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Reflecting on Women in Anime and Manga

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Celebrating women characters and authors

This article comes a week late, but I think better late than never and better a little late than very late. I wanted to do something for International Women's day and thought why not reflect on a couple of female characters and creators who have made the world of anime and manga a better, more compelling place.

Like everywhere else in the world, pressures surrounding gender roles in Japan are great and these pressures are disproportionately great on women. Women in Japan are expected to stop working after they get married and are then expected to perform the typical duties of a wife and a mother. But like most places in the world, I argue it is getting better, at least in the way people see and treat one another, if not structurally.

Hayao Miyazaki, who is notable for creating great, leading female characters, remarked facetiously that he has so many strong female animators, that he may need to make more films with male protagonists to encourage men. He's joking and life is still very difficult for women around the world, but in certain spheres we see strides being made, whether that's a female presidential candidate in the US or increasingly inspiring and strong female protagonists in anime and manga.

With regards to Studio Ghibli, we can point to the powerful and driven San from Princess Mononoke or the resourceful and resilient Chihiro from Spirited Away, but I would like to in particular flag up the lesser known Only Yesterday which though released in Japan in 1991, would not be released in North America until over two decades later in 2016. This is a mature and therapeutic film which deals with memory and growing up from the perspective of the twenty-seven-year-old Taeko.

The positive outcome of the film being released so late is that we millennials were able to see it as we become Taeko's age and wrestle with the same issues she does, like love, career and working out where we belong. Taeko recalls her childhood whilst seeking to escape her life in the city by doing seasonal work in the countryside. Taeko leads viewers in the same stage of life as her by example, encouraging us to reflect and discover what truly makes us happy as she decides to ultimate to stay in the countryside. Taeko might not be Hokage or a pirate captain, but she is still a leader, in a very meaningful and important sense.

Another character who strikes me personally is Mari from Tokyo Magnitude 8. Mirai and Yuki are separated from their from their family when a devastating earthquake hits Tokyo and Mari, a complete stranger takes it upon herself to make sure they reach home. What strikes me here, in particular, is how their coming together was written. Often, something binds characters, meaning they have to come together, often by chance or fate, but this isn't the case here. Mari simply chooses to take responsibility for the children, it's a choice she freely makes to undertake this heavy mission and that says a great deal about her character. Through the course of the story, she becomes more than the typical older sister often found in older young women in anime.

She is a protector and a guardian, a teacher, a guide and a parent. She helps them hope and in doing so becomes pivotal for their survival. Not just that, but through her they learn about each other and grow as brother and sister. Another reason this character is so compelling is that it's easy to present a heroine who is strong because she is just written as fighting strong enemies like Ryuko from Kill la Kill, instead, the enemy here is an earthquake and cannot simply be fought and must instead be navigated through, not with strength or attacks, but with character, with optimism and audacity, will and hope, human characteristics which inspire us and should.

That said, I believe there are still 'fighting' female protagonists who bring a-lot to anime and manga, more so than their male counterparts. I would like to use the example of the two Nonos from Gunbuster and Diebuster. Both characters are dreamers who discover themselves in their dreams of becoming space pilots and grow as people. But even as shounen-like characters, their fights are spectacular and outshine the battles found in One Piece, Naruto and Dragonball Z.

Why do I say this? Whereas in most shounen anime and manga, the protagonist fights by showing off attacks, skills or new techniques, with the Nonos instead what we get is a display of sheer willpower and fury. Where Naruto relied on ascending to his various fox and frog forms to fight progressively stronger foes and Goku has to go super saiyan, the Nonos had to learn, grow and display impossible willpower, resulting in an awesome displays of human perseverance. In short, it's awesome.

There remain issues, it is assumed that shounen anime and manga in the mainstream require male protagonists, depriving young boys of strong female role models which I believe are necessary to foster a healthy and fair society. Instead, for most shounen anime and manga, the female characters either need protecting or are a love interest, feeding into existing stereotypes and perpetuating them. As I have described here, strides are being made, but there is still a long way to go. There's one series in particular that I would like to place emphasis on which turns this issue on its head. Revolutionary Girl Utena is about a young woman who seeks to become a prince; i.e. someone who is brave, proud and strong, rather than a princess.

The result is a protagonist who plays much of the roles taken by male protagonists in shounen anime, including combat, but with a feminine perspective that brings something new to the table. Rather than simply defeating her foes, Utena empathises with them, understands where they're coming from and in doing so, brings the conflict to resolution, rather than simply beating them into submission. The result is far more compelling and interesting episodes than the average anime. The way the show explored gender and sexuality would also go on to inspire the American cartoon Steven Universe where female alien gems fight, protect and fall in love.

Utena empathising with her enemies is akin to Allen Walker liberating the spirits of his akuma foes in D. Gray-man and this brings us to Katsura Hoshino. Hoshino has fought waves of illness and continued to bring D. Gray-man to the world, a story filled with mystery, stunning art and a complex, detailed world with even more complex characters. Hoshino brought us a world of very troubled and traumatised characters, who deal and work through their trauma throughout the story, creating vibrant journeys of self-discovery and startling revelations. D. Gray-man is one of the few shounen manga to have truly empathetic villains, who suffer and have complex lives behind their actions. This is in contrast to even Naruto, which though seeks to portray some of its villains such as Pain and Obito as having reasons for the terrible thing they've done, they're not 'alive' or 'real' in the same way that D. Gray-man villains are who are complicated in virtue of more than just motivations, but quirks and behaviour, personalities that are more than just bitter, rather they are filled with humour and bonds of their own.

This may be a trait that female authors and creators bring to their work in a more effective way than their male counterparts, that their characters are simply more complex, multi-layered and interesting. The Millenium Earl and the Noah family are more than just evil, they are a family and genuinely likeable.

Likewise, Hoshino's heroes are more than just good, they're odd and bizarre with a billion flaws and detailed likes and dislikes and personalities. Compare multiple Naruto side characters like Tenten or Shino who are given special abilities, but who are basically two dimensional, compared to a single D. Gray-man side character like Lavi, who has a complex personality and backstory of his own. Whereas Lavi is a reluctant Bookman, seeking to record the history of the world, we never learnt a thing about Tenten or Shino which could make us care more about them. I don't know, it might be unfair of me to say that female authors create more compelling characters and stories, but I know that these female authors most certainly did, and so did Hiromu Arakawa, who is responsible for arguably the perfect anime and manga in Full Metal Alchemist and Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Arakawa built an incredible world and went as far as to create a science from scratch for the sake of the story in the form of Armestrisian alchemy. The hero-villain axis is fluid as people's motivations bring them dynamically in and out of line with one another, Scar and Greed being primary examples. The story covers issues such as race relations and military occupation, family and international relations, the ethics of science, religion and humanism. The sheer originality of the series is amazing as entire ontologies, countries and philosophies flow into existence before our eyes. Not just that, but the series itself becomes incredibly complex with a range of characters doing multiple things across multiple locations, whilst events still coalesce and work together seamlessly regardless. The story is enjoyable, interesting and moving and I think I speak for all of us when I say I hope we all see more of Arakawa's original work in the future.

Having lived and work in East Asia and in Japan in particular, I can say that gender is an issue that still has a long way to go. Stereotypes, societal pressures and expectations make life incredibly difficult for girls and women, but I believe that through the medium of storytelling, we have opportunities to make strides in gender equality and the perception of women. Japan is blessed with a massive storytelling industry in anime, manga, light novels and video games and so, I believe ample opportunity to make a difference.


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