Animated sexual comedies are fairly uncommon in the United States. There are many satires which use sex as a frequent vehicle for humor, but none for which sex and gender relations are a central theme. In Japan, however, there are several, and they are some of the sharpest pieces of commentary in animation. From the often vulgar and always funny Housekeeping Hamster Ebichu to the science fiction-inspired misadventures of Tenchi Muyo!, many Japanese anime and manga pieces make a point of including a romantic dialogue. Often this is a ploy to attract a female audience, and other times it is to complicate the existing story. Always, however, the result is a rich look at the social details of the Japanese culture. This glimpse allows foreign audiences an excellent example to contrast their own social standards with that of another culture.
The World’s Strongest Bride
Sumomomo Momomo is about a young woman named Momoko who goes on a quest to ensnare a young man named Koushi and to make him her husband. Left to its own devices this would be quite a sexist plot by Western standards– that a woman’s sole priority is to lure and obtain a mate to complete her life. However, this series unapologetically goes further. In the opening scenes, Momoko is seen training for martial arts with her father. Despite a lifetime of hard work at a decidedly masculine discipline, she has only a fraction of his great strength and skill. He tells her that as a woman, she has no hope to live up to his ability and if the family line is to endure, she must go find a worthy husband and produce many masculine offspring as soon as possible. Momoko, who’s naiveté and plucky attitude endear her to the audience, responds by chirping in the affirmative, and sets off to find a man.
Koushi, her betrothed, is also the child of a martial artist. He represents the average modern Japanese male– coming from a long line of noble warriors and skilled martial artists, but with an evolved sensibility that has lead him from that brutish lifestyle. Instead, Koushi seeks to do battle for justice in the court room, aspiring to be a great prosecutor. The young man and his father share a mutual distaste for each other’s chosen paths, but remain respectful nonetheless. When it is revealed that an ancient clan feud now threatens Koushi’s life, it causes them to wonder why this wasn’t disclosed earlier, so that he could prepare himself. Perhaps the lesson here is that if Koushi had heeded his father’s wishes and not grown fat, arrogant, and glib, he would be prepared to defend himself against the coming assassins.
The Trappings of Anime
This question highlights one of the main drags on this story. Sumomomo Momomo is essentially a standard romantic comedy clouded by a backdrop of over the top anime mainstays. For example. some of the characters have Earth-shaking special attacks with associated chants and computer generated effects. There is all of the same posturing and bravado seen in more action-centric anime series, such as monologues and super human physical ability. Koushi and Momoko exist in a world populated by sexy teenaged warriors whose skill does not befit their age or maturity. The series often gets off track because of this, and the action seems as tacked on here as romance does in other shows. It drives the series forward, but the interplay between the various characters is often intriguing and entertaining enough to stand alone. Several episodes fall back on the day to day of the characters, abandoning the subplot of assassins and ninjas for brief glimpses of Koushi and friends in domestic or educational settings. Put bluntly, Koushi is just like every other guy out there, except he has ninjas around and all the girls want a piece of him.
The series takes this on, to a certain extent. When trying to be admitted to Koushi’s school, Momoko and some of their compatriots get in by inadvertently intimidating the school officials with their special techniques. Furthermore, many of the action sequences employ the full range of anime foils but ultimately descend into a silly commentary on those same foils. A perfect example is Koushi’s confrontation with a soccer-playing assassin of the tiger clan– Tenka. Despite Tenka’s incredible strength, Koushi is ultimately able to defeat him by playing off cats’ fear of plastic water bottles.
Men and Women, Dragons and Wolves
Momoko’s arrival in his life completely disrupts Koushi’s plans to attend law school and become an ace attorney. Her initial interactions with Koushi are incredibly funny, as she hurls herself at him, begging him to share a bed together (more straightforward or vulgar terminology violates morality standards on Japanese television).
Her solicitations are overtly aggressive, and often include extremely suggestive scenes, such as Momoko nude or in an array of sexual positions. Such a strong outward display of hunter/prey female sexuality would be considered comical or provocative in the United States, and how it is taken in Japan is subjective. Momoko is depicted, as in the picture at right– seductive and alluring. In this picture here, her pose is highly erotic. She is spread eagled, sitting on his chest, bearing her genitals to him with her arms clasped together nervously. She is blushing, and her clothing is feminine as well as innocent. She is, in effect, the perfect female mate. This is only offset by her aggressive need for sex. Once again, how this is received by audiences is subjective. The writing, however, is clear. Koushi spurns every advance. His reactions range from genuinely frightened to outright angry. He is clearly threatened and unfamiliar with how to handle Momoko and often refers to her as mentally unbalanced. His constant litany of matter-of-fact statements of “I decline,” are met by brilliantly animated reactions by Momoko. She is floored every time and is completely incredulous and usually begins sobbing and rolling around on the ground. Her face is drawn to show that his words were painful, and she usually shrieks and begins begging for his love– another symbol of subjugation.
This is one of the prime examples of how the series distinguishes its lead male and female characters. When Momoko puts her moves on Koushi, they are both depicted as attractive adults befitting some concept of gender ideals. Koushi is athletic and tall, handsome and smart. Momoko is beautiful and round, healthy and glowing with femininity. When Koushi pushes Momoko away, however, the dynamic changes. In the above picture, Momoko is adult-sized, sitting on Koushi’s chest, presenting herself. In the picture at right, he has just spurned her advance. She is now drawn as a child figure, and she rolls off his chest like a stuffed animal. He tells her she is unbalanced, and he walks away, leaving her crying like a child. This is a common tool, especially early in the mini series. Momoko’s rejections are always depicted as humiliating, as well constant rejection would be humiliating. Insult is further added to this injury, though, by changing the audiences perspective by changing her into an infant. Koushi, though, remains an adult. He is only depicted differently when he is confronted by a superior masculine image, like an assassin. At those times, he is not necessarily depicted in a child-like way, but rather with anime hallmarks of fear and shock.
Know Your Place: Competing Female Gender Roles
Like Tenchi Musaki from Tenchi Muyo!, everyone wants a piece of Koushi. Within this series, there are three primary female suitors who to some extent vie for his love. They are, of course, Momoko, as well as an assassin turned friend Iroha, and the ‘class rep,’ Sanae. Each one represents a different kind of woman with a different kind of appeal. Koushi, though, would much rather be left to his alone than be heavily courted by any of them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Koushi doesn’t like them or is a homosexual. Instead, Koushi would himself rather be the sexual aggressor. That is a man’s purported role, after all. The only movement he makes to that effect in the series, is when he presses for Sanae’s attention. This is, though, a ploy to hurt Momoko by demonstrating closeness to another woman.
Momoko – Man’s Best Friend
The relationship between Koushi and Momoko is much like a planet and its moon. It is a starkly sexist relationship, in which the man is made out to be an object of desire and nobility while the female is depicted as being incomplete without him. Her world revolves around him, and she is unable to liberate herself from this, nor does she want to. This is never better seen than in an episode early in the series where, quite literally, their roles as man and woman degenerate into man and dog.
Koushi and Momoko go to a park, where he reads a book. They are being watched by other characters who are trying to ascertain their relationship. They had assumed that it was a romantic affiliation, but soon they draw the conclusion that they are like ‘a man and his pet.’ In that scene, Koushi is throwing a Frisbee and Momoko is scampering after it like a dog, snatching it with her mouth and returning it to him. Her legs and body size are redrawn in this scene to match that of a dog, and the strand of hair that sticks out on top of her head wags happily at the attention she is receiving from her beloved master. While this is ultimately a very comical peek at a very dysfunctional relationship, the allegory of man and woman as man and dog is clear.
The series, however, may be commenting on the futility of that notion, rather than simply depicting it. Despite all of Momoko’s strangeness, such as her perpetual bare feet or her pushiness or lack of social grace, Koushi stays by her side and cares for her deeply. He forms a strong bond with Momoko that, while it might not be what she wants, certainly fills a void in both of their lives and allows for a significant transformation to occur with each. The lesson may be that these outdated concepts of social normativity are useless in the face of true friendship and of modern relationships.
Iroha – The Little Sister
Iroha is a ruthless assassin. Around her minion Hanzo or around others she speaks with the willowy voice of a determined woman who seeks vengeance for her family. Around Koushi, however, she degenerates into a vulnerable little girl in desperate need of the positive attention of a man. Calling him ‘onii-chan’, a colloquial term for ‘big brother’, Iroha follows Momoko and Koushi around acting as their protector and as a special friend to both. She abandons the life of an assassin to live a domestic normal life.
Iroha represents a younger, more vulnerable aspect of femininity. She is cute, and child like without being infantile, appealing to a specific subset of Japanese culture which values ‘cuteness’ as a virtue. This concept, known as kawaii, represents tremendous cultural and sexual power. This appeal not only makes Iroha desirable, but her phony coquettish behavior fools even the intelligent Koushi, who wants to take care of her, but who isn’t particularly moved by her act. Interestingly, Hanzo, her minion, is the only one who is truly enamored by Iroha. Hanzo isn’t attracted to her cuteness at all. In fact, he considers it vile, vomiting blood and sobbing at her behavior. Hanzo is drawn to Iroha’s strength. He admires it, and loves it. He draws strength from it himself. This may be another example of this series bucking the social concepts its been saddled with.
Sanae – The Shame of the Perfect Woman
The third woman, Sanae, presents some very interesting contrasts to Momoko or Iroha. When we first meet Sanae, she is the ‘class rep.’ She is a perfect, studious, quiet Japanese girl. She is the type that Momoko and Iroha are rejections of. She is reserved and concerned with her grades and her studies. This, however, is a facade. Sanae is, in reality, a ‘senshi’ (soldier) of love and justice known as Uma Kamen (literally, horse mask). Her family comes from the Horse Clan, (Koushi is of the Wolf Clan, Momoko of the Dragon Clan, Iroha of the Snake Clan). Her role in the subplot of ninjas and assassins is to be the anonymous stalwart defender of Koushi and his friends.
Part of her identity, though, is a very revealing costume, shown at right. Including a horse tail, gag, and horse ears, it is very sexually suggestive. Sanae’s costume screams domination, as she wears everything but a saddle. Uma Kamen is dressed to be ruled. As a reserved, quiet girl, it is very difficult for her to be in public in that costume. It causes her a tremendous amount of embarrassment and insecurity. However, according to her grandmother, it is from this sense of shame that Sanae draws her amazing inner strength.
Initially, it is off-putting to think that a woman’s power comes from her shame. It is sexist to imply that it is her role as the dominated that makes a woman who she is. That, however, misses the point. Sanae is made to wear that costume not because she is a woman and should be dominated, but because she shouldn’t. At several points in the story, she has to remove her costume to draw on her true powers. She winds up being almost completely nude. This nudity is the ultimate level of sexual freedom and power. She is truly unleashed. Her grandmother later explains that Sanae has always held back her true power and her true self, and that by revealing her body, she is forced to reveal her soul and her power. It seems odd that a champion of feminism would be a bare-assed school girl fighting for the love of a man, however in Sanae you have a character who unapologetically brandishes her sexuality in concert with her personal and physical strength in spite of social expectations of what others might think.
The only sexism implied here is in allegory. Sanae is a character who is ‘perfect’ for Koushi because of her reserved, quiet demeanor. That, however, is a mask. Sanae’s true self, her sexual and potent selves, are far more useful to Koushi later in the series when she repeatedly saves his life. The series is pointing out that in this society, Sanae’s true self must be concealed and controlled. She has to be tricked into being herself. In order to be accepted by society, Sanae must remain in her closet, hiding from the world that would judge her.
Hey, why won’t you be mine? I’ll mess you up real good.
This series is an excellent piece of social commentary, as well as a genuinely funny piece of satire. It makes some very interesting comparisons of gender roles and social factors in Japanese society, and allows foreign audiences to make some observations about their own cultures. The YouTube video below is a wonderful compilation of the series, demonstrating some of the key details written about in this article. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that this series or others like it would ever be professionally subtitled or dubbed for western audiences, but many excellent fan subtitled versions exist.