Guest Post: How Strong is That Heroine in Your Manga?

I asked for help with blog posts while I am recovering from surgery and a few people were nice enough to oblige! First up is Kristin Bomba,  a writer and the head editor for ComicAttack.net. She writes a column called Bento Bako Weekly/Lite/Bonus on that updates Monday, Wednesday and Friday, respectively. She also has a collection of anime reviews at girlg33k.blogspot.com or you can follow her on Twitter under @girlg33k_Kris. Take it away, Kris!

While the lovely Daniella is recovering, I offered to step in with a guest post. In an effort to generate intelligent discussion, I roamed around my manga shelves and tried to find a theme to focus on. I decided to try my hand at a little semi-feminism. I had considered talking about Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku The Inner Chambers, but I really want to save that for a MMF (hint, hint). So rather than focus on a single title, I’d like to look at several titles, and a few anime (just to expand the pool I’m drawing from), and talk about the roles of women, particularly strong female characters. My goal is to point several of these out, and try to compare them to other female characters that tend to sit around and wait for the men to do everything for them. Well, let’s see how it goes.

I think we’ll start with a couple of my favorite female heroines. First we’ll look at a very unconventional heroine – Haruhi Fujioka from Ouran High School Host Club (Bisco Hatori). Haruhi is the exact opposite of the traditional heroine and the series frequently points this out both within the story and as in 4th-wall remarks. She’s oblivious to male attentions, indifferent to the differences between males and females, independent, boyish, apathetic and incapable of asking for aid. Haruhi is exceptionally perceptive to the feelings of others, which allows her to save the male characters from the darkest sides of their emotions. It is with Haruhi’s astute (and often unfortunately blunt) observations that the boys around her change and grow. The twins, Hikaru and Kaoru, especially, who begin the series withdrawn and with a self-made barrier between them and everyone else. Haruhi breaks this down almost single handedly. Without a mother, Haruhi took on many responsibilities growing up, always trying to do everything alone so as not to worry her father. Even when she needs help, she doesn’t know how to ask. This frustrates the guys, who try to teach this fiercely independent young lady that even someone as capable as her needs a little help sometimes. She’s a wonder woman, but not Wonder Woman.

Another favorite female character of mine is Juliet from Gonzo’s Romeo x Juliet (Reiko Yoshida). To be honest, Romeo is a bit of a pansy in this version, though he does grow a pair later on. It’s Juliet who steals the show as the Red Whirlwind, a vigilante who fights for the rights of the citizens of Neo Verona, rather like Robin Hood. The Capulet family was wiped out by Romeo’s father, leaving only Juliet behind. She must carry the fate of her family and the hopes of those who have protected her all these years on her young shoulders. She sets aside her heart’s desires to lead an uprising against the tyrannical Montague, and ends up making the ultimate sacrifice to save all of Neo Verona. All of this mostly on her own, with Romeo mostly along for the ride, or acting under the strength of her influence.

Perhaps one of the strongest females I’ve seen is female warrior Balsa, from Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (Nahoko Uehashi). Deadly with a spear, Balsa has vowed to save lives to atone for those that were lost in her past. She kicks all kinds of ass, and she’s fully clothed. It’s unfortunate that I have to mention that detail. I think characters like Revy from Black Lagoon and Motoko from Ghost in the Shell are amazing female characters, but their clothing choices aren’t exactly modest. It’s great that they’re comfortable with their sexuality, but you can be on equal footing with the men without baring your cleavage and shaking your butt cheeks, too. Really, why does one of the most powerful women in Japan have to waltz around in little more than a very revealing strapless swimsuit? And for that matter, why must she be such a loose woman? I always found it a little odd that a pure cybernetic person, who doesn’t even believe she has a soul anymore, is so willing to have so many sexual relationships. Then again, maybe that’s exactly why, because they don’t really mean much to her. Still, you can be sexy without wearing minimal clothing or sleeping around.

Other strong female characters:

Kotobuki, Tsubasa Those With Wings (Natsuki Takaya). Though she has to turn to thievery to survive, she works hard to be a good person and have a legitimate job. She’s independent, though she does often get overwhelmed by the chaos brought about by the main male character, Raimon (I actually think Takaya writes good females regularly; Tohru, despite her very mild demeanor, rescues pretty much the entire Sohma family all on her own in Fruits Basket).

Kyoko, Skip Beat! (Yoshiki Nakamura). Kyoko starts out living her life for a man, and then sets out to get revenge on said man, which is the driving force behind much of her ambition for a good while. But she eventually gets beyond that and starts doing things for herself, and becomes a strong young lady who is capable of amazing growth as a human being.

Tsukasa, Tokyo Crazy Paradise (Yoshiki Nakamura). They don’t get much better than this. Tsukasa is just as strong, and often stronger, than any of the males in the series. She’s strong, both physically and emotionally, and is capable of amazing feats in battle. She’s the personal bodyguard of the main male character, a yakuza leader, and continually saves his (and many others’) life.

Meryl and Milly, Trigun (Yasuhiro Nightow). Meryl and Milly are the top insurance agents at Bernardelli Insurance. They’re capable enough to continually be sent after the most dangerous man on the planet, Vash the Stampede. And they can hold their own decently well with him when pressed. Meryl is a whiz with her coat full of derringer pistols and Milly can knock almost anyone down with her concussion gun. Their cheerfulness often gives Vash hope for the future.

Kaoru, Rurouni Kenshin (Nobuhiro Watsuki). Kaoru runs her own dojo, and holds her own quite well alongside Kenshin in battle. While she’s not strong enough to help him take on his biggest adversaries, she’s fantastic as support, and is able to fight off and organize battles against enemy soldiers and minor “bosses.” She’s the master of the Kamiya Kasshin style of fighting, and takes great pride in the style and her students (few though they may be). Her immense capacity for understanding and compassion pulls Kenshin out of his dark past.

Youko, The Twelve Kingdoms (Fuyumi Ono). Once she stops whining about how much she hates her situation and how unfair it all is, she truly steps into her role as ruler of the kingdom of Kei and becomes a powerful force, taking back her kingdom from the conniving and corrupt politicians populating her kingdom. She journeys outside the palace to live among her people, and ends up getting involved in a revolution against a usurper to her throne.

Casca, Berserk (Kentarō Miura). The only female soldier in Griffith’s elite army, Casca leads her own troop, and is behind only Griffith and Guts in skill. Unfortunately, the fact that she is a female is driven home repeatedly in the series, as because she is a female, she can never be as strong as the strongest man. This is something that pops up in many titles, and while factually and scientifically true, it’s a little annoying that in fantasy, women can’t be as outrageously strong as the men (see: Guts). Berserk is also one of very few titles I’ve seen where the woman’s menstrual cycle has an effect on her skills. Usually it’s ignored entirely. It’s also worth noting that the worst weapon used against Casca is rape; rape begins her path with Griffith (who saves her), and later destroys her sanity.

Honorable mentions: Nadia (Nadia: Secret of Blue Water), Natsumi and Miyuki (You’re Under Arrest), Riza Hawkeye (Full Metal Alchemist), Faye (Cowboy Bebop), Chizuko (The Daughter of Twenty Faces), Kumiko “Yankumi” (Gokusen).

Ah, now that I’ve talked about all these cool women, I don’t really want to talk about the weak and lame ones. The ones who just sit around and let the men do everything. Like Misao in Black Bird, Suzuka in Captive Hearts, or almost any character in a Yuu Watase story. Here are some of the worst I’ve seen.

Aoi, Ai Yori Aoshi (Kou Fumizuki). The epitome of the perfect Japanese woman, Aoi’s greatest asset, which is commented on by multiple characters throughout the series, is her ability as a housekeeper. Yes, this woman cooks, cleans, shops, mothers everyone, is obedient, and the ultimate domestic. She has loved one man and will always love one man, and will do anything for him. She was born and raised to know and acquiesce to his desires. I found the series to be very sweet and charming, but it’s hard to ignore such a typical idealized female. Especially when you compare her to the other women in the series who are decidedly more outgoing and independent.

Belldandy, Oh My Goddess! (Kōsuke Fujishima). Oh, someone’s gonna hate me for this one. Everyone loves Belldandy, but she falls into the same tropes as Aoi. It’s hard to hate such charming characters, and I don’t hate them, but neither can I ignore their status as pure male fantasy/wish fulfillment.

Suzuka, Suzuka (Kouji Seo). Suzuka is actually a fairly strong character for a shōnen sports manga, but the fact that she gives up her dream that was the focus of the entire series, and in effect makes the guy she is with give up his dreams, just because she can’t keep her panties on, kills it for me completely. Though admittedly, I found her to be exceptionally annoying and didn’t like the series anyway.

So, what makes a strong female character? That they can stand toe-to-toe with the men? That they are the rescuer more often than the rescued? Does a skimpy outfit automatically lesson their presence, or does it have no effect? Is it more important to be physically strong or emotionally strong? And what about the weaker characters? The ones who sit around looking pretty, or cater to every whim of the male they’re partnered with. Which is the better role model? Is it a weakness to be enamored with a guy? Just about all the characters I mentioned above, in each category, are in love with someone. You can be independent and still want to be with someone. After all, it’s human to need others. But it crosses a line when a female’s entire existence is to simply please her male partner. When they’re created with little to no outside motivation beyond that. It’s certainly not right for a boy to believe that women exist simply to serve him. And we don’t always need a guy there to do everything for us; we’re not weak, we can stand on our own feet. We’re not all Sleeping Beauty, who can only live through the love of a man, or Rapunzel, who must be rescued from a tower. What stands out to you, dear readers, and defines the strength of your favorite manga or anime girl?

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32 Comments

Filed under manga, opinion

32 responses to “Guest Post: How Strong is That Heroine in Your Manga?

  1. Well, Suzumiya Haruhi stood out to me most because she is god. But that’s a different story! lol

    While writing issue 3 of my comic, I questioned my character’s power and story. It didn’t feel like how I wanted it to feel. I was in a block. Then I went to Crispin Freeman’s lecture on Anime Mythology Panel: Mystics, Priestesses & Warrior Women in Irvine on Sunday and the block was smashed to little pieces by my character, Megumi. Crispin pretty much broke down the character archetypes and showed the differences between Western and American female characters.

    • Oh what? Crispin Freeman was doing a lecture in Irvine? I would have loved to see that, but I was in San Francisco at APE… I totally would have come down for something like that.

      I feel like there’s some difference between these characters and Haruhi in that the intent of Haruhi’s creators was to make a tsundere-like character. Sure, she’s a strong independent girl, but we always see her through Kyon’s eyes and things are skewed a bit by her feelings for her. I could be totally wrong about this, but sometimes it feels like her wild personality is only there either to move the plot along or to make her appealing as a woman.

      • I think he said he was doing something in November, but I don’t know if it’s the same lecture. He did mention that he might be doing a book or something, which would be awesome!

        I could see that about Haruhi… but the more I break it down, she seems to be more of an “outside the norm” character infecting our everyday lives within the story. I guess it’d be like the world is a video game system, Haruhi would be the Game Genie/Game Shark, breaking the codes and stuff.

  2. I’m glad to see you mention Meryl and Millie! They are fantastic characters who I think are borth realistically feminine and strong. I always liked how they display courage – they’re sometimes scared in the face of danger, yet get into a fight no-holds barred.

    Kaoru, on the other hand…I don’t know if I’d consider her a strong female character. She certainly begins that way, but she almost never gets into a fight. By the third manga arc, she’s the heroine in danger who needs to be saved. She’s never on the same level of power as any of the major men in the series.

  3. TWWK:
    I see your point about Kaoru. She may not have deserved to be featured so prominently with the others. But when thinking about other similar stories (like Samurai Deeper Kyo or Basilisk), and comparing the main females, she definitely stands out as one that can fight for herself. Her steadfast choice to never kill (I don’t recall her ever even picking up a real weapon) gives her strength, as well. There’s also Misao, the pint-sized power house who leads a group of ninja. Ah…probably should have thrown the two together.

    There was one character I forgot to mention; was going to put her in the “honorable mention” category: Shiris from Record of Lodoss War. She wrangles her own personal berserker and leads a band of mercenaries. Later she even becomes queen of the Dragon Riders of…er, I forget the name of the country.

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  5. First thing came to my mind about strong women characters are the females of Claymore. They practically represent female strength in a male dominated world.

  6. Oh that’s true! I don’t know how I forgot them, especially Claire.
    But they’re also really…sort of cardboard. Not as characters (I don’t mean to say they’re badly designed/written/etc, because they’re not), but they tend to be a little emotionless and inhuman (well, they are inhuman, technically).

  7. Maybe it’s because I started rereading it recently, but I thought of Kira from Mars. She has a ton of emotional baggage that Rei helps her through, but Rei is pretty messed up, too. She needs him to move on with her life, but he needs her, too; it’s a partnership, and one that I think proves that needing a person in your life doesn’t make you weak.

    And I’m so happy you mentioned Balsa. She is so fantastic.

  8. Jade Harris

    Great post, Kris!!!

    That said, I’d argue against how strong Haruhi from Host Club really is. She’s definitely portrayed as the exception that proves the rule and all her independence is nullified when the moral of half the stories focuses on how she needs to rely on the big wad of men around her more. I think I mentioned to you before that the series also really left me cold when Glasses Boy pulled the old rape threat act when Haruhi was acting too uppity at the beach.

    Also, OMG! I hate you for picking on Belldandy! Ok, I don’t hate you, but Belldandy is actually really strong. Fairly early into the series, she gets the chance to break her contract with Keichi and it’s pointed out a few times that she really never had to fulfil it personally in the first place. She fills a mind-numbingly conservative role, but the key is that it’s what she chooses for herself rather than submitting to the expectations or oppression of society or a man. Compare that to Ouran’s Haruhi who is under the thumb of every man in the club due to massive debt and is only granted freedom by their whim. If they all weren’t such good guys, Ouran would be a very unpleasant porn manga. When you also compare Belldandy to the other strong and independent characters in her series, you see she’s the exception to the rule, again, by her own choosing. Still, she proves herself capable beyond cooking and cleaning over and over again.

    For strong females in Oh My Goddess, in general, I think Megumi is worth a special mention. She lives on her own, attends college and actually rivals, arguably surpasses, her big brother, the main character, in engineering knowledge which is kinda his thing.

    • That’s a good point about Haruhi. But as much as they nag on her, she sticks to her guns. Rape is, of course, usually the “worst weapon” writers use against women, so it seems an obvious choice for Kyoya to use it to prove a point. That doesn’t really make it the right thing to use, though.

      Good point about Belldandy, too. If I remember correctly, their relationship is based on a promise the two made when they met as children. After a point she is no longer bound by the contract and is there by choice. Even so, she fills the role of the “fantasy wife” very well. And it’s a little hard to watch; though admittedly not as much as Ai Yori Aoshi can be at times.

    • I want to argue against your Haruhi point just because I don’t see it as her needing men, specifically, but her realizing that she needs friends. It just happens that they’re all guys.

      • And there’s that. The series focuses heavily on her as a person who lives independently, without relying on girls or guy, or having many real friends. She does get a good girlfriend in later volumes of the manga.

    • Jade Harris

      @Kris – I grudgingly understand your point about rape as a common trope, but I was really disappointed to see it used in Ouran. Regardless of the R-word though, he could have been threatening to kick over a sand castle or drink all her soda, Kyoya was threatening her because she was overstepping her boundaries as a woman, acting like some independent guy at the beach, forgetting how weak women are compared to men. In that scene he teaches her she can still get raped as easily as any other woman, so she should be more mindful of her feminine place and she’s glad for the lesson he teaches her. It’s an afterschool special with the good kind of rape where a man is just using it to correct a woman’s mixed up egalitarian thought processes. Luckily for Haruhi, again, Kyoya is a ‘decent guy’ who doesn’t actually go through with his casual rape threats.

      My point about Belldandy is that she’s about the most progressive example of a ‘fantasy wife’ as you’re ever going to get. I’m not directing this at you, but I think there’s only so far that you can argue her role before you’re arguing that a woman shouldn’t be able to be a conservative religious housewife if that’s what she’s into. I probably have as many personal problems with that role as you do, but I think it’d be wrong for me to say women shouldn’t be able to choose a role like that just because there have been so many bad situations.

      @Angela – I was trying to point out that Haruhi’s independence as a positive trait was sabotaged by how often she needs to rely on other people. When the overall message of the story is, ‘you should let other people help you more often,’ independence is a negative trait. The only times Haruhi’s independence is portrayed as a positive trait is when it’s the punchline of a gag or one of the guys is mooning over her, appreciating her independence.

      @Both – I wasn’t trying to say Ouran is the foulest work of blatant misogyny I’ve ever witnessed. I used to think it turned a ton of shojo and harem manga tropes on their heads, but I was disappointed by the rape tutor scene and realised the series isn’t any more progressive than Wild Ones or Black Bird.

      • Jade Harris

        Haha, sorry about all the text! I should really just start writing my own articles instead of writing essays out of comments.

      • Oh…I guess I was too busy imagining Kyoya on top of myself instead of Haruhi…..
        Seems I conveniently ignored all that mess you just pointed out. ^_^

        I don’t see it as “you should let other people help you more often.” To me it’s more like…everyone needs someone. She’s there for everyone around her, taking care of them, helping them, guiding them. But she basically insists that she doesn’t need anyone herself. That’s…really lonely. The twins have the same problem. I think a lot of it is about Haruhi opening her horizons. She’s so closed off from everyone and everything.
        I guess I just don’t have quite as harsh an interpretation of it as you do. To me it’s just goofy nonsense for the most part. It makes me laugh and smile, and it warms my heart. You can’t take it too seriously. All the characters are socially inept (except maybe Honey), so their interactions can be a little weird.

        I will say, however, that the idea that the boys impress upon her…that she isn’t “girly” enough….. That can be a bit bothersome, except that Haruhi herself continually rejects it. She is always simply herself, and she tends to ignore whatever nonsense they spout at her, with just a few exceptions (like that beach scene with Kyoya you keep mentioning).

        • Jade Harris

          Haha, sorry, I can run my mouth pretty harshly on series I love even. I think the last time I was ripping on Ouran with you, I mentioned that I had actually been warming up to the series again with the introduction of the girl friend. That beach scene was just a big turning point in my manga-reading career where I decided I would stop trying to justify those sorts of scenes just because I enjoy a book or because Japanese people are supposedly inherently different, which is a little racist or culturist or whatever, when you think about it. All in all, it made me keenly aware of the power balance in Ouran: all the guys dote on Haruhi, but they hold all the power in the relationship and several times aren’t above abusing that power. I think all that ‘girly’ stuff is just a natural extension of that, she’s always more a doll than an equal companion whether they respect her or not.

          I agree with you completely about the book having a positive message about being able to rely on your friends and open up, etc. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m just saying that if that’s the ultimate feel-good happy message of your story, then the main character’s independence is a character flaw within that context. It’s like if a physicist gets a job with a clown show, his normally positive physics work is going to be portrayed as making him a stodgy bore that the clowns need to make more silly by breaking the laws of physics or something stupid like that. Clowns are stupid. Physics just doesn’t get to win in that story because it’s a story about the opposite of physics.Clowns are stupid though, sorry I brought them up.

          • Jade, I really love reading your comments and I really appreciate them. Don’t ever feel like you’re ranting too much. They usually get me thinking again, and often point out things I didn’t pick up on. I tend to grab onto a couple things I liked or particularly noticed and just focus on them.

  9. Oh, by the by. Having just read it over the weekend, I didn’t get to this title before I wrote my article here.
    But Shurei Hong of The Story of Saiunkoku can probably be added to my list of strong female characters. She’s wonderful so far, but this is only the first volume, so we’ll see where she goes from here.

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  11. miz

    Finally got the chance to look through this blog and great job.

    Strength in female characters is often how a mangaka would write of their characters. That’s a thought of mine.

    Sexuality is such an individual thing, personally I see Revy wipe the earth with Rock at moments, but also figure where she is at, South East Asia. It is not so much as being so damn sexual, so as combating the heat. Balalaika is also a fantastic strong female from that manga.

    How about Robin/Nami from One Piece? How about Sarasa from Basara? I guess there’s plenty of other female characters to even list, but great job!

    • Good point about Revy and the heat. Really, I just don’t think she sees herself as a sexual person. It’s cool, it lets her move, she can get to her guns easily…. And that’s fine. But I don’t think that means her buttcheeks have to hang out of her shorts. :)
      Also, yes, Balalaika rocks. Though I think I started out trying to come up with main characters, and I had the anime in mind, where Balalaika is more of a minor character.

    • Oh yeah, also, I don’t know One Piece or Sarasa. I mostly looked at my own shelves and picked from there, specifically so I would be more familiar with my choices.

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