Loli and Lolita in anime (non-Hentai – Misused, Misunderstood, Misrepresented
February 2, 2013 6 Comments
Please bare in mind that this post is far from definitive and I have barely even begun to explore the varied and complex issues surrounding Lolita in Japanese society, especially with regards to anime and more broadly speaking ‘otaku culture’.
The Lolita or ‘Loli’ character has become ubiquitous in anime over the years, with numerous series employing younger characters or those dressed in Lolita fashion to varying affects. In a more general sense, Lolitas of ‘Lolis’ are young women and men who dress as anachronistic visual representations of Victorian-era dolls, covered from head to toe in lace, ruffles, and bows. This term in the west is most often associated with the title character of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, depicting an adolescent girl who has a sexual relationship with her middle-aged stepfather; in Japan however ‘Lolita Complex (lolicon)’ also refers more generally to older men who are attracted to young girls. Part of the problem with these terms however is the way they are used an interpreted in conjunction with anime and the numerous ways with which the Lolita is represented in the anime medium. One of the interesting elements of Lolita in Japan is that they are usually young women (not girls), who dress in cure, childlike, and modest fashions without the overly sexualised appearance typically associated with Nabokov’s Lolita. This representation of the Lolita is further complicated by the broad nature of anime fandom’s description and understanding of the Lolita complex, with numerous fans referring to any young character as a ‘Loli’, whether they are dressed in Victorian-era clothes or not. This particular description makes the whole notion of the Loli far more complicated, as there is an implicit understanding amongst western fandom that Loli is linked with Nabokov’s character.
I feel that the Loli character in anime is significantly more complex than this, and that there are numerous occasions with the ‘Loli’ character is neither overly sexualised or arguably has anything to do with Nobokov’s or even the Japanese Lolita. What we therefore have is a case where anime fandom have begun using the term ‘Loli’ to describe any young female character, thus bringing with it a series of ideas surrounding the role of said character. Furthermore, this in tern links in to the Japanese notion of the ‘lolicon’, thus implying that such characters are token, and have been designed to appeal to a particular demographic within the otaku fandom. This then is reasserting the notion of otaku as dangerous sexual deviants who lust after young girls, and further reinforces the notion of otaku as social rejects, those who fail to conform, communicate with others, and connect consumption and play to productive roles at home, school, and work. This is a far cry from the original Lolita aesthetic that emphasizes features of Victorian-era girls’ dress, such as lace, ruffles, high necklines, and voluminous skirts, similar to the clothing worn by Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Lolita as a concept and a public image therefore occupies a complex place within both Japanese culture and international popular culture. As Winge (2008) puts it, within Japanese culture, Lolita’s occupy a subcultural space where young men and women are empowered by the Lolita aesthetic to present themselves anachronistically in order to escape the trappings of adult life and with it the culture’s dominant ideologies (Winge, 2008; 48).
The Lolita or ‘Loli’ in anime arguably occupies a far more complicated space within Japanese popular culture, with the term ‘Loli’ used to describe numerous characters of differing age and personality. In anime such as Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, Rozen Maiden, Gosick, and Paradies Kiss for example we are presented with Lolita characters that are portrayed as strong and independent. In Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, the titular character convinces the main character Eiri Kurahashi into making a pact of blood so that she can get revenge Marcello, the man who murdered her and her family. She is a vengeful character, and while she may be trapped in the body of a Venetian doll, she is far from being passive or overly sexualised, rather she is the driving force of this short series. Rozen Maiden on the other hand takes its inspiration directly from the Japanese version of Lolita. All of the characters are living dolls who have characteristics, dress, and mannerisms based on Lolita genres. Gosick in a similar fashion to Rozen Maiden presents a Lolita character that is both a classic example of Lolita fashion, as well as an excellent example of a Lolita character that is both strong and independent. Throughout the series Victorique de Blois is portrayed as strong willed and independent, she is also shown in the classic Victorian-era style dresses, with lots of lace and bows, along with parasols and the other paraphernalia of a classic Lolita.
Victorique also represents a departure from the traditional Lolita and the appearance of the ‘Loli’ in anime due to her diminutive stature, having the appearance of a child, despite being the same age as Kujo. Victorique is representative of a trend within anime of characters that are either in the late teens or perhaps older, but who are also short and often rather childish. Louise from Zero no Tsukaima, Taiga from Toradora, Shana from Shakugan no Shana and Mio from MM! are all classic examples of such characters – they are all in their mid to late teens, but remain in the body of a child. More accurately they are simply shorter than most of the other characters, something that is regularly used in these series jokes, especially when it involves humour about sex appeal. They are in high school and are therefore on their way into adulthood, but are often described by western anime fans (perhaps in a derogatory way) as ‘Loli’s’, a term that brings with it the implicit implication that they have been deliberately placed in the series to appears the ‘lolicons’ in Japanese otaku culture. What is particularly interesting about most of these smaller characters are their general personalities; they are often short tempered and any mention of their short stature or relatively flat chest can send them off into a comical rage. Isurugi Mio from MM is a particularly fascinating example of this type of character, partly because she also dresses in Lolitaesque fashion at numerous points throughout the series. She often dresses up in a frilly maid costume that bears striking resemblance to the numerous intricacies of classic Lolita; but, far from being a passive individual, this usually happens when she is chasing after the series main character Sado Tarou with a baseball bat.
She has the resemblance of a Lolita character, but everything else about her is very different from her personality to general attitude, she is therefore far from being an overly sexualised, passive individual. These sorts of character traits can be seen throughout anime, with characters like Mio given the appearance of a classic Lolita, but a strong personality that suggests a different attitude towards the idea of a Lolita. They invert the notion of Lolita as passive objects to be stared at and suggest a far more complicated notion of the Lolita in general. Furthermore, by demonstrating forceful personalities and violent tendencies, they help to drive the story while adding elements of comedy through the use of slapstick and general comic violence. It could be argued therefore that by labeling such characters as ‘Loli’s’, certain elements of western fandom, and the Japanese media are missing the point of their character and instead focusing entirely on what they look like. By only focusing on their small stature and general appearance, western fandom is linking such characters to Nabokov’s original character and is therefore ignoring the subtle, or sometimes not-so-subtle changes in how the Lolita style of character is portrayed in anime.
Part of the problem is that the Lolita subculture has been placed under a microscope in Japan and internationally; with some suggesting that Japanese Lolita are in some way representative of Nabokov’s character. This interpretation is made all-the-more easy through the use of ‘Lolita’ or ‘Loli’ in describing the subculture or certain characters in anime, something that further reinforces the notion of otaku as sexual deviants. If we look at the sorts of characters in anime that are described as ‘Loli’, we can usually see them as modest, innocent, graceful, and kawaii, although such characters are rarely polite due to their forceful oft-forceful personalities. However, such an image also plays suggestively on the idea of a young girl as a forbidden sexual object, further reinforcing notions of the Loli as a dangerous character used to bring in a certain aspect of the otaku fandom. If we look at the Lolita or Loli characters in anime, many of them are not attempting to be sexually alluring, but because of the way they are portrayed, it is arguable that these characters are still the focus of the sexual attention of a certain part of Japanese society. This further reinforces notions of otaku as sexual deviants and dangerous and unproductive people who do not take an active role in Japanese society. As Galbraith (2010) points out, otaku were in many ways a predictable outcome of Japanese ‘information consumption society’ (joho shoji shakai), the discrimination that we see against them arguably started in the 1970s, with Japanese media singling them out from wider society as an example of unproductive and dangerous degenerates.
Galbraith (2010) describes a particular incident in 1989 that helps to reinforce the long held notion of otaku as lolicons, dangerous criminals who lust after young girls. In 1989, the Japanese media went into a frenzy over the arrest of Miyazaki Tsutomu, a man who had molested and murdered four girls between the ages of four and seven. When investigators searched his room they found 5,763 videotapes of recorded TV programmes, anime, horror movies, and pornography, including examples of ‘rorikon’ (lolicon). The mass media automatically picked up on the idea of the ‘otaku generation’, and began circling notions to do with the danger that this unspecified group of people presented to Japanese homogeneity. Miyazaki was unaware of the ‘otaku generation’, but he became for many the only image of otaku, further demonising them as destructive sexual deviants who were seen as the cause of Japan’s woes. Kinsella (1999) argues that otaku came to represent in the media everything that was wrong with Japanese society in the 1990s, with the word otaku coming to mean those who did not conform, could not communicate, failed to be men, and lost touch with reality. This demonization of otaku and otaku culture is further reinforced through the idea of the ‘Loli’, and its place within anime. As already mentioned, the Lolita is a complex figure that embodies numerous interpretations and ideas, and it is further complicated by the numerous ways that it is used in anime.
We then come to the types of characters that are perhaps the closest, at least image to Nobokov’s Lolita, the younger sisters, of series involving generally younger characters. Series like Kodomo no Jikan, Lotte no Omocha and in some respects Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai all present younger characters of around 10 years or slightly older. Kodomo no Jikan and Lotte no Omocha are both particularly interesting with discussing the ‘Loli’ in the presentation of younger characters and how they act. Lotte for example is a succubus and like all succubae must have a regular supply of semen to survive when she matures, so she must therefore create her own harem despite being only ten years old. At first glance this story appears to resonate with Nobokov’s Lolita, and yet as it progresses we begin to see that it is far more innocent than first appearances might suggest. Despite the occasional reference by Judit about gaining a harem, the story takes a far more laid back approach to this issue, and instead we are presented with a fairly lighthearted story about Lotte and her friends and family. It is however implied that Naoya, despite being 20 develops feelings for Lotte towards the end of the anime, thus further reinforcing the notion of the Lolita as sexualised existence, what is curious is that this happens despite the series itself having a far more innocent feel. With this we come to Kodomo no Jikan, a deeply troubled, but also interesting story about the relationship between Daisuke Aoki a 23-year-old elementary school teacher and Rin Kokonoe a 10-year-old elementary school student. As a series it flirts with the notion of Lolicons and overly sexualised young girls in rather dangerous ways, however, much like Lotte no Omocha at its centre it appears to be a simpler story about growing up and dealing with life’s many problems.
Part of the problem with Kodomo no Jikan however is the way the central character Rin is fully aware of her sexuality, and knows about sex, and other things that are seen as the domain of ‘adults’. Furthermore, by proclaiming her love for Daisuke and even going to great lengths to make him fall in love with her, this series shows her character grossing moral and legal boundaries on numerous occasions. The relationship between Rin and Daisuke, coupled with the Reiji’s obsession with Rin’s mother, and by extension Rin complicate this story and push it into far more dangerous territory. At its centre it might be a coming of age tale following the growth of Rin, along with all the complications along the way, but the central relationship between her and Dasiuke brings up numerous questions to do with legality and notions of the Lolicon. It should also be noted that the original manga for Kodomo no Jika is written and illustrated by a female manga artist, Kawaru Watashiya, that does at least help to demonstrate that such stories are not necessarily created by male artists for a male audience. It is an innocent story, but its portrayal of elementary school students talking about things that are from the adult domain does bring to mind the overly sexualised character from Nobokov’s novel. It may be a more complex story, with the characters struggling with their own feelings and their role in society, but it is easy to see why this sort of story could be condemned as a representation of overly sexualised young girls, simply created to cater to deviant otaku.
But now we move onto Boku wa tomodachi ga Sukunai, a series that introduces another concept in anime, the ‘younger sister’, a character that isn’t necessarily incredibly young, but is usually in middle school or below. The two little-sister (imouto) characters in Boku wa tomodachi ga Sukunai, Kobato and Maria are generally playful, if a little naïve, with Kobato shown as a literal Lolita since she cosplays as her favourite anime character in the Gothic Lolita style. Imouto characters are often described as ‘Loli’s’, thus suggesting that they are highly sexualised characters, and yet most of these characters have very little to do with the classic notion of a Lolita. As we watch Kodaka look after Kobato, and in a recent episode of Boku wa tomodachi ga Sukunai NEXT, also looking after Maria, there is nothing that suggests these characters are meant to be viewed in a sexual way. He is merely looking after them, as one would expect of a younger sister and her friend, the same can be said of many other anime that use the Imouto character. By describing such characters as Loli, anime fandom are suggesting that these characters are specifically designed to appeal to the darker side of the anime demographic. Furthermore, through the use of this description anime series are effectively disallowed the ability to have younger characters unless they are somehow ‘pandering’ to this more shady demographic. It could be argued that a western audience often assumes that the childlike appearance of the Loli or Lolita characters in anime is an attempt to further represent Nobokov’s Lolita. However, if we look at the characters and their actions carefully, it quickly becomes obvious that they are significantly more complicated than this assumption allows them to be.
Part of the reason for such characters popularity and use in anime may be down to the concept of kawaii, one that seems ubiquitous in Japanese culture, and has become a significant part of the Lolita and broader anime aesthetic. By exploring the relationship between Lolita and kawaii, it is possible to understand aspects of these characters that go beyond the Nabokov character, living doll, or sexual fetish. Japan is a country that seems obsessed with all things kawaii, and the incorporation of the concept with Lolita or Loli characters arguably helps to create a type of character that is more ‘cute’ than it otherwise would be. One of the biggest differences between Lolita fashion in Japan and the Loli characters is that, instead of deliberately dressing up in a childish way, the characters are children, or teenagers, thus rearranging how Lolita. By incorporating elements of kawaii into these types of characters, the audience is often presented with a hyperfeminine and hypercute character that apparently embodies the essence of Lolita and Kawaii. From the way the characters are dressed through to particular mannerisms, the way these characters employ kawaii gives the viewer a feeling of ‘moe’ – a sense of intense attraction and contentment for things that have youthful, feminine attributes. At the same time, as already discussed, many of these characters, while feminine in appearance, are often masculine in nature with a propensity towards random violence with baseball bats or magic. This in one very important way goes against the notion that the Lolita is a representation of a woman as an object to be played with, an ideal girl to be loved or possessed, who manifests that culture’s despite for virginal youth. In a way, the kinds of characters that appear as the Lolita or Loli archetypes, while they may have the appearance of an ‘ideal girl/woman’, have a personality that is the exact opposite, thus undermining this particular notion of the Lolita.
When exploring the idea of the Loli or Lolita character in anime, it quickly becomes clear that such characters are far more complex than these names, or character archetypes might suggest. The Lolita or Loli identity helps to redefine the role of female characters in anime, through its empowered, even extraordinary qualities. What is so fascinating is that this is achieved, while the Lolita or Loli maintain a particular aesthetic that is both hyperfeminine and hypercute, one that incorporates elements of kawaii and taps into the notion of ‘moe’ that has become so popular amongst anime fans. However, to simply suggest that these characters are the overly sexualised character associated with Nabokov’s original book does them a disservice. Many of the Loli characters that are in high school, but still have the appearance of someone much younger are often hyperfeminine and hypercute in appearance, but they also have a hypermasculine personality. By incorporating elements of femininity and masculinity these anime characters help to rearrange notions of what a Lolita or Loli should be. Their hyperfeminine appearance does not stop them from attacking people with baseball bats (Mio) or Magic (Shana/Louise), thus causing a lot of collateral damage while also providing the viewers with great slapstick comedy. In doing so they help to demonstrate that far from being overly sexualised, or passive characters they are taking an active part in their lives. Furthermore, by labeling younger sister characters as Loli’s, anime fandom is further reinforcing existing notions of Nabokov’s Lolita, highlighting long held beliefs as to the dangerous nature of otaku and perhaps anime in general. This has another effect by essentially disallowing the notion that anime incorporates theses characters, not the pander to a particular element of the otaku fan base, but because they are an important part of the story.
In effect the term ‘Loli’ is being misused to describe such characters, and is another example of the anime fandom’s obsession with character archetypes (Loli/Tsundere/Yandere/etc) that are used to easily describe a character, regardless of how complicated they may be. The kinds of characters that are described, quite crudely at times as Loli can differ tremendously from series to series, with the term used to describe almost everything from grown women who are quite short, to younger sisters. Part of the problem with it is that the term brings a series of beelifs and attitudes towards those who happen to find those sorts of characters entertaining. These beliefs further reinforce the idea that otaku are sexual deviants and dangerous and unproductive people who do not take an active role in Japanese society. It is also disallows these characters the ability to simply be the ‘little sister’ or the ‘short high school student’, and by extension reinforces existing problems surrounding the Lolita fashion of Japan. There are issues with Lolita in Japan, not least that there general appearance helps to reinforce notions of women as objects to be starred at and acquired. There are also series such as Lotte no Omocha and Kodomo no Jikan that don’t do anything to dissuade people from assuming that they are somehow suggesting that young girls can be as alluring as grown women.
But the issues that such series and anime in general explore in terms of Lolita fashion are complex and wide ranging. But, by labeling characters as ‘Loli’, anime fandom (particularly in the west, although anime fandom in general is guilty of using this label) misses all of this and further reinforces notions of otaku as either sexual deviants or disturbed individuals, while also partly demonstrating an unwillingness to look at anime beyond its face value. This coupled with an ignorance about elements of Japanese culture and society effectively disallows anime to use younger female (or male) characters without them being labeled in what is effectively a negative way, and simply reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. However, the issues surrounding the use of Lolita fashion and younger characters in anime is a complex one, and while there are clear examples of these characters acting in strong roles, and who wield a lot of power, there are equally female characters that are portrayed as hyperfeminine and reinforce the idea that such characters are there to be looked at by men (or perhaps women in some cases), thus reinforcing gender roles and stereotypes.