Power and gender in Kamisama Kiss

Power and gender in Kamisama Kiss

There are many problematic power dynamics presented in shojo anime and manga. Too many 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.

Shojo around the blogosphere

Shojo around the blogosphere

Hey guys, I just wanted to let you know of a few recent shojo-inspired pieces around the blogosphere. First is part one of a comic entitled “Shojo Reactions,” a very relatable story about what it’s like reading shojo manga! The piece was drawn and written by my friend Lucretia, and I hope you guys like it!

Next we have “I’ll kiss you and you’ll fall in love with me – Ramblings on Shoujo,” a conversation between Foxy Lady Ayame and myself over at the beautiful world. We discuss the presence of the ‘stolen kiss’ in shojo anime and manga, and how it is often problematic. Our conversation was inspired by a great post over at Tokyo Jupiter comparing kisses in the first episodes of three currently airing shojo series.

I hope you guys enjoy these pieces!

The art of the matter

The art of the matter

Normally, I don’t care much about whether a series has great art or not. I’ve written before that it bothers me when fans ignore great series because they have unique or ‘ugly’ artstyles. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good art, and while shojo art often gets criticized for being ‘simple’ and that it ‘all looks alike,’ I find myself drawn to the textbook shojo aesthetic, which often features frills, flowers, pretty girls and even prettier boys.  In particular, there are some artists whose style I find myself drawn to.  Here are some of the shojo artists whose art I really love:

Wataru Yoshizumi: Some people might argue that Wataru Yoshizumi’s art is textbook shojo. And while I wouldn’t disagree, I feel that Yoshizumi does textbook shojo better than anyone else. I love her character designs – her boys are handsome, while her girls are feminine with large eyes yet still not sugary to the level of Arina Tanemura’s characters. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with sticking to the basics.

Ai Yazawa: Ai Yazawa is one of a few shojo/josei artists (along with Chika Umino and Moyocco Anno) whose style I consider to be extremely distinct. Her character designs are edgy yet realistic, featuring smaller eyes and thicker lips than the average shojo characters. Her costumes are inspired by real-life designers such as Vivienne Westwood, so her characters are always fashionable. But where Yazawa really shines is her use of facial expressions. Yazawa is amazing at being able to create drama through closeups and the way she frames important scenes. Thus, Yazawa’s storytelling is layered – rather than just relying on multifaceted characters and great dialogue, the story’s emotional punch lies just as much within it’s art.

CLAMP: I love CLAMP’s artwork, but only for a few specific series. I’m not a fan of the more angular art style shown in their older works (such as Clover), nor of their latest lanky character designs where even young characters appear to be six feet tall (which is especially prevalant in Tsubasa). However, I adore CLAMP’s character designs for Cardcaptor Sakura and Chobits, which are adorable without feeling overly saccharine, and just generally very feminine. I also love their detailed costumes, from Sakura’s battle costumes in CCS to Yuko’s kimonos in xxxHolic. But the main reason I know I’m a fan of CLAMP’s artwork is because a picture of Chi will pull me in every time, despite the fact that I don’t even like Chobits.

Yuuki Obata: At first glance, Yuuki Obata’s artwork for We Were There seems pretty straightforward. She uses bubbles, sparkles, flowers – all staple elements of the shojo aesthetic. But her character designs only appear to be typical on the surface – on closer inspection they’re rounder than the average shojo characters, and Obata depicts her characters aging skillfully and realistically. But more than for having a distinct style like Ai Yazawa or being amazingly detailed like CLAMP, I believe Obata evokes a certain warmth from her artwork that makes me go ‘awww’ every time I see it.

Yuu Watase: Yuu Watase is the queen of the recycled character design. Tamahome, Night, and Uruki (among many others) are basically the same design over and over again. So why did I put her on this list? Because it’s a damn good character design. No one knows how to draw a pretty boy quite like Watase does, and in many ways the people who accuse Watase of copying her own designs are ignoring the fact that this is true for many other manga artists as well (coughArina Tanemuracough).

There are many other shojo manga artists whose style I really like. I love Kyosuke Motomi’s character designs – they’re sharp and attractive and almost feel as though they walked out of a shonen manga. And I’ve always liked the pretty boys from Vampire Knight, despite the fact that I don’t care much for the series itself. There are even some shojo authors whose works I haven’t read but I find their art extremely addictive, such as Io Sakisaka. So are there any shojo artists whose character designs or costumes you can’t get enough of? Share your thoughts, guys!

The idealization of the ‘nice guy’

The idealization of the ‘nice guy’

Some fans of Fruits Basket still wish that the kind ‘Prince’ Yuki had ended up with Tohru instead of Kyo.

One complaint I’ve noticed among shojo manga fans is that they often dislike that the ‘nice guy’ never gets the girl. Typically, a female shojo protagonist finds herself pursued by a guy who she argues with all of the time, or who has a reputation as a ‘bad boy,’ and a sweet guy who is extremely loyal to her. Over the course of the typical shojo romance series, the ‘bad boy’s’ rough exterior will slowly melt as he grows closer to the girl, leaving the nice guy out in the cold. Some fans, however, dislike this cliché. The most common reason fans wish girls would choose the nice guy is because in real life, he’d be a much safer option than the bad boy. While love interests who start as jerk generally evolve into decent and loving boyfriends in shojo manga, in the real world, setting out to change a bad boy doesn’t work so well. In addition, the winning love interest often comes with a lot of baggage – a mysterious past or complicated family life – and fans see choosing the nice guy as an easier option. Another reason fans latch onto the nice guy is because of all the characters in a series, he’s usually the one who least deserves to have his heart broken, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. However, I feel that most fans who root for the nice guy in shojo manga are idealizing the ‘nice guy’ archetype rather than looking at the characters themselves.

I always find it interesting when people say they were rooting for the losing interest because he was ‘nicer.’ Fans are quick to segregate love interests by labeling them; placing them into categories such as ‘nice guys’ and ‘bad boys.’ But sometimes I find myself questioning these labels. For example, in Peach Girl, Toji is seen as the ‘nice guy’ because his rival Kairi is a playboy. But Kairi saves Momo when Sae blackmails her, gives up on her so she can be with Toji, and risks his life to retrieve a present she gave him. In many ways, Kairi proves himself to be just as nice of a guy as Toji is – and possibly even nicer. Conversely, in Absolute Boyfriend Soshi is considered to be the ‘nice’ love interest because he is Riiko’s childhood friend, and because Night is a robot. But Soshi often calls Riiko an idiot and takes her for granted, while Night is never anything but sweet to her, which makes me question whether Soshi deserves to be labeled the ‘nice’ love interest.  And in Skip Beat!, Sho is considered the ‘jerk’ love interest because he was only using Kyoko in the beginning of the series. However, I’m hestitant to agree with Ren’s label as the ‘nice guy,’ since there are several occassions where he is purposely cold to Kyoko or he completely ignores her (and interestingly, Ren seems to be an exception to the ‘nice guy’ rule since Kyoko’s affections for Ren are greater than her feelings for Sho).  Thus, I feel as though the fans who root for the sweet guy simply because he is the ‘nice guy’ are only looking on the surface of things.

One reason I say specifically that fans who root for the nice guy are attached to an archetype (and not the character himself) is because in most series, the nice guy isn’t fully fleshed out. He generally serves several roles in the story: he’s a threat to the ‘bad boy’ for the girl’s affections, especially since he’s often smarter and sweeter – he’s ‘perfect.’ He also is typically the person the protagonist can talk to about her worries.  However, beyond these functions the sweet love interest is typically not a well-developed character – we know little about his likes and dislikes, and he usually doesn’t have a strong personality beyond being nice. There are exceptions, of course – it’s hard not to like Nakatsu’s goofiness in Hana-Kimi, while Yuki in Fruits Basket has many insecurities and goes through great character development. Yet despite the fact that they are perfect, the losing love interest often feels generic. In most cases, the nice guy’s reasons for liking the girl go unexplained – all that matters is that he loves her enough to remain loyal to her, and enough to eventually let her go. This doesn’t work well for me, however, since in order for me to be convinced that a couple is right for each other I need to know the reason why each partner has feelings for the other. Thus, I find it hard to understand many times how some fans can root for love interests like Takeuchi in We Were There because they feel so underdeveloped.

In Sand Chronicles, Ann chooses the average nice guy. Fans didn’t exactly jump for joy, however.

Additionally, it sort of bugs me when fans gush about how nice it would have been if the girl had chosen the sweet guy or how cute the two would look together because in most series, the girl has no romantic feelings for the nice guy whatsoever. In most shojo romance series, it’s hard for me to imagine what type of couple the nice guy and main girl would be because the dynamic between them is platonic, and there’s no chemistry between them whatsoever.  Just because the sweet guy is your favorite character or you don’t want him to end up alone doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be a good match with the female protagonist – or that he has to end up with her specifically.  And what’s funny is that as much as some fans complain about the nice guy never getting the girl in the end, the response to series where the nice guy wins is usually mixed. For example, in Paradise Kiss, many fans wish Yukari had stayed with George rather than marrying her high school crush Tokumori. And in Sand Chronicles, it’s clear that Ann was going to end up with ‘everyman’ Daigo right from the start, yet there are still fans who hoped she would have chosen the mysterious Fuji. So as often as fans say they want the girl to choose the good guy, the appeal of the ‘reformed bad boy’ storyline is still strong because it creates so much drama, especially because bad boys often have better character development.

But the most important point I’d like to make is that while fans say the girl should choose the guy who treats her like a princess because in real life he’d be a much safer option are ignoring the fact that in real life, nice guys are not like the nice guys in manga. While in shojo manga perfect guys like Kimi ni Todoke‘s Kazehaya are handsome, considerate, and kind, in the real world, the average guy is somewhere in-between the good and the bad boy, prone to moments of both stupidity and sweetness. Thus, the ‘nice guy’ in shojo manga is just as much of an unrealistic idealization as the reformed bad boy is. Having a guy who knows exactly how you’re feeling all the time, or is willing to give up everything to be with you is nice – but it’s far-fetched, and you shouldn’t expect it from a guy in real life. Just as having a cold guy become more loving is a female fantasy so too is the image of the perfect, sweet boyfriend. All of this being said, I have no problem when the nice guy wins – and I do agree that there probably aren’t enough series where the sweet guy gets the girl. What’s needed, however, is for the nice guy to feel less like a plot device and more like a unique character, with his own quirks and interesting background. Fans may never completely agree with who should end up with the girl in their favorite series, but I hope to see that the reason they root for a certain character is more than just because they are generically ‘nice.’

Cover-to-Cover: Goong

Cover-to-Cover: Goong

Cover-to-Cover is a column where I’ll choose my favorite cover from a particular series. This time around it’s the first manhwa (Korean comic) I’ve ever read: Goong! Goong is a wonderful series that takes place in alternative version of modern Korea in which the monarchy still reigns over the country. Chae-Kyung, an ordinary 16-year-old girl, is arranged to be married to the cruel crown prince Shin because of a promise their grandfathers made long ago. As the two slowly learn to love each other, Chae-Kyung must adapt to the ways of the palace, while the threat of political turmoil is ever-present. With interesting characters, a great setting, and several well-balanced plot threads, Goong is an extremely addictive series. And while I’d probably still love Goong even if the characters were drawn as stick-figures, the series also benefits from having beautiful art. The character designs are sharp and attractive, while the costumes are detailed.  Thus, choosing a favorite cover for this series is going to be tough. Immediately when I thought of which cover I liked best, the cover of volume three came to mind. The characters are in a great pose, and the energy of the cover matches the dynamic between Shin and Chae-Kyung really well. Chae-Kyung’s face is also very cute. Meanwhile, another cover that stands out to me is volume eleven‘s.  While the pose Shin and Chae-Kyung are in is sort of cheesy, the colors are lovely and the characters are well-drawn. And yet, as I thought about which cover to choose, one volume’s cover kept coming back into my mind: volume four.

When I saw the cover of volume four online, I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t until I saw the image in person that I realized how pretty it is. I think I’m a sucker for poses like this one: Chae-Kyung is kneeling over to embrace a sitting Shin, and it comes across as sweeter than any of the series’ other covers.  What’s more, unlike several of the other covers that feature Chae-Kyung and Shin in modern clothing, volume four’s cover shows Chae-Kyung wearing traditional Korean attire worn by the female members of the royal family. I must admit, it took me awhile to warm up to the Korean costumes presented in the series – at first I thought they were kind of bulky and awkward. But since then they’ve grown on me, and the style has begun to suit Chae-Kyung as much as she is slowly beginning to become suited to her role as crown princess. Yet, even with as ornate as the cover of volume four, the couple here seems very quiet in comparison to the ‘spark’ they have on other covers, or even within the series itself. Even though Chae-Kyung and Shin constantly have trouble communicating their feelings for one another, it’s hard not to become swept up in the few tender moments they’ve had with each other. Volume four’s cover is probably the most intimate Goong has had yet – and that’s exactly why it’s my favorite cover.