If you are an anime fan whose first real entry to the medium happened within this decade, it is likely that your initial impressions of what anime is was drawn from some form or depiction of a female anime character. Maybe you, too, saw an image of Saber and felt compelled to check out what the Fate franchise was all about. Maybe it’s a guilty craving to see more of the cute, appealing character designs in Bakemonogatari that drives you to keep coming back for more.
The sheer amount of anime shows and films that exist may make it a tall task to make sweeping generalisations about how females are dealt with in anime, but it’s hard to deny that female anime characters comprise an iconic part of how anime is perceived.
This article is an attempt to capture exactly how this happens, thus being both a generalisation of the female in anime construct and an appreciation of the accomplishments in storytelling in anime centering around female characters. At times, this may mean drawing trends between shows that have little to do with one another, but the ultimate goal is harnessing the multidimensionality of what might have been perceived as a singular cultural icon and formulating a breakdown that appreciates some of the intricate thoughts put into their creation.
Recognising the Romantic Interests in Anime
Regardless of your background in watching anime, it is more likely than not that most of your repertoire consists of TV shows with male protagonists. It’s simply too difficult for an anime fan to really have come into grips with anime as a media if he or she has not consumed shounen anime of any kind, be it Naruto, One Piece, Dragonball or even Pokemon. One common trait shared by all of these shows, so obvious yet so easily overlooked, is the presence of romantic interests at close proximities to their main protagonists. It’s simply ingrained in the mainstream anime formula for there to be a female character who are designed such that they can be imagined to be a romantic partner to the male main characters with a varying degree of relevance to the story.
For the purpose of highlighting the common traits of a traditional romantic interest in anime, it is best to look at the Gundam franchise. Stretching back to as far as the original Mobile Suit Gundam and then throughout the entire Universal Century timeline, they are clearly split between female characters who are plot relevant and characters who do near nothing to contribute to the story. For example, Four Murasame from Zeta Gundam is an excellent character who becomes the focal point of a story arc midway through the series and becomes a driving force for main pilot Kamille to act as his romantic interest. Four is without a doubt an essential part of Kamille’s character development and can be appreciated for her tragic circumstances as they are presented within the show. Even in today’s anime, there are many characters functions in a similar way to how Four influenced Kamille and thereby moves the plot to center around her; it’s a formula that works and will continue working for as long as anime goes.
On the other hand, Fa Yuiry is also one of Kamille’s romantic interests and also his childhood friend, but has very little flesh to her personality when considered at the absence of Kamille. Fa may be seen as a plot device to represent the normal lifestyle that Kamille was ripped away from, which is also to say that she is relegated as a side character who only has a functional role in the story and has nothing interesting about her other than being a romantic interest. She represents the essence of what a romantic interest in anime is meant to be: an accessory to the main characters in a show where the main actors to the overarching plot are male.
Obviously, to apply such a standard for character depth to someone who is at such close proximity may not be the best idea in modern-day anime, even though there are such cases. A counterpoint to the Fa-esque character would be Yoko from Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, who manages to be a love interest for both Kamina and Simon while also being much more appreciable as an individual. Yoko is never given much attention plot-wise but still manages to contribute much to the story because of how much detail about her throughout the show, whether it is through a significantly more dynamic character design or by the creators sharing both her moments of triumph and instances of utter weakness, thereby solidifying our impression of her emotional depth. It’s no longer the case that anime is mostly concerned with men making changes and Yoko, despite her lesser role relative to Simon and Kamina, is respected for her independent mind as someone who experiences much of what Simon and Kamina has experienced and is given her own character arc.
The term romantic interest is thus a loose generalisation that is most useful for noting the functional roles of females in anime. There’s a lot of different other similar terms for this: close friends, family, mentors, rivals... all of these descriptions could apply in like, just not to the degree of immediate recognisability that a romantic interest has always been.
Coming into the Spotlight
If you noticed that the category of female protagonists was missing from the previous section, you would be on quite the correct trail of thought. While it is difficult to harness as an issue rather than just a matter of how events played out, anime from decades ago that are still popular to this day tend to avoid making use of female protagonists. You can see this in the Gundam franchise, Macross, Touch and even Dragonball where female characters always play second fiddle to the main roles taken by the males.
Broadly speaking, this can be attributed to how most of the creative minds behind those anime were male, perhaps making it less comfortable for their core themes to be conveyed by a protagonist of the opposite sex. Another interpretation is that fictional media in Japan at the time for the most part saw male protagonists as the mainstream avenue to storytelling, and none of the successful anime TV series pushed to change the norm. Regardless of the reason, making use of female protagonists was a rarity and remained so until the appearance of a major figure in anime.
Being anime fans, you might be familiar with a certain individual by the name of Hayao Miyazaki. As the auteur director of the massively prolific Studio Ghibli, almost every single one of his theatrical creations within the studio may be considered a mainstream success and is certainly one of the iconic faces of anime all throughout the world. Significantly, nearly all of his films notably make use of female leads that strike a balance between being visually appealing and driving the story as a central character of their respective films. Characters like San and Chihiro have much more depth even compared to Four from Zeta Gundam while also carrying less of the feminine traits that are traditionally attached to female characters, instead exhibiting traits of strong-willed moral goodness or decisiveness in the face of crisis that are depicted in a gender neutral manner.
If the dialogue about females in anime were ever truly represented by the term “love interest”, Miyazaki certainly broke the mold by showing that interesting and well-received anime can be made with girl protagonists on the driving wheel. This has certainly been the case for series like Gunbusters or Fushigi no Umi no Nadia in the 90s, carrying on into entire trends of female dominated anime come the 2000s and beyond.
Anime Girls in Prominence: Tsunderes and Moeblobs
While the functional shift of female characters took place, the growth into prominence of certain genres meant that the anime fanbase came to recognise anime characters for what character archetype they best fit into. For the purpose of this narrative, let us examine what Love Hina did for the harem genre.
It might be strange to non-anime fans that what is essentially a paradigm of character relationships and a fairly set-in-stone storytelling formula can become a genre in itself; that would require an article of its own to discuss.
The relevant point is the popularisation of stories that exploited the appeal of having a chockful of potential romantic interests within a single show where it is, for the most part, unclear who the main character would end up with. Harem shows are powerful in the sense that they engage the viewer’s personal preferences instead of having a clearly defined template for who we are supposed to experience the story through; protagonists in harem anime (and romantic comedies for the most part) worked better having less personality because there was less to get in the way of the romancing from the female’s side.
This amounted to a further reduction of character traits from Fa in Zeta Gundam, in which as long as characters can adhere to a certain behavioural pattern, keeping them simple worked better from an entertainment perspective. Simplicity and predictability came hand-in-hand in forming one of the most popular character archetypes of all time: tsunderes. Naru from Love Hina was one such character, who on the surface absolutely detested living with protagonist Koutaro but occasionally shows a softer, caring side when the timing was right. Although the relevance of their personality to the overall plot suffers as a result, this formula made it possible for there to be tension even in scenes of daily life; Koutaro has to tiptoe through how he interacts with each romantic interest so that he can end the day unharmed, usually culminating in a failure of remarkable proportions. The tsundere plus other romantic interests then carries on into a multitude of other anime series such as Shakugan no Shana and Zero no Tsukaima, where the major female lead characters have their own background stories but are bound by a certain behavioural patterns as defined by convention. How the plot changes shapes or is shaped by them is simply less important.
That being said, it is not necessarily true that all of this happened because the creators of anime figured out that simpler characters sold better. The perfect illustration for this is the ever controversial Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which Rei and Asuka were meticulously constructed with the same character traits but depicted in such a way that thoughtful viewers can’t find their behaviour within the series attractive. Unfortunately for Director Hideaki Anno, his intentions were overwhelmed instead by the fans’ enthusiasm for the brilliant execution of those archetypes and the point he attempted to make essentially fell flat. The undeniable fact is that anime fans like characters who fall into certain character archetypes because seeing Asuka’s offbeat love-hate relationship with Shinji and Rei’s one-mindedness presents a fantasy that can’t exist in anywhere other than in anime. It is a matter of combining those character archetypes with physical and sexual appeal that females characters found another identity in anime, albeit one of reductionism and simplicity in the eyes of the fans.
On the same token, anime fans of the last decade coined the term “moe” in recognition of a similar phenomenon, this time pertinent to shows like K-On! and Clannad. Unlike sexual attraction, moe attempts to make distinct the appeal of characters whose fundamental weaknesses and personality charm makes it such that the viewer wants to cheer for their success. While this might be taken with a grain of salt, it is appreciable that recognising moe denotes another trend in the character creation process where the purpose is to subvert the flaws of a character and make it a point of attraction. Yui from K-On! is by no means an intelligent or motivated character, but seeing her succeed at moments that matter with the unconditional support of the people around her does stimulate the kind of pleasure as an underdog cinderella run in sports does.
In summary, character archetypes gets fans ready to consume the story in a certain way. Females in anime may be coming in prominence in the high road like Miyazaki’s action-girls are, but for the most part it’s really about the game of spotting the tsundere and cheering for the moeblob that is getting people into anime nowadays. What this is doing to the realm of storytelling in anime, however, is a consequence that also needs to be looked into.
Breaking the Mold - It’s All in the Exceptions
It would not do if the takeaway from this article is that Miyazaki is the only director trying to tell interesting stories with female characters, while everyone else is riding the harem and moe waves. That would be spreading falsehood. Commenting on the anime meta tends to form an overly negative view of the industry as the process of generalisation necessitates the overlooking of individual effort. There is a definite silver lining to all of this.
The cynic’s interpretation would be on the lines that anime has taken Fa from Zeta Gundam and added all sorts of decorations and accessories to making the female in anime more appealing, but not necessarily any more substantial or meaningful a character. In this line of thinking, anime has not gotten any more interesting for the past three decades in favour of playing catch-up with the latest trends, ultimately being slaves to fads. That would be a closed minded view that only works if one was to ignore all the effort put into well-written anime.
Even in the case of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the propagation of character archetypes was very much a fan-driven phenomenon in a series with a distinct purpose and an intelligent message. The message may not have been the most sound or even aptly conveyed, but it was proof of an effort by the creators part to make use of what worked in anime and breaking the mold entirely by adding in different intentions so that a complex story can be told.
Of course, not every anime can be as controversial in nature as in Evangelion, so the more relevant example might be Girls und Panzer, another original anime that takes the trend of moe in anime and then formulating an actual underdogs sports story with real stakes lying at the corner of every plot development. Tsutomu Mizushima is possibly closer to Miyazaki than Anno, in that he doesn’t find it necessary to emphasis the feminine traits of his protagonists but find females just as capable of carrying the core themes of his story as male ones. That’s why Shirobako and Ika Musume both also work, because female characters are more appealing than males but are otherwise no different in terms of some daily stress and challenges that they face.
The character archetypes and trends in the tsundere and moe are just that, storytelling constructs that can be morphed however creators want them to be used. Even sexuality can be used as an engaging storytelling device in anime if the creators have enough sense to do so, as Yoko from Gurren Lagann is definitely not just a romantic interest present for sexual appeal, but a growing character who has to deal with the same weakness, regret and uncertainty for the future that Simon faces and manages to find her own answer to all of them. Female triumph is something which can arise from any avenue of storytelling given the right intentions and the correct execution, which anime will continue finding new ways of doing as the meta continues to evolve from the continuing interaction between ambitious projects and evolving trends.
To end off this article, consider some of the more recent female protagonists in recent years. Ohana from Hanasaku Iroha faces troubles from all aspects of her life, be it family, friendship and romance; she’s both a driving force and a student to all the people around her, making her an exceedingly well-rounded protagonist among many of her peers. Yona from Akatsuki no Yona is the makings of a war-hero princess, looking to redeem herself and save her country from ruin. Witch Maria from Junketsu no Maria dislikes conflicts, dislikes sexuality and falls utterly in love with Joseph, a human who is not wary of her presence. What roles do these females play? It depends on the story of the anime, the intentions of the creators and, perhaps most importantly, what effect they have on us as viewers. What we have to do is question why they have any importance and what difference do they bring from what we have already seen, how they are an exception from what has been set as the norm. As long as we can keep doing that, anime will always be interesting.
In the end, to categorise females as a standout element of an anime is just another way of evaluating its storytelling; there are as many reasons for why characters are depicted in a certain way as there are creative minds, if not more. Anime presents to us an intriguing paradigm of balancing between telling unique stories and figuring out what works in the market, giving us products in both extremes depending on whose anime we see. An answer that upstart directors have started to come to mirrors Miyazaki, but at a wider scale and better integrated with the mainstream in anime meta. We can only wait to see how a world without Miyazaki will progress in the coming years.
Did you agree with our breakdown? Is there another important role of females in anime that needs to be discussed? Let us know in the comment section below.