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9a2149f150155b275461a2d912498eeaAt the suggestion of one of my readers, I recently started reading the Korean webtoon, Cheese in the Trap. Since I ended up spending most of my weekend reading all the chapters that have been translated into English, I can confidently say it’s addicting.

Hong Sul is a 23-year-old college student who has just returned to school after taking a leave of absence. Much to her surprise and suspicion, Yoo Jung, a handsome, popular, and super rich upperclassman, suddenly wants to hang out with her. While he seems like the perfect guy to just about everyone else, Sul is convinced he’s hiding a dark side.

cittThe premise may sound typical, but the execution is anything but. Switching between the past and the present, readers (and Sul) try to piece together what happened before the heroine took her leave of absence and reconcile that with the present situation. At first this can be a little disorienting, especially since some of the characters’ relationships are so different in the past compared to what they are in the present, but after a chapter or two, the pattern becomes clear and a good back-and-forth flow is established. Flashbacks often reveal something about Sul’s relationships and her experiences with people while simultaneously deepening the mystery.

Along the way, issues like bullying and stalking pop up and so far, those issues have been handled well. Those instances add drama yet are presented as serious problems. Perhaps that’s why watching Sul deal with bullies has been inspiring. Although she keeps many things (like her worries and problems) to herself, Sul speaks up and rationally confronts others when she needs to. Her attempts don’t necessarily end the problem and more often than not someone else–usually a guy–has to intervene, but there’s a sense of satisfaction at seeing her stand up for herself and others. She never feels like a damsel in distress who frivolously tries to make a stand. Her words and actions mean something and the help she receives–be it from a man or not–seems realistic.

There’s also much enjoyment to be found in the daily life of Sul and her classmates. While I’ve read slice-of-life manga before, Cheese in the Trap is one of the few that tackles the realities of college students in a way that is both entertaining and down-to-earth. How often have you seen your favorite slice-of-life characters complain about the cost of tuition? We see Sul talking to friends about school-related issues, dealing with horrid group projects, and trying to balance top grades with jobs. It’s common for school to become just a backdrop for the social drama that is the focus of the story.

Additionally, slice-of-life dramas/romances often center on the school-age heroine’s search for romance. When academics are mentioned, it’s customarily at the detriment of the heroine who is revealed to be a poor student. Making some heroines of school-based series struggling students is one thing. It’s good to represent a variety of people so, depicting such a protagonist strikes a chord with those of us who struggled in school or know someone who did. Yet at the same time, like with many of the trends and tropes I discuss on this blog, seeing the majority of those heroines fail academically gets old. Ultimately, the school girl heroine, who is supposed to represent an average, likable girl, coincides with academic underachievement and that’s not a particularly good message.

Therefore, the fact that Sul puts an emphasis on her academics set this comic apart from others that I’ve read. She works hard to get good grades so 97245321that she can get scholarships takes on jobs to support herself and get through school. She doesn’t even bother with romance because she’s afraid it will distract her from her academics. It’s made clear that Sul’s top grades aren’t the result of genius, which might have made her hard to relate to for a major of readers, but rather the result of hard work and sacrifice. Sul’s character is still that of a normal young woman, but she represents different struggles that are just as important to depict as the struggles depicted by the typical school girl type.

The rest of the cast and Sul’s relationships with them are equally remedying. The joys and troubles of relationships explored in Cheese in the Trap are not limited to those of dating and romance. Instead, there is a healthy mix of friendships, potential romances, classmates, family, and everything in between. Another nice change is that the romances aren’t presented as rosy dreams of young lovebirds, driven by destiny and the search for “the one.” While Cheese in the Trap‘s romances can be as touching as any good romance, these romances also feel more reality-bound. There are sweet, blissful moments mixed with tenser ones as the couples try to overcome issues and make their relationships work. The relationships aren’t limited to heterosexual relationships either. As the series goes on, a homosexual couple is introduced and I thought the series did a good job of creating two realistic characters who happen to be homosexual instead of two caricatures of gay stereotypes. When this couple becomes more involved in the plot, the difficulties of being homosexual when those around them aren’t so accepting is explored.

There’s so much more I’d like to say about this series, but for now, I’ll leave you all with this: Cheese in the Trap certainly has drama and mystery (and exceeds nicely at both), but at the heart of the story is a twenty-something woman trying to work her way through life, learning just as much about herself and relationships with others as she is about academics. Three-dimensional characters and relationships, a good mix of genres, entertainment, and serious issues, and an excellent execution make this a series I highly recommend.

Edit: Here is the link to a site that allows you to read the comic in English while still supporting the creator. Make sure to follow the site’s instructions on how to access the translation or you’ll just see the comic in Korean.

In my review of Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen, I praised it as being a more modern rendition of Disney’s classic princess formula. While I tried to briefly explain what I mean by that, my thoughts on Frozen understandably left some people a little confused. After all, what about out-of-the-box hits like Brave or Mulan? Those are both great princess movies featuring protagonists and stories unlike any of the other Disney princess movies, aren’t they? In this post, I want to clarify what I mean when I say Frozen is an improvement of the classic Disney princess formula and why I put Mulan and Brave in slightly different categories. To start, let me define what I consider to be the classic formula.

Princess Protagonist + Romance-focused Plot = Classic Disney Princess Formula

The basic elements of the classic Disney princess formula are a princess protagonist (born royal or married into it) and a plot centered around romance. That is not to say that there are not other plots in the movie other than romance, but that romance plays a starring role in the story. The classic formula is called such because these are the basic elements of the oldest Disney princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) and remains the dominate formula in their princess films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled).

On a side note, Jasmine from Aladdin is an exception to the formula because she is not the protagonist of the movie she appears in, but rather the female lead and love interest of the protagonist, Aladdin. Anyway, now let me break down why Mulan, Brave, and Frozen do or don’t fit this formula.

Mulan: Non-princess Female Protagonist = Not a Disney Princess MovieDownloadedFile-1

I’ve written about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. Disney markets Mulan as a princess. In fact, the only time we see Mulan nowadays in when a dolled up version of her appears in banners brimming with all the lovely ladies of Disney’s princess stories or in other princess-themed Disney merchandise. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that Mulan has no connection to royalty other than saving the Emperor’s hide at the end of her already epic adventure.

While Disney may call Mulan a princess, I see no reason to put her in that category. Her story is much closer to the many male-centered Disney adventures that focus on the growth of a young male protagonist and his relationship with friends and/or family. The only real similarity that I see is that Mulan is a story centered on a woman, just like Disney’s princess movies. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to include her in the princess category and since comparing Disney princess movies to Mulan is like comparing them to The Lion King or Hercules, I don’t. That comparison is fine and doable, but it’s different from comparing a princess movie to a princess movie.

Brave: Princess Protagonist + Non-romance-focused Plot = Non-Traditional Princess Movieimages-26

Brave, on the other hand, is a movie I count as a Disney princess movie because it does feature a princess protagonist. I would, however, consider this movie to be a non-traditional Disney princess movie. Why? Because Brave throws out the romance plot so central to the majority of Disney princess movies in favor of focusing on a mother-daughter relationship. Of course, other Disney princess movies I’ve classified as classic, romance-based plots feature other types of relationships, too, like Ariel’s relationship with her father, but the type of relationship that is most central to those plots is the romance. In Bravethe main plot revolves around how the heroine and her mother come to understand each other when they are forced to work together to undo a spell, pushing what may have been a sub-plot (the heroine’s relationship with her parents) in another princess movie to the forefront.

Frozen: Princess Protagonist + Romance Plot + Non-romance Focused Plot = Tweaked Classic FormulaDisney-Frozen

Frozen falls somewhere in between the pure classic formula and the non-traditional formula, but because the protagonist is a princess and romance, while not the only important plot, is still a central plot, I’m considering it an upgraded version of the classic formula. It mixes elements of the classic formula (romance) with aspects of non-traditional princess movies like Brave (focus on relationships other than romantic ones).

As I said earlier, some of the Disney movies I’ve placed under the category of “classic formula” do have other sub-plots dealing with non-romantic relationships and wishes for freedom/adventure, but those sub-plots are just that–sub-plots. They take a backseat to the main romance plot or are wrapped up tightly in it. For example, getting a chance to see a new world is acted on and achieved only through Ariel’s romance with Prince Eric; Jasmine and Rapunzel ultimately only get their desired freedom through their relationships with their love interests; Tiana has dreams of owning and running her own restaurant, but the story is not about her accomplishing that dream, but of her romantic relationship with Prince Naveen, etc. On the other hand, Anna’s romance and her wish to help/have a relationship again with her sister are equally important in Frozen. Romance is the focus of a good portion of the movie, but obtaining goal A doesn’t get overshadowed by romance nor does Anna’s romantic relationship mean the achievement of that goal.

Pocahontas probably falls somewhere in this group, too. The protagonist is a princess, but unlike Brave, there is a strong romance-focused plot. Like Frozen, there is also another strong plot running alongside the romance–the tension between the English settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe, which the heroine and her love interest try to bridge. However, it’s been years since I’ve seen Pocahontas so, that’s one I need to revisit.

Anyway, that’s it! To some, it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but I hope this makes my stance a little clearer.

Disney-FrozenOver the years, I’ve complained a lot about Disney’s expansive line of princess tales, from Cinderella to The Princess and the Frog. Even with renditions that I liked overall, namely their adventurous undertaking of Rapunzel (Tangled), I still had moments where I felt something was left to be desired. Well, Disney, you’ve finally done it. I enjoyed your newest princess movie, Frozen, as both a story lover and as a feminist. As a movie that follows your classic princess formula, i.e. one that has romance as a focus, this is an improvement.

Like many princess tales, Frozen‘s featured protagonist is a teenaged princess, Anna, but in this case, she’s not the only one. Anna’s got an older sister named Elsa and, as we’re quickly shown, the two are close. But Elsa has a little secret. She was born with a magical, wintry power that allows her to create ice and snow with just the touch or wave of her hands. It’s all fun and games until Elsa accidentally hurts Anna with her powers, which leads Elsa to close herself off from everyone to protect them. The years pass and the sisters grow distant as they live their separate lives in a castle completely shut off from the outside world. Soon, however, Elsa comes of age and must emerge for her coronation. While Elsa is terrified of what might go wrong, Anna is ecstatic and wants to use the opportunity to the fullest after the years of loneliness, maybe even find her “prince.” But when an argument breaks out between the sisters and Elsa’s powers are revealed, she’s labeled a sorceress and flees, inadvertently putting her kingdom into an eternal winter as she goes. Worried about her sister and the kingdom, Anna sets off to find Elsa, picking up some help in the form of a boy and his reindeer (not to mention a talking snowman) along the way.FROZEN_color_p2_3_V2

In recent years, Disney has made an effort to put forth princess protagonists who don’t wilt at the first sign of trouble and Frozen is no exception. Both Anna and Elsa are dynamic characters who display fears and flaws viewers of both genders can relate to while amply showcasing their inner steel as well. And although the sisters get into their fair share of difficult situations, neither feels like a helpless doll, collecting dust while they wait for a prince to save them. If anything, spunky Anna could be viewed as taking the hero’s place for her sister, although Elsa is anything but helpless and has her own crucial part to play. Needless to say, the interaction between Anna and Elsa is wonderful and while Anna’s relationships with Kristoff and Hans are very important, the plot between the sisters is just as much so. In Disney’s past princess films and many other romantic fiction, it’s been hammered home that romantic love can overcome anything, but through Anna and Elsa, Frozen wisely makes it clear that romantic love is not the only powerful form of love.

As for Elsa, overall, I like that the queen/witch character is not vilified. Typically, the queen/witch has great power and independence, but she endsElsa-and-Anna-Wallpapers-frozen-35894707-1600-1200 up ruled by jealousy, vanity, and other shallow, ugly emotions, resulting in her torment of the innocent heroine before her inevitable downfall. As a result, power and independence in women almost goes hand-in-hand with evil in many classic Disney princess movies. Elsa, however, is an independent, powerful woman who girls and boys can relate to and like. Of course, it’s arguable that Frozen‘s queen/witch character loses some of the authority and power her evil counterparts command since Disney puts her in the role of the persecuted victim. That was done to garner sympathy for a character that plays the villain in the tale Frozen is based on. This role change is something I’ll try to look at more in-depth in a later post. For now, however, I’m just happy that Disney is trying something new.

images-94Disney also continues its trend of pulling away from perfectly plastic prince charming in favor of a more layered, interesting male lead with flaws and quirks of his own. In Frozen, just as there are two female leads, there are two male leads: one prince (Prince Hans) and one average guy (Kristoff), both of which play vital roles in the story. Hans very successfully sets himself apart from the 2D princes of old and I found Kristoff to be an improvement to Disney’s gruff male lead formula. In their attempt to create a new down-to-earth male lead in the princess movies, Disney began featuring more rugged types, the opposite of the stark, clean blankness of past prince characters. The result in the last two movies were somewhat the “bad boy” type. Prince Naveen from The Princess and the Frog starts off as an egotistical playboy while Tangled‘s Flynn Rider is a wanna-be “cool criminal” type. Both were good guys deep down, of course, a goodness which the heroines eventually bring out in them. It’s a charming and fun concept in fiction, but since this trend has been used a lot and can send the wrong message about real-life relationships, I’m happy that Disney took a slightly different approach with Kristoff. As with the past two male leads, Kristoff is a little gruff with the heroine, Anna, resulting in fun and dynamic interactions between the leads, but not once does Kristoff try to pose as a “bad boy.” Instead, he’s an honest, hard-working guy who is perhaps a tad socially awkward, a trait which he shares with Anna and that reflects their mutual struggles with loneliness and isolation.

I also feel Disney has improved its messages about romance. Toward the latter half of the movie, a song starts in which one of the male leads is disneys-frozen-2013-screenshot-kristoffreferred to as a “fixer-upper.” At that moment, my heart sank, thinking this was when fiction would once again announce that if your potential mate has traits you don’t like, all you have to do is stick with and change him/her. But Disney didn’t say that this time. In fact, they made a clear effort to tell viewers that you can’t change people like we’re always told you can. Rather than searching for the “perfect” one like Cinderella or even The Little Mermaid suggest, or finding someone who has flaws that you don’t like and believing you can change those aspects as movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Princess and the Frog seem to say, Frozen settles upon middle ground. That is, recognize that we all have flaws and don’t expect to whisk those flaws away with love. It also directly challenge the romantic idea that one can simply bump into the right person and know instantly that this is “the one.” Instead, Frozen sends the message that you must get to know someone before love truly enters the equation. In the end, it touches on the issue of accepting reasonable flaws, but cautions viewers to watch out for duds.

There are still things to improve such as including a lot more POC in their movies, but Frozen is a step in the right direct for Disney’s romance-focused princess films. After years of transition, trying to balance romantic fantasy with modern ideas, I feel they’re finally starting to hit the right notes; female and male leads who break stereotypes and standard roles, a plot with just the right touch of magic, hilarity, and heart-felt moments that both adults and kids can enjoy, and messages that freshen up an old genre, even directly contradicting old fairytale notions. I haven’t read “The Snow Queen” which Frozen is based on so, if you’d like to read an insightful post on that angle, check this post out, but just judging the film, I would recommend it as a large improvement to the classic Disney princess formula.

Enjoying Fiction as a Feminist

When I tell people that I am a feminist and especially when I reveal that I review fiction on my blog from a feminist perspective, it’s sometimes taken for granted that I dislike fiction that isn’t feminist. That’s a hell of a lot better than assuming I spend my days plotting the overthrow of men, but enjoying and reviewing fiction is a bit more complicated than that for me so, I thought I’d share my thoughts.

It goes without saying that I love finding stories that, in addition to being  generally well told, thought-provoking, and striking, promote healthy, modern ideas about gender and gender roles. When I discover those gems, they tend to get a special place in my heart, as well as on my blog. After all, finding fiction like that means I can enjoy every aspect of the story without feeling let down about gender representation. Even more than that, stories that present characters–male or female–fighting against gender norms or dealing with the real effects of gender norms in society can leave me with a sense of empowerment and make me think about gender roles in society and in media. Other times, fiction depicts characters who are non-stereotypical and appear unrestricted by gender norms, which is equally refreshing even without an obvious message on gender roles. Frankly, putting feminism aside, those types of non-stereotypical characters and plots appeal to me more as just a fan of fiction since that makes the overall story more interesting.

But to be honest, those examples aren’t particularly easy to come by. It’s like needling out one perfect book from the mounds of average ones. Excuse me for using a corny phrase, but if I had a penny for every time I crossed paths with fiction that had sexist content, I would be a rich woman. Sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination are, sadly, one of those elements of societies that are deeply engrained in our ways of thinking and are hard to get rid of entirely.

Writing on Gagging on Sexism and getting feedback from others has clarified the way I view sexism in fiction, just as it has helped me see larger issues differently. It is easy to pick out series that I personally feel do not have good stories and that promote highly sexist or archaic ideas about gender, roles, and relationships. It’s harder, however, to discuss series that I enjoy or maybe even really love in many ways, but that disappoint me in other ways relating to gender representation. Whether I am reviewing those series or simply reading/watching them for my own pleasure, as a story lover, I don’t want to dismiss a work of fiction that succeeds in entertaining me. Yet, at the same time, I am bothered by gender issues, which in one story may not be a problem, but that are often part of larger trends that promote unhealthy representations of gender. I can’t just ignore that or the problem will pass by as acceptable.

In those cases, I don’t think the stories should simply be dismissed as “bad.” Instead, I try to make others aware of these issues as they read/watch it. We can still enjoy fiction that may have non-progressive aspects and that feed into larger issues of gender representation. However, it is better to be aware of those issues as we enjoy that fiction, rather than mindlessly ingesting it.

When I write a post on a series, I try not to suggest that you to reject or accept a series based on whether it is feminist or sexist. Occasionally I come across a piece that offends me to the point that I recommend others against it, but usually I see other problems with those rare examples than just sexism. In fact, even series that I praise aren’t necessarily written to be “feminist,” but are series that I, looking at it from my feminist perspective, felt promoted ideas that are modern, non-stereotypical, and/or thought-provoking in addition to being plain good stories. In the end, whether I point out good aspects of fiction or bad, my goal is simply to stop and think, and get others to think, for just a moment to consider what fiction is saying to us.

tumblr_mmje5edfpD1rw9b6io1_1280As the new series from the team that brought us the stylish, over-the-top, and immensely popular Gurren Lagann,  Kill la Kill was destined to be a hit with the crowds. It following right along with its predecessor, packing in loads of zany characters and dramatic action sequences within every episode, not to mention a healthy dose of jaw-dropping outrageousness. Kill la Kill is the story of a high school girl named Ryuko in an alternative modern Japan where the student council of Honnouji Academy have taken over much of the country through the use of super-powered uniforms, living in luxury while keeping a tight leash on the people under their rule. Ryuko, however, is about to shake things up. After her father was murdered, she takes her only lead and sets her sights on the steely Satsuki Kiryuinleader of the council and someone who seems to know something about the murder. With the help of some *ahem* unusual allies and a uniform of her own, Ryuko is ready to take on the whole school to reach her goal.

Kill la Kill is an interesting sight to behold, full of wacky allies and enemies, humorously slick undercover agents, and plenty of insanely corrupt systems/people that one can’t help but want to watch what happens next. The series boasts two very strong ladies as its leads, a fun deviation from the standard action anime/manga with a shonen demographic, which typically tails a teenage boy around on his adventures. Female characters’ roles in these tales vary and, as we have seen, sometimes act as strong allies to their male comrades that the audience can take seriously, but often end up in more traditional positions as helpless but faithful lovers/friends, major fanservice caterers, and so on. This common dilemma is something I have previously pointed out in Gurenn Lagann.

Kill la Kill, on the other had, gives both the major roles (so far) to female characters, making both the spunky underdog lead (Ryuko) and the tyrannical antagonist (Satsuki) female. Both female characters have an incredible drive to reach their goals; Ryuko is literally fighting against an entire school to reach hers while Satsuki’s unshakable demeanor and strength puts her at the top of a monstrous system, plotting her moves with confidence. Thus far, Ryuko and Satsuki are also the only ones able to handle the mysterious power of uniforms that possess a soul of sorts, feeding off the blood of its wearer in exchange for tremendous strength.  Granted, Ryuko still seems to be in the dark about what is truly going on in this topsy-turvy world while the male mentor-like character (if you can even call him that) obviously holds, and withholds, information from Ryuko. Satsuki, however, appears to be in the know about everything. Given that the series is only eight episodes in, things are bound to change and I’m looking forward to how these characters progress.

HorribleSubs-Kill-la-Kill-01-720p.mkv_snapshot_20.03_2013.10.05_16.42.50That being said, Kill la Kill suffers in the extreme from fanservice. I’ve complained in the past about unrealistically big breasted female characters, convenient panty and cleavage shots, and the like, but as a show that likes to take things over the top, this series use of fanservice truly puts it on a different level. Remember those fancy, power-granting uniforms that Ryuko and Satsuki utilize? Well, when in use, they turn the protagonist and antagonist alike into breast-baring, buttocks-showing, midriff-exposed wonders. At the same time, the audience gawks at their power, we also can’t help but gape at the kinkiness of their outfits. Focus is torn between sex appeal and prowess, and mixes sexualization of the female character with violence.

When an audience gathers to watch the latest battle Ryuko participates in, male characters are shown openly drooling at her as she fights, getsKill-la-Kill-02-01 pummeled or wins, in such a revealing outfit. In these battle scenes, Ryuko also often moves or is moved in ways that exaggerate this further. Ryuko herself is embarrassed at first to be wearing such an outfit and, in fact, is forced to wear it in a disturbing scene that seemed to make some viewers (including myself) feel uncomfortable. As the series proceeds, she realizes she must embrace the baring of her body in order to access the full power of the uniform. Now, I’m all for the acceptance of one’s body, but the situation in the show is dependent on the acceptance of sexualization and objectification rather than the acceptance of the body itself. After all, embracing one’s sexuality or body is not the same thing as coming to terms with having your body on display as Ryuko does.

Of course, female characters are not the only ones subjected to showing skin. Male characters also are revealed when they transform for battle, although the final finished product is usually covered up. In addition, the creators of the show appear to realize the ridiculousness of Kill la Kill’s fanservice and have fun with it. As some viewers have argued, one could see the extremes of fanservice in the series as making fun of the trend. Then there is a certain previously mentioned professor/undercover agent, Aikuro, who is male and who has a knack for bathing in the limelight of partial nudity. At the same time Aikuro acts as male fanservice, his character also is obviously made fun of as the music switches to a tune that screams sexy and he then begins to try his hardest to be tempting.29957-Kill6Header

However, even if the show is trying to make fun of fanservice to a degree, that does not necessarily save it from rebuke. Pulling the “we know that you know this is a joke so, it’s okay” routine still draws on sexism and it therefore becomes a fine line between truly pointing out the idiocy of something and simply further perpetuating the problem. While I’m not getting the joke so far with Ryuko’s fanservice, I clearly get it with her professor, Aikuro, a character that, in his moments of ludicrous sexiness, reminds me of all those male characters that overtly fulfill the purpose of being sexy eye candy. As I mentioned, there are cues within the show that tip the audience off that sexy Aikuro scenes are truly supposed to be seen as ridiculous, such as the heroine’s dubious and exasperated reactions. On the other hand, even if the creators’ intentions are to make fun of fanservice with Ryuko’s character as well, I’m not getting any signals that I don’t see in normal instances of fanservice. Nevertheless, the series is only eight episodes in so, I’ll be watching (and probably rewatching) Kill la Kill to see where they take this series.

With that said, what’s your take on Kill la Kill‘s fanservice and characters thus far?

For those of you who couldn’t wait to see the finale premiere on Friday and watched it online (thanks to the generosity of the creators), The Legend of Korra Book 2: Spirits has come to an end after just about two months since it began. A new storyline begins in Book 2 as dark spirits start popping up in the physical world and attacking people, leaving it up to Avatar Korra to find and solve the problem. But spirits aren’t the only issue. Despite having defeated a couple of dangerous men from bringing chaos to Republic City, new human threats are rising and a little to close to home for Korra, bringing her back home to the Southern Water Tribe as family secrets are revealed and war looms once more.LegendOfKorra0201_Group02

Book 2 introduces some attention-grabbing new elements to an old bag of favorites, mixing things up in the Avatar with spirits. Now, this is hardly the first time spirits have come into play, given that the Avatar–the protagonist of both the original series and sequel–acts as the link between the spirit world and the physical world inhabited by humans. Fans of the original series will be familiar with Aang and friends’ various encounters with the spirit world/spirits, from Aang’s numerous conversations with past lives and spirits to the moon spirit’s involvement in a very emotional season one finale. But Korra takes things to a new level by exploring why the two worlds are separate which requires delving deep into the Avatar’s past. For those of you who missed the combination of the spiritual and physical world adventures in The Legend of Korra: Book 1, your wish has been fulfilled nicely in the second entry in the series.

images-3The adventures in the spirit world lead to several characters’ discovering new strengths, including the title character, Korra, and her mentor’s daughter, Jinora. Korra continues to grow from last season, physically strong as ever and connecting more deeply with her spiritual side. As I mentioned in my previous post on Korra, this female protagonist has never been the type that needs more physical power so, it was good to see her challenged once again to explore her connection with a spiritual, emotional side as she enters the spirit world and deals with the problems rising within her family. Korra has matured even more by the end of Book 2 and, while it is a little bittersweet for reasons you’ll have to watch to find out, the series has pushed her to a new level of independence.  Of course, I also love a good action scene and Korra is in plenty of them. In addition, Jinora, who played a minor role in Book 1, gets a fairly substantial one as she discovers that through her strong connection to the spirits she can help Korra in a way no one else can. As always, there are no shortages of strong, dynamic female characters in the Avatar world as the series brings back the old ones and adds new ones from Raava the light spirit to Kana, the daughter of Aang and Katara, and Korra’s slightly frightening cousin.

While I wholly enjoyed many of the new additions to the story, there was one reoccurring aspect from Book 1 that I could have done without: the love triangle between Korra, Mako, and Asami. I appreciate a good romance, but rather than add to the overall story, this trope takes away some of the charm of Korra for me. The fact that the creators of Avatar are employing one of the oldest tricks in the book is not so much the problem as is the execution. Love triangles exist to add drama and an obstacle to what could otherwise be a clean shot to romance (of course romance is never so simple). But as commonly used a plot convention as it is, I actually think it’s difficult to pull off in a satisfying fashion. In many cases, for example, someone in the triangle is clearly a third wheel and no real threat to the main couple’s relationship.asamikorra-1024x574

The Legend of Korra‘s love triangle doesn’t fall victim to that scenario since Mako displays confusion over his feelings for the two girls, Korra and Asami, but that leads to another problem. After pining for Mako, losing him to Asami, then ending up together by the end of Book 1, Book 2 opens with Korra and Mako as a couple. I like that the series tries to explore an established couple instead of leaving it at the misleading “happily ever after” point, but the relationship ended up feeling contrived to me. By the end of Book 2, the audience has once again been thrown into a whirlwind of make ups, break ups, broken hearts, and confusion. While I appreciate the attempt, things just happen too fast to make a real impact, although the end of the season suggests perhaps things will be more stable in coming Books.

Even with some aspects that didn’t work for me, overall The Legend of Korra: Book 2 was an enjoyable second entry in the series. It brings back a colorful cast of characters and story elements while mixing in new ones that add new charm and intrigue to the series. The finale of Book 2 leaves us with a bang and a lot of questions for the next Book so, check it out.

47347 I believe it’s safe to say that Attack on Titan was the hit anime series of the season. Dramatic, stylish, and shocking, the series grabbed the audience with a titan-strength grip and wouldn’t let go, even after a season finale that went down with a boom! For those of you who don’t know the set up, the series is centered in an alternative world where humanity has been pushed to the brink by things called titans–human-like beings that tower above humans, making them look like dolls in comparison. For some unknown reason, titans began rampaging long ago, making humans their prey. Driven to desperation, humankind secluded itself within a space sectioned off by three impenetrable walls to stave off further titan attacks. In addition, they created a special military group trained in combating titans, although with little success. Despite the warnings from his mother and his adopted sister, Mikasa, that he’d get himself killed, young Eren dreams of joining the most ill-fated sectors of the military that venture outside the Walls. His other friend, Armin, also dreams of going outside the Walls, although doing so through the military is the last thing on his mind.

But after living in relative peace and safety for some time, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin’s lives are forever changed when a colossal titan breaks through the first Wall, once again releasing the horrors of titans on humanity. They manage to escape to the solace of the second Wall, but not without experiencing loss–Eren’s mother and later, Armin’s grandfather. Eren’s father has disappeared, too, but before that, he leaves Eren with a key to their basement and a mysterious message that Eren find out for himself what is hidden in the basement. Seeking revenge and the answer to his father’s strange demand, Eren becomes a military trainee with his two friends and begins the fight of a lifetime.

Balancing combat sequences in which the threat of death is very real with intense moments of character interaction and development, elements of mystery, and even some humor, Attack on Titan quickly became my addiction of the season; it’s the full package. One of the best surprises of all was the way the series has handled its female characters in relation to its male characters so far. It’s been a trend in shonen manga/anime (that is, series directed at boys) to star a large cast of characters who fight alongside the male hero. Within that group, there have been a good number of female characters in the ranks of fighters, albeit significantly fewer relative to the number of male characters. The catch is, however, those female characters are often differentiated from the male fighters as intelligent and technically skilled, but lacking in prowess and actual battle ability compared to the men. That’s not to say there are not exceptions, but I often run into that type of set up.

That’s why it was nice to see Attack on Titan playing with this trend and switching things around a bit. Instead of making the hero’s female friend the strategically skilled but physically weak character and the hero’s male friend the super skilled, battle prodigy, as happens with popular series such as Naruto, the series flipped the stereotypes. Mikasa acts as the prodigy soldier whose skill excels her comrades and Armin plays the role of the physically weaker genius strategist. I like this change because it removes those skill sets (combat skill/intellect) from a stereotypical connection with one or the other gender. Guys can excel at using their heads instead of their fists and aren’t always great at combat. On the other hand, girls can be great–even better than their male comrades–at combat.shingeki_no_kyojin-06-mikasa-blade-sword-looking_totally_badass-crowd-scouting_team

That brings me to my thoughts on Mikasa. Mikasa, if nothing else, is an intriguing female character. Cool and collected to an almost alarming degree, you’re not going to see this female character hesitate in the face of danger. She’s shown over and over to be more than capable, starting in the first episode when Mikasa scares away a group of bullies who are about to hurt Eren and Armin with her mere presence. (Yes, you read that right: the female friend saves the guys for once.) In later episodes, she’s shown to have the potential to rival one of the best fighters in the military, a battle-hardened man named Levi. She’s not just physically strong, but also mentally as strong as steel. She’s able to rally herself to fight on even in the face of devastation.

She’s certainly far from perfect (she is human after all). Her devotion to Eren is at times worrying–sometimes it seems like Eren could tell Mikasa to jump off a bridge and she would–but it’s made clear that Mikasa has not made herself a mindless servant to Eren. Most notably, Eren tells her repeatedly that he doesn’t need or want her to protect him anymore, but that hasn’t stopped Mikasa from following her own wish to do so anyway. This absolute devotion does, however, make me pause and think of trends of female characters devoted to an extreme–romantically or otherwise–to a male character, which isn’t my favorite.  At least in Mikasa and Eren’s case, the devotion is a result of a traumatic event, which makes Mikasa’s reaction, and the strong bond that forms from the event, more understandable than simply being an unhealthily love-crazy girl. I also like that, from the beginning, Eren and Mikasa’s bond is founded on helping each other, instead of one (aka the girl) always hanging on the other for survival. So far, Eren and Mikasa’s has been fairly even give-and-take. With any luck, the series will keep it that way. In addition, rather than make the tough-as-nails Mikasa vulnerable, a gimmick used frequently, the revealing of her tragic past serves to depict how she became so tough. The use of Mikasa’s background (as well as Levi’s) brings difficult questions about what it means to obtain the strength we often see in action-driven series like Attack on Titan.

But Mikasa isn’t the only dynamic female character in Attack on Titan, not by a long shot. The series is full of female characters who are just as skilled and active as their male comrades. From fellow new recruits to veterans to zealous researchers, there are many types of female characters popping up to play significant roles. Without spoiling anything, there’s a particularly nice twist involving a female character at the end of the season.

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Imagine that. Practical uniforms for both men and women!

And can I just say that I am extremely happy that for once the female characters don’t get a cute/sexy, feminine version of the military uniform in the series? Creators seem compelled to give female officers miniskirts or pink versions of whatever uniforms the male officers are wearing, even combat operatives. Just because they’re female doesn’t mean you have to give them a cute uniform. It was refreshing to see a series that isn’t afraid of treating the female characters just like the male ones: they are treated seriously and don’t exist as attractive things to drool over. In fact, not only do the uniforms not objectify them, but the character designs themselves show that the female characters aren’t just there as eye candy. While there are some female characters in the cast that are cute or beautiful, there are also a number of female characters that don’t fit traditional and limited ideas of beauty. There are also no conveniently angled shots of female butts or boobs nor any unrealistically large female anatomy present. The female characters are treated just like the male characters. To me, that pretty much sums up how Attack on Titan succeeds with its female characters.

It’s violent. It’s brutal. But with interesting characters that break gender roles, good mix of character building and action, and a compelling plot that keeps you begging for the next installment, Attack on Titan is without a doubt my favorite series of the season. Give it a try if you haven’t already. You can watch the entire season for free (and legally) on Crunchyroll.com now.