(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.