Fushigi Yugi Simulwatchathon

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Watch Fushigi Yugi on Crunchyroll

I got into anime in seventh grade. This was in the late 90’s, back when you paid $30 for two or three episodes on a VHS tape, four if you were lucky. Sub vs. dub wars were still relevant since you had to choose one or the other, and buying was largely through mail-order catalogues. Most anime out during this period was firmly male-oriented, so much so that the dictionary definition of anime for years denoted “of a violent and sexual nature.” When a friend lent me a VHS of Fushigi Yugi she had bought at Suncoast, I fell in love instantly. It seemed to hold everything anime had to offer a girl like me: an adventure-filled melodramatic plotline, dreamy bishounen, slapstick comedy, fantastic worlds, and that certain something, that edge that American cartoons lacked. There was never an assurance that things would be okay in the end. Actions had consequences, mistakes could be made, and characters could die. I was smitten.

That was more than half my lifetime ago. I’ve grown up, my tastes have changed, and I’ve learned a lot about storytelling, character development, and specifically how women are written. In retrospect, Fushigi Yugi was awful. A helpless heroine who is constantly threatened with assault, sexual or otherwise, trans- and homophobic humor, and a story where everything seems to happen more for the sake of convenience than anything else. The dub script is so stilted even normally talented actors such as David Hayter and Mary McGlynn sound halting and confused half the time, and the animation is just as bad. But somehow, doubtless in no small part because of girls like me who wouldn’t know quality if it bit them on the nose, it was a Big Deal in anime fandom back then. Like I said, there wasn’t much anime out there at the time to appeal to teenage girls, and Fushigi Yugi was one of the few aimed squarely at a demographic that was starving to be marketed to.

To be honest, I’ve been dying to write about it since I started this blog. It was a landmark show, and so full of damaging messages to young women, it felt like an obligation to my past self. Nowadays it seems unlikely that many impressionable girls will stumble on it – it’s licensed but only available on DVD or through illegal means (edit: now it’s on Crunchyroll but seems to be most popular with adults reliving the 90s) – but there’s a lot of poison to get out for those of us who did watch it. Plus, nothing gets page views like snark and negativity, which I feel towards the show in spades.

So here’s how it’s going to work. On intermittent Sunday or Thursday evenings, I will announce a stream around a half hour ahead of time on the tumblr. We’ll watch two episodes at a time, and the next day I’ll post a recap/discussion of the episodes we watched. Fushigi Yugi really is an important piece of historical context for the modern-day shoujo fandom, especially those who enjoyed the similar but vastly superior Yona of the Dawn. I’m excited to have you enjoy me on my journey through the Konan Empire.

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Ore Monogatari: The Iron Lily

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It’s said that men are attracted to women similar to their mothers, but tiny, adorable Rinko Yamato bears little resemblance to Takeo’s burly, no-nonsense mother Yuriko. Mama Gouda is the source of her son’s exceptional physique, compassionate nature, and drive to protect the vulnerable. While Yamato’s cuteness and femininity make her relatable, Yuriko sends  the message that those qualities aren’t mandatory to be loved and worthwhile, and that there’s more than one way to be a woman.

Early in the series, Yuriko tells her son, “You’re going to be a big brother soon.” Takeo, while happy, grows concerned, both for her age and the bags of groceries she’s carrying. Irritated, she tells him that she carried plenty of heavy things when she was pregnant with him, and that she’s “chronologically 40, but the doctor says [she’s] physically 22.” Takeo’s insistence on sheltering his mother, who continues to carry heavy grocery loads and do all the same physically taxing housework, is a regular source of annoyance to Yuriko. 33f0c53e0c2db7caff2e6521d4d66c74Pregnant women are often dehumanized – we treat them as if they’re made of glass, and the baby growing inside them is more important than they are themselves. Every body responds to pregnancy differently, and some women are just as capable of hard work as they are at any other time in their life. Tough-as-nails Yuriko has already survived one pregnancy without anyone sheltering her, and she’s just as fit as she was back then. She takes pride in her work taking care of the home. No wonder she gets cranky when her son acts like he knows better, even if it is coming from a good place.

It’s no wonder Takeo managed to forge such a strong, equal relationship with Yamato. He has a great model for it: his own mother and father. Though it does fall along traditional gender lines, with his mother staying at home to care for the apartment and his father working, there are signs that the two share a more equal relationship than most. Whenever his father, Yutaka, gets home, the first thing he does is go clean the bathtub. When baby Maki is born, he is also shown playing with her. 3415a1af1644e1b31d584c769b1ab487These are small things, but with the division of labor as extreme as it tends to be in Japan, it can be difficult for fathers to be even that involved. Husbands being more involved in caring for the home is linked to greater satisfaction in marriages, and Yutaka and Yuriko have clearly created a healthy and loving home environment for Takeo. Yutaka clearly appreciates his wife for who she is, with her physical and emotional strength. He tells Takeo the story of how he fell in love with her: when they were young, they worked in the same office. 916b5d77cd2ff1a3f966fb6cb688f755At a work outing, Yuriko saved a co-worker from a falling pot of hot water, getting hit by the scalding water in her place. When Yutaka went to check on her, she said, “When I see cute girls like her, I just want to protect them, you know?” Yutaka continues, “For the first time in my life, I thought I’d want to ride out the turbulent waves of life with someone like her!” He proposed by saying he wanted to protect her, but “[she’s] so strong, I’ve never gotten around to protecting her.”

Yuriko’s protective instincts and her emotional strength are a major part of her self-identity. While Takeo is out buying those groceries he refused to let her carry, she tells Yamato, “Men are such wimps, women have to be the strong ones.” While I’m not a fan of gendered statements like that, truth still rings through the line. Yamato is confused, saying that Takeo is plenty strong, but Yuriko tells an anecdote from when he was five and ran into the street. He was almost hit by a car and she had to dive to protect him, scraping her arm in the process. Takeo panicked and begged her, “Don’t die, Mom!” df995986ba4b90a7c827dcd6bfdd65e8Strength comes in many forms, and the form she refers to here – protectiveness, self-sacrifice, and keeping a brave face in a crisis – are commonly associated with motherhood. Yuriko displays this strength many times in the episode, but it comes at a price. When a fellow pregnant woman she met at the clinic slips on some steps, Yuriko catches her, but her own belly ends up absorbing the impact. She ends up going to the hospital and entering labor early, even giving up her wheelchair to the delivery room so the first-time mother-to-be sharing her room could have it. Along every step of the way she puts on a brave face for her son and his friends, shooting them a thumbs up and a wink even as she’s doubled over in pain. She even tells them flippantly, “I’m going to push one out now!” Hiding her pain and fear is the only way she can take care of Takeo in her current position; otherwise, he’d lose his mind with worry. e46b1971914677f2f355f32dcca5ae54She only drops her brave face in front of her husband, telling him sadly, “I wonder if our baby’s mad at me…” Yutaka reassures her, “You just wanted to protect them both.” Even the strongest feel vulnerable sometimes, and seeing the emotional partnership between the couple is touching.

When OreMono came out, some wondered if a series where Takeo were the girl would ever be viable. Well, she may not have a whole series focused on her, but that is Yuriko Gouda’s story. A woman who, though not traditionally beautiful, is admirable and beloved because of the power of her compassion and who thinks nothing of sacrificing herself to protect others. The Gouda family is beautiful because it shows that not just one kind of woman is worthy of love, and that you don’t need to change who you are to fit artificial ideas of how you should act because of your gender. When I become a mother myself, I hope I can be as strong – physically and emotionally – as Yuriko.

Ore Monogatari: Their Love Story

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Summary: Oversized, brash, but good-hearted Takeo Gouda has a problem: every girl he has ever liked crushes on his best friend Sunakawa, who inevitably rejects them. When Suna seems to take a shine to Rinko Yamato, an adorable girl Takeo rescued from a pervert on the train, Takeo decides to shove aside his own feelings and hook the two up. But it’s not Suna that Yamato is interested in!

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Potential Triggers: Nothing really to speak of! What a nice change of pace.

Ore Monogatari, or MY Love STORY!! in English, is a delightful little confection and a welcome addition to the shoujo romance canon.Takeo, Suna, and Yamato all have great chemistry,, and the love they all have for each other shines through in the writing. Their personalities – brash Takeo, perceptive Suna, and tougher-than-she-looks Yamato – cut through the genre’s tired cliches. Takeo is worried about Yamato’s feelings but doesn’t know how to talk to her about it? Practical Suna is there with an accurate read on the situation to counsel his sweet-but-dense best friend. Like magic, awkward situations and misunderstandings are resolved, allowing the characters to grow and become closer instead of being torn apart by petty conflicts.

A heterosexual romance with a male point-of-view character is unusual for shoujo, but it ends up being a major source of OreMono’s strength. It creates a situation where both of the main couple must be dynamic and interesting, since readers must be able to sympathize with both of them. Larger-than-life Takeo is as sweet-natured as they come, despite his appearance, and a deeply loving boyfriend. He’s also quite dense and struggles with self-doubt. Yamato is a girly girl through and through. She has a squeaky voice, and loves cute things, baking, and texting. d4e2fa2d3f23e9ff30cec8ed6d7af424She also loves Takeo, but also gets frustrated when he treats her like she’s made of glass.The show does has a problem early on where it sets Yamato’s attraction to Takeo up in opposition to every other girl he encounters. Whenever he helps one, they’re terrified of him but thank handsome Suna instead. Even Yamato’s friends judge him by his unconventional appearance. As a result, women other than Yamato come across as superficial and shallow at first, but the situation improves as the show introduces more fully-realized women. Together, they form one of the kindest, sweetest pairs to be found in the romance genre and even their most mundane conversations are enjoyable.

As the POV character, Takeo must be relatable and likable enough that we feel comfortable in his head, but as the man in the relationship, he also must be interesting enough that we can imagine dating him. Yamato, on the other hand, is an othering of the familiar as Takeo gets to know his girlfriend. Things that are a matter of course for many Japanese girls, such as cute animated text messages, are new and exciting for Takeo, who doesn’t really have any female friends. Her speech patterns, hobbies, and career ambitions – to be a kindergarten teacher or midwife – are all extremely feminine. Yet, since readers will be far more familiar with these things than Takeo, she must have personality beyond her mystifying girliness, but be sweet enough to be a good match for him.

The importance of communication between the two lovebirds comes up early and often, and one of their first miscommunications is about the all-important subject of sex, specifically female purity. Takeo is surprisingly conservative, not out of any misguided beliefs on how things should be but how he believes things are. When Yamato acts shy around him, especially when she sees him in his undershirt, he interprets that as her being pure and reassures her that he won’t touch her until after they graduate. 6bd112c4dabfe0ba62d70a494e2b48c7 When she starts acting distant, Takeo is puzzled. Shouldn’t she be more at ease? Both Yamato and Takeo have grown up in a culture that values female sexual purity and treats female sexual desire as an aberration, so it’s unsurprising that when Yamato hears that, her response is of guilt and shame. After all, she admits to Ai Sunakawa, Suna’s older sister, her attraction to Takeo is just as much physical as it is mental and emotional. She “has impure thoughts” and wants to do things like “holding hands”. (How brazen!) When she confesses this to Takeo, she actually has tears in her eyes.
Acknowledging Yamato’s physical attraction to Takeo is an awesome move on the part of the series. Not only does it respect her as a sexual being, despite her extreme cuteness and seeming innocence, 2931405d86e1f843af43f0fed6b3a2f7but it also shows that it’s okay to have unconventional taste. Often when female characters are paired with male characters who aren’t conventionally attractive, it’s despite his looks. This sets the expectation that women should be less concerned with physical and thus sexual attraction, reinforcing the implicit belief that women who do care are shallow or sluts. With an everygirl like Yamato, it’s a powerful message.

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Of course, learning the actual logistics of holding hands presents its own challenges.

Yamato and Takeo communicating about their problems sets a strong precedent for their relationship that carries through the entire series (albeit occasionally facilitated by long-suffering Suna). The two feel comfortable and safe together; when they are stranded in the woods for a night, neither is afraid that Takeo won’t be able to “control himself”, a common trope in romance manga. The final two episodes of the series introduce Kouki Ichinose, a twenty-one year old pastry chef and the opposite of Takeo.fb9aa7d289dd41932582aa3ac444215b When Yamato, working at the same patisserie, compliments one of his cakes, he falls for her hard – so hard, in fact, that he asks Takeo to break up with her. The way he sees it, he’s better for her in every way. They have common interests, unlike the culinarily-challenged Takeo, plus he’s traditionally attractive, at the top of his field, and older. He even has a car, a major symbol of adulthood and status in teen-oriented manga. When Takeo refuses, Ichinose comes up with a new plan: if he wins an upcoming national pastry contest, he’ll confess his feelings. He never even bothers to entertain the idea that she’ll reject him. Takeo is jealous and protective in part because he agrees that Ichinose is, on paper, a better match for her. After struggling with those feelings, he decides that if she really does end up wanting to leave him for Ichinose, he’ll be the bigger man figuratively as well as literally and support her. Yamato’s happiness is priority one for him and he doesn’t want to keep her trapped in a relationship if there are better prospects. Still, he waits for Yamato to make her own decision rather than breaking up with her like Ichinose requested, because it’s her choice to make. His approach to the situation is far more emotionally intelligent than Ichinose’s, even if he is plagued by doubt. Ichinose, on the other hand, is presumptuous and self-absorbed. He starts using her given name the same day he meets her, a step Takeo hasn’t even managed to take after almost a year of dating. When she talks, he usually makes wild assumptions about what she really means, projecting his own feelings onto her. He puts her on a pedestal, going so far as to declare her his ‘muse’.

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That’s not what she said, bro.

His entitled behavior is common in men who carry some degree of prestige, under the guise of “confidence”. In addition, he is older than Yamato and outranks her at work, creating a power imbalance that would make any relationship inappropriate. His lack of interest in actually listening to her makes him oblivious to the fact that she is smitten with Takeo, something that is obvious to everyone else she meets. When he asks her to be his “one and only muse”, she refuses, telling him she really loves Takeo and she’s “not a muse or anything. Just an ordinary part-timer.” She dislikes being put on a pedestal, preferring the boy who sees her as a person over the man who doesn’t.

As Dee of Josei Next Door said in her episode summaries on Anime Evo, in some ways Ore Monogatari is like a how-to guide for young couples. Takeo and Yamato get through any pitfalls in their relationship by communicating honestly and treating each other with respect. It’s a refreshingly healthy dynamic, and written as just as interesting as the drama-laden tension of most teen romance. Few people may be as sweet-natured as Takeo and Yamato, but their approach to love is one that everyone should take note of: always assume the best, treat your partner with respect and, failing all else, get by with a little help from your friends.

Who is the Woman Called Fujiko Mine? Part 2

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The Lupin III franchise stretches back almost 50 years to the original manga by Monkey Punch. It has evolved over time, generally becoming milder and more family-friendly, but the rogues’ gallery of protagonists has remained largely the same. Everything revolves around the titular thief, Arsene Lupin III, who is aided by his partners in crime Jigen and Goemon, and pursued by Detective Zenigata of Interpol. The wildcard has always been Fujiko Mine, both in characterization and how the creative team uses her. At her best, she is wily and clever, though self-serving; at her worst, she is a damsel or a vehicle for fanservice, with her clothes getting torn off to reveal her curvaceous body. While Lupin is more interested in the pursuit than the loot, Fujiko is most interested getting what she wants and willing to do what it takes to make that happen, including betraying her accomplices. While Jigen and Goemon are trustworthy compatriots for Lupin, Fujiko is unpredictable and treacherous. In the hands of male-led creative teams, her treachery is often written as a natural consequence of her womanhood, thus positioning Fujiko outside of the group and casting her as the other, even more so than Zenigata, who is Lupin’s enemy but nonetheless stolid and reliable. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine turns this on its head by making her the center of the origin story, uniting all the characters around her rather than around Lupin.

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The first time we meet Fujiko, we literally see her through Lupin’s eyes – talk about the male gaze! He watches her through binoculars as she is married to a cult leader, lustily kissing the old man in a backless wedding gown cut down to the cleavage of her butt. The lust was an act, and it’s not long before she and Lupin are thrown into a dungeon together. They talk, revealing that they know who the other is: she describes him as “a master thief… who always gets what he wants”, and as she runs his hand up his thigh, he calls her “a lady looter unafraid to use her feminine wiles, with a voracious appetite for treasure.” She draws back in surprise when he identifies her, and her girlish act falls away.

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While he is showy and ostentatious and from a long line of thieves, she is a relative upstart, and being recognizable doesn’t suit her style. She slips under the radar to do her job. “Got anything in your bag of tricks besides seduction? Something to make you a worthy opponent?” he asks her. She does, but swiftly proves that seduction is a weapon that should not be underestimated when she uses it to draw in a decoy to be executed in her place.

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I think she’s into me…
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No way she’s just using me!

Lupin is shocked by her willingness to kill, even if it is “only when necessary.” The thieves’ value systems clash – Lupin is a brazen trickster who deliberately puts himself in situations where he has to wriggle his way out using sleight. Fujiko is a classic femme fatale who uses her femininity as a diversion and as a weapon, but has a ruthlessness that Lupin lacks. The two of them spend the rest of the episode competing over the haul as they outsmart each other and the cult leaders, allowing her to display her agility, intelligence, and marksmanship in addition to her feminine wiles. Although Lupin eventually gains the upper hand, surfing through the air on a huge reclining Buddha made of the hallucinogenic drug Fraulein Eule, the two clearly enjoy the competition, smiling and bantering even as they exchange fire: “I’m no fine woman… I’m a mighty fine woman!” She mystifies and fascinates him – “That woman is off her rocker. She infiltrated a dangerous place like this all alone just for some drugs, she’s so far off the rails she’s even willing to kill, she’s so masochistic she doesn’t care how far she falls… I kind of like that.” Even if he doesn’t really understand her or her methods, she has proven herself as a formidable rival who will “kill off his boredom.” As Fujiko rides away on her motorcycle, she finds a note on her thigh in lipstick: “Fujiko Mine will be mine. –Lupin the Third” Lupin lets her know that he intends to continue his pursuit, that she fascinates him enough to rank among the treasures he takes.

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Fujiko’s relationships with Lupin’s other allies, Jigen and Goemon, are somewhat more complicated. Jigen’s dislike of Fujiko and distrust of women in general is well-documented throughout the franchise’s history, and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is no exception. Not that anyone could really blame him –  she drugged him, stole his gun, and participated in a plot to force him to murder his ex-lover and later said he “wasn’t a Magnum down there” as he fell into a death trap she created. Not exactly a foundation of trust. In contrast, Goemon is trusting to a fault, buying wholeheartedly into Fujiko’s persona as the governess Maria and calling her his “real girlfriend”, even after she reveals the whole thing was just a ploy to obtain the royal family’s priceless belt. When he finds her wandering alone and disoriented later in the series, he takes her in and cares for her, even as she literally throws his hospitality back in his face.

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Both men have inauthentic relationships with her due to their preconceived notions about women. Although Fujiko gives him plenty of reason to dislike her later, Jigen is dismissive of her from the start, telling his boss, “Babysitting women ain’t part of the bodyguard’s job description”. When she tries to seduce him, he bluntly says, “I just hate women, I’m afraid,” and holds her own knife up to her throat. His read of Fujiko’s duplicitousness here may be correct, but it doesn’t change that he makes quite a few assumptions and for the rest of the series, he is baffled as to why Lupin holds her in such high regard. Goemon’s assumptions about women take the form of a classic virgin/whore complex. Even after she reveals herself as a thief, he thinks of her as the virtuous governess Maria. Fujiko takes advantage of his naivete, kissing him naked on the rooftop and calling him “Boyfriend-san” (though this is doubtless partly because continuity demands the two be dating by the start of Green Jacket). Fujiko’s behavior during her breakdown surprises him – when he offers her food, she throws it at him and shouts, “What’s your deal? Do you think you’re my guardian?! What are you after?! If you want to sleep with me, quit beating around the bush!” Downstairs, he cleans his sword and thinks, “She’s a shameless minx without a doubt. Once, I thought of Fujiko Mine as a holy woman.” He doesn’t need to say the rest – if this unbalanced, lingerie-clad woman screaming at him about sex is not holy, then she is fallen. He is incapable of seeing her for what she is: a complex human going through a trying time.

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Because both men view Fujiko according to their own beliefs and expectations of women, they have limited roles in the finale. Jigen is eliminated early as he falls prey to the hallucinogenic Fraulein Eule and becomes convinced that Lupin has the head of an owl, but not before expressing puzzlement at what makes “this broad” worth all the trouble to Lupin. Goemon slips into the park only to be made up as a Fujiko lookalike by animatronic owls. With the help of his trusty Zantetsuken he makes his escape in time to destroy the circuit breaker and allow Fujiko to escape, all while in drag, but the drug that permeates the air catches up to him and he begins to hallucinate owl heads as well. Jigen and Goemon meet for the first time in this series, locked in a pointless battle on a roller coaster and convinced the other is an owl, effectively written out of the finale. Neither villains nor heroes, they have little effect on the final and product. They are inert until the sun rises, the tale of Fujiko Mine ends, and the effects of the drug wears off.

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When The Woman Called Fujiko Mine came out, longtime franchise fans were shocked by how Zenigata was written. Gone was the lovable, good-hearted, slightly inept detective. The new Koichi Zenigata is corrupt and casually misogynist, aided by a young, eager, virulently misogynistic lieutenant named Oscar. Zenigata abuses his power as a cop to take advantage of Fujiko. His first episode opens with the two having sex, apparently in exchange for her freedom. Afterward, he motions as if to put out his cigarette on her breast, though she knocks it aside and tells him to cut it out.

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He revels in his power over her and his ability to extort her for control over her body. He also gives her a mission: to bait Lupin from his next target, the jewel-encrusted mask of the opera singer Aiyan. This assignment doesn’t come from any faith in her abilities, but rather out of scorn. Once Fujiko is out of earshot, he says, “There ain’t a case in history of a woman not turning traitor,” and calls her “vermin”. Fujiko is self-serving, yes, but it has nothing to do with her womanhood. It can’t even really be called betrayal, since he is hardly an ally to her. While Zenigata is condescending, Oscar is openly hateful – he calls Fujiko a “pig woman” and, when she tells him to stop calling her that, “spittoon”. “You’re just a receptacle for vile male lust! Worthless trash!” His hatred stems from jealousy – he’s in love with Zenigata and resents Fujiko for her body and how Zenigata desires it. As the series progresses, Oscar’s  verbal abuse  turns physical. While in disguise as a student at a girls’ school, he seduces Fujiko, only to reveal himself and tie her up at the last second. As he pours wine over her naked body, he recites the love letter he wrote for Zenigata and finally licks the last drops of wine off her lips.

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The relationships between the three would be disturbing with any character other than her due to the coercive sexual element, but Fujiko in the first half of the series is a power fantasy through and through. She intelligently manipulates the situations to her advantage, preventing the men from ever having the upper hand for long, such as using recordings of her having sex with Zenigata to convince Oscar she is torturing him in order to get information she needs. When Fujiko is incapacitated near the end of the series after her encounter with the kaleidoscope woman, Oscar begins to imitate her in order to gain Zenigata’s attention. However, he gets it all wrong: he sends warning notes and steals gaudy items, and even kills a fellow officer in his desperation. He fundamentally misunderstands Fujiko’s modus operandi, stealing stereotypically feminine items such as crowns and even a wedding dress, but it takes Zenigata too long to realize he’s dealing with an impostor. At first he says, “Everything she’s been stealing has been gaudy and tasteless. That woman doesn’t know her place.”

Oscar wants to be Fujiko because of what she is to Zenigata, but Zenigata is blind to who she is because of what she is. She’s a lot of things: a treacherous woman, a female body to objectify, a stepping stone to reach Lupin (a more worthy, male opponent), but he has never considered her an opponent worth knowing in her own right. Because of his blinders, Oscar’s charade culminates in his apparent death, and Fujiko becomes one more thing to Zenigata: a scapegoat. He’s lost everything, he’s been taken off the Lupin case, Oscar’s body is missing, and when Fujiko offers to help him avenge his protege’s death, he replies, “Sending you to the hangman will avenge him.” When the two go to Glaucus Pharmaceuticals to investigate a string of kidnappings connected to owls and find themselves on an eerie ride reminiscent of “It’s a Small World” illustrating Fujiko’s supposed “torturous past”. At the end is an eerie room full of topless women made up to look like Fujiko, and among them is Oscar, who attacks Fujiko until Zenigata pulls him off of her and recognizes his scar.

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Zenigata begs Oscar to remember who he was, the boy who leapt from a bridge just to protect a single franc, but it’s useless. That was never really who Oscar was, anyway. His past is unclear – blogger Vrai Kaiser theorizes that he was one of Aisha’s “what-if” victims – but he stated earlier that wasn’t why he leapt. His misogyny and his desire to become Fujiko combine into frenzy. He drives a tanker truck into the building, screaming, “Bad girls must burn!” and immolating the Fujiko clonesHe watches and listen to the girls scream, tears running down his face, as the building burns and Zenigata walks away, only to turn around and run back. Zenigata abandons his role in Fujiko’s story to see Oscar’s through to the end. That story runs parallel to Fujiko’s as they descend into madness and loss of identity, but Fujiko is able to regain herself, whereas Oscar only loses himself further. In the end, he parallels Aisha: he tries to inhabit another body because of his dissatisfaction with his own. When that fails, he can only try to destroy what remains. Their final words are even the same: “Bad girls must be punished.”

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In some ways, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is the story of how Lupin fell in love with Fujiko. At first, he pursued her at the request of Aisha, but he develops a real respect for her in their game of cat and mouse. The show deftly avoids developing an uncomfortable power dynamic by showing a mutual understanding of the implicit rules of the game they play. Despite the declaration he left on her thigh after their first meeting, Fujiko feels safe and comfortable around Lupin. When she is swimming in her pool nude, she hears an intruder, and reaches for her gun. When he reveals himself as Lupin, she relaxes and lets go of the gun. After Oscar assaults her, leaving her naked, restrained, and defenseless, Lupin comes and releases her. Even when Fujiko is at her most vulnerable, he treats her with respect.

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He worships her – when Jigen is confused about why he’s so devoted, Lupin tells him, “Are you blind? She’s national treasure class.” However, it wouldn’t be fair to say he idealizes her – it’s more that Fujiko is his ideal. He supports her every step of the story, and it’s because of his willingness to investigate on her behalf that they were able to solve the mystery at the center of the story. He investigates Glaucus Pharmaceuticals, subjecting himself to a hefty dose of Fraulein Eule,  the painful and frightening hallucinogen, to find answers. His attention to detail allows him to see through misdirections that confound other characters. When Oscar is posing as Fujiko, Lupin is the first to realize, “This M.O. is too flashy for Fujiko,” while Zenigata just thinks of her as another worthless thief. He figures out that the memories Fujiko describes can’t be real because she mentions how they burned her feet, but the soles of her feet are pristine. Lupin, instead of operating on preconceived notions and expectations of women, values Fujiko for herself. He defies Aisha and her mother when they demand he kill her, even when they threaten his life. Even as she nearly succumbs to Almeida’s conditioning, he tells her, “The marionette strings have been cut. A woman who’s just some passive doll is no fun. Come on, show me your power.” And she does, because he has been there to support her. He sees her as a person, unlike any other character, and so he gets to be by her side to the end.

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Who is the woman called Fujiko Mine? She’s a skilled thief and a con woman who loves money and jewelry to adorn herself in. She’s smart, savvy, and manipulative. She rarely loses control of the situation, and when she does, she defends herself with a savage ruthlessness shocking even to seasoned professionals. She is sexy and uses it as a weapon as well as for its own sake, since men tend not to take women who look like her seriously. She uses her marginalized position to slip past the radar and take what she wants, unnoticed. In creating The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Sayo Yamamoto took a character who has most commonly been a sexual fantasy, a dream woman for men, and turned her into a female power fantasy: a woman who knows what she wants and takes it, a woman who exploits through sex instead of being exploited, and a woman who is, above all else, free. That is the woman called Fujiko Mine.

Who is the Woman Called Fujiko Mine? Part One

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“Women never show themselves in their natural form. That is to say, they are not so vain as men, who conceive themselves to be always amiable enough just as nature produced them.”

Goethe

In the sixth episode of The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Fujiko reads this passage to a class of adoring high school girls while in disguise as a teacher. This quote resounds throughout the show – Fujiko is a chameleon, disguising herself to slip past men’s defenses and take their wealth. In an instant, she can turn from a traditional Japanese beauty serving tea, to a purring sex kitten. Because of that purposeful sexiness, men often overlook or underestimate her, letting down their guard so that she can get to what she wants. Similarly, female director Sayo Yamamoto and writer Mari Okada deliberately draw upon narratives of tragic, damaged women who are wicked because of their trauma. Much like how Fujiko acts according to men’s expectations to lower their defenses, Yamamoto uses the narrative conventions to  build to a stunning twist that comments on the importance of agency and of women controlling their own narratives.

It seems, these days, every female villain needs a tragic backstory. Women are rarely allowed to be simply wicked, but instead victims of some great injustice or trauma. She’s not flawed, she’s damaged – spurned by a lover, or raped, or injured at the hands of men in some way. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine sets up this expectation from the outset, as baroque text flashes across the screen proclaiming, “Fujiko Mine, stripped of all her love. Your sweet scent shall draw three rogues to you, and so this tale of hijinks shall unfold. However, you must never forget. The overcast skies you see are painted from my palette. Signed, LYA.”

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The “LYA” who wrote the letter is Count Luis Yu Almeida – eventually revealed to be Aisha Kaiser, the mastermind behind the show’s central mystery. Small hints are dropped to further lead the viewer to believe Fujiko steals because of how damaged she is. In the first episode, Lupin comments, “That woman is off her rocker. She infiltrated a dangerous place like this all alone just for some drugs. She’s so far off the rails she’s even willing to kill, she’s so masochistic she doesn’t care how far she falls… I kinda like that.” In the next episode, after Fujiko unwittingly leads the suicidal Cicciolina to end the life she had so little control over, she says of the woman, “Something about her reminded me of myself. That’s why I went along with her little thief act.” Moments like this, and other similar ones, set the foundation for Fujiko as a tragic heroine, a poor amnesiac who steals to fill some hole in herself. She is selfish and greedy, uses sex for her personal gain, and prefers vice to virtue.  Of course, so does our hero Lupin, but his motives are never questioned. As a man, he is allowed to simply be who he is, whereas Fujiko, as a woman, is compared to notions of how a woman should be.

Although the other major recurring characters are all men, Fujiko encounters several other women throughout the series, whose past tragedies set up the expectation that, like them, Fujiko is deeply damaged and steals to fill some void. In episode two, “.357 Magnum”, Fujiko wagers herself at a casino and loses. Cicciolina, the owner, offers her freedom in exchange for the gun belonging to Daisuke Jigen.

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Things aren’t as straightforward as it seems, as it turns out that Cicciolina and Jigen have a sordid past: A bodyguard who fell in love with his boss’s suicidal wife, ending with the bodyguard shooting the woman’s husband. The plan, engineered by Cicciolina and carried out by Fujiko, ends with Jigen shooting his former lover. As she dies in Jigen’s arms, she tells him, “I thought about killing you. I thought about just dying. But if I was going to die… I wanted you to be the one to kill me…”

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Later, Fujiko tells Jigen, “Something about her reminded me of myself. That’s why I went along with her little thief act.” Cicciolina was suicidal, suffered from ennui, and had every part of her life controlled by the men around her – what part of her could remind Fujiko of herself? When a woman is so thoroughly troubled, anyone who she reminds of themselves must be troubled as well. Fujiko has little memory of her own past, so it remains conveniently vague exactly how she and Cicciolina are similar while still setting up viewer expectations that Fujiko has some dark past unconsciously driving her.

In the ninth episode of the series, “Love Wreathed in Steam”, Lupin and Jigen steal a tattooed girl from a sideshow act turned auction. Fujiko, destabilized from an encounter with a fortune-teller who tried to tell her the date of her death, ruthlessly pursues the three with no regard for her own safety. The Kaleidoscope Girl, tattooed from birth and paraded around the world with a made-up origin story by a male artist, is nonverbal and feral: when Jigen looks her over, she cries out and scratches his face. She has been raised as an object for male desire and gain, with no regard for her personhood. As Lupin observes, “She’s always been treated like just another painting and never given a real education or treated like a human.”

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In a flashback, we see that Fujiko saw a commercial for the girl while watching TV with one of her latest gold digging victims. When the commercial announces, “Enjoy a sublime work of art along with the tale called ‘Her Life’,” Fujiko grows upset. As she goes to wash her face, “The tale called ‘life…’ The tale called ‘Fujiko Mine’… give your tale… to me,” flashes across the screen, intercut with shots of a young girl being operated on by a group of owl-headed men while conscious and terrified. This isn’t the first time the audience has seen this little girl, as throughout the series we’ve seen flashes of her being tortured and raped by the owl men. Fujiko says to herself, “I swear I’ll make it mine,” and during the pursuit says, “That woman belongs to me.” She at once subjectifies and objectifies the girl, identifying with her while simultaneously claiming ownership. The artist co-opted her life and turned into a narrative for others to enjoy, but then Fujiko, projecting herself so strongly on the girl, attempts to co-opt it for herself. There is nothing playful or strategic about her pursuit of the Kaleidoscope Girl, only the cold intent to kill. She rushes at Lupin and Jigen shooting, unafraid to kill the man who up until then has been her partner and ally in many situations. The camera frequently focuses on her eyes, uncharacteristically cold and angry.

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When she corners Lupin and the Kaleidoscope Girl at the source of a hot spring, Lupin observes, “You’re out to kill her, aren’t you? No, that’s not it. It’s yourself you want to kill.” Fujiko replies, “If it is, Lupin… what am I supposed to do?” As she aims Lupin’s own gun at her head, surrounded by flammable gas, she not only wants to kill herself but is willing to take out Lupin and the Kaleidoscope Girl in her desperation to escape a life where she thinks her every action has been manipulated and controlled by strangers.

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At the end of the episode, Lupin and Jigen leave the Kaleidoscope Girl at a temple in hopes that she will be cared for in some way, rather than trying to profit off her. In doing so, they break the cycle of exploitation the girl has faced, choosing to act in her best interest rather than profiting off her body like the men before them. Fujiko, meanwhile, wanders along the side of the highway, muttering, “What the hell,” until she runs into Goemon, who takes her in.

After eleven episodes of build-up pointing to Fujiko as a traumatized woman who commits theft due to repressed memories, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine reveals its final twist in the two-part finale of the same name. Fujiko, after the apparent death of his lieutenant Oscar, accompanies Zenigata to an eerie abandoned amusement park on the site of Glaucus Pharmaceuticals, the company responsible for her memories of being tortured as a child. There she meets Aisha, a young girl who, while posing as Count Luis Yu Almeida, implanted memories of her own torment at the hands of the real Count into dozens of young women, including Fujiko.

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As her owl-headed servant explains, the original Count Almeida, Aisha’s father, inflicted such terrible trauma on her that she only remains in control of her eyes, leaving the rest of her body paralyzed. She  planned, using a computer that reads her eye motions to give the narrating assistant instructions, to give other girls her memories because she “wanted to know her ‘what-ifs’” – what her life could have been like if she could still move. She continued the cycle of victimization that her father started, subjecting others to the same torment she had been through. This pattern is well-documented: victims of abuse are disproportionately likely to become abusive later in life.

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Most of Aisha’s victims committed suicide shortly after she released them, but Fujiko was already an adult with her personality fully formed. “Being a thief was an unexpected ‘if’, but Miss Aisha was pleased with it,” her assistant says. Aisha assumes – as does the viewer – that Fujiko’s hedonistic lifestyle sprang from her fresh memories of old trauma as a coping mechanism. She assumes she has control over Fujiko’s life, that she completely rewrote the course of her destiny and this would be the life that Aisha would be living. When she realized Fujiko had blocked out her implanted memories, she grew enraged and hired Lupin to force her to remember. She took Fujiko’s narrative and superimposed her own onto it and attempted to control it. What she did wasn’t far off from what the artist did to the tattooed girl, and what her own father did to her. The message here is clear: women must control and fiercely guard their own narratives to avoid becoming defined by their victimhood. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, written and directed primarily by women, came at a time when the anime industry was focused mostly on stories about girls made for and by men. These girls, primarily modeled on moe archetypes rather than anything resembling human personalities, were innocent and precious and their vices only served to make them cuter and inspire protective feelings in their male viewers.

Fujiko, at learning Aisha’s foiled plan, smiles and says, “The occasional failure adds to my feminine charm, doesn’t it?” Her playful, cavalier demeanor is that of Fujiko early in the series, before she encountered the tattooed woman. As it turns out, all her memories returned, including the ones from before she came to Aisha’s mansion as a maid. “Thievery and casual sex were my scene long before I met you. No matter what past anyone feeds me, I’m still myself. You’re looking at the woman called Fujiko Mine.” Her narrative is her own, and not what was created by Aisha.

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She’s lucky – she can go back to who she was before her abuser tried to take it away. Countless others aren’t so lucky, if they even have a time in their life before the abuse happened. Some, like the painted woman, lack the ability or knowledge to build their own lives, while others such as Aisha only know how to continue the cycle. Just as tragically, Aisha’s owl-headed servant is revealed to be her own mother, plagued by guilt from what happened to her daughter. She stood by and allowed men to take control of Aisha’s life, to direct the course of the young girl’s destiny, to rape and torture her. When the two are freed from Almeida’s control, she took on a male guise with a voice changer and an owl mask to hide her face, because she doesn’t know how to take control as a woman. She eventually turns to Lupin, asking him to capture and eventually to kill Fujiko but, as Lupin says, “When you told me to kill Fujiko Mine, what you really meant was, ‘Please end this tale.’” She lacks the courage to end it herself, so she turns to a man. Lupin, however, tells her, “All you did was mess up the tale of Aisha’s life,” and turns things over to Fujiko. Fujiko, in a move both compassionate and cruel, takes Aisha to a beach and wades in the water.

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“Aisha, are you taking a good look at this? This is the world! Your world, seen through your eyes! This is my world, and I’m free! I’ll give you a treasure. The freedom you wanted.” Moments later, Aisha dies. She was unable to survive in a world where she is free, where there is no one else to control her; the world where Fujiko thrives.

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Sakura Con 2014: Objectification in Anime: Agency, Nudity, and What It All Means

“A lot of times we don’t pay close attention to what’s going on in shows we’re watching just for entertainment. This can make it hard to have a productive discussion with people who try to point out that anime is misogynist or that it objectifies women. In this panel we’ll take a look at what objectification is really all about and whether anime really all boils down to just that.”

Read that panel description. Sounds pretty good, right? Come back up and read it again at the end of the article and see how your perceptions change.

Picture this: a man wears a backwards baseball cap, reflective aviator sunglasses, a matted ponytail to the middle of his back, a silkscreen button down shirt, and cuffed skinny jeans. He has just come from presenting a panel on harem anime in front of an audience that laughs uproariously at nosebleed jokes and cheers at panty shots. In a different room, in front of a different audience, he prepares to deliver another presentation. This audience is mostly women, here to listen to someone discuss objectification.

Well then. Can you guess how it went?

He kicked off the panel by defining “objectification” as characters without agency who are acted upon instead of acting themselves and saying that it is “less straightforward than it seems”. While I agree with the last point, and the definition is a good starting place, it is far from the whole story and, as you will see, he went with a definition of objectification that is vastly different from what social philosophers and and feminists use, which relies on the viewer’s point of view, not between the characters.

To illustrate his point, he showed a clip from the anime Dakara Boku wa H ga Dekinai. The clip, clearly R-rated in a panel that was ostensibly PG-13, had a pair of maids licking and massaging an unwilling male recipient. His point in showing it, he claimed, was to show that objectification can go both ways. Next was a clip from the show Senran Kagura about women who gain power by forming contracts with the male main character and occasionally even refer to him as a “magic battery”. While I agree the former clip, featuring a nonconsenting male character in a sexual situation, was upsetting and should absolutely be considered rape, I contest that these can be considered “objectifying”. After all, these are series made for men, by men. When the term “objectification” is used, it usually refers to the viewer’s relationship with the characters, not the characters’ relationships with each other. Since the male viewers are supposed to identify with the main character, they are being subjectified. But you all knew that, right? Let’s move on.

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Not depicted: The poor men being objectified by these vicious women

Next he made the claim that nudity isn’t inherently objectifying, but can be when used to draw in an audience. That’s true! There’s plenty of potential contexts in which nudity is not objectifying or sexual. People are naked sometimes. It happens. Of course, his go-to example of objectifying nudity was Free! Not, you know, one of literally hundreds of titty anime. He had to go for the one show made to show off the male body for a female audience. He claimed that large breasts being fetishized is a “slippery topic” and “anime that fetishize things, fetishize things both ways”. He didn’t name the show, but he showed a clip from a show where two girls were introducing the male protagonist to their hot mothers – one dressed in a kimono and very traditionally feminine, and one who immediately pressed his face into her breasts and told him he could “forcibly molest” her daughter. While it’s true that a wide variety of female traits are fetishized, they tend to all fall along the same stereotypes, as seen in the clip he presented, and present all women as sexual objects. Not to mention the incredible grossness levels inherent in what was going on there. Seriously, “forcibly molest her”? You couldn’t find anything that didn’t involve a mother telling a boy to rape her daughter? What the shit dude. He brushed off any concerns saying there was an “overstated assumption” that people who watch things will start acting like that and they indicate a level of “social permissiveness”. Which. No. No. That’s not what we’re worried about. It’s more insidious than that. It’s a much more subtle, creeping effect that does, yes, include growing levels of social permissiveness and men who do not see women as people because of their continuous consumption of media like this. It’s why an idol singer who was caught having a boyfriend – not having sex, not doing anything illegal, simply being in a monogamous relationship – shaved her head in penance and filmed herself crying and apologizing for ten minutes.

At this point, an audience member piped up that male and female nudity are NOT equivalent, and that buff male characters are usually a male power fantasy rather than made for women to look at. This comment was brushed off by the presenter, but applauded by the audience.

He had some statistics for us! A quarter of Japanese men and almost half of Japanese women are uninterested in sex. For most Japanese women, career or children is a binary choice. For the population that doesn’t apply to, he blamed the very vague concept of “rigid social structures”. This leads to certain segments of the population withdrawing, consuming anime and manga instead of socializing, and objectification of women and in a “much more harmful form…robbing self-insert male characters of agency.” By this point, the audience had grown noticeably hostile. The woman next to me was taking notes on points to refute and follow up on once she got the chance; I could hear others around me whispering to one another in confusion and anger.

So, what started the blatant catering to otaku? According to the man sitting in front of us, it was Neon Genesis Evangelion. It was the first successful niche anime, proving that otaku have deep enough to pockets to be a viable market, despite being a relatively small segment of the population. Its themes of alienation appealed to those who felt isolated; its success caused most anime made from there on to fall into two categories: anime about feeling alienation, and anime made to provide escapism to those who feel that way. Or rather, you know, menwho feel that way. But he didn’t make that distinction, probably because it would be sexist of him to differentiate. Or some shit like that.

Being blamed for this makes Shinji feel isolated and depressed
Being blamed for this makes Shinji feel isolated and depressed

“Male gaze is a slippery topic,” he said, and lately, there’s been the “stronger presence of female gaze”. After all, Free! exists, and Comiket has an entire day (out of three!) devoted to yaoi. So, of course, the female gaze is the much greater threat. Of course, to those of us who have an understanding of gender in the media at all – I almost said “beyond a basic level” but even that is enough to grasp it- male gaze isn’t a slippery topic. It’s actually an incredibly straightforward topic. The concept is almost 40 years old, well-documented, and one of the most important ideas in feminist media studies. The mere existence of the female gaze is a much more slippery topic and not universally accepted. Women creating content that appeals to themselves and self-publishing on a small scale is not even close to the way major media companies create series that pander to the male gaze. Not. Even. A. Tiny. Bit. Close.

Trust me, we're not objectifying you the way we do these guys
Trust me, we’re not objectifying you the way we do these guys

To illustrate the male gaze, he showed a clip from the Macross Frontier movie showing the idol singer Sheryl performing in a skimpy outfit. That’s it. That was the only thing even a tiny bit male-gaze-y about the clip. The camera didn’t linger over her body. There were no awkward camera angles meant to show off her anatomy. She wore the same kind of outfit that real-life pop singers perform in by choice all the time – Beyonce would have considered it conservative.

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Meanwhile, in many harem anime, the male character is in fact punished for gazing on a woman, regardless of his intent. To illustrate this, he showed clips from Love Hina – specifically, the scene in the beginning where Keitaro stumbles on Naru in the bath and she mistakes him for her female roommate Kitsune and, when she realizes her mistake, freaks out and drags him around by the penis – and Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou, the content of which I cannot be arsed to remember other than that it was trash of the same caliber as everything else he showed. “The self-insert male lead averts his gaze and/or is punished, subverting notion of women as sex objects is a kind of ‘training’ for male viewers,” he claimed. Rather, masochist male characters are further objectifying to men. Which, again, is a trash assertion. It doesn’t change that there is a naked woman displayed for the pleasure of male viewers on the screen. Her anger is a sign of her lack of consent, which for many only sweetens the pot. In Japan, phone cameras by law have to make a sound when you take a picture because there was such an epidemic of covert upskirt photography. Clearly, these men don’t fear violent retaliation for their illicit gaze. Furthermore, the girls are usually tsundere and over time end up falling for the male protagonist – the violence is only a symptom of their reluctant feelings. Yes, the downplaying of female-on-male violence is a problem and can reach disturbing levels; I remember a moment in Love Hina later in the series when Keitaro starts crying and apologizing for accidentally seeing another girl naked, and is surprised when the punch never comes. That’s really awful and reflective of real life abuse! But to claim that it is objectification of men, and that men are more objectified than women is wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

“My masochism has singlehandedly led to all men in Japan AND the panelist being oppressed!”
“My masochism has singlehandedly led to all men in Japan AND the panelist being oppressed!”

Finally, finally, he got to moe and lolicon anime. Moe and lolicon are more about fetishism of youth and purity and power relationships between the viewer and the characters, which was probably the first and only correct assertion he made in that entire hour and a half. He showed an extended coffee-making sequence from Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka? and said, “As you can see, that totally subverts the male otaku view of women.”

“How is that subversive?” an audience member called out.

“Show a me a woman that acts that way.”

“That’s not what subversion means!”

He shrugged and continued on. It was clear: he knew the audience was hostile. He knew we weren’t buying his bullshit. He had shut down.

Row row fight the powah
Row row fight the powah

He showed a couple more moeshit clips without really saying anything, and then the panel moderator opened the floor to questions. I stood up and walked straight to the mic. This isn’t an exact transcript of what I said, but all the sentiments are the same and I’ve done my best to come as close as I can.

“You clearly had an agenda when you wrote this presentation, and now you’re standing in front of a room full of women and saying, ‘Silly feminists, men have it way worse!’ You obviously didn’t talk to a single woman or take any woman’s experience or views into account when you made this. Every time there was something that was against your point, you dismissed it as an inexplicable cultural difference or a ‘slippery topic’. How dare you say this to a room full of women? I’m sorry, but that’s crap.”

Cue the THUNDEROUS APPLAUSE from the audience. One of the people standing in line for the mic told me I was his heroine. It was incredible. His response was that he was very sorry I was offended, and he was a bit hurt that I felt the need to stay and say all that to him instead of leaving and complaining to con staff after I decided I was upset. He just wanted to present an alternate viewpoint instead of the same boring information everyone was expecting! He didn’t specify objectification of women in the panel title, so it wasn’t misleading! After that, a few people in line prefaced their remarks with, “Well I liked the panel and I learned a lot!” but a number of others disputed various points he made throughout the panel.

After the panel let out, riding high on the endorphins and adrenaline, I headed down to Con Ops to make sure he wasn’t leading any other panels I was planning to attend so I didn’t get another nasty surprise. They told me they’d already gotten a number of complaints about him, and another attendee – the one who had challenged him on his use of the word “subvert” – was already talking to the panel coordinator. The panel coordinator, who does the same job for Geek Girl Con, apologized for what we had gone through, and assured us he would be blacklisted from hosting panels at Sakura Con for violating the panel’s age rating in addition to a blatantly misleading panel description. But in hindsight, I’m not sure the description was really misleading. Read it again:

“A lot of times we don’t pay close attention to what’s going on in shows we’re watching just for entertainment. This can make it hard to have a productive discussion with people who try to point out that anime is misogynist or that it objectifies women. In this panel we’ll take a look at what objectification is really all about and whether anime really all boils down to just that.”

There’s definitely a combative, defiant tone to it. That people who call anime misogynistic are irrational and wrong and the enemy. In the end, there’s really only one thing to say about guys like him:

Fuck that guy.

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Persona 4: Reach Out to the Truth

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Summary: Due to work, Yuu Narukami’s parents are going out of the country for a year, leaving him with an uncle and a cousin he barely knows in the sleepy rural town of Inaba. Soon after he starts school, he hears of a rumor that if you watch a turned-off TV at midnight on a rainy night, you’ll see your soul mate. When he tries it, he finds that he physically enter the TV through the screen, which leads to a bizarre alternate world. What’s more, the TV world seems to be connected to murders that have taken place recently… murders with no visible cause of death and no evidence pointing to a killer. With his strange powers, it’s up to Yuu and his newfound friends to figure out what’s going on in Inaba.

Potential Triggers: Homophobia, attempted rape, misogyny

Would I recommend it? YES YES YES YES VERY MUCH YES

Note: Naoto’s gender is an extremely contentious issue in the Persona fandom. Though I use female pronouns for the purpose of this review, that is not meant to invalidate interpretations of her as trans.

Note 2: This is based on Atlus’ American localization for the Playstation 2. As always, spoilers abound.

There aren’t really any other games like Persona 4 out there right now. It is both deeply personal and collectivist in its philosophy, simultaneously universal and uniquely Japanese in its themes. The game has a light tone for the most part, but is rich enough in metaphor and symbolic imagery that those who do a little digging will be rewarded by a deeper understanding of its message: the pain of isolation caused by society’s assigned roles and misconceptions and the importance of the bonds between people in healing that pain. These roles can come from a variety of places: family, friends, society, and even from within. They can cause deep psychic pain, and even turn deadly. Though far from perfect, Persona 4’s central metaphor of perception clouding, and eventually overtaking, reality, bolstered by its varied cast, intelligent writing, and unique combination of JRPG and dating sim elements, make it a wonderfully feminist-friendly game.

The sleepy rural town of Inaba, its economy being slowly torn apart by the new department store Junes, sets the stage for a story about the isolation of modern life. The Midnight Channel is rumored to show who you’re supposed to marry, but, as the Investigative Team eventually realizes, instead shows people who have recently become local celebrities through appearances on television and in the news. The Midnight Channel, rather than being an independent entity or even a window to the TV World inside, is more like a mirror of the town’s collective unconscious. The images that appear on it are distorted and difficult to make out, but clearer to people who know the subject well. Popular media is not an independent entity. It does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it an accurate reflection of reality. Programming is reflective of the times concerns and expectations, exemplified in things such as “ripped from the headlines” episodes in crime procedurals. People watch things that reflect what is on their mind, and how they interpret what they see is influenced by their own biases and blind spots. A man may see no problem with a poorly-written or stereotypical female character, while a feminist would raise objections. One recent real-life example is Jared Leto’s performance as a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club, which received widespread acclaim and dozens of awards, but was criticized by LGBT groups as informed by stereotypes and a missed opportunity to cast an actual trans actress.

Not pictured: A sensitive portrayal of a trans woman
Not pictured: A sensitive portrayal of a trans woman

On the other side of the screen lies the TV World, filled with a dense fog and populated by mindless monsters known as Shadows. In addition to the undifferentiated minor shadows, once a person enters the TV, a Shadow version of themselves forms. When the fog rolls into Inaba, it clears in the TV World and the Shadows become aggressive and attack, killing any unfortunate victims within the TV. The fog represents the false perceptions that people hold about others which often dominate popular narratives, and the Shadows are stereotypical, offensive, or otherwise problematic examples of representation. The fog clearing in the TV but shrouding Inaba is analogous to how those misconceptions overshadow narratives not just in fiction but in reality, and when that happens, people can get hurt… or killed. Individually, rumors and bullying can lead to grievous consequences, up to and including suicide; socially, oppressed groups battle myths that lead to hate crimes.

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The Shadow-Persona dichotomy of the game draws on Jungian philosophy and Japanese folklore to deliver much of its main thrust. Once someone is kidnapped and thrown into the television, the content of the Midnight Channel changes. Rather than a simple blurry image, it becomes a TV show involving the person acting wildly out of character: Kanji, a violent punk who bleaches his hair and beats up local biker gangs for bothering his mother, prances around a bathhouse in nothing but a towel, lisping; Rise, a popular idol with a wholesome image, dons a gold bikini and promises to remove even that. These are their Shadow selves, versions of them that supposedly reflect their innermost thoughts. Inside the TV World, they construct labyrinthine dungeons around themselves and the kidnapped victims along the same themes as their shows: Kanji is in a steaming bathhouse, and dance music blares in Rise’s strip club-themed dungeon. At the end of each dungeon, the Shadow confronts the victim, voicing socially unacceptable thoughts and feelings. When the victim inevitably cries out, “You’re not me!”, rejecting the Shadow, the Shadow transforms into a monster and attacks. The Shadows are reflective of Jungian philosophy in that they are the parts of the individual that their conscious personality tries to ignore or reject. The Shadows don’t only occur in people thrown into the TV involuntarily; Chie and Yosuke both entered alongside Yuu the first time, but found their Shadow selves to be lurking in other people’s dungeons. The themes of the Shadows’ claims are personal to each character. Chie’s, for example, are related to self-serving motives that shape her friendship with Yukiko, whereas Kanji’s are about possible repressed homosexual feelings. They reflect feelings of selfishness, rebellion, violations of social norms – in other words, anathema to collective society.

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Once the Shadow transforms, it is not the victim who fights them, however; instead, the members of the Investigative Team do. This ostensibly is symbolic of the power of true friends, but only in a couple cases are the victims close friends of the team. Rather, they usually grow close after their Shadow selves are defeated and they have been rescued from the TV World. What I find far more significant is that, with the exception of Yuu for plot purposes, all of those fighting have faced their Shadow selves. The message here is less about friendship than solidarity, a vital social aspect of the struggle against oppression by all marginalized groups. It’s not that they can’t be friends with people outside their class – after all, Yuu forms social links with people who never face their Shadows – but for issues concerning identity, having that kind of camaraderie is essential. When I discuss my anger and frustration with the way women are treated, having other women who understand and have faced similar situations is more satisfying. On the other hand, while I may listen to and respect the experiences of my trans friends, I will never understand them the same way another trans person would. Being trapped in the TV, facing one’s Shadow, is a moment of weakness, and it is up to those who truly understand – the Investigative Team – to hold off the Shadow until the victim has the strength to face it themselves.

Once the battle is finished and the Shadow defeated, the victims must face their weakened Shadow selves. But rather than confrontation, the important thing is acceptance. If they were to reject the Shadow again, the battle would be forced to repeat; instead, once they accept that side of themselves and say, “You are me,” the Shadow transforms into a Persona they can summon and use in battle, allowing them to join the Investigative Team and battle shadows themselves. Persona 4 draws from Japanese folklore for its characters’ Personas, and the figures they select can be quite telling. For example, Yukiko’s Persona is Konohana Sakuya, who in folklore was a demigoddess who married a mortal. On their first night of marriage, she became pregnant and her husband accused her of infidelity. She entered a windowless hut and set it on fire, declaring that if she were innocent, she and the child would not be harmed. The myth is emblematic of the Japanese yamato-nadeshiko ideal, drawing strength from one’s feminine roles and chastity. Yukiko is the heiress to Inaba’s biggest landmark – the traditional Amagi Inn; she is implied to be a traditional beauty and she has a reputation as aloof because she rejects every boy who asks her out. These aspects are, of course, only a tiny part of who Yukiko is, and have more to do with the public’s perceptions of her. However, in accepting her Shadow self, she internalizes these qualities and can use them as a source of strength. Personas are not, however, their greatest source of strength – that comes later.

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Although the game says that the shadows come from the expectations and beliefs of the town, I don’t believe that is solely the case; rather, they are a synthesis of that and the character’s own insecurities. For example, Naoto’s insecurities regarding her gender are unknown to the people of Inaba, while her youth is well-known, and her Shadow deals with both. People may see Yukiko as the stuck-up princess of a wealthy family, but her Shadow’s monstrous form – an anthropomorphic bird in a cage – relates to her own feelings of being trapped in exactly that role. Thematically, it still all makes sense. High school is an age where many people are just starting to figure out their identities, and their real selves – good and bad – can get snarled up and inextricably tangled with other people’s expectations and impressions. The Midnight Channel reflects and distorts the perceptions of all of Inaba – why would the victim’s own feelings be excluded?

Facing their Shadow isn’t the end of each character’s arc, however, and each one receives further examination in the game’s social links. It is up to the player to decide which social links they want to pursue – other than the three out of the game’s twenty-one social links (twenty-three in Golden) that are advanced by the plot – although players skilled at time management may be able to complete all of them in a single playthrough. Each link is connected to one of the Major Arcana of the Tarot and allows the player to fuse stronger Personas, but that is far from the only reason to pursue them. For me, the social links were the biggest draw of the game, the real meat of it. Each character – some figure prominently in the plot, others are purely peripheral – slowly opens up to Yuu, revealing their issues and, with his help, resolving them. The social links are incredibly well-written, with each character fully rounded and human, sometimes to devastating effect. They are advanced more quickly by tailoring your responses to each character, picking the option that they will respond best to. At a glance, this may seem insincere, but in reality, treating each person with sensitivity to their individual needs is an important skill; jokes about my legally blind boyfriend’s eyesight would not go over well with, say, a disability advocate whom I just met. When moving through a world populated with a huge variety of people, true equality is not just bulldozing through with identical approaches to everyone, but to sincerely treat everyone how they need to be treated.

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Think… very… carefully

Advancing the social links of party members offers an additional advantage: access to more powerful personas. Facing their Shadow is not the end of each characters’ story, nor the end of their inner conflict. In fact, in most cases it awakens them to internal conflicts they didn’t want to admit to themselves, such as Rise’s struggle with her feelings about her role as an idol. As is the case in most links, you help them through their issues, leading up to important moments of self-realization and self-acceptance. Once your social link is maxed, however, unlike others, their Personas evolve into more powerful forms. These evolutions, like those before them, draw from Japanese myth, but are more true to themselves, as discovered in the social link. As Tumblr user nenilein pointed out in a now-deleted post on the mythology of the Personas, Rise’s Persona evolves from Himiko, a legendary shaman queen who was beloved, but never left her palace staffed by one hundred women and one man and thus was distant and inaccessible, much like how Rise felt she was; to Kanzeon (usually written Kannon), the all-seeing Buddhist goddess of mercy, representing her desire to use her fame as a force of good in the world.

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The conclusions the characters reach at the end of each of their social links varies. Some, like Kanji, undergo a dramatic personal transformation – he decides to throw off his tough loner personality that he has worn like armor in favor of the kind boy with a deep love of handicrafts that he really is. Others, like Yukiko, may seem to be treading water: for much of her link, she is planning to leave behind the Amagi Inn and start a career of her own, but at the end realizes that the Inn and everyone involved with it is important to her and decides to stay. Some people I’ve known thought of this as being in favor of stagnation, and that accepting one’s assigned roles instead of rebelling is the path to true happiness, but I believe this is a dramatic misreading of the situation. Self-examination, as well as the examination of the world one inhabits, is essential, but to rebel just for rebellion’s sake is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of passively accepting that she will someday take over, Yukiko becomes actively invested in her and the inn’s future. One common real-life parallel is girls who declare themselves “not like other girls”. Rather than examining the institution of female gender roles, they instead internalize misogyny and reject femininity for its own sake. It is often a step along the path to real feminism – I certainly was one of those girls, as were many of my friends – but it is, at best, immature and quickly grown out of after adolescence. At worst it is directly harmful as the girls align themselves with masculinity, thus indirectly perpetuating patriarchal systems, undermining not only themselves but women as a group.

Another aspect of the social link system is the dating option, an aspect I am somewhat less a fan of. With only a couple exceptions, most of the female characters have a romantic route as well as a platonic route. This is an improvement from Persona 3, in which the female social links were automatically romantic, but the subtle disregard for the girls’ agency undermines the game’s themes of self-determination. Love and attraction is a wholly different dynamic than friendship and emotional support, and gamification of romance and sex coincides uncomfortably with very real and unhealthy attitudes toward them. On top of that, it is possible to simultaneously date every girl in the game with no negative consequences in the base game (though Golden brilliantly punishes players who two-time girls). The ubiquity and simplicity of shifting from a platonic route to a romantic route – the player need only choose to hug a girl when given the option or tell her you like her at a high enough level – invites players to reduce the unusually complex female characters to two-dimensional waifus and disregard their character arcs. Unused voice clips pulled from the game disc provide strong evidence that at least one of the male characters was originally meant to be a romance option, which would certainly have mitigated the issue, but with it cut, the sexism remains.

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That said, Persona 4 does fall back on tired, gendered tropes for its humor a bit too often for comfort – that is to say, at all. It is sparse compared to the rest of the content, and the things that the game does right more than cancel it out, but I still couldn’t help but cringe at some parts. Jokes about none of the female characters being able to cook feel out of place juxtaposed with complex character arcs. Naoto’s discomfort with her body, particular her breast size – whether true trans-related dysphoria, garden-variety body image struggles, or somewhere in-between – is also played for laughs, which is a very real problem for many teenagers and wholly inappropriate.

The characters Ms. Kashiwagi and Hanako Ohtani are also played for sexist laughs. Kashiwagi, the characters’ homeroom teacher in the latter half of the game, is an unmarried woman in her forties; Hanako is their obese classmate. Both of them are viciously misogynistic stereotypes: as the desperate cougar and the fat girl unaware of how disgusting everyone else finds her. Although there is unfortunately no hope for Kashiwagi, who jealously tears down her female students and is prone to misogynistic rants, Hanako has potential to be a great character if presented in a less relentlessly negative light. She is confident and assertive, unafraid to appear in a bikini in front of her entire school. Her confidence is, of course, played up as comedically misplaced. How dare a fat girl hope to win against her thin counterparts? When Kanji mistakenly sneaks into her bed at the Amagi Inn, it’s presented as absurd that she thinks he would ever want to sleep with her. Japan is not a country that is kind to larger women – even at 140 pounds, I could never find pants there that fit – and though she is ultimately a tertiary character, portrayals like Hanako are not helpful, especially in a game that is about fighting stereotypes and assumptions.

Never change, Hanako. You do you.
Never change, Hanako. You do you.

There are two possible points in Persona 4 for the story to branch, both leading to premature endings. To avoid them and reach the game’s true ending, the player must aggressively pursue the underlying truth, refusing to take things at their face value at key junctures. As Margaret says, “Truth is a thing which only appears to those who have observed, considered, and made a choice.” Whether it is listening critically to others or introspection, truth is hard-won and requires careful thought. In the bad ending, the investigative team effectively pulls vigilante justice on the man who has been putting people in the TV, at Yosuke’s behest. He is not, in fact, the true villain, and if you accept Yosuke’s solution, seven-year-old Nanako dies and the fog never clears. Two lives are lost unnecessarily in addition to the truth. The normal ending is much gentler: the party defeats Ameno-sagiri, the Japanese god of fog, and sunny days return to Inaba. Yuu bids farewell to his completed social links, and leaves Inaba. However, Ameno-sagiri warns the party as he falls, “Mankind’s desires are my desires. If mankind wishes, I will return at any time… I am always at your side, watching…” Activists’ battles are never over; if they become lazy or complacent, it’s easy for the situation to backslide. A prime example is how many millennials consider America “postracial” since the highly visible civil rights struggles of the mid-1900s, despite the huge, quantifiable disparities between whites and people of color. Ameno-sagiri’s promise parallels this – old attitudes and hurtful stereotypes lurk beneath the surface, waiting for ignorance and intellectual laziness to give them space to rise to prominence and shroud reality – their reality – in a harsh, painful fog.

After Ameno-sagiri’s feats, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and by interrogating the events that set the story in motion, the player finds them answered in the true ending. Refusing to accept the fog and Midnight Channel as happenstance, Yuu and the Investigative Team discover that Izanami, the Shinto goddess responsible both for the creation of Japan and human mortality, had orchestrated much of the plot by creating the Midnight Channel and granting Yuu, Adachi, and Namatame the power over Personas and the ability to enter the TV World. However, for much of the phenomena, “people’s curiosity was at fault”. “One person alone can only understand so much,” and the desire to exceed those limits causes people to gossip, stereotype, and create shortcuts: the result of limited knowledge without understanding. This is the ugly side of human curiosity, the side that gives way to rubber-necking, sensationalism, and tabloid journalism. It is not a thirst for truth, and can be easily satiated by packaged, easily digestible falsehoods that obscure, rather than reveal the complexities of the world.

Izanami claims that she is only granting humanity’s true desires with the fog, and that she has their best interests at heart. Her words echo those of magazine executives, tabloid journalists, and marketers – they’re only selling a product because there’s a demand for it. They’re just giving people what they want. People want the photoshopped, impossibly thin and smooth-skinned that populate magazine covers; that’s just simple biology. Women want five hundred pieces advice on how to burn that belly flab. People want to see handsome white masculine men fight and defeat the effeminate, ethnic, or ugly villains. But that claim is as false as the lies they sell us; we only want it because they spend billions of dollars convincing us that the phantasm of perfection and simplicity – achievable by buying their products! – is more satisfying than acceptance of flaws and complexity. Izanami’s monstrous true form, a rotting, skeletal corpse revealed by the Orb of Truth midway through the battle, is a reminder that behind the appealing lies are ugly, cynical intentions, whether they be power structures held up by the status quo or conscious desires to gain at the expense of others. Izanami is, after all, a vengeful goddess; spurned by Izanagi and trapped in the world of the dead, she promised to kill 1000 living things every day. The damage done by these falsehoods – hate crimes, eating disorders, incarceration – kill far more than that.

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Yuu almost falls to Izanami’s attack Thousand Curses, sucked through a black hole into a blank white space. Ghostly apparitions of his completed social links appear, expressing gratitude for his help and friendship and exhorting him to get up and find the strength to continue the fight: “So long as someone’s got your back, you can kick against the pricks no matter how tough they are,” Kanji says. No one is immune to despair, not even the protagonists of the world and, like those he aided, he needs support to be able to continue. It can be easy to be swallowed up by the darkness, the seeming insurmountable tide of prejudices and injustices to fight, the constant and relentless commoditization of female bodies and trans bodies being a punchline, and the sheer ignorance of the world. In those moments, like Yuu, reflecting on victories, great or small, can grant the strength to continue to fight.

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Stand he does, and creates Izanagi-no-Okami, the ultimate Persona, parallel to the Investigative Team’s Personas transforming at the end of their social links. “Can the will of so few surpass the will of all mankind?” Izanami marvels as Yuu withstands her attacks. Izanami-no-Okami has only one attack: Myriad Truths, “The word of power that banishes all the world’s curses and falsehoods.” The Investigative Party has two things that allow them to stand against Izanami: the truth, and their bond with each other. As he summons the Persona, Yuu throws his glasses aside. There is nothing between him and the Truth, no lenses or screens. He needs no augmentation. And with that, he defeats Izanami, banishing the fog from Inaba forever, with no threat of return.

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The end of Persona 4 is idealistic. We are a long way from destroying prejudice and falsehoods in our world, assuming that’s even possible. It’s a struggle both external and internal, as we combat not only harmful representations and stereotypes, but also the biases and unrealistic expectations we internalize. Nonetheless, it’s still a goal worth keeping in sight and fighting for: a world where people can be their true and authentic selves, and can accept their full identities, flaws and all. Persona 4 is not a perfect game and, on occasion, falls short of its own philosophy, but with witty writing, effective use of symbolism, and depth of character unparalleled in gaming, it is well worth the 60+ hours it takes to play.

Tiger and Bunny: Rad and Bad Anime Dads

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Since its inception, the superhero genre has been the playground of the male power fantasy. With their extraordinary abilities, superheroes exert control in an uncontrollable world. They function outside the law and society, beholden only to an honor code they impose upon themselves. Instead of being limited by their tragic backstories, they rise above them and seek to right the wrongs the villains of the world committed against them. The men are handsome and muscular, the women beautiful and scantily clad. They are, in short, the ultimate in masculinity. Tiger and Bunny draws upon these tropes in the story of Kotetsu Kaburagi, an aging superhero struggling to stay relevant. Through an involuntary and initially contentious partnership with the young, handsome, and brooding Barnaby Brooks Jr, Kotetsu manages to revitalize his career. When his powers start to fade at the peak of the team’s popularity, Tiger and Bunny examines what can happen when the powerful begin to feel powerless. By setting Kotetsu up in contrast with his idol Mr. Legend’s decline into alcoholism and abuse, the show skirts on the edge of making a statement about the fragility of masculinity, but in the end falls just short of being subversive.

Kotetsu defines himself by his job, despite having a distinctly un-superheroic personality. He awakened to his powers at a young age, wreaking havoc on everything and everyone around him. He learns to fear his powers until a fateful encounter with Mr. Legend, the first superhero, who encouraged him to learn to control them and use them to protect people. Since that day, everything in his life has revolved around his heroism: a high school rivalry led him to his best friend and fellow hero, Antonio “Rock Bison” Lopez, and the woman he married and had a daughter with was a girl he rescued, also in high school. This job, however, has also robbed him of many important moments in his life: he missed his dying wife’s last moments when he was called away from her on a mission, and his daughter Kaede resents him because of his unreliability and absence from her life, caused by his unpredictable schedule. When the massive collateral damage caused by his snap decisions and reliance on instinct force his sponsor out of business, he chafes under the demands of his new corporate sponsor, which include his partnership with Barnaby, his polar opposite, and a hi-tech new suit to replace his outdated old Golden Age spandex. “This costume defines my life. It represents everything I am as a hero: A symbol of hope and justice…” he says, until his new designer interrupts him by calling it a “crapsuit”. Despite his attachment to the role, he is ill-suited to the structure superheroics has taken: a televised spectacle where the corporate-sponsored heroes must compete for points and popularity. Kotetsu relies primarily on emotion and instinct, determined to do the right thing but loathe to use his powers to actually hurt anyone. He is very much the modern conception of a “dad”: dumb jokes, bad dancing, well-meaning but clueless and a little bumbling, but coming through when it counts. His idealism and humanistic approach to fighting crime are as outdated as his outfit in this cold reality television competition. He seems like he would be more at home as a family man, caring for his daughter and aging mother, but he can’t let go. He’s sacrificed too much. It’s too integral to his self-conceptualization.

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Kotetsu shares much in common with his hero, Mr. Legend: both were heroes and family men, with wives and children. They espoused the old-school ideals of protecting and saving people, rather than defeating villains or fame and fortune. Both had connected their superpowers and careers to their self-image and masculinity. Finally, and most poignantly, both began to lose their powers in middle age. It’s not really a coincidence – Kotetsu modeled much of his career after Mr. Legend. The biggest difference, however, is how they reacted to their fading powers. This is the point where Tiger and Bunny sets up the clearest, most obvious connection between superpowers and virility – virility referring not necessarily to fertility but “any of a wide range of masculine characteristics viewed positively”, per Wikipedia, including physical strength, charisma, and, yes, sexual prowess. Mr Legend, the man Kotetsu worships, tries to hold on to his power and fame. As Ben, Kotetsu’s friend and former employer, reveals, HeroTV would stage arrests and give Mr. Legend credit for the work of other heroes to hide his degenerating powers. But even his colleagues at HeroTV did not know the full effect of his posturing and how far it went beyond simple vanity. Past the mask, at home the patriarch of the Petrov family turned to alcoholism and abused his wife and teenage son. Men who feel emasculated and turn violent against those under their care is a common form of abuse, especially with men who work in hyper masculine environments such as law enforcement. Boys grow up being told, “be a man.” When those markers of manhood start to disappear with age and its accompanying drop in testosterone – things like physical strength, sexual potency, and earning potential – only one thing is left: physical aggression against people who can’t effectively fight back. Petrov’s downfall came when his son, Yuri, came into his own powers and immolated him with blue-hot flames. Yuri in turn would become Lunatic, a vigilante working in opposition to HeroTV who prefers killing criminals on the spot to arresting them. Mr. Legend, as the first superhero, was the apex of masculinity, a quality that became toxic the moment it was threatened.

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Kotetsu’s initial reaction to his powers degenerating are similar to Petrov’s: frightened and alone, he struggles to conceal it and takes to visiting bars more frequently. However, Kotetsu differs from Petrov in some crucial ways. Petrov was the sole hero for most of his career. The name “Legend” was well-chosen and reminiscent of Superman in its simplicity. Kotetsu, one of several competing heroes, hasn’t been on top of the heap for some time. The slow loss of his powers prompts a trip home to Oriental Town to reconnect with his mother, older brother, and ten-year-old daughter Kaede. The visit to his childhood home allows him to reconnect not only to his family, who know him as the goofy, clumsy younger Kaburagi brother, but to himself and who he was before his self-worth came to be defined by his powers and career. Oriental Town looks exactly like many rural Japanese towns, designed to create a sense of nostalgia and homeliness in Japanese viewers. It is in this time Kotetsu faces not only the loss of his powers but his estrangement from Kaede, who resents him for his absence in her life and his inability to follow through on his promises due to work. She is unaware of his superhero identity and, rather than a symbol of masculine, patriarchal power, sees him as a flaky workaholic who can’t even make it to her figure skating recital in his own town. With the physical distance between the two eliminated, the emotional distance stands starkly out to Kotetsu, who struggles to comprehend that the attitudinal not-quite-teenaged girl in front of him is no longer the sweet four-year-old he left with his mother to raise six years ago. At the end of the visit, they manage to reconcile, and Kaede awakens to her own NEXT powers right as Kotetsu returns to Sternbild City. This time, he promises, he’ll be back soon – all he needs is enough time to resign and announce his retirement.

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Kotetsu’s decision is where the series skirts on the edge of subversion. By accepting the loss of his powers and choosing to return home and care for his family, he is effectively feminized. His identity has so long been hung up on his powers and his masculine role as a Heroic Protector, and his disappearing powers echo his fading career at the start of the show. However, where he once struggled against that loss of the trappings of masculinity – the power and influence and self-imposed role as protector of the weak – he chooses to just let it go. In choosing to retire to the domestic sphere to care for his growing daughter and aging mother, his powers and career no longer define him, and gender roles no longer hold such sway over his life. This is not, of course, to say that domesticity and submissiveness are inherently feminine, but they are traits that have been imposed on women, who historically have been forced into a domestic role with little say in the course of their lives. In choosing domesticity, Kotetsu is able to regain much of what his career robbed him of: namely, his relationships with his family and the contentment that is carried with it. As I said before, Kotetsu feels more like a family man by nature, but his decision to be a hero kept him from realizing that part of himself. This plot direction is subversive – gender roles are so deeply ingrained that many men fear emasculation above all else. We live in a world where Brogurt, Broga, and Men’s Pudding exist, simply because yogurt, yoga, and pudding have been primarily marketed toward women and thus are untouchable for men. Kotetsu, with his superpowers and the fame and money that they bring him, possesses the ultimate male power fantasy… and he chooses to walk away from it in favor of being a stay-at-home dad in a small town. It’s a choice few would make, or even find acceptable. Were it more acceptable a choice for men to make, rather than considered effeminate and thus inconceivable, how many men would be free to take on such a role and find greater satisfaction?

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That connection to his family saves him and his colleagues when Kaede, newly awakened to her NEXT powers, travels to Sternbild City to rescue her father. This relationship plays on the parallels between Kotetsu and Legend, underlining the importance of Kotetsu’s choice. Petrov, unable to accept his power’s degeneration, destroys his once-close family by turning to violence and dies from the powers of his adolescent son. Kotetsu, by accepting his fate, reforges his bond with his daughter, who uses her own powers to protect him. What’s more, her power is mimicry: she takes on the abilities of the last NEXT to touch her, symbolizing her newfound respect for and desire to emulate her father, whose identity she has just learned. It’s a powerful statement about the destructive nature of what society builds up as manhood and deems mandatory and the nurturing potential of abandoning that framework in favor of the traditionally feminine.

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Unfortunately, the epilogue undermines the show’s message and spoils its subversive nature. Both Kotetsu and Barnaby announce their retirement after the show’s climax, as both their personal arcs have ended and they have found closure on their respective issues. The show leaps forward a year, to HeroTV broadcasting its six heroes; Kotetsu and Barnaby are conspicuously absent. But then the camera switches over to the “Second League”, a group of NEXTs who fight petty crime with less impressive powers, such as the ability to shoot their fingernails or have one hand able to get really big. Among the members of the Second League is Kotetsu, who has rebranded himself as “Wild Tiger One Minute”, as his powers now only last one minute. He corners the perpetrator on top of a building, but with his Hundred Power already used up, he falls through the glass ceiling and into Barnaby’s waiting arms. As the two talk – still with Barnaby holding Kotetsu – he reveals, “Kaede thought it was really uncool that I was just being a couch potato all day. And you know what I realized? You don’t always get to set your own limits with the choices you make. So, that’s that. Even if I lose all my powers, I’m still going to keep on trying. And even if I look ridiculous, I’ll remain a hero till the very end. When you think about it, it doesn’t hurt to have a hero who’s uncool, right?” I found this ending to be, frankly, disappointing, as it pulls the potentially subversive threads back into a more traditional narrative. Kotetsu referring to himself as a couch potato indicates that rather than adopting the position of caretaker, he left his elderly mother to continue to do the work of running the house. Instead of allowing her to enjoy her own retirement, Kotetsu apparently became an overgrown child himself, reinforcing rather than subverting the stereotype that men are useless in the private sphere. His return to his role as Wild Tiger was no doubt intended on the part of the creators to leave things open for a sequel, but that doesn’t change or excuse the damage to the show’s themes. Rather than finding closure and peace, like Odysseus back home in Ithaca, Kotetsu remains trapped in limbo between mandated masculinity and its slow disappearance, between forced retirement and being a laughingstock – issues that surface once again in Tiger and Bunny: The Rising.

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Tiger and Bunny tells, for the most part, an extremely well-crafted story. It makes excellent use of parallelism in story and characterization, both subtle and overt, and makes use of the mythic nature of the modern superhero narrative. That cleverness makes its missteps all the more frustrating as it compromises its own messages through cynical cash grabs and appeals to the lowest common denominator.

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Paradise Kiss: The Lost Girls

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While Yukari’s story is a wonderful coming age story of a girl learning not to be defined by those around her, the female secondary characters, Miwako and Isabella, are not so lucky.  Although they too are coming of age in their own right, their storylines are severely lacking compared to Yukari’s.  That is more or less to be expected, considering they are supporting characters, but they deserve much more fleshed out characterizations than they got.

Miwako’s primary role in Paradise Kiss is Yukari’s friend and confidant, an essential ally in her tumultuous period of self-discovery and shifting identity. She plays this role admirably, supporting Yukari and using her connections to introduce her to the fashion industry.  Yukari has, however, unwittingly reintroduced an old conflict back into her life: the love triangle between her, her boyfriend Arashi, and their childhood friend Tokumori Hiroyuki.  Miwako chose Arashi and cut off contact with Hiroyuki years ago, despite harboring feelings for both of them.  Now that Yukari has gotten Miwako and Hiro back in touch, Arashi is obsessively jealous and possessive.

If that summary sounds like a run of the mill shoujo soap, it more or less reads that way.  One of my consistent objections to shoujo manga is that they romanticize men who treat the women in their lives like trash.  Arashi, despite his unconventional appearance, behaves in a way that is fairly typical for that sort of character: when he learns that Miwako is in touch with Hiro, he starts acting like a complete ass.  Around midway through the series, he snottily refuses to do beadwork with Miwako at her house:  “I’m mad because you’ve been talking to me all day like nothing happened. You’ve got some kind of nerve…  You were playing dumb all this time. I’ve gotta think something happened.”  “Miwako thought you’d be mad if she told you! You get mad either way, Arashi!”  Miwako feels trapped and guilty not because of any wrongdoing, but because of Arashi’s childish, passive-aggressive tactics and irrational jealousy.

As the series continues, Arashi grows increasingly paranoid and controlling, and Miwako turns more and more to Hiro for emotional support in dealing with her volatile boyfriend.  Eventually, Miwako comes into the bedroom to find Arashi going through her phone and looking at the texts she’s been exchanging with Hiro, and throws it against the wall in rage, breaking it.  There is no two ways to look at it: Arashi’s behavior is abusive.  No amount of justification, apologizing, or self-deprecation will change that.  It only gets worse as Hiro, talking with Arashi, reveals that he knows how he got Miwako to choose him: he raped her, using sex to bind her to him.  Arashi feels guilty, for their past and his present temper, but Hiro reassures him, “Miwako understood best how much you loved her.  That’s why she wanted to make amends.  Because she thought her reaction might hurt you.”  I can not evenbegin to described how fucked up and frustrating this whole scene is, seriously marring an otherwise great manga.  Arashi realizes his actions are wrong and his choices hurt Miwako.  The other characters are all much, much, much too willing not only to forgive him, but actively assuage his guilty conscience.  There is nothing in the text to imply that what Arashi did was reprehensible, nor are there any consequences for his actions beyond his guilt.

Part of the reason for Arashi’s insecurity is his guilt for “turning Miwako into a sexual being,” Hiro says.  But Miwako didn’t suddenly turn into a sexual being the moment she was involuntarily penetrated by a penis.  Female sexuality isn’t defined or initiated by the loss of virginity.  Chances are, Miwako was already a sexual being, with her own desires and feelings well before she was assaulted, especially considering her home life was probably less restrictive and repressive than average.  At best, the attitude that Arashi turned Miwako into a sexual being is ignorant; at worst, it is fuel to the idea that women are naturally purer than men, but can be sullied by sexual contact.  The scene, even the whole subplot, is an ugly mark against an otherwise wonderful story.

Really, the fact that Miwako’s arc is a highly conventional love triangle is a shame.  Early in the manga, Miwako talks to Yukari about how she struggles creating fashion designs that are truly her own, and not an imitation of her sister Mikako’s distinctive style.  At the end, Miwako goes to work for Happy Berry, excited at the idea of being a help to her sister.  This would have been a far more interesting arc for her: coming to terms with the fact that while she may not be destined to be a designer herself, she can still do what she loves and be an asset to those around her.

Isabella meets the bare minimum for a trans character, which is admittedly better than most series manage. Her gender identity is respected by the text and never questioned and, outside of some ignorant comments made by Yukari at the very start referring to her as a “drag queen”, the other characters are respectful as well. Her butler, who basically raised her, says he is “proud that she’s grown from such a timid young boy to an elegant lady.”  When Arashi, annoyed that she’s asking the men to carry the groceries, complains, “You’re a gentleman too, Daisuke Yamamoto,” Yukari, Miwako, George, and Isabella herself react in shock and horror.  There are no cheap “dude looks like a lady” jokes, nor any about her femininity or masculinity.

Unfortunately, there’s not too much to say about Isabella’s character other than “inoffensive transwoman” and “group mom”.  She has no character arc on her own, instead playing a purely supportive role to the others.  There are few statements to be made about her other than her appearance, her gender identity, and her position within the group.  When she is doing Yukari’s makeup for the student fashion show, she tells a story from her childhood. In third grade, she came out to George and a few days later, he showed up on her doorstep, insisting they celebrate her birthday and giving her a box.  When she tells him that her birthday was months ago, he says, “That was Mr. Yamamoto’s birthday.”  The box he gave her contained a beautiful dress and hat he had made for her, his first design ever.  It’s a sweet enough story, but it’s more about George and the power of fashion than about Isabella. Nonetheless, seeing a trans character who is loved and supported by those around her is a joy.