LGBT representation seems to be a big topic these days in anime/manga fandom. Since I know nothing about Yuri On Ice or Utena, I can’t really participate in those discussions. So allow me to talk about 3×3 Eyes.
(Not that I’m capable of speaking authoratively about anything that has to do with Japanese culture, LGBT or even 3×3 Eyes. I can only articulate my incoherent thoughts and hope that other, more knowledgable people will offer up corrections or further food for thought.)
3×3 Eyes – pronounced Sazan Eyes – is a seinen manga by Yuzo Takada that ran from 1987 to 2002, which amounted to 40 volumes of manga. There were two short anime OVAs, covering only the first five volumes, a whole bunch of videogames and most recently, pachinko and slot machines with especially made anime sequences (?! WHY) – but if you want to experience the whole story, there is no way around reading the manga! *gentle hint*
The protagonist is Yakumo Fuji, a sixteen-year-old boy from Tokyo. One day, he encounters a strange girl named Pai. She claims to be the last of an ancient race called Sanjiyan Unkara, who possess three eyes and are said to hold the secret to immortality. Before you know it, Yakumo is mortally injured and Pai uses her mysterious powers to save his life. Except that this isn’t how it works: it’s more like she absorbs his life force, which turns Yakumo into a zombie-like creature called “Wu”. The point and purpose of a Wu is to be a bodyguard for their Sanjiyan. As long as Pai is alive, Yakumo won’t age, cannot die and will recover from literally any injury. Pai wants to become human, so together they embark on a journey to find out how to do just that. All while being hunted by all sorts of monsters and demons who are after Pai’s powers. Yakumo and Pai travel across Asia, make friends and allies – and enemies – and slowly learn more about the Sanjiyan Unkara, Pai’s past and (of course) a deadly threat to humanity itself: Turns out that Pai is not the actual last of the Sanjiyan. There is another one: Kaiyanwang, who was sealed away hundreds of years ago. His Wu is seeking a way to revive him. And Kaiyanwang isn’t nicknamed “the god of destruction” for nothing. (Dun dun duuuun.)
… God, whenever I try to give a 3×3 Eyes plot summary, I end up forgetting Pai’s split personality. =_= So, yeah, split personalities are a thing for the Sanjiyan Unkara. “Pai” is the cute, naive, girly personality that Yakumo immediately falls in love with. “Parvati” is the cruel, arrogant, much more demonic personality who makes no secret of the fact she’s less than thrilled with having a human teenager as her Wu. And she has a point there. Yakumo is woefully underqualified for his role, at least in the beginning. But Yakumo tries his best, and grows stronger and more mature over the course of the story. Yakumo is one of my favourite manga protagonists. ♥
But what does 3×3 Eyes have to do with LGBT? When we meet Yakumo, he is working as a waiter in a gay bar, crossdressing. He immediately assures Pai that this doesn’t mean he’s gay (and he isn’t), but Yakumo is nevertheless very familiar with this sort of environment. It’s not just a job, Yakumo was practically raised by the bar’s owner, who is known as “Mama”. Mama is an okama.
I am going to use female pronouns for Mama, mostly because that’s what I am used to (the German translation used female pronouns) and because the only other name given for this character is “Kimie Shingyoji”. (Note: Kimie Shingyoji is also the name of an actress in real life.)
Mama’s design is very much rooted in stereotypes. She is tall, broad-shouldered, has a square jaw … just overall, her body is very masculine. However, she dresses in feminine clothes, usually a kimono, and sports a feminine, shoulder-length haircut. I am not really familiar with the Japanese version of the manga, but from what I’ve seen, Mama uses the masculine first-person pronoun “ore”. Her body language and general demeanor isn’t very lady-like either. In anime versions, Mama’s voice-actor is male and afaik makes no attempts to sound feminine, or effeminate for that matter.
When I was looking for more info regarding the okama stereotype, and modern gay culture in general, I couldn’t really find much, and honestly just ended up more confused. There’s one thing I found interesting: The idea of gay men who dress as women seems to strike most people as immediately offensive and without any basis in reality. It is treated as a sign of how behind Japan is when it comes to LGBT, since they allegedly can’t even tell the difference between trans women and gay men.
But this isn’t just a Japanese stereotype. Cross-dressing has been a thing in Western gay communities, too, and it’s contributed to certain stereotypes. Of course it is wrong to think all gay men like to dress as women. Of course it’s wrong to turn it into a mean-spirited joke. But you can’t claim that there have never been gay cross-dressers.
But I have to admit that this is super complicated for me to write about. I have no personal experience, I’m not LGBT, I’m not Japanese, I have no idea about 1987 Japanese gay culture …
I mean, how does Mama fit into the original context? Did gay or trans readers in 1987 find her offensive? How did she compare to other LGBT characters from that time?
Honestly, Mama’s weird looks and not-a-real-woman-ness is occasionally used for jokes. Little things, like Mama grumpily opening the door wearing a facial mask, startling Yakumo because it’s such a bizarre sight. Or when Haan wants Yakumo to introduce him to a Japanese girl (believing them to be the cutest and prettiest women in the world!) and Yakumo gives him Mama’s address … Haan immediately pictures a beautiful young woman with the name “Kimie”, but what he gets is a middle-aged, extremely unfeminine okama … Although I guess the joke here isn’t so much on Mama, but on Haan and his stupid idealized/fetishized image of Japanese women … (Hm, maybe that’s offensive? Haan is Pakistani, I don’t know if there are any stereotypes at play here … But when all is said and done, Haan is a loveable dork and a loyal friend and my baby.)
For what it’s worth, I think it’s interesting that Yakumo is “a normal Japanese teenager who is drawn into an epic, supernatural conflict” – but for Yakumo, “normal” doesn’t mean going to high school and living with his parents in a cozy house; “normal” means a gay bar in Shinjuku, crossdressing and an unconventional parental figure. That’s Yakumo’s normalcy.
Mama isn’t left behind as the story progresses. Nor is she kept in the dark about what’s going on for very long. After Yakumo tells her everything, Mama becomes a source of advice, financial help and/or moral support, not just for Yakumo, but for other characters as well. It’s not a huge role, but it’s a positive, earnest one that has nothing to do with her gender identity or sexual orientation or whatever. She is the cloest thing Yakumo has to a parent, and that is certainly not treated as a joke.
Soooo … yeah. Mama’s design is obviously rooted in the idea that she’s “not a real woman”, her masculine body is at odds with her feminine outfits, and that’s meant to come across as strange and/or amusing. On the other hand, Mama appears in a specific context, running an actual gay club (fittingly named “Culture Shock”), and she seems pretty confident with who she is. And if using “ore” is any indication, she is deliberately sending mixed messages regarding her gender – and why the heck not?
It does kind of fit the wider context … Uhm, I have a working theory that 3×3 Eyes is all about duality, and about accepting dualities: At first, Pai and her alter ego Parvati are set up as conflicting opposites, but eventually come to work together as two parts of the same person; humanity is shown to be neither purely good nor purely evil – and that’s OK; several characters learn to accept their demon side … also, a certain clone identity crisis … and a character who comfortably displays aspects of both genders? This is something I’d like to think about more closely.
Any thoughts? Who has read 3×3 Eyes? Or at least watched those anime OVAs? I’m curious what other people think of Mama. Heck, there isn’t much online about 3×3 Eyes at all and I’d love to chat about it.