Women in shonen manga: Kaoru Kamiya and action girls in Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga

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.

BTW:

  • 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:

 

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9 thoughts on “Women in shonen manga: Kaoru Kamiya and action girls in Nobuhiro Watsuki’s manga

  1. I’ve recently read Rurouni Kenshin again because nostalgia (first time was about 10 years ago…) and I’ve had the same thoughts about Kaoru! She is even hinted at some capabilities when she breaks Jinei’s hypnosis spell to avoid Kenshin becoming a murderer, and not having her fight at all after that felt like she was put in a corner. On the other hand, Megumi was much more successful as a conept: she’s a doctor and she heals people throughout the manga. She even greatly supports Kaoru by having her realizing her feelings for Kenshin and giving her motivation to follow him (healing her emotionally).

    I think Kaoru’s character becomes better by the end of the manga. She finally gets to fight against Katamari (although she is helped by Misao while Yahiko handles another dangerous enemy by himself…). And despite her kidnapping in the final arc, she’s essential in changing Enishi’s mind (someone who would completely overpower her in combat), eventually saving Kenshin and herself. Was it Nobuhiro’s attempt to redeem her failed concept while sticking to her past characterization?

    (this is becoming a long-winded comment, sorry! Too much enthusiasm talking about Rurouni Kenshin I suppose)

    I haven’t read any other works by Nobuhiro Watsuki, what’s the first I should look into? Going by your article, I think I’ll be eyeing the Busou Renkin manga. Is it any similar in setting or concept to Rurouni Kenshin?

    PS. discovered your blog by the article on AniFem ;)

    • Hello! Thank you so much for this comment. :D I love that it’s long, never apologize for that. <3

      Megumi really is great. I don't think I appreciated her enough when I first read the manga, but she's essentially doing the same thing as Kenshin, using her skills to atone for her sins … A character can definitely be strong without being just physically strong. Kaoru definitely has her moments, too. I liked her interaction with Enishi, too.

      "I haven’t read any other works by Nobuhiro Watsuki, what’s the first I should look into? Going by your article, I think I’ll be eyeing the Busou Renkin manga. Is it any similar in setting or concept to Rurouni Kenshin?"

      Busou Renkin actually isn't much like Kenshin in tone or setting, not at all. Gosh, I've no idea how to accurately describe what Busou Renkin is like … It's got some crazy stuff and can get pretty over the top and comedic! Very endearing characters, I think. But if you want to read more Watsuki manga in English, I think it's your only choice anyway … I don't think Embalming or GBW are out in English. Or are they?

      • Thank you for your answer! No matter the kind of manga, endearing characters is pretty much all I need these days. Did a little Google search out of curiosity and it seems GBW exists in English, while Embalming only had a French edition (which I’m a native speaker so it’s ok, even if I tend to read manga in English). I’ll start with Busou Renkin and branch off the others if I like it. :D

  2. Completely agree about Kaoru. Her role seems a waste of potential when you look at her character. The times when she acts as a dojo’s master are nearly always great. I’m also disappointed that the “female martial artist in Meiji era” angle wasn’t more developped. Watsuki begins to introduce the concept with things like “Kaoru can’t become a full master because she’s a woman despite what her skills might be” and “Kaoru’s teaching at another dojo attracts a lot of people, but they won’t go to her dojo to train” and then he kinda drops it.

    I also agree with you that Megumi is a great character who shows that fighting isn’t the only way to be an active character in a fighting shonen, but there is a dark side to it: the male non-fighters are all presented in a negative way (or at least, I think so, it’s been a while since I’ve read Kenshin). Both Makoto and Takeda’s accountant (can’t remember his name) are greedy cowards, though the accountant does show strength of character. Neither Megumi nor Yahiko’s girlfriend suffer from this. It’s another wasted opportunity in a manga whose protagonist is so reluctant to fight.

    • Hello, thank you for your comment!
      You raise an interesting point about the male non-combatant characters … I’ve actually been thinking about dedicating a proper blog post to this topic, because it’s honestly a huge topic. In Rurouni Kenshin, it’s also closely connected to the political situation, where traditional customs and gender roles are being replaced with new, modern ideas. Several non-fighting male characters are treated as representing this new period, and they are treated overall positively … But I guess Rurouni Kenshin isn’t 100% consistent in how it treats issues of masculinity. I really do have to give this some more thought, though.

      (Did you mean Kanryu Takeda (the villain from the opium/Megumi story) and Shishio’s right-hand man, Hoji? Hoji actually has fans! XD)

      • I did mean Kanryu Takeda and Hoji, yes. I’m not surprised Hoji has fans, I quite liked him in the scene on the hill of skulls for instance, but you really can’t say Hoji was portrayed in a positive way. Even his allies despise him. Besides, unlike Megumi, who is shown achieving results, albeit in a modest scale, I got the feeling that Hoji’s efforts amounted to nothing in the end (obviously, none of this is helped by the fact he’s a villain). The other male non-fighting characters I recall are politicians whose moral standing is shaky at best because they have have sent Kenshin assassinate their opponents. (That could just be that it’s been too long since I’ve read Kenshin, though.)

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