Monday, December 26, 2016

12 Days of Anime: When Strength Is Many Things

Editorial note: These thoughts were inspired by the first three episodes of Izetta the Last Witch but do not necessarily reflect the entire show given that I wasn't interested enough to finish it. 

A few years ago now there was quite a bit of discussion about "strong female characters" and what this entailed. People still talk about the idea now of course but there was some intense discourse as people debated, does this mean physically strong? Like a male character? What does "like a male character" even MEAN anyway? There has been some general agreements since then; "Strong Female Character" (when used in a positive, non-ironic sense, it can totally be used in a negative, ironic sense as well) means a capable female character who can have any number of traits.

But I would like to add an addendum onto this idea: you can only have a truly "strong female character" if they are also written in a setting that will recognize their strengths.

I'm really big about settings in general, I simply think that the influences upon a character from their world should be an aspect in their actions and thoughts in many cases (that's certainly how it works in real life anyway). A lot of stories, across mediums, have very generic settings and that's certainly the case in Izetta the Last Witch. Oh look, it's another quasi-Europe on the brink of what's clearly WWII but with some slight differences to technology and a tad bit of magic! It's so ~*fantastical*~ 

My point here isn't to bag on the particulars about Izetta's setting however but rather how it treats one of the two leading ladies, Finé the heir to the throne of Eylstadt. As an aggressive neighbor begins to draw near Finé enters many talks with potential allies about defending her country before it becomes the fist domino to fall and the treaty talks fall through. Of course they do, it's the first episode in a series, she's a young plucky girl against stereotypes, of course it wou-

Wait a fucking second.

Why isn't this working? Finé is offering support to potential allies who are also already involved in the conflict and agreeing to terms set forth by them! So why wouldn't diplomacy, Finé's skill-set, work perfectly fine here? Because, as it turns out, this is a story where actiony-actions matters, so Izette stands a chance at making a difference because she can use magic as a form of warfare but Izette is reduced to giving inspirational speeches by the third episode, this setting doesn't recognize her strengths as strengths. Finé's actions will never create the defining moments of this conflict as long as the setting remains like this, you can even look at this as a "soft power (feminine) approaches won't work, only hard resolve (masculine) will create changes" and you see why it's so hard to define what makes a "strong female character."

As I was thinking about this I was casting about for opposite examples and I thought of my old favorite Yona of the Dawn. I'm cheating a little bit since I've read manga beyond where the anime ends but hear me out: Yona's setting relies on more than one method to solve problems. We've had problems solved by shooting a man and by having the cast help poverty stricken villages. Typically there is action involved, Yona is an adventure-fantasy after all, and even though Yona herself is one of the less martially skilled characters she's never left to the side of the story (Kusanagi has written the story so that Yona has become more proficient with weapons, ie the setting and the characters match). I do think that there are some underdeveloped characters in Yona but there are also several other characters who have gone through character development just like Yona, they find multiple ways for them to use the skills they have to stand up against injustice and are inspired by Yona's strength to do so. 

To me THAT is the kind of story that allows Strong Female Characters, it's a world where our protagonists (I mean they're protagonists for a reason right) are gifted with the skills needed to shine. This is a problem that I see in many series, not in just those first three episodes of Izetta, and I always think that the creators must be running on autopilot at some level if they don't realize that they've created an unintentional conflict amongst the pieces of their story.

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