What happened to my gaze?

You may or may not have already heard the term ‘the male gaze‘. It originally came from a film criticism essay. We now find it used to examine all kinds of visual culture artifacts. I was thinking about it recently as I was going over my anime watch list for the January-February-March 2018 season. Most of what I had settled on watching was “girly stuff” or rather exclusive girl character stories, except for one slapstick comedy and one fanservice train-wreck. Thankfully, there seemed to be a sliding continuum of moe/ CGDCT / fan-service, so I am not damned for all eternity.(Slow, slow run the horses of the night…) I’m not exactly sure who these stories’ gazes are made for or rather, whether the strict gendering of gaze has not been blurred by dint of market pressure. (1)

Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho/ A Place Further than the Universe is a girl’s adventure story with lead characters who are all responsible and have their own reasons for wanting to go on an expedition to Antarctica. Of note as well are the two expedition organisers we see the most of, who are both serious 20-something women and who have done this before. One of them is conflicted about the first girl’s determined reason for going on the trip. Men pop up in the background but this is overwhelmingly a women’s story of women’s efforts.

In another all women show, Takunomi, 20-something working women drink during their free time. Short 12-minute episodes about career women who live in a share-house and drink to relax while eating side dishes. Even less detailed than the manga Nomi Joshi. (1)  Each episode features a different booze and  each is a product placement deal. A manga has been whomped up to go along with the campaign.

One couldn’t say that the show is a fan service fest. It looks like it is aimed at office ladies looking for tips on how they should be drinking during their precious few moments of time off. The talk is mercifully free of ‘I’m getting old and need to find a guy” crap. Again, guys show up in the background but this is  a women’s homosocial – another one of those academic-ish terms, originally invented to describe all-guy stories by literary criticism types who wanted to read gay subtext into every single 19th century manly-man‘s novel with no women doing anything of note in them. Kind of like slash and/or BL, only with tenure. Lest I be accused again of being ‘smarmy’, E.K.Sedgwick was probably dead right about most of the manly-man stories she set her sights on but from then on it gets complicated. The term remains useful.

Drinking with friends is important for working women. Here is a panel from the just-ended, long-running twitter web comic by @black9arrows about the tribulations of the Lone Office Lady:

“I drew a picture of an OL living alone who had become sick of everything.”
https://twitter.com/black9arrows?lang=en
Also: https://en.rocketnews24.com/2015/05/07/japanese-twitter-users-comics-depicting-office-lady-life-will-hit-you-right-in-the-feels/

Don’t ‘ronery out!

Next up is the wonderful Yuru Camp/ Laid-back Camping. It starts off with one solitary camping girl who doesn’t like company and the Genki Airhead Girl who pesters her to be her friend. Airhead Girl bugs her older sister to drive her to campgrounds around the Hakone area. Then it picks up two more high school girls in a camping club that has yet to go camping. They discuss camping gear. They go camping. They go to a campground onsen. They cook camp meals. Mount Fuji comes into view. Again there’s nothing much in the way of fanservice or appeals to weird guy-otaku interests.

There are some great moments; as when the young camping club members who have never gone camping before discuss the ultimate winter camping tent and end up re-inventing the kotatsu.

Violet Evergarden is on my list as well. The story is about Violet. Please see my other posts on it. [https://heartsoffuriousfancies.wordpress.com/tag/violet-evergarden/]

At the bottom of my list of Cute or not Girls or Women doing things that may or may not be Cute in the winter 2018 anime season is Ramen Daisuki Koizumi-san/ Koizumi-san loves Ramen.

It definitely is a male-gaze property and seems to exist so that we can get close-ups of Koizumi-san (who looks like she escaped from Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei’s classroom) slurping ramen and blushing. Also Koizumi-san’s legs as she walks away wearing a too-short school uniform skirt from the POV of the girl who wants to be her friend and has a clumsy yuri crush on her.

You get to learn a lot about varieties of ramen so it’s not a total write off. Guys watching get to dream about meeting a beautiful high-school girl who won’t mind going on endless cheap dates to ramen restaurants and would not complain that an exclusive diet of ramen might make them overweight.

I also tried watching something called Marchen Madchen. Nope…

Finally my last two choices: Franxx and Psi(2). Saiki Kusuo No PSI Nan (2) sticks very close to the manga, which is stupid and yet howlingly funny in unexpected ways. It has a high school ensemble cast of self-absorbed guys and girls who drag our hero into ever deeper layers of trouble – I’ll be back to it later, as it inadvertently suggests an approach to understanding part of the problem I’m digging at.

Darling in the Franxx or rather Infinite Stratos meets Logans Run is a return-to-Gainax fanservice train-wreck. Disposable orphan boy and girl child soldiers have to pilot giant Evangelion-ish robots by getting into doggie-sex positions because the mad scientist who invented them is a pervy creep. Also, monsters attack the post-apocalyptic city walls. Also, the part-monster girl babe who wants to be “on top”. The characterisation for all besides Monster Girl are boringly thin, The other pairs can’t “get it up” sufficiently to fight the monsters and only crazed Monster Girl and whatever hapless guy she snares, can. The kids are all named with numbers, their “names” are nicknames. Monster/ Demon Girl is without a nickname and known only as 02. Zero-Ni. “O-Ni”. Wow; subtle…

So; January, February, March 2018. If I exclusively needed guy stuff, aside from Franxx, I would be in despair. I am probably missing some other anime that failed to pop up on my radar and may be full of conventional gendered roles and bro heroics, along with endless level-up battles, try-your-best lessons and buddy-banter. They must be out there somewhere.

Meanwhile I seem to have snuck in a generic “this is what I’m watching this season” anime roundup into this blog, along with a few grumbles about thin pickings. You could go to any number of other blogs or Twitter and get better recommendations.

I need a reason for doing this.

I’ll try grinding on the male gaze or gendered gaze thing. First set out extremes. For the women’s gaze, something like Maria-sama ga Miteru/ Maria-sama Watches Over Us. I made it 7 episodes in before I ran away, creeped out. It wasn’t the soulful friendships between young women that threw me. The Cath stuff snuck up on me. Somewhere in the world there are Catholic high schools that do wonderful work with students who love the experience and cherish the education and the friendships that they made there throughout their lives. I didn’t go to one of those. I’m sure they were plenty worse educational experiences but those didn’t happen to me. My 4 years in a Catholic High School felt like being trapped in the Hitler Youth while secretly being not quite Aryan (and loathing nazi shyte). I managed to get out of there more or less intact but it took a lot of work and emotional turmoil. I’m sure imaginary Japanese’s Catholic girls schools do a much better job of things.

But I digress. Aside from me getting weirded out, Marimite works as a series of slow, intricately built character studies and emotional interactions between young women. Not so much yuri or romantic subtext as much as a fully imagined society. A senior blogger’s recent paean [http://okazu.yuricon.com/2018/01/28/maria-sama-ga-miteru-20-years-of-watching-mary-watching-us/] to the entire opus praises it for among other things; showcasing the development of leadership skills among young women.

Consider Marimite a “women’s gaze” story exemplar.

On the other end of the scale, maybe draft Gintama, Gasaraki and/ or Evangelion. Made for guys. Women characters are there to support the guy main chara and for guys to look at. Perhaps the “which is the most manly-man anime ever made?” debate has already been done to death. I have probably picked the wrong animes but I never got around to Fist of the North Star, so I burn/ (am already…).

Once we get beyond simple surface appearances, we are into the moe thickets and the loli-bait. Looks like a young girl’s magical girl series but is for “older friends”. Then you get Idol schools and finally the current crop of CGDCT nothing-much-happens shows that build on K-on and Joshiraku. Surprisingly, these are easy to understand on a meta-level, especially when one considers extreme variant phenomenon like BL and fanservice yuri.

Meanwhile, a bit more about the original male gaze concept. The observation was that movies were shot from a POV and for the “view” of the default viewer, which usually meant the guy viewer. Other writers and even the original theorist went back and added caveats which can be summarised in the observation that a filmic narrative is uniquely suited to imposing a gaze, including a gendered one, upon the viewer. After all, the viewers are along for the ride, neh? It just seems to be a western conceit that a lot of movies/ videos tell their stories from the POV of a guy, usually a straight middle-class, even pale-skinned guy.

From this observation we can better understand the various “gates” involving games and the noisy butthurt that occurs when say, Ghostbusters is re-done with women charas. The folks pushing back implicitly acknowledge that the default gaze is not set in stone. If they don’t scream to the heavens, they will be “cast on the ash-heap of history” or some other portentous sounding nonsense. At very least, some resources that once went to exclusively pandering to them might be diverted to other audiences and the absolute number of way kewl things made for them could diminish.

Or something…

Note the assumptions in this kind of thought. Creativity is a zero-sum game, narratives can be somehow “contaminated” or “usurped” and most importantly, that there are proper ways to do a guy-view story as well as ways that are not as good, descending on a scale to “recruit you for ISIS” to “make you gay” or… I have no idea. Maybe turn us guys into Drag Queen school busses or robot toaster cats enslaved to feminazis. Also no more Mom cooking for us and doing our laundry.

Or something…

Meanwhile, am I second guessing myself because I find myself bingeing on girl main chara anime? Why am I doing this? Am I secretly lusting for high school girls? I used to be pretty sure this was not my thing; I don’t even jokingly entertain the idea of “waifu“. Overdone fanservice annoys me. I better get back to Japan fast and spend quality time with She-who… The best I can figure is that the stock types of girl main and secondary characters do not annoy me anywhere as much as the limited range of stock shonen guy characters.

It is all about avoiding over-used annoying things.

My sweetie will often remark how she can’t watch an anime because the voices of the girl characters are annoying. Or they use Keigo inappropriately – why the over-polite mode towards everyone including your cat in Flying Witch? Why so squeaky and high voiced in a number of other anime? Other viewers might condemn an entire anime because no high school girl could be so hopelessly inept and helpless as to forget how to ride a granny bike on the first day of school and therefore all the young women in the show as well as the viewers, writers and producers are class enemies!

As a guy, especially a guy who can barely understand 40 Japanese words, I don’t pay much notice to such things. Unless the fanservice hits in a tsunami of pantsu shots and asymmetrical boobie jiggles, I just read the girl charas as “young human, no annoying chara tropes, pray continue.” The girl charas have, by process of elimination (of annoying things) become the “default” characters.

What then has happened to my gaze?

It is as if the condition noted decades ago by Yukari Fujimoto in her “Where Do I Belong? The Shape Of the Heart As Reflected in Shoujo Manga” [fan translation at: http://owlectomy.dreamwidth.org/114796.html ]
regarding the gendering of the female character/ subject in the view of the male has been tumbled butt over teakettle.

I want to see the cartoon young women of “A place Further” make it to Antarctica, have an exciting time of it and get back safely. I hope the first of them doesn’t have to experience unbearable trauma over the memories of her mother who vanished in an Antarctic blizzard. I really, really hope they don’t find the frozen body! I will cry foul if Mom is still alive, working as a cook at a nearby base and she played dead because bill collectors were after her (a trick used in The Otaku’s Daughter). Otherwise, watch them go on an expedition. Girl #2’s best friend was all clingy, secretly tried to sabotage the mission and tearfully repents. Ok, I’ll buy that. No BL subtext fistfights required. Frenemy should pull up her socks and get on the next expedition. I’ll keep watching this. I wonder how involved it will get?

With Takunomi, I take refuge in prior academic/ sociological studies (3) for context. I also remember the similarly themed Office Ladies Go Drinking manga. So far they have held forth on Ebisu Beer, some shochu, a cat-labeled light Belgian-style beer and some Chu-hai. That’s cool. Hope they get into speciality shochus. I had a buckwheat shochu from Nagano that was really tasty. I wonder if they will do unfiltered sake or farm sake. Otherwise, more background on the Japanese propensity of guys and girls to socialize among themselves in gender-segregated groups plus tips on side-dishes. That “homosocial” thing again. Mixed nights out turn into “mixers’ and those feels like work. Speaking of work, “night out” events are not workplace drinking events; the latter are fraught with hierarchy, difference, seku-hara to be avoided and office politics. More work.

With Yuru Camp I was struck with an irrational worry during the first episode that the Genki Airhead Girl would be denounced in outlander blogs as a class enemy for acting like a helpless idiot. Genki Girl soon redeems herself by proving that eating alone is far less fun than sharing a spicy hot-pot. Using the ubiquitous portable hot-pot gas heater as camping equipment was a good twist as well; everyone in Japan has one of those, although for hardcore campers, such a rig is probably considered too bulky. Solitary camping girl is still ranging farther than the outdoor club trio but we can expect that they will camp together sooner or later. So far no fanservice (that onsen sequence did not count), some light humour and the potential for location tourism in the Hakone area.

This is a a rather restrained example if it is CGDCT. Do young Japanese women watch it? I have no idea if they would zero in on some fatal flaw in the story and/or a character depiction that would leave them cold. As an outlander guy viewer however, it is again mercifully free of annoying things and populated with neutral, sympathetic characters doing interesting things.

What if Psi Nan tried something like this? All the characters, male and female, young and old except Saiki are idiots and extreme character trope types. Imagine them all camping. Or all of them except Psychic Saiki go camping. Chuni guy goes on about “Dark Wing”. Big Oaf guy acts stupid. Rich guy acts spoiled. Ex-yankee guy attempts to not get angry. Perfect girl mooches for attention; go through the checklist. Add some conflict to overcome with friendship and a few try-again-harder gambattes. Psychic Saiki can swoop in and fix things behind the scenes. Rinse, repeat.

Urasai!

I do not want to watch another nondescript guy who has become a NEET transported to a fantasy world and/or trapped in a vidja game with one amazing power and a bevy of comely young women to harem out with. Nondescript grumpy highschool loner guy who suddenly has the hot girl exchange student get interested in him, triggering new interest by the childhood friend girl and then add more girls every episode (if manga every 3-5 chapters) will be a stretch. It might slip by if the writer(s) add(s) something quirky, although we are running out of exploitable quirkies. Zombie Apocalypses and/ or everybody must fight to the death cruel survival game thingies can just fuck right off.

Guess that leaves nothing but Lupin III.

It appears that there is a cost to being written as the default main character with the entire story built to rotate around your… axis. Character development atrophies.

The two guys in “Just Because” were a teeny bit better than the normal cyphers guys usually trotted out but it looks from here like the real neat characters have of late been mostly women. Miss Kobayashi and Tooru. Violet Evergarden. The entire student cast in Little Witch Academia. The young women and girls of Flying Witch, The girls of A Place Further. Even photographer girl in Just Because was hands down the most interesting of the bunch. I could go on by going back through past seasons.

It is not like manga is devoid of interesting takes on guy characters or that all light novel and game guy characters are paper-thin unoriginal Cardboard Everyslackers or Earnest Burning Youth. But something seems to happen to stories and guy characters when they get turned into anime that is happening a teeny bit less to girl characters. (Or I don’t notice the grinding same-same of the women characters because I am a lazy guy?) Or It could be simple economics. Create an interesting new take on a guy character and guys –might– tune in but you may well lose some of them because new dude does not fit the expected comfortable same-old same-old male MC mold. Hmmmm… Must be there as fujoshi-bait. And truthfully, you wont get much in the way of women viewers for shonen unless you throw in some token fujoshi-bait. Whereas if you center a story around interesting, capable young women characters, you can pitch towards women viewers and you are sure to pick up a good number of guys peeking in; for service, CGDCT or even just mildly competent and likeable characters doing something with purpose.

The young woman character has somehow ended up as the new default pov choice for anime.

I blame the Beautiful Fighting Girl, if only because I go on and on and on about Dr. Saito Tamaki. Once she was no longer a supporting romantic interest to the guy hero, the inexorable march towards character domination took off. Now we are at such an advanced stage of the assimilation that a fan-service-y girl cast might attract even less viewers than serious, sympathetic non-fan-service-y girl/ young women/ women charas. Don’t piss off half of your audience. Exceptions to be made for magical fighting game-based grinders that go on and on and on. The novelty of turning male historical figures into armored fighting girls continues to pay off, even if the occasional crossdressing bishonen hawtie sneaks in. As I have mentioned, I am holding out for William Tecumseh Sherman to be reincarnated as a foul-mouthed loli girl with a serious cigar and whiskey habit.

Meanwhile, try to do something like this so that it makes sense with run-of-the-mill guy charas:

It would still be difficult to trick a bunch of otaku guys into watching the entire run of Marimite, based on the promise of an exciting adventure story and a lot of yuri subtext but such hot-house settings no longer seem necessary. You can get a more up-to-date version of a similar effect from a high school band without the creepy Cath drag.

Fleshing out a character is hard work and chews up precious screen time. The Fate trick is even scarier; we need to find guy charas that don’t end up more interesting if they are turned into young women – fanservice sexy or otherwise. I could watch an anime about a bunch of characters methodically building a garden shed but I fear the conventions of anime scriptwriting — what is agreed upon to be expected — would shonen-out the characters if they were guys. If they were girls, I probably wouldn’t notice the chara clichés as much, so long as it didn’t turn into a fanservice train-wreck or have too many instances of squeaky voiced ineptitude for too long.

In contrast, look what Shinkai had to do to Your Name‘s Taki Tachibana to make him interesting.

Perhaps the angry guys screaming about Ghostbusters are “on” to something, even if their reactionary and inarticulate fear-driven rage is hindering a precise examination and diagnosis of the condition. There is also the deeper problem offered by the paper-thin young guy hero: along with his limited characteristics, he suffers not only from a limited range of behaviour but a limited path to the future. Salaryman or sleeping under a bridge. Ending up magicked away to a fantasy world video game otherworld where he gets to be king is not something to draw life lessons from. Why defuk can’t guy charas get off their asses and go to Antarctica? Or go camping? Even getting out of Japan has been fading as a dream, unless it it by way of magical isekai effect.

An aging manga/ anime/ games consumer demographic may also have something to do with the problem. Who wants to be reminded of what an idealised guy adolescence could have been when you yourself are a 30-something slipping towards 40 guy and the future appears ever narrower ahead of you. In this case, not being able to identify with the young women characters on the screen or page is a very good thing. If we want charas that we can identify with, we will wait for more Bruce Willis, Tommy Lee Jones and “Beat”Takeshi Kitano movies. Undoubtedly 30-plus-something women readers/ viewers might similarly find the girls of the Antarctic expedition and the Camping Club annoying. This continues until the readership all gets beyond middle age and then we can all be as virtually bemused uncles and aunties and finally catch up on the anime and manga we missed.

Designing guy characters for today’s demographic is a challenge but is not impossible, even if an anime is a huge capital investment with hundreds of people working on it. While the pressure to stick to formula is intense and the penalties for failure are severe, innovation is possible. Check out the guys in these sneaky cup noodle commercials. The teen Tombo updated from KikI’s Delivery Service holds his own with teen Kiki.

He hints at substance, at least as much as teen Kiki does, as does his nameless counterpart in this Armageddon Confession that sneakily turns into …. Another damn Cup Noodle commercial.(4)

Goddammit! Lookie at both of them. In the space of a few seconds we have two interesting people painted in a few deft strokes. Sure confession scenes are a big cliché but both parties appear, in their brief instances of screen time, as having their own stories. These hint that creating better, nuanced  characters is not a zero-sum game. A better developed male chara shouldn’t suck the oxygen out of the story for the well-developed woman character. (even with a cameo by an anime Bruce Willis) Crap; these Nissin Noodle commercial are dense texts in their own right. Here someone does a complete analysis, including shout-outs, cameos, character notes (!) and easter eggs: https://youtu.be/-VKFWLn7FlM

If guy charas (or now girl charas) are sucking the oxygen out of the scene, something is off with the conventions of the way they are written. Or is Japan so sex-segregated that the vast majority of its stories must be as well? Suddenly the location (and temporal) separation breached by the body swapping in Shinkai’s Your Name takes on an extra significance. Girl in village. Boy in Tokyo. Each bound to “act” in their territory.

It is great that women and young women characters are being better written and written into lead roles in more stories. These upgraded girls show us that the guys could use an upgrade as well.

Maybe they can build a shed or something for next fall’s season.

“Work remaining on map” Taisei Corporation CM

 

(1) They could ALL be male-gaze and I am hopelessly trapped within my own strictly gendered and class-derived perspective, forever unable to recognise my predicament and escape.

(2) Nomi Joshi would probably make a better anime, see: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interest/2015-09-06/new-manga-focuses-on-29-year-old-women-drinking-beer/.92516 ]

(3) “License to drink’: White-collar female workers and Japan’s urban night space
by Swee-Lin Ho, National University of Singapore (2015)
http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/sochsl/ho%20license%20to%20drink%20egy2015.pdf
Another from the same researcher, which further examines friendship among businesswomen has an edge; “Tokyo at 10: establishing difference through the friendship networks of women executives in Japan“, Swee-Lin Ho (2012)
http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/sochsl/Tokyo%20at%2010%20JRAI2012.pdf

Profile and links to other journal articles by Dr. Swee-Lin Ho:
http://profile.nus.edu.sg/fass/sochsl/stf_sochsl.htm

(4) Japanese Commercial Messages (CM) have really been going to town of late.
More in the Hungry Days series:

https://youtu.be/thJBzLyaxTw

https://youtu.be/Q4CxNksGo5Q or  https://youtu.be/PN0hmvuFSd4

Somebody got annoyed with Nissin Cup Noodles:

Hungry Titans
https://youtu.be/LGAZiGTROD8  or https://youtu.be/DoP3iIYSB-0

Noodle-free, with designs by Makoto Shinkai

Z-Kai: Cross Road Special PV HD
https://youtu.be/H8Xd5BiHAa0  or  https://youtu.be/AfbNS_GKhPw

An anthology of more in the same style (Incl the Z-Kai CM):
https://youtu.be/Zscr1k_A36E

Mirror of the collected Taisei Engineering CMs:
https://youtu.be/MXP2aHpIgMM

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2 thoughts on “What happened to my gaze?

  1. You are wondering why the stuff that you used to read is no longer satisfying? Congratulations your taste is maturing.

    Would you be happy to see for example a anime made from the great manga “History of Japan Showa” by Mizuki Shigeru? or his “Kitaro”? How about from a “Drifting Life” by Tatsumi Yoshihiro? It would be a lot better than the thicker but insight-less “Osamu Tezuka Story”.

    Have you looked into the manga “Hyougemono”? It is mostly set in the time of Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and the main topic is the tea ceremony and the implements thereof. The protagonist is a samurai and student of the great tea master, Sen no Rikyū. He gains wisdom and cunning and weath. This story is largely a fiction but the real life of Sen no Rikyū adds tremendous depth to the story. The author withdrew the credit to the anime that was made from it to “original concept”. Real life is somewhat inconvenient to the makers of anime which are expected to be viewed by the younger members of society.

    In other words real life is lacking in a lot of the popular work today as it was lacking in the Golden Age of DC or of Marvel.

    The shojo and josei comic and anime you cite have some injection of real life concerns permitting real character development. “Male gaze” is a interesting concept but when we have “female gaze”and “objective gaze” (exhibited by a certain Genshiken Nidaime character of himself) it is less important.

    If you are interested in different books you might check the SF “Necropolis” by Michael Dempsey or the fantasy “Strange Practice” by Vivian Shaw.

    Well I have to go take my medications and supplements right now.

    later
    bliss

    • Honestly, I doubt my taste is maturing. Perhaps it matured 40 something years ago and it is now regressing? For instance, I have tried “Hyougemono” but I cannot wrap my head around it – or rather give it the patience it seems to require. I just find it.. sad. I suspect it is some manner of lay Buddhist parable; all that scrambling, scrambling… The problem I was edging around has to do of course with some manner of “realism” in the stories but also which characters are afforded the space to be put in such stories. Did you notice those Shinkai-esque CM’s I stuck in at the end? Perhaps it is not a matter of a “male gaze” but that of a “guy salarymen/ freeters in their 20’s and 30’s who work at grinding soulless jobs and need busty babes in fantasy world escape stories after a day of their boss yelling at them gaze”?

      How else to explain something like Franxx?

      Kids get flustered about pervy piloting arrangements. Go out after monsters, screw up. Monster girl grabs lucky boy saves day with Sakuga-ish battle, intones DAAAARLING! repeat. Ramp up plot by adding some adult-gummint CONSPIRACY(!!!) Search twitter for the Franxx Bingo Card. It is about as fun and original as watching GOP politicians lie ineptly (has to be inept to assure each other they still are all-powerful enough to force consensus) and suck up to the Creep.

      As for “literature” — tried it, it always disappoints. Grew out of it. To repeat; Antarctica, Hakone Camping and OL boozing until they run an anime about building that garden shed.

      ON STRIKE FOR BETTER AMUSEMENTS!

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