“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.”
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.”
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.
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…”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.