Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Title: Sword Art Online: Aincrad
Japanese Title: ソードアート・オンライン: アインクラッド
(Sōdo Āto Onrain: Ainkuraddo)
Author: Kawahara Reki (川原 礫)
Translator: Stephen Paul
Illustrations: abec
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 2009 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen Press
Pages: 248

Before I begin this review, I feel I should admit that I only made it through five episodes of the Sword Art Online animated series. The show involves an inordinate amount of yelling and boob grabbing, and watching it gave me a headache. Despite the fact that I am quickly becoming an old woman who has lost her patience with screaming teenagers and fan service, the show was fairly popular in both Japan, where more than 35,000 DVDs have been sold (in a market in which few titles break the ten thousand mark), and in America, where it was hailed as one of the smartest shows to come out in 2012. The Sword Art Online anime is based on a light novel series, which achieved bestseller status in the year the anime was televised. Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a translation of the first novel in the series, which is currently on its fourteenth volume.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad takes place in the fantasy world of Aincrad, an enormous castle with one hundred floors that serves as the setting of an immersive virtual reality MMORPG game called Sword Art Online (SAO). Released in 2022, SAO is the first game of its kind in that players are able to fully enter the virtual world through special hardware called NerveGear, which intercepts all brain activity and leaves the player’s physical body in a dormant state. As might be imagined, the game completely sells out on the day of its release.

As the new players orient themselves on the first floor of Aincrad, however, they receive a nasty surprise. Kayaba Akihiko, the game’s executive producer and head programmer, appears in the sky above the Town of Beginnings and announces that players will not be able to log out of the game until the final boss monster on the top floor of Aincrad is defeated. If someone from outside the game attempts to remove or unplug a player’s NerveGear helmet, the player will die. Even more troubling, if a player dies in the game, his NerveGear will send an electric shock to his brain that will result in death. It is thus in the best interests of the roughly ten thousand players trapped within Aincrad to master SAO and beat the game as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to progress through the game, especially since its high stakes discourage risk taking, and the players have already been in Aincrad for two years when the main story begins.

The novel is narrated from the perspective of a teenager named Kirigaya Kazuto, who goes by the name Kirito in SAO. Kirito was one of the game’s one thousand beta players and, although he was only fourteen years old when he first entered Aincrad, he is already a veteran gamer. He is thus quite adept at the game mechanics and has managed to develop an ability called “Extra Skill Dual Blades,” which is unique to him as a player. Although Kirito wants to be able to return to the real world, he declines to work with the player guilds that have sprung up as collaborative efforts to progress through the game, instead fighting and gaining experience on his own. He gradually warms to a slightly older teenager named Yūki Asuna, who serves as a sub-leader of the Knights of the Blood guild and is popularly known as “Asuna the Flash” because of her high speed statistic. The trust and friendship between Kirito and Asuna gradually deepens over the first half of the novel, which is ultimately less sci-fi suspense or action adventure than it is a fantasy-themed love story.

Although there is plenty of action in Sword Art Online: Aincrad, world building is neglected in favor of establishing a romantic relationship between Kirito and Asuna. The reader is told that Algade, the city on the 50th floor of Aincrad, is reminiscent of Akihabara, and that Collinia, the city on the 75th floor, looks like ancient Roman city, but that’s about all there is in the way of description. What, specifically, does it mean that these cities “look like” other places – what are their styles of architecture, how are their streets laid out, do they any public monuments? How big are these cities? How big is each floor of the castle beyond the cities? What sort of trees and other plants grow on each floor? Are there pets or other domesticated animals? What sort of monsters do the players fight? What do the dungeons look like? We know the players can eat in the game, but what do they eat? We know there are healing potions, but what do they taste like? When magical crystals are used as items, what does it feel like? Can the players smell things? Can they feel temperature and humidity? Are certain textures pixelated or repetitive, and if so do the players notice? The reader is provided with few details that might serve to make the world of the novel more (or less) real.

Some visual detail is provided by eight color illustrations at the beginning of the book and ten black-and-white illustrations interspersed unevenly throughout the chapters, but these illustrations have a strong emphasis on character design. The illustrator abec, whose special skill seems to be depicting the springy softness of braless breasts through school uniforms (the link to his blog is not work safe, by the way), seems to be especially enamored of Asuna, who gets a full two illustrations in nothing but her underwear, one of which is overlaid with text in which she asks Kirito/the reader not to look at her. Even without such illustrations, the novel feels more than a bit like an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. It goes out of its way to objectify Asuna, devoting an undue amount of text on when and how many times and under what circumstances its male protagonist is able to hook up with her. Although Asuna is supposed to be an exceptionally skilled player, her strength and abilities are only shown in relation to male characters, such as when she fights beside or cooks for Kirito. As Asuna is the only female character in the novel, Sword Art Online: Aincrad doesn’t even make it past the first portion of the Bechdel test (there are other female players in the game, but Kirito is not interested in them, stating simply that they’re unattractive and thus unworthy of attention).

Aside from its casual sexism, the narrative emphasis on Kirito’s pursuit of Asuna results in missed opportunities with other male characters as well. For example, the least utilized but perhaps most interesting character in the novel is Heathcliff, the leader of the Knights of the Blood. Why is this older man playing the game (which is something I wanted to know more about even after learning his real-life identity), and why does he act as he does? Where does his strength of character come from, and how does he honestly feel about the deaths of the players under his command? What are his motivations, and what is he escaping from in the world outside the game? Who is caring for his physical body? Unfortunately, all such questions are ignored in favor of Heathcliff acting as a vaguely defined father figure who prevents Kirito’s immediate access to Asuna.

Another potentially interesting male character is Kuradeel, a member of the Knights of the Blood who is eventually revealed to be a former member of a guild called Laughing Coffin, whose members specialize in killing other players. I am always interested in PvP (player versus player) mechanics in MMORPGs, and I’m doubly interested in what rationale might lie behind PvP conflicts in a game that can easily result in real-world death. About two-thirds of the way through the book Kuradeel snaps and allows the reader a fleeting glimpse into the depths exposed by his ebbing sanity, which would be an excellent chance to explore the negative psychological effects that would doubtlessly be engendered by the situation in which the players find themselves. But alas, Kuradeel’s role in the story is merely to act as a barrier to Asuna, and the section in which he traps Kirito and then delivers his limited exposition is only fourteen pages long. The male characters who don’t come between Kirito and Asuna, such as Kirito’s friend Klein and the shopkeeper Agil, have few speaking parts and no backstory at all.

My favorite part of Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a quiet twenty-page segment towards the end of the book that serves as a bridge into the power metal chorus of the finale. After Kirito and Asuna finally get together, they run away from the whole business of dungeons and guild politics to go on a honeymoon of sorts to the 22nd floor of Aincrad, a sparsely populated wilderness distinguished by its lakes. Between bouts of dialog that feels lifted from shōjo manga targeted at the elementary school crowd, the lovers encounter a middle-aged man named Nishida, a technician employed by Tohto Broadband, the network management company responsible for the internet access lines leading to SAO’s servers. While testing the game’s connections on its launch day, Nishida was trapped along with the players, and now he spends his time fishing. By chatting with Nishida, Kirito and Asuna are able to reflect on what their time in SAO has meant to them and why exactly they still want to leave. These conversations are also the only point in the novel at which the reader is able to pick up hints concerning what the lives of players not directly involved in Kirito’s personal drama might be like. This is as close as Sword Art Online: Aincrad gets to addressing what could have been its most interesting theme, namely, whether there is any quantifiable difference between lived experience in the real world and lived experience in a virtual world. As a sixteen-year-old boy and reader stand-in character, however, Kirito is not the least bit concerned with such matters, and the novel quickly makes an awkward leap back into fighting and yelling territory.

Although I can’t make any judgments about the anime, I can say with relative certainty that the first volume of the Sword Art Online novel series is little more than an extended romantic fantasy for straight adolescent males. In other words, if you’re a straight adolescent male and you want the girl of your dreams to fall in madly love with you because of how awesome you are at level grinding, then this book was written for you. Enjoy yourself!

If you are not in the target demographic for the series, however, you might want to give the novel a pass. Although I am given to understand that more female characters are introduced as the series progresses, there is also a fair amount of damseling. In the second volume, for example, Asuna is apparently stripped of her powers, kidnapped by a male villain, and threatened with sexualized violence in order to provide Kirito with renewed narrative impetus. That sort of ridiculous bullshit aside, however, Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a fairly entertaining read that draws the reader in with a well-blended mixture of sci-fi and fantasy elements and a compelling series of crises. Chapters are short, about ten pages on average, and the translation is smooth and meets the high standard of quality one would expect from the team at Yen Press. Whether the admittedly enjoyable “lightness” of this light novel can counterbalance the nagging sexism is up to the individual reader, however.

A good distaff counterpart to the “virtual world romance” scenario presented in Sword Art Online: Aincrad is Vivian Vande Velde’s 2002 Heir Apparent. In this short young adult novel, a teenage girl finds herself trapped in a virtual reality game with strong RPG elements, which she must escape through her own cunning and the help of the handsome teenage game developer. Since the game resets every time its player-character dies, the reader is also able to enjoy a type of The Edge of Tomorrow scenario, only with fewer explosions and sexy pushups and more political maneuvering and backstabbing. Deadly Pink, Velde’s 2012 follow-up to Heir Apparent, focuses on the love between sisters instead of romance and manages to be smart and funny while treading carefully around some surprisingly dark themes. While much of the intended appeal of Sword Art Online: Aincrad may not be of interest outside of the novel’s target demographic, I can wholeheartedly recommend Heir Apparent and Deadly Pink to any reader interested in young adult fiction and themes relating to the pleasures and perils of virtual worlds.

The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest

Witches' Forest

Title: The Adventures of Duan Surk: Witches’ Forest
Japanese Title: デュアン・サーク ― 魔女の森
(Duan Sāku: Majo no mori)
Author: Fukazawa Mishio (深沢 美潮)
Illustrations: Otokita Takao (おときた たかお)
Translator: Catherine Barraclough
Publication Year: 2006 (America); 1996 (Japan)
Publisher: Tokyopop
Pages: 328

This book is kind of stupid. It’s a mess of tropes and clichés liberally borrowed from the early Zelda and Final Fantasy games written in a style aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is no depth to the story, the characters, or the writing. Witches’ Forest is a light novel, and it reads like a light novel: shallow, superficial, and disposable by design.

Nonetheless, I think Witches’ Forest is an interesting and important book, especially in translation. Before I explain why, allow me to give a brief plot summary.

Duan Surk is an orphan in a world plagued not only by vicious man-eating monsters but also by war. He was raised in a small town by his brother Gaeley, a hale young man who took on various odd jobs to order to be able to provide medicine and care for the sickly Duan. The young Duan makes up for his lack of physical strength with an inquisitive mind; and, by the time he is fourteen, Gaeley is confident enough in Duan’s ability to make it in the world that he himself decides to leave the town in order to become a soldier. Gaeley is everything to Duan, so the young Duan decides to become a fighter like his brother. Duan fails the physical portion of the initial test of the Adventurer’s Club guild, but the army will take anyone, so off to the army he goes. After spending a year as a cook’s assistant, Duan returns to camp after spending the day gathering ingredients only to find his entire battalion vanished into thin air, leaving only empty tents and smoldering fires behind. He straps on a sword and rushes into a nearby forest with a vague plan of rescue in mind, but the forest is enchanted, and Duan soon finds himself hungry, lost, and in dire peril.

This is where we find our hero at the beginning of Witches’ Forest, but Duan soon stumbles upon two traveling companions: Olba October, a battle-hardened veteran adventurer in his twenties, and Agnis R. Link, a sixteen-year-old sorcerer with a penchant for fire magic who may or may not be a princess in disguise. Both of these characters are trying to get to the mansion at the heart of the forest, wherein two witches are said to dwell. Olba wants treasure, and Agnis wants revenge. Before they can reach the witches, however, they must brave the dangers of the surrounding forest and the traps set up in and around the house itself.

The adventures of the trio are solidly structured upon a foundation of RPG tropes and gameplay mechanics. Agnis is the perky refugee, Olba is the jaded older guy, and Duan is just about every main player-protagonist to ever appear in a JRPG. The characters randomly encounter monsters drawn directly from D&D dungeon master guides, and they earn experience points when they defeat these monsters. Their Adventurer Cards keep track of their experience points, and, when they earn enough, they gain a level. They are equipped with a full arsenal of Zelda items, from the port-o-lant (which “uses low-cost solid fuel made of Zora oil”) to the coily coily rope (“the definitive version of the hooked rope”), and Agnis in particular has to worry about running out of MP (“magic points,” or magical energy). The trio is accompanied by a flying baby dragon/fire lizard that can talk and use low-level healing spells and is somehow fuzzy despite being reptilian. The only thing the party doesn’t have is a bag of holding, as they’re constantly lugging their adventure gear around with them and getting into petty arguments over who has to carry what.

One of the most engaging parts of Witches’ Forest is Agnis’s backstory, which involves a heartbroken yet politically ambitious stepmother who sinks to Cersei Lannister depths of dastardly scheming. Within this family drama, characters change and grow and are faced with problems that have no obvious solutions. For the most part, though, the novel focuses on the three main characters running around and hitting things with swords and spells. Each of these battles requires some minor element of strategy but is relatively brief. Sentences are short and declarative. Each paragraph contains about three to six sentences. There are no anime-style illustrations, but the text is interspersed with various material drawn from its fantasy world, such as copies of the characters’ Adventurer Cards, advertisements for magical items, and overworld and dungeon maps. At the end of the book is a three-page bestiary of monsters that appear in the story, which is illustrated in a style highly reminiscent of mid-1990s fantasy anime like Record of the Lodoss War or Magic Knight Rayearth.

Witches’ Forest feels extremely dated, which makes sense, as popular culture has moved on in the almost twenty years since the book first came out in 1996. What makes the novel interesting is that it captures the spirit of its age so well. Neon Genesis Evangelion aired during the fall season of 1995 and ended up drastically changing the playing field; but, before that, many popular anime for the young adult demographic were based on light novels such as Slayers and Irresponsible Captain Tylor, which are just as goofy as they are epic. The humor, the fighting, the yelling, the zany adventures, and the group of ridiculously disorganized young people resolving volatile political stalemates entirely by accident are all strongly reminiscent of the anime of the time. It goes without saying that all of this media is closely connected to the themes and stylistic conventions of video games before they made the leap to the 32-bit era. In this way, Witches’ Forest is like a time capsule from a bygone era.

Tokyopop’s release of this book in translation also calls to mind the cultural atmosphere in the United States of a little less than ten years ago. Excitement over Japanese entertainment media such as anime, manga, and video games was almost visibly swelling as new anime conventions popped up every year and bookstores devoted an ever-increasing amount of shelf space to manga. The spark of interest in young adult fiction kindled by the Harry Potter books had leaped into a blazing inferno with the sudden popularity of the Twilight series, and the teenage demographic was on fire in terms of marketing value. Tokyopop was licensing one manga series after another, Viz Media was using its profits as capital to test new markets, and even the mighty Hachette Publishing Group was launching a new imprint devoted to all things manga. Tokyopop had begun to translate light novels, and certain titles, such as Yoshida Sunao’s Trinity Blood series and Ono Fuyumi’s Twelve Kingdoms series, were proving popular with crossover audiences. 2006, the year that Witches’ Forest was published in translation, was the absolute peak of the anime and manga industry in the United States (at least in terms of sales numbers). The market was diversifying and had the support of major retail chains, complaints about internet piracy and entitled fans were few and far between, and it seemed as if anything was possible.

As I wrote at the beginning of this review, Witches’ Forest isn’t written for those seeking a multilayered story, beautiful language, or thematic and allusive depth. Instead, it’s meant to be a quick and enjoyable read, and it serves its purpose admirably. As such, it’s a perfect representative of the literary medium of light novels. The market for light novels in Japan is relatively large, so books like the Duan Surk series, which aren’t particularly brilliant or original, can still thrive and reach a large audience. In the United States, however, the publishing market is tough and the market for young adult novels in translation is infinitely tougher. The crazy manga boom of the last decade was thus necessary for something like Witches’ Forest to appear on bookstore shelves.

Witches’ Forest is therefore an interesting cultural artifact that serves as a window into both the Japan of the 1990s and the United States of the 2000s. Its value as a tangible index of pop lit history aside, the novel is a lot of fun to read, especially for fans of video games and anime. For an older readers, the experience of reading the book may evoke a certain sense of nostalgia, while a younger reader might be able to enjoy the “what was old is new again” thrill of encountering tropes and narrative patterns that now fall slightly outside of the mainstream.

There are four books in the Duan Surk series, and all of them are available in English translation from Tokyopop. Although used copies can be found through various distributors, the best way to get your hands on new copies of all of the books in the series is through the anime retailer The Right Stuf, which is a treasure trove of out-of-print light novels in translation.

Sailor Moon and Femininity

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

So says Jill Twisty at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy.

I agree with her. So much has been written on this topic that I don’t need to be convinced that such a statement is true.

But… What if there were no men?

Or what if men existed, but simply weren’t that important? What if we didn’t live in a patriarchy? What if we didn’t live in a world where men are assumed to be the standard normative subjects and the ultimate bearers of political, legal, social, economic, religious, and sexual power? What if “femininity” didn’t need to be defined according to its deviations from “masculinity” (which connotes maturity, power, authority, and rationality), and what if “femininity” weren’t something to be performed for a presumed audience of men (and women who wield a male gaze)? Would femininity still be perceived as a submission to oppressive phallocentric interests?

These questions form the core of why the manga Sailor Moon is so fascinating to me. A story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom, Sailor Moon is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.

Because the early volumes of the series are about young girls – and beautiful young girls (bishōjo) at that – their reception has not always been feminist-positive, however. For example, in his monograph Beautiful Fighting Girl, psychologist and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki discusses the anime version of Sailor Moon as a prime example of why the “beautiful girl” trope appeals so much to men. In America, cinema scholar Susan Napier and anthropologist Anne Allison both take issue with the series, finding it a stale mash-up of tropes characteristic of the mahō shōjo (magical girl) genre as it has existed since the mid-seventies. Both scholars also view the anime series in particular as catering to a male audience eager for sexual titillation. Napier, for instance, finds the Sailor Scouts “lacking in psychological depth,” while Allison finds it troubling that the “girl heroes tend to strip down in the course of empowerment, becoming more, rather than less, identified by their flesh,” a trademark visual feature of Sailor Moon that “feeds and is fed by a general trend in Japan toward the infantilization of sex objects.”

Unfortunately, these evaluations do not take into account the female fans of the series, who seem to be less interested in the sexual aspects of the short-skirted female warriors and more eager to identify with the empowered femininity they represent. These fans are also willing to tolerate the weak characterization in the opening volumes of the series in order to enjoy the opportunities presented later in the story for the female heroes to develop their individual talents, personalities, and bonds with each other. In Sailor Moon, the female heroes begin as girls, but they gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.

To celebrate the recent North American release of a new translation of the Sailor Moon manga, an eighteen-year-old blogger on LiveJournal wrote of the series that:

[Sailor Moon] is a world where femininity is not something to be ashamed of, it’s the source of POWER. The girls don’t use their pretty clothes and jewels and compacts as playthings to impress men – these things are all weapons against evil, and powerful ones. They declare themSELVES pretty, needing approval from no one. Our hero possesses all the typical “chick” attributes – emotional, tearful, forgiving, loving, nurturing – and she uses these attributes to triumph and kick ass. She burns monsters alive with the purity of her love, sends out supersonic waves that shake the villains down when she bursts into tears, and her friendship and forgiveness is the most effective superpower one could ask for. The “girly” emotions and affectations are not something to be ashamed of or suppressed, but the source of the power these girls wield. They don’t have to imitate guy heroes at all or act “masculine” to be taken seriously – girliness is just as powerful.

Although someone like Saitō might see Sailor Moon as nothing more than a smorgasbord of tropes that can be endlessly combined and recombined to suit any male fetish, and although prominent critics such as Napier and Allison echo his reading, female readers find something entirely different in the series: they see a group of young women who fight not for the approval of a father or a boyfriend (or a male reader), but rather to achieve their own goals and ambitions. Moreover, they learn that being female isn’t something to be ashamed of; and, according to later developments in the series, neither is homosexuality or a transgendered identity.

Far from regurgitating the tropes of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko overturned the conventions of both shōjo romance for girls and bishōjo fantasy for boys. Furthermore, the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men. The fantasy created by Sailor Moon is not an escape from the gendered conventions and restrictions of reality, but rather a safe space in which these aspects of reality can be tested and challenged. Perhaps this is why Sailor Moon has appealed to so many women outside of its target demographic, and perhaps this is why it has appealed to so many boys and men as well.

If you haven’t read Sailor Moon, the Kodansha Comics re-release is beautifully published and contains a wealth of translation and cultural notes that help make sense of the story and characters. The first two or three volumes of the series can come off as a bit childish; but, as the characters grow and mature, the story does as well. If you’re a girl or a guy, or if you’re a serious manga reader or don’t read many manga at all, Sailor Moon is worth reading simply for the experience of entering a world in which femininity is indeed ” is not something to be ashamed of” but instead “the source of POWER.” The manga is also an excellent introduction to an alternative realm of discourse (common in Japanese manga and spreading to Western comics – partially due to the influence of Sailor Moon) in which female writers and artists can tell their own stories without really worrying about how men are reading and looking at them.

If you’re intrigued, check out the Sailor Moon Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Sean Gaffney’s at A Case Suitable for Treatment over on Manga Bookshelf.

Ico: Castle in the Mist

Title: Ico: Castle in the Mist
Japanese Title: イコ:霧の城 (Iko: Kiri no shiro)
Author: Miyabe Miyuki (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: Haikasoru
Pages: 400

When people complain about sexism in video games, they’re not complaining just to start a fight or to prove that they’re on the right side of the social justice movement. The sexism in many games is not only unnecessary but also detracts from the player’s enjoyment of the game. For example, when I played the original Tomb Raider game for the Playstation, I remember being frustrated at Lara’s inability to navigate certain terrain and thinking this wouldn’t be a problem if she were wearing pants. A better example might be Metroid: Other M, in which your female player-character (a veteran soldier who has already saved the world multiple times) can’t use even the most insignificant of her abilities until given permission to do so by her male commanding officer in a gameplay paradigm that has to be one of the most frustrating I have ever encountered. This sort of sexism is dangerous precisely because it is so frustrating. Instead of hating the (male) developers who imposed such ridiculous limitations on the female protagonist, the player’s frustration at these limitations instead causes him to hate the female protagonist herself.

It is for this reason that I despise Ico: Castle in the Mist, a short puzzle platformer released for the Playstation 2 in 2004 that was received with almost universal acclaim. In this game, you are Ico, a boy with mysterious horns who is mysteriously dumped in a mysterious castle in which he mysteriously encounters a mysterious young woman named Yorda. As Ico, your job is to find your way out of the castle while simultaneously rescuing Yorda. Considering that Yorda (a) has lived in the castle for a very long time and (b) is magic, this shouldn’t be too difficult of a feat. Unfortunately, Yorda also (c) either can’t or won’t communicate with Ico and (d) is almost entirely passive. Ico quite literally must lug Yorda around like an inarticulate sack of meat, and the main challenge of the game is not for Ico to navigate his way through the castle but rather for Ico to bully and cajole Yorda over and around obstacles while she remains both vulnerable and inscrutable. If the player, as Ico, wanders off on his own for a moment, Yorda is besieged by shadow monsters that she will not attempt to ward off or escape in any way. Ico is a truly beautiful game that creates a hauntingly atmospheric experience through its graphics, music, and gameplay, but it is difficult to make it through the game’s roughly eight hour playtime without hurling obscenities at Yorda for being so useless. Sexism is thus built into the gameplay mechanics, and I remember thinking that Ico would have been a lot more fun if Yorda had actually done something instead of passively allowing herself to be rescued by a younger male hero.

When I heard that the novelization of Ico would be released in North America, I was really excited. I thought that Miyabe Miyuki, who writes about awesome female detectives and manages to create a strong yet believable female protagonist in The Book of Heroes, would be able to do something interesting with Yorda, or at least to make her more of a subject than an object. Thankfully, she succeeds – at least to an extent.

Like the game on which it’s based, Miyabe’s novelization is the story of Ico, a thirteen-year-old boy with horns who is exiled from his village and dumped at the Castle in the Mist by a group of soldiers. In the otherwise empty castle Ico finds Yorda, who is suspended in a hanging cage covered by thorns. Ico wakes Yorda and then extracts her from her cage, resolving to rescue her from her imprisonment in the castle. Yorda doesn’t speak Ico’s language and in any case doesn’t seem particularly interested in communicating with him, but her touch can open certain magical doors through which Ico needs to pass. Furthermore, Ico’s body is filled with light and energy whenever he holds Yorda’s hand, so he quickly develops an attachment to her.

As Ico and Yorda progress through the castle, Ico begins to see Yorda’s memories of her life before the castle was reduced to its current state. Through these memories, it becomes clear that Yorda’s mother, the queen of the castle, is the “daughter” of the Dark God. In ages past, Yorda’s mother used her power to keep outsiders away from her kingdom, mainly by turning them into stone. She also kept her own people within her country’s borders by means of an enchantment that kept their hearts and minds peaceful. Convinced that other nations coveted the beauty, wealth, and material prosperity of her kingdom, Yorda’s mother would hold a tournament every three years to bring the world’s mightiest warriors into her castle to compete for glory. The winner of these tournaments would teach the latest military technology to her soldiers – and then secretly be turned to stone. The tournament of Yorda’s sixteenth year brought a horned warrior, a servant of the Light God, to the tournament, and his interactions with Yorda led the kingdom to its current state of timeless abandonment. Ico’s job is thus to unravel the mysteries of the past in order to ascertain how to defeat the queen once and for all, after which he will presumably be able to escape with Yorda in tow.

Miyabe’s novel is divided into four parts. The first part details Ico’s life before he was taken to the castle and thereby provides information concerning the greater world in which the story takes place. The second part describes Ico’s adventures in the castle before Yorda begins communicating with him through her memories. The third part tells the history of the castle from Yorda’s perspective, and the fourth part follows Ico through his final confrontation with the evil queen. As Miyabe jokes in her introduction, her novelization isn’t meant to be a walkthrough for the game, and the first and third sections are almost entirely her own invention. Miyabe adds layers of depth to game’s characters and creates a handful of her own characters, who manage to be interesting and engaging despite only being onstage for small portions of the novel. Miyabe also renders the ending of the story slightly less ambiguous.

This is all well and good, but how does a puzzle platforming game translate into prose? Mainly, I suppose, in the way one might expect, though descriptive passages:

The thought put Ico at ease. Maybe if we can get down to those doors, we can get outside. The only problem was, there didn’t seem to be any way to get from the top of the bridge on the second floor down to the floor of the great hall. What stairs he could see went up to the ceiling, not down to the floor below, forming a sort of catwalk that seemed without purpose.

Besides such descriptions of setting, there is also a great deal of running, jumping, climbing, flailing at shadow monsters with a stick, and holding Yorda’s hand.

If the reader can successfully visualize what Miyabe is describing, then her descriptive passages, which form the bulk of the two sections from Ico’s perspective, create a sense of adventure and awe. If the reader is too engrossed in figuring out the mysteries of the castle to slow down and mentally picture the landscape Miyabe is describing, then these passages can come off as clunky and annoying. My sympathies tend to lie with the latter reader, especially if that reader has never played the game; trying to describe the visual aesthetics of the Castle in the Mist is like trying to describe an Escher painting. The game Ico is all about the atmosphere created by its visual and auditory elements, and a purely textual medium will never be able to capture that atmosphere, no matter how hard it tries.

What text can do, and what text can do well, is characterization, and it seems to me that the lion’s share of the game’s atmosphere is conveyed in the novel by Ico’s perceptions of and interactions with Yorda. Just as the castle is architecturally majestic and full of mysteries, Yorda is physically beautiful and conceals secrets upon secrets beneath her silent exterior. For example:

Ico glanced at her. She did not look sad or even frightened. Nor did she smile or seem engaged with the world around her at all. Though she was right next to him, and he could look directly into her face, he felt like she was standing on the other side of a veil.

Here’s another example:

The girl turned to him and to his surprise, she smiled faintly. She’s beautiful. He thought her smile looked like a flower in full bloom, swaying gently in a forest breeze, sending its petals out to drift on the wind. He could almost smell the flower’s perfume on her breath.

Here’s yet another example:

Filled with hope, Ico looked into Yorda’s eyes. He felt like he was looking into an hourglass, trying to pick through the grains of truth buried there long ago. He hadn’t found anything yet, but the warmth of Yorda’s hands in his told him that he was getting close.

Yorda is thus delicate and mysterious, and her main function as a character is to reflect the emotions Ico projects onto her. Because this novel is a work of young adult fiction, Ico is exceptionally pure of heart, and – perhaps as a result – Yorda is as well. What Ico is about, at its core, is the bravery of two children challenging the old, the impure, and the monstrous. For me, the main problem with Ico and Yorda is that, although purity of heart is inspiring, it is also somewhat boring. The evil queen is far more interesting. At a certain point I stopped caring about Ico and his youthful hope and good intentions and started waiting for the next appearance of the queen, who is the only halfway intelligent and rational character in the entire novel.

For example, unlike Ico’s caretakers, who tell him nothing, the queen respects her daughter enough to explain to her what she is doing and her motivation for doing it. The queen’s explanations are always pragmatic and hint at a lifetime of experience. The following passage, for example, is how the queen justifies to Yorda why the two of them never leave the castle:

“Beauty is a high and noble thing. Thus are men enchanted by it and seek it out. But those who desire you also desire our lands. I must keep you hidden so that you do not entice or enchant them – because, my dearest, while your beauty holds the power to command the actions of a few men, it does not bestow the ability to govern.

“It is the same for me. The land I govern is the most wealthy and beautiful of all the lands that divide this vast continent. They crave it, as they crave me. From their slavering jaws and their multifarious schemes have I escaped many times. All to protect myself and my beautiful domain, blessed by the Creator. You, who were born into the world as the lone daughter of the queen, have noble blood and noble beauty, thus must you bear my burdens.”

Judging from what happens in the rest of the novel (which I will not spoil), and judging from the way that Ico, his horned ancestor, and everyone in between has treated Yorda and her mother, the queen is not incorrect. Unfortunately, because the queen is a sexually mature and politically powerful older woman, she is EVIL and therefore cannot be reasoned with or redeemed but must be DEFEATED. The final battle between the queen and Ico is somewhat disappointing, as the queen is made to lay aside her primary weapons – her intelligence and wit – in order to fight boss-battle style with attacks that are easily deflected in a room filled with obstacles that deflect them.

The moral of the story seems to be that inarticulate yet delicately beautiful and innocent younger women are good (for men) and that brilliant and powerful mature women are EVIL (to men).

At least, that is the moral of the second and fourth sections of the novel, which are told from Ico’s perspective and closely follow the plot of the video game. The first and third sections are much more interesting and open-ended. The first section is, in my option, a superlatively excellent example of fantasy world building that establishes setting, mythology, history, and worldview through its characters instead of in spite of them. The third section, which is told from Yorda’s perspective, is an almost archetypal story of innocence awakening to experience as Yorda begins to question and investigate the world around while realizing the consequences of her own actions on the lives of others. By the end of the third section, Yorda has become a powerful queen in her own right…

…before we switch back to Ico’s perspective, in which Yorda is a helpless and naive young girl once more. Although this is jarring, it is also necessary. The game Ico is so deeply sexist that, in order for Miyabe to subvert this misogyny, she would have to abandon her goal of novelization. If Yorda were an active agent and not a passive victim, the events leading up to the final battle and the battle itself would not be possible. Good must triumph over evil in a decisive showdown; and, as everyone who has ever played a video game knows, such a task is the man’s job. This is why I complain about I sexism. Not only is it frustrating and unnecessary; it also tends to diminish from the overall quality of the work in which it appears.

Despite all this, Ico is a fun read. Miyabe is a good writer, and Smith has produced an excellent translation (as always). The plot and character conventions are fairly characteristic of mainstream young adult fiction, and I can imagine that younger readers would really enjoy this book, which is exactly the right length and complexity for the 7-12 demographic. It goes without saying that fans of the game will love the novelization, which does its very best to convey everything that was fun and intriguing about the original work. Fans of video games in general might also enjoy the book, which is an interesting experiment in adaptation. As for adult readers who are looking for archetypes represented in a deep and multilayered fantasy, however, I think there are much better books to spend an afternoon reading.

Rape in Yaoi

Trigger warning for discussions of rape and rape culture, both in the essay and in the comments.

Before I say anything else, I should clarify – I’m talking about fictional, fantasy rape, specifically the rape that occurs in the male/male romance narratives encompassed by yaoi manga, anime, light novels, visual novels, and dōjinshi. I do not support the actual rape of actual human beings, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. Nor do I support rape culture or any ideology that sustains it. What I would like to argue here is that a great deal of what one could call “yaoi fantasy rape” actually subverts mainstream, real-world rape culture.

I’m going to approach this topic in a roundabout way by talking about kink memes. A kink meme is an online community (usually on Livejournal) that consists of “prompts” and “fills.” A commenter will post a prompt in order to request a story with certain guidelines. Another commenter will respond to this prompt with a fill containing a story that follows the guidelines of the prompt. A fill can range from one or two paragraphs to multi-chapter epics in the hundreds of thousands of words. Kink memes are generally fandom-specific (for example, the Harry Potter franchise has several) and are seen as good places to practice writing and brainstorm ideas with a community of fans.

Although there are plenty of prompts to the effect of “Character A and Character B share their first kiss” or “Character A and Character B take a long drive and discuss Plot Development X” (or even “Character A and Character B are reincarnated as characters in the Star Wars universe”), most prompts and their corresponding fills are erotic. As the name “kink meme” implies, many revolve around a sexual kink (such as bondage or voyeurism). When the kink is nothing more than light BDSM elements or a ménage à trois, all is well. However, when the kinks become more extreme or involve abuse or rape, problems may arise between members of the kink meme community.

The moderators of various kink meme communities have developed two main policies in order to help resolve these conflicts before they start. The first of these policies involves trigger warnings, which are attached to stories that contain graphic descriptions of behaviors readers may find upsetting or offensive. Before someone innocently stumbles into a pornographic story depicting an underage character being raped, she can be aware of that element of the story’s content and pass it by unread, shielded from any psychological pain or discomfort she might feel while reading. One person’s fantasy might be another person’s trigger for a severe case of post-traumatic stress, after all, and the aim of these communities is not to harm their members but rather to provide a safe space for fandom-related activities.

The second of these policies is a strong injunction against kink shaming. The term “kink shaming” is derived from the concept of slut shaming, or harshly judging a woman for expressing her sexuality. Kink shaming involves criticizing or belittling someone for sexual practices or (more commonly) fantasies that are perceived as non-normative or unhealthy. The argument against kink shaming, even for kinks that are culturally insensitive or that would be immoral if acted upon in real life, is that no sexuality is normative; a wide variety of sexualities can co-exist without anyone being hurt or taken advantage of. Moreover, who is to draw the line between what is okay and what isn’t? (The latter is actually a tricky issue taken very seriously by these communities, and I don’t mean to downplay its practical significance, although the point still stands.) A quick glance at even a short list of prompts reveals an astonishing breadth of sexual imagination, so anyone who participates in a kink meme quickly comes to redefine her idea of normative sexuality, and any instance of kink shaming is quickly dealt with by both the moderators and the other members of the community.

Kink memes are thus a safe haven not only for fandom-related speculation and silliness but also for alternative sexualities. Outside of a range of clearly anti-social behavior, anything goes in a kink meme, and it is there that people (largely female-gendered people) find an acceptance of their interests and sexuality that eludes them in the world beyond the internet. It is acknowledged by all parties involved that everything on the kink meme happens within the realm of fantasy. Thus it is possible for a militant feminist and an ardent supporter of gay rights to read, write, and enjoy fictional stories about one male character raping another. The people who produce and consume such narratives are allowed to do so without fear of anyone judging their personal fantasies or shaming them for their sexualities, and the people who prefer completely consensual cuddling (or some other kink, or no sex at all) can simply skip the rape scenes altogether.

I’d like to posit that yaoi is a similar safe space for female-gendered sexuality. The problem with this, however, is that, like most formally published narratives containing scenes of graphic rape (like The Shawshank Redemption and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), yaoi stories picked up by major publishing companies and animated by professional studios don’t contain trigger warnings. A reader might therefore open a book and read bittersweet stories of love and friendship reminiscent of the artist basso – or she might be confronted with the brutally violent mess of broken taboos that is Under Grand Hotel. Many people who write about yaoi, such as Che Gilson in the “Fujoshi USA” column of Otaku USA, complain about the frequency of yaoi rape tropes, such as rape equals love and it wasn’t rape if you enjoyed it.

I suppose I really shouldn’t judge these critics too harshly (because of the lack of trigger warnings), but their objections to yaoi fantasy rape seem an awful lot like superficial kink shaming to me. Part of the thrill of any romance narrative is the tension between the two parties involved. This tension is obviously sexual, but it can also be social, economic, political, or religious. If both members of a potential relationship were complete equals who completely understood one another to the complete approval of everyone, then their love story would be more than a bit boring. The gradual resolution of various conflicts is how a romance story is structured; but, before there can be a resolution, there first needs to be a conflict. When a man and a woman are involved, there is a perceived unequal power dynamic between them that has still persisted into what some believe to be a post-feminist world. Since this gap in power and social status does not necessarily exist between two men, it is created through rape. Rape thus serves a narrative purpose that does double duty because, to be blunt, it is kinky. The alluring forbiddenness of rape compounds the alluring forbiddenness of two men loving each other. The violence and the emotional friction are part of the sexual and emotional appeal, and the way in which the negative consequences of the rape are dealt with keeps readers invested in the relationship past the initial encounter.

A complaint that has often been lodged against yaoi is that it objectifies gay men and portrays them in a manner that has nothing to do with the reality of being gay. Although obviously there is merit in this objection, it feels a bit like derailing to me. (And also short-sighted; nothing objectifies gay men quite like porn for gay men – which is itself a derailing statement, ha!) Yaoi has very little to do with “real” gay men or the experience of being gay in the real world (although certain titles like Stray Cat – which is fantastic, by the way – do incorporate the female writer’s interpretation of such an experience). As I mentioned earlier, yaoi is a safe space for women to express their sexuality and their sexual fantasies without being judged. And, in the end, yaoi really is nothing more than fantasy. What yaoi normalizes is not rape, but rather the fantasy of rape.

I am going to go out on a limb and say that the normalization of the fantasy of rape is perhaps not such a bad thing, especially when it is performed by two fictional male characters for an audience of women. Although obviously I can’t speak for everyone who consumes yaoi narratives (or writes slash fan fiction on a kink meme), I don’t think the women who read and write boys love fantasies want to be men. Rather, the fantasy of rape enacted on an attractive male body is less threatening because it doesn’t bring with it the baggage of real world rape culture. Although I’m not saying that real gay men aren’t raped (and I certainly don’t want to imply that the sexual harassment and assault gay men experience in the real world is in any way okay), the vast majority of mainstream media in both America and Japan is still structured so that male characters are sexual subjects, while female characters are sexual objects; and, when women do initiate sexual contact, they are often judged harshly. The denial of female sexuality and the culture of rape that accompanies it exist in the real world as well. Thus, if a female character is raped in fiction, it can hit a bit too close to home. If a male character is raped, however, the scenario is much closer to a pure fantasy.

This is a bit of a leap of logic, but I believe that the yaoi rape fantasy undermines mainstream rape culture in two ways. First, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality without fear of being criticized. Second, it allows female-gendered people to express their sexuality in a way that doesn’t reiterate and reinforce the unequal power dynamic between the sexes that is on display in so many other realms of cultural, social, political, and religious discourse. Yaoi fantasy rape has a clear narrative function, and it clearly appeals to a sizable percentage of people who produce and consume male/male romance narratives. Not all yaoi involves rape, and I don’t think the people who choose to read and write the yaoi that does should be subjected to kink shaming. Now if only yaoi titles came with trigger warnings…

To conclude, I’d like to state that this is nothing more than my opinion, and I don’t intend for it to be any sort of definitive statement. Debate on yaoi, fantasy rape, and its tropes will always be necessary, and dissenting opinions are valid and useful. I would like to acknowledge the blog post on Sekai-ichi hatsukoi (from which the opening image is taken) that made me start writing, as well as the blog post through which I found it. Both blogs and bloggers are wonderful, and I’d really like to thank them for the inspiration.

ETA: This essay was mentioned on Encyclopedia Dramatica in an article on yaoi that makes the contemporary Men’s Rights Movement seem positively pro-feminist and queer-friendly by comparison. It’s an interesting piece of writing that provides a concise counterpoint to the argument I’m making here, but it’s very NSFW (by which I mean full of explicit images and language, so be warned).

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Five)

If we can assume that the fantasy trope of mystical female other in bondage gear is popular among men, perhaps we can likewise assume that the fantasy trope often referred to as Draco in Leather Pants is popular among women. According to this trope, a man with a complicated past, equally complicated motivations, and a markedly antisocial streak has a heart of gold somewhere deep inside – especially if he’s handsome. The character Balthier from Final Fantasy XII meets all of these conditions; and, judging from the amount of fan fiction and fan art that has been created in his honor, female fans of the game love him.

It is therefore not unreasonable to argue that Balthier’s design and characterization both contain just as many fetish elements as Fran’s. After all, the male characters in the Final Fantasy series are subject to the same narrative tropes as the female characters. If Rydia is wedged into the role of spell caster by virtue of her gender, then Cecil is similarly cast into the role of the dark/white knight by virtue of his own gender. Moreover, if Rydia is sexually attractive to men, Cecil is perhaps even more attractive according to non-heteronormative female standards of male beauty (which include delicate features and long, willowy limbs). This is fantasy, and we want our characters to be attractive, and interesting, and suitably epic. There is no rule, after all, that says fantasy has to be any less subject to the confines of narrative tropes than, say, interwar French existentialist fiction.

If everyone in the Final Fantasy games is fetishized, and if everyone is subject to gendered tropes, however, can the series really be called “feminist”? Through my discussion of Rydia, Aeris, and Fran, I have attempted to prove that each successive game in the Final Fantasy series has become less sexist and phallocentric. I posited at the beginning of this essay that a “feminist” work contains “strong” (by which I mean “multi-dimensional” and “featured prominently”) female characters who are not villainized. By this standard of judgment, the games in the Final Fantasy series are indeed feminist works. Even though the player-protagonist is often male, this character is usually subordinate to the narrative importance of a central female character. Even though the story of this female character is seen through the eyes of a male character, it is her story that is being told, and the male player-protagonist is just along for the ride. While the player controls the gameplay, the actions of the female protagonist advance the plot and open more of the game’s world.

Although we could once safely assume that the gamer behind the player-protagonist was male, this is no longer the case; he is now just as likely to be controlled by a woman. The player-protagonist may have his own story, but he is also the eyes through which the player looks and the hands and feet by which the player explores and manipulates the world. Such a direct player identification thus makes his identity somewhat less than stable, along with his gender and sexual orientation. The player-protagonist is arguably little more than a cipher in many situations (such as Tidus in Final Fantasy X, who is never addressed or referred to by name, lest the player’s identification with him be impeded), and the true spotlight shines on the female protagonists of the series, such as Rinoa, Garnet, Yuna, and Ashe.

Perhaps, because these female characters were created by development teams consisting primarily of men, they can never be considered “pure” feminist role models, but there is another side to the equation – the female (and male!) fans of the series who have been inspired by these characters and have interpreted them in ways that may differ wildly from the original intentions of their creators. As I have argued elsewhere, a text does not end with the “Game Over” screen but rather spins into ever wider and deeper perversions in the personal fantasies of the player. These personal fantasies can then be reinforced and expanded upon when introduced into larger communities of gamers. Player reception is engaged in a feedback loop with Square-Enix, which has used the enormous revenue it has earned from the Final Fantasy franchise in order to develop games that will better appeal to its fans, both new and old. The strong female characters of the series have resulted in a large and vocal female following, which has in turn resulted in Final Fantasy XIII, a title that has been celebrated as a truly feminist video game. As gaming technology becomes more sophisticated, and as the narrative mechanisms of role playing games become more innovative and complex, I am looking forward to meeting the female characters in the future of Final Fantasy.

I cannot claim to have the final word on Final Fantasy, or on the topic of video games, role playing, and gender. Allow me to therefore cite my sources and inspirations, both online and in print.

The absolute best pieces of writing on Final Fantasy that I have ever had the pleasure of reading are collected under the title The Rise and Fall of Final Fantasy. Each of these essays is quite long, but each is beautifully written and provides all of the background information I have omitted, which is presented in a humorous and highly intelligent tone. The online video game “magazine” The Escapist recently posted a video essay called True Female Characters, which is a bit superficial in terms of analysis but makes some good points and provides several examples of female characters in video games who are prime examples of sexist stereotypes. A short, journalistic article called Getting the Girl offers an interesting counterpoint to this discussion in the light it sheds on female game developers and the market pressures they face when designing female characters. The website The Mary Sue has a number of interesting pieces on women and geek culture, including statistics relating to female gamers.

If you’re interested in other aspects of the Final Fantasy series as viewed from a “scholarly” analytical perspective, there is an essay in Mechademia 4: War/Time titled “Imagined History, Fading Memory: Mastering Narrative in Final Fantasy X.” This essay is somewhat crippled by the word count imposed by the journal, but it contains an interesting argument relating to how the narrative structure of the game may relate to Japan’s experience of modernity. There are also several interesting and tangentially related articles in an academic journal called Games and Culture, including an essay on ethics in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, as well as an interesting piece on fantasy races in MMO-RPGs.

On a broader level, Sharalyn Orbaugh’s “Busty Battlin’ Babes: The Evolution of the Shōjo in 1990s Visual Culture” (found in the collection Gender and Power in the Japanese Visual Field) is an excellent discussion of cross-gender character identification in a Japanese context. All four chapters of Tania Modleski’s short but brilliant Loving with a Vengeance discuss the romance tropes surrounding male characters and might be useful for a sustained inquiry into why a character like Balthier (or Sephiroth) is so popular with female fans. Finally, while I was writing this essay, I was addicted to Eleanor Byrne and Martin McQuillan’s Deconstructing Disney, which opens by making a strong case for why we should continue to analyze popular culture and then goes on to provide an fantastic model of how to do so.

All of the games and characters I have discussed, as well as (almost) all of the images I have borrowed, belong to Square-Enix. Square-Enix, I love you. Please don’t sue me.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Four)

When one looks at Fran from Final Fantasy XII, the first thing that jumps to mind is most likely bunny girl or perhaps fetish character. Fran is tall, beautiful, and wearing very little clothing. The clothing that she is wearing is black leather bondage gear. She is marked as exotic not only by her rabbit ears but also by her Icelandic accent and the coffee color of her skin. If there were ever a character who seems designed solely for heterosexual male viewing pleasure, Fran would appear to be that character. Putting issues of costuming aside, however, I don’t think Final Fantasy XII’s characterization of Fran is in any way sexist.

Before I explain why her characterization isn’t sexist, let me first address the issue of why I don’t think her characterization is racist. Although it’s very easy to jump to the facile conclusion that Fran is just another example of a hyper-sexualized black woman, I would argue that this is not in fact the case. The most significant counter-argument against this claim is that Fran is not black, at least not in the sense that being “black” in America carries with it a great deal of history and cultural significance. In Ivalice, the fantasy world that Fran inhabits, there are many races of people with whom the player has extensive contact, and none of these races is distinguished by racial stereotypes (as, for example, Vulcans and Klingons are in the Star Trek universe).

To give an example, the Bangaa are a type of bipedal lizard-like people with floppy puppy-dog ears. Some of them are bounty hunters, and some of them are merchants or traders, and some of them are mechanics. Some of them are vicious and cruel, and some of them are pleasant and kind. Some of them are intelligent, and some of them are stupid. Some of them have red skin, and some have green skin, and some have blue skin, and some have brownish-yellow skin. Because the player comes into contact wide such a wide variety of Bangaa, and because the game itself does not stereotype them in any way, it’s almost impossible to create an overgeneralizing racial profile.

Fran’s race, the Viera, are the same. Although they all have rabbit ears, different individuals have different color hair, eyes, skin, and ear-fur. While some dress in skimpy clothing, others do not. While some live in the forest like mystical rabbit-healer-elf-ninjas, others do not. While some are wise and bound to nature, others live in urban areas and engage in commerce and trifling romantic affairs. The fantasy world of Invalice is a pan-cultural diaspora in the truest sense of the word, and one of the primary themes of the game is that the twin concepts of “homeland” and “people” are nothing if not extremely problematic.

While Fran may be exotic, then, I don’t feel that the game’s depiction of her is particularly racist. Nor do I feel that it is particularly sexist. As I mentioned earlier, the Viera are a diverse race of people. Even though the race seems to have originated in a heavily wooded area of Ivalice and has developed ears to hear the semi-magical “voice of the forest,” many Viera do not live in the woods and consider their ears as nothing more than mere decoration. In the case of the Viera in general, this makes a sexist equation between woman and nature, or woman and mysticism, or woman and emotion, difficult. In the specific case of Fran, who is an engineer and pilot, such an equation is utterly non-applicable. Moreover, even though the player may fetishize Fran, Final Fantasy XII does not. Not only is Fran significantly older and more mature than any of the other playable characters, but she is the object of no one’s sexual attraction, and even her relationship with her male partner Balthier is characterized as friendly yet professional.

The game makes it hard to draw sexist conclusions based on any of its female characters either in terms of plot or gameplay. Ashe, the character around whom the game’s plot revolves, is a princess, but she is less concerned with love than she is with political strategy, international alliances, and the consequences of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Ashe comes pre-equipped with a sword; but, if the player decides to make her a spell-caster instead of a melee fighter, there are no consequences. Likewise, although Fran comes pre-equipped with a bow, the player can choose to make her a two-handed weapon-wielding tank of a melee fighter.

As in many earlier games in the Final Fantasy series (including Final Fantasy V, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy VIII), gender bears absolutely no relevance to fighting ability in Final Fantasy XII. The player builds each player’s abilities though a device called the “license grid,” which is the same for all playable characters, regardless of gender. Furthermore, a character’s base statistics (for values like attack power and physical defense) are dependent on his or her equipment, the selection of which is also non-specific to gender. Men can be healers dependent on magic, and women can wield battle axes larger than they are.

In other words, there is nothing about Fran’s character or fighting capacity that is innate to her race or gender, save her revealing costume. The clothing of the game’s other two female characters, Ashe and Penelo, is similarly racy, but so too is the clothing of the game’s three male characters. This point brings me to an important twist in my argument about the fetishization and sexism inherent in the female characters of Final Fantasy – are male characters not fetishized and subject to sexism in exactly the same way?

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Five