One of my main complaints about Japanese animation is that there is often inherent sexism involved. I especially cringe at the copious amounts of fan-service meant for a male gaze in anime. The horror/comedy/adventure anime known as Soul Eater isn’t exactly an exception to this rule. However, it does have some excellent examples of progressive character development. I would like to explore the topics of strong female characters and gender ambiguity in anime by looking at the characters of Maka and Crona.
Soul Eater takes place in a school created by Death to train students to combat witches and prevent humans with corrupted souls from becoming the next “Kishin” or god of insanity. The school consists of students who have the ability to turn into weapons, and the students, or “meisters”, who then wield those weapons. Once a humanoid weapon has defeated and “eaten” 99 corrupted human souls and one witch’s soul, they have the honor of becoming a “Death Scythe” to be wielded by Death himself. The story surrounds the adventures of three weapon-meister teams, and their quest to prevent the rise of a Kishin. The show and the comic from which it is based can be goofy and slapstick at one moment, and then extremely dark and disturbing at the next. If anything, I’d say it’s the characters that are the main draw of the series. They include Death, who is perhaps the most jolly and silly looking one of the entire cast, and Excalibur, who no one wants to use as a weapon, on account of him being the most annoying being in the world. One of the main “meister” characters is a loud and obnoxious ninja, named Black Star, who doesn’t know the meaning of stealth. And then there is the son of Death, or “Death the Kid”, whose grim-reaper-esque powers are offset by an extreme OCD concerning symmetry. But the characters who I want to talk about, since they rise above their wackier counterparts and generic archetypes, are Maka and Crona.
Maka is the meister of a scythe-human named Soul Eater Evans (just call him “Soul”). Despite her not being the titular character, she takes the reigns as the main character of the series. First of all, having a female lead outside of the high school drama or magical girl genres is fairly rare for anime. Furthermore, her characterization as what I would call an “action girl” is rather unique. It is not that there aren’t a lot of epic women in anime; there are many. But the problem is that most of them align with some basic character tropes that seem to be tied specifically with their gender. The most common trope I see in anime when trying to make a tough female lead, is the tendency to make them super tomboyish. Their mannerisms are made to be rather boyish, as is their appearance. This becomes a lot more apparent in Japanese, since the Japanese language allows for more heavily gender coded speech. In a way, these characters are more or less a man-with-boobs, in order to completely distance the character from femininity. Another common approach I see in anime when making a female lead, is to create a completely cold or emotionally cut-off character. It’s almost as if this is saying that a woman has to not feel those “girly” emotions of caring or love in order to be badass. The final thing that bugs me the most in anime is that a lot of female leads are just plain overly sexualized, and often given large boobs and extra shots of cleavage. None of this exemplifies a realistic character. Not only that, but it is damaging to the idea of what makes a person strong, and it ties the ideas of strength and prowess to gendered stereotypes.
Maka is none of these things. She looks and acts like a girl of her age, without going to the girly-girl or tomboy or busty extremes. She generally uses more feminine speech, while at the same time not being adverse to swearing or speaking more informally when she is angry or in a tough fight. In addition to this, being caring and being badass are in no way mutually exclusive with Maka. She can be cold and angry at someone when she is upset, but she can also be open and helpful when her friends need her. She even has the unique ability to “see” another’s soul and their true intentions, which is tied to her empathetic nature. She feels more like a real person, and a real character, rather than someone’s poor attempt at making a strong female lead and falling back on over-used tropes. Her actions are in no way confined to her specific gender, and instead are purely Maka being Maka.
One thing that I do have an issue with in the portrayal of Maka, is that compared with her fellow meisters, Maka is rather under-powered. She is very obviously not as strong as some of those around her, and is sometimes relegated to the damsel in distress role. SPOILERS: It is only at the end of the anime that she far surpasses her companions due to a somewhat deus ex machina (deus ex Maka…?) increase in powers. :END SPOILERS. This frustrated me a lot while watching the show, since she improves a lot more significantly and at a realistic pace in the comic. However, her lack of ability is addressed rather well despite these frustrations I have with it. It is her struggle with her lower fighting ability and her perseverance despite her disadvantages that pushes her through her journey. Her ambition and determination despite the odds is really inspiring, especially when a lot of what motivates her is her need to help protect and fight alongside her friends. Thus it is her growth and goals that the viewer latches onto in the story, since her struggles are much more relatable and realistic.
The next character I want to look at is a type of character that one doesn’t see much of in western animation, and that is the gender ambiguous character, Crona. Japanese animation tends to have a larger pool of gender ambiguous characters than one would see in your average American Saturday morning time-slot. Part of this is probably due to the fact that the it is unnecessary to use words like “he” or “she” in Japanese language and includes gender neutral pronouns. Thus it is easy to make characters whose gender is rather dubious. Unfortunately, such characters are either created for purely comic effect, or relegated as side characters. Not only that, but often these seemingly genderless characters, have their “true genders” revealed at some point in the canon. So even in a language where the idea of gender neutrality or non-binary gender terms are possible, the outcome in the characters created are less than ideal. A great exception to this is the character of Crona. The creator of Soul Eater, Atsushi Ohkubo, has said directly that Crona’s gender is not known, and that it more or less doesn’t matter in the series.* And it really doesn’t matter; why should it? What is refreshing about Soul Eater‘s approach to this is that Crona’s lack of apparent gender rarely comes up in conversation, nor is questioned. The gender confusion is also never used for comic effect within the series, unlike most other anime’s approach to such a character. In addition to this, Crona is an extremely important character in the series. They are an anti-villain of the series, playing at first an antagonistic role, but later on befriending Maka and joining her friends. Crona is also quite a tragic character, having a witch for a mother who mentally tortured and experimented on them for much of their life in order to turn them into a Kishin.
Crona’s character arc is incredibly depressing, fairly complex, and tightly tied to the plot. Crona and Maka’s growing friendship becomes a main drive for both of the characters’ actions throughout the series. It is really cool to see a gender ambiguous character in an anime who has so much time dedicated to their development and role in the story, and not one who is there for some cheep gags or a forgettable role.
While Soul Eater is not by any means the most progressive cartoon, I do think the characters in it display a progress in how gender is portrayed in anime. I wouldn’t even say that the creator of the series was attempting to make a statement on feminism or gender equality. I just think that his main goal was to make good characters. Which I think should be the goal when making female or gender neutral characters. I would love to see more mainstream media with characters like Maka and Crona, whose abilities, personality, and mannerisms are not defined by their gender, or lack there-of.
*It should be noted that despite Crona having no defined gender in the Japanese version, Crona is given the masculine pronouns of he/him in the English dubs and English translated comics. Which I find really unfortunate. I wouldn’t recommend the English version of this show anyway, since many of the voices are rather annoying.