January 07, 2008

Girls kick butt

Plastic Little has long suffered an undeserved reputation that its U.S. distributor has only encouraged. ADV's liner notes delightfully boast of its "graphic violence [and] gratuitous nudity." Okay, we'll stipulate that the nudity is indeed gratuitous (and at times just silly), but it's also innocuous. The violence is PG-13 at the worst. Not that Plastic Little is without its problems in other departments. But they're not enough to sink this ship.

Essentially, you've got two hours of plot distilled down to fifty minutes, as if they ran out of film stock halfway through the project. The result is a storyline (except for the aforementioned scenes of gratuitous nudity) stripped down to the bare bones: a microscopic setup, a few dabs of character development, and the action sequences. Another hour's worth of compelling questions are left unanswered: what Guizel is actually up to, besides being generally nasty; where all those ships came from in the big showdown; how a pet shop hunter came to be so heavily armored; whether or not Tita is a lesbian . . . .

Such trifling matters notwithstanding, Plastic Little exemplifies anime's unique ability to make the most of its female characters' sexuality, and at the same time present them as compelling and believable protagonists who can hold her own in any rough-and-tumble situation. As Antonia Levi observes, "[Women in anime] may be heroes or villains, saints or sinners, but they rarely blend into the background. And they rarely wear much in the way of clothing . . . . Men will watch because of the sex and women will watch because of the strength, or so the popular wisdom goes."

The popular wisdom is only half-right. Anime bucks the tried and true truism that girls will watch a movie about boys but boys won't watch a movie about girls--but for reasons more substantial than what in otaku-speak is euphemistically known as "fan service." When Captain Tita swings into action, it's no stretch of the imagination that her male crew willingly follows her into battle. And it's no stretch when she dukes it out with the bad guys and prevails. She is completely believable as a literal "leader of men," willing to act before it becomes necessary to react.

(Recall the rooftop standoff between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire and you can't help but cheer Tita's far more satisfying solution to the same dilemma.)

The paradoxical fact remains that in anime, particularly in action roles, female protagonists, far more so than their comparable Hollywood counterparts, do not rely "on the kindness of strangers" for their well-being. It's remarkably oxymoronic. Women in Japan pursuing a professional careers still have a hard row to hoe. Business is definitely a "man's world," the glass ceiling almost bulletproof. And the majority of married Japanese women with children drop out of the workforce to become housewives.

It sounds like a model neo-Victorian world. Well, not quite. Perhaps because Japan parted with its feudal past only a century and a half ago it has not fallen prey to the sloppy, wishful thinking that confuses equality with sameness, and sameness with the neuter gender, and thus expressions of femininity with powerlessness. To quote Levi:

Traditional Japanese women control the family budget, keep their husbands on strict allowances, determine most major purchases, and have the majority voice in how their children are reared and educated. Under some circumstances they not only keep their own [sur]name, but also bestow it on their husbands and children.

Levi points out that, in the standard Hollywood fantasy setup, the standard device is to get rid of the father. But in Japan, you get rid of the mother. Because the presence of a strong, responsible woman "would kill all the fun." Levi also observes that (to the extent that you lend credence to such things) Japanese girls score much higher on "self-esteem" scales than American girls, and muses that perhaps it is because "Japanese women derive considerable prestige from performing their traditional roles in a satisfactory way."

But what constitutes a "traditional role" points to more important differences between the superficially similar Victorian and Tokugawa-era social structures. A search through the historical antecedents reveals a rich repository of female role models that anime can draw upon. To begin at the beginning, Japan's creation deity, Amaterasu, is female. The miko, Shinto priestesses, are often cast as your all-purpose spiritual guides and ghostbusters (Inuyasha, Shrine of the Morning Mist, Kamichu!).

The historical record also reveals numerous examples of the female warrior, women such as Hangaku, Tomoe Gozen, and Masako Hojo, who were as fierce and competent on the battlefield as any man. Throughout the Tokugawa era, women of samurai lineage were trained in the martial arts, particularly in the use of the naginata, or halberd. Judo, archery, and kendo remain staples of the Japanese high school physical education curriculum for both sexes.

The only comparable European counterpart is Joan of Arc, an exception that proves the rule by its exceptionality. This may explain the trepidation with which Hollywood casts female action leads, in stark contrast to even low-budget Hong Kong action films. The last film actor to fill such a role convincingly was Linda Hamilton in Terminator II. Television has done better with Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. "Before Buffy," Hillary Frey argues, "the only women who kicked ass on [American] television did so metaphorically, in the courtrooms or in the ER."

And in an analysis of the two series, Salon writer Stephanie Zacharek, borrowing from Camille Paglia, points to "the identity of sex and power [and] the permeation of eroticism by aggression" in a dramatic arena in which "the masculine hurls itself at the feminine in an eternal circle of pursuit and flight." Zacharek concludes, "In this dynamic there's no such thing as the weaker sex."

Yet the physicality demanded by this "dynamic" continues to prove problematic. I'm a die-hard Buffy fan, but it still takes a lot of clever camera work to make Sarah Michelle Gellar look good when she's whupping the bad guys. It's hard to come up with a single Hollywood actress who could hold a candle to Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, or Ziyi Zhang in that department.

Obviously, no anime character is checked by the limitations of an actor's physical training. But this is only half an excuse. Physical strength is a single facet of aggression. Gerard Jones sums up the anime melodrama heroine as follows: "[She] can be flirtatious, cute, embarrassed, silly, self-indulgent, and knowingly sexy. And if [she flies] into a savage rage against a villain [or boyfriend], it [is] likely to be a much more personal and more human reaction." Ryoko in Tenchi Muyo and Akane from Ranma 1/2 come to mind. Even the demure Yukino in His and Her Circumstances--you do not want to get this woman really pissed off.

More recently, Moribito and the Japanese version of Witchblade offer up adult women (rather than overgrown teenagers) as action heroes. In the former case, Balsa's compassion is not presented as a feminine impediment to her ability to fight, the Achilles heel that every villain predictably seizes upon. In the latter, even though Masane is sexualized in often eye-rolling ways, her switching in an eyeblink between "mom" and "superhero" does not strain belief in the slightest.

Denying to women the efficacy of affective as well as physical power are remnants of Victorianism, which, perversely combined with the more self-destructive trends in gender feminism, concluded that for women to achieve "equality" they must shed those feminine attributes that so easily give them power over men. Hollywood up to the early 1950s somehow escaped these influences, promoting actresses such as Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) who could be beautiful, sensual and tough as nails. Not to mention that Hollywood's first megastar, Mary Pickford, ran her own production company and was a founding partner of United Artists.

But over half a century on it can be argued that American popular entertainment has only recently again embraced the concept that beauty is not inimical to emotional or physical strength. Of course, a healthy libido has always been considered an asset for any man, real or fictional. The little girls who flocked to Britney Spears concerts and to Charlie's Angels movies, figured this out. And all the better that it shocks! shocks! their parents and moral guardians.

This dichotomy is obvious in the persona of Captain Janeway (Star Trek Voyager), repressed and dispassionate to the point of being sexless, ruling with all the rousing disposition of a 19th century schoolmarm. Her Captain Bligh demeanor should have gotten her shoved out an airlock shortly into the first season. Why, asks Stephanie Zacharek, in a similar vein,

is playing a depressive writer or an anti-death-penalty nun automatically considered superior to (or more difficult than) playing a kook (like Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby), a prostitute (like Jane Fonda in Klute), or a femme fatale (like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity)?

Compare Janeway to Lieutenant Kusanagi, the purposely dispassionate protagonist of Ghost in the Shell, whose smatterings of feelings you actually do care about. And when she tells her (male) subordinates to jump, you understand why they ask "How high?" on the way up, and don't take their eyes off her on the way down. In the Ghost in the Shell television series (Stand Along Complex), Kusanagi's abilities as a commander are even more pronounced, easily making her the most competent law enforcement officer of either sex on either side of the Pacific.

The wretched original English dub of Ghost in the Shell drives the point home: the only way most American producers know how to depict a "tough woman" is to turn her into a tough (foul-mouthed) guy. With a push-up bra. Minnie Driver's pitch-perfect voice-over of Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke is proof that it can be done right. Calm, cool, and scarily in control. U.S. distributors should watch, listen, and learn.

Ironically, Rick Berman went a long way to correcting his own mistake on Star Trek Voyager with Seven of Nine, who all but took over the series from the moment she was introduced. Not surprisingly, Seven and her celluloid sisters-in-spirit--Xena and Buffy--would be quite at home in anime.

Perhaps even more illustrative is Kumiko Yamaguchi in Gokusen (voiced by Risa Hayamizu). Yamaguchi is a freshly-minted and idealistic high school math teacher at an inner-city boy's high school, a stock character in television drama and comedy. The catch is that Yamaguchi is the scion of an established yakuza family. And, no, she's not the good girl running away from her past. She's going to run the "family business" and (often literally) pound an education into the heads of her juvenile deliquents. There's never any doubt, whether in the classroom or holding a tight rein on her own gang members, who's in charge. And her femininity is never in question. She can knock 'em dead in a kimono, not just with her fists.

American television does seem to be growing up faster than film. Chris Carter and Gillian Anderson created a breakthrough character (half of one of the great television duos of all time) in FBI agent Dana Scully. Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi paved the way with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena. Andrea Parker's underappreciated "Miss Parker" in Pretender redefined the bad-guy-worth-rooting-for in ways that have not been matched since. Andromeda delivered a two-for with Rommie (Lexa Doig) and Valentine (Lisa Ryder). Joss Whedon answered the call again with (the shamefully short-lived) Firefly, featuring American television's toughest girl-with-a-gun, Gina Torres as Zoe.

Over and over, action series provide the best role models. Amanda Tapping as Samantha Carter on Stargate. Jill Hennessy as medical examiner Jordan Cavanaugh and Jennifer Garner as superspy Sydney Bristow. Jolene Blalock (Enterprise), who stands out in her supporting role, is Seven redux, down to the body suit and the attitude. I was initially most encouraged by Hennessy, who at least initially was not compelled to apologize for the fact that, yes, she is an excessively gorgeous woman. Garner, in contrast, came across as excessively stoical (she's neither a Vulcan nor an android).

The contrast between Garner and Hennessy is illustrative. The argument can be made that Garner's Sydney Bristow started out working for a bunch of murderous conspirators, so it's no wonder that she should be a tad distant and humorless. But, then, being around someone who hates her job week after week isn't a whole lot of fun for the viewer, either. Here we get back to the either/or problem that so often plagues the female action lead: you can be one or the other, but not both. Yet the whole point of Captain Kirk's life (and Captain Picard's and Captain Archer's) was that he loved being a starship captain. There was never ever any conflict on that point.

Men have long been permitted to wallow in their eccentricities (or sexual peculiarities) without becoming any less acceptable in their roles, as CSI's quirky Gil Grissom (William L. Petersen) demonstrates, or Mel Gibson's borderline psychotic protrayal of Riggs in Lethal Weapon, or Tony Shalhoub playing a neurotic genius in Monk. For several seasons, Joss Whedon populated Buffy with the most interesting female characters ever on television, but the pickings are sparse. The unconventional, competent and relatively angst-free woman Hollywood still has a problem dealing with.

Stephanie Zacharek got it right when she wished Hollywood's veteran actresses "the chance to get ahold of something more valuable than your typical ho-hum actorly prestige: I wish them more opportunities to wear bad-girl lace, without having anyone hold it against them." Or as Rowan Pelling puts it, "Why can't we admire and applaud strong women who are calling the steps of the dance? The qualities of the femme fatale are no longer prized by Hollywood or the wider world."

With the the exception of Buffy and the Scoobies, lead female action roles remain mostly consigned to sidekicks (Emily Deschanel in Bones) or (even rarer) lone wolves. Perhaps leaders of other women (Charmed), but not leaders of men. Leading is a supporting role, as illustrated by Epatha Merkerson's supporting role in Law & Order, Tamara Taylor's supporting role in Bones, Lauren Holly's supporting role in NCIS.

There is no better illustration of this propensity than a 2003 episode of Enterprise ("Twilight"), in which not only does T'Pol give up command of the Enterprise to care for an ailing Captain Archer, but it is also strongly intimated that she was not really cut out to command a starship. Not like those manly Earth men. Talk about a woman's place being literally in the home. Back to the future, indeed.

So there's plenty of room for give and take on both sides. While Hollywood goes about rediscovering what it knew about women sixty years ago and subsequently has fogotten, Japanese society would greatly benefit from applying to daily life what its manga writers and anime directors have long been bringing to its silver screen dreams.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
1/09/2008 12:02 AM   
I suggest that Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien was the modern female action protagonist breakthrough and arguably only equaled by Linda Hamilton in T2.

I'd also add Samantha Carter, Temperance Brennan and to a lesser extent Nikita (TV Series "La Femme Nikita") and Jane Vasco ("Painkiller Jane"). And we should never forget Emma Peal.

Unfortunately, as you say, all too often the strong female lead has simply become a man with breasts. (Frankly, it's even got a little tiresome in anime.)
# posted by Blogger Robert A. Black
1/09/2008 11:28 AM   
You might be interested in The Sarah Jane Adventures, a Doctor Who spinoff for kids that ran on CBBC last year. (Fans are still hoping for a second season, but the BBC hasn't announced one yet.)

The main character, Sarah Jane Smith, was originally a Doctor Who companion back in the 70s. And yes, she was only a "sidekick," but she was a very different character for her time. (In her very first episode, she went back to Medieval England, where she started trying to talk the women into standing up for their rights.) Now they've brought her back and made her an Earth-saving monster-fighter in her own right, complete with her own band of sidekicks. And yes, most of the sidekicks are kids, but by the later episodes of the season, one of the kids' dads was looking to Sarah Jane for leadership as well.

Give it a look.
# posted by Blogger Damien Sullivan
1/14/2008 1:08 PM   
The Long Kiss Goodnight had a strong female counter-assassin (!) Whether she was convincing I don't remember. 1996, to T2's 1991.