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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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I have a confession to make: I can be a bit of a doormat, a people pleaser, a pushover. In the effort to make others happy and/or lacking the backbone to speak my mind, I have a habit of letting others run right over my true wishes and thoughts without so much as a peep of objection. When people ask me, “What do you want to do,” even if I have a preference (which sometimes I just don’t), I smile politely and say, “Oh, whatever you want to do is fine with me.” Or worse, someone will ask me if I’ll do something and, while in my mind, I’m screaming my loathing of the idea, my feeble subconscious automatically moves my lips in the pattern its grown accustomed to and, before I have time to rally my thoughts, its formed the detested words, “Yes.” And with a smile plastered on my face, of course.

images-82So, how is a feminist who’s a confessed doormat like myself supposed to feel when I see a classic doormat female character letting herself be dragged through the course of a story? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I like to see characters who I can relate to, even if that means they are not go-get-’em girls who have a healthy amount of backbone at the beginning of the story. While I admire and praise the female characters who get out there and take action, whether that action is starting her own business or taking back a kingdom, I often see more of myself reflected in those female characters who are too nice for their own good and who seem to be waiting for others to make something happen. That has made me hesitate to take the pen against certain characters despite seeing the problems with the messages those characters send.

Of course, just because a female character is passive doesn’t mean I automatically feel something like kinship to her; passive female characters pop up in fiction a fair amount, from classic princesses from fairy tales to modern action flicks and it’s something that I’ve complained about over and over and over and over and over—well, you get the point. But there are times when they strike a cord within me. For example, one famous character who I have a bit of a soft spot for, but who also has some very reasonable complaints lodged against her because of her doormat behavior is Tohru from Fruits Basket. Tohru is a classic doormat at the beginning of the series; always smiling and putting others before her, she is sweet to a fault and will do whatever others ask of her. She’d let herself be tricked and treated poorly if that somehow helps the other person or because she feels she must have deserved that treatment and she apologizes even when she’s done nothing wrong. As unrealistic as that sounds, there is a degree of her character that rings true to me, especially as the series goes on.

The problem lays in the fact that these types of passive heroines reinforce old notions about gender roles and relationships that just aren’t healthy, notions that suggest that an ideal, good woman is someone who does whatever she can to make others happy and does what she is told. These are, of course, very traditional ideas that aren’t as popular as they were, say, in the 50’s, but still manage to surface in fiction as an ideal. To me, doormats are the worst of the breed of passive female characters because they are presented as saint-like in their benevolence in a way that just isn’t possible for even the nicest human being to behave and feel all the time. In addition, in stories like Fruits Basket, she even has people who will stand up and protect her when she won’t herself. Like classic stories like Cinderella, somehow or another the girl with the “purest” heart eventually wins via living happily ever after. Thus, when girls read or watch stories with doormat heroines, they’re supposed to admire and long to be like them with the promise of praise, protection, and “happily ever after” floating around in their heads. Sadly, reality isn’t nearly so sweet and letting others do whatever they want while lowering your own desires and feelings can be dangerous, if not simply unhealthy, whether you are male or female (of course, males who are passive are mercilessly considered “weak” while women still get the message that passiveness can be an attractive trait in them).

However, I don’t think doormat female characters are inherently harmful role models, the likes of which should vanish from fiction. Rather, I think how we present these characters in fiction images-84should be altered. Instead of depicting a complete lack of a backbone as something to be admired in a woman, it should be shown as a type of behavior that some people have, with all the trouble it can bring upon those people. If a doormat character is to be admired, it’s not because she’s so nice that she’ll let others walk all over her, but for, perhaps, her struggle to stand up for herself and gain a backbone. A woman can still be nice without being passive and it takes real effort to flex those assertive muscles after being doormat for some time; as a confessed doormat, that’s one of my biggest struggles. In fact, one of my favorite stories, Fuyumi Ono’s The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow, largely centers around the internal struggle of Youko, a girl who has spent her life trying to be non-offensive to others, even if it meant ignoring her true thoughts and feelings. (Edit: Even Tohru is revealed to have problems of her own and she is forced to face those problems down the line, something that adds depth to a doormat character that isn’t always depicted.)

So, show me doormat characters, I won’t deny that they exist in reality, but don’t feed misconceptions about what it means to be a doormat. Better yet, give us doormats some extra inspiration by creating more characters who come to recognize the problem with their own behavior and fight it.

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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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Imagine a world where magicians aren’t just the hocus-pocus men with a cheap-looking cape who pulls colorful tissues from their pockets and coins from your ear at a 10-year-old’s birthday extravaganza. We’ve all dreamed it at some point in our lives, right? But what if a world filled with magic wasn’t as lovely as many of us like to imagine? In a bleak parallel world of The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magicians are the elite, power-hungry, and self-serving people who run the British government, suppressing the commoners (that would be you and me) by keeping them ignorant or, if that doesn’t work, by intimidation and brute force. Surveillance spheres reminiscent of Big Brother are set up about London allow the magicians to watch the commoners going about their lives constantly. The commoners aren’t the only ones the magicians suppress. In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, magic isn’t some obscure skill that allows a person to make something levitate or shot sparks from her fingertips; a magician’s power comes from the demon he summons into his world, enslaves, and forces to do his bidding. You may have read fantasy novels about magic before, but this series is unlike any other.

If magicians sound like terrible, unsympathetic beings, well, the author, Jonathan Stroud, won’t let readers off so easily. The first book of the series, entitled The Amulet of Samarkand, introduces us to Nathaniel, a 12-year-old apprentice magician trying to work his way through the cold system. Like all magicians, at a young age, he was separated from his parents and placed under the care of a full-fledged magician to cultivate those skills. Under the strict eye of his uncaring master, young Nathaniel was raised and studied the basics of magic. At last he is going to summon his first demon. That’s when his path collides with Simon Lovelace, a charismatic and established magician who cruelly and mercilessly humiliates the boy at a social gathering. Enraged by the mistreatment Lovelace inflicted on him and betrayed by his master who did not raise a hand to stop him, all in order to preserve his own image, Nathaniel plots revenge. Summoning Bartimaeus, a witting demon of power beyond the usual capabilities of a young apprentice, his first order is for the demon to steal a powerful magical item from Lovelace. With that one order, Nathaniel finds himself wrapped up in plots of murder, espionage, and rebellion.

Some of you may have noticed that I make no mention of a female character. Indeed, there is no lead female character in the first book. This disappointed me a bit. While I was somewhat unconvinced that the story was anything amazing at the beginning, the more I read, the harder it became to put it down; I ended up reading The Amulet of Samarkand quicker than I’ve read any book in a while and loved it by the end. I thought it would be that much better if there were just a female character who played an active part. Well, Stroud didn’t disappoint and upon picking up the second entry, The Golem’s Eye, I was introduced to the strong-willed and determined Kitty.

Unlike Nathaniel, Kitty is a commoner. As a young child, Kitty and her friend experienced the inequality of their government firsthand when a magician attacked them and then easily convinced the court system that he only acted in self-defense. Many of the commoners around Kitty are too scared or ignorant to do anything about such a corrupt system, but not her. Soon after this incident, Kitty joins a small group who have chosen to resist the magicians’ rule.

While Kitty only makes one brief appearance in the first book, in the second and third she is just as important a character as Nathaniel and Bartimaeus; she isn’t just some token female character created to appease female readers. The series is set up so that each main character gets chapters from their point of view which creates a feeling that each of them is equally vital to the story. And like the rest of the colorful cast, Kitty is a complicated character who avoids stereotypical traits. For once, the female lead is not involved in a romance (nothing against romance, but it’s a nice change) and it is made clear that she is a force to be reckoned with. Kitty gets my seal of approval.

In the three books that make up this trilogy, Stroud paints an addicting tale full of complex and fleshed out characters in a dark world. Flipping between the narratives of Nathaniel, Bartimaeus, and Kitty, he allows readers the insight of circumstances of each major group (magicians, demons, and commoners) that gives the series a well-rounded and more complex view of events. As these characters try to maneuver in the dangerous world where one wrong step could mean disaster, collide with each other, and grow, one can’t help but get caught up in their lives.

The series is young adult fiction and suggested for kids aged 10 and up, but Stroud’s masterfully crafted story allows older readers well beyond that of the suggested age group to enjoy it, too. It is humorous, thinks to Bartimaeus’ snarky and witting commentary, and adventurous yet full of social commentary, deep characters, and darker elements of the plot that ground it in the realms of reality and add intellect not seen in all of fiction. The trilogy is an original take on magic and the plot is filled with truly unexpected twists. If you liked Harry Potter, especially the later half of the series, or are just looking for a well-crafted and intelligent fantasy that will suck you in completely, I can’t recommend The Bartimaeus Trilogy enough.

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As soon as I saw the title on this book, I had to read it. While I don’t consider a character strong just based on their physical strength, with a name like that, I had a feeling I was in for an adventure about a tough female character. The question was, would she make more than a statement about how she can swing a sword?

“A Sword In Her Hand” starts off in 1347 with the Count of Flanders on pins and needles as his wife is giving birth to a child he hopes above all else will be the son and heir he’s been praying for. It’s a girl. Say hello to the protagonist of the story, Marguerite van Male! Readers watch as Marguerite grows from a small child looking for the love of a father too bitter over the loss a male heir to give her that, to as the book says, a “headstrong, sharp-tongued, sword-wielding” young woman searching for freedom in a male-dominated world. Her father may have wanted a strong-willed boy, but girls with such attitudes just won’t do. Marguerite will not be as her father might wish her to be; she’s watched her father pine over a male heir and her mother waste away, having been only a tool to produce an heir. She does not want to end up like that. Soon, Marguerite won’t just be fighting her father, she’ll be confronted with the pressure of politics as well when a marriage to a foreign prince is arranged for her.

Going into this book, I had no idea what it was about, including the fact that this reasonably short novel is roughly based on a real historical figure of whom little information is known. I’ll admit, I imagined war and frequent sword fights. While there is a war and some sword fights, the story was actually different from what I’d initially thought it would be like. Instead of a keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat action novel, it’s much more a story about Marguerite’s journey as a character and dealing with her life as a strong-willed girl in the Middle Ages. Don’t get me wrong, there is action; from the secondhand account of a war to Marguerite’s adventurous activities. And for those of you out there itching for a sword fight, there’s a great one at the end. However, despite there not being a lot of action in the form of wars and the like, there is plenty of tension and gripping moments that had me flipping through pages furiously to see what would happen next. This is especially true for when the arranged marriage plot line comes into play. Marguerite is constantly fighting a world that would have her be docile and there are wonderfully satisfying scenes in which she openly refuses to keep quiet and play along. This is a female character who is recognized for her vivacious personality and strength of character rather than her looks (which, according to history, weren’t considered beautiful). As Marguerite grew and her challenges in life became harder, I grew to like her more, feeling frustrated with her and cheering her on when she takes a stand.

While this book may not rank as a keeper for me, it was certainly enjoyable. If your heart is set on a sword fight in every chapter, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a Young Adult novel about the struggle of a young woman fighting against the control of the men in her life and her society, “A Sword In Her Hand” will provide you with a well-paced and satisfying story.

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

The Twelve Kingdoms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Twelve Kingdoms

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

The Twelve Kingdoms

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

The Twelve Kingdoms

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

The Twelve Kingdoms

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

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

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