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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.
I’ve been watching Say “I Love You” (aka Sukitte Ii na yo), and it’s a really good romance series that I would almost describe as a mix of Kimi ni Todoke and Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai in the way it has the unlikely relationship and the awkward personalities. Granted, that description might also apply to the other shoujo romance this season, Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun (My Little Monster), but where Kaibutsu-kun has more of the humor, Say “I Love You” I feel really delves into issues of self-image.
In episodes 3 and 4, we’re introduced to a character named Mutou Aiko, who is thin and beautiful, but what we learn over the course of these two episodes is that such seeming perfection comes with a price. In her case it’s serious scars on her body as a result of extreme crash dieting, prominent streaks along her stomach that you can’t even begin to describe as “stretch marks.” The scars really caught my attention that episode because of how they contrast with her outer image of absolute beauty, especially when you take into account that shoujo characters and even anime characters in general tend to have “ideal” skin. Or, to put it more accurately, because anime and manga tend to consist of simpler colors and shading, even small changes to characters’ appearances come across much more prominently; drawing a single line for a wrinkle pretty much means that wrinkle looks deep no matter what.
By having those dieting scars and having them visible to the viewer, even Aiko’s anime-esque perfection feels different because one can see the amount of effort put into it, that it didn’t just happen by default. By feeling “manufactured” in this sense, it also ends up feeling more realistic, that this is not her natural beauty but something she has to constantly work at. Perhaps more importantly, it also says a lot about her character that she thinks the scars on her naked body were worth the appearance she gives to the rest of the world.
Recently, debate about shoujo manga has centered around “girliness.” Although the word can have multiple meanings, in the context of shoujo it generally refers to pink hearts, sparkles, and school romance, all things you may very well see if you are to pick up a random volume of shoujo. Writers have been addressing how the girliness of shoujo is seen by people of all varieties, girls, guys, those intimately familiar with manga and those who hardly know anything, and any issues that arise from that perception.
The definition of shoujo manga comes into question as a result. Is shoujo defined by those aesthetic and thematic tropes, or is it something much broader? Is shoujo manga simply any comic that runs in a shoujo magazine, no matter the content? But while these are all very good questions, I feel like they are obscuring a very important idea that is more fundamental to manga and storytelling in general.
Setting aside whether or not shoujo is limited by tropes, average girls and impossibly handsome men covered in hearts and sparkles do not preclude good storytelling. It may not be someone’s cup of tea to read about the trials and tribulations of a 14 year old’s love triangle, but there is no ironclad rule stating that such a story cannot be not only entertaining but also legitimately good and able to speak to a wider audience.
Brigid Alverson equates shoujo manga with trashy romance novels, stating, “You read your chosen genre for relaxation, not literary quality.” While I do read shoujo for my own comfort, I also actively look for literary quality in it and am frequently rewarded as a result. I do not believe that it is some rare feat to find strong storytelling and strong characters in shoujo, whether it’s from the 70s or from this past decade, and that is also largely because I do not see shoujo as being limited by convention.
I’m not saying that one should just accept everything without a critical eye, but simply that when the reward is less stellar, one should not necessarily condemn the tropes from holding back shoujo, but perhaps view it as an individual story failing to use those elements in an effective manner. The potential for good, strong fiction is still there and the fact that the heroine’s parents died, conveniently leaving her to fend for herself, is not a death sentence for quality. It is not only possible to appreciate both shoujo which has all the trappings of “girliness” as well as shoujo which eschews that aesthetic, but to appreciate both on equal levels. Just because you enjoy the unorthodox doesn’t mean that the orthodox is inherently worse or vice versa. Shoujo is both and everything in between, and in every case, whether the manga are adhering to convention or not, good stories can be told, and found, on a regular basis.
This look at Takemiya Keiko’s 1970s shounen manga To Terra… is inspired by the “Manga Moveable Feast,” an ongoing project dedicated to having a variety of manga-passionate minds discuss a specific title. I owe a lot to To Terra…, and have been wanting to talk about it for a long time, and I believe that this is my best opportunity. I’ve included a synopsis of the story to make for easy reading, but this month’s MMF host, Kate Dacey, has written an incredibly informative introduction to To Terra…, and I really do recommend that you read it, whether it’s before, after, or even during my post.
My very first experience with Takemiya Keiko’s To Terra… came in the form of Frederik Schodt’s book, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Animation. Displaying a single page on the margins of that book as an example of science fiction manga, the image of a young boy moving through what appeared to be a futuristic network of clear tunnels was like a visual shock, telling me that there was more to the anime and manga that I loved than the few shows I had seen. “Toward the Terra,” as its title was originally translated, had me not only wishing to someday see this series but also to look more closely at anime and manga as a whole. and it all came from an image.
That was in 2000, and it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally got to see for myself what To Terra… was all about. After the initial shock of actually seeing To Terra… in the bookstore, I picked up the first volume, consumed it, and finished the saga as the rest of the series came out. As I look at the series again, however, I become more and more aware of its influence on future manga artists, and though I cannot trace the exact path from Takemiya to the creators of today, I want to talk about the connecting threads that are visible to me.
To Terra… takes place in a time when man has polluted the Earth (Terra) almost beyond habitability and has moved into space. Their goal is to slowly re-cultivate the planet over many generations, but in order to ensure that humans do not repeat their past mistakes and let their greed and unchecked emotions overwhelm their need to save Earth, humans have turned to computers to regulate their lives. One tragedy that comes from this “Superior Domination” or “S.D. Era” is the fact that the “Mu,” children with ESP who are able to resist some of the programming that all “normal” humans receive, are perceived as a threat and thus eliminated in order to preserve the integrity of the new society. Through all of this, a 14 year old boy named Jomy Marcus Shin becomes the bridge between the humans and the Mu and eventually a revolutionary, discovering the truths and lies behind Superior Domination and Terra itself.
One of the first aspects of To Terra… that throws people off is the fact that To Terra… is indeed a shounen title, even if Takemiya is more well-known for her work in shoujo. To Terra… was written for boys, and it shows in many ways. It is a science fiction epic full of action and intrigue, spanning a long period of time, skipping years between parts. Jomy himself is portrayed as having a lot of power and potential but also as extremely unrefined in those respects, qualities you see even in today’s shounen protagonists such as Uzumaki Naruto and Sumimura Yoshimori (Kekkaishi). But the shoujo influence is still there, and though I cannot say this with 100% accuracy, I truly do feel that Takemiya’s shoujo experience manifests itself in To Terra… in a way which paves the road for many of the shounen titles which have followed it.
While the most obvious sign of Takemiya’s experience in the genre of “girls comics” may be the expressive art style so indicative of 70s manga for girls, the shoujo influence can be felt much more profoundly in the way that To Terra… makes you very aware of the relationships between characters. This is not meant in the romantic sense, though some of the closeness between the mostly male cast could be interpreted as such, but in the way the characters are portrayed relative to each other. As you read To Terra…, you are constantly aware of the differences in philosophy and overall outlook on life that characters possess, the parallels that exist between them in terms of history and personality, and anything that really makes you notice that To Terra… is a personal story about people existing alongside other people, even if it is steeped in a grand narrative.
The heavy emphasis on relationships was rare then for shounen manga, and it is still somewhat rare today, but you can see great number of titles that, even for the briefest of moments, take a play from the book of To Terra… and have you thinking less about battle and competition and more about the interplay between two individuals, from the early banter between Ichigo and Rukia in Bleach, to the works of authors such as Adachi Mitsuru (Touch!, Cross Game) and Takahashi Rumiko (Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha).
Again, I cannot tell you if any of these creators actually looked directly to Takemiya Keiko for inspiration, but I do believe that the example she set in To Terra… nudged shounen manga along the path that would unite it with many of the facets of shoujo manga and vice versa. Though we think of the fusion of genres in manga as being a relatively recent thing, To Terra… shows that it has been a long process, and personally speaking I believe we are the better for it.
Back when I was first really getting into anime, the thing I was into that a lot of other guys weren’t was shoujo. Sure you had your Sailor Moon fans and all, but it was the genre I truly enjoyed, even if others might make fun of me for it, and I was dedicated to finding more. I considered myself an aficionado of shoujo.
But that was years ago. When I looked back recently, I realized that my knowledge and experience with shoujo had been far outstripped by those areas in other genres. When I look at my manga collection now, the majority of it is seinen, and there are just a lot of titles and authors in shoujo that are unknown to me. What happened to the kid who loved his Cardcaptor Sakura?
That’s why as of late I’ve been upping my shoujo manga intake from all genres. Whether it’s newer stuff like Gakuen Alice and Penguin Revolution, or old classics like Attack No. 1, Swan, and Candy Candy, I’ve set a loose goal of bringing myself up to speed and having people say, “There’s a guy who knows a lot about shoujo manga!”
And of course I’m enjoying myself along the way.
The year was 1973, and a young anime studio named Madhouse began work on its first big series, an adaptation of a popular tennis manga called Ace o Nerae! or Aim for the Ace! as it translates in English. Running 26 episodes, it was directed by Dezaki Osamu and had character designs by Sugino Akio, a duo that continues to work together even to this day, including Rose of Versailles, the 90s Black Jack OVAs, and Space Adventure Cobra. They also worked together on every other anime adaptation of Aim for the Ace!
With that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to just put the openings of each of the Ace series next to each other, if only to see how time, money, and experience have affected the same series over the course of two decades.
1973′s Ace o Nerae!
1978s Shin Ace o Nerae!
1988′s Ace o Nerae 2!
It might be a little unfair to compare openings, but I feel that doing so is a good indicator for seeing how an anime series wishes to be first seen. When you look at the 1973 opening vs the 1978 opening though, you can already see a world of difference. Character designs in Shin Ace are cleaner and more consistent, perhaps at the expense of some of the wild and untamed artwork that characterizes the original. Everything is also much-better animated, with fewer visible shortcuts being taken. Fast forward to 1988 and of course you can see a huge change, brought on by overall progress in anime, an OVA-level budget and changing visual trends in anime (and in real-world fashion). Keep in mind though that unlike, say, Cutie Honey, where each incarnation is done by a different studio and different people at the helm, Ace 2 has the same core team as the first Ace, and what you’re seeing here is direct evidence of how they changed over the course of 15 years.
I think the biggest difference between the original and the later series is that by the time of Shin Ace, the anime is actively trying to portray human figures in a three-dimensional space, and Ace 2 even moreso. If you look at the original TV series, even in the opening it never wants to tell you exactly where the characters are in any given moment. It feels closer to a manga brought to life, for better or worse. In that regard, I feel that the original has a certain charm that the others lack, the kind of appeal that comes from seeing just how much people could do with so little.
Really though, I just think they should have kept the hair from the first TV series throughout each incarnation. That includes the live-action series from a few years ago.
Having watched just the first episode of the classic anime Ace o Nerae!, my love affair with 70s-era classic shoujo has been rekindled. Not that it really died down in the first place.
However, this isn’t really about the content of the story but rather just the visuals, and not even in regards to the characters. Shoujo anime of that era, including Ace o Nerae!, have incredibly gorgeous backgrounds and just artwork in general, though they suffer quite a bit in the animation department. I think it’s a fair trade-off though, as the action and fluidity of animation or lack thereof are minor losses when we get shots this incredible.
Repeating the flower pattern seen in her night gown into the plaid background unifies the entire image.
This image almost borders on abstraction, but not in the confusing way. I love this style.
Particularly strong use of color here, as the building and trees blend together.
And I can’t say enough about this background. It looks like it was created with water colors, and it works far better than any approach I’ve seen for indicating melodramatic shock.
Shows like Zetsubou-sensei kind of have a similar effect as far as modern shows go, and Nana and Honey and Clover for example also have excellent cinematography, but they simply lack the rough yet gentle edge of classic shoujo.
I’d like to design an eroge based on 70s-era shoujo manga and anime, the kind with impossibly sparkly eyes and whispy bodies and extreme melodrama. The sad(?) fact is, that computers simply were not advanced enough in the 70s to pull this off, so we must make up for lost time
The plot would be of that time period, and rather than the stereotypes we get today with the loli, the tsundere, the loli tsundere, and all that, it would incorporate common character types of 70s shoujo as well.
And the sex would involve rose petals flying everywhere and symbolic lightning.