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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The inevitability of sexual assault

After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.

anarchy

Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.

I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.

Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.

I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.

Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.

Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.

If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.

Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.

She doesn’t, of course.

Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.

I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.

That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.

I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.

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