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Archive for April, 2012

In my last post I discussed The Twelve Kingdoms, a book series created by Fuyumi Ono and later made into an anime (for those of you unfamiliar with anime, think book-into-movie). As some of you may know, I made only a brief mention of a very intriguing aspect of the series, the aspect that in the fantasy world of the 12 kingdoms women do not possess the biological ability to bear children. It’s hard not get into a big discussion over the meaning of something like that. Since there’s so much to say about this one issue, I decided not to go into it last time. Nevertheless, a debate was started on the topic in the comments on that posts. So, after hearing some opinions on the matter and pondering on it over the last week, I think it’s time to try to get into the debate on childbearing in The Twelve Kingdoms series.

The Twelve Kingdoms

In the 12 kingdoms, if a couple wants a child, they tie a ribbon on a special tree and pray to the gods. If their wish is granted, a child will grow. This is usually how creatures are born there. This concept is not the main issue of the series, but Ono does mention that women don’t bear children several times and it does have an effect on the dynamics of this fictional world. It’s not like every chapter in the series is a story about the effects this unusual difference has on the people of the world of the 12 kingdoms. It does, however, raises questions since it is such a strange idea to us who live in a world where women give birth–a crucial fact to life–everyday.

So, what is the message Ono is sending when she completely snips out women’s ability to bear children in this fantasy world? There are many ways to look at it, I’m sure, but I want to talk about my thoughts on the matter. Frankly, this subject is so complex that I feel like I could write a whole book on it so, please bear with me as I’m going to have to simplify things.

One of the major thoughts I have on the matter is that it is a statement on the inequality women have faced throughout history in which their biology was used as an excuse to keep them in “their place.” In addition to women not bearing children in the stories, there are no restrictions on what jobs women can do, even though the world of the 12 kingdoms seems reminiscent of ancient China. Women are most notably allowed to join the army alongside men, hold high-ranking political positions, or even rule an entire country without having to marry. There is a strong sense of equality between men and women in the 12 kingdoms. Why? While I can’t remember if this is directly pointed to as the result of women not bearing children, it at least seems very plausible that this biological change affects social equality in the story.

Whether it was a natural division of labor or a role forced on them, women in our world have been pressured if not forced to take on certain jobs and stay away from others. The most obvious is that women were excepted to become mothers and raise the children. I am not trying to put down motherhood and raising children–it is the most important job imaginable to raise another human being–but because women bear children, they are often also expected to devote themselves entirely to raising children and staying inside the home. This has led to the vision of women as the “Angel of the Hearth” and the 50’s housewife. This ideology was used to keep women from the career world claimed by men, keeping the economic power–and therefore a lot of power in general–in men’s hands. This leads to other issues, but, if nothing else, it limits women in their choices. Just because a woman bears a child does not mean she is the only one who can or should care for it. It is possible for a man to raise the children after all. Just look at other species of animals not to mention the males in our own species who are stay-at-home dads. Society is moving forward and women are now able to have careers outside of motherhood, but there are still difficulties surrounding the matter. And if we look back a few decades, we will see a distinctly different picture.

Another issue is that while women do have the ability to bear children, some women simply don’t want to. Yet until recently, women had no other choice unless they became nuns. Having children obviously has an enormous effect on one’s life and, as I discussed in the previous paragraph, if a woman has a child (especially in the past), choices are made for her and what the rest of her life may be like.

Obviously, men and women play an equal role in creating children in reality, but the woman’s role is more apparent and, worst case scenario, the man could try to walk away from the pregnancy while the woman must deal with it. By separating women from the biological function of childbearing, Ono also separates the women of this fictional world of an assumed role and the other issues that have occurred because some group was trying to use women’s biological functions as an excuse to control them.

Of course, this is all speculation and I don’t know what Fuyumi Ono’s thoughts are on the matter. As I said, this is an idea that could be viewed in many different ways so, what do you think?

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The Twelve Kingdoms

This week I’m going to tackle The Twelve Kingdoms, a book and anime series that has given me some of my favorite female characters. I’ve been thinking about reviewing this series since I started this blog so I figured it’s about time I did. (It’s also a break for those of you who were getting sick of hearing about princesses.)  I found The Twelve Kingdoms several years ago when the original book series by Fuyumi Ono was being translated and published by the now extinct TokyoPop. What initially attacked me to it was two things: 1) In the first book, the main character is a girl who, from the looks of the paperback cover seen on the left, appeared capable, and 2) a plot that was intriguing. Always on the look out for new female characters that don’t make me cringe, I picked it up. Once I did, I was hooked. Unfortunately, the book series has never been completely translated, stopping at four books in English, and the anime series never finished either, but I will review what I can of it. (Since the stories are self-contained that’s not something to stop you from picking this one up.)

The Twelve Kingdoms

The stories all revolve around an intricate fantasy world made up of 12 kingdoms (thus the name). Each kingdom is ruled by a king or queen, a person chosen by a mythical creature called a kirin who then serves the ruler after he/she has selected one. The books focus on various characters, meaning characters who were side characters in one book might come back in another as the star, fleshing out their stories further and the stars of one book will not appear at all in the next, but reappear in the one after that. Admittedly, I was dubious of this system initially as I grew attached to the heroine of the first book, but I ended up liking it very much; it keeps the stories self-contained, as I mentioned, and allows side characters that I liked to get some of the spotlight. The first book focuses on Youko Nakajima, a high school student living an unremarkable life in Japan. That is, until a blonde-haired young man suddenly appears before her, pledges his loyalty to her, and whisks her away to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. There they are separated, leaving Youko in a strange, unfriendly place and no idea why she was brought there or what to do next. Oh, and did I mention monsters are chasing her, too?

The Twelve Kingdoms

But for those of you unfamiliar with The Twelve Kingdoms who think this sounds like any old fantasy with teenage girls and cute guys fighting monsters, let me stop you. The interesting thing about this series is while action does take place and is important to the story I would argue the key feature of Ono’s stories are the characters. And Ono creates such rich characters! One of the reasons I love The Twelve Kingdoms is the fact that it is never about whether the character is female or male, young or old. It’s about the person and the journeys (emotionally and physically) that he/she takes, plain and simple. Yes, some characters are female and some are male, but this isn’t really focused on. In The Twelve Kingdoms it doesn’t matter as the characters aren’t restricted by stereotypes that lamely let the audience know “This character is male because he likes guns and breasts and never shows emotion!” or “This character is female because she has breasts, thinks of some boy 24/7, and is reliant on men!” In addition, this fictional world, women don’t have the gender roles seen in reality; women regularly join the army, are officials in the government, and can rule countries without the need to marry. (Interestingly, women also don’t bear children, but I won’t get into that in this post.)

The Twelve Kingdoms

Ono does a fantastic job of realistically sculpting out believable and relatable characters with very complex and realistic emotional journeys. Take Youko for example. Youko starts off as a girl who has lost herself in the effort to please everyone around her. She wants everyone to like her and doesn’t want to disappoint. However, as we all know, it’s impossible to honestly agree with everyone and make everyone happy. In the attempt to do so, Youko dulled her real opinions and personality.  Then, after being betrayed numerous times in this new world, Youko becomes the opposite, so consumed with distrust that she decides to only look out for herself. I love that Fuyumi Ono takes her characters to these dark, unpleasant places–it’s not all rosy and smoothed over. There’s plenty of trial and error which makes them seem all that much more human and stronger because the audience is shown how much the characters struggle to get there. The series is full of characters with depth like Youko. Two other heroines of the series, Suzu and Shoukei, also are shown to have less than admirable moments; Suzu wallows in self-pity and Shoukei, who I discussed more in-depth last week, begins jealous and ignorant. Often, it’s very psychological and the emotional journey is just as nail-biting as the physical journey of civil strife, betrayal, political schemes, and rebellions. These characters don’t feel like caricatures and seeing them go through inner changes created makes one appreciate the characters all the more.

The anime series has slight differences in the way it’s set up (mainly in the part based on the first book–Youko sends long periods alone with her own thoughts in the book so the anime had to make adjustments) so, if you can, check out both the book series and anime series. The books are going to be harder to find since they’re out of print now, but the anime series is still being made and I believe is being released on Blu-ray now.

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The Twelve Kingdoms

In this series, I introduce princess characters I feel defy stereotypical princess characteristics, some of which I identified in Disney’s classical princesses characters. Last week I discussed Nausicaa from Nausciaa of the Valley of the Wind, a strong-willed princess with real responsibilities and the best of intentions. I said stereotypical princesses lacked responsibilities, but definitely possess the good-hearted trait seen in Nausicaa. The princess in this post is going to be somewhat in between and takes quite the interesting character journey. You know it’s not going to be a Disney princess story when the princess’ father is a cruel tyrant and her title is taken away from her at the beginning of the story!

HER STORY

Shoukei is a princess from a book series turned anime called The Twelve Kingdoms, appearing in the book entitled Skies of Dawn and in the third arc of the anime series. As I said, she starts off as a princess living an ideal princess life in an ideal world inside the palace, all the while unaware that her father the king has become so obsessed with ridding the world of crime that he executes citizens for the smallest of crimes. After 30 years of this, some government officials rise up and kill Shoukei’s parents, unable to take the bloody reign any longer. Shoukei’s life is spared because of her ignorance, but she is, in her opinion, still unfairly punished by being thrown out of the palace to live like the average orphan at an orphanage. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of her story.     

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms

Shoukei begins her story the ideal princess–at least, she has a number of big traits associated frequently with dreamy princesses. For starters, she’s young and beautiful. When her father becomes king, Shoukei is only 13-years-old.  In this world, the ruler is immortal and other high-ranking people are able to become immortals by being entered in a register (Of course, that means their immortality can be taken away by taking them off which becomes part of Shoukei’s punishment.) This means Shoukei had essentially been frozen in the role of a young girl for over three decades. While others may have grown mentally and become independent, she continued to act like a child and was treated as such by her parents who spoiled her. Shoukei even sings like the perfect princesses of Disney! (And like Disney songs, Shoukei’s song has meaning significant to the story.) She is fragile, doll-like, and appears to have no other responsibility other than to be pure and innocent, singing pretty songs and wearing pretty things. But that’s where things get interesting.

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

The Twelve Kingdoms--Shoukei is on the far left

Shoukei was kept inside the palace at all times by her father and was not involved in politics so that she would always be pure and innocent. If we were to go by Disney standards, Shoukei is just perfect. However, in the world of The Twelve Kingdoms, people expect more from a princess. What the king ended up creating was a girl who was completely detached from the reality of the world outside the palace, unable to live up to her title and position and who struggles to live as normal citizen after she’s dethroned and removed from the Registry of Immortals. In other words, The Twelve Kingdoms takes the traditional princess, sets her in a more realistic word, and highlights the problems. In many ways, this section could be renamed in Shoukei’s case because, while she does develop non-typical princess traits, in many ways the thing that makes this princess different is the world which expects more from her and depicts vividly how purity and innocence aren’t the best traits in someone with power. This forces Shoukei to become something more than a pretty doll.

But for those of you who are a little depressed at the idea of a naive princess’ fall from grace, rest assured there’s more to Shoukei’s journey than this. The Twelve Kingdoms has a lot of character development and, although there’s plenty of action, too, half of the story is about various characters’ psychological journey. Shoukei must cope with the past and figure out how to live this new life as a normal person. That’s the way she is different from Disney princesses; Shoukei grows and experiences many feelings over her new situation, not all of them pretty. She expresses a lot of jealousy, not to mention rage, and can be rather self-centered at times. But Shoukei isn’t a bad person; it’s just that this story isn’t afraid to show that princesses are human with all the emotions that come with it. This allows for realistic growth. Ironically, while Shoukei was punished for her ignorance, her knowledge later becomes a huge asset to some big events and, now aware of both the difficulties of a ruler and the plights of the subjects, she becomes intricately involved in a rebellion in another kingdom. Shoukei is one of many interesting and deep characters from this series (which I hope to review soon) so, if you haven’t read or watched it yet, check out The Twelve Kingdoms.

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

For those of you who don’t know, this is the first official installment of a series discussing princess characters who break the Disney princess stereotypes. The first princess up is Nausicaa from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I’ve talked about Nausicaa before on this blog, but it’s impossible to talk about stereotype-defying princess characters and not mention her. In fact, one of the things that I like about this character is that she’s a princess who’s not afraid to be in the front lines of things and get stuff done herself. I’ll try to go over the major points that differentiate Nausicaa from stereotypical princesses in this post.

To give you a general idea of the story, Nausicaa lives in a postapocalyptic world some time in the future; humankind has driven the world to the brink and pollution has made much of it uninhabitable. In addition, humans have lost most of the industrial knowledge of their ancestors. But none of this has stopped people from fighting amongst each other and wars are occurring between groups of people over the few resources that exist in a poisoned land. Obviously, this isn’t a world for the fragile and naive princesses from Disney and truthfully, we never see Nausicaa twirling around at lavish balls or fawning over princes.

TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS 

Before I go off on how different she is from Cinderella or Snow White, Nausicaa does have certain similarities to stereotypical Disney princesses. As I pointed out last week, all Disney princesses are kind, innocent beings. Nausicaa isn’t naive, but more so honest and has undiminished hopes and she’s definitely shown to be a kind and peace-loving. Another element that I did not mention but that exists at least in a couple of the Disney princesses is a certain self-sacrificing nature, kindness taken to the extreme; Nausicaa has this as well. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics in princess characters; it’s the way they are handled and Nausicaa is the prime example of this.

While the earliest Disney princesses were kind and innocent to the point of sleep-inducing boredom, these traits in Nausicaa, combined with a few other traits like bravery, strength, and a brain, become some of her strengths. Many in Nausicaa’s world are blinded by things like ambition, greed, anger, or even misconception, fueling the destruction of their world. As a result, Nausicaa’s unbelievably pure and understanding nature cuts through much of this and shocks the people around her into awe. Much of her battle is dealing with the hatred in the world.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

NON-TYPICAL PRINCESS TRAITS

But Nausicaa doesn’t just get through to people by standing around being really nice; as I mentioned earlier, she has other traits and circumstances which transforms her from a nice princess to an inspiring and interesting figure. Nausicaa is the princess of a small group of people and her position as the daughter of the king actually holds power and responsibilities. The fact that Nausicaa has power is very distinctive difference between all the Disney princesses, none of whom are ever shown to have any power whatsoever as a princess. As for responsibility, some of the princesses do have a little (Jasmine, for instance, originally has the responsibility to marry for the good of her country), but it’s limited. In the manga version of her story, her father is ill and has no son so, Nausicaa must go to war in his place. In the movie, for the sake of her people’s well-being, she must become a political hostage. In both versions, Nausciaa takes plenty of risks to keep people from completely destroying the world. Because of this, she can’t just simply be kind, but also tough, resilient, and know how to act on her own. In fact, Nausicaa makes all of her moves of her own accord and takes a lot of action. As a result, coupled with her motives derived from her kind, innocent nature, Nausicaa helps many. This is what earns her not just the love of people but also respect.

There are several other major differences including Nausicaa’s intelligence, which is actually important to the story, and that there is only the slightest whiff of romance in either the movie or the manga. As for the romance, I will just say there is nothing wrong with romance, but since we see so many stories with female leads where romance takes center stage, it’s nice to see one where the independent female lead is the focus. Finally, while I realize Disney’s princesses are made for a young audience, I just want to point out that the movie version of Nausicaa’s story still only receives a PG rating.

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