Feminism and Final Fantasy (Part Two)

Anyone who has played the first three Final Fantasy games, either on the NES or as reincarnated through their PSP and DS remakes, knows that there isn’t a great deal of character development involved. Male and female characters are more or less interchangeable; the gender of any given character is no more than window dressing for an essentially sexless data animal. Final Fantasy IV, the series’s first installment for the 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, is considered groundbreaking because it is the first of the games to feature a cast of characters with unique abilities, personalities, and backstories. The game follows the exploits of the dark knight Cecil, who has to (a) come to terms with the fact that he is working for an evil king, (b) overcome the darkness in his heart, (c) gain the holy sword necessary to fight evil, and (d) fly to the moon to defeat his evil brother and the dark force possessing him.

Cecil, who is your party’s fallback melee fighter, is supported by Rosa, one of those selfless white mage types who will do anything for Cecil but is all but useless in battle (at least until she learns the attack spell Holy). Despite all of the transformative and empowering fan work that has sprung up around her over the past twenty years, in the original game, Rosa was really nothing more than the love interest of Cecil and his rival Kain. Your party must repeatedly fight to save her from various conundrums, like fainting in the desert and being kidnapped. Much more interesting than Rosa, who is the proverbial sheath for the hero’s sword, is the summoner character Rydia.

Rydia is a young summoner whose village is unwittingly destroyed by Cecil. Since she has nowhere else to go after the entire race of summoners is killed, she accompanies your party until she is spirited away by a summon creature, Leviathan, to the city of summon creatures deep under the earth. When Cecil ends up traveling underground and finds himself in dire straights, he is rescued by Rydia, who has aged more than ten years while living in a different flow of time. Rydia is a valuable asset to your party, wielding whips that inflict paralysis and various other status ailments, as well as battle-ending summons and black magic so powerful that its use is depicted as killing other mages.

Since Rydia is so useful as a playable character, the player is given a strong incentive to go on several difficult side quests that serve no other purpose than to make her more powerful. The player therefore has something of a first-person investment in her, which is strengthened by her moving backstory. This backstory provides both a juxtaposition and an alternative to Cecil’s own. Both Cecil and Rydia are orphans who were raised to be masters of their respective powers, and both must make a choice regarding whom they will forgive and whom they will protect. Unlike Rosa, the adult Rydia does not need saving, and she is not interested in romantic love. It would seem that she is therefore not an object but rather a subject, a female hero who stands on equal footing with the male hero.

Unfortunately, there is the issue of her costuming. While the two primary male characters, Cecil and Kain, are allowed armor, Rydia is clothed in leggings, oversized arm warmers, a leotard, and high heels. Besides not being very practical for battle, this outfit is highly sexualized. As a result, fanworks from both Japan and America have cast the character as a porn star who is raped by not only Cecil and Kain but also by her summon monsters, a dubious honor that is not shared by Rosa.

This pornographic treatment is not merely a result of Rydia’s sexy costume (or of Rule 34), however. There is also an air of innocence and a whiff of child-in-a-woman’s-body about her that invite male protection and exploitation. While Cecil and Kain are depicted as undergoing emotional trails on the road to character development, Rydia has an almost complete lack of interiority. If the adult Rydia ever faces any doubt over her abilities or conflict over the fact that Cecil killed her entire family, for example, the player doesn’t hear about it. Rydia is magical and mystical and unknown; she is a blank slate in an appealing costume onto which the presumably male player can project his fantasies of exotic and mysterious femininity. Moreover, although Rydia’s magic is undeniably powerful, the game’s strict MP limitations ensure that she is never more than a support character in the vast majority of battles, an unfortunate caveat that also applies to Rosa.

In both the gameplay and narrative aspects of Final Fantasy IV, then, female characters are associated with magic, innate ability, dependence on men, and cheerful self-sacrifice, while male characters are associated with physical power, training and skill, and development toward emotional independence. The player is strongly encouraged to identify with the male characters and their personal struggles. The male is the subject, and the female is the object. The male is known and powerful, and the woman is unknown and mystical. These are popular fantasy tropes, and they are not unique to Final Fantasy IV, whose story is powerful and appealing partially because it makes effective use of these tropes.

Part One
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five

Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part Three)

In three of the main genres of Japanese animated pornography, then, female characters are privileged, not degraded. In the osana najimi story, women are not merely bodies to be gazed upon, exploited, and manipulated. They are instead characters in their own right and often developed much more than male characters. These male characters respect the female characters and connect with them just as much on an emotional level as they do on a physical level, and their union is often tied to a narrative of self-realization and maturation for both parties. Certainly, the personalities of the female characters are often based on phallocentric ideals, but the same could be said of many female characters in the mainstream anime from which the pornography draws its tropes. In the self-fulfilling harem story, women are depicted as fantasizing about idealized men as they satisfy themselves sexually, and actual men are not strictly necessary. On a metatextual level, this situation parodies many popular mainstream anime as well the onanistic activities of the male viewer who is erotically drawn to these anime. Finally, occult pornography bestows on its female characters many of the powers given to the protagonists of magical shōjo stories, and these characters are thus able to defeat their tentacles and enjoy them too. Also, these stories locate erotic and other physical experiences in the female body, thus allowing the viewer to receive pleasure by identifying as female.

Of course, not every pornographic story challenges traditional notions of the male as subject and the female as object in these ways. One of the more problematic tropes of animated pornography (which is often embedded in science fiction themed stories like Bondage Queen Kate) is that of the female rape victim who falls in love with her rapist in a case of sexual/romantic Stockholm Syndrome. This is not to be confused with the erotic conversation that often occurs during consensual sexual acts, of which a typical example might be, “No, stop, don’t do that, please stop” (Yamete! Sore dake wa dame. Iya da!). Rather, this trope involves a woman who actively resists and is obviously upset by a traumatic sexual experience only to then blushingly cuddle with her rapist(s) after the act. Closely connected to the rape equals love trope is the idea that it’s not rape if you enjoyed it, which occasionally finds its way into more conventional (and consensual) pornographic narratives. In my experience, however, both of these tropes are infinitely more common in manga than they are in anime, so I will put them aside for a future discussion. (What I will also put aside is the prevalence of both of these tropes in boys’ love pornography, which is written by women and for women.)

In any case, if the generalizing assumption that animated pornography privileges female characters can be accepted, can we therefore state that it isn’t sexist? Does it really treat female characters as subjects with their own agency? To address this question, I’d like to briefly refer to American feminist debates regarding live-action American pornography in the eighties. By 1980, feminists such as Laura Lederer had started to speak out against rape and spousal abuse. To greatly oversimplify the matter, these feminists blamed real-world violence against women on the misogyny present in mainstream media and public discourse. Pornography became a key issue in this movement, with radical feminist Robin Morgan famously stating that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” The notion that watching pornography directly influences men to commit sex crimes has since been challenged and disproved, but the idea of a “pornographic gaze” that is harmful to women remains, especially when it is joined to the concept of the “male gaze” that has been adapted and re-adapted ever since cinema theorist Laura Mulvey first proposed its existence in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

The concept of the male/pornographic gaze is highly psychoanalytic in nature, and I’m still not sure that I completely understand it; but, to summarize, it is centered around subjects and objects, with the looker being the subject and the person being looked upon being an object that the looker is free to manipulate as he wishes. This type of looking, which denies the agency and humanity of all but the looker, is considered to be extremely psychologically violent to the women who are often the objects of the gaze. Therefore, even if the narrative of a pornographic story characterizes women as powerful and respected by male characters, the way that the camera treats their bodies – forcing them to hold still as it pans over their curves, or rotating around them to show their bodies off to full effect, or taking the position of the male who is sexually penetrating them – cancels out any interiority or agency with which the narrative might have endowed them. Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, articulates this argument quite succinctly:

Pornography presents women as objectified female bodies that exist for men’s sexual pleasure. Because women in pornography are not subjects but objects, not fully human, kindness towards them is no more required than would be kindness to any other object. If while out for a walk I picked up a stone and threw it down the road, no one would chastise me for being unkind to the stone. So it is in pornography.

Of course there are many problems with this theory, including, for example, the fact that it ignores the existence of a female viewer who may have an entirely different relationship to the characters on screen. Devil Hunter Yōko may be a sex object to heterosexual male viewers, but my teenage self adored her simply because she is such a badass. It’s also not inconceivable that many male viewers have been similarly captivated by her sword-swinging antics (the show has some awesome fight scenes) without then going to look for porn of the character being raped or otherwise abused.

On a broader scale, I believe that a great deal of Japanese animated pornography out of the (admittedly limited) amount I have seen over the course of the past fifteen years is not at all unkind to its female characters. They have interiority (in that they are often the main character or narrator), they have agency (in that they are usually in full control of what happens to their bodies), and they are often quite powerful characters, even if the viewer is encouraged to ogle their every curve. Certainly the context is quite different than that being addressed by feminists like Robert Jensen and Andrea Dworkin, but I believe that’s why it’s important for Western feminist scholars to pay attention to Japan. The more data there is to add nuance to an argument, the better; and there is a huge amount of data contained within the wide field of Japanese animated pornography. When the very category of gender itself is now accepted as imaginary, perhaps imaginary women themselves deserve a closer look.

To complicate my argument a bit, I feel that it’s necessary to bring up the topic of moe, a style of characterization that either focuses on children or presents young adults as childlike in an attempt to stir an affective emotional response in the viewer or reader. The titles I have been referring to in this essay are from the nineties, and similar stories continue to be released. From the beginning of the past decade, however, moe has gradually crept into mainstream animated pornography; and, even though all of the characters are 100% imaginary, this style of graphic and narrative depiction has often been labeled as child pornography and treated accordingly – with unmasked disgust. (There is even a now-famous case of an American manga collector being jailed for importing this type of pornography.)

It is easy to dismiss this reaction as sexual Puritanism, as sexuality is a fantastic wonderland of the mostly unknown and, in any case, illustrations are just illustrations. However, even non-pornographic anime has adopted a sexualizing moe element, from relatively innocuous series like K-ON to not-so-innocent series like Kodomo no jikan. What is upsetting about moe to me personally is not the sexualization of minors, per se, but rather the minor-ification of sexual subjects. What I have been sensing over the past ten years is a feedback loop between animated pornography and mainstream animation in Japan, the result of which being that an infantilizing pornographic gaze has been increasingly applied to the characters of many popular anime series. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled discussing this topic (and a good place to start clicking on links is the Wikipedia article), so I will defer to other writers, but I simply wish to mention it as an alternate path of inquiry on the topic of female characters in Japanese pornographic anime.

Speaking of deferring to other writers, I’d like to list some of my sources. Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital has a lot of good information and discussion of pink films and Japanese cinema. Susan Napier’s book on anime has an excellent chapter about occult anime, and Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires has some good chapters on eromanga and the many types of gazes – although both books are a little out of date. Roland Kelt’s Japanamerica has a fun chapter on ecchi anime that’s much more current, and Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals does a nice job of explaining moe. The book Feminism and Pornography does an excellent job of summarizing the feminist and legal debates concerning pornography in the seventies and eighties, and the essay collection Everyday Pornography provides a nice update on the subject from many different voices (plus it has a super classy cover). Finally, the last two chapters of Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan summarize the context of postwar Japanese feminist movements, and Ueno Chizuko’s Onna-girai: Nippon no misogyny, published about a year ago, covers everything that’s been happening in the post-postwar period (and is also a fantastic read). As always, if there’s anything I’m missing but should definitely read – academic or otherwise – please feel free to let me know about it!

Part One
Part Two

Origins of Modern Japanese Literature

origins-of-modern-japanese-literature

Tile: Origins of Japanese Literature
Japanese Title: 日本近代文学の起源
Author: Karatani Kōjin (柄谷行人)
Translator: Brett De Barry, et al.
Publication Year: 1993 (America); 1980 (Japan)
Pages: 219

Is this book really an academic work? I wonder. If I had to guess, though, I would have to say no. Origins of Japanese Literature belongs to a genre of non-fiction writing called hyōron in Japan. This sort of writing, while focusing on an academic topic, is more of a discussion than a well-researched argument with a thesis. The writer, generally a professor, draws on his or her vast knowledge of a subject in order to discuss it at length, centering on a few key ideas that other, more scrupulous scholars, can be inspired by.

The chapters in a book of the hyōron genre tend to be only loosely tied together thematically, as they were written over the course of several years in the life of the writer for various occasions. One chapter may have been an afterward to a zenshū (“Collected Works”), one may have been a guest lecture, and another may have actually been written as an academic paper. Footnotes and other references are few and far between, although many texts are quoted at length. As a result, reading a book of hyōron is like sitting down with a professor over a cup of tea in his study and listening to him talk about whatever he finds interesting at the moment. If you share the same interests and know enough about the topic to catch the references, it can be quite an enjoyable experience.

Karatani Kōjin is, for the moment, very interested in Japanese modern literature, or the literature of Japan during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taishō (1912-1926) periods. During the Meiji period especially, Japan underwent the process of modernization at an extraordinarily rapid pace. Along with Western science and technology came modern ideas such as “nation,” “an interior self,” and “literature.” The formation of “literature” is especially interesting to Karatani, because, through literature, we can see the development of so other important elements of modernity.

If Karatani can be said to have a central thesis in this work, it would involve something that he calls “The Discovery of the Landscape,” which is the title of his first chapter. Before the onset of modernization, Japanese artists and poets, such as Buson and Bashō, understood the physical landscape of the natural world to be a reflection of their inner selves, which extended outward indefinitely. In pre-modern literature, for example, there is no distinction made between narration and speech, nor is there any distinction between the voices of different characters. Karatani argues that, during the process of modernization, Japanese artists and writers came to see the physical landscape as something outside of themselves that they could depict objectively and realistically. Other people, in the form of fictional characters, could be treated in the same way. Naturally enough, this discovery of exteriority led to a discovery of interiority, and these two phenomena together worked to create all sorts of modern concepts, such as illness, confession, the child, and literature itself. It’s an interesting argument, even if you don’t happen to agree with it.

For those of you interested in modern Japanese literature, Origins of Japanese Literature reads like a “Greatest Hits” playlist, as Karatani touches on most of the canonical modern authors while delving not so much into their fictional work as into the fragments of literary thought and criticism they left behind. Brett De Barry and her team of translators has done an excellent job of rendering Karatani’s text into polished and enjoyable English, and Ayako Kano in particular has undertaken the grueling task of annotating the text. The translators have helpfully provided a glossary of key figures and movements in the back of the book, and Fredric Jameson has not so helpfully provided an interesting yet characteristically unintelligible foreword at the front.