2018 in Review: Transness in Anime

Intro

It’s been a little over a year since I officially came out, during which time I landed my first console translation gig, met a ton of friends at Anime Expo and made a bunch more, and tragically became a rabid Fate fan. In addition to that, I kept up my tradition of watching as much anime as I possibly can (usually coming out to around 20 shows per season). This year, as you can probably imagine, trans stuff has been on my mind a lot more than ever before. And (coincidentally?) it so happens that there was a good number of shows this past year with either trans characters or that touched on trans-related subjects—some good, and some very bad.

Because it’s such an important topic to me, I wanted to take a little time to touch on each of them and collect my thoughts on how they handled the subject. There will be spoilers for all the series mentioned, so you’ve been warned!

cw: transphobia

The Good

My Hero Academia (Season 3)

Starting off small (but also quite big!) is the third season of My Hero Academia. This one probably eluded most viewers’ notice, mostly because it wasn’t mentioned at all in this season! Nonetheless, Tora—member of the Wild, Wild Pussycats and a fairly prominent side character for part of the season—is canonically a trans man. No one’s weird about it, and his character isn’t defined by transness. He’s just there and gets to be cool and beat up villains like all the other heroes. I’m told it does actually come up later, and that there’s another trans character on the villains’ side, but for now it just remains a simple character trait.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m including My Hero Academia at all if there’s no way for anyone to know he’s trans lacking outside info. And that’s fair. It’s because MHA is a bit of a special case—for one, we know already that there’s going to be a fourth season next year with even more Tora content; and for two, it’s a massive enough series that a lot of people will be watching it. Telling trans stories is important, but normalizing the presence of trans people in stories that aren’t about transness is also super important. Being trans may be a big part of our lives, but we’re also just normal people with normal interests and we can be heroes just like anyone else. And My Hero Academia is making an earnest effort to do exactly that, which is a big reason why I wanted to highlight it.

Second, it’s the only series I’m aware of this year that features a trans man. When discussing transness and trans stories, we have a tendency to focus on trans women, so I didn’t want to exclude that important and even rarer representation on a technicality.

Double Decker! Doug & Kirill

Double Decker is a series that didn’t garner a whole lot of attention this year for whatever reason (possibly because its first episode aired a month ahead of the rest of the fall season?). It’s a buddy cop show about the exploits of the law-enforcement agency SEVEN-O, centered on three pairs of lovable dumbasses. The show also channels Tiger & Bunny in a number of ways—through shared staff and possibly even its entire setting.

Double Decker tackles gender identity/presentation/perception in two different ways in its thirteen-episode run. Throughout the first half of the show, the protagonist and eminent dumbass Kirill is on a search for his long-lost “sister” Milla. But when they finally reunite at the end of the sixth episode, Milla reveals that his real name is Valery (but he goes by Milla because he’s from the second sun and currently in hiding) and he’s always been a man.

Kirill’s reaction essentially amounts to “well, who’da thunk” and he and the rest of his team accept Milla as a man and acknowledge Kirill’s misunderstanding. One of the men attempts to ask an invasive question about why Milla crossdresses, but the fiercely protective Deana immediately calls him out and shuts the question down as none of his business. And that’s all it is. Kirill believed Milla to be a woman for his whole life, finds out later he was wrong, corrects himself, and life goes on.

While Milla is not trans, the whole arc follows the outline of a coming-out story beat-for-beat. I don’t think that’s a coincidence either, because after showing us that our central cast is accepting and open-minded, the very next episode features an actual coming-out story.

One of our detectives, Max, was a bookish girl with glasses and braided pigtails in high school, her best friend the mechanically inclined Connor. When prom season rolls around, Connor shares a secret with Max: she’s a woman and wants to attend prom in a dress. To demonstrate her acceptance and in a show of solidarity, Max cuts off most of her hair, puts on a suit, and they go to prom together like that.

Their peers are not as readily accepting, though, chasing the two out before they’re able to enter the ballroom. After having her dreams crushed and facing such fierce rejection, Connor turns to drugs and leaves town, and that’s the last Max ever hears from her. This eventually leads to Max joining SEVEN-O, where she works to prevent the same thing from happening to anyone else.

It’s a tragic tale, and one that, sadly, probably hits very close to home for some trans/queer people. One of the reasons I left home a year and a half ago and moved halfway across the country is because I was afraid of what happened to Connor happening to me. Having such a core part of your identity rejected outright by people you’ve known for years is a terrifying prospect, and it’s why I’ve still yet to come out to my family and most of my friends from my high school/college days.

The story’s not one without hope, though—for one, Connor just left town, and it’s entirely possible she’s still out there somewhere, living a new life with a new name and friends and coworkers who support and accept her, like I managed to find up here. Second, Max doesn’t appear to have given up on Connor either. She maintains the same hairstyle she wore to prom that day, and she’s held on to a keepsake of Connor’s for all these years.

Perhaps my only complaint with Double Decker’s handling of Connor’s story is that I really wish it could have brought her back—even just for a brief cameo—to confirm that she’s doing okay. As it stands, the episode can be easily be read as another entry in the tragically overcrowded “tragic queer” canon, which is unfortunate for a series brimming with so much love for all its characters and that told Connor’s tale with such a degree of sensitivity and compassion.

Zombie Land Saga

Before Zombie Land Saga’s first episode aired, no one knew what to expect from it. For a long time, we had no preview footage at all, the only promotional materials being Miyano Mamoru in costume, shouting wildly about how “it will be like nothing you have ever seen before.” And then when the first teaser was revealed, the footage was edited to make it look like a classic zombie apocalypse survival/action/horror series—which, as we would come to discover on October 4th, couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Instead, Zombie Land Saga turned out to be a brilliantly punchy comedy about a group of seven zombie girls gathered together to form an idol group called Franchouchou. The “Saga” in the title referred not to an epic zombie adventure, but the prefecture of Saga in southwestern Japan where the zombie idols are headquartered. And throughout its run, ZLS continued to surprise and betray expectations week after week, effortlessly living up to Miyano Mamoru’s promise of a show unlike anything we’d ever seen before.

No other moment in the series’s 12-episode run exemplifies that better than the eighth episode, focusing on Franchouchou’s smallest member, the 12-year-old Hoshikawa Lily. After a chance encounter with her father while out on the job, Lily shares with the rest of the group the circumstances of her death. Overwork and occupational stress resulting from her job as a child actor, plus a desire to make her father happy, had Lily in a precarious place mentally and physically. And then the appearance of leg and facial hair in the midst of a stressful filming sent her into shock, killing her.

Ridiculous deaths are par for the course in Zombie Land Saga. The show opens with the protagonist, Sakura, being suddenly hit by a truck after resolving to make something more of her life, evoking countless series that lean on random motor accidents as a source of cheap drama (*cough* Kids on the Slope *cough*). But it then goes several steps further by punctuating the crash with heavy metal music and dramatic slow-motion cuts from a half-dozen different camera angles. Ai, idol in life as well as in death, was struck by lightning in the middle of a rainy performance. Saki, a member of a biker gang, drove herself off a cliff playing chicken with a friend. So, in the context of the series, a combination of stress, overwork, and dysphoria-induced shock ends up being a quite grounded way for Lily to go.

The other girls in Franchouchou are at first confused by the revelation, but after a little talking together, they all agree that in the end, Lily will always be Lily, and that’s all that matters. Then to show their support, they all get together to help Lily write and choreograph a new song in tribute to her father, leading into an absolutely heart-wrenching performance at the end of the episode.

Zombie Land Saga’s handling of Lily’s story stands out for a number of reasons, not least of which is the deft sensitivity with which it depicts her worries as a young trans girl. ZLS never once uses the word “transgender” to describe Lily, but it makes its intentions very clear without ever having to. She’s scared of being seen with leg hair, insists on never wanting to grow up (surprise benefit to being a zombie), exclusively uses the name Lily instead of the one her parents gave her, and reacts particularly favorably to compliments affirming her cuteness.

Back in the fourth episode, when Franchouchou finds out they will be going to a hot spring, Lily is shown sitting on the edge of the screen, staring on in abject horror as the other girls sniff themselves to see how bad their zombie stink has gotten. It’s a quiet moment that goes by without a single comment, its meaning only made clear on a careful rewatch. Touches like that make it clear just how much love and care the staff put in to making Lily and the other girls living, breathing peop— zombies.

And that’s why, in my house, we love and respect Hoshikawa Lily.

Hugtto! Precure

This year’s entry in the long-running Precure franchise of children’s magical girl shows is called Hugtto! Precure. It has kids that become precures and fight monsters led by a force of jaded, cynical adults who don’t believe there’s any hope for the future. It has a cute baby named Hugtan and a rat/hamster mascot that runs a boutique and can transform into a human, both from the future. Among other things, Hugtto! is about finding and pursuing your dreams (in the form of career paths), overcoming anxiety and learning to love yourself and others, and being the person you want to be.

This last point in particular is exemplified by the character of Henri, an ice skater who we see presenting fem as often as (or even more than) they present masc. At school, Henri even ties a plaid shirt around the waist of their boys’ uniform like a skirt, allowing them to present comfortably ambiguously without getting into trouble. When challenged about their clothes, Henri easily stands their ground, fighting against bigotry and owning their look.

That alone would be an impressive message for a children’s show, but Hugtto! Precure isn’t content to stop there. In the nineteenth episode, it goes even further in its quest to challenge old-fashioned gender norms when Henri participates in a fashion show alongside some of the girls. The youngest’s brother, Masato, comes to try and stop her from being in the show when Henri steps out of the dressing room in a white dress, prompting Masato to mock them. “Aren’t you a boy?” he snaps. “What does that matter?” Henri returns, giving an impassioned speech about being who you want and how a life spent willingly subjecting yourself to the shackles of societal norms and pressures, suppressing yourself in the process, is a life wasted.

They then head off to the stage, leaving Masato behind, where his bitter frustration allows the villains to turn him into the monster of the week and wreck the show. In the process, Henri is captured and remarks to the Precures, “Well, it looks like I’m the princess who needs saving this time, heroes.” Protagonist Nono Hana/Cure Yell responds with, “It’s all right, boys can be princesses too!” before taking down the monster, saving Henri and freeing Masato from his negativity—and the shackles of gender norms.

In the following episode, Masato apologizes to Henri for his previous behavior, and in later episodes we see him and Henri together frequently, going to festivals and helping with skating practice and offering moral support.

Then we get to episode 33, easily my favorite of the series (and possibly the year), and the one that explains why I’ve chosen not to use masc pronouns for Henri. In it, Henri is practicing when they’re approached by one of the villains, who attempts to recruit them with a solution to one of their deepest worries: the ability to stop time, and thus their growth. After the baddie leaves, Henri talks about how hard it is to live in a society obsessed with assigning other people labels and commenting on how other people go about their lives. How they’re starting to get taller and their voice get deeper, and they’re beginning to think that disengaging from society entirely would make life easier. Henri’s scared that the changes happening to their body will make it so people only see them as traditionally masculine. That they won’t be cute enough to get away with wearing a dress in public anymore.

While explicitly stating a character is trans is probably a bridge too far for such a widely viewed children’s show, Hugtto! gets about as close to that line as it possibly can. Henri’s concerns about their body and how they can present in society are very, very familiarly trans—though at this stage, we can assume Henri’s not reached any decisions on their identity yet.

The show doesn’t leave Henri—or the audience—entirely in the dark about their future, though. In its 42nd episode, Hugtto! Precure demonstrates its unwavering support for Henri and everything they stand for by breaking a long-held tradition in the franchise itself.

After hurting their leg in an accident, threatening to put a premature end to their skating career, Henri falls into the hands of the villains, their fears and frustrations about the future used to create another monster to wreak havoc on the city. They’re once again in the princess position, but instead of simply being saved by the Cures, the girls offer Henri the support and encouragement they need to break free themselves, transform into a Precure, complete their final ice-skating performance, and deal the final blow to their own despair.

Even if you didn’t watch the show, you might have heard about this episode, which made the rounds on the news as featuring “the first ever boy Precure.” For fifteen years, Precures have traditionally only been girls, and Hugtto! challenges even that tradition in a spectacular way. It allows not just a “boy,” but a questioning, potentially trans character to break that mold so they can find their way back on the path to figuring themselves out. It’s an event that would be powerful in any series, but is elevated by the fact that this is a children’s show, and girls and boys all over Japan are watching and seeing that you really can be whatever you want. That they can follow their heart and don’t have to restrict themselves to old-fashioned ideas of masculinity and femininity. That it’s okay to be scared of changes to their body as they grow. And that yes, even boys can be Precures.

And in the hospital after it’s all over, Henri makes perhaps the show’s strongest declaration of intent:

“Not even my own body can shackle my heart.”

The Bad

Now that we’ve looked at all the best trans content of 2018, it’s time to take a look at a couple series that went about these topics in all the wrong ways.

Asobi Asobase -workshop of fun-

At first glance, Asobi Asobase appears to be just another entry in the “high school girls doing club activities” genre. But it very quickly reveals itself to be an irreverent comedy about three trash gremlins that play pranks on each other, freely discuss all sorts of bodily functions, and are just generally unrepentant pieces of shit. It’s actually quite funny (without being mean-spirited) for most of its run, and I generally admire series that are willing to acknowledge that teenage girls are not all wellsprings of purity and innocence.

Where it falters, though, is in its handling of the character Aozora Tsumugi, who the characters suspect may secretly be a crossdressing boy, infiltrating their all-girls school for possibly nefarious purposes. That sounds bad enough as it is, echoing transphobic rhetoric about men posing as trans women to infiltrate bathrooms and locker rooms, but it doesn’t end there. A few episodes after Tsumugi is introduced, the show dedicates most of an entire episode to the girls coming up with more and more elaborate plans to look under her skirt and find out if she has a penis. They ultimately fail, but the show never really punishes them or acknowledges how invasive their actions are.

While Tsumugi is never said to be trans (I doubt the thought ever crossed the author’s mind, honestly), this obsession from strangers with her genitals reflects a reality that trans people are faced with every day. Playing it off as just an irreverent joke is making light of a very real struggle experienced by an already marginalized group. It’s punching down.

That said, the “jokes” largely read as coming from a place of ignorance rather than outright malice. I doubt the author consciously set out to mock the real experiences of trans people with this dumb comedy, but that doesn’t make these depictions any less harmful. It does, however, demonstrate the importance of education and good representation like those I described above.

Fortunately, being a gag comedy, you don’t miss anything by just skipping the problematic bits, but nonetheless, it still hurts to have them there at all. Especially in a show I enjoyed so much otherwise.

Back Street Girls: Gokudols

If the premise of a trio of yakuza being forced to undergo sex reassignment surgery and work as idols after a string of failures isn’t enough to turn you off immediately, the complete lack of animation in this “anime” probably will. I only made it through one episode (out of morbid curiosity), and it was exactly as gross as it sounded. Unwatchable in every sense of the word.

Perhaps the only saving grace here is that the show flew under pretty much everyone’s radar, rendering it relatively powerless.

The In-Between

These are shows that are not explicitly about trans characters but still explore related ideas/issues in an interesting way.

Mahou Shoujo Ore (Magical Girl Ore)

Mahou Shoujo Ore is about a pair of dead-in-the-water idols, Saki and Sayuko, who are turned into magical girls by a yakuza-slash-mascot-character to fight big buff naked squirrel creatures. The catch is, transforming gives them both the appearance of hot, muscular dudes in way-too-small costumes.

On paper, it’s a premise that sounds super sketchy, like a breeding ground for awful transphobic and homophobic jokes. But amazingly, Mahou Shoujo Ore manages to avoid pretty much every single possible pitfall with ease. And in doing so, it touches on questions of presentation and being (un)comfortable in your body while expertly juggling an unashamedly gay love polygon that changes shape depending on who’s transformed.

It’s not perfect about everything, and the show’s brand of cheekily biting meta humor probably isn’t for everyone, but Mahou Shoujo Ore reigned strong as one of the funniest shows of the year that also happened to be somewhat trans-adjacent.

That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime

Slime comes from a(n oft-maligned) tradition of self-explanatory light novel titles, so I’ll skip the introduction. In Slime’s heart-wrenching eighth episode, our titular slime protagonist, Rimuru, obtains the ability to morph into a humanoid form, his body modeled after that of a recently passed friend, Shizu. While experimenting with his new body, Rimuru discovers that—because he’s a slime—he has no genitalia. He’s slightly disappointed about not being reincarnated into a male body, but he accepts it fairly readily.

Rimuru then begins experimenting with making modifications to the transformation. Aging it up, making it more masculine or feminine—the latter causing him shame because it feels more like Shizu’s body than his own. At the end of it all, though, Rimuru settles into his original, mostly androgynous body (which he only uses some of the time anyway) and resumes his new life.

Brief though it is, it’s a tasteful and sincere depiction of a character exploring a body that doesn’t quite fit their own identity, which I appreciate a lot. And while not exactly a trans story, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime is at least one hell of a trans fantasy.

Bonus Round

Fukakai na Boku no Subete wo

Fukakai na Boku no Subete wo (Fukaboku for short) is a manga, not an anime, but there’s no way I could end this post without talking about my favorite manga of the year.

Fukaboku opens with the nonbinary Mogumo making a Tanabata wish to find a friend who properly understands them. This leads to their classmate, Tetsu, inviting them to work at his family’s café. Drawn in by the cute uniform, Mogumo quickly agrees, but what they don’t realize is that it’s a crossdressing café. Tetsu mistakenly assumed Mogumo was a crossdressing boy, which leads to a painful confrontation with the other staff where they have to explain to a group of people they assumed would understand that just because they’re not a girl doesn’t automatically mean they’re a boy, and vice versa. It takes a bit for everyone to properly grasp what Mogumo is saying, but once the misunderstanding is cleared up, everyone accepts Mogumo’s identity and offers them a place where they can openly be themselves. A place where people understand them.

And that’s just the first chapter. From there, the series just continues digging even deeper into questions of gender, sexuality, labels, word choice, presentation, and more. Mogumo says they’re uncomfortable with the implications of the word “crossdressing,” so after a discussion with the rest of the staff, the manager agrees to change it from mandatory to optional when greeting customers. But one of the other waitstaff, Mei, resists the change, because having that label is what makes it acceptable in society’s eyes for her to wear the clothes she wants. After a group discussion, though, the other staff manage to convince her that, while everyone puts on masks out in the world, she doesn’t need to cling to that mask and make it her identity. Mei’s allowed to be a girl if that’s what she wants—and it is.

Fukaboku takes a setting that seems ripe for all sort of gender shittiness on the surface and uses it to really explore the concepts of gender, presentation, and the labels we use in a way I’ve really never seen done anywhere else. It’s a real powerhouse of a manga, and by far one of the most affecting and relatable things I’ve read all year. Konayama Kata really gets it, and I encourage everyone to give Fukaboku a shot.

(Note: there is no official translation for the series yet, and the scanlations available are kind of shitty and not very respectful of the characters’ self-described identities. This undermines a lot of the manga’s hard work, so please do keep that in mind if you choose to read those.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *