Posts Tagged ‘Fuyumi Ono’

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.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »