[personal profile] snarp
I was writing a response to a comment of [livejournal.com profile] chomiji's and it got out of hand, so it's getting its own post.

At the core, 95% of shounen manga are fantasies of power. Most of them specifically work with the idea of an "inner strength" that's greater than outer strength - because, you know, most people reading manga are not big huge muscle-dudes. So the idea that this person of apparently ordinary physical size and strength could become the hero that everyone looks up to and fears, because of some internal quality, is very appealing.

Manga depending on this idea - and this occurs in shoujo as well as shounen - usually have some visible symbol of "inner strength." Bankai and transformations are Bleach's. Displaying and using your inner strength is simultaneously an act of aggression and a form of communication - if two shounen manga characters beat each other down with all their inner strength, they nearly always at least respect each other at the end. Sometimes they become BFFs! (See: like, half of Ichigo's current relationships with guys. He has beat most of these people up!)

In the most compelling shounen manga battles, when you agree to "show someone your true power," what you're doing is offering them a kind of intimacy, because you're showing them your soul.* And like in real life, making that offer requires a certain surety of oneself. This is why, when a Bleach character has summoned his Bankai for the first time in the past, he's always looked cocky or solemn or angry. He may also look tired or like he's under strain (Ikkaku did, and I think Hitsugaya?), but he never looks scared, because it goes against genre logic for a person who's not sure of himself to voluntarily put his soul out in front of someone else. It would be self-destructive - hence the trope where someone who's panicking or deluding themselves about something tries to use their secret technique, and either can't summon it, or loses control and kills themself with it.

Now, in later uses of the "true power," it's okay to portray it merely as a weapon, because the reader's already familiar with the character's soul, even if the opponent isn't. If every opponent reacts the same way to the revelation of the hero's power, the readers will start rolling their eyes. This is part of why characters like Ichigo just keep powering up throughout a shounen series. It's not purely escalation of the danger level; it's also a reassurance to the readers that the characters still have depths yet to be explored, and that they're growing and changing.**

(Some of the most successful manga of this kind are, I think, the coming-of-age stories, where these transformations mark a character's movement towards self-knowledge and responsibility. In my experience, shoujo manga does this better than shounen - Sugar Sugar Rune and Divine Melody are my favorite examples. Though Divine Melody still has time to kill everybody and break my heart.)

So, what all this was leading up to was: Soi Fong's first use of her Bankai, which is also the first time a female character has used Bankai in combat.

What strikes me as the special failure in this fight is that, the very first time we see her use her Bankai, she is visibly scared and having trouble handling it. She has lost her self-confidence and her opponent is not at all impressed by her Bankai - and indeed, it proves incapable of damaging him.

I want to stress again that this has never happened to any of the male characters. Including the little boy and the guy with consumption. It's happening this time because the most important characteristic of the shounen manga hero is "inner strength," and the manga wants to make it clear that Soi Fong - aside from the non-combatant Unohana, the only female captain - does not have it.

And this goes back to the Girl Power Corrupts rant. In Bleach, "good" power is masculine, and power tied to women is always fragile or unstable or poisonous, even if the narrative likes the woman in question. I don't think Kubo Tite actually likes Soi Fong much, but I do think he likes Rukia, Orihime, and Nell, and he treats them very similarly.

The issue is that, as Jason Thompson/[livejournal.com profile] khyungbird points out in this essay, the use of power in shounen manga is often justified and centered emotionally by the ideal of "protecting" someone or something. Because the conceit of the Fake Karakura Town arc has made the idea of protecting the town kind of blurry and hard to relate to, the violence that's taking place often seems to have no purpose. So to make us care about what's going on, Kubo Tite needs to come up with someone or something more concrete to protect. He's clearly chosen to do this by weakening the female characters.

This is okay with him because, by protecting someone, you are asserting superiority over them by proving that you're stronger than they are, and that they need you. (Some stories will have a male hero protect a female villain (or a male villain protect a female hero) from some threat to prove the guy's superiority without having to show a man hitting a woman.) As I think he made very clear in Nnoitra's flashbacks about Nell, Kubo Tite is aware of the existence of a power dynamic here, and thinks it's unacceptable for a woman to exert that sort of power over a man.

It was okay for him to have Rukia and Matsumoto protecting Karakura Town itself, because of the level of abstraction involved in protecting a place rather than a person. Now that the plot's getting more personal, however, he's not letting the women win any fights, because 1) he doesn't have many of them, and they're all needed for Protected Item duty, and 2) that might eventually put them in a unfortunate position of either protecting a man, or at least proving themselves capable of doing so.

To which I gesture with a specific finger. But this is why Soi Fong's scene bugged me so much - because in Bleach, a person's worth is determined by a specific thing, and this scene was a sort of the closing argument following ten volumes of insistence that women don't have it.

(And I may have similar things to say about the treatment of Tousen once I stop being too ticked off to talk about him.)

-

* This is one of the things that makes Kurama in YuYu Hakusho's fight scenes so gloriously evil - when Kurama fights someone all-out, the imagery is that of a particular kind of intimacy. Oh, Togashi Yoshihiro, I do love you so. (One could, I think, say similar things about the fight scenes in Saiyuki!)

** And even beyond all the other problems, I think the failure here is why it's so hard to care about Bleach right now. Because Ichigo's no longer changing as a person, the constant power-ups are gratuitous and randomly-placed. (See also: Anita Blake.)

Also, Aizen never transforms and has a Bankai that literally can't be seen. By Bleach's own rules, this makes him the least interesting character in the story. You could do some compelling, possibly even subversive things with this, if he had a personality and character development - but he doesn't. I remember someone saying that Hinamori's Stockholm's Syndrome was the only interesting thing about him, and that's really true.

ETA: Edited to fix some typos and a poorly-worded sentence very late at night.

Date: 2010-03-20 01:00 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] la_vie_noire
Wow, another amazing post! So love your analysis on shonen.

Date: 2010-03-20 01:25 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] inkstone
This is an amazing post & I think everyone should read it.

Date: 2010-03-20 01:39 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] pseudo_tsuga
Now I know why I liked earlier Bleach so much: development happened for many characters, not just Ichigo, and the emotional development was still there. Also makes me think of Rurouni Kenshin where it's so much more blatant: Kenshin has to overcome emotional obstacles in order to master the ultimate fighting move, he beats Soujiro by using his superior emotional intelligence, Yahiko's growth as a samurai parallels his maturity. The female characters are still shafted, of course, but at least Kaoru gets to defeat one of Enishi's henchmen.

Date: 2010-03-20 03:02 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] pseudo_tsuga
I'm sure I would've gotten into a flame war if I participated in fandom any more than reading ff.net, but I do remember reading a fic about how Kaoru was weak and had only been relying on others to protect her and I immediately saw red. It's not her fault everyone else is absurdly overpowered!

Sano grew some by not seeking revenge for the Sekihotai and protecting people more, but it was never connected to his strength in any way. He just goes beserker to get through his fights.
From: [personal profile] eisen
Haha, RuroKen was one of the first shounen manga I ever read, and me and [personal profile] dekaja/[livejournal.com profile] hezul still have mutual sadface parties over how awesome Kaoru should have been, and mostly wasn't, because we both go back and reread it every couple of years out of sheer nostalgia for how solid an well-done a shounen story it is, even if its chauvinism infuriates both of us frequently.

Thankfully, Watsuki got better about that in his later series, even if, like the average shounen creator, he's still not ... amazing with it. He's done better than Kubo Tite at improving his treatment of female characters as he goes, though. Even if Tokiko's fight scenes in BUSO RENKIN are way shorter than her male protagonist counterparts, she still has them, they're fairly intense, and they're still integral parts of the plot and treated like such, and unlike Kaoru she never gets stuffed in a fake refrigerator for added drama.

Sadly, EMBALMING, his current series, features less awesome girl power fights, but then EMBALMING features fewer fights in general and much more Gothic horror tropery, so the most badass woman in Emba is a mad scientist who chainsmokes and makes like a magnificent bastard every chance she gets.

Date: 2010-03-20 02:19 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] eisen
I always read the Nnoitra/Nell flashbacks as condemning Nnoitra's perceptions of male/female power dynamics, but goddamn, has current evidence been trending the other way.

(By which I mean, good lord, you're so fucking right.)
Edited Date: 2010-03-20 02:19 am (UTC)

Date: 2010-03-20 03:01 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] eisen
You are probably not wrong, but, well, the last time I sat down and deliberately attempted to subject myself to Nnoitra existing was... one year ago? two years ago? my sense of what happens when is totally fucked here, how is this arc STILL GOING? - when I blazed through all of BLEACH for the first time ever. (I'd previously tried the first twenty or thirty chapters and been unimpressed, then someone linked me to the Vizard stuff, specifically the then-new flashback arc, and I was done for.)

I don't like Nnoitra. He makes my skin crawl, it's physically distressing for me to read the chapters he's in, and I am much happier when I can avoid thinking about anything he ever does that doesn't involve getting himself curbstomped into oblivion. I would be much happier if he as a character did not exist and that Nell were the one to have curbstomped him to death in return for all the shit he put her through just because she hurt his poor widdle feelings. I still get so pissed off that she didn't get to kill him that my overwhelming opinion of that story point is rage on Nell's behalf, and pretty much everything else is secondary to my annoyance that SHE DIDN'T GET TO WIN, WHAT THE FUCK. Except maybe the part where Nnoitra severely creeps me out on a totally instinctive level and I can't deal with seeing him on screen at all ever. Combining both of those facts means my ability to objectively re-analyze how the story treated Nnoitra's potential manpain is a little wobbly!

Date: 2010-03-20 03:40 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] eisen
... aaaaaaugh Mayuri :( he couldn't have happened to a more deserving Espada, but OH GOD MY SKIN WILL NEVER BE CLEAN AGAIN YOU SICK BASTARD. fddfhl;gkdf;l

Date: 2010-03-20 02:27 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Yes, amazing post. I think you've uncovered the roots of slash in shonen as well as, hmm, the roots of KT's misogynism. PUKE.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Bleach was one of the two manga that got me in to manga, period--I was a huge, huge fan. Hence my vehemence. And at least some of my rage.

Date: 2010-03-20 03:16 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] starlady
Well, there is something to be said for clear, well-stated synthesis, regardless. ^^

Date: 2010-03-20 02:58 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] vector
Lots of interesting stuff in this post!

I think the inner-strength and emotional growth translating to actual power is what I tend to like a lot about shounen manga, and maybe why I lost interest in Bleach a while back, despite liking it a lot for a long time. (I'm a few chapters behind.)

Your point about protecting things being pretty hard to relate to in the recent chapters is dead on, I think, and the fact that it's all the female characters who have to get in trouble to make up for that is really tragic/infuriating. I really liked Soi Fong, and was excited to see her have power - for it to turn out the way it did was really disappointing.

(Randomly, where is Yoruichi in Bleach at the moment, anyway? I think I've lost track since it's been so long since we've seen her.)

Date: 2010-03-20 03:11 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] torachan
Wow, so true.

Date: 2010-03-20 05:53 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] rachelmanija
That's a really perceptive post. I haven't followed Bleach much into the Arrancar arc (possibly just as well!) but you're dead-on about how a power-up isn't just a power-up.

Date: 2010-03-20 07:16 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
*happy sigh* I think I'm in love.

The whole story-moral that power is "omg dangerous getridofit" for women is so hideously pervasive in both shounen and shoujo, and it's not like I haven't know that for a long time, but it always gets to me when it rears its ugly head in an otherwise really good story. Having someone dissect it well, though, is soothing.

*fishes around in her own journal* Ah, here it is! Thought you might appreciate a snippet on a similar topic:

The thing I particularly notice, though, is the gender division. The story the girls are told is that power brings pain and the answer is to get rid of it or, failing that, die. The story the boys are told is that power brings lack of control and the answer is to understand you are not actually that different from those around you. In both cases the basic equation is that power brings with it a lack of connection, setting one aside from the social matrix. In both cases, the “stronger than anyone else” aspect is somehow removed, offering a re-integration. But I find it notable that the girl-story does this by removing the power while the boy-story does this by leaving the power right where it is and providing an equal power in another character or characters.

That was two and a half years ago. *sighs*

Date: 2010-03-20 10:00 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] wingstodust
Ahskswskjahsjsk this post is AMAZING!!!!! Gawd must link this post to everyone I know. (Omg Nell, the whole bit just- argh, WHY Kubo Tite WHY)

Date: 2010-03-20 01:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com
This is part of why characters like Ichigo just keep powering up throughout a shounen series. It's not purely escalation of the danger level; it's also a reassurance to the readers that the characters still have depths yet to be explored, and that they're growing and changing.

Since it came up in the last thread -- you might also find it interesting on a purely academic level to look at Inuyasha, which has the shonen endless-weapon-powerups for the more central male characters in spades, with several of the upgrades being very blatantly linked to character growth -- and IIRC of the main sympathetic male characters, the only one who doesn't at some point get a new attack/weapon/technique that isn't motivated and triggered by the desire to protect others is a little kid who's never a serious combatant in the first place. (And since this series got dragged on and on and on and on and on, it also neatly demonstrates the audience perception of shark-jumping when the powerups start to seem more gratuitous and empty in character terms.) The two most important female characters, OTOH, both fight to some degree, but other than occasional trials to gain/repair a weapon, their combat skills are relatively static.

Date: 2010-03-20 01:59 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com
But if I read Inu-Yasha, will I be pulled into a hideous Bleach-like self-destructive spiral?

Ummm...maybe? I'm the wrong person to ask here because I've never been more than a casual fan of the series, and it delivered enough of my favorite Cool Bits to keep me shrugging off the more annoying aspects? But many friends of mine who were much more deeply invested in the series got much more ragey and impatient as it dragged on and on and on and on and ON with no real change in sight in later years. But it's finally OVER now (and has an actual honest-to-god ENDING, unlike say Ranma 1/2, so you could at least have the option of just reading spoiler summaries and easily skipping massive wheel-spinning chunks if you like?

I haven't seen enough of Bleach and Naruto to really justify talking out of my ass like this, so take this with a huge grain of salt: but my impression is that Inuyasha's main female characters aren't nearly as numerous or powerful as the ladies in the other two series, but that's balanced out to some extent by their not getting sidelined and ignored nearly as much? Where Bleach and Naruto have the sprawling cast-of-thousands thing going on, but don't give a lot of the supporting characters much screen time, Inuyasha keeps the focus a lot more tightly on the Five-Man-Band of heroes as the constant element, travelling through a world of endless new innocent villagers and monsters-of-the-week; even when the Stupid Shonen Hero (tm) hogs the spotlight with his endless training sequences and weapon upgrades and battles with the latest big bad, the rest of the gang are usually at least THERE, and often actively participating in the fights. And even when the group does split up temporarily, the POV is just as likely to follow the time-travelling normal-modern-schoolgirl, even when she's just returning home to the present day to stock up on food and first aid supplies and desperately try to catch up on her schoolwork. Ol' Puppy Ears may be the one who gets his name on the tin, but she's really the heart of the story and the primary audience-viewpoint character.

*shrugs* TL;DR -- hideous self-destructive spiral or not? I JUST DON'T KNOW. I think it's definitely interesting to compare and contrast this old warhorse to the current hot properties just for the sake of meta, but I really couldn't say how frustrating an experience it might be.

Date: 2010-03-21 02:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com
Yeah, if you're used to the classic Tsundere/Jerkass With A Heart of Gold dynamic of the typical Takahashi Couple from watching Ranma and Akane, then none of the major ships in Inuyasha are going to surprise you in any way. Inuyasha himself maybe gets more screen time/focus overall, since he's the Stupid Shonen Hero with the big flashy weapon and big flashy attacks and endless upgrades and training sequences and all, but Kagome never gets totally shoved aside? She's the only modern character, the only one in the party who can sense the Macguffin jewel shards and use certain spiritual powers, and the only one who will be able to completely purify/destroy the plot coupon Shikon jewel if the team ever accomplishes its quest. While she's the weakest in terms of physical combat ability, the storyline never seems to forget that she's important, or just plain forget that she exists. Really, the structure of the cast is such that Kagome and the demon-slayer Sango are usually always at least THERE, even if Inuyasha is hogging the spotlight -- that core group doesn't tend to split up very often, and even when they do it's seldom for more than a couple episodes at a stretch.

(Although I should note here that my experience is primarily with the anime, which has the great benefit of condensing things a LOT in the endless later sections -- but apparently this came along with some characterization changes: the one I'm most aware of is that Kikyou was supposedly depicted in a more negative light in the anime. So there might well be some more infuriating bits in the manga that I've completely missed...)

Date: 2010-03-23 07:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] shiegra.livejournal.com
I was thinking about this just as a quantifiable thing and you know, the only ones I've ever seen have female characters do that are Immortal Regis and D.Grayman - in fact, while hardly great on the female to male ratio scale, D.Grayman has it for a female character - twice - where it doesn't for two of the main male characters. Whether it's a direct result or just the symptoms of the disease, female character feel less like a - almost a side note to me in DGM than in Bleach. While they often have pivotal roles in Bleach, those roles too often revolve around the more prominent, more active/capable male characters that sweep in at the climax.

Date: 2010-03-23 08:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] smillaraaq.livejournal.com
I've been trying to think over series I follow for more examples and it's kind of stretching things a lot, but...if you're willing to accept non-combat examples, Inubaka repeatedly puts the teenage heroine through all sorts of training sequences -- some more open-ended and others very intense and goal-oriented (crash courses to get her ready to participate in agility and freestyle competitions). But that whole series is a very girl-centric coming-of-age story, of course (despite being nominally seinen and throwing in a lot of mild fanservice pinups and panty shots...)

Date: 2010-03-20 03:41 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chomiji

I like this idea a lot. It also goes along with my ideas about Yumichika (which are probably the same ideas that most people have about Yumichika ... ). He hides his bankai, because it's the wrong kind ... .

(Didn't Rangiku get to use her bankai in one of the fights in Kamakura Town? Haineko releases into a cloud of ash that cuts through things.)

I'll have to think about what this idea says about Samurai Deeper Kyo, which has, I believe, a female mangaka, but very few outstandingly powerful female characters (although my theory is that Sanada Yukimura, who worries about his clan back home and fusses over his band of ninja and flirts shamelessly with the lead badass, is meant to be the POV character for female readers who'd rather fight along with the hero than be defended by him).

Date: 2010-03-23 02:10 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paperclipchains.livejournal.com
I'm not sure you're correct, and I'd also like to point out that I think the idea of man-must-protect-woman is a much stronger thing in western society than it is in Japanese... I don't have any real authority to say that - it's based mostly on my impression and a side-by-side I once read comparing their laws against violence against women.

Date: 2010-03-23 03:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] paperclipchains.livejournal.com
Hmmm, I knew Japan had a lot of gender issues, but I didn't know a lot of that. Thank you.

I'm still not sure I'm completely with you on the base premises (or on the idea that Nnoitra reflects Tite's sentiments), but to me... I think the more concrete thing is SoiFon is the first woman to bankai in bleach, she got beat down hard regardless, and on the rare occasion that women actually fight in this manga they basically always lose. It seems a bit like an abstraction of a much more obvious problem, to me?

It was interesting to look at your scoring system for bleach down below. I'd actually be really interested in seeing how it worked out if you did decide to go back and check what the numbers would look like for male characters.

Date: 2010-03-24 02:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sanada.livejournal.com
Soi Fong's (presumably) Chinese ethnicity might be a point against her, too. Positive portrayals of Chinese characters are rare in anime/manga unless they're drawn cute with big eyes. Slanty eyes are for dragon ladies.

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