds Tamahome for not sensing that there were enemies among them. Miaka tries to thank him, but he scolds her as well, telling her that she needs to realize her thoughtlessness could get other people killed. Miaka is shocked, apparently having learned nothing from the night before. I so, so want to defend Miaka, but her complete inability to learn in this episode is particularly frustrating. In her life before, she may have felt powerless with being overwhelmed by school and her mother’s high expectations and the cruel mockery of her friend, but here in the Universe of the Four Gods, people have tried to impress upon her over and over that she actually bears a lot of responsibility, and none of it makes a single impression.

They hear some conveniently-timed screams coming from Tamahome’s house, and run back to find that those pesky assassins have tied up his family and Nuriko in a web of ties. It’s supposed to look threatening, but mostly it looks like an aerial silks class gone terribly awry.

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Now wind your foot in the silk… No, god damn it! Not like that!

The assassin tries to convince Miaka to sacrifice her life to save the family, but there’s never really much chance to build up much tension because the fox-faced man steps in quickly. The assassin throws a knife which happens to tear his clothes in the exact location of his red kanji marking him as a warrior of Suzaku in a plot twist exactly zero people didn’t see coming. He uses his powers to disappear the aerial silks, and Nuriko tries to pump the assassin for information but, before she can actually do anything useful this episode, arrows fly in and kill him.

It’s okay though, because the warrior – Chichiri – already knows everything they needed to know. He wastes no time in shitting on Nuriko, telling her, “Better weird than gay,” before revealing that Kutou is trying to gather their own warriors and find a priestess for themselves. Miaka chuckles about what a coincidence it would have to be, for them to find another girl from a different world, but then she realizes that she, too, is searching for a girl from another world. Having once again learned absolutely nothing, she decides to sneak off to Kutou herself. What does she hope to gain by entering hostile territory by herself, instead of with three trained warriors destined to protect her? She seems to think that going alone will protect her, rather than putting Tamahome, Nuriko, and Chichiri in the position of having to search for her and pull her out of a dangerous situation instead of being able to protect her from outside threats ahead of time. The inappropriately peppy theme music starts up as Miaka runs off crying and alone.

Episode 10: Looking for Yui

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We start the episode off by checking in on Hotohori. Hey dude, how’s it going? Not so hot, apparenly. He’s praying to Suzaku for Miaka’s safety, since he can’t accompany her without abandoning his throne. He says he’s “filled with foreboding” – sensible, considering Miaka doesn’t have a lick of sense. Hotohori feeling restricted by his place as the emperor is a recurring character point and probably one of the stronger bits of development in the series. He can’t just up and go with the others, since he’s ruling a country at war and is desperately needed in the capital, but he feels drawn to his duties as a Suzaku warrior. He knows Miaka is stepping into a dangerous situation and can’t do anything about it. If only he knew exactly how dangerous a situation she was in.

Meanwhile, Tamahome realizes Miaka is taking way too long to come back. Nuriko implies she may be on the rag, but Tama isn’t buying it – he decides to take off after her after yelling at Nuriko and Chichiri to take care of his family. Hey Tamahome, how bout you take care of your own family and let the warrior with super-strength take care of things? Nuriko, of course, is chagrined at being left behind, because she is once again removed from the action for no good reason. Chichiri, on the other hand, just uses his monk powers to disappear into his hat again, because when you have magic, why just follow from a few paces behind?

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Am I ever going to get to do anything important?

Miaka gets directions to go through a forest from a random peasant played by a bored-sounding production assistant, and only minutes later Tamahome comes along and yells at him. “The forest is dangerous!” “Oh… yeah,” says the bored production assistant, getting the first laugh from me for a while.

As Miaka is wandering through the forest, a tiger appears! Tamahome wasn’t kidding about it being dangerous, jeez. She flops to the ground to play dead, but then pops back up, saying, “That only works on bears and boring boys!” eliciting the second laugh of the episode from me. I can’t help imagining some guy trying to chat her up and her just… falling over. It’s an incredible image. She starts to yell for Tamahome, but decides this is going to be the time to defend herself. Against a tiger. That wants to eat her. Just as she’s about to become tiger chow, a wild split screen appears and Tamahome’s foot makes short work of the tiger, which decides to go find a less well-defended damsel to eat.

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Miaka tries to walk away, but Tamahome rightly reminds her that protecting her life is his duty and essential to the survival of their country. A soppy 90’s J-Pop ballad starts to play as Tamahome embraces her from behind and tells her how much he missed her. Seriously, after all the flirting these two have been doing and they still haven’t realized their feelings are mutual? Still, she’s convinced that Chichiri’s warning about her actions having consequences for other people means she should run off to Kutou alone and defenseless. It’s so frustrating, because she’s doing exactly the opposite of what she needs to do – instead of surrounding herself with experienced, capable bodyguards who can sense danger and defend her before the situation becomes dire, she’s putting herself at huge risk and forcing them to leap in at the last second, endangering herself and them. She’s convinced that if Tamahome gets hurt, his family will starve to death and thus she should put the entire empire at risk. She’s spent her whole life being treated so worthless, she can’t even fathom how essential her survival is to millions of people. She lies to Tamahome and convinces him to go back to her horse so that she can, once again, thoughtlessly run off. Luckily, Chichiri is watching from the tree.

Tamahome gets back to his house and realizes he’s been had. He starts to take off after her, but Nuriko bursts out and scolds him for taking off without saying anything to his family. Apparently, his whole life he’s been thinking of nothing but them, but now that Miaka’s here he just totally forgets to say goodbye when he leaves to go chase her. This is pretty par for the two’s romance – nothing matters but the other one. It’s obsessive and unhealthy… but right now he’s absolutely right to chase after her. Miaka has the survival skills of a concussed toddler.

Miaka stows away on the back of a wagon and passes out after some intense navelgazing. The very nice cart driver and his newlywed wife welcome her into their home and feed her. The next morning, after eating them out of house and home, the two send her off in another wagon for the border.

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Nuriko, it seems, decided to return to the palace after Tamahome took off on his own, and informs Hotohori of Miaka’s constant stream of poor decision-making. Hotohori gets all in a fluster and almost takes off for the border himself, until his advisors remind him that would basically be an act of war and blow up the tense situation between the countries. Hotohori relents with a hint of petulance – hey, he’s only eighteen years old – and sits back down. The camera zooms in on Nuriko’s face. Is it foreshadowing? Is it stretching out the cheap animation to save costs? Who can tell now?

Tamahome approaches the home of the young newlyweds, where the wife is standing outside and scrutinizing every passerby. Apparently, Miaka left a few days ago – has she just been standing outside and staring at the road since then? Apparently, Miaka asked them to tell him not to follow her; same shit, different day. Tamahome completely ignores them and rides off at a gallop toward the border, where Miaka is coincidentally trying to cross without a passport. She’s utterly puzzled that there would be border security between two countries almost at war with each other, and claims to be the Priestess of Seiryuu to get herself through. 993c0bba971bce319d20b4b30ad74625.pngA foreign-coded man with blond hair, blue eyes, armor, and a mask rides up to take her just as Tamahome arrives at the border and starts screaming at them to let him through. How is time even working in this? How long has it been? Miaka gets ahead of Tamahome by days but then they coincidentally arrive at the border at the same time. It’s all according to what creates the most dramatic tension!

The border guards, of course, refuse to let Tamahome through, and Miaka shows a rare bit of forethought in realizing that responding to him would put him in even more danger. She’s past the point of no return – she can’t very well just change her mind and turn around without getting someone killed anymore. She’s stuck. Luckily, Chichiri realizes what she’s up to and how badly Tamahome’s little tantrum is endangering all of their lives, and drags him away. Have I mentioned that Chichiri is the only adult among the major characters so far? He’s twenty-four years old! I wonder if he feels uncomfortable hanging around all these dumbass hormonal teenagers all the time.

The blond man takes Miaka to the Emperor of Kutou, who she rudely grimaces at for not being as hot as Hotohori. It’s okay, though, because in Fushigi Yuugi, ugly means evil, so this guy is bad news. The blonde man takes off his mask and reveals himself to be bishounen supreme Nakago.

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Cue LITERAL HARP MUSIC

He introduces Miaka as the Priestess of Seiryuu and the Evil Emperor chuckles at being able to defeat Hotohori easily. You know. Because he’s evil. Which we know because he’s ugly. Unlike Hotohori, who is pretty, so we know that he’s a good guy! It’s simple! Nakago has someone else to introduce with an ironic little smirk, and out steps…

 

 

WAIT FOR IT

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YOU’LL BE SHOCKED

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YUI!

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PLOT TWIST!

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Miaka bursts into tears and grabs her in a hug, in a surprisingly nice bit of animation with a sense of weight behind it. You know what else has a sense of weight? The shot of Miaka dropping her bag and the scroll of The Universe of the Four Gods falling out. Miaka doesn’t notice, however, in the midst of their tearful reunion, in which she explains that she came back for her best friend. Yui asks, “You came back just for me?” and Miaka conveniently forgets to mention that no, she also really wanted to smooch that hot boy too. I honestly don’t fault Miaka here – people can have more than one reason for doing things! And while she was tempted to come back because of Tamahome, realizing that Yui was in there was what clinched it for her. However, spoiler alert, this declaration comes back to bite her in the ass.

Dropping her bag also bites her in the ass, as Nakago picks up the scroll and realizes what she has. Inappropriately peppy music plays as the emperor summons guards to come take Miaka away!

Next time: The narrator asks, “What could ruin Yui and Miaka’s friendship?” Could it be the way Yui constantly talks down to Miaka? Nah, probably not.

 

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[Link] Chatty AF

Hey guys!

This week, Anime Feminist kicked of the first episode of our podcast, Chatty AF! (Autoplay warning) In this episode, we discuss the current season of anime thus far: what we’re watching, why we’re watching it, and how we feel about their representations of women. Participating are editor-in-chief AmeliaLauren Orsini, Peter Fobian, and yours truly.

It was a lot of fun to record, and I hope you enjoy listening to it! Please leave any feedback here or at Anime Feminist.

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Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu Sukeroku Hen 1-5: The Why and What of “Wa”

Thank you to Michelle for your help in researching female rakugoka!

About a year ago, I wrote about Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu’s Konatsu. A young woman born into the all-male performing art of rakugo, she was cursed to be an outsider in the only world she knew. Her bitterness was further fueled by her toxic relationship with Yakumo, her emotionally distant foster father whom she believed killed her biological father. However, the show’s first season focused on Konatsu’s father and Yakumo, so we didn’t get to see how Konatsu’s arc would play out. The show’s sequel, Sukeroku-hen, is running this season. It brings the focus back to Konatsu, her hapless husband Yotaro, their son Shinnosuke, and the bitter, elderly Yakumo. The Konatsu of the second season, thus far, is recognizable, but a major shift in her attitude makes me wonder where the show is going.

The newest episodes as of February 8, episodes four and five, take place about fifteen years after those first few episodes of the first season. Konatsu, now in her early thirties, married Yotaro shortly after having her son Shinnosuke out of wedlock, and the three are living in the Yurakutei household along with Yakumo. Unlike in the first season, this takes place within living memory of much of the show’s audience; this episode takes place in the early 90’s. For context, Sailor Moon had already begun its television run, Star Fox had made its debut, and Mighty Morphing Power Rangers premiered in the US. Japan’s bubble economy popped and the nation is struggling in a recession. Rakugo is aging failing to stay relevant as it competes with  television, video games, and other more modern forms of entertainment. The conflict between tradition and modernity is central to the question of rakugo’s fate: left as it is, rakugo will die out very soon. Some people, such as Yotaro,  believe that the art form should evolve, that new stories should be added to the canon of hundreds-of-years old stories. He believes they can cast aside outdated restrictions and meet the changing audience halfway. Conversely, Yakumo sees himself as a sort of grim reaper, taking the tradition to his inevitable grave.

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The Konatsu of 1993, at first glance, is very different from the younger Konatsu we knew. We first see her playing shamisen for Yotaro’s performance, a frown of intense concentration on her face. Yotaro stops to compliment her performance, but beads of sweat drip down her face and a vein pops out of her forehead as she snaps, “Don’t talk. This is taking all the concentration I have.”04f807ed47efc3270847fd62fd51c19d.png Afterward, Yotaro speaks with a man backstage about her performance – apparently, she’s been learning shamisen for a few years now and he’s impressed that she’s already able to play support. “It’s been her dream for a few years now,” Yotaro tells him. This is surprising; the Konatsu we met in the first season dreamed of performing rakugo, practicing in secret, and was unhappy and resentful at being barred from it. When did playing musical accompaniment – the sole accepted way for a woman to be involved in rakugo – take the place of that dream?

Yotaro, however, is well aware of Konatsu’s long-harbored desire. When the two go to Shinnosuke’s school, the original plan is for Yotaro to speak with Konatsu accompanying as usual. At the last second, he pushes her out onstage, forcing her to perform in his stead. After some initial awkwardness, Konatsu recites “Jugemu”, a child-friendly story that I recognized as the basis for the children’s story “Tikki Tikki Tembo,” with great energy and charisma, blushing with joy and tearing up at the end of the performance, practically skipping offstage. Over dinner, Yotaro describes the event to their manservant Matsuda, telling him, “Sis’s voice is so clear and resonant, it’s like heaven to listen to,” echoing her late father’s praise. However, Konatsu replies, “Yota, I keep telling you, I won’t do rakugo. I’ve thought about it sometimes, but it’s just not right. Rakugo is something men have worked at refining through constant hard work, right? I don’t want to stick my nose in and ruin that harmony. It’s better that way. It’s more beautiful that way.” At first, this scene gave me pause. Seeing her perform in front of an audience for the first time brought me such joy, and I’ve been rooting for her to make waves and fight the establishment since her introduction. It confused me why that angry young woman would grow so accepting of the status quo.

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Konatsu onstage

However, upon rewatching, I noticed some subtle hints that all is not right for Konatsu. In her speech to Yotaro, she uses the term wa (和). The term is usually translated as “harmony”, and though that may be the closest English term, the concept is so deeply rooted in Japanese culture that it’s impossible to fully localize. Wa is one of the main building blocks of Japanese culture, stressing conformity within the group and acceptance of one’s socially and culturally prescribed roles. It is the valuing of conflict avoidance at all costs and the source of the saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” When Konatsu says “その和を壊したくない”, she is saying that she doesn’t want to step out of her place by invading a male-driven world; she would prefer to focus on her societally prescribed roles of wife, mother, and accompanist.

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Konatsu explaining her decision not to do rakugo

However, as the show has demonstrated, there is no wa in rakugo at the moment for her to disrupt. Wa has led to stagnation as men perform the same stories over and over, and no amount of personal spin and charisma can help as those stories cease to resonate with a modern audience. Traditionalists such as Yakumo would rather see the art form die than be updated, while others, such as the writer Eisuke Higuchi, hope to make it relevant again by introducing new stories. Yotaro is a reformer and annoyance flashes across his face when Konatsu says she won’t do rakugo anymore. He has loved her rakugo since day one, and it seems introducing her talent to the world was his master plan. And in reality, his is the side that won out. Tsuyuno Miyako became the first female shin’uchi in 1991, and now women and even foreigners perform new and old rakugo stories in a variety of languages across the world, even if the majority of rakugoka are still older Japanese men. Higuchi and Yotaro are on the right side of history; it’s only a question of whether or not Konatsu will join them.

 

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I think she will. Konatsu is reserved, and the show has long relied on her facial expressions and visual framing to get across her true meaning. When she speaks, her expression is downcast and her face is in shadow; even as she smiles, she doesn’t raise her eyes. Rather than peaceful acceptance, she appears to be coming from a place of deep resignation. For her to suddenly completely give up on doing rakugo for an audience would be a disruption of her arc, a betrayal to that little girl who wanted nothing more than to be like her father. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has demonstrated its subtle, thoughtful character writing time and again, and I have faith that Konatsu will find the resolution she deserves.

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I want to protect that smile…
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My Tsundere Life

Growing up, I wasn’t an angry adolescent so much as a frustrated one. I always had a temper, compounded by the social immaturity and drop in grades that came with undiagnosed ADHD. I felt betrayed by the way my body was changing. Nothing in my life felt quite right. The media I consumed growing up – Clarissa Explains It All, Animorphs, horse novels, a huge variety of Disney movies, and so on – showed me how to be a kind girl, a smart girl, an empathetic girl, even a tough girl – but there seemed to be nothing out there for a weird, awkward, temperamental girl. I felt like I was wandering through life without a guidebook, until one day I discovered Ranma ½.

I stumbled on an ad for it in the back of a Pokemon manga when I was twelve years old. An acquaintance at school lent me a VHS of the second movie and I was hooked. I had no allowance, so each $30 VHS or $15 manga volume was hard-earned, but I devoured as much information as I could about it via pre-Wikipedia fanpages on the internet. Here was a series where girls were strong and tough and fought, even if they were never on a level with the guys. The female cast was huge, a far cry from the token female friends that dominated American animation. Though she wasn’t my favorite (that honor goes to okonomiyaki chef Ukyo Kuonji), I developed a particular affection for Akane Tendo, whose hot temper and disgust with men closely matched my own.

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Not the best introduction to the series, in retrospect…

Ranma ½ began its run in 1987, decades before the term “tsundere” was coined in the porn game Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, but Akane is often cited as a classic example of the character type. She treats most people kindly, but is quick to anger and predisposed toward jumping to conclusions. In the first installment of the series, Kasumi tells Ranma, “Akane is really a very sweet girl, just a violent maniac.” It sounds absurd, but to me, it made perfect sense. When I first read that line, I laughed and said, “That’s me!” The duality between Akane’s kindness to people she cares about and her ferocity toward people who angered her felt real in a way that no other fictional character had. What’s more,  much of her anger was justified. In the beginning of the manga, Ranma enters her dojo appearing to be a girl, soaking wet and carried in by a giant panda. The two engage in a quick friendly sparring match, but when Akane goes to join her new friend in the bath, she’s been replaced by a teenage boy, who gets an eyeful of Akane’s nude body.cb2941d91280a9c5a960a7289bb0220e Even when it turns out the girl was always Ranma, just cursed to shift bodies when exposed to hot and cold water, it’s understandable that Akane feels betrayed and embarrassed. What’s more, the sweet, shy girl she sparred turns out to be a total asshole who laughs and says, “I’m built better, to boot.” Her family even forces her into an engagement with him. Meanwhile, at school Akane must fight her way through the entire male student body, since one student announced that anyone who could beat her in combat would be able to go on a date with her.

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Akane’s life is confusing and frustrating. She enjoys fighting, having grown up in a dojo, but she’s constantly forced into battles she has no interest in. Her fiance routinely treats her like garbage, insulting her looks, her fighting skills, and her lack of traditional femininity; his favorite insults are “macho chick” and “uncute”. He also has a tendency to switch between having a male body and a female body, causing his competitive nature to extend to things like how much more attractive he is than other girls. Despite all of this, she does like him because of plot contrivances, but there are other women throwing themselves at him constantly, calling themselves his fiancees and hurling insults at her as well. Akane may have always had a short fuse and a tendency to assume the worst, like all Rumiko Takahashi heroines, but anyone would be losing it in her situation. Thankfully, she is rarely shamed for her anger within the narrative; Ranma may be rude about it, but he consistently acts like a prick, so I never felt like I, the reader, was supposed to agree with him.

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He almost definitely deserves this

Akane was the only start of my love affair with temperamental manga girls. In high school, my friends and I read and shared the manga of Love Hina. Modern fandom doesn’t remember the series fondly, but at the time it was relatively fresh and popular. I fell in love enough with the characters enough that I could look past the fan service, and of course, I particularly loved the romantic female lead and by this point obligatory tsundere, Naru Narusegawa. To be honest, I can’t remember why I liked her so much at the time, other than the simple fact that she was a tsundere. The duality still held appeal to me, I suppose; I still needed to see girls in fiction who were often sweet but had a violent temper, just as my fondness for harem anime sprung from a need for stories with multiple women. This is all conjecture, since I now cringe at the very idea of half the story’s concepts. Naru was an ill-tempered bully who abused the mild-mannered Keitaro for no reason other than “comedic” misunderstandings.

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I still hold the tsundere archetype near and dear to my heart – when my boyfriend compliments me, I’m more likely to curse at him than thank him – but it has evolved in directions I don’t like in the past decade or so. Like I mentioned, the term was coined in a porn game in the early 00’s by putting together two onomatopoeic terms: “tsun tsun”, meaning “to turn away in disgust”, and “dere dere”, meaning “lovey dovey”. Dozens of pre-2000 characters fit the description: the aforementioned Akane Tendo; deeply damaged, competitive Asuka Langley Sohryu of Neon Genesis Evangelion; and rebel without a cause Madoka Ayukawa of Kimagure Orange Road, to name a few. Some even consider Lum of Urusei Yatsura, which began its run in 1978, to be the progenitor. They tended to populate romantic comedies aimed at young men, most often as the endgame love interest. As such, they were obviously written to appeal to young men, but they often had an appealing degree of complexity as well. Their hostility usually stems from some sort of life circumstances, and any sort of cooling off is a result of natural character development. They become dere because they’re happier in general, not just because of being gentled like in a modern “Taming of the Shrew”. It was rarely ever a complete transformation, either – as the main characters moved toward mutual understanding, they were less likely to have comedic misunderstandings that led to fights, but the girls usually kept their hot tempers and sharp tongues. I could relate to their frustration and hostility, and seeing them move toward greater contentment without ever being fully tamed or gentled was something I wanted for myself. It felt like I could be lovable while staying true to myself.

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Since the coining of the term, the landscape has changed significantly. In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Hiroki Azuma posits that rather than enjoying narratives, otaku prefer to engage with “derivative simulacra” displaying their favorite traits. Rather than enjoying the whole character within the context of the story, an otaku may seek out a girl with glasses simply for that trait, and other traits that have come to be associated with it, in a concept similar to TV Tropes. This database culture goes hand-in-hand with the rise of moe anime with characters designed specifically to inspire a protective urge in the viewer. Giving a name to the character type introduced them into the database, and they became a staple of moe media. Thus, rather than their temper being a natural part of their character and circumstances, the only thing that matters is their “tsun”-ness progressing into “dere”. Their hostility gives way to stammering and blushing and declaring, “It’s not like it’s like you or anything!” in response to affection, rather than justifiable anger. Their anger has a performative, inauthentic quality that alienates me compared to the tsunderes of yesteryear.

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I suppose I don’t really have much right to complain. After all, these angry girls were a staple of shonen romance aimed at young men; they were never really for me. They weren’t mine to claim. They’ve merely shifted to match the evolving taste of their target audience. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel a little possessive and a little robbed. After all, these mallet-wielding young women once gave voice to my frustrations in a way that western media never did; is it a wonder I want to defend and preserve them for future generations of girls who need their negative feelings reflected and validated on-screen without being punished?

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Spirited Away by Princess Mononoke

One of the interesting things about getting older is remembering a time before something. Not just before it entered your personal radar, or before even “I liked it before it was popular” – before it existed. There’s a lot of “befores” in anime that I don’t remember: before Akira, before My Neighbor Totoro, before Dragonball. One that I do recall is before Spirited Away.

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I was fifteen years old when Spirited Away came out in the US, already an anime and Ghibli fan for years by then. I wish I could say it deeply affected me, that every moment remained burned upon my brain, but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but my most vivid memory of it at the time is cheering for it as I watched the Oscars in my little brother’s hospital room. I do remember the anticipation, though. At the time, Miyazaki was a name known mostly to animation and film buffs stateside. Spirited Away initially came out in a limited release on only 151 screens, but Oscar buzz and international acclaim brought it out to the mainstream, and winning the second-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival cemented its place in film history. Many of the people who grew up watching it are adults now – myself included. Some of them are working in animation, leading to visual references in shows like Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, The Simpsons, and many others. It regularly ranks highly on lists of anime, of animated films, even of films in general. It’s a huge, influential movie, and much of its imagery has come to be instantly recognizable.

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In December, GKids and Fathom Events did a special event screening of Spirited Away. After fifteen years, the film has been analyzed and recontextualized many times over. I’m an adult and a teacher now, and I’ve seen the power of the film grow and shift in popular imagination. The beautiful, strange, evocative imagery has been mined not only for professionally-produced art, but also figures prominently in fanart all across the internet. That single frame in black and white newsprint of a little girl standing next to a dragon has morphed and evolved into something enormous. Chihiro and No-Face sitting next to shadows on the train, Haku snaking through the sky in dragon form, even those sweet soot sprites with their sugar candy – these moments all played out again in front of me in the theater. I was seeing them again as they were meant to be seen, on a big screen in a darkened room full of people, all seeing and hearing and feeling it together. It was, to say the least, overwhelming. I wept as I watched Chihiro’s determination and courage grow once again, as she cleaned the polluted river spirit, as she selflessly gave Haku the medicine she’d been saving for her parents, as she rode the one-way train across the water. Most of all, I cried as Chihiro and Haku plummeted from the sky, laughing forehead to forehead, their tears falling upward. These moments were all reaffixed in their original context, just as I had seen them fourteen years ago, but with dozens of new layers of meaning.

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Shortly after the enormous success of the Spirited Away screenings, Fathom announced they would be doing a similar event for Princess Mononoke’s twentieth anniversary. While Spirited Away may have brought Miyazaki to the mainstream in the US, Princess Mononoke was the film that brought him to me. At twelve years old, I had begun dabbling in anime only a few months before I found a short review in Girls’ Life magazine. The accompanying image – a screencap of San sitting astride her wolf-brother with a fierce expression on her face – enchanted me. I scoured the newspaper’s film listings hoping to find it showing in a theater nearby, but it was limited to arthouse places I had no chance of getting to. I spent hours on the film’s website, transfixed by the gorgeous imagery and listening to the sound clips over and over. I memorized the then-unfamiliar names of people involved in the English dub, like Neil Gaiman and Minnie Driver. I was worried about the violence – I had a limited tolerance for gore – but my friends assured me that it was more comical than traumatizing. As time passed, the newspaper listings got slimmer and slimmer, and I began to doubt I’d ever get to see it.

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The first image from Princess Mononoke I ever saw.

On the day after Christmas, 1999, my dad asked me to come on an errand with him to Pasadena. I didn’t particularly want to go with him, since it was quite a trek, but he insisted. The drive took a fairly long time, since we had to contend with holiday traffic, and the talk radio hosts were discussing the lines for a deeply-discounted Christmas store near our destination. He told me my mom had asked us to go to the store, and I spent the rest of the drive internally debating whether or not that was something she would do. Even as we parked on a quiet residential street, I remained mystified. I had no idea what was going on until we walked up to the box office of a theater and he said, “Two tickets for Princess Mononoke, please.” I screamed and hugged him all the way to our seats.

I describe all this to convey exactly how much this movie means to me. I have a pretty terrible memory, but every experience surrounding Princess Mononoke stands out in vivid detail. It would be fair to call this movie a life-changer. It cemented my lifelong love of anime, and now I’ve seen all of Miyazaki’s films, lived in Japan, and even visited Yakushima, the island that inspired the film’s setting.  Almost exactly seventeen years later, I prepared myself to be just as overwhelmed at seeing it again as I had been at Spirited Away. My heart leapt as the familiar swells of “The Legend of Ashitaka” opened the movie. As I settled in, I realized I wasn’t overwhelmed at all. Rather, I was transported. Back to 1999, back to that shabby little theater in Pasadena, back to when I was a nerdy, awkward preteen. Such is Princess Mononoke’s power over me: instead of thinking about everything that has changed, I simply sank back into who I was over half my life ago. The big difference is this time, I don’t think a brothel woman serves soup for a living.

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How is this a better job than making broth?

The question remains, how did Spirited Away become iconic while Princess Mononoke remained a niche title for years? Both movies are visually arresting fables, and Mononoke’s forest setting is more familiar than Spirited Away’s thoroughly Japanese worlds of bathhouses and kami. Both were huge commercial successes in Japan and won universal critical acclaim in both countries. Quite simply, the time wasn’t right when Princess Mononoke came out, but was for Spirited Away. Disney wanted to edit Princess Mononoke to make it more family-friendly and less graphic, but Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki famously sent them a katana with the note, “No cuts.” As a result, Disney released it under their Miramax label, spent millions on a big-name dub cast, and gave it an extremely limited, brief run with no promotion or marketing to speak of. Even the DVD release was a disaster – Miramax hadn’t planned to include the original Japanese audio, and had to delay it for years while they translated the Japanese script and added on the new audio track and subtitled due to fan outcry. It was decidedly not a children’s film, with its graphic violence and complex conflict at its center, but lacked the cyberpunk edginess associated with anime at the time, making it a harder sell than its contemporary Ghost in the Shell. Spirited Away, on the other hand, came out the year after the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film debuted, and the accolades it earned made for a much easier marketing hook. Plus, for all its Japanese-ness, American audiences are more open to animated films being family-friendly than the PG-13 violence of its predecessor, and a modern-day heroine is more accessible than medieval Ashitaka and San.

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Princess Mononoke may not have come out at the right time to reach mainstream American audiences, but it came out at the right time to reach me. I was a fresh, new anime fan and at twelve, I was just the right age to understand and appreciate the story. The day I saw the re-release, I mentioned in the staff lounge how excited I was to watch it again. To my surprise, almost every one of my coworkers in the room knew and loved it – the only one who hadn’t immigrated from Hungary two years ago. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that a group of women who’ve dedicated their lives to caring for children are familiar with the work of the world’s foremost family film director, but it warmed my heart to share the experience that way. Miyazaki’s films hold incredible power, and I hope to see them enjoyed for generations to come.

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The Women of Yuri on Ice

When Yuri!! on Ice was announced, fans took notice. Director Sayo Yamamoto has amassed something of a cult following among feminist anime fans in the US for her full-length series Michiko and Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which explicitly challenged the roles of women in popular fiction. She’d also directed the beautiful figure skating short “Endless Night” for Animator Expo, so it wasn’t exactly a shock when it was announced she’d direct a TV series with a similar concept. The big question was, when she’s primarily told stories about women and for women, what would a series featuring men be like coming from her?

The answer, it turns out, is something just as beautiful and subversive as her previous works. Much digital ink has been spilled about the beauty of the relationship between Yuri and Victor and about how revolutionary it is for both Yuris to make feminine expression integral parts of their routines. This is absolutely true, and I don’t have much to add to that conversation. I was, however, struck by how the secondary cast came across as well-rounded humans with lives of their own, even with limited screen time. In shows focused around male characters, the female cast tends to suffer, reduced to satellite characters with little purpose in life except their relationship to the male protagonists. Yamamoto and co-creator Mitsurou Kubo, however, fill Yuri’s universe with intelligent, capable women instrumental in shaping his life and his story, and the show is much stronger for it.

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Like many sports anime, Yuri on Ice can be divided roughly into two parts: the training arc and the tournament arc. The training takes place largely in Hasetsu, Yuri’s hometown, and most of the characters are friends and family who have known him for his entire life. The three most powerful influences are his childhood crush Yuko, his dance teacher Minako, and his mother Hiroko. All three are intelligent, hard-working women, and two of them are small businesswomen. Minako is an accomplished dancer, runs a dance studio, and also operates a small snack club. Yuko is a working mother of three feisty six-year-olds. Hiroko helps run Yu-topia, Hasetsu’s only remaining hot spring resort.

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Yuko Nishigoori is introduced as Yuri’s childhood friend and former crush, two years his senior. In flashbacks, we see how she defended him against the boy who bullied him for his weight and how she practiced Victor’s routines with him. As an adult, she has married that same bully, who has presumably matured, and works at the ice rink where they once practiced together. Her warm, comforting personality gave solace to the perpetually anxious Yuri when they were children. Yuri is sensitive about being pitied, as shown in the anecdote he tells Victor about pushing away a girl who tried to hug him when a mutual friend of theirs was injured, but his enduring friendship with Yuko shows that she supported him without ever crossing that line. Her warmth plays an important role in the first arc as well; she is the only one in Hasetsu able to befriend the prickly teenager Yuri Plisetsky. While everyone is celebrating Yuri’s victory in their Hot Springs on Ice competition, she’s the only one who notices him leaving and runs out to say goodbye to him. Her friendship also shows that she has managed to develop fluency in English, which is quite rare in small-town Japan. The two maintain something of a friendly relationship, e-mailing even after Yurio returns to Russia, and she appears in Yurio’s mind’s eye when he reflects on agape, the Greek concept of unconditional platonic love, which his short program is based on. She is also raising six-year-old triplets named Axel, Loop, and Lutz (who’s names are probably the most regrettable decision she’s made), which would make her only nineteen years old when she had them. The three girls are precocious and feisty, and Yuko often has to battle them to get them to go to bed on time and stop abusing social media. Her interactions with her daughters also show that she isn’t just saccharine sweet, since they often involve her scolding them for staying up too late.

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Minako Okukawa, Yuri’s dance teacher, has a less maternal personality but may have been an even stronger influence in nurturing his talent. Before settling down in Hasetsu, Minako traveled the world as a dancer and even won the Prix Benois de la Danse, one of the most prestigious awards in ballet. It’s never explained why she came to Hasetsu as a dance teacher – she could easily make a comfortable living in a city where dance is more in demand. As it is, her studio is struggling to enroll students, especially as the population of Hasetsu declines. In order to make ends meet, she also runs Kachu snack bar. The meaning of “snack bar” in Japan is somewhat different from what Anglophones may expect; rather than what you’d see at say, an arcade serving nachos and popcorn, Japanese snack bars are something like low-rent hostess clubs. The booze is overpriced and many customers purchase whole bottles that they can return to; the owner is usually an older woman; and it’s part of the staff’s job description to flirt and drink with the male customers and listen to their woes. The emotional labor she must perform, on top of operating two businesses, just go to show how incredibly hard-working she is. Although Minako lacks Yuko’s sweetness, she was important to Yuri. Her dance studio was a haven to him during his frequent bouts of anxiety, and she was the one who recommended he try figure skating. When Yuri returns to Hasetsu from Detroit, she continues to play a major role in his life, picking him up from the train station to take him home and later teaches him how to “move like a woman” when he knocks on her door in the middle of the night. She accompanies Yuri as he moves up in the Grand Prix, although that wasn’t purely altruism; she just really wanted to see the handsome male skaters up close.

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The latter half of the series follows Yuri through the Grand Prix. Although Yuri’s competitors are male, two in particular have their performances defined by their relationships with women. Georgi Popovich, a Russian skater, was recently dumped by his girlfriend, an ice dancer named Anya, for another man. For his short program, he assumes the role of the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty, imagining himself cursing her as she begs for mercy. He scores well, but those who know the story behind his performance become uncomfortable. “I can almost hear her terrified voice,” comments Mila, a female skater who trains under the same coach. In his free skate, however, he imagines himself as a prince coming to her rescue, tearfully begging her forgiveness and promising to save her as he pictures himself kissing her while she sleeps clutching a smartphone displaying pictures of her with her new paramour. Anya, who is in no need of saving, has no patience for Georgi’s delusions. She realizes what’s going on during his free skate and catches his eye as she stands up to leave. When he smiles at her hopefully, she scowls and gives him a thumbs down, causing him to scream in despair in the middle of his performance. There’s not really any way to know what happened between her and Georgi but, judging on how he imagines himself at once as witch and savior, cursing her for leaving him while simultaneously telling himself she needs to be rescued from her new lover, it’s easy to fill in the blanks and see that he was probably a clingy, jealous boyfriend. It’s a common “nice guy” mentality – they tell themselves that they are the best possible man for a woman, that she’s a victim of assholes, all while condemning them as vapid whores for sleeping with other men. There is no mistaking the message meant to come across: this behavior is creepy and unacceptable, and Anya is better off without him. We don’t see much of Anya outside of the lens of her relationship with Georgi, but her role in his story still tells a powerful message.

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The second pair is Michele and Sara Crispino, a pair of twins from Italy with a codependent relationship nearly bordering on incest. Michele is obsessively protective of his sister – the first time we see them, Michele is shouting at another skater for expressing interest in her in the elevator. For his short program, he dresses as a knight and, much like how Georgi pictured Anya, thinks of how he must protect his little sister as he skates. “I’ve defeated every single man who’s tried to approach Sara so far,” he thinks. “I want to skate with my sister forever!” Although he claims his love isn’t physical, he’s still as possessive as if they were a couple and not siblings. Sara, on the other hand, recognizes how unhealthy their relationship is, thinking “If something doesn’t change, both of us will go down.” They are, after all, twenty-two years old; it’s not healthy for him to be the only man in her life and vice versa, or to be the sole motivators for each other. The next day she confronts him, telling him, “I will go to the Grand Prix final with or without you. So you need to win without my support, too, Mickey.” He clings to her, whining about how he could only come this far because of her, and she shouts at him, “I can skate without your love, and I’ll start dating!” Her message is clear – she is stronger than he thinks she is, and he needs to learn to be strong too. It’s not healthy to be solely motivated by your relationship to another person, and Sara is sick of being held up on that pedestal by Michele. She doesn’t want to be his muse or his committed partner; she only wants independence. She watches his free skate from the stand rather than rinkside, and weeps at his beautiful performance as he mentally bids goodbye to her. After his program, she hugs him and apologizes for talking to him so harshly, but reaffirms that she made the right choice. “We’re better apart, after all!” Michele and Sara’s relationship is fundamentally different from Georgi and Anya’s, but there are strong parallels in the rejection of dependence and the need for independence. Female independence is a major recurring theme in Sayo Yamamoto’s works, and it’s wonderful she managed to work it into a story fundamentally about men.

Yuri on Ice has two basic types of female characters: the hard-working, independent women who fundamentally shaped Yuri as a person, and accomplished artists who are unwilling to accept clingy, unhealthy relationships with men. It’s wonderful to see a cast of women who live life on their own terms and play fundamental roles in the male protagonist’s life while very much being their own people. Yuri on Ice won’t go down in history as a feminist masterpiece, but its unusual, even revolutionary attitude toward gender relations deserves to be recognized and should be remembered for a long time.

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Sexual Assault and Subversiveness in Kiss Him, Not Me

Summary: Obese otaku Kae Serinuma loves one thing above all else: witnessing intense bonds between men. Whether it’s fictional boys of anime or her handsome male classmates, she lives for the moment where they share a significant glance or touch. When her favorite anime character dies, Kae locks herself in her room for two weeks without food. When she emerges and returns to school, she’s lost all the extra weight. Suddenly, the boys that wouldn’t give her the time of day want nothing more than her attention, but she’d rather they pay more attention to each other!

Content warnings: weight loss/gain, strong trigger warning for sexual assault

 

My expectations going into Kiss Him, Not Me were low, to say the least. Despite my own fondness for seeing boys kiss, I view fujoshi culture with an extremely critical eye. That is, after all, the reason garbage like Super Lovers and Junjou Romantica keeps getting made. I’m also not a fan of shipping real people or the idea that a girl only needs to lose weight to be lovable. When I actually gave the series a try, I was surprised to find it actually has something of a subversive bent, taking shots at romantic shoujo tropes without turning into outright parody. It’s a romantic comedy with very little romance; it’s a harem show where the heroine has more interest in the unattainability of fictional characters. However, that subversiveness is inconsistent and regularly mixed in with the typical shoujo cliches, making it hard to take the message seriously.

The premise of the show alone raises eyebrows. Manga about some kind of personal transformation are fairly common, such as Blue Spring Ride and High School Debut, and almost always revolve around the idea that daintiness and prettiness are more feminine and thus desirable. Kae, however, has absolutely zero interest in changing. The weight loss was purely accidental and she was plenty happy how she was. Her love of anime and BL still dictates most of her actions, and she doesn’t much care whether or not her harem decides to join her at things like Comiket or picking up the latest character goods at Animate. Kae’s ability to stay true to herself is remarkable, as is the boys’ willingness to accept her for who she is. It’s easy for a manga to convey the message to be yourself, but Kiss Him, Not Me dares readers to embrace their socially unacceptable qualities.

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However, that remains undermined by exactly how fat Kae is depicted. Kae’s physical transformation isn’t just weight loss; she also stops wearing her glasses and, in the anime, develops gradient hair. Her eyes get larger and more expressive, and even her ears and nose change shape. Even more egregious in the anime is the voice work. When she’s fat, Kae’s voice is repellent and distorted as if she’s speaking through a mouthful of cotton, but when she’s slender, her voice sounds high and girly unless she’s actively drooling over BL. This change has no bearing in reality – body weight doesn’t affect the vocal cords. Rather, it just makes fat Kae seem even more repulsive than she would have been otherwise. In one plotline, she gains all her weight back and the other characters confront the superficiality of their attraction to her, and whether or not it’s fair to try to get her to lose weight again. Mutsumi, her history club senpai who she was already friends with, and fellow fujoshi Shima don’t care either way, but her classmate Igarashi has to do some real soul-searching. None of that really matters, however, because Kae decides to lose the weight anyway, especially when the boys come up with a plan to perform PDA at certain weights as a motivator for her. Thus the status quo is restored and the series can continue with its conventionally attractive heroine.

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Sexual assault pops up in what seems like almost all shoujo manga, and Kiss Him, Not Me is no exception. There have been three instances thus far, using the well-worn trope with deftness ranging from clunky and cliched to surprisingly intelligent. The first story that uses the threat of sexual assault takes place early in the series, during the school festival. The boys, tired of only being part of a group, decide to each take some time with Kae individually. Kae, unused to being the center of attention, gets quickly overwhelmed by their flirtation and touching, culminating in Shinomiya falling face-first into her breasts in the haunted house. Kae flees, seeking out a staircase so she can spend some time by herself and calm down. While she’s sitting there, some boys from another school identify her by a flyer with her face on it and accost her, demanding she “service” them. When she punches them in self-defense, they give chase until her boys find her and start a brawl with them. While this confrontation does make them look protective, the fact that Kae felt the need to get away from them in the first place undercuts any sense of triumph. Even after the fight, Kae isn’t grateful or touched; rather, she starts crying out of anxiety and calls reality a “shitty game” when one of the brawlers bumps into her. While the introduction of assault drags the plot down, the emotional honesty did strike me. Kae never asked for any of this; she doesn’t care about being pretty or popular with boys, so of course she would uncomfortable with every moment. The conclusion isn’t that the boys care about her and thus she would be grateful – rather, the episode ends with them apologizing and promising to take things at her pace. With a little more thought, there could have easily been a climax leading to the same conclusion that didn’t involve her being sexually threatened.

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The second (per manga order) instance is the most cliche example of a heroine being sexually threatened for cheap drama. The episode focuses on Shinomiya, the youngest of the group, and his insecurities about being a slender bishounen compared to his more athletic rivals. When he and Kae find themselves stranded in abandoned hotel, a group of local men appear to mock him for his lack of masculinity and start grabbing at Kae. Shinomiya responds by kicking them in the junk and fleeing outside to where their friends are waiting, which is hardly the manliest defense strategy. However, Kae did nothing to save herself when only a few episodes ago she could at least put up a fight. Rather, the story prioritizes Shinomiya’s struggle over Kae’s own ability to defend herself and props up his meager masculinity at the expense of her stereotypically feminine traits, namely her sexual desirability and physical weakness.

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These instances are a shame, because Kiss Him, Not Me has one of the best depictions of the consequences of acquaintance assault that I’ve seen in a shoujo series. The set up is that Nanashima, concerned that he’s losing favor with Kae compared to his rivals, takes on a job performing in a magical girl stage show at a theme park with Kae. She takes him home when he has a fever, and unable to distinguish fantasy and reality (why didn’t they take him to the hospital?), he pins her down and kisses her until Igarashi bursts in and punches him. Shoujo heroines being threatened with rape by male acquaintances is common, but usually framed very differently. The boy is usually fully conscious and aware, but does it as a way of “teaching her a lesson” about being vulnerable and unguarded around males. Quite often it’s in soft focus and treated as a romantic moment rather than frightening and traumatic, such as in Boys Over Flowers and Blue Spring Ride. One thing that struck me in the scene about Kiss Him, Not Me, on the other hand, is how visceral it is. Aware or not, Nanashima performs an act of violence against Kae. She visibly tenses up as she resists him, but he overpowers her as intense music plays. Even as she cries out, “Get a hold of yourself!” he continues, and there’s no knowing how far things would have gone had Igarashi not interrupted.

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While in most series the threat of assault passes by without their relationship being affected, Kiss Him, Not Me is acutely aware of the lingering effects of such an encounter. Kae stays home from school for several days and doesn’t go to rehearsal for their show. While she’s home, she reads BL manga, comparing it to her own experience. “It’s so good when it’s in BL! But, when it happens in real life, it’s just scary.” The emphasis on fantasy vs reality is essential, but it’s rarely discussed in stories aimed at young women. Kae uses the fantasy to process her emotions about reality, but her own experience recontextualizes how she views the fantasy as well. What’s more, no one at any point blames Kae for the assault, not even herself, while the typical trope is that the girl was too relaxed and comfortable around boys. When Kae returns to work, Nanashima reaches out to her, and she flinches away. “I know you were acting strange because of your fever, so don’t worry about it,” she tells him. “But, I’m still scared.” Nanashima doesn’t take it personally. Instead he smiles and nods and agrees to give her the space she needs. Throughout the storyline, Kae’s reactions and emotions are treated with respect, both by the other characters and within the text. It’s strange that fundamental human decency can be considered subversive, but sexual assault by acquaintances in shoujo is usually treated as punitive, a natural consequence, or even worse, romanticized.

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Of course, Kiss Him, Not Me undercuts itself somewhat with the episode’s conclusion. At the show, a group of adult male magical girl otaku interfere with the show by blocking the young audience and trying to look up the actress’ skirts. Nanashima jumps in as the Dark Prince and beats up the otaku with a little help from Kae, telling her at the end, “I swear I will never hurt you again.” This turn in the story offers Nanashima an easy out, while separating him from the bad, scary “outside” men, much like in the beach episode. The contrast between him and the otaku make him look better by comparison – Nanashima was delirious and unaware of himself, while these men are in total control of their faculties. While Kae was intellectually aware that she had nothing to fear from him, her emotional response was one of trauma and fear. However, the episode closes with Kae smiling and thinking, “Boys can be scary, but they can also be very dependable!” Rather than allowing Kae the necessary time to heal and fully forgive Nanashima, the show goes for a quick, convenient resolution. I understand why – it would be a difficult blow for a lighthearted comedy to recover from – but it is still frustrating. Allowing Nanashima to prove that he’s dependable and not scary like other guys, rather than Kae gradually recovering from her trauma and feeling comfortable around him again, ties up the often-messy emotional process too neatly. With everything the episode does so well – the violence of the act, the separation of fantasy and reality, the separation of intellectual and emotional forgiveness – the message becomes muddled at the very end. It is betrayed by its own realism, and a new possible reading of the moral appears: even if he lost control, he’s not like those scary strangers who look up girls’ skirts. You can still rely on him. Nanashima may have been ill, but the logic easily extends to more common situations, such as drinking to excess.

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Kiss Him, Not Me is not an easy show to categorize. It wants to be subversive, but its willingness to turn to unironic shoujo cliches with only a slight twist makes it hard to take it seriously as such. Subversiveness applied inconsistently is without conviction, turning what could have been powerful toothless and contradictory. It’s a shame, because it handled some aspects with a deftness rarely seen in manga aimed at teens. Its central message of self-love and respect, and that fat people deserve to be treated with love and humanity, are important ones, and deserve a series that can stick to its guns.

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Looking Forward, Looking Back

Whew. This year was one hell of a ride, wasn’t it?

I know it’s been a rough, heartbreaking year for almost all of you – we lost some true visionaries who dared to live differently and never apologized for being themselves. My country, the US, took a lot of steps backward that will doubtless affect the entire world, and a lot of other countries are headed in similar directions. I’m afraid we have all been cursed to live in interesting times.

 

Heroine Problem in 2016

It’s been an extremely busy year here at Heroine Problem headquarters. In terms of my personal life, the school where I was working at closed down suddenly, forcing me to find a new job. I was lucky enough to get hired for my first-ever lead teacher job in a toddler class at a fairly prestigious preschool. It has good benefits, low ratios, and the best wage I’ve ever made, but the learning curve has been extremely steep for me as I work on my CDA and learn to take charge and run the classroom as my own. It’s been a difficult few months learning to re-balance my life, and I’m not quite there yet.

This change has been reflected in the drop in updates for the site. I admit it, I’ve been really bad about updating consistently! Really, really terrible about it! My last attempt to make weekly updates about current anime crashed and burned – rather than keeping relevant, it mostly made me avoidant and led to me not even watching the new episodes for a couple weeks. Needless to say, I don’t think that approach works for me. Going forward, I’m going to try again on the approach I took for winter 2016: if I find something to talk about in a currently-airing show, I will. That’s the approach that, after all, led to the writing of my most popular post thus far. My hope is to be able to maintain a twice-a-week posting schedule. In addition, I’d like to give the site a sprucing up – get a proper logo and banner, and have some business cards to hand out at conventions this year.

Despite the lack of posts, it’s been a busy anime-related year for me. I attended Sakura Con, Otakon, and Geek Girl Con, presenting panels at the first two and volunteering at the third. Although my first panel had some bumps due to technical difficulties that threw my plans for a loop, the rest were very well-attended and successful, in no small part due to the help of my dear friends Michelle Liu and Rose Bridges. Otakon – my first in eight years – was the most fun I’ve had at a con in years, and though I thought at the time it would be my last, I’ve already made plans to attend again in 2017. I also hope to attend AnimeFest in Dallas, because Sayo Yamamoto, Mitsurou Kubo, and Tadashi Hiramatsu, the main creative team behind Yuri!! on Ice will be there as guests. It’ll be tough to manage attending two long-distance cons in a row, but with careful budgeting, I think I can make it!

This year also marked the inception of Anime Feminist, a collective feminist blogging site run by Amelia Cook. Amelia showed incredible leadership in gathering together amazing bloggers like Lauren Orsini of Anime News Network, Gunpla 101, and Otaku Journalist; Dee of Josei Next Door; Vrai Kaiser; and many others. It’s a group I’m proud to be a part of, with a huge variety of perspectives. Amelia’s promotional prowess also led to coverage on heavy-hitter sites like Kotaku and The Mary Sue and a successful Patreon that makes it possible for writers to get paid for their work. I don’t know what the future holds for AniFem, but I’m excited to see where it goes.

 

Anime in 2016

This year, I watched fifteen current anime series, and parts of several others. Historically, I’ve focused on backlog shows, with less than a dozen current series in a year, so this is quite a lot for me. I’m glad I decided to get current this year, because there have been some truly stellar series that would have been a true shame to to miss out on. Even if a lot of other things were terrible, at least 2016 was a good year for anime.

Short-subject anime are increasingly popular as more and more anime are designed to be watched on phones while commuting. They cover a broad range of subjects, from silly gag anime to plot-driven stories as complex as any full-length series. Winter’s Please Tell Me! Galko-chan remains one of my favorite shows of the season. I’m not usually one for gross-out humor, but its frankness about things such as periods, finding cute bras in large sizes, and pooping after eating a spicy meal being discussed by likable characters charmed me. It was seven minutes of sunshine in the rainy Seattle winter. The absurdity of Sekkou Boys was entertaining enough, but ultimately forgettable. This Boy is a Professional Wizard, an independent production by the distinctive Soubi Yamamoto, remains under-appreciated. Space Patrol Luluco is the most popular of the shorts I watched, and for good reason. Hiroyuki Imaishi’s frenetic energy works in short bursts, and it was fun to see him work on relatively light fare. Historically, Trigger hasn’t been great with its female characters, but Luluco’s adolescent crush as the driving force of the story was well-handled and built up to a beautiful conclusion.

It was a year of extremes for shoujo and jousei anime as well. The fujoshi market has been gaining strength for some time, and this year the studios were eager to capitalize on that with an huge increase in shows about gay men and reverse harems. This led to two of the best series of the year: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and Yuri!! On Ice. Both shows tell compelling stories about gay men, but otherwise they are opposites to the extreme: historical vs. modern, tragedy vs. optimism, subtext vs. text, unrequited pining vs. a healthy relationship. Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu also has a sequel season coming up, and while Yuri!! On Ice does not have a confirmed sequel, a smash hit with an open ending seems like an obvious choice. On the opposite extreme in terms of quality lie the pedophilic Super Lovers and First Love Monster. Super Lovers romanticizes grooming and abuse, while the mean-spirited First Love Monster mocks its viewers. Somewhere in the middle lies Kiss Him, Not Me. I expected it to be either critical of its viewers a la First Love Monsters, or superficial and far too forgiving of its heroine’s tendency to ship her classmates. Rather than either of those Kiss Him, Not Me shows some subversive leanings as it gently pokes fun at fujoshi culture, but remains all too willing to play many shoujo tropes straight.

Among shounen shows, two stood head and shoulders above the rest: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable and My Hero Academia. Diamond is Unbreakable continues David Production’s excellent adaptation with some of the most innovative art direction I’ve ever seen in TV anime. Sweet-natured Josuke and his friends brought a welcome change from the taciturn, disrespectful punk Jotaro, and the town of Morioh felt like a character in its own right. My Hero Academia hews closely to today’s standard shounen battle manga conventions, but with strong writing, lovable characters, and the production values of Studio Bones to bring the action sequences to life, I enjoyed it. The first season of last year’s Haikyuu!! came to a bittersweet ending last year when the boys lost in the final episodes, but the second and third seasons saw them learning from their defeat and coming together to make an even stronger team.

Seinen is something of a catch-all for series that don’t fall easily into the other categories, as the disparate remaining series show. How can you compare the symbolism-laden, fairytale inspired story of queer adolescent sexual awakening of Flip Flappers to the gentle episodic comedy Tanaka-kun is Always Listless? Or the tightly-plotted thriller Erased to the deeply cynical depiction of anime production in Girlish Number? There’s almost no overlap between the shows, other than that they are all worth your time.

This was also an incredible year for seeing anime films in theaters. Even without the dubious privilege of living in Los Angeles, where most are screened in order to be Oscar eligible, I experienced more anime on the big screen this year than I ever have. Isao Takahata’s nostalgic love letter to rural Japan, Only Yesterday, finally got a US release courtesy of GKids after years of sitting untouched in the Disney vault. Seeing Spirited Away again after 15 years brought me to tears as the now-iconic imagery felt new again. Miss Hokusai went sadly underappreciated – is there not enough of a market for feminist historical fiction? Beautiful, understated, female-helmed Doukyuusei continued this year’s trend of gay coming-of-age stories with two dissimilar high school boys connecting over music.

I learned this year there’s not much point to making predictions of what I’ll like next year. Too many shows have surprised me; too many others have disappointed. All I can hope is that 2017 is as strong as 2016, for the night is dark and full of terrors and sometimes I need some damn Japanese cartoons to cheer me up.

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Missing Miss Hokusai

Most people are familiar with the works of Katsushika Hokusai, particularly the iconic “Great Wave off Kanagawa” ukiyo-e print, but few know that his daughter, Katsushika O-Ei, was a talented artist in her own right. She spent most of her life assisting and working with her father and was best known for her prints of beautiful women. Miss Hokusai, based on the manga Sarusuberi by Hinako Sugiura, tells a fictionalized version of her life, one characterized by her devotion to her blind younger sister as well as to her art.

Miss Hokusai eschews a traditional narrative structure, instead opting for an episodic approach. It’s an unusual approach to a film, one that has been widely criticized, but I thought it worked beautifully for the subject matter. The vignettes provide a more complete picture of O-Ei as a person; without having to unite them through a story, it gives snapshots of her personal and professional life and relationships. We see how she relates to her father, to her colleagues, to her sister, and to her art, without her being defined by any one aspect. O-Ei is certainly a woman who defies simple definition. From the very outset, she makes it clear that she is a woman with little interest in traditional femininity. She strides across a bridge over the Sumida River with her arms at her side, rather than the delicate, pigeon-toed gait with hands folded in front favored for women at the time. Instead of maintaining the home, as would be her expected role, she works side by side with Hokusai, explaining that neither of them cooks or cleans; rather, they just move when things get unlivable.

Historical fiction rarely focuses on women, so I especially applaud the decision to tell O-Ei’s story rather than that of her legendary father. That’s part of why I was so baffled by the number of reviewers who came away with the impression that the movie was about Hokusai himself, rather than the title character. This review by Brian Tallerico on rogerebert.com exemplifies that mistake. Tallerico seems unable to conceive that the movie is not Hokusai’s story told through the eyes of his daughter, but her own story. He claims the film “allows us to see him through his daughter’s eyes.” Hokusai is a prominent character and influence in her story, but make no mistake – O-Ei is the one driving the action in every scene. The dissonance between expectation and reality makes it difficult for Tallerico to fully immerse himself in the world of the movie and enjoy it for its own qualities.

He complains that the film is “remarkably talky,” filled with “conversations about other artists of the period and discussions of the philosophy of art.” This claim indicates Tallerico was paying more attention to the male characters than to O-Ei, who is in fact quite taciturn. In one of the first scenes of the film, a popular young artist known as Kuninao comes to visit as O-Ei works to replace a painting of a dragon she had inadvertently ruined right as her father was finishing it. She sits silently at her desk, focusing on her work, as the young man explains to her how to draw a dragon. She doesn’t smile or speak to him, but only stares in response – she knows how to draw a dragon, as shown both from the sketch she’s working as he talks to her and the masterful finished project, which is passed off as her father’s work. It’s classic mansplaining, and O-Ei has no use for it. It’s not worth even engaging with for her. The discussion of art and technique is used well to build up O-Ei and those around her as characters. It’s integral to how they view and experience the world around them and the foundation of their relationships, so of course in the scenes where O-Ei is interacting with other characters, they would be primarily discussing art. There are plenty of scenes where the characters talk about other things, or not at all, but those scenes tend to involve either O-Ei by herself or two women, so naturally Tallerico and the primarily male reviewers would tune out for those. One of the primary through lines is her desire to be seen as equal to those around her and her low-key rivalry with her own father, and thus is essential to her character development.

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Tallerico almost, almost catches on that, citing a sequence where Hokusai tells a story to a Yoshiwara courtesan about his hands escaping his body and roaming the world, claiming that’s the secret to his art. He says, “The parallel between this approach to art—tactile and experiential—and his daughter’s, which is more intellectual and technique-based, is interesting, but, like so much of “Miss Hokusai,” underdeveloped.”  I find this claim to be quite misleading. For one thing, Hokusai admits at the end of the sequence that he took that story from a Chinese folktale and that it has nothing to do with his actual approach. Although it’s never explicitly stated, quite a few scenes are devoted to O-Ei’s more analytical approach to her art and her resulting shortcomings. Her skill at drawing solo women is well-recognized – her father says she may even be better at it than he is – but she struggles with erotic “pillow drawings”. The reason is clear – while she can go out to Yoshiwara and draw any courtesan that will agree to model for her, she lacks experience with actual sex. Even her father’s student Zenjiro, whose figure drawing is awkward and poorly proportioned, is more popular when it comes to pornographic prints. The printer tells her portraits have “technical mastery, but lack any sensuality.” He tells her it’s not her fault, and that Hokusai “is to blame for making his daughter draw such paintings,” the implication being that as a young woman, it’s improper for her to be drawing pornographic images. O-Ei’s lack of sensuality comes not from her being a woman, but from her lack of experience, something she is well aware of. After talking to the printer she runs into her crush Hatsugoro, noticing the “scent of his skin” as they walk together under an umbrella. She excuses herself, claiming she just remembered she had something else to do… and runs off to visit a cross-dressing male prostitute known as a kagema. (A lot of reviewers did not pick up on the fact that the prostitute was a man, which tells me they pay absolutely no attention to the voice actor’s performances. A shame.) The whole encounter is deeply uncomfortable to O-Ei, but she soldiers on because that’s the only way she believes she can learn to create pillow drawings that will sell. It’s a calculated, analytic strategy, and it goes awry when he falls asleep on her chest instead of doing the deed. Tallerico’s claim that it is undeveloped refers to the lack of focus on Hokusai, who spends more time commenting on the work of others than his own work. The film only touches briefly on the contrast between his and O-Ei’s approaches, and spends more time showing O-Ei’s approach through her choices and actions.

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Most critics, as focused as they were on the lack of Hokusai, still could see how touching the relationship between O-Ei and her blind younger sister O-Nao is. It’s most emotionally-driven element of the film and one of the strongest stories. Quiet, serious O-Ei turns tender around her younger sister, smiling gently as she guides her and helps her experience the world through touch and sound. When they go for a boat ride on the Sumida River, O-Ei dips O-Nao’s hand into the water; on a snowy day, O-Nao comments on how quiet the world has become. Hokusai, on the other hand, wants little to do with his youngest daughter. The way he interacts the world is so purely visual that he can’t relate. O-Nao’s perspective is so alien to him that he seems actively terrified of it. The image of a blind person touching someone’s face to “see” them is a staple of film, but usually presented as romantic or touching. When O-Nao reaches out to touch her father, he isn’t touched; he’s terrified. The contrast between the common trope and Hokusai’s reaction is deeply effective and drives home that while he may be an artistic visionary, he is extremely limited in his own way. Tallerico, however, doesn’t see it that way: “The idea that O-Nao’s father, while painting art that would resonate centuries later, basically ignored his sick child, is a fascinating one but it’s better served by a documentary than episodically within an animated film.” Tallerico’s attitude is dismissive toward the affective power of animation and the deeper, more important relationship between the two sisters. Hokusai’s relationship with O-Nao, or lack thereof, is fascinating, but mostly contrasts with O-Ei’s ability to engage and meet her sister halfway, helping her explore Edo when most people would have simply locked up their disabled child away from the world. The idea of replacing that beauty with a relatively cold historical documentary, of preferring it, makes no sense to me. Besides, it would be impossible – little is known about Hokusai’s children outside of O-Ei, including how many of them there even were.

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It’s sad, but not surprising that so many critics seemed to have tuned out the two-thirds of Miss Hokusai that did not include the artist. In the words of Twitter user @lossthief: “the film is literally named after her and they refer to her like a narrating side-character” The film serves as a snapshot in the life of a fantastically unconventional woman who pays little regard to the expectations society holds for her. When male critics lessen her role in her own story, they unconsciously play into those expectations and deny themselves the full experience.