Growing up, I wasn’t an angry adolescent so much as a frustrated one. I always had a temper, compounded by the social immaturity and drop in grades that came with undiagnosed ADHD. I felt betrayed by the way my body was changing. Nothing in my life felt quite right. The media I consumed growing up – Clarissa Explains It All, Animorphs, horse novels, a huge variety of Disney movies, and so on – showed me how to be a kind girl, a smart girl, an empathetic girl, even a tough girl – but there seemed to be nothing out there for a weird, awkward, temperamental girl. I felt like I was wandering through life without a guidebook, until one day I discovered Ranma ½.
I stumbled on an ad for it in the back of a Pokemon manga when I was twelve years old. An acquaintance at school lent me a VHS of the second movie and I was hooked. I had no allowance, so each $30 VHS or $15 manga volume was hard-earned, but I devoured as much information as I could about it via pre-Wikipedia fanpages on the internet. Here was a series where girls were strong and tough and fought, even if they were never on a level with the guys. The female cast was huge, a far cry from the token female friends that dominated American animation. Though she wasn’t my favorite (that honor goes to okonomiyaki chef Ukyo Kuonji), I developed a particular affection for Akane Tendo, whose hot temper and disgust with men closely matched my own.
Ranma ½ began its run in 1987, decades before the term “tsundere” was coined in the porn game Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, but Akane is often cited as a classic example of the character type. She treats most people kindly, but is quick to anger and predisposed toward jumping to conclusions. In the first installment of the series, Kasumi tells Ranma, “Akane is really a very sweet girl, just a violent maniac.” It sounds absurd, but to me, it made perfect sense. When I first read that line, I laughed and said, “That’s me!” The duality between Akane’s kindness to people she cares about and her ferocity toward people who angered her felt real in a way that no other fictional character had. What’s more, much of her anger was justified. In the beginning of the manga, Ranma enters her dojo appearing to be a girl, soaking wet and carried in by a giant panda. The two engage in a quick friendly sparring match, but when Akane goes to join her new friend in the bath, she’s been replaced by a teenage boy, who gets an eyeful of Akane’s nude body. Even when it turns out the girl was always Ranma, just cursed to shift bodies when exposed to hot and cold water, it’s understandable that Akane feels betrayed and embarrassed. What’s more, the sweet, shy girl she sparred turns out to be a total asshole who laughs and says, “I’m built better, to boot.” Her family even forces her into an engagement with him. Meanwhile, at school Akane must fight her way through the entire male student body, since one student announced that anyone who could beat her in combat would be able to go on a date with her.
Akane’s life is confusing and frustrating. She enjoys fighting, having grown up in a dojo, but she’s constantly forced into battles she has no interest in. Her fiance routinely treats her like garbage, insulting her looks, her fighting skills, and her lack of traditional femininity; his favorite insults are “macho chick” and “uncute”. He also has a tendency to switch between having a male body and a female body, causing his competitive nature to extend to things like how much more attractive he is than other girls. Despite all of this, she does like him because of plot contrivances, but there are other women throwing themselves at him constantly, calling themselves his fiancees and hurling insults at her as well. Akane may have always had a short fuse and a tendency to assume the worst, like all Rumiko Takahashi heroines, but anyone would be losing it in her situation. Thankfully, she is rarely shamed for her anger within the narrative; Ranma may be rude about it, but he consistently acts like a prick, so I never felt like I, the reader, was supposed to agree with him.
Akane was the only start of my love affair with temperamental manga girls. In high school, my friends and I read and shared the manga of Love Hina. Modern fandom doesn’t remember the series fondly, but at the time it was relatively fresh and popular. I fell in love enough with the characters enough that I could look past the fan service, and of course, I particularly loved the romantic female lead and by this point obligatory tsundere, Naru Narusegawa. To be honest, I can’t remember why I liked her so much at the time, other than the simple fact that she was a tsundere. The duality still held appeal to me, I suppose; I still needed to see girls in fiction who were often sweet but had a violent temper, just as my fondness for harem anime sprung from a need for stories with multiple women. This is all conjecture, since I now cringe at the very idea of half the story’s concepts. Naru was an ill-tempered bully who abused the mild-mannered Keitaro for no reason other than “comedic” misunderstandings.
I still hold the tsundere archetype near and dear to my heart – when my boyfriend compliments me, I’m more likely to curse at him than thank him – but it has evolved in directions I don’t like in the past decade or so. Like I mentioned, the term was coined in a porn game in the early 00’s by putting together two onomatopoeic terms: “tsun tsun”, meaning “to turn away in disgust”, and “dere dere”, meaning “lovey dovey”. Dozens of pre-2000 characters fit the description: the aforementioned Akane Tendo; deeply damaged, competitive Asuka Langley Sohryu of Neon Genesis Evangelion; and rebel without a cause Madoka Ayukawa of Kimagure Orange Road, to name a few. Some even consider Lum of Urusei Yatsura, which began its run in 1978, to be the progenitor. They tended to populate romantic comedies aimed at young men, most often as the endgame love interest. As such, they were obviously written to appeal to young men, but they often had an appealing degree of complexity as well. Their hostility usually stems from some sort of life circumstances, and any sort of cooling off is a result of natural character development. They become dere because they’re happier in general, not just because of being gentled like in a modern “Taming of the Shrew”. It was rarely ever a complete transformation, either – as the main characters moved toward mutual understanding, they were less likely to have comedic misunderstandings that led to fights, but the girls usually kept their hot tempers and sharp tongues. I could relate to their frustration and hostility, and seeing them move toward greater contentment without ever being fully tamed or gentled was something I wanted for myself. It felt like I could be lovable while staying true to myself.
Since the coining of the term, the landscape has changed significantly. In his book Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Hiroki Azuma posits that rather than enjoying narratives, otaku prefer to engage with “derivative simulacra” displaying their favorite traits. Rather than enjoying the whole character within the context of the story, an otaku may seek out a girl with glasses simply for that trait, and other traits that have come to be associated with it, in a concept similar to TV Tropes. This database culture goes hand-in-hand with the rise of moe anime with characters designed specifically to inspire a protective urge in the viewer. Giving a name to the character type introduced them into the database, and they became a staple of moe media. Thus, rather than their temper being a natural part of their character and circumstances, the only thing that matters is their “tsun”-ness progressing into “dere”. Their hostility gives way to stammering and blushing and declaring, “It’s not like it’s like you or anything!” in response to affection, rather than justifiable anger. Their anger has a performative, inauthentic quality that alienates me compared to the tsunderes of yesteryear.
I suppose I don’t really have much right to complain. After all, these angry girls were a staple of shonen romance aimed at young men; they were never really for me. They weren’t mine to claim. They’ve merely shifted to match the evolving taste of their target audience. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel a little possessive and a little robbed. After all, these mallet-wielding young women once gave voice to my frustrations in a way that western media never did; is it a wonder I want to defend and preserve them for future generations of girls who need their negative feelings reflected and validated on-screen without being punished?