I started out wanting to do a character analysis of Rea Sanka, the main female character (and namesake) of Sankarea, Undying Love, but I ran into a little problem.
Y’see, when you take a close look at Rea, there’s not a whole lot of there there.
I mean, she’s pretty, yeah, and she’s sort of competent, at least when it comes to stitching herself up, but for most of the story she’s just sort of arm candy stuck to Chihiro’s arm. She’s the focus of the series, but he’s the protagonist. His efforts, and the plot, revolve around him trying to keep her alive. Undead, rather.
Yeah, she’s a Look At Me Girl.
But she does develop dramatically as a character, and not just because she transforms from alive to undead. She loses her life but gains her freedom.
This is because she’s not just one trope, but two. Yes, she’s a Look At Me Girl structurally – I mean, she is, right? Plotwise the only thing she does is drink the potion, and the rest of the time she’s dying in various ways Chihiro has to cure – but sociologically she’s The Family Princess.
As far as I can figure out The Family Princess is a real thing. You have a rich and powerful family with one child and she’s female. Well, oops, as they say. This is Japan and they’re not really into strong female leaders – I mean, you know, they just voted AGAIN to exclude women from the line of succession – so the Family Princess has one job: to marry REALLY well. I mean, REALLY well.
Right? Because that advances the family.
So The Family Princess has to do well in school, and keep herself fit and pretty, and have a perfectly unblemished reputation. She has to be subdued and obedient. The guy can be any sort of pond scum, but the Family Princess has to be PERFECT. Not perfect. PERFECT.
I can think of three of them in anime off the top of my head.
Rea Sanka, obviously
Mei Aihara, from Citrus
Nanako Saeki, from The Flowers of Evil
What these have in common is they are trapped in their roles, right? That’s what defines The Family Princess: She is the bird in the golden cage. She can have anything she likes, except the freedom to be an ordinary girl and do ordinary things.
This is most obviously spelled out with Mei Aihara, I think. All her life she has been groomed to take over the family school. Even as a first year student she is already President of the Student Council. She does not even question this future for herself. And it’s clear she is expected to marry well, to a man who her grandfather will select (since he regards his son, her father, to be a bum). This is explicit. Early on they fire a teacher that dares to hit on her.
Nanako Saeki’s parents aren’t seen on-screen (or page in the manga), but it’s clear that’s what they expect from their little girl: She has to get straight A’s; she has to be beautiful; her behavior must be beyond reproach.
Rea Sanka is a special case in that her father not only expects her to be a perfect little doll, he wants to keep that doll to himself. And by “to himself” it’s pretty well implied that means sexually as well.
There are other girls, often (again) single daughters, who are called “Princess” by a doting father. Konata Izumi from Lucky Star comes immediately to mind. But Konata isn’t the Family Princess: she’s allowed to do pretty much whatever she wants. Stay up late? Have a job dancing at a maid cafe? Cut school? Go to Comikhet? Sure, whatever. She may be a bird, but she’s in no cage, gilded or otherwise.
Same thing with Haruhi Suzumiya, and her chum Tsuruya. It’s impossible to think of Haruhi as having siblings, and Tsuruya is literally a rich kid, but both of them are allowed to run around like 10,000 maniacs (’80’s band reference).
I can’t think of a lot of other Family Princesses I’ve run into an anime and manga, and I suspect there are a couple reasons for that. First of all, it’s probably not a common trope because it’s probably not a common social role. Let’s face it, a lot of things have to come together to create a family princess: A specific social class, a single female child, a certain rigid attitude about the role of women in the world (subordinate).
And structurally it’s not an interesting trope because The Family Princess isn’t allowed to do anything.
So the only time we see one is when they break out of the role. That’s what all three of them also have in common: They’re not just the Family Princess, but they all break out of that role, right?
Nanako, in a fit of boy-induced temporary insanity, commits an arson.
Mei breaks away from her impending marriage to declare her love for another girl.
Rea DIES, and comes back as a zombie.
And you know what that does for each of them?
They become happy.
Right? Because the pressure is off. Everyone on the planet knows they aren’t perfect now, so instead of having to be perfect, they can be themselves.
Mei’s my favorite example. If you read through Citrus it’s pretty clear Mei’s a stone lesbian. When her sister/partner Yuzu is frightened by Mei’s sexual advances Mei literally says, “If you aren’t going to do this with me, I’ll find someone who will.” And she does.
As the Princess, though, when her grandfather picks out a man for her to marry, marry the man she will. No one, including herself, takes any note of her sexual orientation; it’s her job to lie back, think of Japan, and pop out heirs. No one, including herself, considers her happiness or sexual fulfillment as important.
Except Yuzu, because Yuzu loves Mei and Mei loves Yuzu. So only Yuzu can break Mei out of her cage. And she does.
And what does Mel lose by coming out of the closet with her step-sister and lover? Abso-freakin’-lutely nothin’! She has the girl she wants and gets to keep the school she was raised to run. No one even blinks as she sits in board meetings with her lesbian lover. She gets her cake and she gets to eat it, too.
Rea may be dead, but what does she lose? Abso-freakin’-lutely nothin’! She’s with a boy she loves, and it doesn’t hurt that Kuruya’s a perv with a thing for zombie girls. But, more importantly, in death she has a life! She can do things like go shopping or to an amusement park or just walk down the street holding Kuruya’s hand.
The Flowers of Evil being more grounded in reality, Nanako pays a price. I mean, I wouldn’t want a year in juvenile detention, which is what she gets! But she also gets to have a life. She can go to college, have a boyfriend, do all the stuff she was prohibited from doing when she was expected to maintain a pristine reputation. She actually grows into being a little bit of a B, a little nasty instead of sweetness and light all the time, but then again aren’t we all?
You know what? It sounds like The Family Princess is something no one wants to be. Can’t say I blame them.
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.