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Image from Crunchyroll

Image from Crunchyroll

If you’ve been reading manga or watching anime for a period of time now, you have probably watched, read, or at least heard of some kind of reverse harem anime/manga centered on a chosen teenage girl’s journey to gather a band of handsome young men. Perhaps most famous of this fantasy/harem genre is Fushigi Yugi, infamous for its helpless (and rather unlikeable) heroine, Miaka, who is made the victim of multiple attempted rapes for the sake of drama. Whereas other heroines in this genre have ultimately been limited to playing the kind girl who touches the hearts of her warriors while relying on them to provide her with physical protection, Yona of the Dawn offers viewers a refreshing twist to this well-worn path. As if to respond to these frustratingly helpless heroines both in and out of reverse harem manga/anime, Yona of the Dawn presents viewers with a tale about a heroine who does not accept her own helplessness as inevitable.

Yona, the heroine of this story, certainly starts out as a heroine you might expect to see in a reverse harem manga-turned-anime. When we first meet her, she’s a typical pampered princess with no political knowledge nor useful skills. Her only two interests seem to be her appearance and her beloved Soo-won, the sweet cousin who she has loved since childhood and dreams of marrying. Her other handsome childhood friend, a young general with a rough demeanor named Hak, guards her from physical harm while her father, the emperor, spoils her and shields her from harsh realities. In this environment, Yona turns to worrying about her romance, such as what Soo-won thinks about her hair. Helpless girl who’s greatest aspiration is romance? Check. Handsome men who give viewers both a sweet guy and a guy with a rough exterior? Check. Throw in the fact that Hak clearly harbors feelings for the oblivious Yona and that Soo-won obviously doesn’t understand Yona’s feelings for him, and you have the cliche love triangle at the foundation of the harem that is to be built.

This highly standard set up is subverted, however, when Yona witnesses Soo-won kill her father in a coup d’etat. The superficiality of the first episode shatters along with Yona’s sheltered world, revealing a much more complex one behind it as characters emerge from behind their simplistic roles. Relationships, too, take on more depth at the same time revelations and betrayal tear apart Soo-won, Yona, and Hak. Initially, the shock of losing her father and Soo-won leaves Yona a husk, and Hak must coax along and protect her as they escape to safety. Hak gets multiple chances to act as the helpless Yona’s protector, but rather than rely on its heroine’s weakness to provide Hak permanent knight-in-shining-armor status, Soo-won’s betrayal becomes Yona’s turning point. She snaps herself out of her depression, opens her eyes to the troubled reality of her country, and begins her journey to find her purpose in life. Furthermore, while many a heroine has feared losing loved ones, Yona actually does something to combat that fear, picking up the bow and arrow in order to gain the power needed to protect them even as she steadily gains more able-bodied men capable of protecting her.

Is her change a reaction to Soo-won, suggesting Yona to be yet another female character whose development rides on her relationship with men? Clearly, Soo-won’s actions spurred Yona into territory she would never have otherwise tread, and thoughts of Soo-won creep up on occasions, revealing that his betrayal is definitely on Yona’s mind. Nevertheless, the story thus far has done a good job of depicting Yona’s transformation as one that expands beyond Soo-won. Her transformation becomes a personal journey as her loss and sense of powerlessness turns into frustration over her helplessness and ignorance, and determination to change herself.

Of course, Yona still must largely rely on the men’s strength at this point in the story, but that doesn’t mean her determination to become stronger is an empty promise never to be realized. Some viewers may be impatient to see the steely Yona previewed in the opening and in the flashforwards shown in the first few episodes, but in this case, I think a slower paced change will prove more effective. If Yona just woke up one day a strong-willed woman, the change wouldn’t be as satisfying or as believable as watching her experience situations that cause gradual change. Granted, it’s a fine line between showing a character gradually change and pushing the viewer to frustration, but when executed right, seeing Yona’s struggle to change becomes one of her character’s strengths.

Speaking of building character, I appreciate that Yona wasn’t made into some magical prodigy who’s able to master the bow and arrow on the first try. Instead, the show depicts Yona’s struggle to wield her weapon, not only physically but also mentally. She can’t hit anything at first, but practices every night while her comrades sleep in order to improve her skill and strength, and she must mentally prepare herself to kill if she wants to use her weapon to protect her friends. The emphasis on Yona’s training shows the viewers Yona’s determination, and depicts her strength in a way that expands beyond the superficial example of strength as purely physical. (I also enjoyed that one of the male characters related to Yona’s struggle to become strong in the most recent episode! This kind of character development doesn’t just apply to female characters, after all.) If Yona of the Dawn keeps up this kind of crafting of its heroine, she’ll easily be one of my favorite heroines!

Lastly, the way the show has handled its male characters has been pretty satisfying so far as well. Obviously, the show offers a smorgasbord of good-looking guys, but it develops them beyond cardboard cutouts of various types of attractive men. Two perfect examples are Hak and Soo-won. With them, the story takes the staple male love interest types and complicates them, making the caring Soo-won into an antagonist with a logical motive yet controversial methods and Hak neither a mindless bodyguard hunk nor a lovable jerk, but a colorful childhood friend who has grown to love the princess. With any luck, the good characterization and relationships won’t get bogged down as more characters are introduced. Handsome boys are nice to look at, but a lot more enjoyable and interesting when they have actual personality. Of course, it’s also pretty amusing when the series acknowledges itself as part of, and pokes fun at, the reverse harem genre, inserting humor into the plot with characters who display awareness of their bit to play in the harem.

While the characters may seem stereotypical at first, the show seems determined to overturn those expectations. Watching the group come together, and the characters flesh out and evolve–particularly its determined princess–has become my weekly treat. With any luck, this series will keep up its excellence. Anyone who likes fantasies with character-focused journeys spiced up with a blast of breathtaking action and/or a heroine who won’t take her fate lying down should check out Yona of the Dawn. Watch it on CrunchyrollFunimation, or Hulu.

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When you see a female character with a large chest, what do you think? Is it simply an artistic rendition of a curvy female body type, or does it fall under the category of fan service, and seem to exist as sexual titillation for consumers of a certain sex and sexual orientation? Leaning toward the latter line of thought, feminist bloggers such as myself often point out those big-breasted women of manga, anime, and video games as problematic. Just in my last post, I again attempted to tackle the issue, using the popular shonen manga series Fairy Tail as that week’s example of the prevalent trend.

While many previous readers have voiced disagreement with the concept that something is wrong with the fan service I highlight, a recent reader got me thinking about the issue in a slightly different fashion: where do we draw the line between “pure” artistic rendition of the human body and bodies draw for the purpose of sexual fan service?

One of the many charms of fiction like manga and anime is the varied art styles, the way the artist chooses to visualize a world. Art styles range from highly cartoonish and deformed to relatively realistic, resulting in many ways to represent the human body. Just think of comparing the artwork in Hiroyuki Takei‘s Shaman King or Gainax‘s Panty and Stocking to that of Naoki Urasawa‘s Monster or Tsugumi Ohba’s and Takeshi Obata‘s Death Note. Clearly, these artists all have distinct ways of drawing the human body. Depending on the style, the body many be more or less exaggerated, and exaggerated in different fashions at that.

Here’s where we hit a snag. Artistic expression is something to enjoy, but all too often, a line is crossed in the fictional depictions of busty women that shifts attention away from the character and onto the character’s body. Instead of just being another character who happens to have a shapely body, the minds behind the fiction sexualize her, focusing on her breasts, her curves, or what-have-you. Her body becomes a tool intended to gratify the straight male consumer and the work encourages the reader/viewer to objectify her through those cleverly placed shots.

Nevertheless, there are ways of making the majority of one’s female characters curvy without giving the series a crazy injection of fan service. Compare the depiction of curvy female characters in works such as Fairy Tail to that of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist. FMA is full of female characters with shapely bodies, from mechanic/childhood friend Winry to highly skilled military personnel such as Hawkeye and Major General Armstrong. Unlike other works, however, their (realistically) sizable busts are not the center of attention. Is it apparent that they’re shapely? Yes. Gone, however, are convenient shots of shiny breasts, bouncing boobs, or other gimmicks intended to draw the eye to their chest. Some female characters even wear clothing that could have been used as fan service in other series, like Winry’s tube top or Izumi Curtis’ cleavage, but the mangaka chose not to focus on. Perhaps Arakawa’s female villain Lust comes closest to fulfilling fan service, acting as this series’ sexy character, but even the fan service we see with Lust isn’t as pronounced as the fan service in many other series. The fan service in FMA is slight, allowing the consumer to appreciate each character as a whole. In other words, there is a way to depict shapely women without making them into sexpots, and demonstrates that those who do fulfill that role in manga or anime are drawn with the intent that they do so.

Of course, we have to recognize that fiction has a way of showing audiences ideal body types of both sexes. I tend to focus on the depiction of female body standards (large breasts and a tiny hourglass waist), but male characters have long appeared in superhero-type fashion, boasting six-packs and muscles in areas you didn’t even know it was possible to build up. One of my favorite examples is Gohan from DBZ, who ends up with a chiseled body long before he even hits puberty. Obviously, both sexes get to see unrealistic ideals reflected in fiction. Despite the fact that those six packs often represent strength and power while the sizable female chest serves to turn the female body into something pleasurable for a given demographic, such male representations still builds on traditional ideas of masculinity and unrealistic body ideals. There are also examplesthat put male characters in the sexualized spotlight.

Here’s where all those reading this post who are ready to defend fan service can relax a bit. I’ve laid out how I differentiate fan service bodies from shapely forms, I’ve touched on why I see fan service as problematic, and I’ve pointed out men suffer from this fan service, too. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this kind of fan service in and of itself is the biggest problem. There will always be fan service and, in limited doses, it’s not that big of a deal. The issue becomes the sheer volume of fan service.

There are many different body types in this world, and it’s a good thing to pull from and represent that variety. Art even has the power to expand on the vast variety we already have in this world. Unfortunately, instead of representing various body types, some fiction eliminate that variety in their efforts to provide fan service. Others reinforce stereotypes. Even when we see a female character who supposedly doesn’t have an ideal body (which often means she has small breasts), we aren’t encouraged to appreciate variety. Rather, our attention is thrown back to sex appeal and cultural ideals. It’s not unusual for female characters with small breasts to express dissatisfaction with their body and occasionally envy toward those who have the ideal body type. Although we may sympathize with that character’s feelings, at times, traditional ideals seem to be confirmed in these tiny melodramas: it’s presented as a given that girls should be dissatisfied with smaller chests. On the flip side, female characters with big chests are often doomed to fulfilling fan service, no matter what kind of personalities or skills they possess. Seeing this type of rendition repeatedly can feel limiting, which is a shame since art clearly has the potential to expand our perceptions of the world.

I’ll finish this post by stating that I don’t claim to hold all of the answers on this issue. There’s a bit of a gray area between artistic expression and all its exaggerated glory, and the realm of simple fan service. Viewpoints on fan service itself are largely varied as well. Much of it depends on the eye of the beholder, but I hope this clarifies my personal definition. With that thought, what do you think of this issue?

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

From just a glance at the popular shonen series, Fairy Tail, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this series is one of many that marginalize its female characters to the role of pin-up manga girls rather than, say, useful members of the team. You know, the ones that serve to satisfy the need for disproportionate busts on a slim body, topped with a face featuring big, doe-like eyes who are often featured in boob or panty shots. That was my first impression upon popping open the first volume of the series, which boasts its amply breasted female protagonist, Lucy Heartfilia, on the front. While it can’t be denied that Fairy Tail‘s female characters do suffer from something I like to call “power boobs,” the series boasts an array of female characters who actually are powerful, as opposed to the many faux action girls we see in shonen and other fiction. So, what are we supposed to make of this long-running action/adventure series?

Fairy Tail centers around a group of young wizards in a fantastical world of dragons and flying cats where people can join specialty guilds, including powerful guilds for wizards who take on job requests ranging from mundane to highly dangerous for money. Right away, Fairy Tail caught my interest by choosing to start the story following Lucy, a female wizard looking for one of the most well known (and slightly infamous) guilds around, Fairy Tail. Opening with a female character is a move that seems to be fairly rare in a sea of shonen series with male protagonists. Natsu, the boy Lucy meets while looking for Fairy Tail, is arguably the real protagonist of the series, evident from the fact that he is the one to fight the main villains and is often featured front and center on the cover, but the narrative usually sweeps back to her at the start of a new arc. As the rest of the guild is introduced, the series continues to impress when Erza, an armor-wearing, sword-wielding woman who takes command even in the presence of her male teammates and is one of the strongest members of the guild, enters the picture. And unlike some series, where only one or two female characters make frequent appearances, it quickly becomes clear that Fairy Tail is a world realistically populated with both sexes.

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Image from Barnes & Noble

Unfortunately, what also becomes clear is that out of the wide cast of female characters, ranging from villains to heroes, a couple have moderate to small chest sizes (one of those characters being a little girl) while the rest are drawn with very prominent breasts(1). Of course, it’s not just that practically all of the girls have large bust lines, but also the way the series cashes in on fanservice. Lucy is often featured in super-tight tank tops showing cleavage and even a little side boob, and even Erza uses magical armor that transforms into different sets, ranging from beautiful but impractical armor showing breast and skin to outfits that were clearly made as an excuse to show Titania wearing cat ears or in a sexy goth lolita look. Many of the other powerful female guild members are also highly sexualized in battle and out such as Mira, the wickedly strong demon girl turned wizard pin-up girl, which links back to the old power boobs trend. (Lucy aspires to be a featured pin-up girl in one of the wizard magazines like Mira one day, something she makes clear from the start of the series.) Frankly, whether the character wears more conservative outfits or not, the chest always seems to be accentuated. The female members of the guild also participate in beauty contests wearing swimsuits and cheer leading outfits, just to make sure your attention is where is should be. Despite the great power and skill of the women in the series, Fairy Tail falls into the trap of putting focus on the female characters’ bodies rather than their abilities.

The emphasis on the girls’ sexuality(2) continues in reoccurring jokes throughout the series, jokes that are usually at the cost of Lucy’s dignity. In volume 17, she’s humiliated twice, once when her short skirt falls down, revealing what readers can assume is her underwear since we see her skirt around her ankles and a few male characters gawking with hearts bulging out of their eyes, and a second time when an enemy transforms herself into Lucy and lifts her top to show off Lucy’s breasts. An ongoing joke is the perverted master of the guild, an old man with an adult grandson,who constantly hits on the girls in the guild. One of the most blatant and disturbing examples of this behavior comes when the guild master uses punishment as a thinly veiled excuse to repeatedly slap Lucy’s backside. It’s all supposed to be funny, but I find it especially troubling when a girl’s humiliation or sexual harassment are made into a sexually gratifying joke for readers. Fortunately, the latter type of fan service is not as prominent in the series as the former type, but the problems still remain. No matter which kind of fanservice it is, the overwhelming amount of it in manga (and in other forms of fiction) perpetuate ideas that men should look at women as breasts and butts or objects of sexual fantasy, a problem we certainly have here in the United States.

Image from Barnes & Noble

Image from Barnes & Noble

Of course, not everything is about how the female characters look. This cast of female characters has had plenty of chances to fight on their own and to prove that they are, in fact, capable members of the team. In almost every arc that I’ve read so far (up to volume 18), the girls typically play a larger or less gendered role in fights than some of the heroines in other shonen series. Too often, female characters in other series get sidelined as healers or stuck fighting–and even losing to–nameless villains while their male counterparts defeat the top guys, if they do anything at all. In Fairy Tail, the girls tend to get their chance to show off their worth. Erza takes out, or at least weakened, some of the major enemies and even Lucy usually defeats a notable villain or two. Many of the female characters who aren’t lead ladies are pretty powerful in their own right as well.

Still, there are some problems on the battlefield, too. Despite Lucy’s power, she’s still one of the weakest, and often says so herself. In addition, some of her biggest battles in the series recently have featured her summoning a Celestial Spirit (magical beings she makes contracts with and who usually fight in her stead) who looks just like a young man. Yes, I know, Lucy has the power to summon strong beings, which isn’t something to sneeze at, but when she summons something that looks like he could be any other powerful guy, it seems like she’s calling for a knight to save her from danger rather than a magical being summoned by her own strength.

Another issues arises when comparing how the series puts its male characters in a pinch versus its female characters. Male characters such as Gray struggle with similar emotional and physical duress that their female counterparts do, in which they face despair and take extreme action that requires their teammates to go after them and talk some sense into them, only the female characters are kidnapped so far. Their capture forces the other members to go save them, putting the girls in temporary states of near-to-complete helplessness. The example that perhaps best sums up this phenomenon is during an arc involving the entire guild, when all of the main female members are held hostage in a plot to get the guild members to battle each other. The rest of the guild fight against their wishes to ensure that the girls aren’t harmed. To add insult to injury, the battle is designed to determine who is the strongest in the guild, yet the girls are completely discounted from the start (3).

Nevertheless, the girls don’t usually stay completely helpless for long. In the above scenario, the hostages aren’t rescued by one of the many guys fighting to save them, but rather Erza. In general, Erza is viewed as a huge threat by her enemies and gets some great heroic moments that rival those of any male teammate of the series’ protagonist. Similarly, despite the fact that it’s a minor mission, Lucy shows herself capable enough to go off by herself and take out a whole gang of criminals. In addition, as a commenter on one of my previous posts points out, there have been some women in influential positions such as those on the Magic Council, a group of powerful wizards with a lot of authority over the guilds and wizards of the world.

So, eighteen volumes in and Fairy Tail is a mixed bag for me as far as its female characters are concerned. It’s a fun, whimsical series, but it hasn’t risen above some classic shonen series, forcing readers to suffer a whole cast of big breasted, fanservice females who all seem to get their chance to be damsels in distress. It does, however, offer fans a number of female characters who are regularly shown to be capable in their own right. I’ll keep reading, and I’m planning on writing more about what the series does right in an upcoming post, but in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the female characters of Fairy Tail?

  1. I know that in the past, some readers have argued that attacking the sexy way in which female manga/anime characters dress reminds them of slut slamming or that it seems like I am making fun of women with large breasts so, I will state my distinction now: if a creator of a fictional female character decides to present her in a hyper sexual fashion, complete with over-emphasized breasts, I must address how that person has chosen to depict women. Rather than thinking of these characters as women choosing to present themselves a certain way, compare it to how media such as Playboy make conscious choices in the clothing, positioning, and, in all likelihood, photoshopping of female models to make them appealing to male consumers. If a real woman has large breasts or makes the decision to dress in a revealing manner, that is a different matter.
  2. To be fair, Mashima, the creator of Fairy Tail, does include fan service for his female readers as well. Most evident is one of the lead male characters, Gray, who has a habit of stripping off his shirt or even down to his underwear at random yet frequent moments of the series. I appreciate that Mashima tries to even things out, and making men the object of fan service seems to be some people’s response to “equality,” but I’m not convinced that giving men the same treatment that women get is the right answer.
  3. It should be noted that Natsu is initially excluded as well, but he is not being held hostage.

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Image from Amazon.com

Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.

Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.

When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.

b10.01Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.

That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.

Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.

cnatsume_yuujinchou_v05_ch16_p004_transcendence_ashitakaxtaiyouIf anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.

So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.

 

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Some minor spoilers for Naruto, Disney’s Brave, and Harry Potter

Despite the great influence moms can have on a kid’s life, they don’t always get the attention they deserve, even in fiction. In some stories, mothers don’t seem to make much of an appearance at all, while in others, they just seem to float in every once in a blue moon. So, this Mother’s Day, I decided to draw up a quick list of moms from movies, manga, and books who demonstrate the strength and influence that so many moms do in real life.

KushinaEp247Kushina Uzumaki (Naruto)

After the first half of the series passes with no mention of Naruto’s mother, Kushina Uzumaki at last makes her entrance as her son faces a crucial situation, as he struggles to control the hatred of the powerful beast imprisoned inside of him. Long before the start of the story, Kushina made the ultimate sacrifice for her child, giving up her life to save her newborn son. Even in death, however, this strong-willed woman appears before her son to guide him in his time of need, helping him to overcome hatred with her love.

Like many shonen manga series (Dragon Ball Z, Hunter x Hunter, Bleach, Soul Eater, etc.), Naruto makes a strong connection between the protagonist and his father, from Naruto’s appearance to his later battles alongside his father, but I appreciate that the series also tries to tie son and mother together. Although Naruto resembles his father in some respects, there’s a good touch of his mother in his face, as well as ample similarities in his mannerisms to those of his mother’s. My favorite connection is that Naruto shares his mother’s fiery, courageous personality, a staple characteristic of the protagonist. While she isn’t in the story as much as I’d like, it’s clear from the glimpses that we see of her that she had a deep strength that she seems to have passed on to her son. Seeing the two of them together in an emotional moment demonstrates the deep love and bond of mother and child, despite separation.

images-5Soh-Yon (Beast Player Erin)

At the beginning of this story that spans over years and various places, Soh-Yon lives with her young daughter and the protagonist of the series, Erin. She is a single mother and has raised Erin on her own, since her husband died before their daughter was actually born. She has a big impact on Erin, an impact that stays her daughter throughout the story and sparks the girl’s initial interest in what later becomes her goal to take care of and study animals. Seeing Erin’s interest, Soh-Yon encourages and teaches her daughter, endowing knowledge on her that is indispensable down the road. It’s not an understatement to say that Soh-Yon is a huge part of the story, something that’s nice to see when a very big portion of fiction hardly mentions good ol’ mom.

Because of her intelligence, skill, and knowledge, Soh-Yon holds a vital position in her village: the head caretaker of dragon-like creatures used in war. Her job is no walk in the park. Not only are these creatures dangerous, but they are so important to the country that failure on the job, i.e. the death of one of the creatures in her care, means severe punishment. The fact that Soh-Yon has the job is doubly surprising because she originates from a group of people who are looked upon warily by the villagers and is a woman living in a patriarchal society. She faces resentment and prejudice from people, but Soh-Yon takes it all in stride, showing strength by not letting it get to her and going about her job, proving herself again and again. It’s no wonder Soh-Yon has such an impact on her daughter!

 

Molly_3Molly Weasley (Harry Potter)

While Harry Potter’s mom certainly makes an impact on the entire series, I wanted to pay tribute to a mom character who is actually present in the story, a condition that is surprisingly hard to find with moms in fiction. Molly Weasley is not only the mother of seven kids, she also welcomes Harry into the family, acting as a sort of surrogate mom for a boy who hasn’t really had a good mother figure. She’s a good mix of tough and warm, even if the Weasley kids may not always appreciate it, sending them away with a kiss and a snack, and the occasional Howler when she can’t be there herself to make sure her kids learn their lesson.

But Mrs. Weasley can also use that toughness and perseverance that got her through taking care of seven kids. She does not sit idly by when the others start a resist against Voldemort, but becomes heavily involved in the Order of the Phoenix. And when this mother can, she will fight to save her children even at the risk of her own. Most famously, she takes on the crazy Beatrix in the final battle against Voldemort, saving her daughter’s life, hurling curses and screaming, “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Don’t underestimate the fierce protectiveness of mothers. (If you want to read more about the moms in Harry Potter, check on my earlier post on them.)

 

imagesQueen Elinor (Disney’s Brave)

At first, Queen Elinor seems like a lot of teens’ nightmare: the parent who nags and just does not seem to “get it.” Her daughter Merida has her own way of doing things, but her mom insists that she transform herself into something she’s not. Yet even though she lacks an understanding of Merida’s more rough and adventurous lifestyle, Queen Elinor clearly has her daughter’s well-being and future in mind as she repeatedly tries to make the bow-and-arrow-toting girl into a demure princess. As mother and daughter are forced to work together when Merida accidentally turns Queen Elinor into a bear, the two slowly begin to break down the barriers of misunderstanding and differences that have built up between them. Mom begins to reconsider her well-intentioned but ineffective approach to her daughter while Merida comes to see the fierce love and concern that her mother feels for her, feelings that colored all her decisions concerning Merida.

In addition, Queen Elinor is a great role model for those who may not be as adventurous as Merida. She’s calm and collected, and shown to be the mastermind before the peace in the kingdom. One could say that she’s the most competent ruler in the whole movie.

That’s my handful of influential and loving moms for this Mother’s Day! There’s a lot more that could be said about all of these characters, and some day I would like to do a more in-depth post on mom characters and the stereotypes surrounding them, but I hope you enjoyed a little lighthearted fun. If you have any mom characters that you think deserve mention, let me know in the comments. (I’d love to hear about more non-traditional moms, which I unfortunately did not have many examples of for this list.) I hope everyone has a great Mother’s Day!

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If you didn’t know already, shonen is a hugely popular category of Japanese comics and anime. Ask someone who knows even a little about manga or anime and she will most likely recognize shonen mega hits like Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, and Dragon Ball. The aimed demographic of this monster of a category are boys (shonen is a Japanese word that translates basically to “boy”) and many of these mega shonen hits are created by men. But did you know that there are actually a good number of shonen series created completely by women, many of which are quite popular in their own right? Here’s are some of the shonen manga I’ve read that are created by women:

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Image from Amazon.com

To Terra… (地球へ。。。) by Keiko Takemiya

To Terra… takes us back to the late 70’s and all its retro manga glory. Keiko Takemiya is one of several female manga artists who pushed boundaries back in the day to create some groundbreaking pieces of work. Among other accomplishments, Takemiya successfully crossed over demographic lines, creating both shojo (girls’) and shonen manga. (If you’d like to read more about Takemiya’s experiences and work, check out her interview on Manga.about.com.)

To Terra… is her two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen epic about a future controlled by computers and cold, hard logic. When children reach puberty, they undergo a process ridding them of memories and emotion, all in order to transform them into rational adults. Those who fail the process are systematically wiped out. But something happens when Jomy Marcus Shin fails his test. Not only does he find himself rescued and in the hands of a group of super-powered humans called the Mu, but they’re asking him to succeed their leader in the fight against the supercomputer society.

The series encapsulates a few decades and soon inserts another protagonist, Keith Anyan. Keith is a young man thought to be the perfect result of the supercomputer’s training, but who secretly struggles to suppress the question boiling inside himself as his surroundings as he rises up the ranks of the society. If To Terra… doesn’t grab you immediately, wait until Keith has been introduced before giving up on the series since he’s arguably the more interesting of the two protagonists. Keith adds contrast to Jomy’s rebellion and when their paths cross, ideologies crash against each other as the two protagonists battle. There’s action aplenty, complete with big battleships, space guns, and superpowers, but the action is tied to and mized beautifully with the internal struggles of Keith and Jomy in the fashion of a masterful psychological drama.

I also highly recommend the 2007 anime version (translated as Toward the Terra in English), which keeps close to the original, but makes some slight changes that I felt improved an already wonderful story. Additionally, if you absolutely can’t stand the style of older manga, the anime renders a more modern look to the characters.

Pandora Hearts (パンドラハーツ) by Jun Mochizuki

Pandora Hearts takes us away from dystopian sci-fi future to full-blown fantasy, complete with a healthy helping of mysterious nobles, dangerous

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

secrets, and magical contracts. The story opens with ever-smiling and slightly mischievous Oz Vessalius, a soon-to-turn-15-year-old son of a nobleman. Together with his little sister and faithful–if overly self-critical–servant, Gil, the young man prepares to be the center of attention as noble families gather for his coming-of-age ceremony. Things go terribly wrong, however, when an antagonist group crashes the party and sends a bewildered Oz into the Abyss, citing him for a sin he knows nothing about. With the help of a being from the Abyss named “Alice,” Oz manages to escape, but his life as he knew it is gone. Throw in two battling secret organizations, figures lurking in the shadows, time gaps, and creepy creatures from the Abyss that grant humans power as they simultaneously shorten the wielder’s life, and you have Pandora Hearts.

Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this series. While it may not always come together perfectly, intrigue is never lacking. like Oz’s smile that masks the emotions of a confused young man, the story never is quite what it seems. Manga artist Jun Mochizuki is a master of weaving seemingly standard tale as the main cast go on their quest for answers, only to tear away the established structures when those answers are uncovered and leave both cast and reader spinning. So, if you are looking for dark fantasy, mystery, and action rolled up into one imperfect but intriguing ride, pick up Pandora Hearts.

Blue Exorcist (青の祓魔師) by Kazue Kato

Image from Amazon.com

Image from Amazon.com

Blue Exorcist is a stylish series running in the English release of Weekly Shonen Jump, right alongside big name shonen series like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. Although this series runs in another manga magazine called Jump Square in Japan, in the U.S. edition of Shonen Jump, Blue Exorcist is the only series created by a woman. (You can click here to read her interview about this series on Anime News Network.)

In Blue Exorcist, 15-year-old Rin Okumura lives with his twin brother Yukio and their foster-father, struggling to express to others the goodness in his heart. Life gets exponentially more complicated when he finds out that he’s the son of Satan and daddy dearest has decided it’s time Rin came back home, whether he wants to or not. When Rin’s foster-father is killed trying to save him, the boy makes a bold decision to join the group of exorcists that are considering killing him. Thus starts an unorthodox tale of the son of Satan’s journey to become an exorcist in order to take revenge on Satan.

Kazue Kato gives readers plenty to love in this series: gripping action scenes, stylish art, twists keep coming, and cool characters that you’ll want to read more about. I especially love the exploration of relationships as Rin struggles to make connections and understand his comrades, just as they try to do the same in a high stake environment. If modern day demon hunting peppered heavily with a search to connect with others is your kind of tale, check out Blue Exorcist.

Fullmetal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師) by Hiromu Arakawa

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Image from Amazon.com

If you read my earlier post on the female characters of Fullmetal Alchemist, you already know I adore this series. Another two-time award-winning sci-fi shonen manga, Fullmetal Alchemist is set in a 19th century industrial Europe-inspired fantasy world where alchemy really works.

The story follows Edward and Alphonse Elric, two teenage brothers and alchemists on a quest. A few years ago, the boys committed a great taboo: after losing their mother, they attempted to use alchemy to bring her back to life. Their plan went horribly wrong, however, and in addition to failing to revive her, Edward lost a leg and an arm while his younger brother lost his entire body, reduced to nothing but a soul inhabiting a suit of armor. Now Edward has become an alchemist who works for the military, becoming what some call a “dog of the military” in order to search for a way to get their bodies back. Their only lead? The Philosopher’s Stone, said to be a source of tremendous power.

Fullmetal Alchemist is another series that boasts crisp, distinctive artwork, complex characters who struggle and grow, and solid storytelling. The story is packed with emotion, from heartwarming and laugh-out moments to extremely dark and tragic ones. As for action, despite the protagonists’ prowess, the action scenes will always have you holding your breath as they engage in tight battles full of alchemy. Finally, FMA has the best cast of female characters I’ve seen so far in a shonen manga and the male characters are also some of my all-time favorites. This one is an all around winner in my book.

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic (マギ) by Shinobu Ohtaka

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Image from Amazon.com

Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic is a hot shonen series right now in the anime and manga community, largely because of the popular anime adaptation, which is streaming on sites such as Crunchyroll. But the anime isn’t the only hot thing. In 2013, the manga received Japan’s Shogakukan Manga Award for best shonen manga, speaking to Shinobu Ohtaka’s ability to craft a classic adventure tale with a squeeze of freshness that keeps readers hankering for more.

Pulling inspiration from One Thousand and One Nights, the story sets readers in a richly imaged world of the ancients, from the Middle East to Asia. We start in the Middle East where a curious young boy named Aladdin meets the ambitious lad with a heart of gold, Alibaba. Alibaba is determined to conquer a mysterious tower called a “dungeon,” which have appeared around the world and are said to hold as many dangers as riches. But he’s not the only one with his eyes on this dungeon; a vicious young master also enters the dungeon in hopes of riches, dragging a powerful slave named Morgiana with him. With that, a story of adventures that span across the world, chance meetings, and intertwined fates begins.

The world Ohtaka has created is full of magic and a colorful variety of cultures and kingdoms, which is one of my favorite aspects of the series. Not only does the number of distinct kingdoms allow for variations in landscape, character design, and clothing, but also for clashes in ideologies, backgrounds, and alliances. Put that together with the growing cast of characters and you get plenty of explosive and intriguing character interactions. At its weakest, this modern, manga-style One Thousand and One Nights-type of adventure is still a lot of fun. At its strongest, Magi will have you pining for the next installment.

*****

And that’s a wrap! There a many more artists/series I could talk about (such as Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle (ツバサ) by CLAMP and Nabari no Ou (隠の王) by Yuhki Kamatami), but those might be for another post. It should be noted that just because these titles are created by women doesn’t necessarily mean they are free of sexism–many of these series suffer from overly sexualized female characters, damsels in distress tropes, and the like. Others features some great female characters along a vibrant cast of male ones. Regardless, one of the things I enjoy about these series is they seem to meld the emotional pull of shojo with the tight action-packed sequences of shonen, albeit some more successfully than others.

I wanted to write another post featuring shojo manga created by men, but sadly, I’ve only found a few rare examples of this, namely Osamu Tezuka. I wonder if that may be because it is more acceptable for a female manga artist to pen a series outside of the female demographic than it is for a male manga artist to make one outside of the male demographic (the shojo manga, Otomen, touches on this topic). Anyway, if you know of any male manga artists who have created shojo manga, please let me in know the comments!

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!!Trigger Warning and Spoilers for Fushigi Yugi!!

Yuuki.Miaka.full.59136Rape is never an easy subject. It’s a thing of nightmares that happens all too often in reality so, it’s not surprising that rape makes its way into fiction as well. After all, whether it’s a high fantasy or something more down-to-earth, fiction has a way of reflecting people’s experiences, emotions, fears, and dreams. But when rape effects 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men, it’s important that the media and consumers are conscientious of how rape is depicted. In this post, I turn my attention to Yuu Watase’s Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play, a popular shojo (girls’) manga from the 90s that depicts attempted rape at a rate of infamous proportions.

In Fushigi Yugi, 15-year-old Miaka gets sucked into an ancient Chinese story she finds in the library. There, she begins to live out the legend written in the story. She’s deemed the Priestess of Suzaku and tasked with needling out the seven Celestial Warriors whose destinies are to protect and aid the priestess of their country. If she’s able to accomplish this feat and perform a ceremony, Miaka and her warriors will be granted their grandest wishes by a god. But if just locating the Celestial Warriors, identifiable only by a Celestial Mark somewhere on their bodies, wasn’t hard enough, things get even more complicated when Miaka’s childhood friend, Yui, gets caught in the book and made the Priestess of  Seiryu, the priestess of a neighboring country. This country has plans to wage war so, suddenly, warriors of Seiryu come hunting Miaka and her comrades.

Here’s where we reach the problematic spot. There are a number of ways to sabotage the other side’s attempts to summon their god and make their wish. One sure way is if the priestess is put out of action. That could just mean killing her and the series certainly employs plenty of attempts of that, but Watase also frequently has her villains use another dark tactic. As a priestess, Miaka must be pure, i.e. virgin, to perform the ceremony that summons the god who will grant her wishes. Therefore, many of Miaka’s enemies attempt to rape her. Now, some may argue that in times of war, rape is sadly commonplace and if you add in the factor that rape could be used to stop your enemy from achieving their goals, it makes sense that this scheme would be used in Fushigi Yugi. But this element of the series is a major fish bone-in-the-throat for me.

Over eighteen volumes, rape is attempted around ten times by various perpetrators. That means that if there was an attempted rape in every volume, there would be one in over half the volumes of the series. In almost every one of those attempts, Miaka is the intended victim. It’s so bad that one Fushigi Yugi fan trivia poses the question, “Who DOESN’T try to rape Miaka?” In my opinion, the number of attempted rapes in the series alone suggests a problem. After all, if that many number of rapes are attempted on one girl over the rather short period of time covered in the series, it begins to look ridiculous. As a result, any serious discussion/ depiction of sexual assault within the story becomes near impossible. The way the plot is worked, real exploration of the issue of sexual assault and its effects are nil and rape is shaved down to little more than a shallow plot device to create cheap drama, just like horror flicks often turn the tragedy of murder into a gimmicky, cat-and-mouse bloodbath.

2mikosGranted, there are moments when the series tries to touch on those effects. When Yui and Miaka believe they’ve been raped, they both seem to be experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at times and it also affects their relationship with others. But mostly, characters just seem to be upset about it in the moment, only to quickly move on as if nothing happened until the next attempted rape. In fact, the only times when they do seem to suffer an after effect is when they believe the rape has been completed. On the other hand, attempted rape is brushed aside, as if everything is rosy as long as intercourse isn’t completed. When there are so many attempted rapes, it’s not surprising that Watase didn’t linger on them for long, but therein lies the problem. Sexual assault, whether it’s completed rape, attempted rape, or some other form of sexual assault, shouldn’t be made such an integral part of the story, only to be dropped once the moment of crisis has been averted. It adds drama without dealing with the meat of the problem.

The problems only multiply when we look closer at how these attempts are handled. For example, while Miaka is constantly put in this position of chilling helplessness, it usually ends in the empowerment of a male character who comes to her rescue. Her love interest, Tamahome, gets to burst in at the last moment on repeated occasions to beat the bad guy, but not before readers are forced to watch the heroine being forcefully disrobed and cry for Tamahome’s help. Did I mention this series is directed toward middle school/high school age kids?

I also find it troubling when series make readers believe a character has been raped, then cheerfully announce at a later date that it was all a lie, a plot device which is used twice in Fushigi Yugi. While it’s a much lighter read if the heroines aren’t sexually assaulted, I feel writers should commit to delving into the effects of rape through a character that has been a victim of rape rather than backing out at the last moment. The big problem with this plot device is that it once again seems to suggest that as long as the person wasn’t actually raped, everything’s okay.

I also have to wonder if some writers have trouble committing to a situation of completed rape because they don’t want to have a heroine that’s been raped. Of course, rape is a horrible thing and so using the realms of fiction to make sure nothing like that befalls one’s character is completely understandable. But when writers are putting their heroines in so many violent situations anyway, why do so many of them seem to shy away from completed rape? Perhaps it’s because they feel attempted rape is less harsh a reality for readers to grasp than completed rape–the heroine is put in a harrowing situation, but she walks away okay. But another part of me has to wonder, do so many authors avoid a real rape for fear of “tainting” their character, consciously or unconsciously falling into hurtful perceptions about rape victims? I hope I’m mistaken, but the thought nags at me whenever I come across this scenario.

What are your thoughts on how rape is presented in Fushigi Yugi and other fiction?

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