Saturday, March 20, 2010

Soul Eater And The Slow Stumbling Progress Of Gender In Anime

Soul Eater is being touted as the next big thing in anime. Whether its because of genuine excitement, or the fact that the flailing anime industry really, really needs a next big thing I’ll leave it for you to judge. But even though I don’t consider myself an anime fan anymore I like to keep abreast of what’s going on with the medium, and when I hear something described as “Harry Potter ripping off Bleach with Woo style heroic bloodshed” well that’s worth a look.

Visually Soul Eater is tremendous, a showcase for fluid animation that blends traditional anime style with Graffiti Art (note the bold angular line work), while appropriating tropes and styles (Particularly the shading) from Western and European animation in a way I’ve never seen a Japanese show do before. The theme song gives a pretty good over view of its style.

Story wise there’s not a lot of internal consitancy to the mythology or set up. While most anime series take pains to ground themselves in the real world, or at least set up a counter mythology, Soul Eater takes about the same time explaining the world and the rules of it as Nickolodean spent explaining why Spongebob lives in a pineapple under the sea. This is both annoying and invigorating. There’s no logic in Soul Eater save internal logic, and the show tends to have the free form feel of a krazy kat comic.

Eschewing the well worn Shounen tropes of the competent mentor and earnest kid, Soul Eater bravely makes most of its characters incompetent nimrods. Defined by their egos and fetishes that are Suzuki like in their intensity.

I haven’t gotten a lot from Soul Eater so far (The end of the first story arc), but in all fairness had I seen this when I was actually in Jr. High, the target demograhic, I most likely would have flipped the fuck out.

Soul Eater is more interesting to look at from a sociological perspective nowadays. It’s a Shounen (boys action series) but its lead is a girl. Shocking I know but bear with me here. The leads for women in this kind of anime are pretty well defined, you got wallflower, tomboy, and shrew, usually all united by the fact that they’ve been secretly in love with the hero the whole time. If you’ve ever watched five minutes of an anime series you’ve probably seen one of these. There are exceptions of course, say Rukia in Bleach, but even these exceptions tend to be problematic (and the mishandling of that character deserves an essay of its own).

Soul Eater’s lead, Maka displays exactly none of these tropes. What’s more, its not some quasi formed marketer’s idea of girl power that makes her victorious it’s the fact that she’s the most competent. True she’s the most competent out of a gaggle of doofuses but competence is competence. Her gender is a defining aspect of her character, not the defining aspect of her character.

The success of things like Soul Eater, The Hunger Games, the work of Joss Whedon, the success of Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, and James Patterson’s Max series (hey I didn’t say they had to be good) are all slowly chipping away at the conventional wisdom that though a girl will follow a story with a male protagonist a boy won’t follow a female lead.

Soul Eater is not without its problems. As if in a panic that they’ve actually done something progressive, the filmmakers go out of their way to make just about every other female character on the show as regressive and fan servicy as possible. To be fair, this does fit in with the show’s motif, in which just about everyone is a complete moron, But around the twenty fourth leering revealing shot in any given episode you begin to wonder if they couldn’t have scaled it back just a little bit.

I’m not suggesting that the playing field is level, in terms of gender equality. But the popularity of these titles is encouraging. And that’s what’s really heartening about Soul Eater is if a series like this can happen in a genre as regimented and boy centric as Shounen manga it can happen just about anywhere.


Anonymooo said...

While this is a really great article about a very fun series, I'd like to point out that shojo is a genre aimed for girls, while shonen is the super-popular demographic that has a lot of anime and manga's most enduring and popular titles.

Bryce Wilson said...


Thanks for the catch! Its been duly corrected.