I saw Ninja Scroll for the first time when I was in high school.
And when we got to That Scene - I'm sure we all know the one - I did not feel titillated; I felt uncomfortable. That was the character I'd been offered as identification figure, there, and...I remember the friend I was watching with (also female) and I exchanging uneasy looks. We liked the variety of ninja on display, and there were some spiffy action scenes, but...
It was - is - a pretty familiar feeling; the women in the media I took in primarily valued for their looks or their sexual features, while the male characters were these dashing folk a la Han Solo, strong and savvy and adventurous. Women want him; men want to be him. Funnily enough, nobody ever seemed to take into account that female viewers might ALSO rather be that guy than bang that guy...or better still, have a female character's badassery to appreciate. It was and is the great chronic disappointment of the media landscape: all these cool people and none of them I get to see myself in (though, female viewer, if you were really lucky one of them might think you were hot! Sigh.)
Anyway. It didn't put me off; I watched my way through that sad little shelf of "Japanimation" at Blockbuster much as I imagine Red did, because I have always loved animation, and I was hungry for the little glimpses I got of animated material that might have more sophisticated stories to offer. And then I won an eBay auction that had in it the first VHS of Serial Experiments Lain. And then my curiosity led me to hunt down a copy of this. From there the trail led through Blue Seed (which still has one of my favorite romantic-confession scenes in all of anime) to Fushigi Yuugi and then to Revolutionary Girl Utena, a series which has yet to be dethroned as my favorite of all time and which, coincidentally(?), is the first anime I can remember watching where I found the goings-on to be not only full of symbolism and psychodrama, but also kinda hot. (There's something to be said for all that simmering beneath-the-surface attraction and longing; bonus points for having all sorts of pairings.)
(Fair warning: This is a Kunihiko Ikuhara joint, which tends to mean both David Lynch-esque weirdness and plenty of ponderings about gender and sexuality.)
Aside: Alex, I think the anime landscape actually has a lot to offer right now - hilarious, over-the-top things like Shokugeki no Soma; the lyrical, haiku-like stylings of Mushi-Shi; the classic-Twilight-Zone feel of Hell Girl; dense, oddly compelling works like Mawaru Penguindrum, which may or may not be a kind of effort to work through feelings about Aum Shinrikyo; lighter, relaxing works like Gin no Saji and Polar Bear Cafe; zany homages to the anime-land of the 70s and 80s like Space Dandy. I could go on all day; nudge me sometime if you'd like additional recommendations. But I digress.
Well, sort of. This topic came up, in a tangential sort of way, while we were watching Zankyou no Terror with a friend at our last anime night. There's an...oppressiveness one can feel in quite a few Japanese media products; I am not Japanese, nor have I ever lived there, but a not-insubstantial number of the media products that make it over here suggest that there are some very rigid roles that people are expected to cleave to. Men do this. Women do this. Children do this. Adults do this. Stepping outside these norms is pretty...er...frowned upon, or so it appears, which is why we have things happening like female artists getting arrested for making art using casts made from their bodies. That's...rather braver than I think I would be, but it's the sort of thing one can easily imagine someone doing in Seattle and nobody batting an eye. Over there? Not so much. (And yeah, I have to say that it DOES strike me as a bit hypocritical to jail her.)
And it's also probably why we seem to get plenty of art in which people are feeling pretty eager to blow it all up.
I think there's merit to the idea that who is "allowed" to play games in a given society has a lot of impact on the kinds of sexuality we see in games from those places. In most Western nations video games are an acceptable adult pastime - and so we get material like The Witcher, with its very frank and open depictions of sexuality. I have the impression that this is not so much the case in Japan; perhaps this is incorrect?
I can say, however, that it's interesting to contrast ecchi games with, say, an otome visual novel. I only have Hakuoki to go on, admittedly, but with this entirely unscientific sample size the contrast is startling. Here, presumably-female players are offered an abundance of attractive young gentlemen with a range of different personality types - bishonen, certainly, though I don't see much in the way of equivalents to the moe aesthetic. Romantic scenes, when they arrived, were legitimately romantic, as well. Where an ecchi game will head straight for the jiggling bust or the panty shot, I instead got rather surprisingly-sensually-aware descriptions of the moment; the feel and smell and sound of the goings-on. And there was, at least in the DS version, ONE shirtless scene. One. It is totally possible to write yourself some spicy moments without heading for either the beef- or the cheesecake. And they do DO it over there...just not, it seems, when they anticipate an audience of young men. (I'm not sure what to make of that.)
One thing that all this has us pondering over here is: At what point does something cross the line from "might be problematic" to "Yep, it's totally problematic" and why? I'm sure this is one of those things that varies widely by individual, but here are some examples of things I have been trying to place on that continuum of problematicness lately:
I'm not particularly bothered by the "foodgasms" in Shokugeki no Soma. Those are both hilariously over the top and relatively equal-opportunity - we are almost as likely to see a male character caught up in the throes of steak-induced pleasure as a female one. (Also, the food/sex connection is looooong established.)
I'm not particularly bothered by the over-the-top compromising positions in which Mikan occasionally finds herself in Danganronpa 2. The game is fully aware how absurd and implausible these are, and other characters regularly react with a very sensible "HOW DID YOU EVEN DO THAT???" to these little displays.
I'm not particularly bothered by the ecchi content in Hyperdimension Neptunia either, as a rule. Yep, it's there. And...it's pretty benign, really, at least within the game itself - there's some eyeroll here and there, and the occasional "Really?" but overall we're having a pretty good time with it, and I think my net takeaway will be mostly "That was silly fun." May even give the second game a go, unless Trails in the Sky interrupts me.
I AM a bit uncomfortable with That Scene in Ninja Scroll, though. And I am a bit uncomfortable with the idea of a roguelike in which my avatar's breasts inflate in proportion with how well I'm playing. That sounds both tremendously uncomfortable, in practical terms (uh, ouch. Guys, you know that would really hurt, right?) and kind of gives me that "I'm not quite sure I'm cool with how that guy's looking at me..." feeling. Objectification, I suppose. Where one's personhood is less important than one's appeal (or lack thereof) as a sexual object.
Where is that event horizon? Why do some of these things bother me and some do not? I'll have to keep thinking about it.
For now, though, I've probably written quite enough. I'd better hand the microphone off to someone else for a bit.
What that scene in Ninja Scroll? I'm pretty sure there are multiple that scenes.
Anyway, the best thing about anime and manga -- the best thing to tell someone who expresses some curiosity in anime and manga, is that they truly do strive to offer something for everyone. Maybe we should be asking why can't Japanese video games be similar? Anime and to a much greater extent manga are diced up into clear demographic distinctions in Japan: content for high school boys, content for girls, content for young adult men, content for adult women, etc. Most people really don't understand just how vast the sea of manga in Japan really is. What get's released in English is the tiniest dripfeed from an ocean of material that encompasses basically every genre of fiction. Though, if I'm not mistaken it might be that manga enjoys much broader social acceptance in Japan than anime or video games.
Still, I have to admit I do see a higher proportion of female protagonists in anime and Japanese video games. Somebody should try to do a chart or something comparing games by region of origin with the number of playable female characters. And there probably still is more diverse Japanese gaming content that doesn't get localized. At least there was in previous eras -- strategy and simulation games and all that.
I can't recall which scene it was from Ninja Scroll, but it's forever a film riding on the snarly wryness of whoever did those classic Madman commercials. "A man...and a woman. In love with each other!"
I've always been drawn to the hard-arse ladies in anime (and in real life, if the power dynamic in my house is anything to go by!), so I recall being more excited by their arse-kicking and owning of opponents than them being ravished or ravaged. That's never been particularly appealing. The idea of a cyborg cop named Kusanagi, who retains a sleek super-soldier form more in line with a Greek hoplite than a porn-star? That's intoxicating. Yumiko Shaku's Princess Yuki in Princess Blade? Awe-inspiring. The uguu business is just not my jam. Naomi Armitage? Yeah, that's more like it.
Why Gin no Saji stuck with me is why the Patlabor TV show did. It was slice of life that was about something tangible. I've got a really low tolerance for twee, and the usual trope conveyance -- the categorical breakdown of personality types etc. -- is littered with the stuff. Planetes was great in that regard. It felt the closest we've gotten to the old Patlabor show. And Gin no Saji resonated hugely because it's a very apt use of regional and agricultural Japan. I live that for the most part. I plant and harvest rice, help out with a chicken cull and even dabbled in butchering the carcass of a Berkshire.
Stuff like that? It's my kind of slice of life. Harem-laden gear or animals running a cafe? Saucer-eyed lasses with Dead or Alive bounce? It cuts too aesthetically close to home with what my daughters watch in Precure et al. Were these anime and games depicting older, more refined ladies, I'd have a different view.
EDIT: I might also add that, despite the discussion being no holds-barred and straight to the heart, conveying my position has made me consider and muse upon where and why I largely fell of the bandwagon. That is a Good Thing. Always palmed it off prior as just outgrowing almost an entire pop-cultural output - which was silly, and utterly untrue. So, kudos to laying it bare, everyone.
Why can't there be a video game that applies the Persona 4 slice-of-life dynamic to, I don't know, a military campaign? I'd love to have just hang-out-at-base-camp gameplay in-between missions to allow more room for character development and moments of levity between the action. Though, big western RPGs have been doing this to some extent, Mass Effect's Normandy being the ultimate example. Splinter Cell Blacklist even tried to offer its own analogue (despite replacing Sam's character with someone almost unrecognizable).
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Since 2005, the Squadron of Shame has been embedded at the vanguard of underappreciated, obscure and noteworthy videogames.