Anime Boobs

I was considering giving this post a more serious title, but “Anime Boobs” seemed to be the most fitting label for a visual essay that I hope will demonstrate that the female torso is fetishized in many animated films and television series from Japan. Since a major goal of much of the early critical work on anime was to show that the animated medium allows for a broad range of content and is just as capable of expressing art and philosophy as it is of being a visualization of juvenile heterosexual male fantasies, an argument that there is still a great deal of heterosexual male wish fulfillment going on might seem a bit reactionary. Still, I think it’s necessary to get some things out in the open, so to speak. Allow me to explain.

On March 6, this video from Kyoto Animation was posted to Youtube:

This is a promotional video for the studio itself, not for an actual anime series (they’ve done these before), but many female fans on Tumblr jumped right in and began enjoying themselves with various fannish activities, such as inventing relationships between the boys, drawing fan art, opening ask blogs, claiming characters for roleplay groups, and so on.

Male fans on Tumblr did not like this. Because of the way that Tumblr works, it’s difficult to link to specific comments and response threads, but some of the comments on the Kotaku write-up of the fandom reaction to the video are representative of the male outrage at this particular female-dominated culture of fandom:

Moist fat fan girls want stupid shit to fantasize about.

Piss off. People like you almost ruined Gundam.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Granted, these comments are tame, and the commenters are adequately called out on their meanness. Deeper within the internet, however, there was genuine outrage, which tended to be accompanied by accusations of reverse sexism (which is a classic derailing tactic, by the way). How dare women subject male bodies to the same sort of erotic gaze that (still, more than forty years after Laura Mulvey’s essay) dominates mainstream media.

To give an example from a discussion I observed:

If this was about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits would you be as benign about it? I bet you’d have a 10 page rant about the male gaze or something.

When someone pointed out that there are in fact a lot of anime “about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits,” the response was:

People say this kind of thing and it makes me want to watch anime, thinking it’s going to be nothing but tits, but every time I do I’m disappointed.

The fact that someone can in good faith state that anime, as a broad category of media, is not filled to bursting with many prominent examples of hyper-exposed cleavage is mind-boggling to me. I don’t want to make any value judgments or grand sweeping pronouncements, but I think discussions of the sexualization and objectification of characters in anime might run more smoothly if everyone can agree that “anime boobs” do in fact exist.

While I was waiting for the comment thread I mentioned above to update, I happened to be watching the thirteenth episode of Cowboy Bebop, which is titled “Jupiter Jazz (Part 2).” This episode takes place on the Jovian moon Callisto, which is apparently very cold. While the male lead, Spike Spiegel, covers his customary blue suit with a big fluffy coat…

Spike Spiegel

…the female lead, Faye Valentine, spends the majority of the episode dressed like this:

02 Faye 1

Faye Valentine 2

Faye Valentine 3

Spike gives her a jacket to put on later, thank goodness. I kept worrying about how cold she must be all throughout the episode.

Another candidate for “Wow, she must be freezing” is the character Neko from the recent anime series K, who spends a disproportionate amount of time completely naked. She’s actually a cat, you see, but sometimes she can take human form. This is how the viewer first sees her…

Neko 1

….and this is her as she playfully scampers around the male protagonist’s apartment:

Neko 2

Here’s Awashima Seri, another character from the same anime whose chest is somehow even more on display, even though she’s fully clothed:

Awashima Seri

Moving back in time, an anime classic that’s all about domestic disturbances of the “I just can’t stop tripping and falling into my housemates’ boobs” variety is Love Hina:

Love Hina

Love Hina is based on a manga by Akamatsu Ken, and it was so popular that the artist apparently had trouble ending it. Once it finally wrapped up, Akamatsu started a new project called Negima!, which had even more boobs to trip and accidentally fall into:

Negima!

The bold text at the top reads: “Is everyone looking at the ocean? Or are they looking at you?”

Even though the story is set in a Japanese version of Hogwarts, in both the manga and the anime versions the young male protagonist and his pretty female students find all sorts of opportunities to go swimming, whether it’s at the pool, the ocean, or a hot springs resort. And where there’s water, there are swimsuits… except when they accidentally come off!

Speaking of anime classics, does anyone remember Tenchi Muyo?

Ryoko Hakubi

How about Slayers?

Naga the White Serpent

There was also a cute two-episode Slayers knock-off OVA called Dragon Half:

Dragon Half

While we’re on the subject of old school OVAs, there was one particularly bodacious forty-minute one-shot inexplicably tiled Plastic Little:

12 Plastic Little

Around the same time there was another OVA on the U.S. market called Mezzo Forte:

Mezzo Forte

Like its spiritual forbearer Kite, Mezzo Forte is all about how prolonged violent sex scenes empower women with no chins to shoot things with huge guns in clumsily choreographed action sequences set to laughably bad background music. Oh anime.

“Girls with guns” is a popular theme in anime. For these types of shows, it tends to help the female protagonists’ mobility if they are wearing very tight clothing that is easily destroyed, as is the case with Canaan:

Canaan

Sometimes a woman doesn’t wield a weapon, however; sometimes her entire body is a weapon. In that case, it helps if she wears even less clothing:

Elfen Lied

The character pictured above, Lucy, is from the show Elfen Lied. After Lucy escapes from her laboratory, she can’t remember anything about herself, so the young man who adopts her calls her “Nyuu,” which is the only sound that she can make. Poor Nyuu doesn’t know anything about the real world; and, in the second episode of the series, she soils herself in the foyer of someone’s house because he hasn’t formally invited her in to use the bathroom yet. (I could make a joke about female empowerment here, but I’ll pass.)

While we’re on the subject of strange female-coded creatures being adopted by young men, the anime DearS is notorious for its portrayal of quasi-slavery. It’s okay, though, because the girls are aliens:

DearS

This isn’t to say that some anime boobs can’t be self-reflexive. Karina Lyle from the show Tiger & Bunny is well aware of how her “feminine assets” are used to market the character she plays on TV, Blue Rose:

Blue Rose

Moreover, it’s not as if female viewers don’t appreciate sexualized depictions of the female form. In the lesbian gag manga Tokyo Love~ Rica ‘tte Kanji!? (which you can read here, if you’d like a preview), there’s a joke about how proclaiming an interest in the notoriously boob-heavy Cutey Honey franchise…

Cutie Honey Flash

…is sort of like a pick-up line between women.

Still, some shows are just ridiculous. Take Battle Vixens, for instance:

Battle Vixens

There’s also Burst Angel

Burst Angel

…and Girls Bravo

Girls Bravo

…and Princess Resurrection:

Princess Resurrection

When the concept from Witchblade, a Western comic book series, was adapted into an anime, the studio apparently decided that the most important feature of its original lead character is her, um, identity as a mother:

Witchblade

Another fun action series is High School of the Dead:

High School of the Dead

Skintight schoolgirl uniforms are obviously the best defense against the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of girls in impractical armor, the female warriors in Sacred Blacksmith must buy their battle gear wholesale, because it’s always getting ripped to shreds:

Sacred Blacksmith

Scrapped Princess is equally bad with female armor…

Pacifica Casull

…as is the .hack// franchise:

Hack

If these titles seem too niche, I should mention that anime boobs also appear in mega-franchises such as Bleach

Orihime

…and One Piece:

Nami

One Piece is full of female character designs like the one pictured above. Maybe it’s just the way that Oda Eiichirō draws. This character design is quite common, however. See also the character Lucy Heartfilia, from Fairy Tail:

Lucy Heartfilia

There are plenty of anime boobs on display in Soul Eater, too:

Soul Eater Death

One of my favorite characters is Blair:

Blair

Blair mostly hangs out at home and invites the male protagonists to enjoy her company:

Bathtime with Blair

Despite not appearing much in the show, Blair is a fan favorite who has a large, dedicated fandom. Another character who is loved across broad swatches of anime fandom is Yoko from Gurren Lagann:

Yoko

Gurren Lagann was animated by Studio Gainax, which is still best known for the alpha and omega of all anime franchises, Neon Genesis Evangelion. As a franchise, Evangelion is often represented by a single character, Ayanami Rei:

Ayanami Rei

If Ayanami is not to your taste, however, Evangelion has other young female characters to appreciate. There’s also Asuka Langley…

Asuka Langley

…and, more recently, Makinami Mari:

Mari Makinami

If Evangelion isn’t artistic and philosophical enough for you, feel free to check out one of the most intellectually mature and thematically complex animated movies of all time…

Ghost in the Shell Movie

There’s also a television series based on the Ghost in the Shell manga. In the TV show, the lead character, Kusanagi Makoto, gets to wear a bit more clothing:

Ghost in the Shell TV Anime

Before I wrap this up, I should mention that interest in anime boobs isn’t limited to a small segment of fandom. In fact, the British publication Neo, which regularly features the work of renowned anime writers such as Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, occasionally puts the boobs right on the cover:

Neo Magazine Issue 92

In conclusion, anime boobs exist. It is entirely possible to watch a wide variety of animated films, television shows, and web shorts from Japan without ever coming across a single skintight outfit or low-cut halter top, but anime boobs are still out there.

I am not trying to say that all anime sexualizes and fetishizes the female form, because that is not true at all. In any given work that does feature anime boobs, it is also not necessarily the case that every female character will be subjected to the same treatment.

I am also not trying to say that all of the female characters displayed above are nothing more than sex objects, because that is not true, not even a little bit. Although I sometimes couldn’t help making fun of character designs and diegetic circumstances that are blatantly ridiculous, I am not trying to say that sexual depictions of female characters are bad or morally wrong or artistically weak, nor am I trying to say that sexualization and fetishization can’t serve multiple narrative and thematic purposes.

I’m obviously not trying to say that real women with real bodies are somehow ridiculous, or that any woman, real or fictional, should be defined by the shape of her body. Don’t even go there.

For the record, I’m also not saying that all male fans of anime are sexist pigs. Regarding the “swim club anime” with which I began this discussion, I read through a few conversations on Reddit in which people were surprisingly self-reflexive about the male objectification in the video in light of the studio’s other projects. (One of my favorite comments was “I’m a guy and I watched that video ten times,” to which another user immediately replied, “Don’t worry bro, we all did.”)

What I am trying to say is that there is a definite pattern of female bodies being sexualized in anime. It doesn’t happen all the time in every anime, but it happens frequently enough in enough prominent titles to be noticeable even to an impartial observer. The sexualization of female and male characters is a tricky issue; but, if we can agree on nothing else, let us simply come to the consensus that “anime boobs” really do exist.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Title: Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Japanese Title: 動物化するポストモダン:オタクから見た日本社会
(Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai)
Author: Azuma Hiroki (東 浩紀)
Translators: Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Pages: 200

Even though I have read Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals twice in translation (as well as once in the original Japanese) over the past two years, I will readily admit that I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand what its author is trying to say. It turns out that the key to my understanding of Otaku was Marc Steinburg’s translation of an essay called “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by a Japanese pop culture ethnographer named Ōtsuka Eiji. Reading this essay was something of an extended eureka moment for me, as Azuma has clearly created his model of narrative consumption as a response to Ōtsuka’s own model.

Ōtsuka’s “World and Variation,” originally published in 1989, is ostensibly about Bikkuriman Chocolates, or, more specifically, about the trading cards packaged with the chocolates. It was because of the trading cards that the chocolates were such a phenomenal hit with children around the time that Ōtsuka was writing, even though the character “Bikkuriman” had no television or manga tie-in products. The secret to Bikkuriman’s success was that, on the back of each trading card, there was a short paragraph of information about the character depicted on the front. If a child collected enough cards, he would gradually be able to piece together a larger story and gain a broader perspective on the Bikkuriman universe.

Out of many small narratives, then, children were able to create a grand narrative. The point of Ōtsuka’s discussion of Bikkuriman Chocolates is that “child consumers were attracted by this grand narrative, and tried to gain further access to it through the continued purchase of chocolates.” In other words, “what is consumed first and foremost, and that which first gives these individual commodities their very value, is the grand narrative or order that they hold in partial form and as their background.” The kids who bought the Bikkuriman Chocolates didn’t care about so much about each individual card as they did about the larger story, the mythology, and the worldview – what Ōtsuka calls the “grand narrative.” Ōtsuka argues that the consumption of anime functions in much the same way. Each episode in the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, for example, is a small narrative. The story of each individual protagonist (such as Char or Amuro) that plays out across the episodes is a small narrative as well. The diagrams and mechanical specs included in many of the toy models of the robots may also be considered small narratives. As these small narratives are accumulated, however, they begin to form the contours of an entire world. Ōtsuka argues that it is this grand narrative that makes long-running series such as Gundam (and, I would add, series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) so popular – and marketable.

According to Ōtsuka’s model of narrative consumption, then, small narratives, while pleasing in and of themselves, also form pieces of a larger narrative. Ōtsuka argues that, while “the general viewing audience” will only follow one strand of small narratives, what characterizes otaku is their interest in the grand narrative. Otaku are characterized by their interest in gathering bits of information “hidden in the background,” putting these bits of information together, and creating their own small narratives based on their understanding of the grand narrative. Such a model of narrative consumption goes a long way towards explaining fan-made narrative products such as fan fiction and dōjinshi, since “if, at the end of the accumulated consumption of small narratives, consumers get their hands on the grand narrative […] they will then be able to freely produce their own small narratives with their own hands.” Therefore, otaku are otaku because they are invested in narrative consumption and reproduction at the level of the grand narrative.

In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki proposes a different model of narrative consumption. The Japanese title of Azuma’s cultural study, Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, is revealing. The first word of this title refers to the concept of “animalization” proposed by Alexandre Kojève in The Roots of Postmodern Politics. This animalization involves the degradation of humans (independent subjects capable of reasoning, directed action, and compassion) into animals (mindless consumers who act on impulses such as hunger and the drive for greater comfort). It is Azuma’s thesis that otaku and, by extension, the society that has spawned them are becoming increasingly animalized. Azuma describes the narrative and cultural consciousness characteristic of otaku through what he calls the database model of narrative consumption.

This database model stands in direct contrast to the model proposed by Ōtuska (which he refers to as the “tree model” in his monograph Monogatari shōhiron). To give another example of how Ōtsuka’s model interprets otaku narrative consumption, the character Ayanami Rei of Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose individual story is merely a part of the larger story, is adored by otaku because, for them, she represents the tragedy, epic scale, and political allusiveness of the entire television/film series. Ayanami Rei is not just a girl in a battle uniform, then; she is Neon Genesis Evangelion itself. To “consume” her is to emotionally insert oneself into the apocalyptic, man-versus-god atmosphere of the larger narrative.

Azuma tweaks this model for understanding symbols and narrative in his database model. While Ōtsuka argues that the grand narratives of shows like Evangelion are given weight by their relevance to real-world grand narratives (such as nation and history), Azuma believes otaku narratives are almost completely removed from those of the real world. In the opening chapter of Otaku, he states, “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background.” Thus, although an otaku might be familiar with Ayanami Rei’s age and bust size, be able to quote her dialog, and expound on the quality of various plastic models made in her likeness, he is not invested any larger worldview or grand narratives that may be encompassed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, the otaku mines the series for information to plug into a mental database that also contains information on similar shows. Because of the absence of the emotional pull of grand narratives, the otaku can substitute one element of his database for another. The light blue hair of a young female character such as Hoshino Ruri from Martian Successor Nadesico or Tsukishima Ruriko from Droplet effectively is the light blue hair of Ayanami Rei. For otaku, grand narratives are nothing compared to the “animalistic” appeal of a character’s cute face or slender waist. Tropes can therefore be transferred from one story and character to another, as can an otaku’s emotional investment.

Azuma claims that, “Compared with the 1980s otaku [on whom Ōtsuka bases his model], those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated.” The otaku of the 1990s thus only consumed fragments, or small narratives. These fragments, which could comfortably fit within the small square boxes of a database, could then be easily cross-referenced with other fragments. Because of the ease of referencing these fragments, distinctions between an original and its copies (either through officially licensed spin-off works or fan works) disintegrated. According to Azuma, there was no longer any need to refer these fragments back to the grand narratives of either the original work or the real world. An otaku could float unanchored through the database he created through his consumption of undifferentiated narratives. And this, argues Azuma, is how the cultural phenomenon of moe was born. For otaku, stories don’t matter – it’s all about the cute girls.

In the first section of Otaku, Azuma explains his model. In the second section, he provides examples of how it works. During these two sections, Azuma’s writing is clear and easy to understand. The third and final section of the book, however, is a bit of a mess. In this section, Azuma gets really excited about the internet in a manner that now seems somewhat naïve; but, in Azuma’s defense, he was writing more than ten years ago. Despite the dated feel of this last section, however, Azuma’s ideas are accessible and make a great deal of sense, even to a reader with no prior experience in postmodern philosophy.

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential:
How teenage girls made a nation cool

Authors: Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

When I first looked at the cover of this book, I thought, Wow, so this is the new Orientalism. The coyly smiling teenage schoolgirl with her bling-covered cell phone has replaced the coyly smiling teenage geisha with her understated yet elegant folding fan. A white guy with a Japanese wife tells us about the strange, mysterious, exotic land that is Japan. What is this world coming to, etc. But looks can be deceiving.

While recognizing the international icon status of the Japanese schoolgirl, the authors do their best to treat the girls not as fetishized cultural signifiers but as actual human beings. Even as they attempt to explain the collective power of the demographic as a symbol, Ashcraft and Ueda devote as much space as possible to giving a voice to the actual girls themselves. They accomplish this by interviewing female creators and performers whenever possible. This book is mainly a cultural history of the “Japanese schoolgirl” trope and is thus told primarily from the perspective of popular media, but I applaud the efforts of the authors to incorporate the actual people involved into this history as much as possible.

The book opens with a chapter on Japanese high school uniforms, giving a history of the tradition from its origins in the new educational code of 1872 through the sailor suits of the early Heisei period through the sukeban biker girl style of the 70’s through the designer socks and blazer-style nanchatte seifuku (professionally-designed fake uniforms that are cuter than real uniforms) popular with the after-school crowd today. Numerous photos, interviews with people like the curator of the Tombow Uniform Museum (Tombow being a major Japanese manufacturer of school uniforms), and details about cultural miscellanea (like boys giving their crushes buttons from their uniform jackets and the glue used to hold up the super-baggy socks popular with girls a decade ago) flesh out this chapter and take it well beyond the realm of tired stereotypes.

The rest of the eight chapters follow this model of history mixed with interviews, trivia, and tons and tons of pictures. The second chapter covers teenage idols (and legitimate rock stars, like the uniform-wearing musicians in the punk group Scandal), and the third chapter handles the depiction of schoolgirls in live-action film, including pornography and slashers like Battle Royale, Machine Girl, and, of course, Kill Bill. Chapters four and five are all about fashion, whether it’s on the street or on the cover of a magazine like egg. The sixth chapter begins the transition from reality into pure fantasy with its overview of the female artists in Murakami Takashi’s art collaborative Kaikai Kiki, with a focus on the schoolgirl-infused pop art of teenage prodigy Koide Akane.

The last two chapters handle girl games and anime, respectively. The final chapter on anime and manga is nothing special, although it admittedly does an admirable job of covering the distance from Rose of Versailles to Sailor Moon to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The chapter on “girl game” dating sims (like Air and Clannad) is pure gold, however, with its extended interview of prolific female graphic designer Itō Noizi incorporated skillfully into the main body of the chapter’s narrative. The authors’ explanation of the moe aesthetic is especially worth reading (as is their aside on otome games).

Overall, the topics of discussion and the specific examples used seem to have been very carefully chosen, and all of the facts and information flow together nicely. The prose is intelligent, witty, and easy to read. I would say the photography and illustrations are worth the price of the book by themselves, but Kodansha, in its infinite wisdom, chose to publish every other two-page spread in black-and-white instead of the glorious full color that graces the other half of the pages. That aside, the page layout is flawless, and there are numerous small details that I will leave as pleasant discoveries for future readers. Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential is not only lots and lots of fun but also manages to transcend the schoolgirl icon by coalescing into a rich and informative cultural history. If I were teaching a class about contemporary Japan, you can bet that this book would be required reading.