Sayo Yamamoto will save anime (for me)

Sayo Yamamoto saved anime for me.

This seems like an exaggeration and, frankly, it is. But The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, my first exposure to her, moved me so deeply with its pointed critique of how writers treat female characters that I promised that I would hop on a plane to any anime convention where she was a guest. Her complex, unconventional heroines energized and inspired my blogging and made me feel like that, just maybe, someone out there behind the scenes felt the same way about women in fiction that I did. My effusive love for it helped me connect to one of my Anime Feminist collaborators, Vrai Kaiser. Every season after that I would scan the directorial credits in hopes of seeing her name, but she wouldn’t direct another series for over five years, until Yuri on Ice premiered and completely left the anime community shook.

Continue reading “Sayo Yamamoto will save anime (for me)”

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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.”

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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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