Those of you who actually browse this blog will probably be wondering where I have been for the past month. Between my part-time job, a few off-site commissions and some challenges in my personal life, I’ve struggled to find the motivation necessary to churn out stories like I did over the summer. As things balance themselves out, I should get back into a routine, so please be patient!
That said, one of the hobbies I partake in during my downtime is watching Anime, particularly ones with bizarre plots and questionable themes. A series fitting that description just so happened to fall under media crossfire this week; its depictions of women engaged in a water-based fighting competition were heavily criticized as being misogynistic in nature. The more scrutiny it gathered, the more curious I became about it. Therefore, I would like to give my thoughts on the “Keijo!” anime based upon my initial impressions and questions of it.
From what I read on TVTropes, this series started as a manga in 2013. As of this writing, four of the episodes have aired in Japanese on the Crunchyroll network, while one of the episodes has released in English on Funimation. As someone who prefers English audio, I have only seen the first episode as of this writing. Allow me to give a brief overview of the story and what the characters are setting out to do.
Keijo is a sport where two or more women stand atop a single floating platform with water on all sides. Their movements cause the platform to shift and sway, the goal being to make enemy combatants lose their balance and fall from the platform. To make things more interesting, players can engage in physical combat, but they may not use any of their limbs to do so. The series fanservice then is rather obvious.
However, I suspect that people fail to look beyond the initial two minutes where this was depicted. See, the actual story is about a young woman named Nozomi Kaminashi. As someone who’s just about to finish high school, she sees Keijo as an easy way for her to make considerable amounts of money. In fact, much of what we learn about her in the first episode is that she is obsessed with hoarding wealth. If there’s a chance she can avoid spending money, she will do it; if there’s a chance she can get something for a discount, she will do that as well.
It’s stated in TVTropes that the manga depicts her as coming from a poor family, and it is highly likely that future episodes of the anime will delve into this further. Though even ignoring that history, it becomes pretty clear that she is well aware of what she’s putting herself through for the sake of financial gain. When I watched it, the things which came to my mind were reality shows like “Fear Factor,” “Big Brother,” and “Survivor.” (Note: I understand that “Wipeout” would be the obvious parallel, that’s why I’m not talking about it.)
“Fear Factor” involved horrific stunts such as getting into a coffin of insects or jumping off a tall building for the chance to win $50,000. “Big Brother” involved spending three months in a locked house for the chance to win $500,000. “Survivor” is perhaps the most well known, with the goal of lasting thirty-nine days on an island for a chance to win $1,000,000. Where exactly does Keijo rank among competitions such as these?
Here is the problem I have with criticisms of this show: Keijo as a sport is better regulated than the reality shows I just talked about. “Survivor” has the worst track record for physical injuries and shattered reputations, and you don’t see anything like that in this anime (at least, thus far). The characters have to attend a training academy; there’s talk of regimens, and all of the characters are routinely graded on their overall health and fitness. It’s treated as a lifestyle rather than a one-off novelty.
Furthermore, the very criticisms people attribute to the series are in fact echoed by the series. Nozomi’s close friend and roommate (Sayaka Miyata) gave up Judo in order to compete in Keijo. In one scene, she is interviewed by reporters who ask her what her family thinks of her choice. Her sudden change in body language illustrates just how uncomfortable she is with that question, and I think that’s a vital piece of evidence to debunk the misogyny claims.
Sayaka knows this choice will cost her the respect of her family. She knows that this will likely cost her the respect of her peers and of many people in society who refuse to validate Keijo as a proper sport. What she is contending is that this choice is hers alone to make, and that her sense of self-worth is all that should be considered. The opinions of others are not part of the equation, period.
Ultimately, what I predict is that every character is going to have their own motivations for partaking in this ridiculous sport, and the true value of the series is going to stem from how believable those motivations are. Humans are altogether kind of stupid; we tend to seek the least common denominator in terms of needs-fulfillment, even when there’s a chance it won’t work out or will blow up in our faces. I have no doubt the consequences of the sport will be illustrated in future episodes, and the work will either reflect the perseverance of the characters or it will not. It will succeed or fail based on that alone.
If I could make one more point, it’s that the series shares a hell of a lot with “Kill La Kill,” an anime by Studio Trigger which aired back in late 2013. The two leads (Ryuko Matoi and Satsuki Kiryuin) were granted considerable powers by donning special uniforms called Kamui. When activated, the Kamui would fuse to the girls’ bodies in way that made the garments incredibly risqué. Meanwhile, one of the plot points was the idea of rejecting clothing and going naked altogether.
Feminism was heavily divided on this presentation, with one side calling it misogyny and the other calling it empowerment. These sentiments were also echoed by the characters, with Ryuko expressing shame while Satsuki expressed pride. While the series was mediocre for unrelated reasons (ones which could fill a separate article), I do feel that the controversy worked quite highly in the series’ favor.
Westerners who observe Japanese media receive something of a mixed signal. Even looking at live film content, you see what at first appears to be a tolerance for sexual exploitation, particularly of women. The idol craze, hostess clubs and love hotels all paint this idea that women will willfully degrade themselves for easy money. However, there is also a flipside to that which needs to be taken into account.
There are many anime and live dramas which have come out in the past six to ten years which aim to satirize the very things I just mentioned. “No Dropping Out: Back to School at 35” is one such live drama. There is an episode where a student temporarily drops out of high school to become a hostess, and it backfires horrifically for her. I feel that this satire is really Japan’s way of saying, “We know there are problems with these aspects of our society, but we aren’t sure how to start the discussion.” It would be very irresponsible for Westerners to casually write that off.
“Kill La Kill” and “Keijo” take a step to, at the very least, own their depictions of sexuality. The female characters of both series find ways to love and embrace their bodies independent of whatever the hell society thinks. I look forward to seeing how “Keijo” develops as a series because I feel it has the potential to be something truly awesome.