Lately, I have been thinking about the roles and the handling of female characters in shonen manga. It’s a really interesting topic, but not something that’s talked about in interesting ways most of the time. Sadly, many bloggers don’t like shonen manga to begin with, or used to like shonen, but have since “outgrown” it and must demonstrate their new maturity by trashtalking their old favourites, or they are clearly biased either for or against the manga they’re discussing, and make no effort to question their own presumptions, which is just … useless, really.
Well, I’ve also been on a Nobuhiro Watsuki rebound. I’ve been re-reading bits and pieces from his four manga series, Rurouni Kenshin, Busou Renkin, Gun Blaze West and Embalming. So let’s talk about Kaoru! She is occasionally brought up as an example of a female character who is frustratingly sidelined and not allowed to fight alongside the male characters. And this is a valid complaint.
I am not of the opinion that female characters must be badass fighters in order to be cool or likeable or “handled well”. For example, Rin from Blade of the Immortal is a great character, in a way because she’s outmatched by practically anybody around her, but tries (and often succeeds) anyway to achieve her goals.
But back to Kaoru. The criticism is valid in her case because Kaoru is the head of a dojo and she is also Yahiko’s teacher. Yahiko, her ten year old student, eventally takes on battles, while Kaoru does barely any fighting throughout the manga. It’s kind of ridiculous that Yahiko would be deemed ready and capable of fighting while Kaoru should stay home. As Yahiko’s teacher, she ought to be more qualified to risk her life than he is.
However, the lack of a strong, cool female fighter in Rurouni Kenshin is not part of some sexist agenda, but more or less a conceptual mistake. Nobuhiro Watsuki has pretty much confirmed this in an author’s note in Gun Blaze West, where he explains that GBW’s Colice Satou was created to be the kind of true battle heroine that he hadn’t managed to put in Rurouni Kenshin. Colice is obviously modeled after Misao Makimachi, both when it comes to her appearance and her personality, but she’s also the oldest of the three main characters, and takes on a bit of a “big sister” role – she’s mature and experienced, not just a ditzy cute girl who throws knives. Of course, Gun Blaze West was cancelled after just three volumes, so not much was actually done with Colice, or with anybody.
Watsuki finally created a proper female warrior with Tokiko Tsumura, the female lead of Busou Renkin. I think she is easily the most accomplished “female fighter” in any Nobuhiro Watsuki manga to date. Someone who not only has battle skills, but also gets to use them, and is a well-rounded character in aspects of personality and character development, too. Tokiko scored the first place in the Busou Renkin character popularity poll, ahead of the series’ protagonist Kazuki and its memorable anti-hero/antagonist Papillon.
When the live-action adaptation of Rurouni Kenshin rolled around, Watsuki created a two-volume “reboot” of the manga, released as Rurouni Kenshin Restauration in English (and in French, for that matter). It’s a sort of alternative version of the story, remixing and reshuffleing the Kanryu Takeda and the Jinne arcs. It’s not the same story as that of the live-action film, but similar insofar that it ditches the episodic format of the early Kenshin manga and ties everything into one new story arc.
Interestingly, Watsuki takes advantage of this reshuffling to come up with a storyline that emphasises Kaoru’s role as a fighter: In this version of the story, she participates in shady fighting tournaments in order to save her dojo, and that’s how you first meet the character.
Of course, since Rurouni Kenshin Restauration is only two volumes long and mostly sticks to the main plot points of the original manga, there isn’t really any room for Kaoru to get cool, new battle scenes or be treated like an equal to Kenshin. But when you compare 1990’s Kaoru to the Kaoru of 2012, the changes are obvious, and new Kaoru definitely comes across as a more mature person and more competent fighter.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Kenshin‘s female characters per se, but I still believe that Watsuki has become a lot better at female characters since his debut series. I don’t just mean when it comes to girls who fight. Like I said, I don’t believe fighting skills are an absolute requirement for “good female characters”. Some of my favorite female characters in Embalming (Violet, Azalea) have no fighting skills, but interesting personalities and satisfying character arcs – that’s the most important thing. It shouldn’t feel like a female character is sidelined or held back for no logical reason – I mean “logical” in the context of the story’s own set of rules. A fighter who never gets to fight is a failed concept. That’s all.
- I still haven’t had the opportunity to read the new Kenshin spin-off, but it’ll happen and I’m really curious about it.
- I would really, really appreciate comments. Really really really. I’m dying to talk about manga with people, and discuss stuff from feminist or other interesting points of view. Surely I’m not the only one? D: