In Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction, Rebecca Black writes that “although manga and anime are often derided for being…child-fare, manga and anime scholars, aficionados, and fans concur that these media are far more than just cartoons.” Furthermore, she asserts that anime and manga “might move audiences to consider contemporary issues in Japanese society” and provide “insight into the sort of generic conventions and narrative structures that students are becoming familiar with”. As an anime fan myself, I agree with Black, and will use this blog to showcase two shoujo anime—Revolutionary Girl Utena (RGU) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (PMMM)—in argument against anime being just “child-fare”.
RGU is a 90’s anime about Utena, a 14-year-old girl who, after being saved by a prince, decides to become a prince and enrolls in Ohtori Academy, where she is unwillingly drawn into a series of duels against members of the student council as they fight for the Rose Bride, Anthy, who grants her fiancé the power to revolutionize the world. The series is heavy in symbolism and allegory—Kuma, a reviewer for The Nihon Review, likens RGU to “staring at a Surrealist painting”—and is primarily a coming-of-age story, but for the purpose of this blog, I will focus on the issue of gender roles.
Gender roles are usually not explored in shoujo anime, save for reinforcing traditional gender roles; in fact, prior to Sailor Moon, “females are seen to encompass a more fragile, passive, dependent, and submissive role in a romantic relationship…She obeys her partner willingly and faithfully and makes no decision of her own” (Lo). RGU toys with this concept, particularly as it applies to fairy tale archetypes.
Ohtori Academy is a place where “women who can’t be princesses have no choice but to become witches”—a obvious analogy to the Madonna/Whore complex. (Giovanna, and Yasha). Utena’s desire to become a “girl prince” (Lunning 163) doesn’t conform to either role or to a woman’s traditional role; as such, several male characters view her as something to be tamed, “so they can make a “proper woman” out of her” (Ren). Anthy, on the other hand, embodies the passive woman described above, fulfilling her gender role while simultaneously burdened with the witch’s role. Akio, Anthy’s incestuous brother and the villain of the series, also suffers from his role as the prince, whose duty to “make all the women of the world into princesses” led to his own self-destruction as a prince (Giovanna, and Yasha) and his obsession with making Utena his princess. While Akio’s refusal to reject his role keeps him bound to Ohtori and its constraints, Utena and Anthy are eventually able to transcend their roles and leave Ohtori as adults unbound by gender roles.
In PMMM, the titular character Madoka is offered the chance to become a magical girl and fight evil witches with the help of a creature named Kyuubey—and any similarities to other magical girl anime end there. PMMM took every common magical girl convention—a trustworthy animal mascot; the benefits of magical powers; the power of love and friendship; nobly fighting for the greater good—and turned them on their heads; in fact, the only conventions it retained were the magical girls themselves and, surprisingly, a happy ending.
Kyuubey isn’t particularly helpful, unlike more typical mascots, and takes advantage of the girls’ ignorance to hide the truth from them: that all magical girls eventually turn into witches, and that Kyuubey’s race has been exploiting magical girls and the energy they provide since mankind’s beginning. His expression rarely changes, and the camera often shows him close up with unblinking red eyes, or silhouetted with glowing eyes, giving viewers the impression that he is, if not evil, at least inhuman.
Where other magical girl anime show the advantages of gaining magical powers, PMMM examines the sacrifice that comes with being a magical girl (Krell), the mental instability that results from leading such a life, and the breakdown of teamwork that comes from fighting over Grief Seeds, the limited resource that witches leave behind upon death, which temporarily prevent magical girls from turning into witches. The atmosphere of the series is dark, and the visuals lean toward the grotesque and disturbing where witches are concerned (Stefan).
Like most media, it’s rare to find a well-done deconstruction of a genre or a tasteful handling of sensitive subjects in anime, and most examples are considered exceptions to the rule—perhaps rightly so. And yet, with so many notable anime like RGU and PMMM exploring themes like what it means to be a human, or a man, or a woman, or the effects war can have on a young person, or the indomitable human spirit in the face of adversity, it’s hard to argue that these “cartoons” are just for kids.
Ben, . “Revolutionary Girl Utena.” n. pag. Web. 3 Nov 2011.
Black, R. W. (2008). Adolescents and online fan fiction (Vol. 23). New York: Peter Lang,
Giovanna, , and Yasha. “SHOUJO KAKUMEI UTENA ENGLISH SCRIPT EPISODE 34:
“SEAL OF THE ROSE”.” Empty Movement. N.p., 20 Dec 1999. Web. 3 Nov
Krell, Evan. “The Inevitability of Madoka.” AM11PM7. WordPress, 02 May 2011. Web. 3
Nov. 2011. <https://am11pm7.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/the-inevitability-of-madoka/>.
Lo, Patricia. “Divergence of Gender Representation: Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl
Utena.” Essay: Divergence of Gender Representation: Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena. coursework.info, 20 Jun 2006. Web. 3 Nov 2011.
Lunning, Frenchy. Mechademia 1, Emerging Worlds Of Anime And Manga. Univ Of
Minnesota Press, 2007. 163. eBook. < http://books.google.com/books?id=CMYwUzMCj-gC&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=utena+gender+role&source=bl&ots=dIB43GqoWb&sig=X5b82CVxR7kWUmQ5zAgt80_yK2o&hl=en&ei=HdiyTpC1DIa-tgeStLC_Aw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CEIQ6AEwBjgU#v=onepage&q=utena%20gender%20role&f=false
Ren, . “Princes, Princesses, and Revolution: Gender Roles in Revolutionary Girl Utena.”
WMST 2010 A: Feminist Analysis. Blogger, 25 Apr 2008. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <http://ugafeminism.blogspot.com/2008/04/princes-princesses-and-revolution.html>.
Stefan, . “Puella Magia Madoka Magica.” n. pag. The Nihon Review. Web. 3 Nov 2011.