The Universe and Everything

Female Agency in Manga and Anime

Co-authored with DVL Vidya

All through this summer I was obsessively following some anime series and, after a semester of Code Geass, Fullmetal Alchemist (and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood), Akatsuki no Yona, Death Note and Cowboy Bebop, it was Naruto that caught my eye. Naruto is perhaps the most well-known, mainstream anime to exist so I began watching it as well. After 220 episodes of Naruto and 307 of Naruto Shippuden, after sitting through agonising hours of filler episodes that comprise at least forty percent of the show, after silently cursing shonen anime while simultaneously reserving judgement until I reached a respectable number of episodes, I came to the conclusion that the show is sexist as hell.

I understand that the anime is aimed at a young male audience which necessitates a strong, male, likeable, lead ninja character like Naruto for it to be a profitable venture in the eyes of the producer. However, the insidious sexism that pervades this show is something I’ve been gagging on for the past month. The series is set in a fictional universe where different nations fight for power using ninja villages and tailed beasts as their source of power. Naruto Uzumaki, the young jinchuriki, initially weak and debilitated by the power of the Nine-Tails’ anger within him, eventually learns how to control it and seeks ways to help subside his anger, while defeating all his enemies with the help of his friends. His arch-rival and best friend, Sasuke Uchiha, one of the last survivors of the decimated Uchiha clan, is determined to murder his brother and restore his clan to its former glory. The story follows their lives and is an ode to Naruto’s determination to get his best friend back from the dark side.

However, there is one more lead character, whose life revolves around the actions of the other two: Sakura Haruno, the character who had so much potential, but for whom hope died the minute the plot demanded she fall in love with Sasuke and pursue him relentlessly, even though he tried to murder her a couple of times. However, all attempts fail because some or the other male character arrives in the nick of time to save her, while heroically foiling the attempt on her life.

Sakura has had a lot of character development, right from the time when she was teased as a child for possessing a large forehead, her rivalry with Ino Yamanaka (which, again stems from their infatuation with Sasuke), her apprenticeship with Tsunade, one of the three legendary Sannin and the most well-known medical ninjas with a fearsome temper and inhuman strength. She passes these skills onto Sakura who later surpasses her as a medical ninja with a fearsome temper and inhuman strength. However, she still needs to be rescued from ugly situations by her male comrades.

Initially, Sakura was shown as the ideal girl: Intelligent, but not too intelligent, physically weak, interested in romance and boys, and great at chakra control, a necessary skill for someone aiming to enter the medical profession. Sakura was shown as spirited inwardly, but outwardly she would maintain appearances at being a submissive and cute girl, a dangerous problematic when it comes to viewing this anime from a feminist lens. It was hinted that she would be a skilled genjutsu user, however that story was never developed, seeing as how it was Sasuke who became famous for his control over genjutsu with the help of his sharingan. To be very honest, it’s sad to see someone with such huge potential relegated to the shadow of her male companions.

Inner Sakura

Inner Sakura

The other girls in the anime fare no better. They all have strength, whether it be physical or mental. However, their stories revolve around those of their male companions. Hinata Hyuga seemed like a promising character at first and is quite a special one because her story revolves around her clan, much like Sasuke’s. Her plotline revolved around her being the heiress of the Hyuga clan but being rapidly disowned by her father for her interminable weakness when it came to battle. She keeps training to become a better, stronger ninja and eventually succeeds. However, she is seen as the weak spot in her team and has to keep being rescued every time the team is on a mission (case in point: When team Kurenai and Naruto go out on the Bikochu beetle search mission and Hinata gets kidnapped and used as ransom). She is also frequently used as a plot device to develop Naruto’s character further (Naruto defeated Pain only after Hinata got kicked around for a while).

For the crowning glory, Lady Tsunade, the unbearably powerful ninja who can cause craters in the Earth simply by punching it, the first female Hokage of the village hidden in the leaves, is objectified till her massive knockers drop. Initially, she was portrayed as a gambling drunk, who lost it all after her brother and lover died in the Ninja Wars. However, after Naruto saved her from Kabuto Yakashi (there we go), she found a new male character to pin her hopes upon. Tsunade is so highly sexualised that I see her breasts 90% of the time and the rest is taken up by her tendency to put the Leaf village in the line of fire by pinning all hopes on Naruto. The series just keeps getting more depressing in terms of its female characters as the show proceeds. There are, however, a few female characters that I admire but whose storylines were never developed enough for them to be a major character in the anime (looking at Tenten, Temari and Konan here).

Guess which one Tsunade is.

Guess which one Tsunade is.

As a final fuck you, at the end of the series, almost all the female characters turn into housewives. Here’s a little something that Google tells me:

“Several years later, after becoming a mother, Sakura’s figure has become somewhat more womanly. … Sakura wears her usual red dress with the Uchiha clan crest on the back. Over it, she wears a long white apron.”

There’s nothing wrong with making a female character a housewife. But there’s something seriously wrong with making every female character a housewife.

At this point I was exceptionally annoyed and offended so I went to our in-house anime and manga expert, Vidya, and here’s her take on a series that has now become one of my favourites (she talks about the manga). So much so, that half my hostel room is filled with posters of Akatsuki no Yona).

Vidya on Akatsuki no Yona

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Three years ago, after reading about a plethora of overpowered heroes and over sexualized female characters, I resorted to Googling “strong female characters in manga” just to have a female lead I could admire. And that is when I stumbled upon Akatsuki no Yona. I never usually read manga based in a historical realm as the portrayal of women was even more sexist. Simpering and cowering women waiting for their Knight in Shining Armour to come rescue them was a clichéd and overused pattern, and I had enough of it. So when I started to read Akatsuki no Yona I wasn’t expecting much. And it was only a few chapters in that I realized that I had discovered a manga that I will use as a benchmark for all other manga.

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Akatsuki no Yona, tells the tale of Princess Yona, the pacifist King Il’s only daughter and heir to the throne. She was a typical princess. Sheltered beyond belief and concerned about petty issues from her looks to how her crush Soo-Won considers her. Her childhood friend Hak is her bodyguard and indulges her whimsical ways. But on her 16th birthday, she walked in on Soo-Won running a sword through her father’s heart. Traumatized and dazed, Hak and Yona escape from the castle while Soo-Won takes the throne. For a few days Yona was too dazed to realize that she had stepped foot outside the castle for the first time in her life. But that was the least of her problems. Her helplessness and frailty dawned upon her and it was a slap on the face. The misery of her countrymen and the resentment towards her pacifist father who would rather stand back than defend the country snapped her out of her delusions of a happy and peaceful country. So like any good princess, she took up archery and sword fighting, recruited supernaturally strong people who believe that she is the reincarnation of the great King Hiryuu whom they were born to serve and decides to save all the people she can before killing Soo-won. From a ditzy, whimsical princess who has never even touched a weapon, to practicing archery day in and day out just to survive, Yona is the most well developed character that I have ever seen. Every time Hak swoops in save her, her frustration increases and so does her resolve to get stronger. She hopes to one day be able to stand on her own two feet and be able to protect Hak and her friends from any danger that befalls upon them. Yona is one character who will not be content to cower behind the backs of stronger men. She will use every weapon at her disposal to fight back. The most refreshing thing about this series is that she has never been sexualized. Not once. True, it is still a romance manga. But that is because people are in love with her and not the other way around. She is too busy shooting 200 arrows in a single session.

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To say that the show is completely feminist and checks all the boxes is misleading. Yona is the second weakest character in her group of 6. The only person weaker than her is an extremely intelligent boy named Yoon who makes up for it with his medical knowledge. Yona does have to get saved every now and then. She does run into danger and she is a tad reckless. She is perceptive and kind but is not brilliant. She is flawed. But she keeps trying to get better. Her perseverance is refreshing and her need to get stronger is inspiring. Unlike Sakura Haruno who would conveniently stand back as Naruto takes over, Yona would continue fighting tooth and nail until she is sure that everyone is safe. She is no Buffy but she can sure as hell be a Willow (Buffy the Vampire Slayer FTW).

P.S. Now that this article has become really long, we’re stepping out. However, we’ll be back with another installment of how perverse or otherwise the sexualisation of women in anime/manga can get.

P.P.S. Here’s something to get you hooked to Akatsuki no Yona.

(The original post appeared on Glasnost on August 25, 2015.)

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