Shohjo Battle Evolution and Utena: Just how Revolutionary IS this Girl??
I’ve come across a great essay on shohjo comic history and imagery, written by a Nagoya University teacher Hiromi Nakagawa, and titled Shohjo Cultural Theory – the Portrayal of Girls in Shojo Manga. Her online works (in Japanese) are here, the one I mentioned being the fourth on the list.
Ms Nakagawa has an interesting section on the evolution of shojo battling; she doesn’t mention Revolutionary Girl Utena, but the text really makes we wonder about the place of Utena in this historical flow. Seven episodes into the show, I’m eager for any non-spoiler data that might help me to understand the show and this sort of text is perfect for that. I’ll first give a summary of her discussion and then see how it might relate to Utena.
According to Nakagawa, the whole concept of “fighting” was initially only confined to shohnen stories. This assignment of course reflected social stereotypes in Japan at that time. Girls would show up in battle scenes only to cheer their man on, helplessly. Prior to the 1970s there were no shohjo manga centered around battles and fighting.
This is not to say that there weren’t any fighting girls at all. Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (begun in 1953) had her share of battles. But here the story was a melodrama with fighting as a supplement or extension of that. Even the famous Rose of Versailles (1972-3) wasn’t really centered on battles.
The first true battle shohjo was Sukeban Deka (1976-82), and the main character Saki Asamiya is revolutionary in more ways than one. The reason will take some explaining, as follows.
Nakagawa asserts that the “battle method” of the character is very important. Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles feature women who dress as men in order to fight. Significantly, the much newer (1990s) Basara also follows this pattern.
In the older series the women are fighting as men becuse it is the men that are supposed to be fighters. In Basara it is simply a matter of convenience at times.
Another “battle method”, very popular is the transformation. The most famous example is Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (1992-7). From a progressivist, feminist point of view, Sailor Moon is very ambiguous. On the one hand, the transformation doesn’t involve crossdressing. This is an indication that it’s become acceptable for a woman to fight and defend herself in manga and anime.
On the other hand, the transformation overemphasizes the female sex, and this in turn indicates that the creators are thinking of men as consumers and no longer (just) of girls. Evidence of this is the proliferation of doujinshi for Sailor Moon, created and consumed mostly by men. The success of this series has spawned a huge number of other works, and its influence is undeniable.
There is still a third “battle method”, the simplest one: just fight as you are. Nakagawa cites Sukeban Deka and Flowers of the Asuka Gang (Hana no Asuka-gumi, 1985-95). In these shows there is neither crossdressing nor transformation with a sexual component.
Nakagawa doesn’t say this explicitly, but I think she would agree with this interpretation: there is an evolution of shohjo battles that goes somewhat like this:
a) girl shrieks and cheers while boys fight
b) girl dresses up as a boy in order to fight; fights in order to gain love, etc.
c) girl fights because she wants to.
d) girl fights to save the world, and she looks sexy while she’s at it.
The implication is that the last step is a devolution, rather than an evolution. I also find it extremely interesting that the two series in step (c) involve characters who are quite literally social delinquents: Saki Asamiya and Asuka Kuraku.
There’s quite a bit more to Ms Nakagawa’s analysis, but I’m gonna stop it there for now. How do the battle scenes in Revolutionary Girl Utena fit into all of this??
1. Even before we get to the battle scene, Utena dresses and enjoys dressing as a man. She doesn’t pretend to be a man, though, as everyone is aware of her gender, but she still chooses to crossdress. What does this mean??
2. There is a definite transformation at the beginning of the battle scene. In fact, Utena‘s director worked extensively on Sailor Moon. Is the transformation sexy? To the extent that it is, I find the focus to be on Anthy Himemiya, who during the battle happens to fit the old shohnen stereotype of “look pretty, stand there and wait”. Utena herself handsomely pulls out the sword from Anthy. What does this mean???
3. Utena’s attire changes, but I think the strongest hint of transformation here is not in what she wears, but in what she says: “Grant me the power to bring the world revolution!” Considering that during her everyday life she berates the attitudes of those on the student council and thinks it’s all nonsensical, it’s surprising that she should parrot that classic line, like an automaton or one possessed. What does this mean????
Of course, seven episodes in, I don’t know. Comments would be appreciated but please no spoilers. And I must make it clear I haven’t read the manga mentioned in the post: it’d be great to hear from people who have. How do you see Nakagawa’s take on things?