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Archive for March, 2013

images-66Rain splashes down on pavement as police lights flash red. A section of a busy urban area in Japan has been crossed off by unmistakable yellow crime scene tape. A lone young woman approaches a stern-looking officer in front of the scene, who informs her bluntly that they’re short on officers and she’ll have to learn on the job. It’s the classic set up for rookie Akane Tsunemori’s first day on the job as an inspector for the Public Safety Bureau’s Criminal Investigation Division and the beginning of a gritty futuristic crime drama called Psycho-Pass.

Set in a relatively realistic setting of Japan in the future, people have created something called the Sibyl System, an omnipotent and all-knowing computer system capable of reading people’s inner workings like their mental states and personalities–their psychology. (Interestingly, the system reads these things off a device in each person’s body called a Psycho-Pass, a play on the the Japanese word for “psychopath.”) In order to create a peaceful and efficient society, the Sibyl System can determine things like what jobs they would be best suited for and, more disturbingly, if they are a liability to society, someone who has the potential to commit crime. The latter is called a person’s Crime Coefficient.

images-69Female protagonist Akane Tsunemori is blessed with an incredibly stable Psycho-Pass and when the system determines that she is capable of taking on some of the top jobs in society, Akane decides to take the one job only she was determined suited for in her graduating class: an inspector. It’s a job few can handle given the intense and rough nature of it, which puts investigators in contact with some of the worst of society.

That leads us to the male protagonist of this series, Shinya Kogami. Like Akane, he joined the Division as a promising inspector some years ago. However, somewhere along the line, he become unstable after he became obsessed with a certain case he had been working on and his Crime Coefficient rose to a point where the system deemed him as someone who could potentially commit a crime. As a result, he had two choices: sit in a mental hospital the rest of his life or become an “Enforcer,” someone with a high Crime Coefficient who works under the supervision of an inspector like Akane.images-68

Together he and Akane Tsunemori, along with the other Inspectors and Enforcers as well as some pretty screwy criminals, show the audience the two sides of the Sibyl System: those who are accepted and must work to keep order and remain good citizens and those who are seen as dangers to society, potentially or already. In the world of Psucho-Pass, there is no magic or pink-haired and ditzy heroines, nor are there romantic messages about friendship and true love. While it may be futuristic, it is firmly grounded in harsh reality, exploring the human mind. Can a system truly be relied on to tell us if we are mentally stable or a danger to society and is it right to condemn those who may or may not become a harm to society just based on their potential mental instability? Are humans the master of their own will if they are so reliant on this system? It’s questions like these that are raised from the beginning by the characters in this world.

As for the female characters in this series, it’s hard to deny that Akane Tsunemori is a strong female character, both mentally andimages-65 physically. She starts as the newbie in the group and Shinya Kogami, being her senior, acts as a kind of mentor. At times I felt like Kogami overshadowed her, but given that he is more experienced, I suppose it’s natural. Yet while Kogami may have more experience, it is interesting to watch as Akane transforms over the course of the series’ 22 episodes from an inexperienced, somewhat idealist rookie into a sharp and hardened inspector. Also intriguing is the interactions between the two protagonists, Akane Tsunemori and Shinya Kogami, as the two struggle to solve problems in extremely different ways. Tsunemori has faith in the system and believes in creating a peaceful society while Kogami has fallen to the position of Enforcer and walks a darker path. After one run through of the series, I was overall pretty happy with Akane Tsunemori’s portrayal.

If moody and gritty isn’t your thing, this probably isn’t the series for you. I also want to warn readers that the show does have a lot of graphic violence and can be pretty brutal. (It’s certainly not a show for kids.) However, if you’re okay with that and you’re in the mood for a stylish anime that tells a more mature story with two equally interesting protagonists and a dark, deep, and twisting plot revolving around crime and human psychology, you might want to check Psycho-Pass out. It’s streaming on Hulu.com for free.

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When people hear “shojo manga,” if they know what it even is, many of them probably think pink, frilly, and romantic. It’s true that many shojo series focus heavily on romance. “Shojo” means girl in Japanese and in this case refers to the expected demographic of the series. Therefore, like many items divided by gender, shojo manga often has elements that are directed toward girls, namely a female protagonist and romance. However, it’s a serious mistake to lump all shojo manga in your mind as fluffy stories about high school girls falling in love with the hottest guy in her school. While there are plenty of light stories like that, the shojo genre encompasses much more than just that. Some shojo manga feature male protagonists or focus on different kinds of love and the range of other genres shojo manga incorporates is vast (If you want to read more about shojo myths, I suggest you check out staramaria’s post on it at Shojo Corner). In this post I want to focus on several shojo manga series that are as most action/adventure series as they are romance and have female protagonists.

BASARA by Yumi Tamura51DQREERAGL._SY320_

At volume 8, I am in love with this series. Basara is the story of a young woman who lives in a Japan of the future. Much of the land has turned to inhospitable desert and civilization with bustling cities with sky scrapers, cars, and modern technology has crumpled away into the sand. Several tyrannical kings rule various parts of Japan, oppressing the people, but a hero is prophesied to raise up and save them. That hero’s name is Tartara and he is the brother of the series heroine, Sasara. Sasara is largely overshadowed by her destined brother, especially in a patriarchal society. But when her brother is suddenly murdered by one king’s men, Sasara cuts her hair and takes her brother’s name to lead a rebellion in her brother’s place. This series is truly epic, filled with strong women who defy expectations and a sweeping adventure with battles and conflicts both emotional and physical around every corner. This shojo series does have romance, but it’s an equally tense and exciting romance of devastatingly star-crossed lovers to match the action half of the story.

MAGIC KNIGHT RAYEARTH by CLAMP

Magic Knight Rayearth is an interesting mix of things. Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu are fourteen-year-old girls from Japan with little in51fOS7BxzGL._SY320_ common and who have never met until one day when the girls happen to run into each other at Tokyo Tower on field trips. Suddenly, all three girls hear the voice of a girl asking for help and next thing they know they are plunging through an unfamiliar sky with fantastical floating mountains and magic. After being rescued by a flying fish, Hikaru, Umi and Fuu are informed by a sorcerer that they have been summoned by this magical world’s “Pillar,” a princess whose will protects the world and who has recently been kidnapped by Lord Zagato, causing the world to slowly fall to ruin. The girls must become the legendary Magic Knights and save the princess and thus the world. The first half of this series is relatively light, mixing comedy and action as the girls make references to their journey being like a video game and chibi-forms are frequently popping up while minions of Zagato attempt to hunt them down and destroy them before the girls can accomplish their mission. However, a twist at the end of the first half makes this series memorable. Romance is relatively low key.

FUSHIGI YUGI: GENBU KAIDEN by Yuu Watase

61YAD8TTPVL._SY320_Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden is the prequel to the classic, Fushigi Yugi. While the original series certainly has adventure, the romance elements were extremely strong and central to the story, even overshadowing other major events because the heroine is so wrapped up in her romance. That’s why I’ve been enjoying the newer prequel which takes place in a different century than the original and has a significantly more reasonable romance that compliments the other things going on in the story without overwhelming them. Takiko Okuda is a 17-year-old girl living in Japan in the early 1900s who has troubles beyond her years. Her mother is dying of tuberculosis and while Takiko cares for her ailing mother, her father, who has never paid much mind to Takiko, is too obsessed with a book he is translating to deal with them. Hurt and fed up with him, Takiko tries to destroy the book, but instead finds herself sucked into the story where she becomes a legendary priestess tasked with gathering seven Celestial Warriors to save a country from destruction. While still not perfect, Takiko is a huge improvement from the heroine, Miaka, from the original; rather than leave everything up to guys to protect her while she runs off with her boyfriend, Takiko is active and capable and while she does fall in love, that is but one element of her story as she tries to balance her life in Japan and the fate of a world in a book. There are a number of other strong female characters as well.

SAILOR MOON by Naoko Takeuchi

The last series I am going to mention hardly needs any introduction. Sailor Moon is one of the most famous shojo series, a series51ZuN40hWfL._SY320_ that follows fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsukino, a normal girl who finds herself caught up in the abnormal when she meets a talking cat one day and finds out she is Sailor Moon, a warrior destined to fight evil forces gathering. Despite battle outfits that have miniskirts and bows, Sailor Moon is filled with tough battles and girls who each have unique strengths to bring to the table, just like in shonen (boys’) action series. There is a very important romance plot to the series, but it’s clear that love only strengthens Usagi in her quests rather than turning her into a submissive girl who relies on the guy to save her as some series depict. If you want to read more about this series, check out one of my earlier posts on Sailor Moon.  

In closing, what does this all have to do with feminism, besides depicting female characters as active and dynamic? All too often, when fiction focuses on female protagonists, romance becomes the focus of her story. While there is no doubt that for most people, love and romance is a big event in their lives, if fiction always focuses most heavily on romance in a female protagonist’s story, it sends the message that the most important thing that can happen to a girl is for her to find a guy. On the other hand, male characters are shown to be capable of saving worlds and becoming leaders. So, in these series I have named and others, we can see that romance is but one piece in the lives of these female protagonists. These female characters have lives outside of love in which they act as leaders and fight toward other equally important goals. That, I think, is a perfect message.

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The unique storyline of Skip Beat! has caught the attention of many feminists for its feisty heroine, Kyoko. After spending years at the beck and call of Sho, the guy she’s head over heels for/superstar, Kyoko discovers that her prince on a white horse is actually a self-absorbed jerk who was only using her as a maid. Her heart may have been crushed, but rather than crumple to the ground and curl up into a ball, this heroine picks herself up and steels her mind on something else: revenge. With that Kyoko enters showbiz to become a more popular star than Sho. While her initial focus is pure revenge, she grows passionate about acting and changes from a girl obsessed with a jerky guy to an independent woman and a force to be reckoned with.

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From the left: Reino, Ren, and Sho

Interestingly, although Kyoko breaks from living life under the foot of a guy, throughout the thirty volume series so far she seems surrounded by men with a possessive nature. In between spasms of humor and (sometimes mixed up in them),  nemesis Sho, coworker Ren, and singer Reino all have an interest in Kyoko and, whether their motivation is good or not, they all have moments of fighting to have some to a lot of control over her.

The worst offenders are Sho and Reino, which is depicted clearly when Reino makes his first appearance in the series. In this section of the story, Reino is the lead member of a new band trying to steal Sho’s fame by knocking off his work and style. Reino takes this so far that he decides to make Kyoko “his” simply because he believes that she’s Sho’s girl right now. In other words, he has no interest in Kyoko herself but is viewing her more as a thing to be stolen from his rival. This leads to a series of stalking incidents in which he eventually chases Kyoko into a forest and corners her. He tells her, “I’m looking forward to Fuwa (Sho’s) reaction when he sees you completely torn and tattered,” once again making it clear that he’s bothering Kyoko because he’s trying to hurt his rival, Sho. However, after coming face-to-face with Kyoko’s fierceness, Reino takes a personal interest in her (lucky Kyoko) and the dominance comes into play; he wants Kyoko to hate him so much that her mind and heart are filled only with thoughts of him. Creepy? Extremely. This section was disturbing on several levels, including the language used. Kyoko is constantly referred to as if she were an object to be possessed rather than a person with freewill and the word “dominate” gets thrown around as well.untitled folder14

Sho uses similar tacts, i.e. he tries to dominate Kyoko by getting her to hate him so that she only thinks of him. Later in the series, afraid that Kyoko might be interested in either Ren or Reino, Sho insults her repeatedly and then forcefully kisses her. Before this, while Kyoko hated Sho for having used her as a maid while caring nothing for her at the beginning of the series, her focus on her hatred for him had seemed to be dwindling. Therefore, for the sole purpose of stirring her up again and regaining his hold on her, Sho acted in this way.

bskip_beat_144_12Both of these guys are portrayed as jerks, although Sho gets moments where a better side is hinted at. However, even the “nice” guy in this story, Ren, has a bit of a possessive streak. For example, when Sho forcefully kissed Kyoko, she is distraught because that had been her first kiss. At first, it seems like Ren is trying to explain away the idea that her real first kiss could be stolen by essentially saying a real kiss is a mutual thing based on love, which was a nice thing to do. But he ends the explanation by basically threatening her that there’s no second chance and if Sho kisses her again, he’ll be angry with her. In a later incident, Ren gets angry at Kyoko because she allowed a guy to buy her a makeover. He makes a good point that a girl shouldn’t accept such gifts if she’s not interested in the guy because he’ll get the wrong idea, but it’s hinted that at least part of his anger is due to the fact that he didn’t want any other guys to know how pretty Kyoko could look. While some of his anger may be understandable as a guy who loves Kyoko, it strikes me as a bit possessive, especially when some things (like the kiss) were out of Kyoko’s power yet somehow the anger still falls at least partially on her.

What do you think? Is Kyoko surrounded by possessive guys or is Ren’s position justified?

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200px-Seraphina_book_cover_(US_addition)I was browsing the shelves of the library the other day when I came across a book with a cover of a dragon in a medieval city and “Seraphina” scrawled over it. I was intrigued by the hint of fantasy oozing from it, but what I found was something more than dragons and swords. Seraphina takes readers to a rich world where, after centuries of fighting, dragons and humans have come to a shaky peace. The knights of old who slew dragons have been banished and dragons shift into a human guise to interact with humans. But while peace may have been established between the two groups’ kingdoms, understanding between humans and dragons is still far off. Humans see dragons as monsters incapable of feeling and dragons think humans are at the will of emotion rather than logic. A group of radical citizens called the Sons of St. Ogdo continues prejudice and violence against dragons and a prince of the ruling family was mysteriously murdered in a dragon-like fashion just before the start of the story.

There is certainly action and intrigue (weighted by a hefty sense of realism mixed perfectly with fantasy), but the core of the story is something more personal. Caught in this turbulent time is the protagonist, Seraphina, the daughter of a well-known lawyer with a secret that could cause tremendous grief to both him and Seraphina if the truth were exposed; Seraphina’s mother, her father’s first wife, was actually a dragon. As a half-dragon, half-human child, Seraphina has been kept out of the public eye as much as possible, taught not to draw attention to herself and forced to lie to keep her dreadful secret safe. She is caught between two groups who cannot seem to see eye-to-eye and both of who condemn intermingling. In a world that rejects even the possibility of her existence in disgust, in which neither group accepts what she truly is, how is she supposed to accept herself? This question hangs over both the readers and Seraphina as she struggles with self-acceptance and trust in her interactions with the other characters, as she draws closer to acquaintances and pulls back for fear of being rejected and exposed. It doesn’t help when she’s constantly reminded of these differences, from the silver scales on her wrists and waist to the strange people and memories that inhabit her dreams and if left unchecked, cause her to collapse.

But while Seraphina may struggle with who she is, she is not going to let that keep her cooped away her whole life. She possesses the inner strength to go after her love of music, landing her a job as assistant to the court composer. Through this job, Seraphina suddenly finds herself more in the public and in the thick of things than ever, between a job tutoring the second heir to the throne, Princess Glisselda, and a meeting with her cousin, Prince Lucian, and a personal connection with dragons like her uncle Orma. With an important anniversary of the peace treaty approaching, Seraphina is drawn into the mystery surrounding the death of the queen’s son. Her knowledge and connection to both dragons and humans may prove vital, but she must also keep her secret hidden as she grows closer to Glisselda and Lucian. But the lies she tells to protect her secret could ruin those thin connections.

The whole story is very well done and interlaces various elements and themes seamlessly. It has a good pace, balancing action with internal struggles and character development in a way that keeps readers engaged on several levels. I found myself curious from the first page and very quickly hooked. Finally, while there was a bit of romance, it never became the main drive of the story, which I appreciated. Romance done well is fun, but I often see it become the central factor in novels with female protagonists. This seems to perpetuate the stereotype that the most important event in a woman’s life is finding love. However, in novels like Seraphina, writers show that romance is an important event, but many of things contribute to the adventure.

In the end, the title says it all; as much as this is a story of political intrigue, prejudice, and medieval fantasy, the heart of the story lies in a girl named Seraphina’s journey of self-acceptance and discovery. And that journey, I think, is something that almost all of us can relate to on some level.

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