Sometimes I wonder: just how much media do you need to consume to get a good picture of what you’re talking about?
Is there space for the otaku academic? I don’t want to find out on my own…
The gender revolution in Japan underlies all of this talk. In the past several decade we’ve seen a lot of changes in the cultural, social, and even in economic and political realms regarding the role of women. Looking at this from the media consumer’s perspective is just one of the many lenses academics use. And when we talk about Japan, we gotta involve the “popular visual culture” or whatever namesake that one can make of from Genshiken.
But I think most people are finding that, for now, the change is modest when viewed from the lens of anime and manga. If anything, my own experience indicate as so.
In Zyl’s column we see that some people think this is so as well. I get the feeling this is so because the way Japanese media works–being as corporate and entrenched by big money as the rest of the industry world-wide (most notably in the US). The point continues in the treatment of the academic literature about women and their reflection in popular media, in manga and anime. The old fogies opining inside their ivory towers? Not at all an unusual thing. Especially when we’re looking at groups where women are rare and few. Even more so when we’re looking at anime that is marketed primarily to men. Most anime are adaptations from shounen and seinen manga, after all, especially the ones that make it across the language divide.
I’m going to spin some of my reactions from Zyl’s column and the subsequent comments out in the remainder of this post.
First: Just what makes a good example for the feminist empowerment concept as a character in anime? Commonly western scholars point to Miyazaki’s heroines–often Chihiro from Spirited Away and San from Mononoke Hime. I guess not enough people have seen Howl’s Sophie but I think she is way better as an example.
Age. Sophie conducts herself as a young adult; San and Chihiro are still notably childish. Being child-like isn’t really anything that is particularly poignant, and that’s the problem with spinning a feminist critique from a child, even if she is a female. It’s not really probative. Perhaps another example along with Sophie is Kiki. I’m not so sure about Nausicaa, and that’s because, well, we’ll get to it in a bit.
Gender-based achievement. One problem that bothered me with Chihiro as an example was that many of the things she did was something that any attention-paying, careful and thorough child could have done. If Gillian Anderson’s Wolf-God in Mononoke adopted a boy instead of a girl, will San remain the same? I think as a movie, no, but as a character and a plot device, probably yes. On the other hand, I just can’t say the same about Sophie, and maybe even for Kiki (but there’s more wiggle space there).
The role of gender in the film. I think Kinsella definitely has pointed out something awesome about Spirited Away and its parallel to the whore houses of days old. I think customarily it would have been odd for a boy to work in the capacity Chihiro has, although it was fancifully ambiguous in the context of the film. I think, however, you can construe that point either way in regards to the cultural significance and the interplay of the female gender in today’s society. The traditional chinese tale that was the original work for Disney’s adaptation of Mulan tells probably a similar message about piety and both celebrates female ingenuity, tenacity, and overcoming dire difficulties. The question is just that–is gender role merely yet another difficulty that both of these heroines overcame? I think my objection with Nausicaa also has to do with this. As to San, I think she acts as a foil for Ashitaka, but again, I didn’t think she was a she for much anything particular, maybe only to highlight that romantic undertone.
But enough Ghibli bashing. I’m sure we can find some wholesome, positive examples (Eboshi Gozen, for instance) outside of the flagship North American Ghibli titles. My point is we shouldn’t just look so superfically and we should apply some healthy dose of context.
Second: The role of men. I think when we talk about women we also have to talk about men. This is particularly a point that shows up when someone raises Major Motoko Kusanagi. She’s a girl in a boy’s world. I think no matter where you look in real life, there are always more male law-enforcement folks than female. Her rag-tag team of ex-military coupled with Aramaki’s politicking says a lot of things about…politics (yet another male-dominant field). The oddity of the Major’s disposition, in a setting that resonant with real life’s tendency to repeat these same sociological makeup, may be making a point. Kinesella says it’s fantasy-fulfillment, it’s a bunch of “phallic girls.” I can’t see how it can be truer for Ghost in the Shell.
But I think there’s also something to be said that in the Ghost in the Shell TV series, we see a slightly different Motoko Kusanagi. What comes to my mind is the motherhood episode, but outside of that it’s really a dog-eat-dog world, and the Major uses her sex appeal and gender positioning as a tool to manipulate.
Still, compare Ghost in the Shell with any of your standard fair, girls-with-guns, it makes you wonder. Maybe oldies like Gun Smith Cats comes closer? Or should we just go straight to Black Lagoon? Or…
Third: Urosukidouji–or alternatively, let’s pick the right show to talk feminism. I think it makes almost no sense to use, say, Aria THE ANIMATION. It makes some sense to use Naruto and One Piece. It makes even more sense to use Paprika, but probably not much sense to use Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. What criterias am I looking at?
Who is going to watch it: Paprika is an arthouse film, but it’s based on a renowned sci-fi author’s work in Japan. It also focuses on, heh, gender roles. One Piece has a HUGE fangirl-base, and Naruto has some. Aria is escapist seinen fantasy. GITS: Innocence is another arthouse film, but it is one that is fully preoccupied in telling/saying one very specific set of things.
What it’s about/what does it say: Paprika is about the story of a woman coming to terms with herself in a maze of dreams, realities, networked dreams, a chain of real-life mysteries involving life and death. Aria is about girls in a fantasy Venice learning to be gondola operators / tour guides. One Piece is about pirates and “getting crew and loot.” Naruto is a teenage self-redemptive story. GITS: Innocence is about a detective learning to cope with a new reality with his good friend and ex-partner who turned into a … computer thing, while solving a criminal mystery.
I think part of the problem, as my first couple paragraphs alluded…is just that the academia seems to just lack that beef with the familiarity of these works. You have to not just tap into the otaku pulse, but actually watch the shows and read the books they tell you about. If we’re going to use this lens seriously, we need not only people who has the academic wherewithal but also someone who has already been looking through the lens in its full glory.
There is probably more to be said on this. Like being able to naturally reassign your sex at 17 is one of the most empowering things that can happen to a girl. Talk about a feminist subtext!