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.
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.
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.