27 Jun

Feminism in Anime, Pt. 3: Adults

VMartinwrites Spectrum Council for Diversity in Media

To conclude our list we have anime that is both feminist and for a mature audience. When I say ‘mature’ I don’t mean the typical puerile idea of ‘maturity’ being equal to being snarky sex jokes and profanity. These anime are of the maturity that comes with facing life post-high school and staring down realistic issues: unemployment, failing society’s expectations, and violent that isn’t just bloody but has a deep psychological aspect. The stories are more complicated and don’t just focus on the world of high school and first time loves.

Put the kids to bed and continue reading on.

Baccano! (2003)

Although labeled as shonen (for boy’s), I would regard Baccano’s violence, subject matter, and writing style as something that wouldn’t entertain the same audience that enjoys Dragonball Z.

The story has multiple viewpoints over multiple time periods, but to compact a complicated story: the adventures of several groups of immortals, gangsters, journalists, and outlaws come to a head during the 1930s hijacking of a famous transcontinental train, the Flying Pussyfoot.

What makes Baccano! feminist is its variety of female characters. Some authors would use the 1930s era as an excuse not to include women in the forefront, but Baccano! challenges that. From the idiotic and scheming couple Isaac and Miria, scarred pyromaniac Nice Holystone, eerie and soft-spoken Lua Klein, heroic Rachel, naïve Carol, diva Slyvie, silent yet fierce Chane…there are women of every kind in the story to contend with the men.

The downside is that the anime is only so long. The novel series goes into more but hasn’t been legally released in English.

Baccano! is easily available for both DVD, Blu-Ray, and stream.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)

An interpretation of the magical girl subgenre, this anime begins with average high schooler Madoka Kaname as she is drawn into the world of magical girls and monsters, while being haunted by what may or may not have happened in the past involving the mysterious Homura Akemi.

I won’t lie to you, readers: I am a fan of magical girl anime. From cute witches, warrior princesses, and powerful idols, I enjoy a good anime about girls using magic to vanquish the evils of the day. However, Madoka Magica is controversial among fellow magical girl fans.

A legitimate argue is that Madoka Magica torments its female characters for daring to dream, when that is the backbone of the magical girl genre: dreaming against the impossible and hoping against doom. I won’t argue that the anime can be cruel to its characters, but I’d like to point out that magical girl anime has always tortured its protagonists. Sailor Moon, Shamanic Princess, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Earth Maiden Arjuna, Mawaru Penguindrum, and Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne feature death, suicide, and sexual assault in their stories. These threats are not trifled with and are used against main and side characters alike.

I believe that Madoka Magica is not against wishes, but the idea of selfish wish fulfillment: magical powers without responsibilities or true consequences. Yes, it’s nice to transform and be a pretty warrior of justice but wouldn’t that interfere with your personal life? What about the injuries you sustain in battle? What about school work and relationships? What about the source of those powers? In Sailor Moon, people are injured and Tokyo is damaged several times but the titular character can just wave her wand and return everything back to normal. There’s a significant lack of conflict and tension. What made Utena truly revolutionary was how it wasn’t afraid to ask questions. Madoka Magica is very much the same.

Is it wrong to dream while forsaking reality? Can fate be changed or are we doomed to repeat them? Are girls and women doomed to suffer or can that too be altered? Would wishes even be necessary in an egalitarian world that was just to women? Madoka Magica is hated, beloved, but it should be watched.

Madoka Magica is widely available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and stream. For new fans, I would recommend watching the movie trilogy rather than the TV series. It cuts out the filler, the art is improved, and it’s a better conclusion to the series.


Princess Jellyfish (2010)

Amamizukan is just like any other apartment complex in Tokyo, except its full of fujoshi (female otaku), and no men are allowed. These women are bound into a non-traditional family by their age, unemployment, and lack of direction. Within this group is Tsukimi Kurashita, a jellyfish fujoshiand our protagonist. One night, she meets the stylish Kuranosuke, the cross-dressing son of a famous politician. From here begins a story of love triangles, high fashion, and being an unmarried woman in a patriarchal society.

I always describe this series as ‘Paradise Kiss on acid’. The female protagonist is not a high schooler but an adult suffering from low self-esteem and having difficulty fitting into society’s standards. Tsukimi may stumble with her anxieties, but it doesn’t completely prevent her from reaching some admirable goals.

Although it’s a comedic anime, it does bring up how women are treated in different fandom. While the word otaku is considered derogatory in Japan, fujoshi is considered even worse, translating roughly to ‘rotten girl’. Considering how this is the era of the ‘Fake Geek Girl’, its fascinating to see how the sentiment extends overseas as well.

While there’s nothing truly ‘adult’ in this series, these characters are older and dealing with the real world rather the isolated microcosm of high school. The setting and situations along may cause it to appeal to an older audience. The anime is woefully short and leaves out a lot of the story arcs and characters in the manga, but is worth a watch.

Princess Jellyfish is readily available for DVD and streaming.

Lupin the Third: A Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012)

Based strongly in the style and tone of Monkey Punch’s original Lupin IIImanga, A Woman Called Fujiko Mine follows the escapades of the franchise’s most famous heroine, Fujiko, as she schemes and dreams her way to wealth. If there are people in her way, they’re good as tossed under the bus or dead and that includes her sometimes-lover and rival Lupin III.

While globetrotting for glory via theft, Fujiko dodges and swerves around questions concerning her past. Throughout the anime, Fujiko is Fujiko and refuses to let anyone but herself define who she is. Being the considered Japan’s version of the Bond Girl and a staple in anime culture for fifty years, having Fujiko refuse to be defined by anyone and having positive control over her body is a powerful statement.

Also: Fujiko isn’t motivated by past sexual assault or abuse. Thank God.

Sensual, sexuality, and artistic, this is the first anime in the franchise to be directed by a woman (the same woman who did Michiko and Hatchin, interestingly enough).

A Woman Called Fujiko Mine is easily available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and stream.

Boogiepop Phantom (2000)

A strange title to fit a strange anime—Boogiepop Phantom is a disjointed story that only comes together in the last episodes. In an unknown Japanese city, a mysterious pillar of light that occurred several years ago may be connected to modern day serial killings and the local legend of Boogiepop, an entity that may be connected to the strange murders.

From its muted diseased looking color palette to the convoluted story and tormented characters, Boogiepop is interesting to look at and watch. It’s frightening atmosphere purposely induces anxieties in the audience, drawing them into the world as the narrative jumps between multiple characters; most of them being female. Although most of them are high school aged, they all have their own struggles and statuses when it comes to fitting in society. The viewer is allowed to climb inside their head as they deal with their conflicts and interact with the surreal strangeness of the city.

DVDs of Boogiepop Phantom are hard to obtain, so you’re better off streaming it.

Key the Metal Idol (1994)

Stricken by loneliness, Murao Mima constructs a robot granddaughter Tokiko Mima, nicknamed Key, to keep his company. On his deathbed, Murao tells Key that she can achieve humanity if she makes 30,000 friends and she has to do this before her battery runs down. Key leaves for Tokyo and becomes an idol to achieve this lofty goal.

Despite the usual story of an idol on the quest for fame and friendship, Key is a surprisingly dark drama that blends science fiction and comments on otaku culture’s obsession with idols. I’ll go into detail about this later, but Key the Metal Idol is a good introduction into this culture and in the age of Vocaloids, this is an interesting peek into the future from 1994.  The story is a little slow at first but picks up a lot during the second season. At fifteen episodes, it’s not a long watch.

Key the Metal Idol is available for DVD at a good price. I’d watch it in Japanese though since the dub isn’t the greatest. Also, try to avoid reading any online summaries until later since the story’s twists can be easily spoiled.

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Many people argue for and against Ghost in the Shell on the topic of feminism. Those for insist that Major Motoko Kusanagi is in complete control of her body and that her nudity is something she chooses to do and feels no shame about her body. Those against argue that the nudity and constant butt-shots are for the benefit of the male gaze that the creator is doing just for the fun of it with no meaning at all. While it can’t be argued against that Masamune Shirow has a preference for displaying the female body given his current (pornographic) work, the film version of Ghost in the Shell has all the touches of Mamoru Oshii to make the fanservice something to ignore.

The debate over the Major’s body is also fitting of themes of the film and franchise. Today we’ll be discussing the one that started things off with the film of Ghost in the Shell. Released in 1995, the story focuses on that of Motoko Kusanagi, the assault team leader for the Public Security Section 9 as they try to capture a skilled hacker known as the Puppet Master. In this age of interconnection, robotic bodies, and digitized minds, the Puppet Master is able to ‘hack’ people’s minds and jump from an android body to dangerous weapons as well. With commentary about the heights and pitfalls of the oncoming technological revolution, Ghost in the Shell is mandatory for any cyberpunk fan as well as with commentary about sex and gender. After all, who can have hang-ups about gender when it’s easy to jump between different gendered bodies? Who has control over their body when you are ‘detached’ from it in such a way?

Ghost in the Shell is widely available and even broadcasted on TV, albeit heavily edited.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

Like Boogiepop Phantom, Paranoia Agent features an ensemble cast all connected by a single event: being attacked by the rollerblading juvenile known as Lil’ Slugger, who may be real or a case of mass hysteria. To say more than this would spoil a great story.

Despite the bright colors, Paranoia Agent is dark and a look at different aspects of Japanese society from a discussion about the infantilizing nature of being obsessed with cuteness, the pressures to succeed and be popular even in elementary school, to gender, sexuality, and mental illness. It’s both short and incredibly intriguing. Paranoia Agent is sadly short but a masterful work by the great director Satoshi Kon.

Paranoia Agent is widely available on DVD and stream.

Kaiba (2008)

Anime is well known for its variety of styles, which leaves a lot of opinion on what is anime and what is not. Kaiba is an anime that defies both explanation and conventions of anime. Kaiba shows off anime’s Disney roots in its art style and dreamlike story that would be more fitting with Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell. In the world of Kaiba, people’s memories can be transferred body to body using small cones called ‘chips’. Bad memories can be removed and good memories can be bought for a price, causing a huge gap between rich and poor. In this world, a young man (soon to be named Kaiba) wakes up with no idea about his identity. His only clues are the mark on his stomach, a hole in his chest, and a blurry picture of the girl.

The story of Kaiba bends not only gender but social status as the character of Kaiba hops around bodies and the universe on his quest for identity, experiencing life as nobility, peasant, male, female, and unknown creatures. The strange art style and subject matter blend together and is a visceral experience recommend for any art or animation student. I would also recommend it for older teens with the same interests.

Kaiba is not dubbed yet. The only way to obtain a DVD is a PAL import. There is no legal streaming service that has it available.

Mononoke (2007)

A spin-off from the anime series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, this story is less focused on gore but the surreal going-ons of demons that are powered by strong human emotions. The twelve episode anime follows the nameless, ageless character known only as the Medicine Seller who travels the country while selling their wares and vanquishing these creatures. The series has all the surrealism of Serial Experiments Lain and Boogiepop, but has traded muted colors for brightness and color patterns.

The horror of this series is less in violence and more of the psychological, focusing on the moral double standard in feudal Japan. The first series arc focuses on the treatment of single mothers and prostitutes, as the story takes place in a brothel that performs abortions. The focus of the story is not on the morality of abortion but that these women were pressured into their situation by society to abort, even when they didn’t want to, and the methods were violent and dangerous to their health. The woman’s wellbeing never factors into the decision making process and in this day and age, its important to know that. There are still some places in the world where this attitude is prevalent.

Mononoke is available for DVD and stream.

Haibane Renmei (2002)

From the creator of Serial Experiments Lain, comes a fantasy-drama concerning angels, faith, destiny, and the concept of sin. The 12-episode anime follows Rakka, a newly hatched haibane—a being that resembles an angel with wings and a halo—as she explores the walled city of Glie, from which no one but the mysterious group called the Touga may enter or leave.

Introspective and contemplative, Haibane Renmei is a slow moving but fascinating anime that features the story of several different girls as they explore their world. There is nothing too overt about the series and very little is explained, leaving fans and critics alike to develop their own theories and conjecture about the nature of haibane and the town. It’s also incredibly relaxing to watch.

Haibane Renmei is available for DVD and streaming.

Perfect Blue (1997)

For the last on this list is Satoshi Kon’s first mainstream success.  An animated psychological thriller, Perfect Blue is the story of Mima Kirigoe, an idol singer who leaves her life to become an actress in a crime drama. However, one of Mima’s fans becomes an obsessive stalker known as ‘Me-Mania’ and dubs Mima a traitor. This and the pressures to succeed along with the exploitative nature of the industry causes Mima to be pushed to the breaking point.

As I discussed with Key the Metal Idol, idol culture in Japan is both fascinating and intimidating to a Western audience. Like our boy bands, things are more extreme with female idols having ‘purity contracts’; being unable to publicize relationships for fear of enraging their dedicated fans. This is not made mandatory for the male idols but they have their own set of scares: its not unheard of for their fans to poison so believed ‘rivals’. Several anime has criticized the idol industry but Perfect Blue has done it best.

Perfect Blue is widely available for DVD and stream.

Honorable mentions:

Red Garden

Spice and Wolf

Rose of the Versailles

Witch Hunter Robin

Earth Maiden Arjuna

Shamanic Princess

Kanashimi no Belladonna (Belladonna of Sadness)

Leave a reply