from Outer Space
(With apologies to Dr. Antonia Levi, from whose excellent book “Samurai from Outer Space – Understanding Japanese Animation” I have borrowed the title for this series of observations, thoughts and speculations.)
I just had the opportunity to watch an episode of “Maison Ikkoku” for the first time (episode 4 which was taped off of Japanese TV for me a couple of weeks ago). The first thing that struck me about the show was how much the “look” of the characters resembled the “look” of the characters in Rumiko Takahashi’s earlier work, “Urusei Yatsura”. The next thing that struck me was how differently the characters in Maison Ikkoku “acted” compared to the characters in Urusei Yatsura. The main male character of Maison Ikkoku, Yusako Godai, comes over more as a “Tenchi” (from “Tenchi Muyo”)or “Keiichi” (from “Ah My Goddess”), rather than an “Ataru” (from Urusei Yatsura).
Both Antonia Levi in her book on anime, as well as Trish Ledoux in her “The Complete Anime Guide – 2nd edition” allude to this tendency in anime to portray weak male leads in contrast to the “dominant male” outward aspect of “normal” Japanese society. But neither come up with a good answer to the characterizations. Why are Yusako, Tenchi, Keiichi and so many other “college-aged” lead male characters in anime depicted as being confused, scandalized or even frightened by the women in their shows?
These “wimp” characters also don’t seem to be “having much fun” with their lives. Everything is serious or desperate. When do these characters laugh, other than when they are nervous? The lead male character in “Sailor Moon”, Mamoru, isn’t afraid of the girls in the show as are the guys I mentioned before, but he doesn’t seem to be comfortable with the girls either. Mamoru is another character who never laughs or has fun.
A question comes to mind – who are these shows aimed at? Trish Ledoux and Antonia Levi comment that Maison Ikkoku, Tenchi Muyo and Ah My Goddess are all popular with the late high school and college crowd in North America. Why are bashful nerds popular as characters? Who is the audience in Japan, the same group? Sailor Moon is aimed at early teen females in both Japan and North America. Mamoru is noble, passive and effectively totally ineffectual (one would almost say “emasculated”).
In “Rurouni Kenshin”, Kenshin has his katana blade reversed so that he can’t kill with it. What is the significance of this “impotence”? Other characters in the show can, and frequently do, kill with impunity.
Even in the shows with more “aggressive” male leads there are constraints on their actions. In “Meitantei Conan”, Shinichi starts out as a brash, successful and independent young man who is admired by his peers, his elders and the girls around him. But this hubris is quickly dashed once he involuntarily becomes “Conan”. As Conan, he is a child again, dependent upon others. He even has to pretend to be his girlfriend Ran’s little cousin in order to survive and try to find a solution to his problem. As Shinichi, he was in control of the relationship with Ran. As Conan, he is dependent upon Ran and she gives the orders like a surrogate mother. There can be no “adult” relationship between the two of them.
Is there a common thread about growing up and leaving “Mother” in these stories? Let’s go back to my first “counter-example”. One of the perpetual questions concerning Urusei Yatsura is why does Ataru treat Lum the way that he does? Sure, Ataru will go out of his way to save Lum from danger or to fight against another suitor, but when there is no threat Ataru does his best to keep away from Lum and all of her charms. The standard claim that Ataru is just a “lecher” doesn’t seem to answer this in any satisfactory manner. If Ataru is so lecherous, why doesn’t he take advantage of the circumstances wherein he is co-domiciled with a sexy and seemingly willing girl? His “lechery” consists of ( almost totally unsuccessfully ) asking other girls for dates ( most often to have tea with him ). This is not the usual definition of lechery.
I believe that what we are seeing instead is Ataru’s reaction to having another “Mother” show up in his life at a time when he is still dependent upon his own mother. Lum’s interests in Ataru are always maternal – she doesn’t want to have “fun” with Ataru (at least the sort of “fun” that fills most teenaged boy’s fantasies), she wants to cook and care for Ataru. The only time Lum refers to sex is early in the series when she is competing with Shinobu for Ataru. Even then the threat is revealed to be only a bluff and Ataru is taken aback by the innuendo.
In “Tenchi Muyo”, the “good girls” (Ayeka and Sasami for instance) want to mother Tenchi. Only the “bad girl”, Ryoko, ever tries to seduce him and Tenchi fights this off. Tenchi’s father is shown as an ineffectual “hentai”, but he is old and can be ignored by the girls. Eventually we learn that Tenchi gets his “purity” from his late mother.
We are asked to accept that Keiichi spends months living next to Belldandy, lusting in his heart but not having the courage to even kiss her. Belldandy has been described elsewhere as the “perfect Japanese mother” as she selflessly cooks, cleans and does noble miracles for Keiichi. Only Urd shows any sexuality, and is effectively “punished” for it by being banished to live chastely with Belldandy and Keiichi. (Eventually in the manga Urd is “exorcised” of her “dark” side and becomes “pure” like her two sisters.)
So in the end we are left with more questions than answers. Is this just an example of “unwritten” societal rules in Japan? Is it a by-product of the influence of old American animation from the days of the “Motion Picture Code”? Is it an example of cross-cultural reactions to the realities of growing up? It any event it is an interesting area for thought, if for no other reason than because these characters still attract us in spite of their behaviors.
for those of you who might be tempted to reply to all of this with “It’s
only a cartoon”, I will happily reply with the famous response “…and Moby
Dick is a book about a whale”.