Sunday, April 6, 2008

In a man’s world: Why I’m liking Saiunkoku

So I've managed to pick up Saiunkoku again. And once you get past the first ten or so episodes or so the series does start to pick up. (Granted, I still think the first set of episodes is a case study in missed opportunities.)

Now, I'll admit that I don't watch a whole lot of shoujo anime. I don't have anything against it. Any more than I have anything against shounen romance or mecha shows or any particular genre. It's just that there haven't been too many stories in that genre that leap out at me and scream, "Watch me!" So I can't really speak too much about what Saiunkoku does with the conventions of the genre, but I have a feeling that it doesn't really do much that's interestingly new.

Except for what it says about gender and the role of women in a patriarchal society.

To be honest, judging from the first 14 or so episodes, I really wasn't expecting much. Shuurei is a fairly classic heroine in this type of a story. She's an exceptional person who's given several chances to show how exceptional she is. At least in the beginning, any resistance to her gaining a position in a world of men is weak and often petty. It isn't until she passes the royal examinations that things start to get interesting.

(This is a customary spoiler alert. Spoilers contained herein shouldn't really ruin your appreciation of the series, but I will discuss some major plot points.)

On the Nature of Hard Work

Now largely this entire arc is leading up to a grand conclusion, but I think it's important to mention the beginning part as well. Now once Shuurei gets to the palace that is when the series starts to get really interesting. Like I mentioned before, Shuurei hadn't really encountered any really firm resistance to her rise. But once she started her training that changes drastically. From her first meeting with Official Ro, the person in charge of the trainees, she's belittled and demeaned and generally treated like an intruder in the world of men. The work she has to do is generally menial labor, in this case cleaning the toilets and doing filing, and most of the male characters simply make her work harder for her. To top it off, those people who actually seemed to care about her in the beginning distance themselves from her.

To be honest, I'd been waiting for this to happen from the beginning of the series. It's a fairly common plot structure in this type of story. Young woman challenging the system needs to overcome the prejudices of men in a patriarchal society.

But what makes it interesting isn't the commonness of the situation, but the uncommonness of the solution. Generally, in this situation the usual answer is rebellion because the audience is supposed to assume that the treatment is unfair. And while this arc is happening there is little to show that the treatment isn't unfair and unjust. But instead of rebelling, Shuurei accepts the work because she sees it as the path to achieving her goals.

Now, it'd be easy to assume that this sends the message, "To achieve anything in a man's world, a woman must bow to the will of men." In fact, if you took a look at a show like Revolutionary Girl Utena as an example of achieving equality in a patriarchal society, you'd probably compare the two and say, well Utena fights against the injustice therefore she's the stronger heroine and therefore the better role model.

Well except for To Eigetsu who is faced with the same kind of demeaning menial labor and the same type of prejudices. Now if you assume that Eigetsu is the male counterpoint for Shuurei then suddenly all of that is flipped on its head. Because now you have an exceptional man who is being treated the same as an exceptional woman. So instead of the message being on of acceptance, it becomes one of endurance. Basically, to achieve anything a person has to work hard.

As a counterpoint, Utena actually becomes the less favorable role model. Since she's portrayed as being gifted without the benefit of actually having to work at it. In fact, it could be assumed that the message is more one of, "She's superior by virtue of being a girl." Now, I'll admit I haven't watched the rest of Utena, so I'm not entirely sure how that plays out. But from the season and a half that I did watch that general message did stay the same.

What is even more interesting is that the series makes a point of showing that Official Ro's behavior was normal for people who are exceptional. In one scene with Shuurei's uncle later on, they specifically point out that Ro did the same thing to him when he was in training.

But that isn't what I found the most interesting about the arc. What I found the most interesting was make-up.

The Importance of a Make-up Kit

Okay, so even if how Saiunkoku deals with hard work is interesting, I should have largely expected it. Working hard to achieve your dreams was a theme from the beginning of the series. But it's what it says about make-up that really made me tilt my head.

Let me give a little bit of background. When Shuurei was going to work at the palace, her former boss gave her a make-up kit. Now her boss is an interesting character in her own right. I never thought it was really clear if she was more of a geisha or a prostitute. But either way, she headed up a house of adult entertainment. In general, it'd be assumed that her profession demeans women. Now I'm not going to open up that can of worms, but I do think the series shows that she is also a strong, capable and ruthless woman as well. Like I said, she's an interesting character. Now by all rights when she says "Make-up is a woman's war paint" it should make any feminist cringe. I mean make-up was developed by men, for men and is just another way that men oppress women, right?

Except Saiunkoku doesn't deal with it like that.

Instead, at the end of the arc Shuurei has the epiphany that she's been trying to compete in a man's world as if she was a man. And she makes the decision to put on the make-up because she's not a man.

Now up until now, most anime that I've watched that deal with gender issues pretty much said the same thing. That to compete in a man's world, a woman has to act like a man. This carries right down to the way they dress (I really wish I had watched more Rose of Versailles, but I think Utena is a good enough example of that.) The fact that they beat men in combat. To the fact that they often have traits that are associated with men (hot-headedness in Utena's case).

It would be easy to say, Shuurei's decision is another sign of acquiescence to the rules that men laid out. But I don't think it is. Because Shuurei is portrayed as an exceptional woman. In fact, she is the equal of the male characters. But she isn't a man.

That's what makes the series interesting, is the fact that it states that it's all right to be a woman in a world of men. It doesn't mean that you're less capable. To be honest, this is a pretty daring approach to this subject. But in my opinion a more mature one. Because dismissing gender differences out of hand is the easy and often used route.

And even though someone's probably going to think I'm a misogynist for saying this, I'd say Saiunkoku's portrayal is the more truthful route. Women don't need to be the same as men to be able to perform the same jobs as men.

Of course, other people can and most likely do disagree with me on that point, but still I do find it a refreshing change from what I expect. And I'm actually excited to see how the theme is going to play out in the rest of the series.

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