Strong Female Characters in Anime – Fights, Role Models and Homicidal Maniacs
March 17, 2012 Leave a comment
Very often in anime we focus on the cute girls, the younger sisters, and the love interests – these characters can be fascinating, but often those female characters that are very strong (in a multitude of ways) are left out. There are significant number of female characters are very powerful or strong, be it physically, psychologically or sexually. They can fall into the classic character traits of the Tsundere or Yandere, however their appeal and importance within anime goes further than simple characterisations. While shows with all female casts, such as Koihime Musuo, Sengoku Otome and Queen’s Blade have a significant number of female fighters; I will not explore them in this post. Strong female characters offer more interesting insights into ideas surrounding women in Japan when they appear in shows that are in part realistic. Although, horror anime, or anime with a strong element of horror produce some of the most interesting and enlightening female characters. We should also examine how these characters fit into the discourses surrounding women’s place in Japanese society.
Women in Japan either socially or in employment do not have true equality. We see this in social terms with reference to ideas of a woman’s place in society, associated with domestic work, cleaning, cooking, childcare and generally looking after the household. Men, on the other hand, are traditionally viewed as the ‘bread winners’ who work long hours to keep the household going. This attitude is not unique to Japan, but we see similar attitudes in Britain, America and many other countries. The proper role of women, which has been defined during Meiji period by the slogan ‘good wife, wise mother’ (ryosai kenbo), and is set in opposition to that of men, who are regarded as models for action and rational enlightenment. Horror, and horror themed anime are often viewed as being genres for women in Japan; they often involve very strong female characters that are dangerous, but also liberating in their actions. We see characters that refuse to conform to societies norms, and instead act on their instincts and desires, something that is considered to be dangerous in Japanese society. There are characters that twist the social norms, making them dangerous and unpredictable, something that may be considered quite liberating. By dismissing the social and cultural constructions of society there is freedom in some respects, along with danger. That these characters embrace the danger, and rather than be confined by social norms, instead rise to meet the dangerous elements of society and culture, demonstrates their strength and appeal.
Take Mirai Nikki as an example, a story that is both brilliant to watch, and yet makes almost no sense – it does however have a spectacular character in the form of Yuno Gasai. Yuno is a fascinating character, who, while showing numerous traits of the Yandere is also incredibly strong, but also very dangerous. As a character within the universe of Mriai Nikki she is uncontrollable, and unconstrained by the moral sensitivities of Japanese society. She is incredibly devoted to Yuki, aggressively so, and is willing to do almost anything for him, including killing those who she perceives as threats, not only to Yuki, but to her relationship with Yuki. There is the idea in Japan, which appears to be socially and culturally rooted of women getting married and having children before they turn 30, along with the attitude that by doing so they must quit their jobs in order to focus on domestic chores instead. Yuno’s devotion to Yuki is in keeping with this tradition in some respects, and yet, her playing the ‘good wife’ is warped and portrayed as highly dangerous. But, she is still a very powerful, and strong character, one is unwilling to follow societies rules of being the perfect women and keeping to the social and cultural norms, which are laid out before her. Yuno can be seen as a character that is very appealing to many women; not only does she ignore her place in society as a women, she is actively pushing against it, and her devotion to Yuki, while twisted, is nevertheless admiral.
We can see similar traits in Lady Eboshi, a women who, while living in a society with strict status hierarchies, and notions of purity and pollution – women being the most polluted since they dealt with the dead and money – is also incredibly strong. She is a very masculine character, someone who wears beautiful kimono, but insists of male clothes, rather than the more ornate, but highly impractical multilayered kimono that many rich women wore at the time. She is a warrior, one adept with the early guns (hand canons which originated from China, and some from Korea), and wields a sword with expert precision. She is someone who stands up for women, buying up contracts of any prostitute she comes across, along with giving preferential treatment to the women of iron town. And also wages war against the local samurai, defying their power and social superiority. In some respects she may be too masculine, and is incapable – at least until the end – to acknowledge that humans and nature can live in harmony. But she is still a fascinating female character, one who demonstrates that it is possible to go against the social norms within society and make a living for yourself. What is most fascinating is how Eboshi fits into the discourse surrounding workingwomen in Japan, particularly those who are seen as career focussed.
With the difficulties in finding full time, permanent work, there has also been an increasing concern in Japan that many women are spending far too much time working. By devoting themselves to their career, there is the increasing notion that such women are not carrying out their duties, which the Japanese Government considers a major problem; the government has been inconsistent in its actions in this domain. Part of the reasons for this has been the declining birth rate in Japan, and an ever-aging population. Still, around seven out of ten women quit working when they get married, often due to social pressures. Therefore it seems highly likely that the increase in the number of women who work longer and maintain a career would mean an increase in the number of single women at the marriageable age. The socially and culturally imbedded notions of a women’s role in Japanese society make it significantly more difficult to have a family while maintaining their career. The character of Lady Eboshi can be seen as a role model for women who wish to maintain their careers, showing that it is possible to fight against the dominant discourse in society.
Both Yuno and Eboshi are characters that act partly in instinct, but also put a lot of thought into them – there are however, characters that are strong for different reasons. There are a significant number of female characters in anime that show strength even when they are against their class, their friends, or are simply sidelined by society itself. Mei Misaki from Another shows an amazing amount of strength and courage, being capable of maintaining, not only her sanity, but also her sense of self. That she does this while her entire class and teacher ignores her existence, instead pretending that she was never there shows incredible psychological strength. She is quite a detached character, being largely ignored by her indifferent mother – although it is later revealed that her mother is actually her aunt – and appearing to walk through life as if she were a ghost. Mei makes conscious choices based on her surroundings and experiences, while her class may be at the mercy of this mysterious and deadly phenomenon, she does not seem affected by it. She shows agency by making. These choices may be within a specific social framework, but they still show a conscious choice that not only takes in their current surroundings both culturally and socially, but also looks ahead to their future.
Such characters are fascinating as they demonstrate an ability to work within their circumstances, while simultaneously rising about them. Mina Tepes from Dance in the Vampire Bund, further demonstrates the ability to work within a strict set of social and cultural constructions. She is the ruler of all Vampires and a pure blood, something that is very rare in the Bund universe, as such she is at the mercy of the Three Clans. However, she is a shrewd negotiator demonstrates a mastery of political maneuvering, along with a caring heart and unbending will. Similarly Yakushiji Ryoko is another powerful women, who is both adept at political maneuvering, while maintaining a cool and calm exterior. She is also a highly intelligent, and beautiful women, who solves various crimes, while keeping the political establishment in check. A significant part of the series revolves around other characters attempting to put an end to her power and control over them. Having a woman with such power and influence is seen as incredibly dangerous, and yet when a man has similar powers, the establishment appears to view it as perfectly normal. Ryoko is fascinating because of her ability to maneuver through the twists and turns of politics and social life, while maintaining her sense of self.
By becoming characters of action, along with demonstrating that they are as intelligent, if not more so than the male characters in these shows. They are capable of deciding how they should live for themselves, and determining their place within society. These female characters demonstrate an ability to remain composed when needed, along with acting on their instincts and a clever mind. I think looking at such characters is important, and while many of them can be dropped into character archetypes, such as Tsundere and Yandere, they also demonstrate that these character types are perhaps to neat. The also demonstrate how female characters in anime can be viewed as role models, women who refuse to be prescribed their place in life, and instead rise to meet the challenges that are thrown at them. These characters demonstrate the power that many female characters in anime can hold, and how they are viewed as dangerous, perhaps even destructive. Yet, their ability to make their own decisions and show a sense of agency in their lives demonstrates how women are capable of determining what their own path in life. These characters are not constrained by social and cultural boundaries, and while many may appear to be, they use the boundaries in their own way, further showing that boundaries and borders are not fixed, and in constant motion.