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I’ve been playing quite a bit of the new Super Smash Bros., first for Nintendo 3DS and soon for Wii U. In both cases I waited in line along with millions of other folks with the intention of playing the game until the cows come home. In celebration of the true beginning of the 4th generation of Smash Bros., I’d like to talk about the idea of using “inferior” characters.
Whenever I see a comment that X or Y character is garbage, something compels me to try that character out. I don’t consider myself an exceptionally talented player, nor am I going to win any tournaments any time soon. Even if i were, I also definitely don’t think I will be responsible for revolutionizing any character’s style or for defying tier lists in a major way, like Taj did for Mewtwo or aMSa has done for Yoshi in Melee. Instead, I think what prompts me to start delving into seemingly weaker characters is that when I see others so strongly deny a character’s ability to compete, it makes me genuinely curious.
Is this character really as bad as they say? Is there perhaps some aspect to the character that may have been overlooked? While in the end they might very well be right and a certain character could end up being the bottom of the barrel, often times I feel as if there is some incompatibility between a player’s preferred style and a character’s attributes that could lead to a bit of wasted potential (even if that potential might not be particularly high). For example, I often see “this character has no combos!” on a character not built for combos, or using a very aggressively oriented character defensively or vice versa.
It’s like there’s something peculiar at work in the minds of players, at times unspoken philosophies which dictate how an individual approaches their game. Case in point, when players/commentators Scar and Toph discuss why Melee player Hax is not a Captain Falcon at heart due to his preference for perfect, impenetrable technical skill over relying on reading the opponent. I want to try and adapt myself to different frames of mind for different characters.
My current project is Meta Knight. He’s had something of a fall from grace since Brawl where he was the undisputed best character, but there are all these little aspects of the character that make me feel as if those who regard Meta Knight as terrible are perhaps missing something vital to the character. Of course, now there’s a patch and Meta Knight has gained some extra tools, but even before that I felt that while I wasn’t going to wow the world with my Meta Knight, as I practiced and saw more of his ins and outs, I honestly felt that it was possible to put all the pieces together and create a formidable opponent, or at least one who would put up a decent fight against all opponents. Now that he’s been augmented in certain areas (notably killing power), things will probably be easier.
This is less a point of pride for me and more a learning process. If you read this blog and are familiar with my anime and manga content, I think you might see this approach applied there as well. Of course, unlike anime and manga in Smash Bros. there’s really only one criteria for how strong something is (how often it wins), but I think that difference is sort of inevitable.
I’ll see you online!
In December of 2010 I wrote a post about how I had finally achieved 3-Dan on the mahjong website Tenhou. Finally, after three and a half years, I have hit the next level and rose into 4-dan. The fact that it’s taken me this amount of time to get to 4-dan is either great or embarrassing depending on your own mahjong skills, but I realized that part of the reason I was finally able to break that barrier was that I had stepped away from the game for a while (unless you count posts about Saki or Akagi, I haven’t really posted much about mahjong lately), and that this has in some ways contributed to me being able to play better.
A few months ago someone asked me, “How do you not get angry when playing on Tenhou?” My answer was simple: I do get angry, all the time. Mahjong is a game that takes a lot of mental energy and so long sessions end up being quite taxing on the brain. Since about September of last year I’ve had to really focus on my work, so that risk that mental and emotional exhaustion that comes from playing mahjong wasn’t really worth it to me. During this time, I made occasional trips back to the table (virtual or otherwise) that reminded me of how rusty I become from playing less often, but also actually helped me to distance myself from mahjong and to improve my mental game immensely.
As with many things, one of the dangerous things about going on tilt in mahjong is that your “vision” in terms of what is possible or what is supposed to happen starts to narrow. When you’re not winning hands despite being in great positions, or when you feel like it’s totally “unfair” that you got screwed over in some way, it can cloud your judgment and cause you to make mistakes you may not have made otherwise. One sign I’ve learned to watch out for is when I get too desperate for pinfu. It may be the simplest hand in the game to achieve, but when I’m so obsessed with trying to win “anything at all” I realize I’m not actually playing mahjong. Stepping away from the game has helped me to realize this.
Another thing stepping away allows for, at least far as my relatively low level is concerned, is that it has helped me develop more versatility. Tenhou breeds a certain kind of mahjong player: someone who’s conservative in play, calculates risk extensively, and has a decent head for numbers. It’s the “proper” way to play mahjong, and so when on the Tenhou ladder you tend to learn to play against people like that. However, if thrown in a situation where others are playing “improperly,” doing the things that are suboptimal yet somehow winning anyway, I’ve noticed that a lot of better players have trouble dealing with this, including myself. What I realized eventually was that it was just as much my problem for not having the adaptability to deal with different types of players regardless of whether they pay no attention to theory and probability. It’s kind of like complaining about button mashers in fighting games or not being prepared for a Shedinja in Pokemon. “Nobody does that! You’ll lose more than you’ll win with that!” And yet, at the end of the day, you’re the one who couldn’t deal with it.
Speaking of fighting games, I recommend this video from fighting game community veteran James Chen on “reading your opponent.” I’ve skipped to the part where he talks about why “advanced” players tend to be kind of double-edged swords because they play too close to the theoretical optimal.
Perhaps the most significant if seemingly contradictory thing is that because I’ve distanced myself from mahjong, I’ve actually developed a better sense of my own style, how I want to play. Thus, when I managed to finally find not just some free time, but a week or two to where I could redirect my mental energy to other tasks again, I decided to get back on Tenhou and finally aim for 4-dan. There were of course many highs and lows, but I think that, as I explained to an extent above, trying to “make up for what you’ve lost” from one game to the next is the wrong way to look at it. The more you think, “I got 4th this one game, so I need to get 1st in the next two games!” the more likely you’re going to fall further down the hole. It happened to me quite a bit, as I hadn’t merely stayed in 3-dan the whole time, but actually moved between 1-dan and 3-dan as my own frustration got the better of me. Of course luck is a factor in this game, but not letting it get the better of you emotionally is also important.
In the end, if I can get hit by a chihou of all things (SERIOUSLY A CHIHOU) and still rebound, then I feel pretty good about my future prospects. That said, I still haven’t fully memorized the score chart. Oops.
The depiction of race and culture in Pokemon over its nearly 20-year history has been a work in progress. Much of this has to do with the very Japanese origins of the game and their exportation to the rest of the world. A mostly assumed Japanese cast of characters suddenly wasn’t, like when the character Sakaki was renamed Giovanni to evoke the image of an Italian mob boss. At the same time, Pokemon with seemingly innocuous elements within Japan such as Jynx became a legitimate concern against the increased awareness in the United States of the history of discriminatory visual depictions of black people. Since then, thanks in all likelihood to its international success, Pokemon has taken considerable steps to try and be more culturally sensitive and inclusive, mainly through the depiction of characters with different skin tones and features. In some cases, the characters have more definite racial features, and in others they’re left vague, and the question of whether or not an “ambiguous brown” is for the better becomes an especially difficult question which is nevertheless worth exploring.
The change to include characters who are neither vaguely white or Asian in appearance began with Pokemon Black and White, a series which I would argue not-so-coincidentally takes place in Pokemon universe equivalent of New York City, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the entire world. Unlike the regions of Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, and Sinnoh (all based on areas of Japan), the Unova region (Isshu in Japan) would not reflect the NYC influence properly if everyone was of the same skin color (what sometimes gets referred to as Friends syndrome).
Iris, Marshal, Lenora
Major characters of color were introduced during these games, such as the Gym Leaders Lenora (Aloe) and Iris, as well as the Elite Four’s Marshal (Renbu), all of whom are bosses one must face before eventually challenging the final opponent, the Pokemon League Champion. All three of these characters are shown to be strong trainers, and Iris even featured prominently in the Pokemon anime. At the same time, all three possess varying degrees of ethnic identifiers. Iris is difficult to pinpoint, Marshal has features which indicate black, and Lenora is undeniably black to a possibly stereotypical fault. Originally wearing an apron in her official design, the proximity of this depiction to the Aunt Jemima-esque mammy stereotypes of the United States (in a game based on a US city!) prompted a revision which portrays Lenora simply slinging the apron over her shoulder (though she still wears it in the in-game sprite). This is far from a Jynx scenario, as Lenora is both a clever gym leader and the curator of her own museum, and her design is still fairly restrained, but it is rather telling that the approach taken with the next generation of games, Pokemon XY, lean closer to Iris’s style.
Pokemon XY, which takes place in the France-inspired Kalos region, features not only Gym Leaders Grant (Zakuro) and Olympia (Gojika) but also individual trainers throughout the game such as the male Pokemon Ranger and Rising Star. As is evident from their designs, a greater amount of care is put into them as well. The location of not-France is also perhaps an influence here, as taking into account the centuries-old Arabic influence in Europe, colonialism, and even just recent immigration from other continents creates a complex milieu of cultures that differs in significant ways from that of the United States. The vagueness of these character designs may be a reflection of that aspect.
However, the biggest change is undoubtedly the fact that Pokemon XY actually allows you to choose the skin color (and eventually hair color) for your player character. Now, in addition to choosing gender (a feature available since the second-generation Pokemon Crystal), it is possible to get closer to having your avatar appear the way you do (or don’t, as the case may be). The ethnic vagueness idea comes to the forefront here, as only three skin tones are available, which leads to the question of whether or not this is the right direction to take, if it’s perhaps a washing out of cultural identity.
I’m of two minds about this. With some characters such as the Gym Leader Marlon (Shizui), it’s actually difficult to tell if he’s supposed to be a darker skin color or just someone with a nice tan. The lack of concrete information, as well as the fact that many of the characters have very Japanese-sounding names in Japanese regardless of appearance, makes it easy to accuse them of just taking “white/Asian” designs and swapping the hues. On the other hand, it’s erroneous to assume that certain features are meant to be evoke one race rather than another. After all, it’s a classic mistake to assume that anime characters “look white” because of their large eyes. When the racial features are relatively nondescript, perhaps it gives them a versatility that prevents those features from being abused as stereotyped caricature. That’s not to say that future games couldn’t benefit from adding more skin tones, for example, but there’s something to be said about allowing players to make their own interpretations.
Whether or not the racial ambiguity of character designs in Pokemon helps or hinders (or both), one positive that is hard to deny is the benefit of just having so many depictions of characters of color being happy and successful. They talk to dragons, climb mountains, run museums, practice martial arts, and go on adventures. They’re intelligent, dedicated, compassionate, funny, people you can look up to and want to know better. They’re role models with limitless potential. It’s especially notable that, in the follow-up games of Pokemon Black 2 and White 2, Iris would go from being a Gym Leader to being the Pokemon League Champion herself. The Pokemon games have always done a good job of portraying female characters, with three of the most recent games featuring female Champions, and to have a woman of color be the strongest and most celebrated individual in the land is nothing to scoff at.
In the end, what I see as the greatest contributing factor in the depiction of diversity in Pokemon is that the series has not gotten complacent. With every passing generation of games they continue to make improvements, and it’s a likely sign that this will continue as long as Pokemon stays alive.
In response to recent shows such as Kill la Kill and even Dokidoki! Precure I’ve been seeing a particular criticism thrown around lately:
“These characters are bad because they have no character development.”
In a way, it’s pretty much the go-to question for a lot of things, because when we traditionally think of a character-driven narrative, a character starts off in one place and ends up in another. Sometimes it’s a physical displacement, sometimes it’s an emotional one, and often times the two go hand in hand. When it comes to basic storytelling, it’s about as reliable a structure as it gets.
Reliable, yes. The formula by which all characters should be judged, no.
I understand that character development can be a powerful thing, and seeing a character grow can be a tremendously satisfying experience, but when “character development” is bandied about as doctrine it comes across as a Beginner’s Guide to Criticism. People end up being so eager to establish the “right way” to construct a story that they effectively throw out the baby with the bath water. “Static” characters, or even static elements of characters, have their own place, and are capable of being part of great stories. However, the narrative arc need not be about them in particular.
There are many ways to portray characters, and not all of them need to have the hero go through the typical kind of character progression. Does anyone watch Akagi asking, “Where’s Akagi’s character development?” Is Kenshiro an issue because he doesn’t have “character progression” beyond getting angrier and sadder as the series goes along? Raoh’s “development” is more a retcon which turned him from just an Evil Guy to someone who wanted to bring order to chaos. Yet all their characters work for what they are and what they need to be. That’s not to say that character development shouldn’t ever matter at all (and both Kill la Kill and Dokidoki! Precure have more character development than either Akagi or Fist of the North Star), but it shouldn’t be held up as holy doctrine that a story can only succeed if its character progression is sufficient.
I think this is why people are so often eager to point out that some character is a “Mary Sue.” This character who is on some level larger than life or a product of wish fulfillment is assaulted by the big book of how narrative tropes are “supposed” to work, and the attackers don’t care about anything but the idea that stories should adhere to it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about female characters in anime and manga recently (not exactly a surprise, I know), and it’s something where, even if I don’t have a fully formed argument or point to make, I feel compelled to write something down. Forgive me as I meander through my own thoughts in an attempt to piece it all together.
About a month ago I was reading the comments section on polygon.com in regards to the portrayal of female characters in video games. I can’t remember which game they were talking about, but one commenter said something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t bring up Japan when trying to show strong women in video games because it’s such a sexist culture. Just look at anime and manga,” and it made me bristle. I do think Japanese culture is sexist in many ways, but the idea that this perception of Japan as sexist made it impossible for Japanese fiction to have really good female characters in this person’s eyes bothered me because I’ve seen plenty from every period of anime and manga.
I know it was just one comment on a video game article, but it got me thinking more broadly about what people see in anime and manga, and to what extent the image of anime and manga as sexist is fueled by what people want to see. I recently saw a comment that criticized Heartcatch Precure! for encouraging girls to be stereotypically feminine by having the character of Itsuki, who normally dresses like a boy, express a desire to be more girly. While I know there are plenty of examples of tomboy characters who end up feeling like they need to dress like girls to attract their male love interest, Itsuki’s story is more about how she suppressed the side of her which enjoys cute things out of a somewhat misguided sense of duty and responsibility. Yet, rather than taking this as the message, it was like as soon as the person saw the rough outlines of the stereotype, surely it would play out the same as always.
There are most certainly a good deal of works which go out of their way to objectify women for male consumption, but I just find that there are also plenty of instances of well-portrayed women and girls in anime and manga. Whether it’s Princess Jellyfish or Rideback, Kekkaishi or Gowapper 5 Godam, it seems like these female characters get ignored because they’re, somewhat ironically, not as eye-catching as a Queen’s Blade or an I Wanna Be the Strongest in the World! There seems to be this idea that anime = sexism, and while even the works I mentioned as strong examples aren’t entirely devoid of sexism themselves, I also don’t think it’s as simple as just slapping the misogynist label on Japanese media as a whole. Messages regarding women in anime and manga can be so diverse and divergent.
At this point I’ve seen a lot of 60s and 70s shoujo, and I’ve noticed a clear trend of mischievous tomboy heroines from that time period. Even putting aside an extreme example such as Oscar from Rose of Versailles who was raised as a man to uphold her family’s proud military tradition, you have Candy from Candy Candy, who’s adventurous and constantly challenging the conceitedness of the upper class, and Angie from Petite Angie, who is portrayed as an extremely clever detective. You have Ayuko from Attack No.1, whose aggressive desire to win at volleyball inspires the rest of her teammates, and Yumi from Sign wa V! who initially plots to sabotage her teammates because of how much she despises volleyball. Hiromi from Aim for the Ace, Lunlun from Hana no Ko Lunlun, Masumi from Swan, the list goes on and on. All of these characters have their fair share of personal agency (even if it’s not always an ideal amount). Given that the trend of the strong, mischievous tomboy was clearly a “thing,” and I do believe it continued in some form well beyond the 70s (Utena is an obvious one, but perhaps Lina Inverse from Slayers counts too, for example?), I just have to wonder about the disconnect between that and the perception of anime and manga as inherently misogynistic and where it may have come from.
Is it a matter of age of these older titles, that if people were able to access the works these characters are from, that they would change their minds? Is it that shoujo doesn’t act enough as the “face” of anime and manga? Could it be that, as much as we’d like to think we’ve gone beyond the stereotype, anime is still viewed as essentially “porn or Pokemon?” If the ratio were different, and there were just fewer fanservice titles or works where girls are basically a cheerleading squad for the heroes, would detractors be more charitable towards anime and manga, or is it inescapable as long as some titles are still like that? For that matter, to what extent does the western image of the submissive Asian woman affect and interact with how people see all female characters coming from Japan, and how does it differ from the similar stereotype as viewed by Japan (I can of course admit that it’s there too)?
What shapes people’s views of female characters in anime and manga? I guess that’s the question I want to explore the most.
WARNING: HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD
In an essay by Evangelion creator Anno Hideaki found in Gundam: The Origin Volume 1 (Aizouban Edition) titled “Celebrating the Revival of Gundam as Tale,” Anno argues that anime narratives in recent years have moved away from being “Tales” like the original Gundam. “Audiences have come to need work only as an escape from reality, as a comfortable dream, judging everything on the criterion of moe, while creators’ intellectual paucity and the jumble of trivial touches have encouraged that structure.” Referring to current anime and manga as “stagnant,” Anno laments the loss of the Tale in anime and manga, hoping that it can make a return, and even blames himself for contributing to this current state of anime. Thus, when considering the new Evangelion movies as “rebuilds,” I began to suspect that the films might be an attempt to bring the “Tale” back into Evangelion after its influence had broken down the concept in the first place. Although I was not aware of this perspective of Anno’s when I saw the original two movies, after viewing Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo I find that the Rebuild of Evangelion films, while not attempting something so simple and shortsighted as turning back the hands of time in order prove the superiority of Tales, are still revisiting Evangelion in such as a way as to try and address the differences between older and newer anime narratives, create a Tale appropriate for contempory culture, and respond to current criticisms of youth culture.
At the beginning Evangelion 3.33, we see protagonist Ikari Shinji waking up 14 years in the future, in a time when much has changed. Shortly after Shinji’s revival, a fight breaks out and it turns out Shinji is aboard a ship called the Wunder, an airship with a powerful laser cannon powered by Shinji’s iconic robot, the EVA-01. As the battle ensues, a combination of characters we’re familiar with and characters entirely new shout about the status of the enemy, which weapons to use, and what strategic options are available, all while Katsuragi Misato stands at the bridge as a stoic and hardboiled captain ready to give orders at just the right time. Although this somewhat resembles depictions from previous films and the television series with the organization NERV and Shinji’s father Gendou at the helm, what this resembles even more is the most classic Tale in all of anime, Space Battleship Yamato. Substitute the EVA-01-powered laser for the Wave Motion Cannon and Misato for Captain Okita, and you more or less have a fight that wouldn’t look out of place in Yamato. Shinji is thrust not just into the future, but into what appears to be a completely different anime story structure.
Rather than simply making it the Tale of Shinji experiencing the simpler world of a Yamato-esque goal and the pieces surrounding it, however—Yamato was about traveling to a distant planet to retrieve an item which would help remove the radiation that had turned the Earth into an inhospitable husk—Evangelion 3.33 complicates the issue. While both Yamato and Evangelion 3.33 take place on a devastated Earth, for the latter it turns out that Shinji’s actions in the previous movie, when he finally stood up for himself and gained the self-activation he never had before, were the very cause of the planet’s current dire situation, the Third Impact. Shikinami Asuka Langley, who was injured in the last film when Shinji had control of his own EVA forcibly taken away from him, is alive and piloting, but shows absolute disdain for Shinji. Even the one goal he had set out to accomplish, rescuing Ayanami Rei from being absorbed by the enemy Angel, turns out to be a failure, as Rei’s body was never found, most likely absorbed by EVA-01′s cockpit after the two had fully synchronized with the EVA. Instead, what Shinji gets is a clone of Rei devoid of memories, an almost-unthinking soldier who can only follow orders.
This clone Rei in the third film (although technically all of the Rei are clones) is a strikingly powerful presence, acting as a strong argument against the classic criticisms of Ayanami Rei and the characters she has inspired. Typically, Rei is seen as an almost doll-like fetish object, an attractive girl with pale features and no personality whom men can sexualize as the “perfect” passive woman entirely subject to their desires. Here, in Evangelion 3.33, we get the truly subservient version of Rei, a character who is so passive she cannot even read a book without being ordered to do so, and the disturbing nature of this iteration of the character actually highlights just how much characterization and personal will is present in the base character of Ayanami Rei. “You don’t know what’s missing until it’s gone,” as the cliché goes, and the fact that a truly doll-like Rei is so bizarre and alien underlines the fact that Rei is defined not by her loss of humanity but by her pursuit of it. Rei ends the film seeing a gigantic grotesque version of herself and asking, “Is that me?” The titanic Rei acts as an uncanny juxtaposition and jars Rei into becoming self-aware, becoming the potential seed through which she can gain independent thought and conscience. Rei, who is arguaby seen as the classic example of a character whose various visual and narrative components appeal to the “database” mindset which Azuma Hiroki argued back in 1999 was increasingly common in a postmodern Japanese society, re-gains the ability to become part of a Tale which isn’t, a cohesive work which is at the same time complex and contradictory.
This is the narrative space in which Evangelion 3.33 takes place, and the result is that even though this film may appear to be another case of how nothing Shinji does ever goes right, it is not the same sort of internal trauma and pessimism which classically characterizes Evangelion. The depression Shinji suffers and shows in this film does get the closest to the type of introspection that Evangelion is famous for, but given not only the context of the previous films which feature a cast of characters more willing and able to communicate their pain to each other but also the difference in setting the 14-year shift provides in this film even those signature abstract angst moments take on a different set of meanings. Most notably, Shinji’s psychological paralysis is not the result of some indescribable fear or internal agony, but because of his own guilt. This can be seen in the bonding scenes with Nagisa Kaworu, the tragic character whose role in all previous version of Evangelion has been to connect with Shinji on a level no other character had previously been able to before dying at Shinji’s own hands. Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship takes on a somewhat different dynamic, as Kaworu helps to bring Shinji to a place of conviction already familiar to him from the previous film.
Instead, a different tragedy occurs, as Kaworu’s plan to co-pilot the new EVA-13 with Shinji in order to fix the world ravaged by the Third Impact is undermined by the fact that NERV and Gendou have replaced one of the key items capable of restoring the world, instead leading it to a further apocalypse. Kaworu realizes the difference and tries to stop Shinji, but Shinji is so intent on correcting everything that he fails to register Kaworu’s hesitation and he ends up falling for Gendou’s plot. The scene again looks to be another case of Shinji failing, but given everything else shown up to this point, I find that it draws attention not so much to Shinji’s individual suffering, but to the world around Shinji. Whether Shinji follows his own will or whether he listens to others, he still creates disaster, but this Shinji is again a more active Shinji whose problem is not that he’s “unwilling” to help, but that his surrounding environment has forced him into unwinnable situations. Appropriately, this time around Kaworu dies, but not directly because of Shinji.
Shinji’s plight in Evangelion 3.33 mirrors the recent criticisms used against youth culture by media appealing to older generations. Whether inside or outside of Japan, the current generation is seen as a group of selfish good-for-nothings who want and expect everything handed to them, instead of knowing the value of sacrifice and hard work. Whether they’re referred to as “NEETs” or “Generation Me,” Shinji and Evangelion 3.33 bring to attention the idea that, while we can place blame on them, the previous generations are not absolved of blame; the world the children inherit is the world given to them.
Ultimately, I find that the Rebuild of Evangelion films are trying to create a Tale similar to Yamato and Gundam, but in a way which is consciously trying to take into account the era in which we live. At the end of Evangelion 3.33, Shinji is once again emotionally distraught and paralyzed over the horrible consequences of his actions, when Asuka literally drags him out of his cockpit and tells him that he can’t simply sit still. Rei joins them. The previous two films had already established that the characters were able to bridge the emotional gaps they were unable to overcome in the original television series, and though the space of 14 years after the Third Impact had bred in Asuka a deep resentment and anger towards Shinji, that one scene shows how the connection is still there. My prediction for the “Tale of Evangelion” as expressed by the four films is thus: A 14-year-old boy is stranged from his father and suffering deep personal agony is thrust into a situation far greater than him, and though he is told to sacrifice himself for the greater cause, through the connections he makes with his peers he finds that he would lose too much in the process, including his own identity. This prioritization of the self and what he finds valuable in life does not come without its own consequences, but it becomes the potential ground for him, and those like him, to find their own solutions to the problems of the world. Of course, the fourth film has yet to debut, so we’ll see if I’m right.
Not too long ago I half-jokingly suggested that the first moe character was Hilda (pictured above), the heroine from the 1968 animated film Hols: Prince of the Sun. The basis of this was that Hilda was the creation of a young Takahata and Miyazaki, who would later go on to form Studio Ghibli, and if you’ve ever read Miyazaki’s recollection of his first time watching Legend of the White Serpent, you’ll not only see similarities between Hilda and Pai-Nan, the heroine of Legend of the White Serpent, but also between his reaction and the way fans of Key games talk about their beloved works: Miyazaki actually cried the whole night, and fell in love with Pai-Nan. Of course, if Pai-Nan had such an impression, then it’s possible to argue that she’s the first moe character, but regardless of what character has the distinction, I suspect that the tragic element which defines both of these characters also has an influence on the development of female characters in anime and manga, and by extension the idea of moe.
In the trailer to Hols: Prince of the Sun, Hilda is introduced, accompanied by on-screen text saying, “Am I a demon, or a human being?” This highlights the inner conflict of her character, as Hilda is both the sister of the main villain as well as the love interest of the hero. She plays both a romantic and an antagonistic role, and the fact that she struggles over which is her “true self” is the inherent tragedy of the character. Star-crossed lovers are nothing new to media, of course, but according to The Pretty Character Chronicles: The History of Animation Heroines, 1958-1999, the early Toei animated films, of which both Hols and Legend of the White Serpent are included (though these titles are themselves about a decade apart), often feature heroines who begin the movies as antagonists.
Pai-Nan doesn’t quite fit this concept, as she’s more of a tragically cursed character, a princess in need of rescue in the vein of a classic Disney Princess. This makes a degree of sense, given that Toei’s goal was to try to be the “Disney of the East,” but when you look at heroines in classic Disney films, none of them fulfill the role that Hilda or other similar Toei heroines play as partial antagonists. In fact, if you look at Disney animated films as a whole, there’s pretty much only one character who does fit this bill: Megara from Hercules, a film from 1997. In other words, “damsel-in-distress” is not quite the function of these Toei heroines.
What relevance does this have to current anime and the presence of moe, then? My argument is that the tragedy component of heroines such as Hilda has been reduced or compacted to varying degrees, so when you have a character who has traits commonly considered moe, such as a character who suffers from being short in a slice-of-life comedy, what you’re seeing is an on-going series of tiny tragedies, like with Yuno in Hidamari Sketch. The tsundere, especially the more contemporary tsundere type, is another example, as a character who struggles with being true to her feelings can be considered tragic in her own way. Hidamari Sketch also provides one such character in the form of Natsume, whose feelings for the character Sae remain unrequited due to Natsume’s own stubbornness.
While I think the criticism of moe characters as feeding off the desire of men to want to rescue the poor female victim is valid to a good extent, I think that the quality which has transmitted itself from those early Toei days all the way to the current age is not so much that of the “helpless girl” but that of “helplessness.” A girl tragically trapped in a situation can be moe, but what’s considered even more moe is the heroine who can’t be helped no matter what. In such a case, powerlesssness becomes not so much the half-way point in an elaborate power fantasy, but the end point in and of itself, with the potential for empathy between not just the viewer and the hero, but the viewer and the heroine. Of course, that’s somewhat of an extreme case, and the end result really depends on how individual works wish to resolve the inner conflict of the descendants of the tragic antagonistic heroines.
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is probably my favorite show of the spring season. It has a very strong science fictional feel without constantly, constantly delving into exposition, and it has some interesting narrative themes too, as well as ways of expressing those themes. It also has a strong cast of characters through whom the world is experienced, and the excellent design of the robot Chamber also doesn’t hurt. Episode 11 in particular caught my interest, so I’d like to discussi t.
In episode 11, Ledo’s superior officer Kugel returns. Initially disappearing in episode 1, Kugel turns out to have been on the other side of the planet, where he has basically become the god of a people over there. Using the philosophy of the Galactic Alliance, Kugel moved their way of life away from a familial/religious structure and more towards a stratified meritocracy. This is, of course, quite different from Ledo’s own experiences.
Key to this difference is the reveal that, due to an endemic disease, Kugel cannot leave the sterile environment of his own cockpit. Although this decision is clearly practical in many ways, it also sets up the idea that the cockpit of his Machine Caliber is a bubble, not only physically but also ideologically. Because Kugel is unable/unwilling to leave the safety of his environment, he never had the chance to experience firsthand the way of life of the people who now worship him, nor for their philosophy to “contaminate” him. Even though he’s basically a good person (as can be seen when he saves Ledo in episode 1), Kugel continues to follow the hard line of the Galactic Alliance without flinching.
I think it’s a really nice piece of symbolism, and what I especially like about this development is that it’s sort of the “war comes to Earth” theme which seemed very likely from the start, but in a different sense. With Kugel, Gargantia, and then Ledo in the middle, it’s more of a clash of ideas and perhaps even a postcolonial criticism of the idea of bringing “civilization” to other cultures.
Over the past few months, Anita Sarkeesian has released the first two videos on her series concerning tropes regarding women in video games. Back when it was first announced, I had my concerns that she would so emphasize what has gone wrong that she wouldn’t leave sufficient space for what has gone right, or even what was meant to be female empowerment but fails for whatever reason. Later, after having done some further reading, I amended my thoughts on the matter when I realized that, even if it wasn’t my intent, the idea that women (as well as people in general) should settle for “good enough” as if that’s the best they could hope for in regards to portrayals of women in media is a problem.
I watched the first two episodes, which concern the “damsel in distress” trope. The third one, which is supposed to address some of the inversions or subversions of the damsel device, is not yet out, so I can’t at this point speak about that element, but I’d still like to state my thoughts on what I’ve seen so far. I find Anita’s strongest overall argument to be the idea that video games have tended to assume violence as a primary course of action so often that as games have tried to become more sophisticated this mechanic limits the potential avenues for solutions beyond “punching them until they die.” As Anita notes, the inertia created by the games of old, both in terms of having damsels and having violence as a means to save them (or not), is perpetuated, though not out of malice but from not thinking about other alternatives.
Multiple times during the videos, Sarkeesian talks about how the hero having to rescue (or even mercy kill) the damsel turns the woman into an object or goal for a male power fantasy, and one of the concerns I have with this is that, even if she might not mean it, it can be interpeted as casting male power fantasies in a negative light. Certainly I understand some of the problems of the male power fantasy and how its ubiquity can create a narrow scope of examples of acceptable behavior for men in lieu of male characters capable of functioning in different capacities , but I don’t think male power fantasies are wholly the product of perceived gender role imbalances where a man must protect the woman, nor are they mainly about the trivialization of women, even if it on some level contributes to the perpetuation of such stereotypes.
Rather, rescuing the girl speaks more to the fantasy that a man can be relied on no matter what, and is capable of accomplishing anything and everything. Thus, when the damsel is fridged (killed or injured for the sake of advancing the male character’s story), it is about playing with these assumptions and desires, an attempted move towards more diversity and creativity in storylines even if the products end up not being very well thought out, containing many of the problems which Anita points out. The power to do something in every possible circumstance can also be found in the idea of the self-made man or the rugged outdoorsman, who can be thrown in the middle of a jungle and come out of it with muscles flexing. I think it’s a valid desire for men to want to be able to be relied on, though once again I understand that wanting to be relied on and being relied on as a requirement for masculinity are two different things.
You might be asking, “But if there are all of these problems with the male power fantasy, why even defend it?” In that case, compare the male power fantasy to another type of “power” fantasy, the rags-to-riches story, where a person uses their wits, hard work, and/or luck to go from a life of poverty to one of profit and wealth. There are many valid criticisms for such stories, such as the idea that it reinforces an unforgiving capitalist mindset where money is the most important thing in life, or that if rags-to-riches stories present the idea that anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps then it implies that people who haven’t done so simply haven’t tried hard enough. In other words, there’s a clear downside to this type of narrative. However, there are people who enjoy these stories and fantasize about doing the same thing, even if they are conforming to a flawed concept that is a product of assumed societal values it still speaks to their desires. This ability to respond to people’s desires is one of the things I think art and creative media can and should have, as is the ability to criticize that very same thing.
To restate, it’s not entirely clear if Sarkeesian is saying that male power fantasies are tainted from the roots, but I could see this being an issue that skeptical viewers might jump on to show that she is “man-hating” even though she isn’t. At the very least, Sarkeesian points to the ability for male characters to get captured and then break out of captivity through their own strength and wits as a way in which male characters are not truly in distress, and this scenario has a clear power fantasy component which can function without the victimization of women as a plot device.
Of course, this leaves the question of where the “female power fantasies” are, and in this regard Sarkeesian is right that the repeated use of women as damsels in video games feeds into the perpetuation of these scenarios. However, my opinion is that this does not make the male power fantasy in video game form itself the main problem and that the character in need of rescue needs to be removed from media, but the lack of alternatives for characters of all genders and sexualities to do more and be more. That said, I think Anita’s goal in making these videos is on some level to create awareness so that people will think to produce these alternatives, and in that regard she is getting people to talk.
The impression I generally have of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is that it possesses attractive qualities similar to anime, especially when it comes to the more episodic types of magical girl anime. The way MLP respects its assumed younger audience while presenting a variety of characters with fleshed-out and admirable personalities who show many valid ways for girls to be girls and more generally for people to be people reminds me most strongly of Ojamajo Doremi. However, it is the case that not every MLP fan is an anime fan nor vice versa, and it is even the case that some anime fans found themselves more attracted to My Little Pony, undergoing a transformation from otaku to brony. While this could be argued as a failure of anime to retain its audience, and sometimes fingers are pointed at whatever current trend there is, I think it is important to not just look at what anime “had then” and what it “lacks now,” but to also consider the possibility that different anime fans came to anime in the past with varying expectations and areas of adaptation.
Picture two anime fans of the same show who love the story and the characters equally much. The first fan loves the fact that anime is from Japan. It’s different, perhaps even exotic, and to view animation from another country with its own tropes and cultural assumptions and elements is part of the fun. He’s not necessarily a Japanophile, nor does he think that things are better if they’re from Japan, but the fact that it isn’t his own culture adds to the appeal.
For the second fan, however, that cultural difference feels more like a barrier. Rather than it possessing an inviting quality, the culture gap is something which the second fan feels he must work through in order to get to the story underneath. Certainly this fan genuinely enjoys this anime, but if he could get the same show only with the cultural elements naturally familiar to him, then he would much prefer that.
There’s plenty of middle-ground between these two types, but I think this hypothetical scenario is one example of what has happened with people who might have been anime fans but aren’t, or at least anime fans who have found greater resonance with cartoons which are not anime. My Little Pony is similar to Ojamajo Doremi in a number of respects, but MLP assumes an American audience first where Doremi assumes a Japanese one, and having the characters behave in ways more culturally familiar can have a significant impact on the connections people make with a show, even if it were basically the same work as the one that is less culturally close. This can even be as simple as information and access just being easier in your own language.
I can’t find the source, but I recall at an interview or a pnael for Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel The Legend of Korra, the creators stated that when making the series, they specifically had their Korean animators look at American body language and mannerisms. Like MLP, Avatar is a show which bears similarities to anime in a number of ways, but this cultural consideration was seen as a way to convey some of those “anime-like” qualities to people who are not necessarily receptive to anime, and perhaps by extension, those who are tolerant of anime’s differences but could do without them either way.
This is not an indictment of the first fan for prioritizing Japan too much, or the second one for not being open to other cultures, nor do I think that this explains everything about the landscape of fandom between anime and other cartoons. There is plenty more to discuss, including fans of both anime and American cartoons in other countries (including Japan!). Instead, I wanted to just bring up the idea that fandom can be quite a malleable thing, and that we may assume there are more connections within a fandom than there might actually be.