Strong female characters in anime

Anime’s popularity has been on the rise not only in Japan but also all over the world. Unlike its western counterpart, anime has deep storylines and detailed art style that captures the minds of a wide range of audience of all age groups. Anime covers a wide range of genres that targets specific audiences, namely Shounen (for boys), Shoujo (for girls), Mahou Shoujo (magical girls), Moé (cute girls,romance), Mecha (Giant robots), Progressive (art films), Shounen-ai (gay romance) and Shoujo-ai (lesbian romance). One of the most well-received genres is Shoujo. It touches on issues concerning women related to empowerment, romance, emotional and spiritual growth. These issues are quite prevalent in strong girls and heroines in Shoujo.

Strong girls are those noted for their courage, daring actions and achievements in a particular field. These girls are either born with special powers or they may develop their strong characters through emotional or physical hardship, frequently as a result of new responsibility. In general, being strong is equated with the ability to be selfless, to not let others down and tenacity in the face of adversity.
All heroines are strong, but not all strong girls are considered as heroines. The distinguishing factor lies in terms of public recognition. Heroines are recognized for her actions. In other words, they are popular and admired by many. There are different aspects to strength. There are physical, spiritual, emotional and mental strength. A girl can be strong in more than one aspect. I shall deal with the different aspects of strength.

Anime writers/directors tend to produce works that reflect their perception of the existing sociopolitical climate. With the rise of anime as popular culture, there is bidirectional movement in terms of influence. While anime reflects Japanese culture, some values it contains may also get integrated into the local practices. In this way, there is interrelation between anime and Japanese culture. It is this inter-relation that I would attempt to address in the latter part of the essay.

Different aspects of strength

Physical strength

Strong girls with great physical strength in anime tend to be extremely agile. They are able to perform stunts and actions that seem impossible to be done in reality. They can jump, fly and flip without much difficulty. Their extent of physical strength is often exaggerated for example from the way they seldom miss their targets during the fight.

Despite knowing that the situation was grim, he continued to fight. While he was about to move on, Tendo’s sudden appearance caught his attention. Yaji stared at her exposed cleavage and noticed that she had a gun wrapped around her thigh. He thought that a feminine-looking girl like her would not know how to use the gun she was carrying. Yaji instructed her to leave but she insisted on tagging along. Spotting a glint of light being reflected from far, Tendo realised that Yaji’s life was in danger, she pushed him aside just in time and drew her gun to shoot the enemy. She managed to kill the enemy in that one shot, looking only at his reflection as a guide. Yaji who underestimated her at first was taken aback. Tendo’s mastery in the use of a gun, exaggerated as it may be, displayed her physical strength as a heroine.

The magnitude of strength is also dramatized in Inuyasha. Sango –one of the female characters – used hiraikotsu (a boomerang the size of a man) to strike the enemies. Her traveling partner, Miroku, tried to carry it once and commented that it was very heavy. He even wondered how Sango managed to carry it around wherever she went, with such ease. Again we see an exaggeration in the power these women hold in anime that is hardly possible or likely in real life.
Female fighters often require a specific weapon in dealing with the enemy (which often took on the form of a monster or a non-human creature). They are usually skillful and this skill can both be innate or mastered through intense, consistent practice. The weapons vary widely, ranging from swords to something as far off as cosmetic-like instruments.

While chasing the vampire, Saya misplaced her lethal Japanese sword. Caught in a desperate moment, Saya broke into an antique store and grabbed any sword she spotted. The sword turned out to be an imitation that broke easily when Saya used it to slash vampire. In another scene when Saya was trapped in a warehouse, she fought a vampire using a spade but ended up getting injured in the attempt. It was not until her supervisor David, passed her the genuine Japanese sword that she had always used, that she succeeded in slaying the vampire.

In Sailor moon, each sailor owned a unique weapon. Sailor moon was entrusted with Moon Crescent Wand, Sailor Mercury with a Virtual Visor, Sailor Mars with Ofuda, Sailor Jupiter with Rose Earrings while Sailor Venus with Love Chain. Each of these weapons can only be used by their owner. We observe here that the heroines need a specific weapon and that their weapons looked unconventional in that they were disguised as cosmetic products. Sailor Mercury, for instance, could only activate her virtual visor by pressing her earrings.

There is a tendency for people to equate physical strength with a robust exterior when the two do not necessarily agree in real life and/or in anime. The two contrasting views of physically strong women in relation to their looks are both represented in anime. Saya was the typical strong girl with a tough exterior, she had a piercing gaze and solitary air about her that intimidated others while Tendo Rushuna was an atypical example of a physically strong woman who looked like a damsel in distress and who, as a result, was often belittled. Girls like Tendo Rushuna in anime are normally stereotyped (despite of their strength) because of their femininity – as indicated by their well-endowed bodies, types of clothes they wear and their appearance.

In short, the appearance of strong girls can be deceiving and this may well be one of their strategies to mask their true abilities in front of the villains so as to be able to catch the enemy off guard.

Spiritual strength

In certain anime, the idea of strength is measured in terms of the character’s spiritual belief. Women with strong spiritual belief always seek the help and guidance of their God through prayers as they believed that it is God who has the power to bless them with the gift of special powers to execute the villains. The solid and close relationship with God unveils the pillar of strength in the characters. These girls regard God as their master and anyone who displeases or operates against the teachings of God shall be punished. The concept of spiritual belief in anime does not only revolve around the teachings of Shinto, it also encompasses other religious beliefs like Christianity and Buddhism. This is little wonder since these are the 3 main religions in Japan. Despite this difference in beliefs, spiritually strong girls in anime tend to share a common goal; that is to uphold peace and justice as they believe that this is what God truly desires.

As soon as she was tapped on the shoulder, her concentration was distracted and her wings vanished into thin air. Erica’s role, together with four other girls was to fight an alien invasion. Erica was strong physically (she had to be in order to fight the aliens) but she was different from other physically strong girls in that she seemed to derive her physical strength from her spiritual belief. She was convinced that her fighting skills were bestowed upon her through God’s power. Erica never failed to beseech God for help in everything that she did.

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This is a symbol of her devotion to her religion. It is also interesting to note that her Sailor Mars outfit had a colour scheme that paralleled her miko wardrobe.

Most of Rei’s attacks were fire-based which is analogous to the Shinto teachings of how fire can be used to purify souls. She also used the power of an ofuda (talisman) together with the incantation “ Akuryo taisan!” which translates to “Evil spirits of the dead, depart!”, to expel the evil spirit of her opponents. A symbol of her belief was reasserted again here.

The role spiritually strong women play as miko in anime is exaggerated. They possess shamanic or magical powers which obviously are regarded as mere fiction in real life. We can explain this in two ways. One is that some form of exaggeration may be needed in a work of fiction like anime – where creativity is critical – in attracting a larger pool of audience. Another is that an exaggeration of mystical power beyond anything ascribed in contemporary Shinto can help to reaffirm Japanese tradition and the power of traditional belief system.

In anime, romance still occupies a significant aspect of a powerful priestess’ life. It is interesting to note that in theory, a miko should be a virgin and remain aloof from such everyday cares as washing the dishes and preparing meals, to say nothing of bearing and raising children. Yet, Rei Hino in Sailor Moon dreamed of getting married despite her strong devotion to her religion. Anime may well be both a reflection of Japanese society as well as a mean to re-assert Japan’s conventional belief that a woman’s place is at home and her chief duty is first to her father, then to her husband and his parents, and finally when widowed, to her son. To Japanese society, becoming a career woman would be synonymous to opposing one’s destiny to be a wife and a mother.

Emotional and mental strength

Emotionally and mentally strong girls can take stress and strains without falling apart. The difference between them and normal girls lies in how they react in the face of adversities. Optimism seems to be one of the characteristics found in emotionally and mentally strong girls. Girls with an optimistic outlook in life are less likely to crumble under pressure and would then be more likely to overcome obstacles. This optimism may serve a greater purpose than for one’s self-motivation in times of hardship. Strong girls can also be optimistic for other’s sake. This is usually evident when the emotionally strong girls take on a leadership role where she has to stay positive to motivate others around her to remain committed to the objective at hand.

In Spirited Away, Chihiro shows an extraordinary strength for a ten-year-old girl. Stranded in a foreign place, instead of drowning herself in despair and giving up, Chihiro worked hard to get Yubaba – the matron of the bath house where Chihiro worked – to transform her parents back (from pigs) into human beings. She overcame her fear of ghosts and spirits and even ended up befriending them.

Her overwhelming anxiety was exposed fully at the scene when the ghosts alighted from the ship one by one. Chihiro stared fixedly at the spooky sight, gritting her teeth tightly and holding her hands closely to the chest as if they would be taken away by the spirits around her. The sea breeze that blew across Chihiro’s face seemed to intensify her frightened expression – Chihiro’s hair was blown slightly to the back; an effective personification for the experience which was hair-raising and spine-chilling to her. Nevertheless, we can see that Chihiro’s courage built up gradually as she began to work in the bath house for Yubaba. Once, a “stinky god” entered the bath house, scaring away all the attendants. Being the new employee around, she was put to the test by being given this most challenging task of cleaning him up. She put in all her effort to prepare a bath for him. It was then that she realized that there was a thorn stuck onto his body. Chihiro attempted to pluck the thorn out but to no avail, Yubaba then instructed the other employees in the bath house to help Chihiro. In here, we can see that Chihiro had overcome her fear of ghosts and actually teamed up with the spirits.

She was not only being positive for her own sake, but also for her sister’s sake – Mei; who was seen as the weaker character of the two.

The sisters learnt from their father that their mother would not be coming back from the hospital as scheduled. Mei was unhappy with the news and insisted that their mother had to come back that weekend. Satsuki blamed Mei for being childish and the two sisters fell out. Mei ran away from home to deliver a corn to their mother, believing that it would help her recover. The journey to the hospital was arduous. When Satsuki found out about her sister’s disappearance, she was determined to look for Mei, whatever it took. Satsuki ran around the village getting bruised all over while searching for her little sister. When Satsuki realized that she could not do it alone, she looked for help from Totoro (a spirit that can only be seen by children; the sisters got to know Totoro when they just moved into the new house). With Totoro’s help, Mei was soon found. The ‘magical cat’ that had helped Satsuki to find Mei then brought them to the hospital where their mother was warded, to look at how their mother was doing. With her optimism, Satsuki managed to comfort and convince Mei that everything would be fine. This is an example of how strong girls can be optimistic for others and not just for herself.

Another important feature of emotionally and mentally strong girls is their strong determination. In Spirited Away, Chihiro was willing to do anything to save her parents and to get back to her own world. This includes the toil she had to endure working in the bath house where as have been mentioned, she had to do a job that nobody wanted –cleaning the “smelly god”.

Haku, a mysterious boy, warned Chihiro that she needed to get a job so that she would not be turned into pigs by Yubaba. Determined to save her parents, Chihiro was desperate to get herself a job. Chihiro approached Kamijii (An old man who was in charge of the boiler room of the bath house. He also made medicines to be put inside the bath) for a job but was coldly ignored in return. Chihiro then saw the susuwatari (literally means ‘travelling soot’) carrying pieces of coal on their tiny bodies to the boiler and she began to follow what they were doing without considering the fact that Kamijii had not approved of her helping him. Chihiro lifted up a piece of the coal which, despite of its small size, turned out be quite heavy. Nevertheless Chihiro refused to give up.

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Having a clear mission is another characteristic of emotionally and mentally strong girls. In Spirited Away, Chihiro’s mission was quite clear from the beginning of the anime, which was to save her parents; to transform them from pigs back to human being and to get back to the human world. She made sure that she succeeded in her mission by doing whatever she could under the circumstances.

In order to be emotionally and mentally strong girls, the characters have to be able to overcome fear too. Overcoming fear is strongly linked to being optimistic. One can only overcome one’s fear when one is optimistic. Chihiro, being an optimist, shows how she overcomes her fear of ghosts and spirits in order to save her parents.

Emotionally/mentally strong women are also identified with their ability to do the right thing particularly when the temptation to do the opposite is strong. They are able to sacrifice something (even things/people they hold dear or even themselves) for the sake of a bigger goal. In fact this heroic act truly sets the strong girls apart from the others.

This is shown prominently in Blue Seed where Sakura – a member of a secret agency called the TAC (Terrestrial Administrator Centre) which was involved in the fight against the alien plant monster aragami – actually had to sacrifice her own mother in the course of the war.

The interrelation between anime and Japanese culture.

The way women are portrayed in anime can be seen as a reflection of Japan’s view on women in its patriarchal society. We see the emergence of female heroes in the 1960s. This change is apparent in the light of the fact that heroism in anime was very much a predominantly male domain before 1960.

The introduction of the New Constitution of Japan (particularly article 14 and 24) and Fundamental Law of Education (article 3 and 5) in the late 1940s legalized gender equality and eradicated – in law – sex distinction of the olden days but at that time, tradition still exerted its power and depending on the women’s family and social conditions, they often faced in real life a situation which was far from the ideal specified in the laws and regulations.

The emergence of female heroes in anime in 1960, although it serves as an indication of a shift in perception towards women, it was not particularly significant. This is analogous to the introduction of the New Constitution where a change was being introduced but it was not successful in terms of its integration into the society in practice. Majority of female heroes in anime in that period took the form of magical girls; the more prominent ones being “Little Witch, Sally” – 1966, “Little Magic Girl, Akko” – 1969 and “Little Witch Megu” – 1974. Although it brings home the idea that heroes do not necessarily have to exhibit masculinity and hence attests for the first time that female characters are capable of becoming heroes, the use of a witch as a manifestation of a heroine implies that females cannot be heroes without being non-human or it may also suggest that females only manage to gain recognition as heroines when they are bequeathed certain power. This idea of acquisition of power through dubious means rather than through hard work/perseverance degrades women.

In some anime where the main role is a strong woman with magical powers, some elements of humour are usually included. E.g. in Sailor Moon, Usagi Tsukino was always seen to be clumsy and she got into all sorts of embarrassing situation where she would become an object of ridicule. In Ultra Maniac, Nina Sakura was a witch who also became a source of a joke for putting her friend – Ayu Tateishi – in a disastrous situation while she tried to help her using magic. This element of humour serves as a kind of reminder that the strong woman the audience is watching lies in the realm of fantasy; that for a woman to exert such influence and to possess such great power is rather unlikely in real life. We see this as a reaffirmation of the traditional Japanese value which emphasizes male superiority and female inferiority.

Female heroes in anime in recent times are depicted differently. Heroines sometimes have asexual features and are projected as being not only courageous but also as having a wholesome mind. This is in contrast to the portrayal of woman as a sexual object which is disparaging. Strong female character with asexual features such as that depicted in Spirited Away (Chihiro) establishes the idea that roles the characters perform throughout their lives can be dissociated from gender; that gender has nothing to do with choices one can make. The birth of asexual female warriors in anime in the 1980s demonstrates the elevation of the social standing of women in Japan.

Depiction of strong women as female warriors/fighters rather than as women with magical power drives home an important point. Female warriors/fighters acquire their abilities through hard work and perseverance. It challenges the notion that a woman’s power has to be given (i.e. innate) or that it has to be magic. This is significant, in view of how Japanese value hard work above talent and how they see perseverance and hard work as pre-requisites to success.

This concept of work as means to achieve success in life was put across quite prominently in Spirited Away. Haku told Chihiro, “If you don’t work, Yubaba will turn you into an animal” and before Yubaba would employ her, Yubaba also warned/threatened that should she find herself detesting the work given or wanting to take back her word, Yubaba would turn her into a pig. This symbolises Japanese value that hard work is the way to success.

By giving strong woman in anime an image of someone with these characteristics (willingness to work hard and to acquire power through determination and perseverance rather than through sheer luck), anime becomes a kind of a tool to empower women in real life and subsequently it has the potential to elevate the social standing of women in society further. In the same way, modifying the way strong women are represented in the anime can also be used to emphasize the current sociopolitical mindset and eventually be utilised as a means to perpetuate the conventional view against influences that attempt to destabilise it.
Hierarchical social structure characteristic of patriarchal Japanese society is evident in the anime. Often, despite their perceived strength, heroines/strong women either require some help from the men or they are under the authority of a male figure. In Blue Seed, the TAC –a secret agency the female main role was working in – was headed by a male (Daitetsu Kunikida). In Spirited Away, Chihiro received some assistance from Haku –again, a male character. In Sakura Taisen, Erica needed the help of Ichiron – a male captain – in the final battle. This reflects the traditional Japanese value which is deeply rooted in the Confucianism belief that idealizes male dominance and female submissiveness.

There are certainly exceptions to this idea of woman as the weaker sex who requires male guidance in anime. There exist “super woman” who was smarter and stronger than everybody else around them, including their love interest (a male). Oscar in Rose de Versailles held a higher position – Captain of the Royal Guards – than the male lead character, Andre who was only a stable hand. The male in this anime did not strive to lower or attempt to change the woman but strove to raise himself to her level instead.

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Heroines and strong women in anime tend to work as a team. In Sakura Taisen-Ecole de Paris, Erica needed the help of 4 other girls. In Sailor Moon, Usagi Tsukino was assisted by the other sailors. The Japanese value emphasizing the importance of team work over individual interest is reflected here. As in real life, the success of the company and the success of the individual members are inter-related. An individual cannot be successful without the success of the company and in return, a company’s success rests on the hands of the members who must co-operate5. In a similar way, heroines often require some help in order to achieve their goals and the relationship that they shared with these “sidekicks/helpers” are usually amicable.

Another characteristic that is prominent in anime depicting a strong woman/heroine is the concept of double role. In trying to save the world, Usagi Tsukino in Sailor Moon was not freed from her responsibility as a student. Heroines often lead two separate lives – life as a hero and life as an ordinary person – and the two are so clearly demarcated that saving the world is not enough of an excuse to relinquish their societal obligation. In fact there is a tendency for strong girls with magical power to refrain from using power in their personal life or for them to have limited power in their personal life (as opposed to their life as a hero) by way of a loss of weapon. For example in Inuyasha, Higurashi Kagome –the female main lead- could kill a demon with her holly arrow in the feudal era but not when she went back to her time (present day Japan) to lead her life as an ordinary teenager since there was no holly arrow then.

This emphasis on the importance of a woman to fulfill her societal obligation as suggested by the double-role phenomenon mirrors the prevailing Japanese mentality that everybody has a social role to play and that each person is expected by society to fulfill it.

In the anime, heroines seem to display similar trait. They are modest. In Grenadier, Tendo Rushuna who managed to save Yaji did not make any self-praising remarks regarding her “feat”. In fact she seemed almost nonchalantly ignorant of the significance of her heroic act. This reflects a Japanese norm where immodesty is admonished. As a matter of fact, there is a great distinction between the public presentation (tatemae) and private feelings (honne) in Japan6. Many public situation in Japan require modest self-representation and failure to do so would often cause an individual to lose the respect of his peers.

By its very nature, it is impossible that anime being a work of fiction would reflect Japanese society in its entirety. The key is often in the individual writers; what they want to create and the ideas that they want to send across. Whether the author wants to produce works that challenge conventional ideas then use them as a tool to catalize a real change in society or commercial (often mainstream) works matter.

There are some similarities between women in anime and women in real Japanese society but there are also noticeable differences (that may be attributed by reasons other than the fact that anime is a fictional work). In some anime, the heroines/strong women have ambiguous national identity. Portrayal of women in anime in this respect does not really parallel the image of real Japanese women. Indeed, contemporary mass-mediated world is characterised by rampant cultural boundary crossing8. It is not surprising therefore that national identity of women in anime is not really distinguished. It is also little wonder that deviation in the roles of females from those expected by the society exists in anime (it may result from an external influence, particularly the West).

Anime is hence a mixture of cultures that historically may have very diverse roots. It does not necessarily draw its popularity from an “authentic” depiction of Japan. It can also do so from a distinctive articulation of differences.

Conclusions

Louis Althusser – A Marxist philosopher – describes culture as the “unity of the real relation and the imaginary relation between [people] and their real conditions of existence”. Ideology is then one way people can make reality change to suit their imagination. Anime – being a fantasy world – is well suited to act out ideology because it is easier to convey possible reality of what we imagine in the form which does not distinguish reality from fantasy. To put it simply, anime is a kind of a fantasy world with a touch of realism. It is constructed by representations of places and characters that refer to certain identities that may be real, imaginary or a mixture of both. Potentially, anime can become a tool for social evolution as it helps to disseminate new ideas that are different or ones that challenge the conventional.

Anime does not only act as a tool for social evolution, it can also act as a medium through which conventional ideas were reaffirmed. In this way, anime can reflect the prevailing sociopolitical condition in Japan and how (if it does happen) values evolve over the years.

As it was, we could see how as Japan progressed from post World War II era to now, changes were taking place. The change in social standing of woman as a result of urbanisation, industrialization and external influence has been slow and gradual but this change does get reflected in anime. There are transitions in the way heroines and strong women are portrayed in anime over the years. We can see this through the various aspects of strength, the roles strong women play in shaping other people’s lives, their character developments as well as the nature of their power.

Bibliography

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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