Chicks On Anime
The Perfect Man(?)

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Feb 17th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Whoo, that fansub debate got a little heated, huh? Well, we'll let that topic slide for a few weeks, until we talk with one of the copyright lawyers who works for one of the big anime companies. For now, we wanted to talk about something a little girlier—the myth of the perfect man. Judging from the screams at anime conventions, you'd think he existed, but who is he really?


Bamboo: With Valentine's Day safely behind us, I thought we'd talk about something a little more on the pink-fluffy-hearts side, and move away from the fansub debate for a little while. Amongst some women, there's always been the myth of "the perfect man." Whether or not he exists is irrelevant, as well as if he's even necessary, but what we wanted to do is point out examples of "perfect men" in anime, and see just what it is that makes women swoon. This could mean that he's popular within the anime, as the love-interest for a harem of women—or it could mean that he's wildly popular amongst female fans. Before we start, girls, what do you think? What makes female fans flock to one particular character over another?
Sara: In previous columns about moe and harem anime, I've often talked about escapism and how the cute female characters appeal to nerdy anime guys who make up the viewership of those shows. I think it's very much the same for women. We are drawn to certain male characters in anime because they represent an ideal that doesn't exist in the real world. Just like any other set of ideals, it has a few different archetypes that appeal to different sorts of people, the "sweet" guy, the "strong, stoic" guy, etc. I think it's just a matter of personal preference.

Speaking for myself, I'm a little too jaded to take the whole "perfect man" myth too seriously, even in the context of anime, but I've definitely had my crushes in the past, especially my adolescent years. A lot of girls are drawn to the idea of a guy who's always there, who will always take care of you.

Casey: Honestly? It's hard for me to feel all that passionate or fangirly about much of anything these days. I'm more likely to get excited about a beautifully constructed subplot than I am about the newest bishounen. Besides—confession time—I always seem to be most taken by weird, perverted, or otherwise misanthropic guys. The ones whose antics make me laugh. Like Kamui Lee in D.Gray-man or Itoshiki-sensei in Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei. Shigure in Fruits Basket or Kakashi in Naruto. Maybe I see a bit of myself in them, ha ha.

But drilling down a bit more into a specific answer to your question, Bamboo. In my experience with manga, the type of male character that always seems most popular with the gals in Japan is one that is 1) handsome (possibly somewhat feminine looking) and 2) cool (in the Japanese sense of the word). They should be strong, even stoic and/or big-brotherly, and they can be aggressive as long as they aren't too loud-mouthed and emotionally demonstrative. For example, in Vampire Knight, Kaname is more popular than Zero. Sasuke is more way popular than Naruto. They might be in love with someone, but they aren't too dependent upon that someone because, ya know, “real” men don't truly need anyone. I guess in a way it's sad that girls crush on guys that don't really want or need them. Maybe some girls fantasize that they will be the one to finally sweep him off his feet, I don't know.

Bamboo: I think it's important to make a distinction between the kinds of males that are popular amongst female viewers, and those that are popular within their respective anime. It's pretty obvious what the difference is. The ones who are popular within their anime are from series that are aimed at men, so often times, they're fictional manifestations of the typical male viewer. They don't necessarily have to have any good qualities. They just simply exist, and female fall all over themselves in a mad dash to win their affections.

The ones who are popular amongst female viewers are much different, I think. Obviously, fans will have their own preferences. Just look at Fushigi Yuugi. With seven Suzaku men to choose from, and a host of Seiryuu men, it's a veritable buffet for fans. There's the fiery, but internally kind Tasuki, the chipper, but internally serious Chichiri, and so forth. When I was in junior high, my best friend had a thing for Nuriko, while I, like many girls, professed my undying love for Tamahome. The archetype he represents is loyalty and undying devotion. If she's in trouble, he's the first one there. He'd run into a fire for her. He'd fight off monsters for her. At the end, when they realize that the only way for them to meet up again is if he waits for her for hundreds of years and finds his way back to her.

Sara: Sometimes, though--especially in shoujo anime, they're often the same character. You mentioned Fushigi Yuugi. Tamahome has long been a popular character in fandom, but there are plenty of girls fighting over him in the anime as well.
Bamboo: He was the Edward Cullen of his time, and girls loved it. I think the idea of a man who will do anything and everything for you appeals to many women.
Casey: Funny that you mention Fushigi Yûgi. Back in the day most of the girls I knew preferred Hotohori to Tamahome. I think at the time Yuu Watase was serializing the story there were a lot of readers that preferred him to Tamahome too. I guess undying devotion to the heroine apply in both cases, but it often seems to me, at least with early 90s manga, that the Destined Loverboy was not the one that all readers favored unequivocally. A lot of girls liked Ageha (big brother figure) over Shuri in Basara as well. Generally speaking, I don't think hot-blooded male characters are the favorites, at least in a Japanese context.
Sara: I think one notable difference between the males that are popular amongst female viewers and those that are popular within anime is the level of perfection that the guy characters female viewers swoon over represent ridiculous, unrealistic relationships. Guys popular within anime tend to just be hapless and boring, but someone loving and loyal like Tamahome, or Mamoru from Sailor Moon, begins to move away from archetype and become a stereotype. I can definitely understand the appeal, but I worry that it gives young girls unrealistic expectations about what to expect from guys in the real world. Let's face it, nobody is that perfect.
Bamboo: At the same time, I don't want to begrudge any girls their dreams. If I did so, I'd be a hypocrite, because I was totally all about those unrealistic dreams when I was little. I bawled my eyes out at the end of Fushigi Yuugi, because I thought it was so dreadfully romantic that he waited for her for all those years. Readers who are familiar with my writing as of late know that I've been ragging on Twilight quite a bit for the same reason, for the ridiculous, unrealistic pipe dream that is Edward-- but that's the stereotype I dug when I was that age. Hell, as you get older, I think you realize that men who are super-attentive and obsessive like that are kind of... nuts. So that dream pops pretty fast.
Casey: Oh yeah. Sting's “Every Breath You Take”…? In the real world, that's not romantic; that's a stalker. Possibly a criminal.
Sara: It's true that girls should have dreams and fun crushes. I had those crushes, too. I used to be so in love with Shion from Please Save My Earth because of his tragic, dark past and "disturbing" personality. At some point, though, I had to snap out of it (and it's probably a good thing I did, because a real life Shion would probably be a terrible partner. Imagine the therapist bills). But while I snapped out of it fine, and most girls do, too, there may be a marginal fraction left that can't break out of the warped mindset that the "perfect man" mythos creates.
Bamboo: Here's what I find interesting, though. As we were talking about cross-dressers a few weeks ago, I started thinking about how similar the "perfect man" stereotype was to the "cool awesome female that everyone loves.” If you gave Tamahome longer hair, a school girl uniform, and maybe an equestrian riding outfit, you could throw him into a show about an all-female school and get the Cool Girl.
Casey: Well, we could play armchair psychoanalyst here and argue that some of these bishounen are an expression of girls' latent homosexuality. I'm not sure I'd agree with that sort of assessment, but a lot of these stories seem to represent a deep craving for that equal relationship we've talked about in previous installments of this column. Boy's love is an example of the fantasy of an equal relationship that writes the woman out, which is an easier fantasy to swallow if you're a woman. But in Japan, where cross-sex friendship are actually much less common than in the West, perhaps shoujo manga men are feminized because it makes the characters more accessible. Eliminating gender difference may seem to help close that proverbial gap between “you” and “me,” knowing someone to their very core. Also, I think the case of NANA, which is fundamentally about the transcendent—but (I'm going to guess) eventually tragic—love between two women, should be given serious consideration, given that it is, like, the all-time bestselling shoujo manga. Maybe get back to it later?
Sara: I think both the ideal man character and "cool girl" female character archetypes represent a goodness and selflessness that people look for in all of their relationships with other people. That's what makes those characters so attractive.
Bamboo: Okay, so we've identified the Loyal, Undying Love stereotype. Are there any other ones?
Sara: There are a lot of stereotypes that appeal to girls. The "stoic hero" seems to be a popular one. Guys who don't say much, but save the day and look badass. There's also the "That obnoxious guy I always fight with but secretly love" stereotype, although I've never had much patience with that one. Then there are some guys I don't really understand the appeal of at all. Like, Domyouji from Hana Yori Dango. He seems cool enough in the anime, but when you step back and think about it, that guy's a potential wife beater.
Casey: The “stoic hero” gets back to what I was saying earlier about the “cool” guy.
Bamboo: Well let's think about the first one. Why is the stoic hero so popular? Both for the perfect male character, and the awesome-girl-from-the-female-boarding-school character. Is it that we want someone who will perpetually be low drama? Or maybe it's because humans inherently want what they can't get-- in that case, the stoic hero who's too aloof to pay attention to females. Or it could be that he's incredibly focused on his job, be it fighting giant robots or slaying monsters, which is a sign of wealth and stability.

The stereotypes that you see in anime are not different from the stereotypes that you read about in books, that you see in film, or that you see in TV shows. These are the same stereotypes that you've seen forever, and it's amusing to note that they're rather timeless, and that they're relevant for different cultures. I just saw Phantom of the Opera the other night, and thought, "Boy, they're both rather obsessive, aren't they? But I bet half the women in this theatre want to be Christine."

Maybe these men would be terrifying or irritating or pathetic in real life, but they're so simple that they're appealing. That's why you can take reverse harem shows and boil down each character to two or three words. Reverse harem shows are the most convenient way to get your perfect man fix ever. Do you want the bad boy? Take that guy. Do you want the little kid? Take that one. What about the fighter with the heart of gold? Try him.

Casey: Are you talking about Phantom of the Opera the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical? I gotta say—Broadway musical fan here…getting all confessional, aren't I?—that I've seen two distinct ways of performing the Phantom. One is as the brooding, older man. The other is as the petulant, man-child prodigy. The latter is closer to the original novel. I actually think the appeal of The Phantom is rather different than any of the other cases we've talked about thus far. Yeah, he's the bad boy and whatever, and he represents adventure, possibly sexual adventure. But you also have to read the show in the context of Christine's singing. The Phantom's the one who's nurturing her opera career. The alternative with Raoul is to become the nice, silent housewife. I think The Phantom is sexy in part for the way he empowers Christine. Of course, in a story like this, female power is frightening and to be stamped out before the “happy ending,” but that's a whole other story.
Sara: It's true, and something like the Ouran Host club even conveniently spells out the labels in text. You can literally pick which perfect man you want. Anime is, in a sense, just carrying on the tradition Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters capitalized on more than 150 years ago. I still don't understand the "Guy I hate yet love" trend, though. It's so aggravating.
Bamboo: I think that's the female version of the, "This girl keeps beating me up, but I sure do love her!" relationship in harem anime. Only instead of a milquetoast guy who eventually gets the smart, witty, bodacious, amazing girl, you have a bland girl who gets the hottest guy in the school. I can think of a few examples right off the top of my head. Hana Yori Dango, Wallflower... Though in those shows, the girls get the added perk of not only getting the hot, popular guy, but also getting the jealous glares of all the other girls who totally want him.
Sara: Makino's not bland, though.
Bamboo: She's not bland, but she's not the stereotypical "popular girl." And that contrast is always made in the shows. Our heroine isn't usually the prettiest, or the richest, and oftentimes, the other girls at school laugh at her. Usually, her rival is the prettiest, richest, snobbiest girl in the school. So no, Makino's not bland, but we only know that because we, as viewers, are given the opportunity to know her.
Casey: The archetypal shoujo heroine is so painfully ordinary so that 1) the readers can empathize with her and see themselves in her—be as generic as possible and she'll be like the maximum number of readers and 2) the readers don't feel jealous of her. The reason why her rival is always totally over the top is because she's gotta be emphatically better than all the readers so that they can safely envy and hate her (and not, in so doing, hate some aspect of themselves). Hating her obviously makes the heroine more sympathetic by extension. Who wouldn't hate Sae at the beginning of Peach Girl, say?
Sara: One key difference between romance anime for girls (HanaDan, Piano) and guys (harem, etc) is the likability of the main character, the one the audience identifies with. Romance heroines are never the prettiest or richest, but they are almost always interesting, and there is almost as great a variety of heroines as there are the guys they swoon over. You have characters as charismatic and outgoing as Yukino Miyazawa in Kare Kano, and someone as soft-spoken and shy as Miu in Piano. Definitely not the cut-and-paste Tenchi harem guy. That fact, to me, makes the guys they like seem more appealing as well. I like the heroine and I want her to be with the guy who makes her happy, so I feel drawn to him as well.
Casey: Ummm…I think the difference is a matter of interpretation. Possibly a function of the skill and/or ambition of the creator. Is Yota in Video Girl Ai not at all likeable? I have a pile of shoujo manga magazines right here chock-full of stories featuring heroines that are pretty boring and one-dimensional. Fortunately, most of those don't get translated into English. Popular series are often popular because the characters, including the heroine, are way more interesting than average. Though I have to say in Kare Kano the whole point is that Yukino is terribly ordinary, from any ordinary family, and striving super-hard to insure that nobody ever finds out. A very common teenage impulse.
Bamboo: You know which male I've always had respect for? Did you ever see Paradise Kiss?
Sara: Isabella?
Bamboo: I was going to say George. But I'll get to that reason in a bit.
Sara: What, really? I HATE him!
Bamboo:Actually, not just Paradise Kiss, but all of Ai Yazawa's series. I respect the men for saying, "Well hey now, you can't JUST be my girlfriend. I won't respect you if your only role in life is to be my girlfriend." I don't hate George because at one point, he gets angry at her for hiding the fact that she got a modeling gig, and that she'd rather make love to him instead. He makes it very clear to her that her priorities aren't in order, and that more than anything else, she should be working towards her own personal success, and that no relationship is worth more than success.

That's why I don't hate George. Same with the boyfriend that NANA has, before he runs off with the art student.

Sara: I find him too cold. He sometimes seems genuine, but I get the feeling he looks out for himself before others. A similar character I like much better is Chiaki in Nodame Cantabile. He's constantly harping on Nodame for not practicing enough on the piano and goofing off too much, and you can tell he cares about her future. He's kind of a cold bastard, but his heart is in the right place.
Bamboo: I'm drawn to George because he seems more real. He's specifically not the Perfect Man, and we know this, because he ends up emotionally hurting Yu...ki(?). All of Yazawa's men are like this. They hurt their female leads in some way, and they become stronger for it. Even cotton-for-brains NANA slowly, very slowly, learns to look out for herself.

Notably, if they were "perfect men," they wouldn't hurt their girlfriends. They'd just be perfect and remember to call every five minutes to Say, "I Love You".” That's why her male characters are amazing, I think.

Casey: Well, I still think NANA is most interesting with regards to its female/female relationship. It seems to be arguing against the idea that, as you get older, you just naturally outgrow your girlfriends. Instead, it's got this Thelma & Louise thing going, that self-actualization is to be found with another woman, not a man. Ordinary life—boyfriends, husbands, children—and the desire for it, are distraction from something priceless. Quite audacious in the way Yazawa develops the two Nanas.
Sara: Ai Yazawa's characters are definitely amazing. Even someone as cold-blooded as Takumi, who does terrible, terrible things to NANA (Hachi), is multi-layered and even empathetic.

You know, I'm drawn to more complex and subtle character relationships in anime in general. I love Makoto Shinkai's 5 cm per second; I think it's such a perfect document about young love. And things like Shinichiro Watanabe's Baby Blue, and Whisper of the Heart. Those relationships pull at my heartstrings the most because they're the most realistic.

Bamboo: Ah, but that's just emotional porn for women. The men in Shinkai's films are also loyal and trusting, and their love never wanes. In essence, they're not much different from Tamahome-types, with the exception that the scenarios they're placed in are more realistic. They want to be with a woman forever, but they can't. Physically can't. And that's what makes it heart-wrenching-- but maybe the men aren't so different after all.
Sara: Different from us, or different from the archetypes?
Bamboo: Different from the archetype. It's heartbreaking because she can't be with the perfect man.
Sara: Ah, I thought you meant they're not so different from women. That could be true as well. A guy could watch 5cm and regret that the male character will never be with the perfect girl. So maybe we're all looking for the same things, after all.
Casey: Well, from a biochemical standpoint, they say that men actually fall in love faster than women do. So maybe men are the real romantics, and they just hide it better.
Bamboo: Maybe in the future, it would be interesting to talk to some OEL authors who write romantic relationships, and see what they think. See what their criteria are for the perfect relationship.
Casey: I don't know… Never underestimate the extent to which writers don't understand their own process!

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