January 25, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 4: Rumiko Takahashi Hates Men? Since When?

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

I hadn't planned on doing any special posts in this series just yet, but something came up over the weekend that changed my mind. I'm sure at least some of you reading this are on Twitter, and as you know, sometimes you see things on Twitter as you're flipping past the retweets, the jokes, the announcements, and the little slices of life that stops you dead because it catches you by surprise.

Such was the case when one of my twitter friends shared a personal joke about Rumiko Takahashi hating men. If you had seen me when I read over the tweet, I'm sure I looked like one of those cartoon characters with their jaw dropped to the floor. I might have even exclaimed "You've got to be kidding me," but I don't think so because I don't recall being chastised by my wife, since this was in a Walgreens.

A few questions later, I found that my friend created this joke because it apparently makes the rounds of comment threads in anime. I'm not a big fan of spending hours on message boards, having done my time in the message board trenches when I was in college and it was IMPORTANT to always have my say. (It's a phase that everyone goes through. Don't sweat it if you're doing it now, dear reader, eventually the desire will pass, much as old manga slips out of print.) Thus, I had no idea that there was a little clatch of people trying to make the argument that anime "is castrating men by making male protags spineless and dominated by women..." and of course that means that Takahashi is doing it, too.

The broader idea is ludicrous, of course. Maybe I'm watching the wrong anime, but everything I've seen either beats both genders about the head just about equally or gives a preference to the male characters. Still, it seems there are people who decry any slight against the idea of masculinity while clutching to their stories that treat women like objects (at best) and often kill or toss them aside, all while drawing them in the most demeaning way possible, so it really doesn't shock me that those are also the kind of people who frequent message boards to warn the world against the grand conspiracy against men.

Oh wait, there I go being a sissy again, I guess. *shrug*

At any rate, since I am spending a year singing her praises, I figured this was as good a time as any to approach the idea of Takahashi's attitude towards men.

The first thing I want to cover is my own opinion. Now I don't claim to be a Takahashi expert. I haven't read everything she's ever written or watched all of the anime adaptations. However, I've read enough to know that Takahashi likes putting men and women in comedic situations together. As a writer known for physical romantic comedy, especially ones aimed at young men and women, it's only natural that there is going to be a lot of violence heaped on the main characters. Sure, Ranma is punched, kicked, and verbally abused--but it's not to make the female characters around him look better. It's because, as anyone who's ever watched a slapstick comedy knows, getting hit is *funny.* This is analogous to saying that Warner Brothers was trying to defame cowboys and hunters by having Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam get blown up every time they showed up in a Looney Tunes short. It's so preposterous, you'd think the folks were saying in with their tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Apparently, however, that's not the case. I spent time doing some internet searches on variations of "Takahashi hates men" and every time I found a message board related to the subject, somebody felt she was against the male gender. Sadly, it kinda seemed like there wasn't much of an argument against the idea, either.

I just don't see where this is coming from. The woman is clearly hard on her characters, but I see it going towards both genders. It's not like life is easy for anyone in the stories I've read so far. Kagome is dragged into an increasingly dangerous set of battles in InuYasha, when I'm pretty sure she'd be happy just to go to school. My memory is spotty on the Rumic World stories, but I seem to recall bad things happening to just about every protagonist in those shorter works.

This is not a gender conspiracy, it's a creator who seems to revel in doing things to torture her characters, whether in serious terms or in playful fun. It's an exercise in exaggeration, and to say that Takahashi hates men is to a level of insecurity that makes me feel sorry for the people exercising that argument--if I wasn't too busy laughing at them.

In the case of most of Takahashi's stories, you aren't meant to take things too seriously. If you're getting all uptight about a story where a lake turns people into half-cats, half-pandas, and half-pigs, perhaps you better look again. I really started chortling at the whole idea that keeping InuYasha on a leash was a sign of where Takahasi thinks men belong. Because if we extend that logic out to take the premise seriously, are we supposed to believe that Takahashi believes all men are demons who will take what they want if they aren't restrained? If she wanted to tell stories like that, I'm pretty sure she'd be writing for magazines targeted at people who aren't 15 year old boys.

I mean come on here. Most of what Takahashi has written for the past thirty years is shonen manga, and what isn't shonen is seinen. Unless you seriously believe that young teenage boys are going to read these manga and internalize insecurities while their older counterparts read Maison Ikkoku and think, "Boy, I'm a loser who doesn't deserve a professional woman!", then it's clear that any agenda Takahashi might have intended isn't going to enter the mind of her targeted readers. You know what is? How funny it is when someone gets bonked on the head or how great it is to read about some loser in a boarding house that isn't me.

Sometimes a comedy is just a comedy. Reading things into the narrative to make yourself feel better because you can't hold a stable relationship with a woman is sad, and again, I'm feel sorry for these people, except that I'm betting they've got softcore pinned up on their walls and think Jim Balent's comics and High School of the Dead are great examples of using female characters.

Hold on now! Am I being unfair?

You bet--I'm using exaggeration to make my point and to generate a laugh or two. I don't seriously think that every person who dislikes Takahashi's portrayal of men is a guy who can't get a date, but I also know that in an anime world that has life-like pillows of female characters, I think there's some insecurities that come out of the woodwork, and a popular, longstanding female manga-ka is an easy target.

My bottom line is this--Takahashi likes to write funny stories where her characters do outrageous things. No one is going to claim that people can control the ocean or fight so hard that they destroy an entire ice skating rink, so no one should claim that because Ranma takes a beating or InuYasha has a choke chain or that Godai is an amiable idiot that Takahashi wants us to think that all men are to be submissive. If that's her goal, then she certainly failed, because the millions of boys and men who've read her manga in several nations are all still functioning quite nicely, going on to healthy relationships, bad relationships, or no relationship at all. They're good people and bad people, the same as they'd have been without Takahashi's help.

If Takahashi committed a sin, it's trying to get girls to want to read comics, too, by making sure that her female characters get the same attention as her male characters. Heaven forbid that the page time be devoted equally between the genders. It might mean a whole extra demographic starts to read comics! The horror!

Don't worry, friends, mainstream Western comics will make sure those girls don't get any further than the gates of manga.

I think I'll leave the last word to Takahashi herself. This is taken from an interview in Shonen Sunday, and I found it on the excellent Rumic World tribute site:
"I don't have any resentment towards men, however they behave that way because they are the main characters. If they did not it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. I think I am hard on the female characters too because of what they have to endure!! They have to withstand a lot because they are the main characters."

I couldn't have said it better myself, Ms. Takahashi. As with any good comedian or writer, there are no sacred cows in Takahashi's work. It's part of what makes it so good. Next week, we'll return to the world of Ranma 1/2, assuming my masculinity can handle it.