Owari, Yuri, and The Making of History: Shonen’s Emerging Gay Canon

owari

As much as I love anime, especially shonen, there are things about it that eat at me sometimes, and one of those things is the way that it depicts gay men. I’m neither an expert nor a critic, but rather a devout (read, “crazy”) fan who finds herself really annoyed by this aspect of the thing I love. Annoyed enough to write.

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Poor Freed.

So usually, homosexual men and homosexual acts in shonen are jokes (see, Grell, the grotesque “queen” in Black Butler, see, Naruto and Sasuke’s unintentional kiss in Naruto, see, Freed’s unrequited crush on Laxus in Fairy Tail (by the way, I’m focusing on the fellas here, because while there’s plenty to discuss regarding lesbian relationships in anime, I need the space of a whole ‘nother essay if I’m going to pop that topic open). Anime is bawdy in general, so it’s not like heterosexual sex isn’t also a subject to ridicule, but those jokes are balanced out by straight couples whose romance is meant to be taken seriously. In the cases where they aren’t meant to be laughed at, gay relationships come off as sort of empty and lascivious, as pandering to female fans. In these scenarios, the characters aren’t necessarily homosexual, either, but rather they happen to be hanging out in these ambiguously homoerotic situations (Free! and Haikyu are the most cited example of this, though I’ve seen instances of this in many other shows). And that’s cool. I’m comfortable with ambiguity. But after a while, I start to think, are there any characters that are just into characters of the same sex? And could we maybe not laugh at these characters?

Not long ago I watched Owari no Seraph, which seemed to offer something a bit different (if only in the male protagonists’ relationship—the rest was pretty familiar). The fact that the protagonists’ feelings for each other are romantic rather than friendly is implicit, but not especially ambiguous. They are also not a joke. I thought, this is kinda groundbreaking, right?

Well, “kinda” is the operative word.

At the same time I watched Owari, I read an essay by Philip Kennicott called “Smuggler.” In the pre-internet world of the early eighties, Kennicott describes how, after reading the scene in Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel where two adolescent boys kiss, he began a hunt for any other book he could get his hands on that might relieve the sense of solitude he felt growing up as a homosexual teenager. He assembles a sort of gay “canon,” but as he reflects on these books as a middle aged man, he is able to see the ways in which this canon was actually destructive to his sexual identity. The books, he says, “depicted self-discovery as a cataclysmic severance from society.” That is, the gay men in these stories all suffer terrible fates. Some become terminally ill, some are raped or tortured.  If they live, they often end up isolated from society, alcoholics and town crazies.  Having found characters who shared his desires, characters with whom he could connect with, Kennicott recalls that all these characters are, really, punished for being gay by their own authors (many of whom were gay men themselves.)

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And it all falls apart riiiiight…wait for it…there!

Since I was consuming both the essay and the show around the same time, it was impossible not to see the parallels between what Kennicott describes in his canon and what happens to the protagonists, Mika and Yuu, on Owari no Seraph, which goes a little like this: after a long separation, Mika and Yuu are reunited. Mika (much to his dismay) is a vampire, and Yuu, in spite of his vengeful vow to kill all the vampires (the enemy of humans in this post-apocalyptic world) accepts his friend’s new state fairly readily. At the point where they first encounter each other again, Mika hasn’t fully lost his humanity yet, because he has avoided drinking human blood, a fact that apparently causes him a great deal of physical pain. In the inevitable scene where Mika is forced to drink human blood or die, Yuu offers his up. Knowing the ramifications of feeding on his friend, Mika is disgusted, rejecting Yuu’s offer repeatedly (we’re all following the euphemism here, right?) up until the point where Yuu, who absolutely refuses to allow his friend to keel over and die, slices his arm open, and bleeds all over the place, like you do when you’re an anime kid and you’re desperate. Mika succumbs, saying miserably, “It’s all your fault if I become a monster.” A cheesy line, perhaps, but the subtext makes this moment a bit haunting for me.

And just as Kennicott observed in his canon, the severance from society begins immediately after this act. Mika does indeed become a full vampire. They then enter into a battle to assist Yuu’s army unit and Yuu is consumed by the demon he has to draw power from in order to save his friends. Yuu’s company secedes from the rest of the military, and they run into hiding, taking Mika and Yuu with them. Both Yuu and Mika have literally lost their claim to humanity, and to top it off, Yuu has lost his position in the military. This plays out on fantasy’s terms, not as it would in realistic literary fiction, but as in the books that made up Kennicott’s destructive canon, the gay characters are punished, both as a direct result of their physical consummation and as the result of their feelings (Yuu is taken over by the demon because his love is, as the title of the chapter/episode indicates, “arrogant”—he wishes to protect both his friends and his lover, implying that he thinks he has a right to both—how dare he!). The message, then, seems distressingly similar to that of the “classic” works that Kennicott talks about. In his canon, as in Owari no Seraph, “The price of  survival, for the self-aware homosexual, was a complete inversion of values, dislocation, wandering, and rebellion.”

I don’t mean to admonish Owari no Seraph specifically. In fact, as was the literature of Kennicott’s experience, Owari no Seraph seems to represent a way station on a movement away from depicting homosexuals as a joke, or not at all. Nevertheless, this way station is a pretty damn depressing place to be in 2016.

Three months ago this essay would have ended here, at the way station, with me making some kind of hopeful prediction for the future. But I think the future is here. A few weeks ago I noticed that people were buzzing, were absolutely smitten with Yuri on Ice!!. Since it’s an anime about figure skating, not my normal ninja-mage-vampire fare, I was hesitant. Then, the sequence of the characters skating in the opening credits came up in my Instagram feed and I was immediately mesmerized. The animation was so gorgeous, I had to watch, and once I did, the story sucked me in immediately. The protagonist, Yuri (who reminds me quite a bit of Arima from Your Lie in April), is a figure skater trying to recover from a major loss. He has living parents who love him, but don’t understand figure skating very well. He is still mourning the loss of his dog, who died while he was at competitions, a fact that contributed to his defeat. He comforts himself with food. Dead dog, nice lame parents, kinda chubby…in other words, he’s a regular guy, with regular pain, who, like many of us, is trying really, really hard to be happy with himself, and is often coming up empty handed. He is relatable, likable, and complicated. He also is, in no uncertain terms, romantically interested in a man. I crossed my fingers and held my breath watching the story unfold, hoping they wouldn’t make that fact a joke, hoping they would not dance around it, turn it into something ever-present but unmentionable.

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Yuri Katsuki, Pork Cutlet Bowl Fatale

And then, they didn’t. And I was shocked as shit. And delighted.

Not only does YOI not suffer from the aforementioned crappy tropes of ignoring or demeaning same sex couples, it also doesn’t make that third, more subtle (but highly disturbing) move where gay characters get the authorial banishment/disease treatment. Here we are at the end of the first season, and absolutely no one has a brain tumor, no one has been ostracized by society or had their essential selves devoured by any literal or figurative demons. Not that the characters haven’t been hurt as a result of loving each other, but that hurt is personal, a pain that comes from within their relationship and not from outside of it, a natural result of having characters with the magic three components: Relatable. Likable. Complicated. On top of that, the romance is so well-rendered, it could give any fictional heterosexual romance  a run for its money.

I’m happy about the shift represented by YOI because this genre that I really love and feel compelled to champion has taken a step toward greater fairness. Both within the genre and among other forms of popular media, this step is actually a huge one—and when the topic is identity formation and the audience is, by and large, young people, it is not only a huge step, but a deeply important one. Like Kennicott, like me, people often self-identify by creating a personal canon, and the literature and pop culture we have to draw from can make a great difference in the selves we try to make, and how we feel about those selves.

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I Downloaded Mystic Messenger: Girl Gamer Meets Girl Game

mystic-messenger

 

At first, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out with Yoosung.

Sure, he was sweet and attentive, but he was also jealous, defensive, and hopelessly naïve. When he texted me, “Don’t text with Zen anymore. Only text me” I wanted to reply, “I’m a grown-ass woman and I’ll text who the hell I want!” Unfortunately, that was not one of the programmed responses, and, honestly, that response? Probably not one that would help me win the game.

The game, of course, being Mystic Messenger, an RPG for girls that I recently discovered and learned is called an “otome.” Here is the tenuous set up for the game’s story: you (and your character) download an app on your phone. You find yourself in a chatroom with a mysterious stranger, who, on the pretext of trying to get this phone he found back to its rightful owner, lures you into an apartment. Once you are inside the apartment, the stranger disappears, along with the log of your conversation, and the chatroom is then filled with no less than four pretty, single men (and one cute, overworked woman) These pretty, single men need something from you. They need it desperately. They need you to throw a fundraising party for their organization. And you’re like, well. I guess I have nothing better to do.

You invite guests to the party. You chat with these characters. The things you say in these chats and invitations affect the course of the game, and your responses dictate which character’s affections you attract, and which guests decide to come to the party. In addition to chatting, you are also texting, and receiving phone calls from the characters and getting emails from potential guests. It’s through these communications that the story develops, and this development depends on the choices you make in responding.

This is how all role-playing games work, both tabletop and electronic. The thing that I find unique about Mystic Messenger is the fact that it draws on these now-familiar modes of disembodied communication (email, chatrooms, text messaging) to create the interactions. The result is sort of a mindfuck (in more ways than one). We are accustomed to using these new modes as a way of communicating with other actual people, but if there’s no real human on the other side, it hardly matters to our mind. We know intellectually that we’re talking to robots, but the game capitalizes on the fact that we’re not continuously accessing this part of our consciousness, but rather reflexively responding emotionally based on the bulk of our experiences—experiences in which our texts and emails go to thinking, feeling humans, and they respond in kind. The game also happens, to an extent, in real time, which mimics the urgency of real life digital interactions. The majority of the story unravels through texts and chats, but as you get deeper into the plot, the game also provides what they refer to as “Visual Novels” which are a bit like a color manga that you click through frame by frame, that are sort of semi-animated. It’s multi-modal storytelling in the truest sense, and at the risk of sounding like some kind of old-timer, I have to admit that if this game had been described to me even three or four years ago, I would have had difficulty conceiving of it. I had to think carefully about my description of the “Visual Novel” because it’s something I’ve never seen before. Whatever else Mystic Messenger is, it’s innovative as hell.

The other thing about the game that may not be unique, but is mind-blowingly novel to me, is that it is pitched to girls and young women. I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games since I was around 11, when my much older brother first invited me to his Dungeons and Dragons game. I like these kinds of games for the same reasons I like shonen anime and other types of fantasy genres, namely because they offer stories of adventure. But these genres also consistently pander to male audiences in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And whatever, it’s fine, it’s fantasy, it’s shonen, it’s made for a male audience, I know this. But it was nice, and even a little shocking, to find a roleplaying adventure in which I was being pandered to, and absolutely shamelessly so. I think Cheritz, the developers of the game may have done their marketing research by pilfering the space between girls’ mattresses and box springs, converging the data gleaned from a massive sample of diaries with unicorns on the covers into some kind algorithm.

And the whole time I write this Sherry Turkle is sitting on my shoulder clicking her tongue. If you don’t know Turkle, she’s the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other. The name pretty much says it all. Turkle argues that technology has distanced us from each other, encouraging us to seek comfort from machines, while we persist in treating people like objects. According to Turkle, we seek comfort from robots (that is,  from games like Mystic Messenger), while dating apps like Tinder reduce flesh-and-blood humans to static profiles, subject to keeping or discarding based on only the most superficial information. Even though Mystic Messenger didn’t exist when Turkle wrote her book, I imagine the game would trouble her deeply. The game works, as I described, by using familiar modes of technology to mess with your emotional register. The game simulates human interaction, but it is only a collection of algorithms–that is, it cannot feel in response to the feelings of the person playing. Turkle might say that people, especially young people, should not give in to that, but rather learn to deal with real relationships with real humans in all of their messy and painful complexity.

And I think she’s right in that regard. But I also think that, as I’ve discussed in earlier blogs, fantasizing is a way of learning. And while I certainly don’t qualify as a young woman, I do know a few of them, and by and large, they are not the gullible little twits that we so often assume they are. They are not abandoning friendships or romantic interests for a game, and I doubt they could possibly harbor expectations that a human being would ever behave in the same way as a simulated boyfriend. They also wouldn’t, as Turkle insinuates, PREFER the robot over a real boy. Girls and young women, in short, are smarter and more savvy than we give them credit for.

But this game is good because it DOES give girls credit. They must have found in their unicorn journal market research that girls are intelligent, that they enjoy strategy, that they are engaged by emotional consequences, and that they have a sense of humor. In pandering to a woman’s sensibility, the game has done more than set forth a smorgasbord of beautiful boy-bots to pine over—it has created an imaginative story told in an innovative form, with plenty of self-referential humor. Because of this, I think the game and the makers of the game will continue to meet with success.

And, if you were wondering, things did work out with Yoosung. I can’t tell you what happened, because that will spoil things, and I’m supposed to write some blogs that don’t have spoilers. If you’re curious, though, play a game, and if you already have, talk to me! I’d love to hear what other people think.

 

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But seriously, Kushina is a bad bitch

Kushina nine tails vessel

I cosplayed Kushina Uzumaki (Naruto’s mother) this past weekend. I don’t get a lot of character recognition when I do this cosplay, because I’m not wearing the clothes that Kushina is depicted in for most of the show, a white blouse and a green jumper. But that’s okay. Because I need to play this mama like the badass that she is—and if that’s expressed in terms of clothing, then you gotta lose the jumper.

I wear Kushina in the clothing she wears as jounin, a member of the Leaf Village ninja ranks. That is, I wear her dressed as a soldier, which is what she was before she got pregnant. We all know that when it comes to feminism, Naruto is not especially progressive, and is sometimes downright infuriating. The cool thing about cosplay, and about fan art in general, is that we can sort of re-frame these female characters and cast light on their more powerful, independent aspects. And if we’re talking about power, Kushina has A LOT of it. Unlike Naruto, Kushina is able to contain the will of Kurama almost effortlessly. She’s a capable ninja, and, like Naruto, she’s ambitious—she wants to be Hokage, so she’s not quite as hopeless as poor Sakura, whose original and ultimate goal is to fuck Sasuke. And let’s not forget the best evidence of Kushina’s raw power which is that she GAVE BIRTH and then had enough chakra to help restrain Kurama and seal him inside of her newborn baby. And then she STILL had enough chakra for Minato to seal inside Naruto, enough to later have an hour long conversation with him, and then RESTRAIN KURAMA AGAIN. I’ve given birth, and that after that ordeal, I barely had enough energy to move, let alone magically contain an angry, immortal, fox spirit twice over.

Which brings me to that other kind of power that Kushina possesses. Her and Minato’s story resonates with me because in this weird, symbolic, purely emotional kind of way, Naruto’s entry into the world unfolds like the beginning of real life parenthood. Minato and Kushina are excited about Naruto. They carefully pick his name, they take ridiculous pains to bring him safely into the world, and then there he is! They have him! And everything is perfect and beautiful for about ten seconds, and then what? Chaos. Violence. Danger. Kushina fights her heart out. She knows she’s doomed, but this is the way that she has chosen to protect her baby, by protecting his home. They win the fight, and for their efforts, they are rewarded with the opportunity to blurt out all the hopes they have for Naruto. They give him what they know will be an enormous burden, having to believe that he can handle it, that he will overcome it. And then they die. That’s a bleak-ass metaphor for parenthood, and fantasy characters get to cop out with literal death, whereas real parents only let a portion of themselves die, keeping the better portion alive, and compelled to keep fighting. Still, bleak or not, flawed or not, I feel a connection this symbolic story, and to Kushina. To me, she represents ultimate mother-power, even if she if she is too often depicted doing Minato’s dishes.

And that’s why when I wear Kushina, I don’t wear the goddamn jumper. Her military dress is a better representation of the kind of power she has, and the kind of mother she is as well.

 

(Art credit to AgentWhiteHawk Art. Because, wow.)

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