I have said it before and I will say it again: one of the things I like about Shinichiro Watanabe’s work is that he treats female characters with the same respect he treats male characters. Faye Valentine, Lisa Mishima, Carole Stanley; even when they are tropes (Faye is a Look at Me Woman and Carole is a Gamin) they are complex with both strengths they get to use and weaknesses they have to overcome. None of them is dumb, none of them is a screamer, none of them is helpless. They have stuff they need to do and the tools they need to do it.
I mean, you’ve seen Samurai Champloo, right?
Okay, so let me see. I haven’t done one of these in a while, but here we go: Let’s look at her Mind, Body, and Soul.
Fuu, you know, ain’t no dummy. Yeah, okay, she’s an ill-educated orphan (considering her social status and when and where she lives it’s surprising to me she knows how to read and write), but if you watch the show carefully she’s really the brains of the operation. Jin LOOKS like the intellectual (but his spectacles are fake: that’s Watanabe telling us Jin’s NOT the brains) but Fuu keeps track of the money and Fuu makes the plans.
Okay, a strength, right? Not so fast, there, Seabiscuit.
On the flip side (How many of you know what that means?), she’s immature. She sometimes makes poor decisions or engages in fantasies (like the fantasy that both the guys are hot for her), and they in turn lead her and the gang into trouble.
See it? Strength AND weakness.
Of course, she’s small and young. And given the times she lives in, it would not have been appropriate for her to be skilled with weapons. If there’s going to be a fight, Fuu can’t win it by herself. In fact, that’s why she ends up hooked up with Mugen in the first place, right? She needs someone to do her fighting for her.
Okay, a weakness, right? Not so fast there, Secretariat.
Fuu might not be physical in and of herself, but she has physical strengths. She’s a Tiny Hungry Girl, right? If not for her immaturity she’d have whupped the Dutchman in the eating competition, wouldn’t she have? (The Dutchman’s story arc is one of the most genuinely pleasurable subplots in all of anime.) She’s also got a nice bod, for what that’s worth (generally not much, but it’s there).
Plus she can be viewed as a unit with Momo, her pet squirrel (or whatever it is). Momo is not strong enough to win a fight, either, but he extends Fuu’s abilities, by creating surprise, or going where she cannot, or whatever. If she were a witch, Momo would be her familiar, with all that entails.
See it? Weakness and strength.
Fuu is so strong-willed that she keeps the entire show on track. I mean, seriously, she’s the actual protagonist, right? The person who drives the plot? Every time they get off track she reminds them a) she is looking for the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers and b) Mugen and Jin promised to help her. She looks those big swordsmen right in the eye and tells them, “You gave your word,” and makes them back down. She’s emotionally the toughest of the three, and it’s not close.
Okay, a strength, right? Not so fast there, Whirlaway.
For all that she has a will of iron … well, Fuu’s funky this way in that she’s much more of a twentieth century character than a nineteenth. In Japan around 1850 (remember, baseball has hit the island) she’s fifteen and she’s sociologically a grown-up. A penniless orphan? She’s lucky she’s working in a tea house and not a house of prostitution.
But she’s portrayed as a teen-aged kid, and that means she does kid stuff at times. She teases Mugen and Jin with her fake diary, for instance. She falls for the flattery of the painter, gets flustered when the boys don’t pay attention to her, and so on. (One of my favorite moments comes after she’s been rescued from being sold into prostitution. She should be traumatized, but she looks at the portrait the painter made of her and says, “At least he gave me nice hooters.” What she was facing was not real to her, because she’s just a kid.) She has a strong will but she’s not old enough to be very wise.
See it? Strength and weakness.
That’s something Watanabe does with his best characters: None of them is unilaterally good at any one thing. They are always complex people whose weaknesses lead them into danger and whose strengths lead them through it. Spike Spiegel, anyone? Or Space Dandy, too, although his strengths are few and far between.
There’s just one point to be made before we’re done here: the sociodynamics of character and setting cause Fuu to take on the role of Princess in Peril, that worn-out trope, repeatedly. She has to be saved by Mugen at the start of the series. She has to be saved from the kidnappers. She has to be saved at the end.
But short of making her a female samurai I don’t see a way around that. Faye can avoid being a Princess in Peril because she can handle a blaster (and in the movie, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, she doesn’t avoid it), but that option isn’t open to Fuu. Not in Japan in 1850. If we are going to care about Fuu – and we want to – she needs to be put in danger, and if she’s in danger someone else has to get her out of it. It’s the nature of the time and the character. But it’s still weak.
I don’t know. I can tolerate Fuu being a Princess in Peril not because she’s that trope, but because that’s why Mugen and Jin are there: to rescue and protect her. They aren’t engaged in the plot. The plot is HER story: the Quest (for the Samurai Who Smells of Sunflowers).
That’s pretty fair, right? The protagonist of Samurai Champloo is Fuu. She needs to be a great, complex character for Champloo to be a great series. It is, because she is.
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.