Valvrave the Liberator is a shiny new mecha anime to hit the screen (in my case, the computer screen) this spring 2013 anime season. With colorful, humanoid machines, wars fought in space, teens from a neutral state getting caught up in the fight, and even an opening theme by T.M. Revolution, I was reminded of a certain angst-ridden anime with questions about war and peace called Gundam Seed when I first came across this series. Intrigued by the art and curious to see how this new series would handle similar issues, I began to follow it…and soon became concerned about how the female characters would be represented.
The story is centered in a world where the majority of humans live in space and are broken up into three groups: two large groups, the Dorssia Military Pact Federation and the Atlantic Ring United States and a small, neutral group called JIOR. The series begins with a feeling of teen drama and romance, introducing Haruto, our super nice and unimposing protagonist, and his friends at school living a life in JIOR, oblivious to outside troubles. That is, until Dorssia, a militaristic country (which appears oddly reminiscent of Nazi Germany at times throughout the anime), invades the peaceful nation of JIOR, including the school Haruto attends. When it appears his childhood friend and crush, Shoko, has been killed in the attack, Haruto recklessly gets into a military machine secretly being kept on school grounds and, accepting the mysterious condition posed by the machine’s system of relinquishing his humanity, he becomes the pilot of the machine and the only defense the students have. Add in a deadly Dorssian spy with his own unknown motives to the mix and you have the beginning of Valvrave the Liberator.
!!Spoilers for Valvrave the Liberator season 1 ahead!!
While the two protagonists are both young men and all the main antagonists so far are male as well, there are a fair amount of female characters populating this series (which, unfortunately, is saying something since there seem to be a good number of fictional stories with maybe one or two female characters total). From a reclusive hacker who monitors the school and lets the outside world aware of what’s happening to JIOR to an ex-idol who isn’t afraid to take control of another machine and become a pilot herself, this show doesn’t appear to be short on female characters. In fact, unlike some series in which the main female characters may be passive and dependent except for on one or two rare occasions, if at all. I was pleasantly surprised to see not just one but two female characters become pilots, taking on active roles within the plot that are usually occupied by male characters. More typically but still nothing to squeeze at, one female character becomes the prime minister for her group. Therefore, a number of the female characters are given positions of power.
Unfortunately, while I had moments where I felt that rush of excitement that the show was doing something right with its female characters, I can’t say I came away from season one feeling that the female characters were particularly empowered, despite the number of female characters in powerful positions. Too often, the female characters were reduced to sexual objects for the male characters and audience to drool over. Not to be confused with a woman who is simply presented as confident and sexy, this trend takes the focus away from the female character’s other attributes such as a skill to lead or her intelligence and puts everyone’s attention on the fact she has big boobs or a nice butt. It reminds me of the stereotype of the guy that looks at a girl’s breasts instead of her face when she’s talking. Who cares who she is or what she’s saying, she’s got breasts. It’s as if this series was made by that guy.
!!Trigger Warning!! Discussion of sexual violence ahead
But even barring those issues, I found one particular scene toward the end of season one unacceptable. Throughout the season, Saki, a female character who is the second person to become a pilot and help Haruto defend the school, is largely defined by being the aggressive rival for Haruto’s affection against the always smiling and energetic Shoko, something that bothered me throughout the series. Anyway, Haruto appears to truly love Shoko, not Saki won’t give up and tries to win his heart, doing her utmost to be near Haruto and creating physical contact by grabbing onto him at times and even kissing him once. I suppose this is supposed to justify the fact that Haruto, overcome by a strange side effect brought on by the machine he uses that causes him to lose his senses, rapes Saki. However, the series has yet to be clear about defining it as rape. In fact, the way it’s presented is like something out of the 50’s. “Even though Haruto did not have consent from Saki, she’s okay with it because she loves Haruto” is the message the show sends. In addition, while Haruto feels guilty, viewers can absolve him of any fault by chalking it up to the fault of the side effect and not Haruto himself, just like some people blame alcohol when someone has been drinking and assaults another person.
This scene reeks of the mythical and seriously misleading idea of a rape that can be excused or even justified. Everything is okay because it wasn’t really Haruto who did it and Saki has romantic feelings for him and understands him. From the way the show presented it, one could even argue that old, harmful argument that, “from the way she acted,” she may have wanted to go to that level anyway. In fact, that’s just the kind of argument occurring in Crunchyroll.com’s comments on the episode. “It wasn’t rape if the other person accepted it” is another kind of comment I saw several times when another person defined what happened in the episode as rape. Contrary to Valvrave the Liberator’s message, even if someone loves another person, forcing yourself on that person without explicit consent is not okay under any circumstance. And as for the whole “she accepted it so, it wasn’t rape,” how do we define “accepting it” when another person forces himself/herself on that person? If some kind of media entertainment or person ever say “it wasn’t rape because she accepted it,” that’s what I call an excuse. Rape is still a huge issue in society and when people in the entertainment industry want to put a situation of rape in their fiction, they need to be very careful about how they do so. There needs to be clear messages that this type of behavior is not acceptable, no matter what.
In closing, in combination with the rape and the general fixation on female characters as sexual objects, I came away feeling there was a big problem with the way the female characters were presented. Things like fanservice that I find undermining to female characters anyway, but can brush off as simply annoying, becomes a larger problem when the rape scene and its tragically terrible handling of the issue is factored in. If female characters are constantly being reduced to sexual objects and then a rape is shrugged off as not that big of a deal, the creators of Valvrave the Liberator need to take a step back and think about what kind of message they’re sending about women.