(Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Yumi Tamura’s Basara.)
When you’re discussing a 27-volume series like Yumi Tamura’s Basara, there’s inevitably a lot to be said that can’t be said in a single roundtable discussion—even when that discussion is nearly 10,000 words long! I was able to get some of the more fannish overflow out of my system by way of last week’s Fanservice Friday, but one topic I’m still obsessing over, even after our roundtable discussion, is feminism in Basara, and how it relates to both the story’s politics as a whole and to me personally as a reader.
Despite the fact that I openly identify as a feminist, it’s something that I don’t talk about often, at least not in specifics. And the primary reason for this is that I’m not a student of feminist theory—or really any theory at all (unless you count music theory, and I think you’ll find that most people don’t). I’ve never read any books about feminism, or taken a class, or attended a talk on the subject. I can’t speak as an expert or scholar, or even as a well-informed layperson. I don’t even have the academic background or vocabulary with which to fake it. I rarely talk about feminism, because I don’t want to talk ignorantly about feminism, and that’s pretty much where things stand.
My identity as “feminist” comes largely out of ideas that have been part of who I am ever since the moment I realized, as a child, that there were people in the world who inexplicably made assumptions about me based solely on my gender. It simply didn’t make sense. Though, as I became old enough to comprehend it, I realized that there were ways in which the household I grew up in conformed to traditional ideas about gender (both certified teachers, my mother balanced part-time work with most of the childcare, housekeeping, and cooking, while my father worked full-time), neither of my parents seemed remotely concerned that I followed more naturally in my dad’s footsteps and showed no interest at all in domestic pursuits.
I liked pretty dresses, ballerinas, heated political debates, science fiction, kickball, and digging up worms in the back yard, and nobody ever suggested that there might be anything contradictory about my tastes. I was allowed and encouraged to just be “me,” to pursue my natural interests wherever that led me, and the idea that there might be limits on that, for any reason, seemed patently absurd. I knew instinctively that I was a capable, complete person, and that my individual potential was just that—individual. Nothing else made sense. My parents taught us about things like “women’s lib” and “male chauvinist pigs” (somewhere in the late 70s my sister and I acquired t-shirts with the slogan, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”) but the whole thing seemed kind of ludicrously obvious. Nobody really thought otherwise, did they? It was all right there. The whole world was right in front of me, in all its glorious mystery, and I was a free agent. What did my gender have to do with anything?
As I got older, and my world became more obviously gendered, things made even less sense. Though certain girl-tagged items were, to me, obvious draws (YA fiction and prettyboy teen idols dominated much of my free time in my pre-teens) popular concepts of what it meant to “be a girl” in midwestern ’80s teen society—the hairspray, the conversation, those quizzes in Cosmopolitan—just felt wholly alien, as did most other girls I knew. I struggled to look and act like them, but I simply didn’t fit the mold, no matter how painfully I squeezed and prodded. Having finally hit upon something apparently beyond my capabilities, I wondered if I even was a real girl, given the growing evidence against it. It was my 8th grade English teacher, though, who finally, inadvertently showed me the way. When, as we studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, she admitted that she thought that Hester deserved to wear that big, red “A,” I knew suddenly that whatever that teacher was, I decidedly was not. And that’s when I began to really think about and identify with the word “feminist.”
Out of all that, whatever it is that my personal “feminism” is and grew out of, that’s the feminism of Basara. It’s the feminism of a girl who just is what she is, whether she’s falling in love or leading a rebellion against an oppressive regime. Whether she’s using her own name, her brother’s, or no name at all, she’s all herself, all the time, and she couldn’t possibly be anything else. And though she’s not consciously fighting a feminist cause, she’s forwarding one with her politics in general, as well as by simply existing as herself and exercising her own undeniable agency.
Basara‘s feminism, however, is not just about its formidable lead. Shoujo manga as a whole is heavily populated with spunky heroines, many of whom lead overtly heroic lives, especially in fantasy series like Basara. Often, however, these heroines exist largely alone in a world of men. They are exceptional girls and women, of this there’s no doubt, but that’s just the thing—they’re exceptions. Even in current shoujo fantasy series, like Dawn of the Arcana or Fushigi Yugi: Genbu Kaiden, heroic women are supernaturally-endowed or pre-destined beings to be protected and fought over, anomalies in their worlds, often despised and opposed by other female characters (who may or may not be evil love rivals).
Basara begins with some fantasy tropes firmly in place. Sarasa is the “child of destiny,” and she initially disguises her gender in order to lead her revolution. But as her journey brings her in touch with numerous other women whose individual dreams and circumstances have caused them to cross her path (and, in most cases, join her cause), the matter of hiding her gender becomes more of a lie she doesn’t know how to get out of rather than anything of genuine importance. And when she’s finally forced into revealing the truth, it’s a relief to everyone.
Which isn’t to say that being a powerful woman in Sarasa’s post-apocalyptic Japan is easy. Chacha, the pirate captain who joins Sarasa’s (Tatara’s) army after their initial confrontation, spent her young life constantly having to prove herself in order to take on her natural role as a leader. Renko, the outspoken publisher of a newspaper in Suo, is persecuted and (literally) crucified for criticizing Momonoi’s regime. And Kiku—the one female among the White King’s “four nobles” acknowledges more than once her frustration and sense of powerlessness in her role. But, like Chacha and Sarasa, Kiku eventually learns to love who she is and to take control of her own destiny.
I think it’s notable that the White King, who is eventually revealed as the series’ primary antagonist (I don’t say “villain,” because ultimately this story doesn’t so much have villains as is does just people who have been badly damaged by their circumstances), is a woman whose sense of self was utterly destroyed by the role she was forced into as a young woman in the royal family. She’s a tragic figure—one that Tamura refuses to soften with any kind of last-minute redemption, or anything approaching a happy ending. The damage done by the patriarchy is real and irreversible, says Basara, and there’s no way out but to dismantle it completely.
And dismantle it Tamura does. I talked a bit in our roundtable about what I see as social anarchist principles at work in Basara, and these are inextricable from the series’ feminism. Women lead the story’s rebellion because it is women, forced to view the corrupt power structure from the outside, who are able to see clearly the damage that’s been done and what’s required to forge a completely new path. Men are valuable allies in Tatara’s revolution, but it’s the women who are teaching them (and each other) how to live better lives. When Sarasa finds herself shattered by the realization that the man she’s fallen in love with and the man she’s vowed to destroy are one and the same, though it’s Ageha who shelters her through her subsequent mental breakdown, it’s her mother‘s words that finally help Sarasa to shed the hate that she’s been subsisting on all through her career as “Tatara.”
One particularly moving scene in volume thirteen takes place in Suo city, at the site of Renko’s crucifixion. Though in the next volume, Sarasa and her army will arrive to remove Renko from her cross, Renko’s artist lover, Hozumi, (who is also Momonoi’s son) arrives to show her that she’s made a difference. Having lost use of his arms as punishment for aiding Renko, Hozumi kneels before her to paint as a demonstration of his support and understanding.
“I was born into a rich family,” he thinks as he works,” I had nice clothes to wear. I ate good food. Until I came to Suo and met Renko, I knew nothing about the world. If I try to make a speech now, it can only sound naive. I just don’t want anyone to shed blood.”
“I love you,” he thinks as he paints a field of green around her, but the subtext is, “Thank you,” and “You saved me.” And as he demonstrates, silently, what he’s learned from Renko, Sarasa is learning it too. In the wake of Renko’s sacrifice, Sarasa glimpses a world in which individual creativity and expression is more powerful than the sword, and where fully-realized individuals can come together peacefully to work for the common good.
I mentioned in the roundtable that I thought it was notable that though Tamura clearly views some forms of government more favorably than others, Sarasa never attempts to establish any government at all, and a later side story reveals that the government that does spring up after the rebellion has already fallen into corruption less than a full generation later. Ultimately, Basara rejects not only the violent, decadent patriarchy that Sarasa and her comrades fight to bring down, but any system at all that threatens the compassionate autonomy Sarasa and her allies represent.
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of Tamura’s rejection of patriarchal norms, however, is in her publishers’ apparent need to reinforce them, at least on the surface.
When I got to the series’ final volume, I was surprised at its cover, featuring what would appear to be the wedding of Sarasa and Shuri, with a sort of weird, plastic, pod-people feel to it.
“Do they actually get married?” I asked myself, flipping quickly through the volume for some sign of matrimonial activity.
“Hmmm… Shuri proves to Sarasa that he’s no longer the “Red King,” Tamon gets the Genbu sword, Asagi adopts an orphaned child (what?), no… not here… cute owls… no.”
And the answer is… no. Though Sarasa and Shuri do apparently stay together and definitely produce offspring, there’s no indication whatsoever that they bothered to walk down the aisle—nor does that even seem likely given the way they’ve decided to live. In fact, it’s explicitly stated at one point that they’re not married. They are lovers, for sure, and partners, absolutely. But husband and wife? If it happens, it’s offscreen.
There is one couple who gets married during the course of the volume—with very little page time, and the ceremony is not shown—but even that short story is focused on the couple’s determination not to change as individuals despite their arranged marriage. “Just because we’re gettin’ married doesn’t mean it changes anything. You don’t have to change. And I won’t either.” At best, it reads as the reluctant acceptance of a generally objectionable institution.
So what’s up with that cover? Was it so important that the series appear to wrap up with a traditionally “happy” shoujo ending that they had to retcon one in? I can’t know the answer for sure, of course, but wow does it create some real cognitive dissonance.
Fortunately the contents of the book itself are consistent with the raw, heartfelt feminism that drives the series overall, and the volume ends with the image of the child, Sarasa, facing that glorious, mysterious world with the same sense of power and free agency I felt as I gazed at the fields and woods beyond my childhood backyard.
All images © Yumi Tamura/Shogakukan, Inc. New and adapted artwork and text © Viz Media. This article was written for the Yumi Tamura Manga Moveable Feast. Check out Tokyo Jupiter for more!
Jura saysMay 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm
Maybe feminism isn’t the right word. Egalitarianism? I’ve always associated feminism as a destructive movement. There can never be equality if only one gender is being fought for.
Travis Anderson saysMay 26, 2013 at 9:36 pm
The reason “only one gender is being fought for” is that that gender has been forcibly oppressed by the other for most of history. The fight is to get to equality. But feminism is also about making things better for men, because the patriarchy gives men a raw deal, too.
Jura saysMay 27, 2013 at 5:16 am
There shouldn’t be a movement based on giving specific people that have not been oppressed advantages and perks because of the past. Your whole patriarchy thing is nonsense.
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:03 am
Jura, if you truly do not understand that women are still an oppressed group, you aren’t paying attention.
Jura saysMay 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm
I’m not saying there is any oppression of any group. If you truly don’t understand that males are an “oppressed” group, you aren’t paying attention.
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 2:08 pm
Jura, I’m really trying to understand where you’re coming from here, but it’s very difficult and actually a bit painful for me, as a woman, to listen to an argument in which someone is trying to tell me that things I’ve experienced in my own life do not exist.
As a woman—even as a relatively privileged woman, actually, since I’m caucasian and relatively female-presenting—I still experience sexism in my daily life, now, in the present, not as part of history. You seem to be suggesting that this is not real—that our society is not still a patriarchy (it is!) and that, because oppression of women does not exist, it’s unnecessary or even harmful to advocate for women’s rights. When that is (or seems to be) your argument, I don’t know how to respond, because you are essentially telling me that my own experiences are either false or that they don’t matter. I’d like to think that this is not at all where you’re coming from, but this is what you appear to be saying so far. I would really love to hear that I’ve misinterpreted everything you’ve said, so please do tell me if that’s the case.
Jura saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:31 pm
Higher cost of insurance.
False rape claims that can ruin lives.
Males could be drafted for the right to vote while females have free voting (in US)
Males are portrayed in media and are expected to have to reach high standards in strength and what they can give.
Inequality in child custody in where females win in great number.
Instances where a mother denies a males joint custody time and law enforcement does nothing.
Depicted as being clumsy or foolish with taking care of children and the household.
Sexual assault where they cannot do much about or are told they should have enjoyed it.
Discrimination in homeless and abuse shelters.
Feminist against male contraception.
Males aren’t a protected group under certain hate laws.
Higher suicide rates.
Lack of paternity leave and lower percentage of males get pay during its duration if there’s pay.
Education systems failing for males.
Longer prison sentences for the same crime.
Massive funding and support gap between breast cancer and prostate.
Discrimination in higher education with Title IX (in US).
Males have it hard taking pictures of their children or taking their child out in public as they’re looked at or even at times treated like a pedophile or abductor.
Not in any order.
Alex Hoffman saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:31 pm
This is extremely disconcerting.
def: feminism – feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending EQUAL political, economic, and social rights for women.
Emphasis my own (on the equal part).
Jura, you seem to be extremely concerned with a straw man that does not exist. And your list of grievances is small, simple, and extremely centric to the concerns of men of one state, compared to the list of injustices a woman can levy against the societal system under which we all live (that would be the whole wide world, not just the USA).
Jura saysMay 28, 2013 at 6:28 am
Many of what I listed are from well off developed countries like in Europe and Canada. A definition isn’t alway unbiased like how many definitions define rape as something a male does to a women.
Grievances small and simple yet here we are on a page about manga.
Someone states they associate themselves with a movement and I mention egalitarianism.
Olivia saysMay 28, 2013 at 8:12 pm
As somebody who calls herself egalitarian: I don’t agree that you’re being very egalitarian here. Some of your grievances are legitimate, and a number of them are not. (Feminists most certainly do seem to be aware of and care about the normalization of sexual assault toward men and women, among other things. Warning for some language in the links. http://www.shakesville.com/2009/05/child-rape-hilarious.html http://jezebel.com/5967923/fuck-you-mras)
The big one, and the main one, is that feminism is a destructive movement. Modern feminism has many different branches, some of whom have opinions other branches do not agree with. My personal opinion of feminism, and the way the term is commonly used now, is that it’s a catch-all term for people interested in social justice. Melinda’s interpretation of it is valid.
Jura saysMay 29, 2013 at 6:40 am
Seems the nested comments reached its limit on this blog.
First off…I derail threads and discussions even if it’s not about gender.
Second, I don’t like MRAs either. They have a higher amount of right-winged or Libertarian ideology with some of its supporters. They also have sites that put names and informations of people that made false rape claims. I doubt there’s enough verification of such.
Rape is bad, m’kay.
I guess there is a portion of feminists that are so because they are interested in equality, however they are choosing a movement that is for one gender. There are issues that affect people and there are only two genders. Having one really strong movement for one is polarizing.
My list comes from the disbelief that males are also “oppressed.” People are oppressed.
Please do go into detail on which on the list aren’t legitimate.
Jura saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:50 pm
There’s for sure women issues in many countries. Sometimes massive ones. Point being is feminism is a one side movement and will not stop after its progress. I could say men pay more into social security and get less from it from shorter life spans, but I won’t say men should get paid more from it. Education, labor, and healthcare should be there well for everyone.
Jura saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:00 pm
And I like to have my hair a bit long, but companies often have policy for a certain length.
Michelle Smith saysMay 26, 2013 at 4:36 pm
God, that final image brings tears to my eyes every time. Excellent article. :)
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:04 am
Thanks, Michelle. :)
Travis Anderson saysMay 26, 2013 at 9:37 pm
I don’t have anything specific to say, but I really enjoyed reading this!
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:04 am
Thank you, Travis! I’m so glad you did!
Erica Friedman saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:50 am
Great piece Melinda. The problem here is not the word feminism or your understanding of it., but the centuries-old media attack of that word and that idea and the acculturation around the hating of feminism. Any woman who say she is not a feminist is wrong. She is not “that man-hating, bra burning straw feminist over there” but she indubitably wants the opportunity to do and be whatever she is, which is what feminism actually is. The other stuff is her hiding behind the media representation of “feminism” so she’s not rejected by society at large…hrm, in which case, she’s right, she’s not a feminist if she can’t be bothered to stand up for her right to *be.*
What interests me about this most is the incongruous wedding picture. It’s definitely been shoe-horned in there and it sits so awkwardly on the narrative that it’s almost as if Tamura made it looks as uncomfortable as possible on purpose to make her editors feel like assholes for even asking. ^_^
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 7:54 am
What interests me about this most is the incongruous wedding picture. It’s definitely been shoe-horned in there and it sits so awkwardly on the narrative that it’s almost as if Tamura made it looks as uncomfortable as possible on purpose to make her editors feel like assholes for even asking.
Yes, that was my feeling, too! I hate to make assumptions, but it’s so awkward… it looks more like fanart than the real deal.
mom saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:55 am
Thanks for the childhood reflections, Melinda. It’s true. I can’t ever remember thinking there was anything you couldn’t do.
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:57 am
Thank you, mom! I always felt that, keenly, and it’s shaped so much of who I am. I owe all of that to you and dad.
Alex Hoffman saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:33 pm
Melinda, this is a wonderful piece. Thank you for writing it.
Melinda Beasi saysMay 27, 2013 at 8:35 pm
Thank you for reading, Alex!
Aaron saysMay 28, 2013 at 11:16 am
Trying to get handle on modern Feminism is like trying to nail jelly to the wall, I would consider myself a Feminist but due to some of my more conservative social viewpoints (opposed to Homosexuality, Pro-Life). I don’t take the title along with the whole internecine feud within feminism over Pornography (which if I’d come down on the side of the anti porn Feminists.) As far as fictional depictions of Feminism one of my favorites in Manga has to Nasuca. Overall a good article personal insights where nice
Melinda Beasi saysMay 28, 2013 at 6:52 pm
I think you’re correct to assume that certain of your social positions are incongruent with today’s feminism in general. But I appreciate you taking the time to read my article. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Thanks!
Kat saysJune 2, 2013 at 12:55 pm
Thank you for this article! I enjoyed reading it. Regarding the wedding portrait of Sarasa and Shuri, maybe it’s just me but I don’t think the wedding portrait was THAT out of place. It was in the side stories volume anyway but a wedding would have felt out of place in the main narrative. Though I have to agree, the couple just looks like Barbie and Ken. I mean if the wedding portrait were done a bit better like the other Basara covers I don’t think it would have looked as bad. I mostly just look at it like “Oh, that’s cute,” kind of like shoujo fan service that I usually ignore. But I guess I’m just not gushing over that picture because… considering the main target audience of a shoujo manga I suppose that’s the type of thing that demographic wants to see. I see a lot of manga forums where most of the posters are a lot younger (like 10-20?) and they don’t like it when there isn’t every proof of a happy ending.
I do understand where you’re coming from though. Since reading Basara I’ve always thought of it as THE feminist manga and Tamura as THE feminist title. So when I picked up Tomoe Ga Yuku (an untranslated Tamura work) its portrayal of feminism in a patriarchal world is a bit different from Basara. It’s a bit more conventional, where the strength of women is partly in the sacrifice they make for their lovers, which makes me a TINY bit disappointed although the women there all physically strong as well.
Sorry if I’m not making much sense!
Kat saysJune 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm
woops i meant Tamura as THE feminist manga-ka
Melinda Beasi saysJune 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm
Thanks for coming by!
But I guess I’m just not gushing over that picture because… considering the main target audience of a shoujo manga I suppose that’s the type of thing that demographic wants to see. I see a lot of manga forums where most of the posters are a lot younger (like 10-20?) and they don’t like it when there isn’t every proof of a happy ending.
But see, that’s the thing. Why is this a “happy ending”? I mean, Sarasa & Shuri do have a happy ending, but there’s no evidence (other than this weird cover) that they ever got married, or that they (or the series) would really consider getting married to be a happy ending. If anything, I think there are strong suggestions to the contrary. And it’s hard for me to imagine a reader getting through the previous 26 volumes of the series without coming to the same conclusion. I’m sure what you’re talking about here is exactly what the publishers were thinking, but I found it pretty jarring.
I’m disappointed, too, about what you describe in that other story, though I’d be so happy to see more work of hers translated over here, I’d probably jump for joy to read it anyway. :D
Again, thanks so much for coming by and for taking the time to comment!