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Archive for October, 2012

!!Spoilers for Barrage!!

A couple of weeks ago, a series by the name of Barrage concluded in Shonen Jump. Set in a futuristic fantasy world, slum boy Astro’s life is turned upside-down when the son of the king, Prince Barrage, runs away and wants Astro, his newly found look-a-like, to take his place as prince. Astro has little choice in the matter for it is not long after the prince proposes his idea he is mysteriously killed and Astro is mistaken by royal soldiers for the lost prince. Now forced to play the part of Barrage, he is sent on a journey to save his country from aliens. This one-shot manga brought some unique elements into the Shonen Jump world, but what about the main female character?

A trend that appears to be used fairly frequently in shonen manga is the main character usually has one main female friend or ally who is supposed to be an action girl. While the intentions may be well-meant, sometimes these female characters can end up feeling like token female characters who start off with potential for being competent, but are at some point undermined and reduced to the female character who relies on her male comrades to handle things or even a damsel in distress. We’ve seen this in Naruto (Sakura), Katekyo Hitman Reborn! (Chrome), and Rurouni Kenshin (Kaoru), just to name a few.

This always disappoints me greatly when I see it. It’s annoying to see stereotypical female characters, but it’s almost harder to be presented with a female character who could have been a very interesting one only to have that potential ripped away from me and left with the same-old, same-old. I can’t help but think what could have been. In addition, it feels like this trend says that people are willing to create stronger female characters than seen in the past, but with strict limits that keep them below the male characters in terms of overall competency. Even if you are not like me and don’t care particularly about female characters, doesn’t it get boring to see the same scenario played out repeatedly? There’s only so many times one can see any plot device before he/she develops a sensor for the trend and can see it coming.

That’s why I was concerned that Barrage would fall under the same line of plotting. It very well could have gone in the atypical direction with its female character, Tiko. Tiko is introduced toward the middle of the story as a young woman seeking revenge for the death of her adoptive mother. While the aliens may be her main enemy, she’s also got her eye on the military, specifically a group that has turned traitor and joined the aliens to enslave the town she lives in. Tiko is tough and ruthless to her enemies and is fixated on revenge, but she cares deeply for her friends and loved ones. She is the type of female character who has a tragic past that gives her that sympathy aspect, but it’s played out in a way that was no different from male heroes with tough childhoods. The hero of the story meets her when she is banishing a dangerous alien from her town single-handedly.

However, things take a turn for the atypical when the corrupt faction of the military and the aliens decide to take Tiko out before she causes any more trouble. She is horribly defeated and has to be saved by Astro and his comrade. After that, Astro asks to let them take care of ridding the town of enemies. Like many other shonen manga, the action girl of the series is stepping aside to let the guys take care of things.

But Barrage doesn’t play the trend as I’ve come to expect. Unlike so many heroines in shonen manga, Tiko decides on her own that she can’t afford to sit around waiting for the guys to handle everything and goes after the guys to help. In fact, the story plays out in such a way that Astro and his comrade, Tiamat, need her help as she ends up saving Tiamat who then helps Astro. Tiko ends up taking care of things alongside the guys. But the creator, Kouhei Horikoshi, takes things further. Once she’s saved Tiamat, it looks like she’ll take the support position and act as the distraction while the guy finishes the fight. There is nothing wrong with acting as support–it can be necessary and very useful–but female characters take this role so often that it gets a little old and once again seems to limit their strength to being only support-worthy. However, in a move that broke the trend and surprised me, Tiko actually used her male comrade as the distraction and took out the enemy. Once again, Tiko took initiative, this time by coming up with a plan and successfully acting on it. The way this sequence was handled really solidified that Tiko is an equal to the guys. This is what I’ve wanted to see with so many female characters who had the same potential but were held back by the trend.

Overall, I’m very happy with how Tiko’s part played out. I thought I knew where the story was headed, but Barrage‘s creator, Kouhei Horikoshi, pleasantly surprised me. Tiko shows initiative repeatedly and is not undermined by any plot devices that often cripple other supposedly tough female characters. By giving the story a competent action girl the plot was able to go in different directions than the typical one and adds new dynamics. So, Kouhei Horikoshi, please create another manga with a female character just as active as Tiko. We need more of characters like that!

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In 19th century England, social class meant everything; what you learned, where you lived, your daily life, and even who you could love and marry. Emma, the protagonist of Kaoru Mori’s manga of the same name, is a young woman from a destitute past who, through a chance meeting with an aging governess, is lucky to be employed as a maid and receive a first-rate education. William, on the other hand, is the heir to the wealthy Jones family; with no aristocratic blood and having only recently risen the ranks to high society, keeping up appearances and social obligations are of the utmost importance to his family. One day, William decides to pay a visit to his old governess, Mrs. Stownar, who just happens to be the very one Emma works for. Soon, with a little encouragement from Mrs. Stownar, a cross-social class romance buds and the two finds themselves fighting between love and society.

When I first read Kaoru Mori’s beautifully drawn and masterfully written romance, Emma, I was swept away by the story of forbidden love between Emma and William. The story starts off light, perfectly capturing the slightly awkward yet sweet and warming feeling of two people falling in love with each other. While Mori does use words, often she skillfully expresses emotions through only visuals–a shy blush, a glance, gestures, and actions–that depict them better than any words could. It quickly pulls readers in and holds on tight. But just when you have relaxed into the easy and charming flow of the story and think Emma and William will get together, the class system and life comes down on the young couple, adding new drama.

This seemingly impossible romance is what got me on the first read-through, but after I saw an article naming Emma as a feminist manga, I was a bit surprised; while I love the series, it had never crossed my mind that it’s feminist. Now that I’ve read through the main story (volumes 1-7 out of 10) again, I’m seeing whole new sides to it.

There are actually a lot of strong female characters. Are they running businesses and becoming political leaders? No, but these women are strong-willed, especially in the context of the time period they live in where women had little to no power. However, many of the female characters in Emma are relatively in control of their own lives and/or push the boundaries of the times. Mrs. Stownar was widowed at a young age yet made it own her own as a governess and receives respect from men of many social classes. She even rebels against society subtly by being much less concerned with social classes than most. Emma herself might not seem the strongest and much of the good fortune in her life has been a result of luck, but she’s also got inner strength and perseverance on her side. Emma came as a young child to London with little to no education, no money, and no family to support her. While luck did play a part in, for instance, Emma meeting Mrs. Stownar, she worked hard to get where she’s at and continues to work hard. She also shows guts by pursuing a relationship that defies the rules of society. Not everyone has the strength to goes against the rigid ways of a culture and face the harsh criticism after all. Later in the series, German immigrant Mrs. Meredith is introduced. She’s the wife of a wealthy businessman, but is no slave to the whims of her husband. In addition to her strong-will, she appears to have a very equal relationship and therefore wields a fair amount of power. She actively participates in hiring staff for the household and traveling without her husband on occasions. These are but a few female characters in the series who exhibit strength in the series.

The other thing I love in retrospect about Emma is how the women treat each other. They support each other, something that is great on its own and absolutely wonderful considering the sea of fiction that portrays women constantly trying to undermine other women. Women like Mrs. Stownar and Mrs. Meredith aid Emma in her efforts in life and love and multiple examples of female friendships are shown. Some of the other maids Emma meets do gossip about other women (including Emma), but not in a backbiting way. Even Emma’s rival in love is depicted sympathetically and realistically. She is not trying to hurt Emma or “steal” William the way some female rivals are shown to do; she doesn’t even know Emma exists and truly loves William. It’s very refreshing to see this and is a fine example of Mori’s ability to create deep and original characters.

I fell in love with Emma the first time I read it and rereading it with a new perspective has only deepened my love. If you want a great historical fiction/drama, endearing romance and characters, and beautiful art, I can’t recommend it enough. Unfortunately, this series is currently out-of-print in the U.S. and hard to buy, but check your local libraries and maybe even fellow manga-collecting friends. With any luck, one of our manga publishing companies will pick it up some day and share it with new audiences.

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