A breath of fresh air: Kamisama Kiss

Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved anime and realized that there was endless amounts of it on Hulu. She promptly subscribed, and got lost in anime for months. This is not her story.

This is the story of Momozono Nanami, who accidentally becomes a god.

One of the things I loved so much about Kamisama Kiss was that Nanami has a very distinct personality. From the start of the anime, she’s plucky and angry and stubborn. In fact, she borderlines to tsundere status – but Nanami is also gentle and infinitely honest and open about her feelings. She’s a complex person, which is rare enough to see on the anime screen. Women in anime are too often put into very specific boxes – the gentle, childlike love interest, the boyish tomgirl, the insane seductress. They’re stereotypes that parallel but do not overlap American patriarchal concepts of women. If you are sexually confident or open, you must be unhinged. If you are too loud, you should be available.

How rare, then, to see a loud, self-determining woman who is comfortable with her attraction to the main love interest but who nonetheless is not overly sexualized? Nanami has been betrayed continuously by men in her life, but chooses to give them second chances – on her terms. She balances strength and kindness, force and compassion, and stays true to herself, all while growing into a power. All of this while navigating a world of magic that is mostly foreign to her, full of demons and gods and every kind of creature between.

In short, I definitely recommend the main series of Kamisama Kiss, especially the first season.

However….

I do not recommend the OVA. Let us pretend the OVA never existed.

As often happens in anime adaptations of stories originally told in manga, pacing and plot resolution becomes an issue in Kamisama Kiss. We see this clearly with such classics as Fruits Basket, where an ending was tacked onto the anime that made no sense, all the way up to one of my favorites, Akatsuki no Yona (Yona at the Blush of Dawn) which just…ended without any resolution. In Kamisama Kiss, they managed a little bit of both. The ending of Season Two had far too many plot threads dangling in the wind. In order to fix these, a three episode OVA was made. It does succeed in collecting and resolving the major plot threads (though not all of them) but it fails to leave Nanami as a powerful individual at the end. She is forced to give up her god power and her new way of life in order to save Tomoe, the fox demon who has been acting as her familiar.

Questions about how they will survive together – and whether Tomoe successfully becomes human, a key requirement according to the dialogue – are never fully resolved on screen. Overall the ending seemed rushed and generally unsettled me, especially when Tomoe threatened to rape Nanami while she was incapacitated, an incident whose emotional repercussions were never fully addressed. While knowing what happened helped to sooth some of my feelings of being cheated at the end, the hopeful and emancipatory emotional resonance of the series was largely spoiled by the OVA plot.

Nonetheless, Kamisama Kiss remains one of my favorite recent shoujo forays and will intrigue those with an interest in Japanese mythology as well. Give it a watch.


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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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Saiunkoku Monogatari: a review

So I watch a lot of anime, I’ve mentioned, though not as much as some people. I found this anime, which originally aired through 2006 to 2008, while looking for something that would feed my insatiable hunger for more Akatsuki no Yona (which is still up there on my top three along with Ouran High School Host Club and Serei no Moribito). The anime ran for two separate seasons, each 39 episodes. It’s near impossible to find anywhere now except for online streaming sites. Trust me, I looked, mostly because the last ten episodes or so on the streaming site I use were incorrectly labeled and out of order. At least one or two were missing entirely. There is no frustration like watching 60+ episodes of anime only to have the ending rendered incomprehensible by disorder. I was going to buy the last few episodes if I could find them anywhere, but they are exorbitantly expensive.

Anyway there may be some mild spoilers but I am trying to keep this review short so hopefully nothing that will destroy your enjoyment.

Saiunkoku Monogatari translates as “Tales of Saiunkoku” loosely. In this case Saiunkoku is a country with a pseudo-Chinese/Japanese imperial regime. I won’t go too much into the world-building, except to say that you should remember that cultural rules apply: great families rule, supporting the emperor; the emperor himself is from one of those great families; a family can disown you if you have dishonored it in some fashion (or just pissed off the wrong person); women can also carry their family names, and do if their family is more powerful.

All of that cultural baggage is what is simultaneously greatly interesting about this anime, and also its Achilles heel.

Saiunkoku Monogatari is an example of an anime that is trying to do too many things at once. I enjoyed it immensely and still feel that the writing was not 100% solid. You can see this very clearly early on in the first season. The main character, Kou Shuurei, is from an impoverished noble family – or at least so it appears at first. She lives alone with her father in what is essentially a crumbling urban estate. The action begins when she is approached by a pair of upper echelon court officials with a proposition – they will pay her a huge sum of money if she becomes the consort of the emperor. She is made to understand that the emperor actually has no carnal interest in women, so she agrees to the exchange.

This looks like it is setting us up for a love comedy and I was okay with that. Indeed, the first several episodes take that track. At some point, however, the story transitions pretty drastically. Shuurei somehow leaves the emperor’s household (the how of this is not really explained, but the inference is that no one knew it was her??) and decides to become an imperial official. Problem is that women aren’t allowed to take the exams to become officials.

In an abrupt about-face, suddenly the story becomes about women shattering the glass ceiling while surrounded by numerous attractive men. Say what? I am here for this type of story, so I was excited! If this had been the story from the beginning I would have enjoyed it immensely more, actually. That said, the emperor is still in love with Shuurei, which at times gets annoying, honestly.

Through Shuurei’s dramas and efforts, we come to learn a lot about the political system of Saiunkoku. One thing becomes pretty clear in the first season: Shuurei’s political situation is a lot more complicated than it seemed at first. Though it’s variously acknowledged, it seems that Shuurei is the princess of the Kou family, a very prestigious family. Her father was dishonored (I won’t spoil why, or how complicated that dishonor was) but her uncles fully intend her to be married to the next heir of the Kou family (or to become that heir). The Kou family rivals the emperor in influence. So remember that cultural baggage I mentioned earlier? Kou Shuurei, princess of the Kou family, cannot marry the emperor – it would leave her family without issue. At no point does either Shuurei or the emperor she serves/maybe loves acknowledge this particular complication. One must assume one or both of them, being intelligent and powerful young things, would realize this is a problem, but it never comes up. Instead the barrier to their love is shown to be Shuurei’s career aspirations. In fact, those aspirations are several times framed as the barrier to Shuurei’s happiness, especially in the second season.

I am, of course, highly annoyed with this.

So to recap, we have: an anime that is set in a world whose rules are not consistently followed; a love comedy that turns into a political drama with almost no warning and not a lot of reason; and a story that should be about women breaking the glass ceiling, and is, except when it’s about shaming women for those same actions, over and over, and threatening them with sexual assault (which happens several times towards the end of both seasons). Shuurei is the cute little housewife who happens to have ambition, and she is punished for it as often as she is rewarded.

I loved Saiunkoku Monogatari‘s emphasis on a woman’s competency, on thoughtful and ethical governing, and the parts of the world-building that were solid. I disliked the pandering to male characters who were consistently jerks, the narrowly avoided sexual assaults, and the general emotional pounding that Shuurei receives for literally everything she does. So I guess the parts that paralleled real life. I would have enjoyed better world-building. My favorite parts were the interactions she had with other powerful women who were kicking ass and taking names, one way or another, and the lessons that Shuurei learned from them.

Would I watch this anime again? Probably. I know there were things I missed – a lot, as I mentioned, was going on with this story. I also recommend it. But do be conscious of its shortcomings.

 

 

 

 

 

Howl’s Moving Castle: Reimaginings in anime

I read the novel Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones recently, and it sparked in me some thoughts about adaptations and reimaginings in anime.

We’ve had a lot of controversy about some of those recently. Take Ghost in the Shell, for example, one of the most widely adapted of the anime franchises. I am sure everyone has heard of the new movie, currently in theaters. This isn’t about taking an anime and bringing it to a Western audience, with all of the troublesome whitewashing that can ensue. This is about how a franchise can be reimagined and adapted within Japan, and also about how stories made here can cross the pond in that direction.

Anime does an interesting thing in adaptations, in that an anime can sometimes take the heart of a story and really twist it about, all while keeping to the spirit. Specifically, I’m interested in print-to-screen adaptations – when an anime is adapted from a book or manga, versus movie adaptations from similar print sources – though there is a lot to unpack in terms of anime adaptations from anime. (A good example of this last is AIR, the original episodic series showing an entirely different, though no less heartbreaking, storyline from AIR the movie.) For this post I prefer to focus on Howl’s Moving Castle, which is a young adult novel from the early 2000s, and contrast that to The Hunger Games adaptation (mostly the first movie).

So let’s start with The Hunger Games. Despite some freedom taken in the later movies (thank goodness) the first movie adaptation of the titular novel in the series is pretty flat. I vividly recall going to see this movie with my S.O. He is not a SFF reader or watcher, particularly. That’s not to say that he doesn’t occasionally get into a good movie or book that I bring home, but his native lands are predominantly nature documentaries, old World War II dramas, and nonfiction of all stripes, but most especially nonfiction regarding mushrooms and politics. He hated that movie. A lot of his dislike was centered around how closely the script of the movie stuck to the book, though he certainly wouldn’t have put it that way. He could not access The Hunger Games as a movie because none of the actions of the characters, none of the logic of the world, was readily understandable and accessible to him.

Why was that the case? I think that a lot of it was to do with how the book was written, and how the script was adapted. In the book, Katniss is explaining so much to the reader about her world and the rules of it. None of that explanation makes it explicitly into the movie, since the script adaptation works to only bring in accurate dialogue to the original text, for the most part. You can argue that you need a whole rewrite of the opening scenes to make all of these things make sense to the average, non-reading viewer. A deviation from the original text might, in this case, make a stronger movie. In fact, I would argue that a deviation from the source text often makes for a stronger movie, if done correctly. It worked in Mockingjay: Part I, for sure.

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On the other extreme, you have Howl’s Moving Castle.

Now I can’t lie. Having reread Diana Wynn Jones’ book, I would love to see some of the scenes that got cut here illustrated in Miyazaki’s trademark style. Especially the parts with the other fire demon. (Yes, there are two fire demons in the book, unlike in the movie – one of many changes.) And there are certain changes that I don’t entirely feel sanguine about. (For example: did you know that Sophie is a witch in her own right in this book??? I am so sad that didn’t make it into the movie.) But generally I think that Miyazaki did a powerful job maintaining the elements of Jones’ world that most move the heart to wonder, while condensing the content into something movie-sized. The entire ending of this book is rewritten drastically, and yet, the end is the same. Two people fall in love and live a life of magic and wonder. A girl who is staid, responsible, and a little boring, becomes magical and alive not in order to capture a man’s heart, but in order to heal her own. To become her best self, to free of a curse, she journeys out into a wasteland and trips upon her destiny

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Miyazaki cut out a lot of complexity to do this. Howl’s character background was drastically rewritten. The Witch of the Waste is a completely different character as well. Suliman was combined with another character and also made a somewhat antagonistic character (though she seems to be more oriented towards power and order than vindictiveness). The king is a braggart, and his daughter is nonexistent. The turnip-head is actually Suliman under a curse in the book, and falls in love not with Sophie, but with Sophie’s sister. Oh, and Sophie has not one but two sisters, one of whom is in training to be a witch herself. Yet the story does not suffer. The inspiration is clear.

I can’t say that I entirely favor the extremes that Miyazaki went to, but they are extremes that I don’t think would ever make it in American movie-making, and that intrigues me. Especially in light of the rigidity of The Hunger Games it provides a startling contrast.

So what is your take on print-to-screen adaptations? Are you a purist, or are you a wild reimaginer?

 

 

The fierce optimism of anime 

Recently, I’ve been getting back into anime, and it’s been remarkably nostalgic. My tastes in anime are eclectic, ranging from shoujo romances to action packed horror stories. I’ve been watching anime off and on for a long time, starting as many in my generation did with an early induction via Adult Swim. Anime such as Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Wolf’s Rain, and InuYasha were early influences, though, being a child in the early 90s, I also caught the dubbed Sailor Moon when I was only five or six. So me and anime have a long history.

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Recent anime that I have watched and loved include Princess JellyfishSeirei no Moribitoand Your Lie in April, among many others. I’m also watching Bloodivores, which is honestly a terrible title but so far a really interesting premise. There’s a surprisingly aware critique of predatory institutional systems within the world-building of this anime, even if the primary emphasis is the action. I’ve also been following Watashi ga Motete Dousunda, which, while engaging in a fair bit of bodyshaming, also manages to embrace some pretty intense nerd-culture. You take the good with the bad with anime, unfortunately, but not without being mindful of what is good and bad. There are anime I will recommend with little reservation, and then there are anime I will watch, love, and critique thoroughly if you ask me. Though to be fair I probably grant more leeway with anime than with any other medium, because it holds such a special place in my heart.

Despite the fact that some of these anime were and are incredibly problematic in their representations of race, gender, and sexuality, their fierce optimism never fails to lift me up. There is a clarity and beauty to their portrayal of the world, even if it is only the beauty of a first kiss. It seems innocent. It’s not – anime often deals with profoundly deep and dark concepts, underneath the glitter and sparkle. Take Ouran High School Host Club for example. I usually watch this one every spring, when the cherry blossoms are blooming. It just seems an appropriate time to watch an anime whose core themes are about young love and becoming the adult you will be. But Ouran also delves into dark things beautifully – bullying, classism, sexism to some extent, and, most importantly, the darknesses we each carry in all of us. That is, perhaps, the greatest lesson to take from the stories told in shoujo. Our darknesses define us, but we need not become them. We can own them, but not be lost to them.

Some of my favorite anime of all time include this theme. Movies from Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon remind me of the beauty and absurdity of life respectively. One of my favorite animes of all time, Akatsuki no Yona, walks this line like a tightrope. The main character, Yona, is a spoiled princess at first, who quickly falls into a nightmare when she sees her father murdered by the man she planned to marry. Saved from the same fate, she escapes with her childhood friend and protector and finds herself caught up in a dramatic quest to save her country and fulfill an age-old prophecy. Yona loses everything, and she is very conscious of that loss. She never lets go of it or seeks to erase or forget it. It doesn’t hold her down, either. She is strong enough to carry it with her and allow herself to be forged into something new by its weight. Still, the creators of the manga and associated anime adaptation never forget humor – amidst all the darkness, there are numerous cheeky interactions between Yona and her traveling companions which warm the heart. Those moments of levity make the tragedies all the more poignant, for me.

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Anime contains stories of improbable redemption, of clear sight, and of moving forward. We are taught to advance, to not stop laughing, to admire the fleeting beauty of life. To understand that the darkness and flaws of living make it more admirable, not less so. Sometimes I just need those stories to remind me of what matters. They give me the strength to get up and go when my spirit is flagging. I am incredibly hopeful that I might create something, someday, that has the same effect on a reader. I want to speak to someone so deeply that it helps them keep going when they are perhaps not sure why they are trying.

So, do you watch anime? What kinds of anime are your favorites? I’m always looking for recommendations!

 

Anime: love it and hate it

Warning, folks. This is a long one.

There are some things that really exhaust me when it comes to anime.

I’ve been watching anime off and on for pretty much as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was totally hooked on Sailor Moon, and the Japanese live-action import of Power Rangers. I would sing the Sailor Moon theme song (the English version, of course – I was only slightly bilingual at the time, having not moved on to any other language besides Spanish) and do flips on the monkey bars at school. My favorites were Sailor Venus, because she was the strongest, and Sailor Mars, because she was the prettiest.

Anime dropped off the radar for a couple of years after that. A notable exception was when my dad brought home Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke sometime around middle school. That film blew my mind, needless to say, and remains one of my favorite movies. Not long after, my brother and I discovered Toonami, then airing typical shounen animes like Dragonball Z and Inuyasha. We also encountered some heavier stuff. Wolf’s Rain comes to mind as a particularly phenomenal and scarring work in later years. My dad really hated for us to stay up and watch anime, because he didn’t want us up after he had gone to bed. The anime only came on after midnight, so it was a constant battle.

There were no shoujo anime that I remember on Toonami. The stories were all about huge battles and epic quests. This in and of itself is not a bad thing – I’m a fan of huge battles and epic quests. But it’s notable that the only female characters that I really remember from the anime in my teen years are the cast of Outlaw Star, which has remained one of my favorites to this day, and Kagome from Inuyasha. I don’t think I ever remember seeing a woman on the episodes of Dragonball that I watched. The women on screen, with the exception of Aisha and Suzuka, were not expected to do anything particularly. They were pawns to the power they held, dragged into situations far beyond them. At least Kagome and Melfina managed to find themselves eventually, which may be why I remember them so fondly.

As an adult, I have continued to watch anime. I even collect it now. I have logged hours and hours. Every once in a while, an anime will come along that blows my mind. Akatsuki no Yona, Serei no MoribitoPrincess Jellyfish, Durarara!!!, to name a few. And of course you have to love the old classics. But I find that there are some tropes that repeat over and over that can be really exhausting for me.

This week, I am watching Kuromukuro, a Netflix original. A friend recommended this one to me, actually. I was skeptical – I’m not a huge fan of mecha anime outside of classics like Gundam Wing. It’s been done, and done again, and then done some more. But the first episode was interesting, the premise kind of caught my attention, so I’ve been watching it. And I’m so frustrated.

Kuromukuro falls into a tired trope that reoccurs often in anime as an art form, especially in shounen anime. There is a girl. She sort of has an identity? She has people who surround her, tenuous relationships, unformed dreams, so I guess that counts. But those dreams never go anywhere. Unforeseen circumstances catch her up, and she ends up bobbing in the wake of some powerful male figure. Usually she cries about it somewhere in there. He needs her around to accomplish his goals, and he may pay lip service to her autonomy, but the plot itself never backs up his altruism. She just doesn’t do anything. She’s a magical object. You only need her to make the machine run. A glorified key that can talk.

I’d almost rather that girl didn’t exist. I’d almost rather the story just was about the man. At least it would not feel so degrading. There are insipid people about in the world, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you might even need them for something. But unless it moves your plot, your message, to write that character, I personally don’t want to read about them. That would be true if they were male or female.

The issue is simply that these weak, deadweight characters are so often female that it almost becomes synonymous. When every woman’s story is hijacked by a man, when her only powers are domestic or romantic in a plot driven by glorious battles, it’s incongruous. And it sends a message that women’s stories are only worth telling if there is an interesting hypermasculine character to carry them forward. I’m not here for that. I’m not here for lazy writing that falls back on tired tropes about the uselessness of women.

Anime can be a wonderful medium. I have had my brain stretched so many times by this stuff, and I love it. I love Japanese, too. It has this speckled rhythm that pleases me, and the writing system is fascinating. But I do get tired sometimes. As with all mediums, there are genres and tropes which exhaust me. I’m sure this is not the last time that I will be disgusted by a writer’s treatment of a female character, either. I won’t stop watching anime anytime soon, but I’m definitely going to have to take a break from shounen for a bit after this experience.

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