Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement

Happy one week anniversary of one of my favorite recent superhero movies. Let’s talk about Captain Marvel.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m not a reader of the Marvel comics. I’m not much of a comic book reader in general. So my introduction to all Marvel superheroes is generally the one I get with the movie. I’m not averse to that – I think that, consistency aside – some of these movies have been absolutely excellent from a storytelling perspective, and that’s what I talk about when I do reviews of them. This movie was one of those movies.

Spoilers, goes without saying.

Continue reading “Captain Marvel: The rules of engagement”

Anime Corner: Sexual violence in Dororo and Banana Fish

So I’ve been watching a lot of anime lately, due to having more than doubled my streaming services. I’m actually thinking about making a shoujo corner a regular feature of the blog just because I love shoujo so much. But I also occasionally watch stories outside of that genre.

Anime watching, for me, contains a lot of conflict. I fully understand that anime exists in a cultural context that is Not Mine, and in fact that’s a lot of why I find some of these stories so moving. Japanese humor is nearly the only humor for me – with the exception of Brooklyn 99, I rarely find American stories funny. Japanese tragedy is delicious and overblown and I love every second of it. I recognize that I come into each interaction with anime, despite having watched it from a very young age, from a place that is outside. I may get most of the jokes, but I’m always going to be carrying around my own context as a rather-odd-but-nonetheless-American duck.

Still, a lot of anime’s take on sexual violence is really stifling to me. This occurs both within and outside of shoujo, but I find it especially pervasive in anime which might be classified under the action subgenre. Yet, as you might imagine, I love this kind of anime, too. As Roxanne Gay stated about her love for rap music in her eponymous essay collection, I, too, am a bad feminist.

Enter Dororo and Banana Fish, two anime with lots of action, tragedy and tension, both of which feature a mostly male cast. So far I have absolutely loved these two shows. But both neither of them deal with sexual violence particularly well. Trigger warnings for sex, sexual assault, and violence. Spoilers for both. I do not own these IPs, or the images used herein to discuss them, but you can find them on Amazon Prime.

Let’s start with Dororo, mostly because I started watching it first.

Dororo is a story set in a fantastical feudal Japan, wherein the main character runs around fighting demons with his sword arms. It is pretty far away from Banana Fish, a story set in modern day New York City where the main character is a gangster with a gun. Yet both Hyakkimaru and Ash are marked by betrayals and are fighting against monsters much bigger than them at great personal cost. In Hyakkimaru’s case, his father traded all of his body parts to demons for power. In his quest to regain the parts of his body, Hyakkimaru grows connected to those around him. We largely see Hyakkimaru’s conflicts through the eyes of his companion Dororo – and it’s Dororo with whom we commiserate the most.

Hyakkimaru meets a woman around episode five who, so far, is the woman with the most weight to the plot. She is caring for several wounded war orphans, mysteriously vanishing every night and returning in the morning with food and needed goods. It is very obvious from the first moment that she is shown on screen, washing herself in the river, that Mio is engaging in sex work with the neighboring militaries in exchange for food. However, the other characters seem mostly oblivious to this fact – until Dororo follows Mio, and we witness her subjugating herself to those men in a scene I found very disturbing. At first I couldn’t place myself on what, exactly, disquieted me so much about this scene. It took watching Banana Fish to clarify it for me.

I mentioned that Ash, the lead in Banana Fish, is a character who is marked by betrayal. Specifically, Ash was kidnapped and made into a sex slave at a very young age. It is obvious that these sex acts are not a source of pleasure for him. They are something he has had to do to survive, just as Mio has. But as viewers, though we are clear that Ash has had these experiences – continues to have these experiences, even, throughout the narrative of the story – we don’t see the assault directly until the final arc of the anime. This is simply a thing that has happened to Ash. It is part of who he is, but it doesn’t rule him. Ash kills or outlives everyone who took from him in this way, though in the final arc we see that he cannot fully escape his past and his legacy of violence except in death.

One of the questions that comes up for me so strongly in these two narratives is the nature of consent and the part that the storytellers and viewers play in it when these kinds of stories are shown on screen. I’m sure that many more erudite folks have opined on this, but it seems to me there are two layers worth analyzing with these stories. The first is the consent of the character. The second, the consent of the audience.

Both Mio and Ash die, but Mio’s death is notable because it happens at the hands of her assaulters. Her attempt to use sex to win her way free of starvation is not rewarded by the narrative, despite Dororo’s attempts to say that she triumphed in death. She is murdered by the very men who used her. But more importantly, we are forced to witness, as an audience, Mio’s stripping of dignity in the scene where naive Dororo witnesses her passively being penetrated by a group of samurai. We become complicit in this depiction. Any act of violence leaves scars, but we are made to see Mio’s. She is a footnote in Dororo‘s larger story, a motivation for the main character, a tragic backstory displayed.

In contrast, Ash is the main character. His violation is alluded to and witnessed by other characters, but never shown on screen. Though he loses often to the people who perpetuated his assaults, he never ceases fighting. He is depicted as a power – as more than a power. He is something to be feared by those who have hurt him. The fear of him is what drives them to continue to attempt to hurt him, and their desire of him is what makes them make mistakes. Yet, Ash, too, dies at the end of Banana Fish, which raises the question: are survivors of sexual violence not allowed to have futures?

The exception to this (very tentative) rule is Jessica Randy. Banana Fish can hardly be held up as an example of decent representation for women, given that there are may two or three developed women that are given speaking lines. However, it’s important to point out that the woman who does experience sexual violence in later episodes of this anime, Jessica Randy, receives more dignity and resolution in her small plot than either Ash or Mio. She is shown after the assault, but the act of it is never depicted on screen. And she achieves a happy ever after with her husband despite everything.

There is a lot more to unpack here, and I still recommend both of these anime for a watch. They are both tight, fast pace, and interesting stories. That said, I do question their treatment the very real trauma of sexual assault and the grey areas of consent that come when a character is forced to parlay undesirable uses of their body for survival. While it’s important to recognize narratives of sexual violence, some of these can be more harmful than others. The audience should not be required to participate in the act in order to continue forward in the story. I hope that we can continue to see more approaches to dealing with the realities of sexual assault that maintain respect for the characters in question and for audience members, in anime as well as in other forms of visual media.


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MystiCon Recap: Shakespeare Edition

Hey folks! MystiCon last weekend was a blast, but it’s got me pretty wiped out this week. I’ve been scrambling to keep up with all my obligations, which is nothing new. Happily, I had some free time this morning to knock out this blogpost for you this week!

I had a great time at MystiCon this year, largely because some friends joined me and I got to do a lot more of the weird social stuff. I still did lots of writer things, too, though, including being on four panels! My favorite panel, surprisingly, was our discussion of Shakespeare and the Supernatural late Saturday night. We had some great conversation, which I will attempt to describe here.

My exposure to Shakespeare has largely been as a watcher and reader, and I’ve had relatively little wish to analyse Shakespeare’s work. I wouldn’t say I’m the most widely read either – I have seen The Tempest, an adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (multiple times), Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet. I’ve acted in A Comedy of Errors, and seen and read a good portion of Hamlet. One time I visited Stratford-upon-Avon. So that’s my whole Shakespeare career, pretty much. Everything after that is cliffnotes. Yet I was blessed to be part of a group that had apparently read a LOT of Shakespeare critique and analysis. They had the cultural context for the life of the poet I lacked. It made for some great discussion!

One of the things that we came away with during this panel was the Shakespeare’s time was very different than our own. Superstition was pretty rampant – the King at the time had a treatise on the supernatural and witches that he had made up, and witchcraft was a crime punishable by death and tried in the courts. So it makes sense that witches were generally bad people in Shakespeare’s works. If nothing else, he would have been run out of the country otherwise. The exception to this, possibly, is Prospero – who is, for all intents and purposes, a witch. We didn’t go into this too much, except that it’s fair to say that Prospero is a bit of an anti-hero in the Tempest. Your sympathies are somewhat with him, but mostly they are meant to be with Miranda, the young innocent, and her Ferdinand. I think this is why so many adaptations of the Tempest focus on her story, and not Prospero’s, but I digress.

Spirits and faeries, on the other hand, are the fun characters. They are forces of nature more than people, and so they aren’t subject to the same rules of morality as the human characters on the stage. Like nature, they often throw the humans around them into chaos, and can be either benign of malignant. Think of Oberon changing his wife’s lover into a donkey, or Puck being…Puck.

Lastly and most forbiddingly, we have the ghosts. A witch is bad news, but a ghost spells certain doom for the main character. They are the embodiment of fate, and all fates end in the cutting of the cord. We had a long debate on if ghosts were more or less “real” to people in Shakespearian England. I personally think that, despite our modern ideas that ghosts are just psychological echoes of our own trauma, ghosts are still a real thing, but I felt like other people in the room were a little less superstitious than me. They felt that views had changed pretty drastically on ghosts since Shakespeare’s time, and they were probably right. One thing we agreed on was that within the play Shakespeare’s ghosts were their own elements – they existed independently of the characters’ psyches, despite their impacts there.

I hope everyone goes out and reads some Shakespeare after this! It’s so much fun to get to dive back into the words of a person who was so prolific in their time.

Until next year, MystiCon!


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