Monday, March 8, 2010

Feminism in Animation: "Slayers"

This is basically the sum of a bunch of different thoughts I've had bouncing around in my brain for a while. For a while I've been wanting to highlight some media products from Asian cultures, most specifically Japan since it's the one I'm most familiar with, that feature strong feminist themes, and since it's International Women's Day, what better time to kick it off? There's this prevailing idea floating around that Eastern cultures are more “backwards” and oppressive toward women than we are in the West, and while there are certainly problems in Asian countries in regards to gender equality, I really can't say the West is any better in many ways. It's an unfair viewpoint, and I've been wanting to challenge it for a while now, but I also want to talk about some feminist viewpoints from Western media products, specifically in terms of animation. For the purposes of this list, I'm looking specifically at Disney products, since Disney is very often viewed as being un-feminist, which is fair, but that's ignoring the feminist ideas that do exist there as well. So this is my list. It leaves out a bunch, I'm sure, but these are the TV shows, movies, and comics that I'm most familiar with and have the strongest ideas on. My goal here isn't to compare these shows with each other and try to rate how each culture is doing, my goal is simply to examine them in their own rights and maybe provide a different viewpoint or raise awareness of a product that might be less known.

The first anime I ever saw that I actually liked, and to this day I still enjoy it, even the dated parts. Originally based on a series of novels by Kanzaka Hajime with illustrations by Araizumi Rui, Slayers is an epic fantasy adventure story that in part spoofs epic fantasy stories, while at the same time creating its own story with messages all its own. It's a great adventure saga, full of humor, action, at times suspense, and loads of great characters. Kanzaka really created his own world, with its own history, culture, and mythology, and even an intricate and fascinating system of magic, with sub-groups and spells that clearly do their own different things, and that interact with each other in different ways. And at fifteen original novels, and over thirty spin-off novels, not to mention the comics and anime series that spun off from those, there's plenty that gets explored. I especially love that this series is proof that the idea that 'guys don't identify with female protagonists' is bunk because not only is the lead character in this series a female, but the novels are written in first-person perspective. So not only did Kanzaka, a man, write a lead female character convincingly and uncondescendingly, but it became one of the biggest hits of the '90s in Japan, with four TV seasons (to date), countless manga spinoffs, a string of direct-to-DVD releases, successful movies, radio dramas, and hit songs, to say nothing of the merchandise that must have been produced. To this day it has an enduring fanbase, enough to warrant a fourth TV season years after the previous one aired. Lina Inverse is an anime icon because she's a fantastic character, and the series is full of many more.

In the novels Lina describes herself as a petite, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl of fifteen or sixteen who's been traveling for years already-- gradually her hair and eyes were both lightened to a dramatic red, which admittedly does suit her personality more. She's not on some grand quest to save the world-- although she does usually wind up doing it anyway-- she's doing it because she loves adventure, kicking the butts of roving tribes of bandits (and making herself money in the process) and building up her reputation as a sorceress. By the time she's in her mid-teens, her name is already feared far and wide and she's almost a living legend-- although not quite in the way she'd wanted, since her nickname Dra-Mata (“dragon spooker”) is less flattering than her own title of “beautiful sorcery genius”, and she's very often regarded as a public menace. She has an ego the size of a small state, but the thing is, she really is a genius. She is a force of nature to be reckoned with, both in terms of her magical power (which is portrayed literally as an atomic explosion in the anime), but in terms of her personality. She's loud, brash, egotistical, angry, opinionated, educated, fearless, ambitious, greedy, hardworking, adventurous, confident, funny, and totally relentless. And yet, as much as she brags about how gorgeous she is, it overlays this insecurity about her figure, since she's willowy and petite and seems to be surrounded by women far more well-endowed than she is. She's awkward and shy when it comes to things like romance and tries to avoid thinking or talking about it at all, let alone pursuing it. Her temper is legendarily short, and she's been known to blow up entire villages just to let off steam when she gets riled up, which only contributes to her reputation as a menace to society in general. She's very well-versed in magical theory as well as folklore and legends, and will often explain things to less-educated people. She also loves food and has been known to put away as much as twenty helpings in one sitting, which I believe was once attributed to the amount of magic energy she channels on a regular basis. Her abilities with magic, especially black (destructive) magic are astonishing for someone of her age; her signature spell is incredibly powerful, and one only a handful of people in the world know, but there's one even more powerful that she herself managed to figure out on her own that taps into energy so powerful it can destroy the planet if miscast. She's also tactically very savvy and will use creative and unorthodox methods of solving problems and getting out of trouble.

I could go on and on about how much I love her and all her foibles and shortcomings and amazing humanness, but she's also far from the only worthy female character in this series. In Lina's earlier wandering days, she had a sometime traveling companion/rival in Naga the Serpent, another powerful sorceress looking to establish a name for herself-- the fact that the name she establishes is "goldfish poop", after the way she follows Lina around, doesn't seem to slow her down much. Naga is a largely comedic character, with many moments of supreme idiocy (poking her own cheeks with her spiked shoulder pads while casting a spell springing immediately to mind), and an outfit that defies nearly every rule of practicality and common sense, but there's a lot more to her than that. She does come off like an idiot a lot of the time, but I don't think she really is-- she's shown frequently to also be pretty canny and proves a good foil for Lina a lot of the time. She's a skilled magician, especially with nature-related magic, and her blistering confidence and complete lack of self-doubt about anything is really pretty cool when you step back and look at her. The signature laugh that drives sane people mad at the sound is the manifestation of that confidence, and it's what drives her tenacity, her ability to wear that ridiculous outfit without shame, her ambition, and her ability to drive Lina absolutely crazy. It's never directly stated anywhere, but there are big hints dropped that she's actually the older sister of another main character, Amelia, and the crown princess of a very powerful kingdom. She left home after witnessing the murder of her mother, which is why she faints at the sight of blood, and seems to prefer the life of a wandering adventurer to that of being royalty, although she's hardly lost the viewpoint of the upper echelon of society. She is also a woman who loves her alcohol, and delights in stealing Lina's food when the opportunity presents itself.

Amelia Wil Tesla Seillune is the next most prominent female character in the story, especially in the anime. Back when I was first into the series, she was widely despised by the fanbase, and I'm glad to see that's died out now because she's a great character. Amelia is a princess of the kingdom of Seillune, a large and powerful country that specializes in white (protective/healing) magic. The kingdom even has a series of walls built through and around it in the shape of a protective charm. Amelia is a very powerful white magic priestess, but she also has a great deal of proficiency in shaman (nature) magic, which gives her a greater diversity of spells to draw on than Lina in some ways. She's also an accomplished physical fighter, but has an inexplicable need to climb on the top of something tall and give righteous lectures to villains about justice before entering the fight-- also she will frequently fall off the tall things and land on her head, which often ruins much of her credibility as a threat. A year or two younger than Lina, she's a bit shorter than her, but with much more curve in her figure, which a thorn in Lina's side from time to time. Like her other family members, Amelia has a love of adventure and travel, but she also feels a great sense of responsibility to her kingdom, and so frequently returns home to take up her political and diplomatic duties instead. Raised by her father after her mother was murdered when she was small, she has a very strong sense of filial duty, and takes after her father in many ways, not the least of which are exuberance and an iron-clad belief in justice. Once stated that she didn't want to be the princess who gets rescued, but rather the prince who saves the damsel in distress, and very often refers to herself as a warrior of justice. Is probably the most naive character in the entire series, but grows considerably during its course into someone with a lot of sense and diplomacy, an even temper, and a really formidable opponent in both court politics and battle.

Sylphiel Nels Radha is the least like any of the other major female characters in the series. She's the epitome of the “ideal” woman and everything Lina isn't; kind, gentle, nurturing, domestic, beautiful, graceful, soft-spoken, shy, obedient, dutiful, sweet, and friendly. Lina hates her instantly, but that's likely due in large part to Sylphiel's very overt designs on Lina's traveling companion and romantic interest, Gourry, and Lina's own buried insecurities. A very powerful white magic priestess, Sylphiel lives in a legendary city that once saw the destruction of a major demon and is renowned for its holy tree that played a large part in that battle. Though she starts out as the obligatory rival character, she soon starts taking on her own life, after enduring an unimaginable tragedy and playing a very important role in the defeat of a major demon. Little tidbits of her past and hidden parts of her personality are revealed slowly, and they add a nice dimension to her, even though she's still not one of the more well-developed characters in the series. But she serves her purpose well and even offers a number of surprises toward the end of the second anime season that showcase just how far she's willing to push herself for the sake of her own dreams. A character that, similar to her namesake Radha from the Hindu tradition, is completely devoted to the object of her love, but is doomed to a life of loneliness, waiting for the love of a man she'll never get. Even though she knows this, she still doesn't back away, and even then never bears Lina any ill will or overt resentment about it. She brings out the insecurities in Lina as she would in anyone, since she is too good to be real, and yet you can't help but feel badly for her since she's lost everything she cherished and deserves much better than the lot she's been given. She is the character who seems most fragile, and yet is able to endure the unendurable and keep moving forward without losing her kindness.

There are more supporting characters that are worth discussing, as the series ran for a long time and had a huge supporting cast, but these are the major female ones. I love the cast for its diversity, and for the sense of human-ness that abounds in each one of them. Some characters are tragic, some comic, some both, some tomboys, some feminine girls, but none are invalidated or made lesser because of their traits. There was clearly thought put into each of them, and while they might seem on the surface like the embodiment of long-standing tropes, each has qualities that defy their categorizations and raise them up into something more thoughtful and interesting. It's also just a great overall series, full of cosmic battles between Good and Evil, silly side-quests, giant slugs, lots of magic, a little romance here and there, complicated family ties, loads of silly gags, lots of food, and plenty of concussions. I still have fun with it even ten years after the fact.

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