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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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images-88Most of us, at one point or another, experience a series that catches your heart upon picking up the first installment–a sort of “love at first sight” for story lovers–only to find ourselves disillusioned by the end. I have had my share of those over the years; sometimes, it was a result of growing up and maturing taste or simply the thrill of something once new and shiny fading away. The worst, however, are the cases of series that really have everything I could ask for–good plotting, interesting and three-dimensional characters, something unique, and that element that keeps me dying to get my hands on the next installment–but get tripped up and crash along the way. Unfortunately, this was my ultimate experience with the manga series Please Save My Earth or, 「ぼくの地球を守って」 by Saki Hiwatari.

Written in the late 80’s into the 90’s, Please Save My Earth started off like any other teen drama. Alice Sakaguchi is a 16-year-old who is having trouble adjusting to the recent move to Tokyo. Inhibited by her shyness and inadvertently intimidating her new classmates with her demure appearance, she just can’t seem to make any new friends. If that wasn’t bad enough, she has been getting harassed endlessly by the 7-year-old brat living in the apartment next door, Rin Kobayashi. Perhaps the only hint of something mysterious underneath the mundane is a mention of Alice’s ability to talk to plants, a secret only her family knows, and a story from two classmates, Jinpachi and Issei, about a strange dream they both seem to be experiencing that they believe has something to do with their past lives.

But things soon take a sharp turn when a job babysitting Rin goes terribly awry and Alice accidentally sends Rin tumbling over the edge of a 15th story balcony. While he miraculously survives, Rin begins to remember his dark past life. At the same time, Alice finds herself being drawn into Jinpachi and Issei’s story of their past lives: in the dreams, Jinpachi and Issei are two of six scientists from another plant sent to the moon on a mission. After she has a dream similar to theirs, it appears she too may be one of the group of scientists reincarnated and this spurs the three teens to look for the other reincarnated members. What starts as a mysterious yet fun reminiscing soon gives way to growing darkness as secrets of their past lives are gradually brought to light and Rin, unbeknownst to the others, sets up a carefully spun web of revenge for the wrongs done to him and manipulates the others for some unknown purpose.

Just as Rin masterfully manipulates those around him, Hiwatari is able to draw raw emotions from the readers with her excellent storytelling abilities. She moves the plot at the perfect pace, building anticipation as we watch the story morph from lighthearted fun into a tangled mess as the characters struggle to come to terms with what happened in their past lives. Intriguing questions confuse the reader as much as the characters. For example, are Jinpachi and the others living as their reincarnated selves or being absorbed by their past lives? Alice becomes stuck in passiveness, unsure if she really is the reincarnated form of a woman named Mokuren and afraid to find out. While she hesitates, the others jump right into the memories of their past lives and suddenly find themselves falling into the same traps their previous lives did; just as Jinpachi’s previous life fell in love with Mokuren, Jinpachi falls in love with Alice. But does he love Alice because she’s Alice or because she might be Mokuren? Issei, despite being reincarnated as a boy, can’t help but feel jealous at the sight of Jinpachi, the reincarnated form of the man he loved in his previous life as a woman, in love with Alice. Rin suffers from this the most, transforming from a bratty 7-year-old to someone utterly consumed with the anger and demons of his adult past life and in turn reminds the others of the demons of their own pasts. On top of that, nothing is what it at first seemed to be as Hiwatari skillfully turns things on their head with the simple switch of perception. Needless to say, it’s a multi-layered story with plenty of complications, but it’s artfully unraveled before our eyes.

If you haven’t read this series in its entirety and don’t want it spoiled, I strongly recommend you not to read the following paragraphs, since I will be diving into huge spoiler territory for the remainder of my discussion.

Perhaps Please Save My Earth‘s greatest strength as well as its greatest downfall lies in these terrifyingly complex characters and their unraveling. Throughout the series, readers are given a chance to experience events that happened in Alice and her friends’ past lives from different view points, the most in-depth and predominant being the perspectives of Shion, Rin’s past life, and Mokuren. Many times, it breathes life into otherwise two-dimensional characters as we get to see what one character was really thinking or how they got to be the way they are. One of the best examples of this occurs when readers get to at last see things from Mokuren’s perspective. Until this point, Mokuren is depicted as she was seen by the other characters: a perfect woman who was feminine, beautiful, saintly kind, and had all the men falling in love with her. This type of perfect yet dull female character appears fairly often in fiction so, I was pleased when Hiwatari ripped away this image like a veil hiding the not entirely pleasant truth beneath.

The saintly guise dropped, Mokuren is revealed to be a rather feisty young woman with a rebellious spirit who is tired of being made out as perfect. As one of a handful of people with a power considered holy, she has been idealized, idolized, and isolated, unable to get others to see past her image as a holy woman. In truth, she has problems and questions of her own and doesn’t always approach things in the right manner. Yes, Mokuren is a romance-obsessed young lady at times, but it’s shown as a quirk developed through her past experiences and her wish to reject constraints that dictate she cannot love someone as a holy woman. And indeed, Mokuren’s idea of romance is shown to be a bit simplistic and idealized. Shion’s character development is a lot more typical, showing his harsh exterior to hide someone desperately in need of love and comfort, but is nonetheless well done. His darkness alienates him from every chance of love that comes his way and we watch as he slowly pushes himself further into darkness by committing successively worse offenses to others.

Yet something that started so good slips into an extremely convoluted and repulsive development. Another huge shock rocks readers’ perception of the fairy tale-like romance that we are made to believe existed between Mokuren and Shion. The engagement of the ruthless Shion with the ultra nice Mokuren appears like any other formulaic romance nowadays, but as secrets of their past life come to light, it is revealed that Shion actually raped Mokuren. To the bewilderment of Shion, however, Mokuren lied and told the others it was their misunderstanding, that she and Shion are engaged. In other words, what the others thought was rape was not. This is perhaps the ultimate turn of events in the story and readers are left wondering what Mokuren was thinking for volumes. After all, her actions don’t make sense. But the final reveal ended up smashing this beautifully sculpted world to pieces for me.please_save_my_earth_v11p140_copy

Mokuren, who really did love Shion, is naturally crushed to think he didn’t actually love her. At first, we’re made to think she hates Shion for this, but this feeling is warped into devotion for a man who she not only thinks doesn’t love her, but who also has committed the greatest act of violation against her. At the same time, we’re told Shion used his hatred as an excuse to rape Mokuren, but really just wanted to love someone. Did Hiwatari run into a writer’s wall, in which she needed to make these two love each other despite the plot twist that suggests everything but love? I’ll likely never know, but what I do know is we’re left with a scenario that not only contradicts itself, but also supports a sick misconception about rape. Somehow, some people seem to be under the impression that a victim of rape can fall in love with the rapist, which is about as far from the truth as possible. In Mokuren and Shion’s case, Mokuren loved Shion before he raped her, but the idea that there is love in a relationship where one person rapes the other is simply preposterous.

While Mokuren does appear naturally confused at times, her love and devotion seems the strongest emotion even in the wake of the rape, which conflicts the other messages sent about how terrible an act the rape was. Yes, it is clear the rape hurt her, but the reaction Hitawari constructs for Mokuren undermines the crushing affect rape has on the victim. At the same time, Shion is almost excused for his unforgivable act by the end by the sympathetic yet highly flawed reasoning behind his actions. Did he rape her? Yes. Do we all agree this is bad? Yes. Oh, but by the way, he’s just a sad, empty guy who really did love Mokuren and thought in his selfish, twisted way that rape was the only way he could be loved by her. The reactions and reasoning seem forced and unnatural and send a horrible message about rape as excusable, forgivable, and above all, as something someone who really loved another could do to that person. To add insult to injury, when Mokuren lies about the engagement to save Shion from punishment for raping her, she acts as if she is in the wrong for forcing Shion to pretend to be engaged to and in love with her.

There are other issues such as Alice’s development later in the series and her relationship with Rin, a relationship in which she is constantly being manipulated, but Mokuren and Shion’s relationship was the biggest smack in the face for me. It’s quite unfortunate because there are plenty of wonderful things about Please Save My Earth. In fact, it was one of my favorite series up until I reached the rape incident and its subsequent handling of the issue. There are some things that can be overlooked, but presenting a rape and then essentially sweeping it under the rug just doesn’t cut it.

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35348Valvrave the Liberator is a shiny new mecha anime to hit the screen (in my case, the computer screen) this spring 2013 anime season. With colorful, humanoid machines, wars fought in space, teens from a neutral state getting caught up in the fight, and even an opening theme by T.M. Revolution, I was reminded of a certain angst-ridden anime with questions about war and peace called Gundam Seed when I first came across this series. Intrigued by the art and curious to see how this new series would handle similar issues, I began to follow it…and soon became concerned about how the female characters would be represented.

The story is centered in a world where the majority of humans live in space and are broken up into three groups: two large groups, the Dorssia Military Pact Federation and the Atlantic Ring United States and a small, neutral group called JIOR. The series begins with a feeling of teen drama and romance, introducing Haruto, our super nice and unimposing protagonist, and his friends at school living a life in JIOR, oblivious to outside troubles. That is, until Dorssia, a militaristic country (which appears oddly reminiscent of Nazi Germany at times throughout the anime), invades the peaceful nation of JIOR, including the school Haruto attends. When it appears his childhood friend and crush, Shoko, has been killed in the attack, Haruto recklessly gets into a military machine secretly being kept on school grounds and, accepting the mysterious condition posed by the machine’s system of relinquishing his humanity, he becomes the pilot of the machine and the only defense the students have. Add in a deadly Dorssian spy with his own unknown motives to the mix and you have the beginning of Valvrave the Liberator.

!!Spoilers for Valvrave the Liberator season 1 ahead!!

While the two protagonists are both young men and all the main antagonists so far are male as well, there are a fair amount of female characters populating this series (which, unfortunately, is saying something since there seem to be a good number of fictional stories with maybe one or two female characters total). From a reclusive hacker who monitors the school and lets the outside world aware of what’s happening to JIOR to an ex-idol who isn’t afraid to take control of another machine and become a pilot herself, this show doesn’t appear to be short on female characters. In fact, unlike some series in which the main female characters may be passive and dependent except for on one or two rare occasions, if at all. I was pleasantly surprised to see not just one but two female characters become pilots, taking on active roles within the plot that are usually occupied by male characters. More typically but still nothing to squeeze at, one female character becomes the prime minister for her group. Therefore, a number of the female characters are given positions of power.

Unfortunately, while I had moments where I felt that rush of excitement that the show was doing something right with its female characters, I can’t say I came away from season one feeling that the female characters were particularly empowered, despite the number of female characters in powerful positions. Too often, the female characters were reduced to sexual objects for the male characters and audience to drool over. Not to be confused with a woman who is simply presented as confident and sexy, this trend takes the focus away from the female character’s other attributes such as a skill to lead or her intelligence and puts everyone’s attention on the fact she has big boobs or a nice butt. It reminds me of the stereotype of the guy that looks at a girl’s breasts instead of her face when she’s talking. Who cares who she is or what she’s saying, she’s got breasts. It’s as if this series was made by that guy.

!!Trigger Warning!! Discussion of sexual violence ahead

But even barring those issues, I found one particular scene toward the end of season one unacceptable. Throughout the season, Saki, a female character who is the second person to become a pilot and help Haruto defend the school, is largely defined by being the aggressive rival for Haruto’s affection against the always smiling and energetic Shoko, something that bothered me throughout the series. Anyway, Haruto appears to truly love Shoko, not Saki won’t give up and tries to win his heart, doing her utmost to be near Haruto and creating physical contact by grabbing onto him at times and even kissing him once. I suppose this is supposed to justify the fact that Haruto, overcome by a strange side effect brought on by the machine he uses that causes him to lose his senses, rapes Saki. However, the series has yet to be clear about defining it as rape. In fact, the way it’s presented is like something out of the 50’s.  “Even though Haruto did not have consent from Saki, she’s okay with it because she loves Haruto” is the message the show sends. In addition, while Haruto feels guilty, viewers can absolve him of any fault by chalking it up to the fault of the side effect and not Haruto himself, just like some people blame alcohol when someone has been drinking and assaults another person.

This scene reeks of the mythical and seriously misleading idea of a rape that can be excused or even justified. Everything is okay because it wasn’t really Haruto who did it and Saki has romantic feelings for him and understands him. From the way the show presented it, one could even argue that old, harmful argument that, “from the way she acted,” she may have wanted to go to that level anyway. In fact, that’s just the kind of argument occurring in Crunchyroll.com’s comments on the episode. “It wasn’t rape if the other person accepted it” is another kind of comment I saw several times when another person defined what happened in the episode as rape. Contrary to Valvrave the Liberator’s message, even if someone loves another person, forcing yourself on that person without explicit consent is not okay under any circumstance. And as for the whole “she accepted it so, it wasn’t rape,” how do we define “accepting it” when another person forces himself/herself on that person? If some kind of media entertainment or person ever say “it wasn’t rape because she accepted it,” that’s what I call an excuse. Rape is still a huge issue in society and when people in the entertainment industry want to put a situation of rape in their fiction, they need to be very careful about how they do so. There needs to be clear messages that this type of behavior is not acceptable, no matter what.

In closing, in combination with the rape and the general fixation on female characters as sexual objects, I came away feeling there was a big problem with the way the female characters were presented. Things like fanservice that I find undermining to female characters anyway, but can brush off as simply annoying, becomes a larger problem when the rape scene and its tragically terrible handling of the issue is factored in. If female characters are constantly being reduced to sexual objects and then a rape is shrugged off as not that big of a deal, the creators of Valvrave the Liberator need to take a step back and think about what kind of message they’re sending about women.

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Have you ever come across the word “feminist” or “feminism” in context that just doesn’t make sense? It’s a word that seems to have been coated in a thick layer of dirt in the past couple of decades, covering up the true meaning with a nasty overcoat. Something that means equality has been mutated into a fowl word, the thing you won’t call even your worst enemy, something that twists the young and innocent. Just take Rush Limbaugh’s lovely mutilation of the word into “feminazi.” Unfortunately, a large group appears to have adopted and internalized this warped sense of the word so, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that misuse of it occurs in fiction at times. After reading soaringwing’s post about a convoluted comment about feminism, I decided to do my own calling out of problematic usage.

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Take a look at the image above. This is a scene from Kaori Yuki’s Grand Guignol Orchestra,  which follows a small band of very unusual members of an orchestra that cleanse people who have turned into doll-like zombies through a strange virus. In this particular episode, Eles, Lucille, and company have arrived at the mansion of a certain Lord Red-Beryl. The lord is a young man with an apparent obsession over beautiful women. The only reason the orchestra was allowed onto the lord’s premises was because he mistook Lucille for a woman and the only people in sight are all young, beautiful girls who act as his maids, servants, and guards. The group finds out that Lord Red-Beryl has dreams of protecting every woman he can and also of finding a woman he can marry, all for the sake of his mother who had a difficult time after her husband died when their son was only a boy. After discovering all of this, the conversation above about Lord Red-Beryl takes place between Eles and the other orchestra members.

Now, the first problem with this usage of the word “feminist” is that it just doesn’t make sense in this context. Eles says the lord isn’t a feminist, that he simply has a mother complex, but that seems to imply that the lord’s behavior resembled that of a feminist’s in some way. However, before Eles mentions it, feminism did not enter my mind in the slightest while I was reading this section of the manga. If anything, maybe sexism, but certainly not feminism. While Lord Red-Beryl appears to respect his mother, the way he treats other women doesn’t seem like the behavior of someone who sees women as equal to men; I might argue that someone who thinks all women need the protection of a man suggests that women are weaker than men and is, in fact, sexist. When you take into account how Lord Red-Beryl treats the women around him (telling them how to dress, using them as servants which inevitably puts them in a position of considerably less power, and viewing each new (beautiful) girl as someone he could wed for his own benefit), sexist seems the much more likely choice.

As for the second comment about the difference between a leecher (essentially someone who takes from others and gives nothing back) and feminist being paper-thin, that’s just a plain insult. While this could be simply a reflection of the character, because no one denies or contradicts his remark, the idea that feminists are like leechers just sits out there, virtually accepted. Feminist has taken on a negative connotation in this day and age, to the point that even those who believe in equal rights for women won’t call themselves feminists, and this rather random insult in a manga reinforces that connotation. Feminists have been equated to extremists who want more, more, more and women with chips on their shoulder who hate men. If you truly believe that women are equal to men in every society, it may seem that way, but if you look at things like what women get paid in comparison to men who work the same jobs (in the U.S., it’s 77 cents (if you’re a white woman) for every dollar a man makes), the glass ceiling and second shift effect, gender roles and stereotypes, and even more serious issues in certain countries, there are still reasonable issues that feminists are trying to work on. Are there people who call themselves feminist who may be extreme? Probably, but most feminists are average people who see that equality between sexes is still an ongoing process.

Sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions about feminism buzzing about so, if you see any iffy usages of it in fiction and don’t have a blog of your own, please tell me about them so I can call those mistakes out.

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How many times have you read a story about a nice girl head over heels for a guy who seems to treat her like dirt yet is still supposed to be a “good” guy, the guy all the girls dream about? Fiction often gives us tales that are more fun in one’s dreams than in reality and the rough, forceful guy appears to have landed a place in the dreamworld of many a teenage romance stories. But what does it say to young readers, both male and female, if the guy who treats the girl poorly ends up capturing the girl’s heart, sometimes over the choice of a “nice guy” rival? It’s one thing to see that scenario once or twice every couple of years, but when it’s in every other story, people unconsciously start forming ideas over what they read and see everyday. That’s why I was happy to see one manga series that seems to have something else to say about romance to its readers.

In Otomen, Asuka, the guy who loves things like cooking, sewing, romance, and cute things, falls for Ryo, the girl who can’t cook or sew, but can show you martial arts skills that would make even a burly guy think twice about challenging her. It’s the typical opposites attract, but instead of the good girl-bad boy combination that seems so prevalent nowadays in which the good girl must soften the guy’s hard exterior, Asuka and Ryo accept each other as they are and help each other grow. As two people who fall outside gender stereotypes, it can be hard on them to accept themselves at times. Asuka especially is burdened with self-doubt about himself. When he first meets Ryo, he worries that she won’t like a guy who has “girly” interests. But when Ryo discovers Asuka is, in reality, not someone who society would traditionally call “manly,” she doesn’t like him any less. In fact, she accepts him completely, making Asuka realize he wants to, and can, show Ryo his true self. Ryo’s one of the first people he’s felt like he can truly be himself with.  When Asuka starts to feel down about himself, Ryo is always there, cheering him up and accepting every part of him.01_050

While Ryo is much more comfortable with herself, even she has moments of self-doubt. When Ryo is elected to represent her class in a contest to find the most ideal woman in the school, Ryo feels a lot of pressure to not let her classmates down. But she knows that while she might look pretty, internally, she doesn’t match what society thinks an ideal woman is: a woman who is delicate and demure, can cook beautiful and tasty meals, make tea, clean, etc. She’s not good at household things and would choose an action flick over a romance any day. She tries her hardest, but after failing the first two rounds, her classmates are calling her clumsy and Ryo feels she’s a disappointment. Asuka attempts to cheer her up, but Ryo says she’s realized that as a woman she needs to learn things like sewing and cooking and generally how to be more feminine. In one of my favorite moments so far, Asuka confesses he likes her just the way she is and wants her to stay like that. He tells her that if she can’t cook or sew, he can.lotomen_v05_p043

In a way, that really sums up what Asuka and Ryo’s relationship is like; what Asuka feel he lacks, Ryo makes up for and vice versa. It’s one of the most balanced relationships I’ve seen in more recent shojo. Is it a little too rosy and perfect? Yes, but in comparison to other romance fantasies, I love this one which shows a type of relationship with an underlying message that’s healthy and modern: find someone who thinks you’re wonderful for all your faults and all your strengths and support each other.

If that isn’t enough of a message for you, Otomen also goes so far as to make fun of the jerky love interest type. One of Asuka’s friends, Yamato, a boy who looks like a girl, but wants to be manly, struggles with impressing girls so, he does a practice date. It turns out Yamato is one of those people who buys into the idea that jerky guys are cool and as a result, he comically makes a mess of his practice date. He shows up late dressed like a punk(?) because cool guys are supposed to make their girls wait, tries to act tough, pulls his “date” forcefully along without saying anything, and more. I loved this chapter since everything Yamato does to be the “cool” jerk ends up going over poorly. While stuff may seem romantic in fiction, it may not be so cool in real life and Otomen depicts this in quite an amusing fashion.

What do you think? Is Otomen giving readers a better idealized relationship or is it just another example of unattainable perfection? And what do you think of the other relationship trends in fiction? Seriously problematic or just fantasy?

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What is gender? Are people of one sex or the other inherently gifted with certain skills or strengths or does that have more to do with gender roles that we learn as we grow up? Earlier this week, I came across some intriguing questions of gender posed by none other than Haruka Ten’ou from the famous Sailor Moon series.

51NX8K6ppBL._SY300_When Haruka first makes an appearance in the manga, we see a person with short hair in a racer’s suit wearing a confident smile, pointing back to a race car and exclaiming excitement over the speed of it. Haruka is supposed to be the best race car driver in Japan. He goes to a prestigious private school where young talents supposedly gather, skilled in judo, handsome, and even has a famous and elegant violinist for a girlfriend. By all accounts, Haruka is the ideal man. However, things aren’t so simple in Sailor Moon. As we later discover, Haruka is actually biologically female, but she stretches protagonist Usagi’s (as well as the reader’s) ideas of gender.

During the time when Usagi and her friends still believe Haruka to be male, Haruka challenges one of the girls, Mako, to a friendly judo match. When Haruka easily defeats Mako, throwing her full-force onto the mat, one of the other girls scolds Haruka for using “his” full strength against a “frail girl.” Now, as readers of Sailor Moon will know, this series is not one to play on societal ideas of strong, stoic men who protect frail, helpless girls (in fact, more often than not, the roles are almost reversed with the girls rescuing the guys) and through Usagi and her friends, we a shown that strength takes a variety of shapes, both physical and mental. Yet even these strong young women have taken in the message the women are inherently frail compared to men. Haruka, however, questions this thought process. “Gender shouldn’t matter,” she tells them. “Do you think it’s okay for a woman to lose to a man just because of her gender? If you believe that, how could you ever protect those who are important to you?” In turn, Mako doesn’t want to believe she lost simply because of her sex. While biology works in such a way that men are often bigger and therefore likely stronger than many of their female counterparts, that doesn’t make women frail nor does it mean it is impossible for a woman to be stronger than a man.2108-25_FRQTJ-SM_comic_22_43

But Haruka takes it further than that. Eventually, Usagi realizes that there is more to Haruka than meets the eye. She is confused about Haruka’s sex and bothered that she can’t figure it out. Haruka appears to be male given her appearance and way of dress, but she could easily pass for female, too. She finally asks Haruka if she’s a man or woman, but Haruka replies with an interesting question: does it really matter one way or the other?

Usagi’s confusion over Haruka’s sex is understandable; after all, a person’s sex is usually obvious to us and whether we are conscious of it or not, this often changes the way we interact with that person. We can refer to someone as “he” or “she,” choose or avoid colors associated with a certain sex when we buy merchandise for that person, or treat that person more gently or bluntly depending on whether that person is a boy or a girl. That’s where we get into issues of behaviors that are more accepted or put down according to societal ideas of gender roles. Because someone’s sex plays such a defining role in life, it becomes important information to individuals. It should be noted that while most societies only recognize male and female, there are actually some societies that have three choices, including a third option for those who may be biologically male or female but identify more with the opposite sex.images-70

Finally, switching over to more magical elements, it struck me that Haruka is said to be endowed with both male and female strengths as a result of her having the powers of Uranus. Many of us may find that our sex (what we are biologically) and gender (socially constructed ideas about male and female identities) overall in that you are a female with feminine qualities or a male with masculine qualities, most of us probably also have some traits traditionally associated with the opposite sex.

The introduction of Haruka’s character has added some interesting dynamics to an already wonderful series. Once again, it’s amazing how something fiction can raise such complex and intriguing questions about things we all may deal with in our day-to-day lives without giving it a second thought. If you like questions about gender roles and want to read about more manga that bring up those kinds of questions, see my post on Otomen.

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One of the hot new anime of the season, Say “I love you” is the classic story of two seemingly opposites–bullied and friendless Mei and popular nice guy, Yamato–falling in love. Because it has a plot used many times over, one might be concerned this is just another cliché and flat anime romance filled with stereotypes after stereotype. However, while there are some typical elements like a handsome high school student who appears to have almost all the girls falling for him and modeling agencies asking for him to work for them, so far Say “I love you” has successfully managed a bittersweet drama of Mei and Yamato and the people they encounter that has you wishing for more when the end song plays. The story and characters that may seem a little stereotypical at first glance are given depth that pushes beyond that and creates something charming.

For example, in the first episode we are introduced to some of Yamato’s friends, including Asami, a cheerful girl with large breasts. Initially, I thought she might be just another cutesy, cheerful airhead meant for fan service, something that is unfortunately not at all uncommon in manga/anime. Her large chest is pointed out several times by either camera angles or Yamato’s male friend. Yet later it is revealed that Asami’s chest has been a source of embarrassment for her since others have ridiculed and harassed her about it. Instead of making a girl’s chest eye candy, Say “I love you” went a more realistic and intelligent route by choosing to explore the teasing some girls have to put up with about their body. I was especially pleased that the story brought this issue up because manga/anime often glorifies ridiculously large breasts and if a female character has smaller breasts, her self-consciousness about this is often made into a joke. Therefore, I appreciate that a different side was discussed, one that takes girls’ body image issues seriously and shows that everything isn’t perfect because a girl has a sizeable chest. We also see that Asami is stronger than she may seem and has had to deal with her share of issues. In addition, rather than make Asami, who supposedly liked Yamato, a rival to Mei, she never treats Mei poorly or sees her with jealousy but actually becomes a friend.

That’s not to say there aren’t any rival girls in this story. Aiko has known Yamato for years and is hung up on him becoming her boyfriend. She doesn’t think Mei likes Yamato enough and won’t accept the two together. However, Say “I love you” once again made me happy when a situation seemed stereotypical. At a point in the anime when Aiko is being verbally ripped apart by someone, Mei stands up for her, breaking the girl vs. girl trend.

Unfortunately, I got a bit of a mixed message from this scene. Aiko was being insulted because of scars she got from dieting to an extreme, something she did because she believed she was pudgy and wanted to remake herself into the perfect girl for Yamato. When she met Yamato, she had been in another relationship in which she felt she needed to put on lots of makeup to be the ideal girlfriend. In other words, Aiko is the type that believes she needs to change herself physically to please the guy she likes, an unhealthy idea, especially since she looked fine to begin with.

Yet when Mei stands up for Aiko, she says that it’s an admirable thing to try to better yourself for someone you love.While I understand why Mei said this, I feel that this wasn’t really a good message to send in Aiko’s case. Trying to better yourself can be a great thing and if someone inspires you to do so, that’s natural. However, Aiko sounds like she has body image and self-confidence issues that make her feel that she’s not pretty or good enough the way she is. Case in point, in the past when her boyfriend dumped her, she slept with Yamato because she thought it would make her feel better even though she knew he didn’t love her. Therefore, while I’m happy that Mei stands up for Aiko, I’m not sure the show went about it in the right way. It felt like Mei gave the thumbs up to unhealthy behavior.

All in all, Say “I love you” is an interesting anime thus far. Obviously, there are things I like and things I don’t like, but it’s gotten me to think about some deep topics, which I always enjoy, and I’m curious to see how the story progresses. For those of you who are watching it, what are your impressions?  (If you haven’t seen it and want to check it out, Crunchyroll.com is streaming it legally and adds new episodes every Saturday.)

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