Chicks On Anime
Best Friends Forever

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Feb 24th 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.

This week, our attentions turn to female friendships in anime, and how easy (or not?) it is for female viewers to relate to them. As always, please join us in our forums afterwards to continue the discussion. Thanks for reading, and thanks for all your comments so far!


Bamboo:Last week, we talked a bit about the mythos of the "perfect man," and who he is, and what he represents. Then someone presented a really great idea in the forums, and that was to talk about female friendships in anime. It's actually something that's been talked about in every type of entertainment media—TV, films, comic books, novels. But of course, we'll stick to anime and manga. To prime the conversation, are there any female friendships that you particularly admire, or feel like you can relate to?
Casey: Well, I'm a big fan of the female friendships in Utena and NANA. Both are exceedingly well-developed and complex.
Sara: I'm also drawn to the female relationships in both Utena and NANA. I'm also a fan of the relationships in Maria Watches Over Us, because of a sense of almost sibling responsibility between the older and younger girls.
Bamboo:I too love the friendships in NANA, especially the one between NANA and Hachi. In that particular series, it's refreshing to see a friendship in which boys really aren't necessary. Hachi wears her heart on her sleeve, but through NANA's friendship, she really has someone else to lean on. She's still not entirely self-reliant by the end of the series, and she's still... well, quite useless, I think, but NANA is her emotional rock. She's the one who opens up her world, who teaches her how to have friends. In some respects, I think she plays the "boyfriend" character—but just the cuddling and listening parts. Notably, most of the men that Hachi involves herself with provide her with the sexual aspects of the relationship, not counting one guy in particular at the end. So while Hachi has sex with other men, it's NANA that provides her with the meat of the relationship.

Casey, what is it about the friendships in Utena or NANA exactly that appeals to you?

Casey: At their best, the women do not make the demands of each other that they would make on opposite sex friendships. There is a sort of sacredness to it in the way that they are represented in the two shows. I find that representation, if not necessarily realistic, quite interesting. I have no concrete conclusions about them, but they give me food for thought when trying to conceptualize the boundaries between friendship and romance, between platonic love and sexual love.
Sara: Men end up being what drive NANA and Hachi apart, though. (Full disclosure, I haven't read much of the manga, but have seen events up to the conclusion of the anime series.) I feel like NANA is more emotionally mature than Hachi, which is why she is able to care for Hachi even after she's back together with Ren. Even after Hachi's life is sort of ruined by Takumi and she is separated from NANA, NANA continues to work to protect and care for her. It's a very pure sort of love. NANA O. is one of my favorite characters because of her affection and devotion. I don't know if, to the point of the story I saw, Hachi appreciated NANA to her full extent.

Similarly, I feel like Anthy rejected a lot of Utena's devotion up until she reached a catharsis at the end of the series, and decided to become Utena's support.

Casey: In the NANA manga, one of the issues is that NANA believes that Hachi wants her to be the hero i.e. the man of the relationship who does not emotionally rely upon Hachi. But of course she is tremendously vulnerable, and needs Hachi just as much as Hachi needs her. This need, deeply repressed, is drives the plot forward and is giving the manga, still ongoing, a tragic edge.
Bamboo:While NANA had emotional maturity—moreso than Hachi, anyway, I agree that they both needed each other. NANA was strong for Hachi, but she had her own issues. She, too, wanted to be a girl—and not just the cool rocker that so many people saw her as. And in that way, I think maybe she saw parts of herself in Hachi, and why she tried so hard to help her.

But going back to the first thing you said, Casey. It's interesting that you mention platonic and sexual love, because I feel like the friendships in shows like NANA and Maria Watches Over Us are quite distinct. The sibling responsibility in Maria has always confused me a bit, because while there is that sisterhood, it's also quite homoerotic. Watching the girls interact is almost like watching schoolyard crushes play out, or watching first dates unfurl. There's a sense of wanting to please the other person, or being deeply hurt if your exact feelings of friendship aren't returned.

Sara: I find the soeur relationships in Maria especially fascinating because they take the idea of boys being unnecessary to its next logical step. The older girls act not only as role models and friends to their soeurs, but also, in some cases, as partners.
Casey: I believe that this sort of shoehorning a female/female friendship into stereotyped, gendered roles is used as a critique of gender stereotypes, especially in Utena. By the end of the TV series, which I know, Bamboo, you've never seen, Anthy rejects the fairytale, fantasy world of her brother, where the prince is always there to rescue the princess, and goes out to find Utena. Real friendship is incompatible with childish things. It's a very hardnosed rejection of girlish fantasy, which I guess my cynical self really likes.
Bamboo:Well what about shows like Azumanga Daioh or Girls High, whose draws are the fact that they do embrace childish things. And even more—everyday things? I love shows like that because they talk about nothing at all, and yet are completely entertained by it. The girls from Girls High can spend three minutes talking about pubic hair, and remain entirely engrossed by it.

I think that genre of female friendship stands alone in its own category entirely. Those girls are friends not because they need anything from each other, but because they simply love being together. This is seen in shows like SuperGALS!, where just being together is enough to make all the bad problems go away. It's the female version of the shonen, "Just believe in friendship and teamwork!" mantra.

Casey: I think we need a clarifier: Azumanga Daioh and Girls High, those are shows primarily for men, which automatically puts them in an entirely different category than shows like Utena or NANA. Maria-sama ga Miteru probably falls somewhere inbetween. Though SuperGALS!, if I recall, is for little girls.
Sara: I think there's still that level of emotional support in those slice-of-life high school series, as well. I'm thinking of Azumanga Daioh, and how Sasaki alluded to how she never had good friends until she became part of Chiyo-chan's group. And how she loved animals and cute things so much, so everyone pitched in to help her when she adopted that Okinawan cat. And there's the last episode, of course, which anyone who had to leave a good group of friends at the end of high school can appreciate.
Casey: In the case of Ribon/Nakayoshi type shoujo manga, female friendships are pre-sexual and thus "safe." I don't think they're nearly as interesting as the material you see for slightly older audiences. With shows like Azumanga Daioh, I sometimes feel like the girls are zoo specimens. Their day-to-day lives as a spectacle for the guys who are the target audience--like watching a chimpanzee scratch its underarm on some nature documentary or something. That alien female species!
Bamboo:I don't think that just because they ran in shonen magazines that they don't have massive appeal amongst women. A lot of women love AzuDai.
Sara: I feel the same way. I feel I can relate to parts of it.
Casey: Sure. "Relate" is key. Kurt Hassler said to me the Sunday after NYAF that in Japan moe sells because the guys all like looking at the girls. But in the U.S. it sells because girls can relate to the girls.
Bamboo:Speaking of relating to women... Casey, you linked us an interesting article earlier about the Bechdel Rule. Can you tell the readers a bit about it?
Casey: Sure. Alison Bechdel is a comic book artist famous for Dykes to Watch Out For. She came up with what is called "The Bechdel Rule" for good depictions of female relationships/friendships in the media.

It has three parts: 1) There are two or more females, 2) they have a conversation, 3) that is not about men.

It's actually scary how many things out there do not meet those three seemingly easy criteria!

Sara: Haha, yes. She mentioned in her comic that the last movie that met her rule was Alien.
Bamboo:Now wait here. Suppose you have a 26 episode series. If they talk about men even once, does the whole show violate the Bechdel Rule? Or is there a golden ratio?
Sara: I assumed she meant that at least one conversation was required.
Bamboo:My goodness. With that clarifier then, it is kind of depressing when you think about all the shows that don't meet those criteria. Even just in American TV, you knock out a lot of popular shows like Sex and the City and Friends.

So how do you think anime stacks up?

Sara: As boyfriend-centric a lot of high school anime is, I think it's definitely more balanced. Even in something as moe-tastic as Lucky Star, the girls spend the bulk of their conversations on every day ho-hum subject matter. Like how to properly bite into a pastry.
Bamboo:I guess it goes back to the whole bit about your target audience. I imagine anime fans might enjoy watching girls have banal conversations about pastries.
Casey: Actually, I think a lot of anime and manga series pass the Bechdel Rule. All of the ones we've talked about thus far definitely do. I think even Naruto does!
Bamboo:What does that say about anime? Or anime viewers? If anything at all, if we were to go Modern Jackass on the subject.
Sara: *laugh* Well, Ira Glass might say that the big bulk of female manga authors might have something to do with it. And then there's sheer number of girls that appear in anime. Whether they're there as eye-candy for men or heroines in shoujo stories, they're everywhere.
Casey: I'm not sure it says anything definite about anime viewers. Remember what I mentioned earlier about moe: Depending upon the cultural context, people watch anime and read manga for different reasons. It's all about how the text is interpreted, and to some degree everything is semiotically open. In other words, people see what they want to see.
Sara: I was actually going to mention that poor screenwriting may have something to do with it. Anime often relies on verbal explanation to advance plot, so that's often what a lot of characters spend their time talking about.
Casey: How much of that Friends/Sex and the City style is really just self-reinforcing? Gals want to talk about guys, so we'll make a show all about that. But maybe that's just teaching women that guys are the only appropriate topic of conversation. Chicken or egg?
Bamboo:Actually, I think that screenwriting bit has a lot to do with it. Think about the way that American TV shows are set up. You never know if you're going to get a next season or not.

You can't sit down and think, "Here's a long story that we're going to accomplish, in exactly this way." I remember hearing Chris Carter speak recently about The X-Files, and how they were never able to fully develop any of the mythologies, because they didn't know if their contracts were going to be renewed. Whereas for anime, I think the lengths of the contracts are more concrete.

Sara: Right, while anime series have a full story planned from the beginning. It's the writers' and directors' decision how to slog through to the ending.
Bamboo:Going back to shows like Utena and NANA, though, I feel like their friendships are so genuine. The girls care so deeply for each other. You occasionally see that on US TV when, like, Samantha starts screaming at a guy on Charlotte's behalf, or something, but you don't really see the same connection.
Casey: Personally, I think it feels so genuine because they're talking about each other, their own relationship, or things that don't pertain to men. I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but guys aren't the subject of every conversation you have with female friends!
Sara: They're not???

In seriousness, I agree with Casey. Even though NANA is about relationships, it's just as much about friendship. It feels more genuine because it's not entirely about men.

Bamboo: Are there anime shows that break the Bechdel Rules? I can't really think of any, off the top of my mind.
Sara: Maybe some Go Nagai stuff? There has to be at least two women, right? But his stuff is borderline hentai, anyway.
Casey: Hot Gimmick, possibly. Some bloggers came up with a list awhile back of series that didn't, but I don't have the link saved.
Bamboo: I guess there are a variety of shows in which there are multiple women, but there is only one main character woman. A lot of reverse harem shows only have one main female character, like Wallflower. Or even Ouran. I don't know that Renge really counts as a main character.
Sara: Fushigi Yuugi? Since every sentence Miaka utters is about how dedicated she is to Tamahome.
Bamboo: Ah, but she has Yui, and occasionally they talk about.... oh wait... boys.

So here's an interesting trend. Reverse harem shows... might all break the Bechdel Rules! Which brings us back to girly American shows like Sex and the City and Friends breaking Bechdel Rules. Interesting how that works out.


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