Trigger Warning for sexual assault
Episode One: The Girl of Legend
The first episode of the infamous Fushigi Yugi kicks off with one of the best opening themes of the mid-90’s. Seriously, go watch it – it starts off ethereal and atmospheric as Miaka, dressed in priestess robes, moves through a palace and greets each of her guardian warriors. It turns into a more standard, but still catchy pop theme. It’s beautiful and well-animated, unlike the rest of the show.
Who is Miaka? Well, she’s an ordinary third-year middle-schooler and currently dreaming of food that she commands to get into her belly. The dream turns into a nightmare as the food disappears and bright lights begin to harangue about how she should be studying instead of eating. She freaks out and throws her desk, hitting her teacher, who makes her hold the desk out in the hall. (TRUE 90’s kids will remember how “holding heavy things in the hallway” was a common punishment in anime during that decade. Not sure how much basis that has in reality.)
Once she’s freed, Miaka goes out with her friends, who mock her intelligence and insult her when she says she’s taking the exams for Jonan, a prestigious high school. Her best friend Yui is trying for the school, but it’s NBD because, in Yui’s own words, “[she’s] a genius and [Miaka is] stupid.” She then asks Miaka to go to the national library with her, and it’s surprising that she doesn’t start explaining what “books” are and the marks on the “pages” are called “kana”, given how condescending she’s being. This is only the first incident in a long string of Yui being an awful friend.
Miaka wanders off to buy some juice and when she goes to pick up a coin she drops, a giant phoenix appears and flies off. Miaka follows the red sparkles to the restricted reference section, where Yui finds her and insults her intelligence some more. A book JUST HAPPENS to fall off the shelf, which Genius Yui can read despite it being in old Chinese. Miaka recognizes the illustration as the phoenix she saw, and Yui reads the preface, announcing that the book will become real for whoever reads it once the first page is turned. Instead of the two putting down the book and walking away, because obviously some weird shit is happening and they should probably focus on exams, they turn the page and are engulfed in a flash of red light.
The two come to in a desolate plain. Miaka’s first reaction is to ask Yui if she’s okay, and Yui responds by elbowing Miaka in the head. It’s supposedly because she wants to check if it’s a dream, but I’m not really willing to give her the benefit of the doubt here. Miaka responds by punching her in kind, then crying because there’s no food. Because she’s greedy and dumb, get it? A couple men grab Yui from behind, and start talking about how much they can sell her for [sexual assault count: 1]. Miaka recognizes that they’re speaking Chinese and assumes they’re acrobats, which makes no sense because she has no problem understanding what anyone else has to say for the rest of the series. “Are you stupid? We’re slave traders,” they say, because everyone in the show is required to insult her intelligence, I guess. (In the dub they say “human slave traders”, I’m going to assume because they’re vegans and think livestock is like, enslaving animals, man.)
Miaka headbutts the guys, but it’s useless because the story doesn’t move forward if she isn’t constantly being rescued. The slaver raises his sword, and husbando #1 appears to beat them up, looking oh-so-90s with his teal hair, lavender eyes, and kanji for “ogre” on his forehead. As he beats them off, the camera focuses mainly on Miaka and Yui looking helpless. I could postulate that it’s because Miaka is the subject here and the focus is on her emotional reaction rather than action but let’s be honest, it’s all because of the low budget. Teal-haired husbando throws the men from off-screen, and now that the action is all safely finished and no longer needs to be animated, we can actually focus the camera on him now. He asks the girls if they’re all right, and demands payment for his services. They have no money, of course, so he calls them losers and walks away. Miaka goes to dig through her pockets for some cash, and while she’s conveniently turned away, Yui disappears in a flash of red light because the plot needs Miaka to be alone for now. Miaka turns around to find her gone, and Yui is back in the library. She reads the book and finds a description of what she just went through, and boom, we have our convenient narrator.
Miaka rides into town on the back of a wagon, unable to comprehend why all the farmers are staring at the girl in a modern middle school uniform. “In a city full of people, I’m sure I can find him here!” she exclaims, because that is DEFINITELY how cities work. Apparently, in this magical world, it actually is, since she immediately spots him. She goes into town but gets distracted by elephants – can’t blame her for that one – and loses track of him. Her stomach growls, once again, because her sole character traits are stupidity and gluttony. She steals some pork buns – yen aren’t acceptable currency in Fantasy China – and wanders around asking about ogre husbando for a while with no luck.
A guy pulls her aside and tells her that he’s alone too. Miaka assumes he’s asking her out, and starts to turn him down, but he says he knows ogre husbando and will take her to him. Meanwhile, ogre husbando overhears people talking about this weird girl looking for him, but when he hears there’s only one, he assumes it can’t be her. Cut back to Miaka and the dude, who have gone down an empty, ramshackle alley. Instead of Ogre Husbando, a bunch of threatening-looking guys come out of a hole in a building (why couldn’t there have just been a door? This show makes no sense) and WELP turns out THEY TOO want to sell her, but first they’re going to rape her in the second sexual assault attempt in one episode. They also insult Miaka’s intelligence because, like I said, it seems to be a requirement for every character. They form a circle around her, laughing threateningly, while Miaka blames herself for falling for their ruse. It’s pretty unsettling how quickly the show blames Miaka for trusting the wrong men, while the entire plot revolves around her trusting the right men.
Miaka realizes there’s no teachers there to punish her for fighting back against her rapists (?!?!?!?!?!) and starts shouting nonsense she lifted from a women’s wrestling special she saw. She fights back, comically throwing the guys around in imitation wrestling moves. When all the guys are on the ground groaning, she congratulates herself for her skill and contemplates going pro. Of course, she must be punished for her confidence, and one guy pulls her down, even angrier that she fought back. In uncomfortably lingering shots of her prone and twisting in fear, Miaka cries out. Luckily, Ogre Husbando shows up just in time to beat the guys up and rescue our fair damsel. Inappropriately peppy music plays, signaling the end of the episode as the two stand still and stare at each other for a really, really long time.
Episode 2: The Priestess of Suzaku
Opening theme song! Budget-saving one-minute recap of the previous episode!
Miaka concludes her lingering stare at Ogre Husbando by bursting into tears as he comforts her and it’s actually kind of a sweet moment. Once she calms down, she demands to know where Yui is. He says he doesn’t know, and there’s an extended sequence of her following him and haranguing him about how she needs her shitty rude friend. This scene includes my favorite bad animation sequence ever, with the background is hilariously obviously skipping every time it reaches the end of its cycle. She keeps following and yelling and following and yelling and finally she shouts, “STAND UP AND BE A MAN!” Ogre husbando has finally had enough, and tells her to pay if she wants him to help her. She starts screaming that he kidnapped and sold Yui and the phrase “human slave trader” comes up again. The townsfolk gasp and stare, and Tamahome covers her mouth and carries her away, which will definitely dispel those rumors.
He carries her off to an empty alley, and she confirms that she knows he’s not a slaver. She starts crying about how she’s alone, and he starts to hem and haw about how it’s hard to find someone in a city, even though they had no trouble whatsoever finding each other. With no transition whatsoever, they’re surrounded by a crowd and the imperial procession is going by and this episode is impossible to follow with anything resembling logic. Ogre Husbando tells her that’s the emperor going by, and sighs longingly over his wealth. Ever-so-perceptive Miaka manages to find enough context clues to figure out the emperor is rich, asks if he’s nice and runs into the parade to ask him for a jewel from his crown so Ogre Husbando will help her while twelve-year-old me’s screams of mortification echo through time. This decision is heart-stoppingly stupid because Miaka your own country has an emperor, this is not a foreign concept.
Ogre Husbando is just as mortified as I am, and Miaka trips over a stone and grabs at the palanquin, adding yet another oh-so-charming personality trait: clumsiness. At this point, I’m starting to feel like Miaka is supposed to be written to be similar to another clumsy, gluttonous, crybaby Relatable Heroine of the era: Usagi Tsukino, aka Sailor Moon. However, unlike Miaka, Usagi always managed to come through in the end. Sure, it was with a little help from her friends, but she grew into her role and saved the day herself many times over. Spoiler alert: Miaka never really stops being dumb and clumsy. I’m not saying that out of misogyny, either; Miaka is written as having below-average intelligence and does things no thinking human would do. She never reaches a point where she stops having to be rescued. When I call out Miaka as helpless and poorly-written, I’m just pointing out the show’s inherent misogyny. With only a slight change in POV, Miaka would be an 00’s-era moe dojikko. Yui would probably have been given glasses and never changed facial expressions.
Anyway, back to the show. A guard has taken great umbrage to Miaka’s “assault” on the emperor and starts screaming about how he’s going to cut her to pieces. Ogre husbando throws smoke bombs in and rescues her yet again, while shouting at her for putting herself in danger because she is mentally about three years old. He promises to help her find Yui, and FINALLY introduces himself as Tamahome. Miaka opines that she’ll never be able to repay him, and he says in a very creepy voice, “Don’t worry… I know how…” and kisses her on the forehead. It’s supposed to be sweet and romantic, but after she’s survived two attempted rapes, it’s deeply uncomfortable.
The guards come back and start shouting about how they’re going to kill them (doesn’t anyone get a trial in Fantasy China?) and Miaka and Tamahome are engulfed in red light because…??? Miaka goes all transparent, everyone’s confused, and for some reason Miaka can see Yui reading in the library. She calls out, but Yui doesn’t respond. Miaka doesn’t seem to realize she can’t hear her, because I imagine Yui pulls shit like this all the time. She reappears in Fantasy China, and the emperor order his guards to arrest them because if you want something out of them, you toss them into a cell. Miaka has an anxiety dream about her high school entrance exams and wakes up whining about how she’s hungry. Meanwhile, the Faceless Emperor says that he suspects the foreign girl is the Priestess of Suzaku.
Miaka gets some gum on her face and the guard runs away in terror because ancient people don’t understand modern things, lol. Tamahome does the same thing, but since there’s nowhere for him to run, he runs into the wall and knocks himself unconscious. With no guards, the two manage to escape and have a much easier time getting out of the dungeon and into the palace than they should in a country that’s at war (spoilers!) They find themselves in the temple of Suzaku, and Tamahome explains the universe’s cosmology: each of the four cardinal directions has a country, and each country has a god. They’re in Konan, the western country, whose god is Suzaku. Miaka, however, smells food and takes off in the middle of his lecture because “glutton” is still her primary personality trait.
Miaka realizes she’s lost and runs around in a panic, until a sparking person who appears to be wearing a bathrobe points her to a gate. They talk about her circumstances, and the person, doing incredibly affected feminine gestures introduces themself as Hotohori and takes Miaka’s face in their hands? And there are the guards with Tamahome! They seize Miaka, and we get the first of the infamous “MIAKA!” “TAMAHOME!” sequences. I guess hearing her scream his name gives Tamahome glowy forehead powers, because he breaks his binding, punches the guards, and screams protectively about how he’ll make them sorry if they lay a finger on her.
Hotohori reveals themself as the emperor, and Miaka is shocked that such a “young, beautiful woman” is the emperor. I’d compliment her on not making cissexist assumptions, since Hotohori’s voice is quite deep and obviously the product of testosterone, but in context it’s really just that Miaka is not smart, womp womp. Instead of bowing, she tests her theory
by feeling Hotohori’s chest to confirm the lack of boobs, and commenting on how he must have “man stuff down below”! Miaka. You are not unfamiliar with the concept of authority. For God’s sake, learn some impulse control.
Cut to the throne room, where Hotohori asks Miaka to become the Priestess of Suzaku and save Fantasy China. Miaka is confused about how an ordinary girl sucked into a fantastic otherworld can do that, because I guess she’s never read a manga in her life. But once he tells her she could have any wish, she thinks about her options – the body of a supermodel! Popular with the boys! Physical strength! Food! And – she concedes reluctantly – getting into whatever high school she wanted. There are little hints scattered throughout that Miaka is really a scrapper at heart, but the story’s constant insistence that she be helpless so the men can rescue her turns that into her wandering into danger over and over and never learning. She wants to be strong, but the idea that she can be more than a damsel never seemed to enter mangaka Yuu Watase’s head. Hotohori condescendingly calls the very normal concerns of a fifteen-year-old girl “baby wishes”, but Miaka agrees to do it. Cue inappropriately peppy closing music as she is declared the Priestess of Suzaku and the courtiers all bow to her.
Next up: Miaka needs to be rescued! Again!