October 31, 2012

Power and gender in Kamisama Kiss

Posted in Gender Roles, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 5:25 pm by starsamaria

There are many problematic power dynamics presented in shojo anime and manga. Many a series feature weak, passive girls in romantic relationships with jerky or outright abusive boyfriends, often placing female characters in a subservient role. The currently-running Kamisama Kiss anime and manga has impressed many fans with it’s willful heroine Nanami, who becomes a kami (deity) to a local shrine after her dad leaves her (and his debts) behind. On the surface, Kamisama Kiss subverts the traditional power dynamics intertwined with gender relations by featuring Nanami becoming the ‘master’ to her shinishi (a creature who is controlled by a kami) Tomoe. I’d like to further explore in which ways the series subverts and reinforces stereotypical gender relations –  in many cases, at the same time.

Many bloggers pointed out that right from the start, Kamisama Kiss subverts traditional shojo cliches by having Nanami steal a kiss from Tomoe, while in most series it is the female protagonist who typically has a kiss stolen from her. But as I have mentioned before, it’s interesting that when a female character initiates a kiss, her intentions are not romantic or sexual – instead, she kisses Tomoe in order for him to become her shinishi and guardian. Thus, because the kiss was not romantic in it’s nature, Nanami’s ‘purity’ is upheld. And although Nanami is put in a position of power as kami of the shrine, it is interesting that she becomes the kami of love and relationships, which has always been associated more with women.  Another way in which traditional gender roles are upheld is that Tomoe, as a fox yokai who is far more powerful than Nanami, becomes her protector. The reason Nanami kisses Tomoe and enters the shinishi contract in the first place is because she is being attacked by a yokai who steals the souls of humans and needs him to fend off the monster. And as a newcomer to the shrine, Nanami relies on Tomoe for everything from learning how to use ofuda (strips of paper used to write spells) to catching the bus on time. Tomoe himself, though a wild fox yokai, is very much like most ‘bad boy’ love interests in shojo manga: he has a mysterious past and can be cruel to Nanami (often to teach her a lesson). In these ways, stereoypical gender representations are reinforced.

However, it’s been pointed out that while on the surface Tomoe may rescue Nanami, ultimately Nanami always ends up saving herself, thus neutralizing Tomoe’s status as her protector and setting Nanami apart from the typical ‘damsel in distress.’ For example, in volume six, when Nanami is attacked by a spider yokai at school Tomoe is the one who kills the monster. However, the school becomes thick with miasma from the yokai, and Nanami is ultimately the one who is able to purify the monster despite Tomoe’s stronger powers.  There are also several instances where Nanami ends up saving Tomoe. In volume four, Tomoe gets kidnapped by a sea yokai and is saved by Nanami when she returns to the past to retrieve the eye Tomoe stole from him. Thus, Tomoe and Nanami are constantly switching positions in their power dynamic. However,  as the series progresses, Nanami finds herself in situations where she can’t rescue herself more often, and ends up relying more on Tomoe (such as when Nanami is sent to the Land of the Dead in volume eight). While this may seem to suggest that the series is regressing to traditional gender dynamics, I am not bothered because much has been done to show that Nanami always makes an effort to get herself out of sticky situations, which is more than can be said for the stereotypical passive female character. And more importantly, the emphasis of the series is clearly to show that Nanami and Tomoe are strongest when they work together. As a kami, Nanami is becoming more confident in her powers, while Tomoe is beginning to realize that humans aren’t as weak as he thought they are. Because of her influence in his life, the shrine feels warmer, and Tomoe is slowly learning to trust Nanami not to abandon him as his previous master Mikage did once before.

In terms of the growing romance between Nanami and Tomoe, however, is where the ever-changing power dynamics must come into question. By having Nanami kiss Tomoe first, it would seem as though Nanami has the upper-hand in their relationship. But I would argue that Kamisama Kiss upholds traditional gender relations in all areas concerning romance. Nanami is the first to realize she loves Tomoe, and when she hypothetically asks what he would do if she fell for him, Tomoe tells her that he “will not fall in love with a human.” Nanami is heartbroken, and at this point any romantic relationship between the two of them is completely in Tomoe’s hands. Kurama, a tengu, warns Tomoe that Nanami may fall for him simply because she’s a young woman, which perpetuates stereotypes about teenage girls being shallow and boy-crazy. And when the shinishi contract between Tomoe and Nanami is broken in volume eight after he rescues her from the Land of the Dead, it is up to Tomoe, not Nanami, to reinitiate it. He tells her not to automatically assume that he’ll be her shinishi again, and he uses the time to wonder why he can’t stop thinking about Nanami even though their contract has been cut off. And while Nanami had no fears in forcing a kiss from Tomoe at the beginning of the series, now that she has romantic feelings for him she doesn’t do anything, upholding traditional gender roles that only males should be romantic agressors, especially in physical terms. It is Tomoe who kisses Nanami in her sleep in order to become her shinishi again, undermining the atypical power dynamic praised at the series’ start. But is this enough to ruin the series for me? Not at all – I’ve enjoyed series with far more problematic gender roles, and I still can admire Nanami for being cheerful and hardworking without coming across as annoying. More importantly, my interest in the series has grown now that we’re beginning to learn more about Tomoe’s past. Yet while the decision to have Tomoe become the romantic initiator may be chalked up as a female fantasy it is important not dismiss this, and instead think about how deeply-embedded such a female fantasy is in our society and why. So while Kamisama Kiss may subvert traditional gender dynamics in some ways, in other ways it holds on tight.

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16 Comments »

  1. Kamisama Kiss has their own anime now…I think it’s only supposed to be six episodes…I loved the review, since I’m in the process of reading the series and I basically felt the same way..especially with the whole ‘romance’ thing. But, at the same time I feel like the whole reason the author made sure _Tomoe_ kissed her is because they wanted to show, that in fact, Tomoe did like her in the least–you can tell by the way that Nanami’s character is portrayed that like in the first volume, even though her heart was set on not using Tomoe, she’d kiss him to make him shinsi if push came to shove.

    ~Scarlett Symphony

    • starsamaria said,

      Thanks for commenting! You know what, I don’t disagree with that. Alot of Nanami’s reluctance probably came from the complex she develops from thinking he’ll never fall in love with a human woman. It also makes him choosing to kiss her more significant, because it shows Tomoe acknowledges his feelings for her. But there are several occassions where she backs away from her feelings from Tomoe or Tomoe leaves the picture but she ultimately chooses to accept them/get Tomoe back, so I think you’re right that eventually Nanami would have kissed him if Tomoe hadn’t done it first. It’s just a shame that having Tomoe kiss her (while she’s asleep, no less) places the future of their relationship in his hands (though I’ll admit it makes the story more interesting, which is why it doesn’t bother me so much).

      • Amen to that…I’m on the latest volume, 9 or 10, and I’m like: “Tomoe! Can’t you kiss her normally?”…that, and I’m still complaining about Kurosaki and Teru not kissing in Dengeki Daisy.

    • starsamaria said,

      Ooh, I agree with you about Teru and Kurosaki so much! Dengeki Daisy has such great sexual tension (without it being the main focus of the series), and I found myself very invested in Teru and Kurosaki’s romance.

      • I LOVE YOU, KUROSAKI!!…Can I ask how you’re getting italics on replies? I’m very much devoted to Dengeki Daisy. Have you read Yotsuba&! ?

      • starsamaria said,

        I do find Kurosaki sexy – he looks like he walked straight out of a shonen series into a shojo manga. It works. :D I haven’t read Yotsuba& but I want to – I’ve heard it’s so funny.

  2. That part about Kurosaki maybe me laugh so hard…but, I don’t know if you’ll hate me for this, but really, the MAIN thing that I love about the whole series is this: “Go bald, Kurosaki.”…Yotsuba&! follows the life of a toddler and her hilarious antics…every line is hilarious! Need a pick me up? Read Yotsuba&!, and you’ll be extremely happy. It’s created by the author of Azumanga Daioh (which by the way, the anime sucks for–don’t know about the manga) and her artwork really shone through Yotsuba&!. There’s no anime for Yotsuba&! because they said it’d be ‘too hard to animate’.

    • starsamaria said,

      It’s great that Teru teases Kurosaki so much, since in most shojo series male love interests are the ones who are much meaner. Actually, the author of Azumanga Daioh is a male – guys can draw series about high school girls too. I really like AzuDai – it’s one of the few series to make me laugh out loud – which is why I’d like to try Yotsuba&. And you’re right that the art is a huge part of Azuma’s appeal – he knows how to draw funny facial expressions.

      • Oops! Could’ve sworn Azuma was a Japanese name for girls…well, you learn something new everyday. Yes, the facial expression found on Yotsuba are priceless…I like the idea of AzuDai (since I’m basically in Chiyo’s position), but I just didn’t like the animation (that may be why he said ‘it’d be too hard to animate’ Yotsuba&!), because I don’t feel like the anime for it is heartfelt. The facial expressions in the anime aren’t that great. Also, I love how in manga chapters are short, but he’s doing like 7 short chapters in one episode, each of them acting like if the one before them never occurred…it’s a tad bit confusing…[says the girl who stopped after 5th episode], but I should probably watch the whole series before complaining like that. :D

  3. soaringwings said,

    Great analysis. I’m definitely going to be reading Kamisama Kiss now. It is slightly disappointing that whenever the manga seems to do something progressive, it also does something to reinforce traditional gender roles as well. But like you, I’ll probably enjoy it. I can still enjoy manga that have a lot of cultural gender bias as long as the characters (especially the female heroine) are written in a way that doesn’t make me want to roll my eyes at how shallow they are written. It’s why I’m enjoying Tonari so far and why I’ve enjoyed most manga really (because very rarely does a manga ever totally escape some form of gender role reinforcement. Even Basara has it in the form of Shuri being the initiator of the romance and I’ve always consider Basara a very progressive manga all around). Anyway, looking forward to reading Kamisama Kiss whenever I get around to it~

    • starsamaria said,

      Yeah, it’s definitely true that even series that critique gender roles end up having a scene where non-stereotypical female characters end up being ‘put in their place,’ as though the audience needs to be reminded that, yes, they are girls (most infamously, Ouran). I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I don’t think Tonari‘s biggest problem is gender/the rape line – along with frentic pacing that leaves me unconvinced of the character development, I’m not enjoying Shizuku’s character anywhere near as much as you are and I actually find her to be pretty boring. But I still keep watching the show, nonetheless. And Kamisama Kiss, while nowhere near my favorite series, has improved remarkably for me – I wasn’t crazy about it at first but it’s been getting better and better to me, so hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

      • soaringwings said,

        I guess I’m enjoying Shizuku more because I can relate to her a lot. My biggest achievements and what I feel most proud of are all academic. She is really the first shoujo heroine (I’ve come across) that actually enjoys school and studying (like I do). Kare Kano’s Yukino only did it cause she liked being praised (whereas Shizuku doesn’t care what others think, she’s doing it for her self satisfaction, which resonated more with me). Yukino never actually enjoyed the studying or really cared about academic success beyond it making her popular (from the little of Kare Kano that I’ve actually read). And while Haruhi from Ouran starts out as a nerd and takes her studies seriously. It’s never really a major aspect of her character beyond the first episode (from what I’ve watched so far). So in my eyes, Shizuku is the only heroine where academic success is a major component to her character and that isn’t played in some silly vein way like in Yukino’s case. That and I just love Shizuku’s bluntness. She doesn’t beat around the bush. After so many shoujo heroines that worry constantly about if they should say this or that, Shizuku is just so refreshing. I may be cutting her some slack because of it. Although, keep in mind I’m only two chapters in so this is very much subject to change depending on where the manga goes. Reading chapter 2 of Hadashi de Bara wo Fume reminded me just how much a manga can start on a good foot but still go down a path I absolutely hate (and I won’t say anymore because I’ll just be repeating what will be said in the next Substandard Shoujo Spectacle, which should be done soon). Anyway, differences in taste are always bound to happen, so I guess it will just come down to that in the end. :)

  4. [...] takes a look at power and gender in Kamisama Kiss at Shojo [...]

  5. Erin said,

    Since I began reading Kamisama Kiss, I couldn’t quite decide what I thought about the gender roles, but I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s had more progressive moments as well as typical moments. However, I agree that it appears to be reinforcing stereotypical roles in general. It’s rare to find a series that really lets go of stereotypical roles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the series though.

    • starsamaria said,

      It’s even more disappointing when a series that starts out progressive ends up conforming to traditional gender roles – it feels like there’s almost never an exception to the rule. It’s funny that even though Tomoe starting to realize his feelings for Nanami is putting the series down a very conventional path I still like where the series is headed. Hopefully it can exceed my expectations.

  6. Leaf said,

    This is a great post! I literally detest shoujou because the heroines main goal is a boyfriend and she lets other guys mess with her and then gets marked as a weak girl simply for being a girl….that angers me to no end. Then I found this manga. I bought the second the moment I finished the first and now I have 14 volumes. My faith that some mangaka will realize how disgusting a lot of shoujou out there are *Black Bird* and make a better and more female respecting one is restored!
    I wish this mangaka was getting more attention so she could inspire others but sadly most girls tend to buy and support other mangaka who think that when a boy messes with a girl it is love *Black Bird, My Little Monster-I don’t care how popular it is, the “hero” threatened to rape the heroine, stole her first kiss, etc.-and I could go on and on. That is a TERRIBLE message to send to anyone.
    So I have to thank you for checking out this manga and writing this. I hope many others can be introduced to this really interesting, cute, romantic story with ass kicking characters! :D


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