Shitsurakuen: A Tired Argument

Shitsurakuen-cover

Shitsurakuen is metafiction. However, rather than metafiction that cleverly employs existing genre tropes to make an argument, it is metafiction that simply arrives back at the starting point. Both visually and narratively, it borrows heavily from classics such as Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon, yet fails to do anything new with the material.

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The protagonist Sora is an innocent, strong-willed girl who believes in truth and justice. This essentially makes her a female iteration of the typical good-hearted male lead in shounen shows – not very smart, but with a good heart and a strong sense of right and wrong. From the get-go, she is contrasted with her more mature friend Tsuki. Tsuki has learned to accept the wickedness of the world and not fight back against it, thereby becoming a collaborator in her own oppression.

Since love between women is one of the themes of the story, the handling of yuri deserves a close look. Consciously or not, Shitsurakuen cleaves firmly to the long-held Japanese bias that yuri relationships in near-adulthood are a sign of immaturity. Sora is easily excitable, energetic, and straightforward – all qualities associated with children rather than adults – and this only reinforces existing stereotype. While Shitsurakuen may be said to be pro-yuri in that all relationships between men and women are depicted as inherently predatory, presenting yuri as “the best of a bad lot” is a far cry from idealizing romance.

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Essentially, Shitsurakuen‘s argument is that the world is made of, by, and for men. It takes an idiot to fight this destructive pattern and break free; it takes an idiot to save us. Years ago, this would be true, and no doubt in some areas of the world it still is true. For the Western reader innundated with awareness of social constructs, the tacit acceptance of these absurd inequities by (we are told) hundreds of bright and capable girls strains credulity.  The point about how society historically places its best and brightest women under the yoke of men is valid, but clumsily made.  Even Sekirei is more subtle.

Structurally, the place sexism assumes in Shitsurakuen is that of the supreme evil, the great corrupting force responsible for all bad things in the world. It, more than any one of the interchangeable boys, is the arch-villan of the show, introduced with great foreshadowing and fanfare. Why is the negation of sexism in a modern nation seen as something out of far-flung fantasy? Why can’t it be a simple matter of being quick-witted and assertive, the way it is in real life?

Gender bias can truly be oppressive, but in elevating sexism to an epic enemy that can never be dealt with in mundane ways, Shitsurakuen seems to be arguing the innate helplessness of women to change it. Not a single girl is shown to be capable of taking care of herself – even Sora has to be saved by a masked interloper, an obvious nod to Tuxedo Mask. This, in a manga which is ostensibly about female empowerment, is the ultimate failure.

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21 thoughts on “Shitsurakuen: A Tired Argument”

  1. It’s an odd duck of a manga, certainly. Neither men, nor women are protrayed meaningfully.  In the absence of law (and peer pressure to assure compliance) all men are abusers and all women are victims.
    As one of my readers said, it’s *supposed* to make you root for Sora, but in my case it failed to do so. Somewhere I imagine some guy reading it, getting all hot and bothered by the abuse and it makes me queasy. And I’m supposed to root for Sora because, being outside the conventional gender roles, she is the only one brave enough to fight back….and has to be shown crotch first in order to do so.
    I love equals fighting, but this was not a fair fight in any sense of the word.
    Cheers,
    Erica
     

  2. Not having seen the manga, I can’t draw any conclusions about it- but I have seen stuff like it, stuff that poses as social commentary by making it look like the worst thing in the world is to be born female. If the authors of this kind of fiction have something to say, they should find a better way to say it.

  3. Wow. What a disaster of not only gender-politique, but of also the entire Oscar/Utena concept. Way to set things in reverse mode under the guise of “progress”. I’ll be careful to steer clear of this one.

  4. I don’t really see this as trying to pull off any social commentary. In the end it’s still Sora who has to save the day and without spoiling too much no masked guy is going to help her, though you forget to mention before that a masked *girl* saves Sora.
    It does break the ‘norm’ of shounen manga by giving us an outspoken female protagonist who attracts girls much like the lead of a harem manga. It also puts a lot of focus of going against a male-dominated system more or less alone.
    Though I haven’t read it yet you might find more social commentary in Hataraki Man, which focuses on a working woman who goes into ‘testosterone overdrive mode’ when working.

  5. rayyhum77

    It’s that feebleness which I find dangerous.

    Erica

    Even that bravery of hers is suspect.  The manga strongly implies that part of her bravery and refusal to accept the situation is mere ignorance (tied to “she’s a kid,” tied to “we aren’t going to depict mature adults in a yuri relationship.”)  It would be better to see a character who understands what she’s getting into and makes a noble, informed choice.

    I find that violence involving women in literature tends to involve unequal power.  Violence by and against men tends to be more equal.

    ModernBunny

    It seems there is an attempt to make statements about society, but it’s half-hearted and perfunctory.  However, the appropriation of source material means it’s expected that Shitsurakuen will address feminist issues.

    wintermuted

    It has the form, but not the essence.

    Wererat42

    In the early chapters Sora requires saving on a regular basis, both by guys and girls.  I find this unfortunate because it means that even the strongest girl is portrayed as needing help to clean up the messes she gets into.  The fact that girls needs saving is being hammered home.  In other words, this tells girls, “The strongest and best you can aspire to be is to be saved repeatedly.”

    The expectation of social commentary is there because this is a pastiche of, amongst other things, Revolutionary Girl Utena.

  6. the western reader may be a bit too wide a demographic – some western countries are simply so comparatively benevolent in their societal cultures that the youths there grow distanced from such things as sexism, and have less insight on the concept. I myself know some people who would not divine as much from this manga and would probably enjoy it for what entertainment it provides.

    I have not actually read this before, so I wouldn’t know exactly how overplayed these themes are, but perhaps it is honestly trying to address feminism? Only not even a lifetime ago the stereotypical Japanese komachi was thought to be a gentle, unresisting quiet woman who would not inquire or poke about her husband’s affairs. Perhaps the writers are only depicting the gender balance the way they know how?

  7. Ningyo – The argument that the Japanese do not have as long a history of feminism and therefore should be excused is completely negated by Revolutionary Girl Utena.  Don’t forget:

    1. Utena already did much better at addressing feminist issues.  (Thus, it cannot be true that Japanese mangaka are incapable of grasping these issues.)

    2. Utena came years before this, meaning that the least Shitsurakuen could do to justify such heavy appropriation would be to show some kind of progress.

    You can of course argue that the mangaka of Shitsurakuen lacks the insight of Utena‘s author.  But that would still be a mark against it.

  8. “Perhaps the writers are only depicting the gender balance the way they know how?”

    I sort of got that feeling as well. There might be the honest desire to show some form of female empowerment, but the author doesn’t seem able to balance his stereotypes around very well (in regards to all the males being evil, all females being passive, etc.). Maybe it’s just from a lack of know-how. I feel he wants to show real, genuine opposition (since it is a shounen manga) but it doesn’t come out right since there needs to be a better balance of character types, especially for the males (IE put some good guys in but that don’t steal Sora’s spotlight).

    It might not be a cultural or regional thing though in regards to a lack of knowledge in being able to show female empowerment. I mean think of any Western comic- “female empowerment” is, a lot of times, some scantily clad woman who can also kick butt. It’s from a male PoV and it’s not very realistic (not that I expect comics to be realistic, but I’ve always felt that realistic empowerment has more to do with a strong personality and a refusal to fall in with traditional stereotypes, rather than just being able to do a roundhouse).

    I think Sora is ok so far. The only times she seems to lose are when she’s ganged up on anyways. There was to me some glimmer of hope for a ” good lesson” when one of the girls she saved, who used to be passive, started to stand up for another girl (I don’t remember the names) and became pretty brave herself because of Sora’s example.

  9. “Structurally, the place sexism assumes in Shitsurakuen is that of the supreme evil, the great corrupting force responsible for all bad things in the world.”

    In the world? I don’t think the manga goes beyond the academy.I find the academy to be showing patriarchy in a hyperbolic way.

    “In the early chapters Sora requires saving on a regular basis, both by guys and girls. I find this unfortunate because it means that even the strongest girl is portrayed as needing help to clean up the messes she gets into. The fact that girls needs saving is being hammered home. In other words, this tells girls, “The strongest and best you can aspire to be is to be saved repeatedly.””

    Are you expecting the heroine to be a superman? Even superman lends help from his allies.

  10. Ahms

    “There might be the honest desire to show some form of female empowerment, but the author doesn’t seem able to balance his stereotypes . . . “

    Right, and when you publish a product as a professional, intent isn’t something you get bonus points for.

    Cikasa

    “I find the academy to be showing patriarchy in a hyperbolic way.”

    Well, my point is that the manga shows patriarchy in a hyperbolic way.

    “Even superman lends help from his allies.”

    Back when the writers kept adding things like “super memory,” time travel, and such to his repertoire, Superman was ludicrously powerful and only needed help when the plot was obviously written to demand it.  To a lesser extent, that is still true.

    More importantly, Superman is not a work primarily operating in the context of feminism and feminist literature. If Superman needs help, nobody internalizes the lesson that men always need help.  However, if a woman is shown frequently needing help, the preexisting “damsel in distress” stereotype kicks in, and the implication may very well be that women need assistance.  Works about female empowerment therefore have to tread far more carefully about undercutting the independence of the heroine.  (Alternatively, we could simply disregard the feminist context and point out that Superman had an established history of single-handedly kicking ass before he started calling for help.  Sora, however, has no such history at the start of the story.)

  11. I see what you mean, although… Utena was unbeatable without much help from others and she pretty much won every duel that made seem the whole female empowerment thing was automatic and overdone. It was comforting, like watching Ash win against other trainers in every battle. That worked really well on the 6 year old me. Well… maybe till 12 *hides in shame*

    As much I’d like to confidently say that I just sincerely like how Sora needs more help from the others better because it is more human and realistic on top of having less predictable victories. But I don’t know if I’m annoyed by how Utena is so invincible without much help from people around her because of my internalized sexism that’s telling me “women can’t be godlike” =/

  12. i personally like the manga, it’s good, and it doesnt over power the character too much.

    the whole women-men thng, i really dont mind. as long as it makes sense and theres a hook, (which there is) i can enjoy it.

    theres a bit of yuri in it. which was unexpected.

    i think you all look far too deep into female-male.

    my brother likes it and i like it. sora does have a history, but she mainly wants to be a hero in general.

    these girls arent just dansel in distress, they are the very key to changing female supression.

    still, it doesnt appear that every guy in that school hates women.

  13. I gave the first few chapters a try and immediately dropped it. The blatant sexism arguments were so over the top and ridiculous. There wasn’t a single man shown in the manga who wasn’t portrayed as some hideous monster, nor was there a single woman save for Sora who could do anything about the academy. Are you telling me that there’s not ONE girl in the school who would choose to fight back, that they’re only hope lies in a tomboy? Thanks, but no thanks.

    1. It takes a while before males who don’t agree with the rules of the school to show up but I think the story mostly has to do with change. A school where males are conditioned (based on the rules of the school) from a very young age to demoralize women because of the founders own beliefs. But suddenly an outsider joins the school and trys to change how it runs and inspires others to see that things can change if you put your mind to it (just takes a while because of how conditioned everyone is.) Also to the people say that Sora keeps asking for help, she’s only mainly asked for help on the rules of the school and for others to stand up and fight agianst the sexist males and force the school to change its ways. also there a tons of superhereos who have asked for help. Besides are you telling me that males who are sexists is lower than 30% world-wide.

  14. First things first, even though the manga is very unrealistic in ethics and reason, I enjoy reading it for the sake of recreation and entertainment. However in terms of its message, it fails to convey gender empowerment not because of its yuri nature but because the author did not provide a reasonable dilemma for it to resolve the issue through yuri relations.

    As far as I remember, the first time I read the first few chapters, I was overwhelmed by the patriarchal bias of the founders and of the student council that women should be dehumanized as tools for pleasure and violent recreation, that I once thought of discarding it just like Gin has said. Politically in the manga, the male students had the upper hand in the school just like at the time of the Greeks where platonic love fairs best than marital affairs. The contemporary setting ahbors justice and gender empowerment for the female sex. Moreover, we cannot see any guidance from pertinent adults (teachers, government officials, parents, etc.) that somehow would straighten the student’s morals. Even more intriguing is the absence of communication between the students and the basic units of society (family, media, government, education and the private sector). It’s just like the students kept their own dilemmas to themselves instead of taking proper actions to it. In fact I presume that if the women are brave enough to bring up their concerns to the adults (assuming they withhold social justice and proper ethics), and the authorities bring up a reaction to it, then the whole dilemma of Shitsurakuen would have been resolved. However the problem still persists since the plot never considers that logical act. This made the whole story very trivial and lacking pertinent action which results to ineffective non-violent solution to the problem.

  15. GIN:
    So. There IS another female student who stood up to the system. Read the most recent chapter. She got beaten up and hospitalized. (this only happened because she couldn’t play the game). AND, there is a male who isn’t portrayed like a hideous monster. Remember glasses-man? with the shoulder-length hair (from the first? chapter, Sora yells at him)? well, he’s an ally. :D (spoiler, sorry)

    and, sora does have a touch of realism. She says in one chapter that she knows that reality is different from the story/make believe. (right after she’s asked which one she’d save and gives her heroic answer). :D so she’s not a total idiot.

    Overall, I like the story. I can’t wait till i can read more! I want to know how glasses-man’s gonna play into the story! and what the student council president’s plan is!

  16. I personally think it’s sad that most of you didn’t even try to stick with it, and put it down after reading 1-10 chapters, simply because you judged it quickly and said “this manga is extremely sexist”. I must admit that I too read a few chapters and said to myself ‘Urgh a typical boring plot with weak women characters, and some yuri thrown in for more sex appeal’. But I kept with it because I felt an underlying hint somewhere in there that this was going to be more than some sexist, typical manga. Obviously those who are complaining about the sexism, and the unappealing main character have not even tried to read it to the end. I would love to see you finish, then come back an review again. If you still think it’s unappealing, then I will accept that it just wasn’t your type of manga and leave it at that.

    Also all those comments about her needing to have help and “oh isn’t that annoying, she can’t even do it on her own” brings me to a point that really makes me mad. No one can do anything entirely on their own without any help. I think characters that are like that are unrealistic and stupid, though I have yet to see any character like that, because even the strongest have been helped in some way wether it be a training session, or just some good advice. Everyone needs to have friends cheering them on at least. So you complain about realistic characters that needs help and can’t do everything perfectly, then if they are TOO perfect, you name Mary-sue or whatever, and complain that they are too perfect and not realistic enough. Make up your mind, no character is going to be EXACTLY in the middle between perfect and flawed, as everyone is different.

    Anyways I think that the story is one of the ones that gets you hooked as you read more. I love how it goes from simplistic and boring, to a bit more of a complicated storyline as we find out more about what is going on in this messed up academy. Some of the character developments are lovely, and a lot of plot holes are filled. All in all, though it could be better, I think it’s a good manga, and you really have to read all the way through with it.

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