The transformative power of Japan’s ‘magical girls’

by

Special To The Japan Times

There is one surprising thing about Japan’s male-dominated — some may say rabidly misogynistic — society: manga and anime support women. True, there are plenty of examples to the contrary (take a short stroll through any Akihabara anime shop if you need proof). But at the same time, the modern Japanese women can find solace, encouragement and inspiration in the manga and anime series that seem to sympathize with them — works that reflect personal experiences in a way that other forms of fiction can rarely match. It’s probably safe to say that most women probably had at least one series that helped see them through their difficult teenage years.

A perfunctory glance at the manga section of any bookstore reveals that many best-selling authors are women, and sex (explicit and otherwise), gore and violence often features in their work. Manga artist Kyoko Okazaki broke new ground with stories about casual sex and prostitution among Japanese “office ladies,” and also with more disturbing works about murder, human trafficking and the goings-on in Tokyo’s sex shops. Moyoco Anno (who is married to anime maestro Hideaki Anno of the “Evangelion” series) explored the desires and sexuality of Japanese women, as well as their need to be feminine and sexy in order to survive and attain happiness in a male-dominated society.

Then there’s the “magical girl” genre, known as mahō shōjo and majokko in Japan, which researcher Kumiko Saito describes as “a mainstay of television animation programming that distinctly targets prepubescent female viewers. The conventions of the magical girl genre, especially the elaborate description of metamorphosis that enables an ordinary girl to turn into a supergirl, have been widely imitated across various genres and media categories.”

This is precisely why the success of Spanish film “Magical Girl” is practically guaranteed here: what audience doesn’t love it when a facet of their own culture is so appreciated as to be the title and the launchpad of a major movie?

Written and directed by Carlos Vermut, the film’s title refers to Magical Girl Yukiko, a Sailor Moon-like anime character who, in this story, is all the rage among the young girls in Spain.

For 12-year-old Alicia (Lucia Pollan), Magical Girl Yukiko is akin to a life-support system. Alicia is dying of leukemia and one of the few things that will make her smile is the sight of her idol and the sound of the theme song for the program (intriguingly, it’s idol Yoko Nagayama’s real-life ’80s hit “Haru wa SA RA SA RA”). She tells her beaten-down, unemployed single dad, Luis (Luis Bermejo), that her dying wishes are to live until she is 13 and to wear a copy of Yukiko’s dress, which is available through an anime merchandise catalog for €7,000 (¥880,000).

Luis loves his daughter and is well aware that her first wish is an impossibility, but the Yukiko dress is something he may be able to swing. Luis attempts to sell his possessions to finance the dress, but the Spanish economy is in shambles. Desperate, he stands outside a jewelers with every intention of robbing it, until a woman in the apartment above is sick out of her window and the vomit lands on his shirt. Gently apologetic, the woman, Barbara (Barbara Lennie), invites Luis into her home, offers to clean his clothes and ends up sleeping with him. Since she is married and obviously wealthy, and he really needs that Yukiko dress, Luis decides to blackmail her.

“Magical Girl” has J-horror undertones in the way it merges girlish innocence with dark violence. There’s a faint, ominous whiff of fear in most anime/manga about young girls. Even “Sailor Moon” — the obvious anime influence in “Magical Girl” — has its moments of terror. Vermut also seems to have unlocked a secret of Japanese manga and anime: Seemingly vulnerable and submissive female characters ultimately dominate the males until they scream for mercy, literally.

Alicia, though she looks so frail, is not the helpless angel her father thinks she is. Alicia is smart, calculating and strong-willed. She doesn’t need an anime character’s dress to affirm her identity, though she would prefer that Luis believes so.

In terms of the world of anime, Barbara is at a disadvantage: She’s older and married and tethered to domineering husband Alfredo. No anime dress is going to change her life or enable her to kick Alfredo’s butt. Barbara has mental health issues and she’s sexy as hell, and her penchant for self-harm and brutal sex scares the pants off her husband. Though he nurses the illusion of having total control over her, it’s actually the other way around.

Unlike Luis, Barbara has a deep understanding of why Alicia needs the dress so much, perhaps in the same way that most Japanese mothers are wholly indulgent about exposing their daughters to anime and manga and are likely to procure an endless array of merchandise for them. As Saito discusses in the Journal of Asian Studies, “Magical Girl” anime series “reinforce fixed gender roles functioning in actual society, thereby teaching girls to become a good daughter at home and a good (office lady) at work.” The mothers themselves had grown up with anime, and anime goods — it seems only natural that they should keep the cycle going. On the other hand, perhaps they are simply passing on the knowledge that the magic of Magical Girls and Sailor Moons only works during the prepubescent years — it’s often downhill from there as far as prettiness, empowerment and personal freedom goes.

Alicia’s life is set to end before that age passes; she will remain in a world of anime-girl innocence. Barbara must rough it on her own and improvise as she goes, with no anime heroine to aspire to or dream about.

Talk about a real bummer. As any woman knows in her heart, life would be unbearable without a healthy dose of fantasy.

  • Duccio Gasparri

    Very interesting article!
    Is there any bibliographic reference to Saito’s work on this subject?

  • Duccio Gasparri

    Very interesting article!
    Is there any bibliographic reference to Saito’s work on this subject?

  • kyushuphil

    What’s this thing with power and control games?

    In the story featuring Luis and the woman, Barbara, who gives him sex, that very gift immediately turns to blackmail machinations. Sure, it’s a Spanish movie, but based on Japanese culture, where vulnerable girls all need above all fantasy retreats — wherein girls get the power.

    This isn’t so far from “In the Realm of the Senses,” where even loveliest sex soon turns to murder of most gory kind, preceded by the control games of a young woman seeing how far she can go on her guy in simulated strangulation. All based on a true story.

    I guess Japanese just learn nothing at all about the human in schools. There, instead, it’s all control games led by the zombie elderly of the patriarchy at the top, with everything students experience meant to show all life as but mechanically ritualistic, serving arbitrarily meaningless short-term memory exercises aimed only at humanly dead standardized tests.

    Who wouldn’t crave fantasy were schools all but such humanly dead zones of control games?

    But Japan has great novelists — even today. Many very sharp and nuanced looks at the human today, in many larger contexts that bear looking at, that allow for degrees of humanity well beyond the clichés of “magic land.”

    So why do so many choose the trapped scenarios only? Why limit all life to binaries only? And why institutionalize schools to lock the young so in such dead molds?

  • kyushuphil

    What’s this thing with power and control games?

    In the story featuring Luis and the woman, Barbara, who gives him sex, that very gift immediately turns to blackmail machinations. Sure, it’s a Spanish movie, but based on Japanese culture, where vulnerable girls all need above all fantasy retreats — wherein girls get the power.

    This isn’t so far from “In the Realm of the Senses,” where even loveliest sex soon turns to murder of most gory kind, preceded by the control games of a young woman seeing how far she can go on her guy in simulated strangulation. All based on a true story.

    I guess Japanese just learn nothing at all about the human in schools. There, instead, it’s all control games led by the zombie elderly of the patriarchy at the top, with everything students experience meant to show all life as but mechanically ritualistic, serving arbitrarily meaningless short-term memory exercises aimed only at humanly dead standardized tests.

    Who wouldn’t crave fantasy were schools all but such humanly dead zones of control games?

    But Japan has great novelists — even today. Many very sharp and nuanced looks at the human today, in many larger contexts that bear looking at, that allow for degrees of humanity well beyond the clichés of “magic land.”

    So why do so many choose the trapped scenarios only? Why limit all life to binaries only? And why institutionalize schools to lock the young so in such dead molds?