Thank Kanbaru: Personal Narratives, “Feminist Anime,” and Normalized Media Portrayals

Let it be known that asking me questions of ask.fm is like is a sneaky way to get me thinking about topics you’d like me to cover in a blog post…this was originally an ask.fm answer, then grew too large for the ask.fm and so became a tumblr post, then kept growing and became more of a philosophical manifesto/personal story than I had originally intended, and thus here we are. To begin, I know I’m treading on sensitive ground here and so, of course, I’d love to hear feedback in the comments. [1] For me, this is very much still a topic I’m learning about and pondering through. But here’s where I am right now.

Monogatari

But let’s start with the question that kicked this whole train of thought in my head (a train that, frankly, hasn’t been given much room to run lately): “Which anime works would you consider feminist?”

Earlier in the day, I had the pleasure of reading Guy’s ask.fm answer to the same question, which I’ve linked here because it’s good and you should read it, but I didn’t want to just link to someone else’s thoughts and call that my answer, no matter how well-stated I thought those thoughts were. Plus, Guy’s answer is pretty postmodern in its questioning of the definition of feminism and the (what I felt were) implications of intersectionality—which isn’t to say that it’s a useless answer, only that was really good a serving as a starting point for my own thought processes.

Anyways, in thinking about how I wanted to answer the questions, something became clear: The criteria for “feminist media” are about as clear as mud to me, so I thought that rather than trying to assign the label of “feminist anime” to anything, I’d rather just talk about a handful of shows that treat their female characters in a way that I really like. So, here they are:

Soul Eater

  • Soul Eater – Maka gets to be the protagonist, do awesome stuff, have a self-contained and self-reliant personality without ever becoming isolated, has complex relationships with other people, all without contacting the issues of gender identity—she can just be what she is, and that’s amazing.
  • Rose of Versailles – I’m still not done with the show, but I love the way the show treats Oscar’s fascinating liminal state between being a man and being a woman; it’s not quite clear to me yet what the show’s endgame is with her, but what it is doing thus far is great. No matter what the other characters say, the anime itself respects Oscar’s decision.
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena – Utena Tenjou is awesome and the conversation around her and Anthy’s gender identities is complicated, sensitive, and respectful. That’s not very many words for a long and convoluted series, but it’s not something that can really be summed up easily.
  • Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta – Maybe a bit of a headscratcher with all the fanservice and panty shots that pervade the show, but that’s superficial stuff to me compared to (again) Hime getting to be a main character, being the mayor and a bone fide shounen protagonist, having her own identity, etc, etc. see the entry for Maka above; plus, all the female characters (that I can think of) are active and self-contained in their own rights—simply, they’re just people and that sort of naturalized portrayal of humanized women in anime is something we need more, more, more of.
  • Chihayafuru – for Chihaya, Shinobu, Kana, etc., etc., again see the Maka and YZQ entries; it’s just female characters being important characters, being active, being people without it being any sort of big deal.

Chihayafuru 2

By this point, I’m sure my bias is being heard loud and clear, enough so that you can take a look at the list of stuff I’ve watched and guess at other shows that fall into this typing. If you ask me, the best thing we can have in media is more, more, more female characters who are just people, without a big discussion on their genders, gender roles, and so on. Now, this may seem counterintuitive—after all, don’t we need people to challenge their sexist assumptions? Yes, but the more I think on my own experiences and what I’ve heard from others, I’m become increasingly convinced of the importance personal narratives in driving change in the hearts of people.

Let me tell you a quick personal story, a story I’ve actually been wanting to tell for a long time, but just haven’t found the right moment for until now: as you all well know, I love the Monogatari series and, while she’s not my favorite character (Hanekawa unseated Senjougahara eventually), I’ve come to really love Kanbaru. Who is a lesbin, as per the famous gif. But the premise here, the most important parts of those last two sentence are “I love Monogatari” and “I love Kanbaru.” And I love Kanbaru for being a person with weaknesses, for being a person who falls in love, makes a terrible choice, gets depressed, deals with a ghost on her own. Of course, it’s impossible to divorce Kanbaru from the fact that she’s a lesbian, but although religiously and culturally I was (and still am) feeling out my ideas about homosexuality, what I did know was that this was a character I loved and a character I loved all of, including her sexuality.

Monogatari

In short, no debate, no conversation, and no other piece of media has done as much to open up my heart to being willing to try and understand homosexuality than the Monogatari series.

And that’s a big freaking deal, you know? I would never have got there without Monogatari and the reason I was able to get there was because although Kanbaru was a lesbian, she was always a person first—and you don’t fall in love with people for their sexual orientation, but for their personhood. For me, the way Isin and Shinbo depicted a lesbian girl as just another human being allowed me to access her humanity first and everything else about her second. It was, as I’ve taken to calling such portrayals, a “normalized portrayal,” where a person is depicted as a person first and only. There are no conversations in Monogatari about society, culture, and lesbians. There’s just Kanbaru and her faults and her strengths and her humanity. In other words, Monogatari prioritized Kanbaru’s personal narrative above all else—functionally, because that’s just the kind of story it is, but the effects of that decision were profound for me.

And so it goes with those other shows I’ve listed, in some form or another. The most convincing things about Utena‘s campaign against oppressive patriarchal norms isn’t the heady supertextual arguments about gender and identity…it’s Utena herself. Her story. Likewise with Rose of Versailles and Oscar. And so, when I arrive at shows like Soul EaterChihayafuru, and Yozakura Quartet [2], I’m being sold a personal narrative without the distraction or overt ideological challenge of “feminism in my anime.” And I buy that stuff like crazy.

Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta

I buy it without even thinking about it, because it’s presented as normal.

It seems entirely natural that Maka should be the protagonist of Soul Eater and that Hime should be the mayor in Yozakura Quartet because their respective shows don’t fuss about it or call attention to it. That’s just how things are in their worlds and their stories. No one’s out writing feminist analyses of Soul Eater and YZQ (okay, there are a few piece on feminism and Soul Eater, but they’re not very good) because they don’t call for them. They just drop persons who happen to be female into their stories and run with it like it’s supposed to be like that. As it should be!

If you like the metaphor, these are the Trojan Horses of good media stories about women. By handling the stories of their female protagonists with dignity without calling attention to them, they’re supremely able to draw in audiences by both the charm of their well-treated protagonists and their other strengths (for example, Soul Eater‘s fantastic visual aesthetic or Chihayafuru‘s relationship drama). That’s not to say that grand ideological pieces like Utena or Versailles aren’t needed—they are. But my personal preference will always lie with the method of using the personal narrative of a single character to appeal to my own humanity. While it’s easy to brush aside an abstract ideological concept, the connection between human beings is far more difficult to reject. And, before you know it, you’ve fallen in love with a character or, better yet, a real live person who challenges you by their identity as “human.”

Thank Kanbaru. [3]

Monogatari


[1] Addendum to the Post: As I said in the introduction, I know this is a touchy subject. Please, talk to me in the comments about this! This idea of the power of the “personal narrative” isn’t just an abstract, academic one—it’s something that has and continues to impact my life. I want to hear your stories as they relate to this piece; give me a chance to understand.

[2] Incidentally, Hime’s pretty cool in the 2008 version of YZQ, which I actually thought was pretty decent.

[3] Site News Note: Sorry, I’m not off of hiatus yet. I still lack any sort of furniture so my back is killing me after typing all of this. I’m hoping to grab a bunch of furniture over the weekend; once I have a bed and desk, I should be good to go again.

25 thoughts on “Thank Kanbaru: Personal Narratives, “Feminist Anime,” and Normalized Media Portrayals

  1. so yes you should probably feel bad for putting yozakura quartet on that list…but in typing that i started thinking about how some people might claim the idea of a “feminist anime” is contradictory, and then i thought about the nature of pulp media and the multitude of ways representation can take shape, and then i thought about tarantino for a little bit.

    i still think you should feel bad. but only a little bit bad.

    that joke-which-became-kind-of-serious aside, this…

    “In short, no debate, no conversation, and no other piece of media has done as much to open up my heart to being willing to try and understand homosexuality than the Monogatari series.”

    …this is really special. partly because this means the Feminist High Council will now be forced to enter bakemonogatari into the Holy Writ of Progressive Media, but mostly because it highlights and demonstrates once again one of the most important parts of stories: their ability to change how people feel. identifying media as expressing or failing to express ideology is good (and i do mean that, there’s definite value in doing that), but ultimately the real influence they have is paramount.

    Like

    • I thought about your joke a little bit. I don’t feel bad, if only because I think there are some interesting complexities surrounding the fanservice in YZQ (like how the extremely casual nature of most of the pantsu shots seems to make them feel very rote and almost as if the creators only put it in because they had to or something). Anyways, I stand by my conclusion that YZQ generally treats its female characters well, even if it’s not perfect at it—thus again reinforcing the idea that there is no such thing as a “feminist” anime because you probably will never find an anime that is entirely devoid of all sexism.

      As for your last, serious part—yup. Put Bake up there. Or not. I don’t care. The Holy Writ of Progressive Media sounds like something a bunch of old white dudes would put together to prove they’re not racist, sexist, or otherwise nastily biased against other people not of their own particular experience.

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  2. Thanks for writing this, Bless. I know that feminism is a touchy subject, but I personally think you’ve handled it very respectfully here.

    I find myself on Guy’s side when it comes to the feminist label and applying it to media. It’s reductive and tells you very little about the work itself. But the feminist lens is vital. It is important, I think, for creators and consumers alike to think about gender representations and to be sensitive about different people’s experiences.

    I like what you say about treating women and queer folk as human beings first. Normalising narratives are important. Although I do get a bit uncomfortable when “normalising” is conflated with “homogenising”. By that, I’m talking about the decision to include women and queers in narratives but then portraying their experiences and perspectives as identical to cis males. Fellow human being doesn’t mean “same as cis men”. That’s why the Strong Female Character stereotype is so widely ridiculed, I suppose.

    (Also, this is probably one of the reasons why I personally don’t find the female characters in cute girl SOL shows too interesting, generally speaking. No, they don’t generally act like boys, but they feel neutered to me, and so their characterisations lack authenticity to me. “Gender neutral” almost always translates to “masculinist on an invisible level”, I feel.)

    Basically, recognising the complexity and contradictions in a person’s life experience is important. Respecting a person’s agency is important. Recognising difference – and, yes, privilege – is important as well. All of these things are important. It’s all so incredibly complex and difficult that no single work of media will ever get it all right to a degree that will satisfy all feminists everywhere. But that’s fine. That’s why the feminist label is close to useless, but feminist critique is so, so important. That applies not just to media, but the whole “being feminist” thing in general.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah; I don’t know if I made this clear enough myself, but I agree with Guy, too. A “feminist” anime, you probably can’t actually find something you could label as such.

      Speaking to your other point about homogenization, I appreciate you bringing that up quite a lot. That’s a really important distinction to make (one I think all the shows I listed successfully do). I almost actually felt like it would be better to start calling the “naturalized narratives,” as I feel like it carries fewer negative connotations, but I’ve been calling them “normalized” in my head for a while now, so that’s a switch I think I’ll have to make later. ^_^”

      As far as “recognizing difference” goes, that’s an idea I’m working around, especially in terms of these ~~normalized~~ naturalized narratives. At what point are you just ignoring the differences that are there? Because at that point you’ve automatically stopped acknowledging someone as a person. The ways Utena and Versailles point out the differences in their characters are pretty obvious, but how about those other shows I listed? I think they each have their ways, whether it being having a male character with a different experience, the female character’s relationship with another female friend, or simply her mannerisms. But it’s easy to doubt my own perceptions and worry about unconscious attempts at justification.

      In lame conclusion, as you said…it’s complicated. Feminist critique >>>>> “feminist anime.”

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      • The ways Utena and Versailles point out the differences in their characters are pretty obvious, but how about those other shows I listed?

        Well, I personally think the examples you listed are fine. Yozakura Quartet is debatable, but I could understand your reasoning.

        Speaking of which, the importance of feminist critique over slapping a “feminist” label also strikes me when analysing historical texts. Take the Bible, for instance. Pretty much everyone agrees that the Bible extorts patriarchal values, but there have been plenty of writings about the women in the Bible and examining their choices and agency. There’s also a significant movement among feminist historians to bring more attention to women’s histories. It’s not necessarily about rewriting historical facts, but acknowledging that women have always existed and led their own lives in all cultures throughout history.

        I’m also reminded of this article about writing female characters I read a while ago. I highly recommend it: http://www.tor.com/2015/03/04/writing-women-characters-as-human-beings/

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  3. Great post! I, too, am still working out what feminism is–as with all “isms”–without being more than peripherally acquainted with the school of thought and its “canonical” or defining works–it’s a slippery slope to ascribe to a view as one’s de facto lens…if I’ve learned anything from my studies in college, it’s that there’s no such thing as one “right” way of interpretation.

    Similarly, I think it’s important that the characterization of women being varied and rich. Anime is by no means an exception to this rule but as you’ve pointed out, there are cases where female characters are represented as complex personalities–aka actual human beings. It’s easy to fall back on stereotypes because the audience is familiar with them but not terribly interesting.

    What do you think about the female characters in Madoka? I find them walking that fine line between archetype (intentionally so, of course) and nuanced characterization. Madoka is almost too symbolic to be a real girl but Homura seems to walk that fine line between “human” and “archetypal foil” quite well.

    Like

    • I’m not a huge fan of Madoka, and part of that was that I just didn’t connect with the characters. Madoka herself, in particular, is a difficult character for me (although I’ve liked symbolic characters like Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds in the past), but I do remember, at least intellectually, that the characterization in Madoka was strong, even if it didn’t connect all that well with me.

      As for feminism and anime more generally, stereotypes, I agree, are an issue (and not just for female characters!) because of how easy they are to fall into. It’s lazy writing, but it’s easy for a writer to use a stereotype instead of considering all the complexities of their character.

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  4. Whether or not a female character should eventually face an inherently feminine issue largely rests on case-by-case basis.On one hand, you have show like Dennou Coil, in which it makes little difference to the plot if you gender-swap most of the cast. On the other, Rose of Versailles’ Oscar is a character whose sex affected her character arc to an extent, considering the sociopolitical implications of her setting and role in the story. There is an important sub-plot late in RoV where Oscar being female is integral to the conflict and it’s more than okay: not addressing these kind of issues would be strange at best and at worst, downright ignorant to the realities/lack o privileges faced by someone in that specific circumstances. That said, of course being female shouldn’t be a defining/overwhelming trait of a character and nor does it mean that a character must constantly face female-specific issues all the time! I totally agree that top priority should always to make a well-fleshed, three-dimensional, person first, but at some point you have to ponder: considering the setting, theme, and the inevitable IRL parallels, would it make sense to ignore (or integrate) female-specific issues within the scope of this character’s interaction in the narrative world?

    The methods and narrative choices made by the author also played a crucial role in establishing these female-specific issues without engendering tired gender preconceptions. Let’s say I’m making a story about a professional female chess player, and I wanted to introduce a female-specific conflict mid-story; I could have her [1] join a union and rail against lower payment from tournament wins for female players compared to their male counterparts (yes, this is a thing that exists in some countries), or [2] have her traumatized from playing after an assault and rape. One of these is an overused & lazy narrative choice to maximize dramatic shock value, while the other addressed an important and systemic issue faced by the female character in her specific circumstances and deserved to be acknowledged more by the public.

    A progressive trend I want to see more from popular media is more physical/aesthetical diversity in terms of female character design; more lanky, chubby, plain, or awkward-looking female leads and/or supporting characters. How more impacting and daring the whole superficiality judgment theme in Ore Monogatari!, for example, if a female plays Takeo’s role? Anime is especially & specifically bad in this regard, but delving on this issue might be opening another can of worms largely related to the marketing and specific realities of the industry, so let’s save that one for some other day :]

    Liked by 3 people

    • Great comment here!

      You’re talking about that balance thing again—where is the tipping point between ignoring a female character’s status as a woman and going too far and making the character nothing but? When you have a three-dimensional character with multiple defining traits, rather than just one (like, say, “She’s a woman”), you open up the entirety of the person to the story and you can incorporate all elements of their identity as needed without being reductive with their humanity.

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  5. This is an interesting topic. Feminism is one of those things that’s so hard to have a conversation about, because two people can have such vastly different impressions and implications running through their heads just from hearing that one word. Even feminists themselves emphasize different aspects of “feminism” depending on their various causes and life experiences.

    Anyway, I don’t know if there’s any anime I’d call explicitly “feminist,” since most of the time, it seems like even the most female-friendly anime often have some problematic things about them, but there are some that I’d call “feminist-friendly.” Those would be anime where the female characters are treated as fully-realized, fully-capable characters who have their own goals and their own independent agency. They’re not just sex objects for the viewers to ogle, they don’t exist in the story solely for the benefit of a male lead (nor do they revolve their lives around a man), and they’re certainly not the infantilized woman-child that’s characteristic of most moeblobs. So I guess that’s pretty similar to what you’re describing. These are a few good examples I can think of:

    Miyazaki movies. Characters like Nausicaa, Sophie, Kiki, and Chihiro are great and very well-written lead characters, without ever for a second making you forget that they’re also women. There’s a good blog post on that subject here: Five Things Disney Could Learn from Hayao Miyazaki about Female Characters.

    Angelic Layer. Shounen tournament battle franchises have always been a male-dominated subgenre of anime, where successful heroes excel in traditionally “masculine” virtues like strength and courage. Angelic Layer turns that on its head, creating a competition world where the nature of the game means the best players are the ones strongest in traditionally ‘feminine” virtues like intuition, empathy, and creativity. The main character is a 12-year-old girl who’s small and physically weak, and one of the things that draws her to Angelic Layer is the chance to prove to herself and everyone else that she can survive and thrive in a highly competitive environment without needing to be physically strong.

    Rideback. I wasn’t a huge fan of this anime (it was another one that started strong and kind of fell apart towards the end), but it does have a great, well-developed female lead and some very solid female friendship and family relationships.

    Also, this was a very good tumblr post I read quite some time ago looking at K-On! from a feminist perspective, and where that series succeeds and where it fails. I know you haven’t seen K-On! yet (and you should), but it doesn’t really spoil anything, just talks mostly about how the girls are characterized and the line where moe and feminism come into conflict with each other. It also drags Haruhi and Mikuru into the fray a little bit.

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    • I’ve heard of Rideback before, but Angelic Layer is a new title to me. I’m pretty intrigued by that summary, though, so I think I’ll put it into my backlog.

      “Feminist friendly” may very well be a phrase I started using myself—I think it’s much more productive and useful than “feminist anime.”

      Like

    • I like really like the concept illustrated in your description of Angelic Layer, I’d love to give it a read sometime.

      Speaking about the K-ON tumblr post however, my view is that the writer of the post may be conflating the outside world with the one within the universe. While of course, works do not exist in a vacuum, such characters themselves are not actually “rewarded” for their actions in the actual show. The fact that she is more popular seems to me to reflect more on the fanbase than on the show itself. Such an archetype of character annoys me personally too from time to time as well, but I don’t believe Mio is actually encouraged to act in such a way in the show. In fact to the best of my memory I believe she is encouraged to become more confident and such (again, I have not watched the show in a long time, so forgive me if I’m wrong). Another problem I find with devaluing such a character is one I find similar to certain feminists critiquing other women of acting traditionally “feminine” or “submissive”. I don’t believe there is only “one way” that women should act, and I believe one important aspect of feminism is that women have the right be able to have their own identities. Femininity is a spectrum. If such an identity happens to fall in line with a more “feminine” or “submissive” one, is it really wrong? What I often like about these types of shows is that they tend to show a colorful variety of characters with completely different personalities with their own motivations and interactions, and it just doesn’t feel right to leave one out just because such a portrayal of a female character may be a “setback”.

      For the record, my favorite character is Azusa, haha.

      What are your thoughts?

      Like

  6. I think it depends a great deal on how you define feminism (and even what era of feminism you are talking about). To me, shows with strong women are not inherently feminist. If the fact that the character is a woman does not matter to the show’s world, can it really be a feminist show?

    For example, I don’t think Soul Eater is a feminist show. Maka is a strong female character, but no one in the setting of the show cares about that. There are many female characters and no one blinks an eye.

    Would you consider Engaged To The Unidentified to be a feminist show? After all, the main character is a young woman presented with an arranged marriage and trying to come to terms with that and the lack of choice in her future. Does it matter that Kobeni is a homemaker by nature, and ultimately falls in love with her proposed partner?

    I don’t think that there are any anime that I would consider “modern feminist”. The anime audience skews male, and Japan is a more conservative society than the West. Those two factors make a modern conflict-theory feminist anime very unlikely.

    However, there are several anime that I would consider “suffragette feminist”. Shows about women trying to make a place for themselves in a male-dominated area.

    Cross Game‘s female lead, Tsukishima Aoba, is a very good baseball player who cannot play on her high school baseball team because it is male-only. So she is forced to take a supporting role and a fair amount of the show deals with her struggles with that. The reason she chooses the supporting role is a lot more complicated. I strongly recommend Cross Game. It’s a 10/10 show.

    The other anime which I consider deeply feminist is Saiunkoku Monogatari. Set in a fantasy, historical China, its lead, Kou Shuurei, becomes consort to the Emperor in order to turn him into a good ruler. It’s actually kind of hard to describe why this is such a feminist show without spoilers. But the show never loses sight of the fact that Kou Shuurei is a woman, and it makes a significant difference as to how she has to approach problems. Saiunkoku Monogatari is another excellent show.

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    • I think your excellent discussion here again highlights the inherent (shall we call it?) silliness of trying to define individual anime as “feminist.” Whether it be the complexity of specific shows, uncertainty due to the multiple potential meanings of “feminism,” or even just the current marketplace, nailing down “feminist anime” is basically impossible.

      I imagine there are certainly some people who would argue Cross Game and Saiunkoku Monogatari are not feminist shows, for whatever reason—but does that take away from the quality of what they do do? It shouldn’t, but I feel that’s exactly where the attempt to label “feminist anime” leads us: to a reductive place that stifles nuance and discussion.

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  7. The best depiction of female characters I’ve ever seen in an anime were in Serei no Moribito. The MC is a sword-wielding badass who is turning 30 and needs to get in her revenge before settling down and starting a family with her slightly naggy boyfriend. Not only that but there’s an awesome old lady shaman in the series who is competent, wise and layered. When do you ever see that in an anime series? Check it out! More recently the character Ema in the decidedly masculine series Garo: The Animation is pretty awesome, too. (And Maka is the best!)

    Like

    • I have Moribito on my shelves! I’ll get around to it eventually!

      Ema was a pretty good female character, too. Wish she had gotten more screentime, to be honest…but that’s always how I feel with really good female characters, seems like.

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  8. I would say that Yozakura is a hard no due to its objectifying its female characters, but you’re more than free to have that opinion. A rather interesting article though, and surprising, considering how many people in the anime community are so opposed to feminism and hate the very mention to it.

    I agree that it is a rather complicated thing. It’s hard to determine what entirely makes something feminist, especially since the concept of feminism is different to so many people and opinions differ so much. The only real feminist series though that I think exist though is probably Revolutionary Girl Utena and maybe Yuri Kuma Arashi. Utena challenges the patriarchy while Yuri Kuma Arashi challenges the concept of heteronormativity that was brought about by the patriarchy.

    Excellent read though!

    Like

    • Yup, I’m definitely aware that Yozakura is the most difficult to argue for! I definitely wouldn’t call it a “feminist anime,” but I do think that, superficial objectification aside (and I’m aware that’s a big aside to make in some sense), YZQ does some awesome things with its female characters as people. The good and the bad happen right alongside each other, oftentimes. It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is.

      There are definitely people in the anime fandom interested in feminism out there! You just have to look a little harder to find them!

      Glad you enjoyed the article! ^_^

      Like

  9. Ah, well, you know how I feel about Utena, and how her ambition is to take on a male role (Prince). Compare that with Princess Jellyfish, where Tsukimi sees the strength in the female role of Princess. Even if she does first get the idea from mistakenly taking a cross-dressing boy for a girl, which, since he’s cross-dressing… The princess here is not a helpless creature to be saved by a prince, but a person possessing her own agency, a person who can take action and do the saving!

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