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A Look At Top Anime, Now and Then

This was a weekly discussion topic post I made for my language studies class, EALC 169: Advanced Japanese Popular Culture (i.e. the anime studies and analysis class). The original topic was the discussion of the book, Beautiful Fighting Girl by Tamaki Saito. The following is a rant comparing the top voted animes of 1997 and 2011 and how Saito’s “beautiful fighting girl” theory fits in (or doesn’t) today.

2012-03-08 Anime Now Then

The original version of “Beautiful Fighting Girl” by Tamaki Saito was first published in 2000. In his book, he discusses many animes of his time featuring prominent female roles, including Sailor Moon, Cutey Honey, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Saito discusses the changes in perception of women in anime between the 1980s and 1990s. Now is the year 2012, over a decade later. So how has anime changed over the past 10 years?

The most straightforward comparison would be to take a look at the “top ten anime titles” list that Saito references from the “Anime Grand Prix” poll of Animage. In the June 1997 issue, the results were as follows, with genres included:

1. Neon Genesis Evangelion – action, psychology, mecha
2. Slayers Next – action, adventure, comedy
3. Martian Successor Nadesico – action, comedy, mecha
4. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing – action, adventure, mecha
5. Sailor Moon Sailor Stars – action, romance, comedy, magical girl
6. The Vision of Escaflowne – action, romance, mecha
7. After War Gundam X – action, mecha
8. Saber Marionette J – action, adventure, mecha
9. Rurouni Kenshin – action, adventure, samurai
10. Bakusou Kyoudai Let’s & Go – adventure, sports

Of this top 10 list, half of them (Evangelion, Nadesico, Gundam Wing, Escaflowne, After War Gundam X) are mecha. Two have lead female roles (Slayers Next, Sailor Moon Sailor Stars) as “beautiful fighting girls”. All of them are action/adventure genres with either a sci-fi or sports/martial arts focus. A very shounen-focused lineup with the exception of Sailor Moon and Escaflowne (which arguably had equal gender-split audiences). Having watched half of them and being very familiar with most of the second half, I can safely say that when female characters are presented, they are depicted in Saito’s “beautiful fighting girl” perspective; strong, independent, proud yet sexy. Saito’s description of the archetype as “girls with penises”, although an oddly-worded phrase, pretty accurately describes their personalities.

Now fast forward to the previous year, 2011. The following is the 2011 top twenty-five from Animage (in collaboration with Newtype and Animedia) with their genres following the title:

1. K-ON!! – comedy, slice of life, moe
2. Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn – action, mecha
3. Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika – action, magical girl, psychology
4. Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei – mystery, psychology
5. Angel Beats! – action, comedy, supernatural
6. The Secret World of Arrietty – fantasy
7. Durarara!! – action, supernatural
8. Macross Frontier ~Sayonara no Tsubasa~ – action, mecha
9. Kimi ni Todoke 2 – school, romance
10. HeartCatch Pretty Cure! – action, magical girl, moe
11. Bakuman – comedy, school, slice of life
12. Mobile Suit Gundam 00 – A Wakening of the Trailblazer – – action, mecha
13. Working!! – comedy, slice of life, moe
14. Hourou Musuko – school, drama
15. To Aru Majutsu no Index II – action, magic, supernatural, moe
16. Colorful – comedy, slice of life, ecchi
17. Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai – comedy, slice of life, ecchi
18. Star Driver Kagayaki no Takuto – action, mecha
19. Sengoku Basara 2 – action, samauri
20. Giant Killing – sports
21. Katanagatari – action, adventure, martial arts
22. Highschool of the Dead – action, eechi, supernatural
23. Shiki – mystery, supernatural
24. Tantei Opera Milky Holmes – comedy, mystery, moe
25. Bungaku Shoujo – mystery, drama, romance, school
src: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/bbs/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=231711

As always, the mecha genre shows its presence (Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Macross Frontier, Mobile Suit Gundam 00, Star Driver). Sports and martial arts still hold their presence but lower down the list (Sengoku Basara 2, Giant Killing, Katanagatari). New genres, however, seem to be becoming far more popular, particularly that of mystery/supernatural (Yojou-han Shinwa Taikei, Angel Beats!, Durarara!!, To Aru Majutsu no Index II, Shiki, Tantei Opera Milky Holmes, Bungaku Shoujo) and the school+comedy/drama/slice of life combo (K-ON!!, Bakuman, Working!!, Hourou Musuko). On the topic of “beautiful fighting girl”, however, the genre has completely changed. To see this, here’s some analysis on a select few from that list.

K-ON!! is the second season of the highly popular K-ON! series. The cast is all female (with occasional insignificant male side-characters). Rather than being portrayed as strong, sexy, powerful “beautiful fighting girls”, however, the female cast of K-ON!! are depicted in the complete opposite end of the product-selling spectrum: cute, clumsy moe-blobs. Yes, over the past 10 years, the popularity of moe has skyrocketed (the original K-ON! also won the top spot in the “Anime Grand Prix” when it aired in 2009). Essentially, K-ON!! was an anime produced to sell and make money, and it (unfortunately) did just that.

Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika falls in the “mahou shoujo” (magical girls) category. Unlike Sailor Moon, however, the female cast of Madoka are far from “beautiful fighter girls”. The series has a very dark psychological twist (no spoilers!) with the female characters often questioning themselves and acting on unstable emotions, very contrasting to the generally strong wills and resolves of the girls in Sailor Moon. In addition, the character designs, unlike Sailor Moon and Cutey Honey, are not sexualized at all but rather target the moe audience.

Angel Beats! is has a female lead featuring elements of the “beautiful fighter girl” type personality. Yuri Nakamura acts as the leader of the resistance group with a strong, tomboyish personality. Being written by members of Key (the group that produced Kanon, Air, and Clannad), however, Angel Beats! does not sexualize or actionize their female characters at all – Yuri has a gentle side but nothing ever outstandingly feminine, nor does she actively participate in the fighting much. The strong-willed personality is there, but the character design and actions do not match strongly enough to classify her as a “fighter girl”.

The Secret World of Arrietty, yet another Studio Ghibli movie, featured a female lead. Unlike Nausicaä from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, however, Arrietty was given a distinctly more cutesy, lovable, and feminine character, devoid of any tomboyish personality expected in a “beautiful fighting girl”. The exact comparison here would more accurately be between a princess in charge of saving her valley and willing to do whatever it takes, and a young girl exploring a new world while trying to limit her impact on her surroundings.

Macross Frontier is a series that actually features a “beautiful fighter girl”. Two of them in fact, both of which are main characters (Ranka Lee and Sheryl Nome). They are both strong willed, vibrant girls who use singing as their means of fighting (for their cause). One is a high school girl and the other is a pop idol – both of them are quite sexualized and fanserviced throughout the series. The only issue is that they are female characters who are both in love with the main male character, Alto Saotome, who also happens to be a variable fighter pilot. Ultimately, the facts that 1) the two “beautiful fighter girls” are used as an unwanted harem for the main male lead, and 2) the series revolves around warfare with variable fighters (fighter jets that morph into humanoid robots) make Macross Frontier a mecha anime (as with the rest of the Macross/Robotech franchise).

Ore no Imouto is one of those “exploit the market demands” animes. The English translation of the title is directly, “My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute“. As you can guess, the series focuses on slice-of-life comedy with heavy siscon, lolicon, and ecchi components. The cast consists of a cute-looking but bratty little sister who also happens to be a model and closet otaku, two model friends of the sister who hate otakus, two online-made otaku friends of the sister (one who dresses in gothic lolita and the other who is a huge fan of mecha), a “normal” female childhood friend, and the average male main character who is thrown into the mess. With a focus on otaku culture and characters filling virtually every highly-marketable character archetype in anime, Ore no Imouto stands far from having any “fighter girl” characters. With all its moe, ecchi and fetish-type elements, however, the anime is a perfect depiction on “targeting the market”. It’s attempt to cover all the grounds, however, apparently wasn’t as successful as K-ON!!‘s direct, focused approach.

Highschool of the Dead goes to the extreme when it comes to ecchi (probably topped only by the recent Highschool DxD with its full blown nudity and unhindered fanservice). With bare minimum plot and character development, the series features overly-endowed girls totting guns and blowing the heads off zombies. Oh, and two male characters, with one being the generic good-willed male lead, and the other being the stereotypical nerdy but useful gun otaku. All female characters are highly sexualized and either depicted as damsels in distress or bad-ass skilled fighters. Arguably “beautiful fighter girl” in some elements, but with a straightforward sex appeal instead of the subliminal sexual attractions described by Saito.

So, what has changed over the past 10 years when it comes to female characters in anime? In my opinion, it is both a combination of market demands and the anime industry’s ability to specifically target those demands. Action-based series that put the “fighter” into “beautiful fighter girl” are slowly disappearing behind more light-weight comedy and slice of life animes, often with a school backdrop. Mecha series are still present and running, but less popular and with the category almost purely dominated by the Mobile Suit Gundam and Macross franchise. A huge focus on moe in both character design and character personalities is on the rise, and animation studios are capitalizing on those demands. Occasionally series or movies with good story are produced and well received, but are mostly overwhelmed by the popularity of series with high fanservice content, often ecchi and sometimes even borderline hentai in content. As shown in the rankings, in the current state of the industry, elements such as moe and loli are strongly dominating anime today (e.g. K-ON! and Ore no Imouto) but more perverse animes (e.g. Highschool of the Dead and Highschool DxD) are slowly rising up in popularity and becoming common-place. Even though we might look back and deem series such as Cutey Honey as overly sexualized, anime studios today are releasing even more risque material and society is becoming more and more accepting of them.

Of the 1997 top ten list, I’ve fully watched four of them: Evangelion, Gundam Wing, Escaflowne, and After War Gundam X – all the mecha ones ironically. Gundam Wing was my number one favourite anime back then and even still now (followed by Tsukihime, FLCL, Mai-Hime, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and Gurren Lagann). Of the new top 25 list, I’ve fully watched eight: K-ON!!, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magika, Angel Beats!, Mobile Suit Gundam 00 – A Wakening of the Trailblazer -, Working!!, To Aru Majutsu no Index II, and Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai. Apart from the Gundams, I can honestly say that I only enjoyed Madoka and Angel Beats. K-ON!!’s moe appeal is ridiculously over-the-top and Ore no Imouto, while comical, is too blatant in its purpose as a marketable product. I do admit to watching two episodes of Highschool of the Dead before dropping it (and I’m glad I did after someone showed me the show’s infamous boob matrix scene later on). Unfortunately, looking at the current and future anime broadcasting schedules, it seems that shows like those will only increase in number (and popularity), with the previous closet otaku sexuality described by Saito becoming more and openly accepted and expressed. The era of “beautiful fighting girls” has given way to the era of moe, ecchi, and excessive fanservice. The market demands it and the industry, unfortunately, is more than happy to comply.

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