Death and the Flower

Death and the Flower

Title: Death and the Flower
Japanese Title: 死と生の幻想 (Sei to shi no gensō)
Author: Suzuki Kōji (鈴木 光司)
Translators: Maya Robinson and Camellia Nieh
Publication Year: 2014 (America); 1995 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 222

Death and the Flower is beautifully printed. Its paper is deliciously creamy, and its gorgeously designed book cover and dust jacket complement each other perfectly. Veritcal’s hardcover edition is one of those books that makes me happy that publishers still put time and effort into putting out physical books that you can hold in your hands and admire on your bookshelf.

But the stories themselves? They’re not really all that great.

In his Afterword, Suzuki writes:

I tried collecting six works with a common theme – a theme represented by the words “diapers and a race replica.” The softness and warmth of diapers, the speed and power of a racer’s motorbike – I wished to express a balance of the maternal and the paternal by placing symbols of femininity and masculinity side by side.

What this essentially means is that each story is about a father who undergoes various hardships for the direct or indirect benefit of his wife and/or daughter(s), who are nothing more than empty symbols vaguely characterized by emotional damage and blind need. In other words, men are capable of embodying “a balance of the maternal and the paternal,” and girls and women exist merely for the sake of helping men undergo character development in order to realize their full potential. These female characters don’t need to have names, or thoughts, or feelings, or any sort of identities save for their relation to the male heroes.

This in and of itself is not necessarily bad. However, if everything in piece of fiction is going to be diegetically subservient to the ego of the protagonist, then I would prefer for the protagonist to be interesting. Unfortunately, none of Suzuki’s characters really grabbed my attention or sympathy. Instead, just as the female characters of this collection are almost platonic embodiments of Object, each male character isn’t a great deal more than a Subject with a few shallow personality traits pathetically attached like a handful of cheap ornaments haphazardly stuck onto an otherwise bare Christmas tree.

The first story in the collection, “Disposable Diapers and a Race Replica,” can serve to illustrate my point.

The narrator, an obvious author stand-in character, quits his job to devote himself to his writing and the care of his infant daughter. To help his wife make ends meet, he moonlights as a private tutor. His current client is a delinquent high school student who has begun to skip out on tutoring sessions after the school system fails to reward him for his increased efforts, so the narrator tracks him down on his motorcycle and is driven off the road and nearly killed by the kid’s friends. The next day, the narrator shows up unexpectedly at the kid’s house and beats the crap out of him in order to figure out where the driver who almost killed him lives. He then proceeds to go to the other kid’s house and, finding him not at home, beats the crap out of the kid’s car. After he’s satisfied himself, the narrator encounters the driver and condescends to not beat the crap out of him because he, the narrator, is actually a good guy deep down inside. The only thing that saved him from dying when his bike crashed was the huge bag of diapers he had tethered to the back of the bike, you see, and this is some kind of message about how he needs to stop jumping headfirst into fights, even though he could totally win them if he did get into them, because of course he could – he’s just that kind of guy.

Since the narrator interacts with the other male characters by yelling and punching, his character development is guided by his interactions with the story’s two female characters, his student’s mother and his wife. The narrator tries to be kind to his student’s mother, even though privately he thinks she’s a weak and ineffectual parent. This must be because, being a woman, she isn’t clever enough to know that you need to threaten to beat the crap out of boys to make them respect you. As a mentor and role model, the narrator is thus defined by what he is not – female, and thus “stupid.” Meanwhile, the narrator’s wife is a delicate flower who must not be upset or disturbed under any circumstances, as she has some sort of nervous disorder. This disorder is typified by the anxiety she demonstrated when he effectively abandoned her during their engagement to go live on a tuna fishing boat for a year. Why was she so upset about this, and why is she concerned about his level of commitment to their relationship? It must be because of her nervous disorder, obviously. Women and their unreasonable hysteria, amirite? Anyway, as a father and caregiver, the narrator is again defined by what he is not – female, and thus “crazy.”

Character development through negative contrast does not make for good storytelling, especially when the primary conflicts of a story hinges on an internal crisis of its protagonist. In Death and the Flower, each such crisis is resolved by a realization of something along the lines of “I am a burly hairy dangerous manly alpha male, but I need to embrace my more ‘feminine’ side so that I can better protect the utterly helpless women in my life.” Maybe this is just me, but I don’t find that sort of resolution too terribly compelling. For a such a revelation to be truly interesting, there need to be more 1980s seinen manga style swords and/or psychic power attacks demonstrating how a small compromise in an otherwise unadulterated beefcake masculine identity can constitute a genuine sacrifice.

What Suzuki excels at in Death and the Flower are his descriptions of urban and natural landscapes. I was particularly impressed by the third story in the collection, “Key West,” in which a father leaves his young daughter in a rental car by the side of a highway in Florida to walk out to a small offshore island connected to the coast by a sandbar. On the island, the father encounters an abandoned settlement overgrown with jungle. Although his parenting skills leave much to be desired, the father’s accounts of the greenery and derelict buildings, the comparisons he makes to his home in Tokyo, and his detailed examination of the complicated feelings the island evokes in him are all magnificent. The simultaneously intense yet hazy quality of the fever dreams he experiences after being bitten by a sea snake is also expertly conveyed by the author. That being said, the father’s grief for his dead wife as expressed by his half-hearted desire to protect his daughter is largely undeveloped and feels out of place within the larger themes of the story, which mainly seem to involve the narrator’s fear of his own encroaching middle age.

To return to the collection’s Afterword, Suzuki writes:

“Only a peaceful and safe world is worth living in” – far too many people seem to think so.

Putting aside the tastelessness of such a statement, I think the author’s writing is indeed at its best when his characters have a worthy antagonist to battle. The major draw of Ring, for instance, is Sadako, the evil girl who spews her curses out into the world from inside a well. The longest story in Death and the Flower, “Beyond the Darkness,” is perhaps the strongest, as its father protagonist character is provided with a creepy stalker to serve as an acceptable outlet for his anger and tendency toward physical violence. As introspection-driven character pieces, however, the rest of the stories in the collection fall flat.

If you’re a Suzuki completionist, Death and the Flower is of interest for its prototypes of the author’s major themes and character archetypes. If you’re looking for good horror fiction or just some good short stories, though, it’s probably best to ignore the pretty cover and take a pass on this collection.

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.

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