Thursday, March 18, 2021

Male Social Hierarchies in Anime

The sub-genre of the harem anime is well-known to anime fans. Most people recognize it for what it is: a wish-fulfillment fantasy for males. But what is less obvious, and much more interesting, is what these and other anime say about the creators’ attitudes towards male social hierarchies.

In a primitive society, the duty of childrearing is the domain of the womenfolk. The men are often away, either out hunting or waging war, and a little boy finds himself almost exclusively in the company of women. When he reaches a certain age, the boy is subjected to a rite of initiation. If he passes the tests associated with the rite, the boy enters into the world of men.

In a male social hierarchy, a young man is surrounded by males who can be broken down into two categories: Authority Figures and Peers. The first and primary authority figure in a young man’s life is, of course, his father. Other authority figures include teachers, coaches, bosses, etc.

The rest are peers: classmates, teammates, coworkers. In the peer group the young man (hopefully) joins a group of friends. Also in the peer group are males who could be categorized as Rivals: males of equal or higher status who may attempt to dominate the young man or compete with him for women and resources.

The anime Love, Chunibyo, and other Delusions is one of the more extreme examples where the creator displays an aversion towards male hierarchies. The protagonist is a male teenager named Yuta Togashi. Early in the story, we see a scene where Yuta is having a meal with his mother and little sisters. There are no other males present. Where’s his father? We soon learn the father is overseas on business. The series’ other protagonist, a strange girl named Rikka who will turn out to be Yuta’s love interest, lives in the apartment upstairs. There are no males in her household either. She lives with her older sister, a woman in her twenties, who later becomes an adult mentor for Yuta. Much of the action takes at school. The teacher they interact with the most is female. A male teacher makes an appearance, but it is brief and we don’t even get to see his face. Also at school, Yuta talks to another boy named Makoto, who invites him to join a coed group of students after school. Yuta turns down this offer of friendship and spends most of his time socializing with Rikka and her female friends, who are a bunch of oddballs. Yuta Togashi lives in a world of women.

It would appear that some anime and manga creators have become so alienated, or perhaps so traumatized by male social hierarchies that they write them out of their stories altogether. They have crossed that metaphorical boundary signified by the rite of initiation and returned to the safe and nurturing worlds of women and childhood.

This, of course, does not apply to all anime, or even a majority of it. But it is a significant subset.

Below is a checklist for evaluating a creator’s attitudes towards male hierarchies. All elements don’t necessarily have to be present.

The Tyrannical Father

The Father Figure: The now cancelled Dr. Seuss once wrote a story called Hop on Pop, and some anime and manga creators have taken to hopping on Pop with a vengeance. In extreme cases, like Love, Chunibyo, the father is simply snapped, Thanos-like, out of the picture: he is either dead or overseas. If the father does make an appearance, he is either an abusive tyrant (Neon Genesis Evangelion), or a buffoon (just watch the first five minutes of The Hidden Dungeon only I can Enter), or he is simply weak. This makes sense. If a creator has issues with male hierarchies, it is likely he had a difficult relationship with his own father. In the story,  if the young male protagonist does have a positive relationship with an adult male family member, it is usually the grandfather.

Other Male Figures: The treatment of other males, especially if they are authority figures or high-status males, mirrors that of the father figure. In extreme cases, they are written out of the story and replaced by women. If the male protagonist has an adult mentor, that person is always female. In examples where authority figures or rivals do appear, they are portrayed as weaklings, tyrants, or buffoons.

The Humiliation: In some cases, the harsh, negative portrayals of male authority figures and rivals are simply not enough. The story’s creator may feel the need go the extra mile and subject them to a humiliation. In Air: the Motion Picture, for example, the story’s cool, James Dean-style protagonist humiliates the girl’s father by punching him in the stomach. But often the story’s creator has a female character do his dirty work for him (for an example of this, see Knights of Sidonia).

Siblings: If the protagonist has a sibling, it is always a little sister. An older sibling, whether male or female, would be problematic, for that sibling would be in a position to exert dominance over the protagonist, calling him out on his fecklessness and general incompetence. A younger brother would be problematic as well. For, to earn the younger boy’s respect and admiration, the protagonist would have to display qualities like leadership and mentorship, themes the story’s creator probably doesn’t want to explore. So, the little sister it is.

Outsiders: Often, the protagonist and associated characters are outsiders. Outcasts, oddballs, or misfits, these are characters on the margins who have been rejected by the larger group. The nail that sticks out and so ruthlessly hammered down. The protagonist of an isekai is, by definition, an outsider.

The Rebel: The protagonist may be portrayed as a rebel: cool and aloof, in the style of Jame Dean. An outsider, he has sexual prowess with women and can physically dominate other males. In the real world, such a person might be a member of a street gang or even a gang leader. But in anime, he is a loner with no male friends. His social contacts are mostly female (see School Rumble and Air: the Motion Picture).

Female Friendship: The story’s creator, who is usually male, has no problem portraying a group of females and the friendship among them. Male friendship, on the other hand, is often absent or barely touched upon. The male protagonist is more comfortable socializing with women.

The Male Best Friend: In some stories, where male hierarchies are not erased completely, the male protagonist may have a male sidekick or best friend. If this is the case, the best friend is usually of lower status than the protagonist. He may be smaller, weaker, and lacking in self-confidence. He may be overweight.

Other Characters: Occasionally, the protagonist ventures outside the world of women and encounters secondary characters. These characters may be wrinkled old men or children. The protagonist attracts a gaggle of children who, like his little sister, adore him. They are easily impressed by his magic tricks, his jokes, or whatever his schtick happens to be.

The weak best friend, the old men, and the children all share one thing in common: they are all non-threatening characters. They are in no position to dominate the protagonist or compete with him for women and resources.

A Return to Childhood: Look for signs that the story’s creator is not only retreating into the world of women, but into the world of childhood as well. In most of these stories, the protagonists are teenagers or children. Look for cute, small animals, and look for scenes where the protagonist lays his head on a girl’s lap. In the anime Witch Craft Works, teddy bears, a symbol of childhood if there ever was one, figure prominently. 

An exception to this rule of return to childhood is the Japanese live-action drama 99 Days with the Superstar.  Although that story displays an aversion to male hierarchies, it remains firmly grounded in the adult world.

This topic should not be considered in binary terms, but rather on a sliding scale. A story may have all the elements listed above, or only some of them. Or, if an element is present, it might not be consistent throughout the entire story. There may be elements that contradict each other. Stories are often messier than this checklist might indicate, and exceptions do not necessarily invalidate the rule.

If you’re an author, check out my essays on narrative tools and patterns in the book Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It’s available on Amazon for 99 cents and is free on other platforms.

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