You know what? I think I may have discovered a whole new trope.
Okay, let’s start with this fundamental fact: Anime is a medium largely created by Japanese men for Japanese boys.
That’s doesn’t stop the rest of us from liking it, and it’s not completely, 100% true. There are some terrific women working in the field and entire genres created and targeted to female audiences. I’m talking about generalities here, not each and every specific creator and show.
Given that it’s largely a medium made by men for boys, there’s a strong tendency for the main character, the person whose head the creator gets deepest into and the person with whom the audience is supposed to identify with, to be male. The anime’s story will be his story, whoever he is.
I’ll add as a side note that while he is the main character, he is not always the protagonist, that is, the person who drives the action. Two of my favorite series, The Flowers of Evil and Welcome to the NHK, are DRIVEN by women, Nakamura and Nakahara, respectively. But they are ABOUT Kasuga and Sato, the male central characters.
Here’s your problem: you need to tell this story about this dude. People have been telling stories about dudes in anime since Momotaro, so you have to do something to keep the story from being the same old story (or one of a subset of the same old stories, i.e. the seven major plots).
One way to do that is to add a character or characters whose function is to distract or disguise the plot, one you’re so busy looking at that you don’t notice you’re actually seeing the same old story again.
Enter the Look-at-Me Woman.
The function of the Look-at-Me Woman is to, well, get you looking at her. Because of you’re looking at her, you’re not really watching what’s going on with the main character.
From a story-telling standpoint that’s a GOOD GOOD thing. What it means is that you can tell the story and have the story resolve without the viewer being directly aware of it. The audience will KNOW it resolved; they will have a sense of completion at the end of it. But because they were watching the Look-at-Me Woman, they won’t see it coming. I mean, seriously, don’t you hate sitting there and saying, “Oh, man, I know how this is going to end”?
So how do you know a Look-at-Me Woman when you see one?
She’s loud in a visual sense, dominates the screen when she is on it
She’s loud in an aural sense. She talks a lot more, and/or louder, and/or more quietly, attracting attention to herself
She is often gender-role reversed, so she is shocking or jarring sociologically
She violates social norms, making you want to waggle a finger and say, “Naughty, naughty!”
She can be profane or violent, which come from her aural and visual loudness
She’s doesn’t do anything substantive when the story resolves (that’s how you know the story is about someone else)
You know where this is going, right? ‘Way, ‘way back when I started this blog the first substantive post was about stealth storytelling, about how you could tell one character’s story by hiding it behind the action of another. It was about one of my all-time favorite series, Black Lagoon. Black Lagoon is the story of Rokuro “Rock” Okajima’s rebirth from salaryman to gangster.
But that’s really hard to see, because you’re supposed to be looking at Rebecca “Revy” Lee.
Oh, yeah, Revy. Visually loud? Check. Aurally loud? Check. Gender-role reversed? Check. Rule-breaker? Dude, she’s a CRIMINAL. Profane and violent? Do I even need to ask?
And at the moment of truth, when Rock makes his final irrevocable choice … when he is standing outside the door of his parents’ apartment deciding whether he’s going to ring the bell, she’s outside playing with some kids. It’s solely HIS decision because it’s HIS story.
If it was just Revy of course, she wouldn’t be a trope, she’d just be Revy. But how about:
Red-Blood Cell, from Cells at Work
Aisha, from Outlaw Star (I’m not sure about Melfina, but definitely Aisha)
Re-L Mayer, from Ergo Proxy
Komi, from Komi Can’t Communicate
Aoi, from Shirobako
Shoko, from A Silent Voice
Taiga, from Toradora
Haruko Haruhara from FLCL: Progessive and FLCL: Alternative (NOT in the original)
I could go on a while with more and more obscure examples (for instance, Arashi from Natsu no Arashi, and N-1 of the women in any harem series), but I hope that, with one exception, the point is made: it happens enough to be a trope.
One last example. Ready?
Let’s think about this: Is Faye loud visually and aurally? Have you seen her??? And of course, while she is not profane, she does have a cynical streak a mile wide. She’s a criminal and a bounty hunter, and uses a gun and flies a ship as well as any of the boys.
And when Spike goes to fight it out with Vicious, Faye’s left back on the ship. She … and Ed, Jet, and Ein … are there to keep you from seeing that the story’s only about Spike.
Now, not every female character is a Look-at-Me Woman. Consider Haruko in the original FLCL. It’s about Nauta coming of age … but she is the one dragging him to adulthood and she is the one who breaks his heart at the end, completing his story (Tragedy). She’s an actual protagonist there.
Consider the women I mentioned earlier, Sawa Nakamura and Misaki Nakahara. Those shows are about the boys but those women drive the plot. Without them there’s no story.
Then there are stories that are ABOUT the woman. Perfect Blue. Mardock Scramble. Strike Witches. Princess Jellyfish.
One more thing: the Look-at-Me Woman doesn’t have to be female. Ready?
Who is Samurai Champloo about?
It’s Fuu, right? If she’s not looking for the samurai who smells of sunflowers, there is no story, and the series ends when she finds him.
So what do Mugen and Jin do? Well, they keep her alive, but that could have been structured differently. The story is about HER. Jin and ESPECIALLY Mugen are there to keep you from seeing the story too easily.
Now, what I am NOT saying is that these are not great characters. Not a great character? FAYE? REVY? Seriously, do I look stupid? (Actually, I do look pretty stupid, but I’m not, really.)
I’m also not saying they aren’t important to telling the story. Of course they’re important to TELLING the story: they’re there to keep you from figuring the story out too easily. And in doing that they turn an everyday story into a great one.
Newly-discovered trope. That’s not bad. Tropes are tropes because they work.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.