Trappings, Signifiers, and Characterization: What Kuranosuke has to do with Chihaya

Or: Better Understanding Through Looking at Gender

A brown-haired girl sits in seiza, looking into the camera wearing a blue and pink kimono

I got into a conversation in another part of the anisphere about female main characters. The blog post was here and it compared Tohru of Fruits Basket to Sawako Kuronuma of Kimi ni Todoke (the inferior Sawako, if you ask me… Sawa-chan <3). At the culmination of the comments dialog I came to some interesting realizations about gender performance in our animated heroines and heroes. See, we talk a lot about the need for “strong, female characters”, but as Kate Beaton noted, they don’t always serve. I would like to take this time, instead, to proffer up an examination of how a close look at gender helps flesh out both simple, straightforward characters and more complex ones.

Chihayafuru is pretty stellar in my opinion not in the least because it features many prominent women and girls in a show that has a shounen-y feel (some episodes play like Hikaru no Go with a decidedly better paint job). Chihaya’s laser-like focus on all things karuta-related helps the show play more like the aforementioned go-focused anime with a touch of romance instead of Kimi ni Todoke with a gaming angle (which it could easily have become).

Much of the show’s appeal rests on the shoulders of the eponymous Chihaya who ranks as my second-favorite shoujo heroine (ask me about Mikako Kouda sometime). And Chihaya is the the true jumping off point for today’s post. What’s interesting to me about Chihaya is not that she’s genki or that she’s a tomboy, because those things are apparent. No, what’s interesting is that she’s also—despite what Kana might think—feminine in her own way. Chihaya offers an interesting window into characters who inhabit their genders as indifferently as any human being, but are not defined by it. Comparing Chihaya’s teenage self to her younger self shows a girl slowly growing into a conscious woman while continuing to nurture a smothering obsession with karuta.

Details, some smaller and some larger, show her femme-leanings. Her longer hair as a teenager versus her elementary school coiffure stands out the most. But we can add to the list her love of skirts, and her decisions to conform to the social requirements of modesty for women (notice that she wears pants when she stands on a chair to put up posters?). She sits halfway between the proscriptive Kana who’s adherence to traditional feminine ritual brings her strength and purpose, and many “guys with breasts” characters who seem less “aware” of their gender and more resigned to it (see: Konata Izumi). What makes her character work is an earnest and unironic position in regard to her womanhood. While being a girl doesn’t define Chihaya, she would be a different person were she a boy. You can’t understand her without taking gender into account.

A young, blonde boy's head as looks into the camera. He has shoulder-length hair

Armed with this viewpoint, I think we’re better equipped to take on someone a little more complex: Kuranosuke. This cross-dressing costar of Princess Jellyfish sits in a strange place on the gender wheel at first brush. He clearly enjoys going out in drag, and treasures both the memories and clothes of his mother. But is he trying to act the part of a woman? Tricky. It’s fascinating to watch the complicated body language of Kuranosuke under the assumption that his gender might be more of an issue to his fellow cast members than it is to him. It’s clear, when he’s composed, that he understands feminine body language and how to appear a woman enough to hide among the male-phobic otaku who fill out much of the cast. But notice how quickly he sheds his clothes and mannerisms once he’s unguarded? He dresses like a boy when attending school, and shows a completely dissociated relationship with his costume body (his cheerful reaction to his grandfather’s groping is particularly telling). In the same manner that we can read Chihaya’s feelings about being a woman, we can look at how Kuranosuke chooses to comport himself and come to the conclusion that he’s likely not transgendered. For him, the transformational aspects of cross-dressing are not about expressing an inner self, but are tied to his ideas of beauty and fashion.

From where I sit, this interpretation explains Kuranosuke much better than any narrative that casts him as mis-assigned daughter of a tragic actress. His boyishness adds extra comedy to all his attempts to “teach” Tsukimi and her friends how to act like women and use their “natural weapons” (tragic and uncomfortable, yes, but also a satiric look at privilege on many levels). His misguided understandings and behaviors serve much better if we dismiss the possibility that he’s attempting to express anything more than a love for fashion.

What have we gained? To some not that much. You could probably come to this conclusion about Kuranosuke without considering whether he perceives himself male or female, but I think in the end, it’s important to realize that gender is as much part of what makes a character interesting as zir family history or favorite past times. Claiming not to “see” gender closes up aspects of your favorite characters and dulls them slightly. I hope this post helped you understand a little of why.

18 Comments

Filed under Character Study, Chihayafuru, Editorials, Princess Jellyfish

18 responses to “Trappings, Signifiers, and Characterization: What Kuranosuke has to do with Chihaya

  1. “any narrative that casts him as mis-assigned daughter of a tragic actress.”- do you have someone in particular in mind with that opinion? I’ve never heard it before. It didn’t cross my mind either. I think it’s quite clear he doesn’t crossdress for gender issues rather than fashion and politic personal concerns. I’d rather compare him to an onnagata, since he is a ‘male princess’.

    Hm, about what you want to illustrate with your post, would it be safe to say that we judge characters also for what their behavior is according or contrasting their gender?

    Very nice post with two of my favourite characters :)

    • the_patches

      Thanks for the comment. ^_^

      As far as the “narrative that casts…” bit goes, the idea I posit isn’t revolutionary, since you can come to that interpretation of him from another angle. Instead I was trying to show that you can understand him equally through his gender as you can through his stated beliefs. Which I think sums up pretty clearly what you asked in your second question. Gender informs all parts of a character, so when evaluating zie, you need to consider it, ALONG WITH zir actions and words.

  2. Between these two characters, I feel Kuranosuke is the most sure of his gender, whereas it’s never even a question for Chihaya. Indeed, Chihaya is feminine in her own way (she doesn’t have gender issues), but I also believe part of her character is being seemingly aloof about gender in general, even her own. In my opinion, her kind of oblivion is merely part of being vastly consumed in her sport. So from my perspective, the lack of Chihaya’s embrace of femininity speaks more for her involvement in something she finds more important (karuta).

    Neither of these characters have gender issues, but it is interesting both have gender attribution in characterization which give them depth.

    • the_patches

      Precisely. I chose characters who weren’t terribly gender complex in the end because I thought it would help better illustrate that looking at gender even in the most obvious characters can be rewarding. I’ve tried to look at some more complex cases, like Masasumi Honda from Horizon to the Middle of Nowhere, but that stuff is just plain brain-busting without a good understanding of core trans* issues (an understanding which I do not claim).

      AT THE SAME TIME, I think it’s silly to claim Chihaya is “aloof about gender in general”. She’s aware of the strange dynamic between her and Taichi, and again, she wears very feminine clothes on the whole (even her t-shirts are cute, trendy pieces) so it would be wrong to claim she doesn’t care about her gender. But I get what you’re saying and that’s part of the point. It’s who she is, but not crammed down our throat.

    • Heron

      I don’t know. Her personality, which earned her the “beauty in vain” title, before and after karuta seemed pretty consistent to me. One could argue that having something else to focus on other than cheering her sister’s fashion career gave her the foundation to resist gender conformity or the easy path of sibling emulation, but I think the series was more trying to say that self-motivation that made her hard to approach through conventional gender roles was the defining core of her character. This, along with her dream to “be the best” helped her to stick to karuta, but perhaps without 100 Poets it could have been something else.

      Speculative Aside: Originally this was interior to the above paragraph, but I thought it derailed the argument a bit, so I’ve given it a paragraph of it’s own. Basically, I think Chihaya’s unconventionality, the easy way she is both assertive and feminine while avoiding conventional stereotypes of assertive femininity, is what attracts Taichi most about her. That’s why she and Taichi fought as kids, afterall; he liked her and tried to relate to her through typical Japanese masculine dominance and she responded with non-traditional resistance. And notice, it is after those fights that Taichi is most desperate to appeal to her to appear “in charge” or “superior” to others; in other words, to re-establish his conventional masculinity. That’s also why he isn’t satisfied with other, less assertive women. He is so compelled by her that she literally pushes other, more conventional women that he has established relationships with entirely out of the series(I’m looking at you, Ep 1 middle school girlfriend, who didn’t reappear until your unceremonious over-the-phone dumping)! I don’t want to get too Freudian here, but his mother’s a pretty assertive, no-nonsense woman, too.

      • That’s some awesome thoughts on Taichi’s attraction, and I think the contrast between his mother and Chihaya is excellent. They are different in many ways but both emanate a confident presence. I’d like to think Taichi is attracted to that.

  3. It’s interesting, because most of the crossdressers I can think of in shojo specifically are either mentally/emotionally unstable, started dressing as women only after some sort of traumatic incident, or wish they had been born female because they happened to fall in love with a straight male. You’re certainly right that a character’s gender is important to consider, because we look at male and female characters differently and often judge them on separate values. As a female, I look at male characters in terms of whether I would want to date them, but I’m much more critical of female characters because they’re supposed to represent me as a female (which is probably why there are so few female characters I really like). And this is especially true when you’re a feminist that you’re likely to analyze media through the lens of gender.

    • the_patches

      First, I want to thank you for providing the crystal that precipitated this post. I was banging something around in my head about this and your bit on Sawako and Tohru really helped it along.

      I think your point about judgement is interesting and previews my next post. Here, I wasn’t terribly interested in the social or political implications of one’s gender and gender performance. While Princess Jellyfish is occasionally confused on how it wants to treat the Amars, it does alright by Kuranosuke (he finds happiness through expressing his dreams) and doesn’t really punish him for his non-conformist behavior.

      From where I sit, gendered analysis usually operates on two levels. One, which I covered in the blog is a more intimate examination of how a character perceives zir gender as a part of zir identity (another fantastic subject for this is Leona Ozaki from Dominion–check the manga not the OVA), the other is closer to your post and occurs at the population level. When certain personalities/tropes appear overwhelmingly on characters of a different gender, then they become the negative shorthands for femininity/masculinity which you identified in your post. Personally, I think one of the ways we can avoid these pitfalls is by constantly considering how ones gender interacts with other character traits, instead of considering it irrelevant.

  4. strong, female characters

    No doubt there aren’t as many of these in anime as we would like, but I’m certainly glad we get someone like Chihaya every now and then. You reference to F.B.’s Tohru and KnT’s Sawako is interesting, as both are clearly great female leads, though the former is more of a catalyst for developing her fellow characters and their relationships, while the latter is more of the shy-one-who-requires-self-development. Going back to Chihaya vs. Kuranosuke, I’d say that Chihaya is more the self-insert/ wish fulfilment figure, while Kuranosuke is the ideal bff/ fairy-godmother (or should that be, fairy-trapmother) figure. Both are seen as admirable and successful in their own ways as ‘females’, but Chihaya ‘the wasted beauty’ and Kuranosuke the attractive but dissatisfied rich kid are not exactly realistic figures either (they’re both too ‘nice’ and kinda dense when it comes to attention from the opposite sex and how they in turn feel).

    Saying all that, though, they are probably two of the best examples of ‘strong, female characters’ in anime when it comes to likeability, ambition and perseverance in the face of difficulties, and the fact that they also look great, and girly, certainly doens’t hurt.

    • the_patches

      Thanks for the comment!

      I think part of what Kate Beaton was driving at is that ‘strong female character’ misses the point in a way. What we should want out of our characters is for them to be well-portrayed and complex. Strength isn’t always the most interesting trait of humanity (see: Antigone, MacBeth, Great Gatsby), and we shouldn’t make it a requirement of well-formed women anymore than well-formed men.

      While it’s true that Kuranosuke and Chihaya’s quirks put them firmly in the realm of ‘characters’ instead of ‘people’, the attention paid to their gender helps them feel more… meaty? A GOOD character should have each part of zir personality and personal history considered.

      • Heron

        Yeah; that in trying to save female characters from stereotypes of weakness, we shouldn’t reduce them to caricatures of strength. I found Ms. Beaton’s point particularly important in light of the conventional white male establishment response to feminism, i.e., portraying them as militant, insensitive, bullies and their calls for equality as oppression.

  5. It seems like one of the larger signs of a strong male or female character is that they’re successfully able to pick and choose which gender traits they follow and which they don’t. Chihaya isn’t so much a tomboy as much as she’s someone who knows what qualities she needs to become good at her game, and however masculine or feminine she is was never a contributing factor.

    • the_patches

      I think most of us pick and choose how we represent our gender, and so having our anime characters behave in the same way makes them all the closer to acting like real people–which I feel is an overall good indicator of a well-formed character.

      This show in particular gets mileage out of the dissonance between Chihaya’s gender and her actions that probably wouldn’t work as well in reverse. If you compare her to Hikaru, it’s easy to see how her interactions with her friends and rivals would have a different tone if she were male. And, as I hopefully pointed out, it’s not like Chihaya doesn’t see herself as a girl/woman, which is an important detail in understanding her.

  6. Despite being someone who’s always liked tomboys, I’ve never really weighed the role of gender in these characters and examined what about them is feminine and what about them is masculine. Chihaya was always enjoyable as a character in Chihayafuru and one of my favorite things about the anime, too, but I never really dwelled on her actions or traits as part of one gender or another. Perhaps because I’ve always been somewhat attracted to tomboys and always identify them as female, everything Chihaya did I categorized as female but maybe that’s just me. I’m not sure if I’m one of the people you mentioned at the end that is ‘closed’ to gender but I’d like to think I get as much out of Chihaya’s character as the rest.

    What’d be interesting is to continue this on other characters, specifically Makoto from the Idolmaster or Naoto from Persona 4 who have gender issue in their respective anime. I’m not sure if you’ve watched or plan to watch either anime but they do have some excellent gender issues in those anime that I think you’d love, especially after you wrote a post on this subject.

    • the_patches

      Sadly, I still don’t feel qualified to talk about characters like Naota or Masasumi Honda, as I’m not as well versed on the nuances of the trans* experience and I would hate to speak out of turn. Mattie Brice, on the other hand, wrote an excellent bit on the *game* over at The Border House (http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6088), which bears reading.

      But as to your original point: What I was trying to indicate is that it’s worth it from time to time to stop and consider gender and how it interacts with a characters other traits, true you might arrive at the same place, but it can also elucidate little quirks or similarities to other characters that you might not have picked up on otherwise. Everyone can get more out of appreciating the characters they love. This is just another way to do so.

  7. the_patches

    NOTE TO COMMENTERS: I AM OUT OF TOWN STARTING TODAY UNTIL TUESDAY, APRIL 10. I AM NOT SURE WHEN I WILL REPLY TO YOU, BUT I WILL READ ALL YOUR COMMENTS.

  8. Pingback: Chihayafuru – The Anime « FoundOnWeb

  9. Pingback: Queerness in shojo manga: politics & representation « Shojo Corner

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