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Review of Beautiful Fighting Girl

By Kathryn Hemmann

Saitō Tamaki. Beautiful Fighting Girl. Trans. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson’s translation of psychoanalyst and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl (Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki) is a welcome addition to the growing body of English-language scholarship on Japanese media and its consumers. In this study, Saitō analyses the figure of the beautiful fighting girl in anime and manga in order to shed light on otaku sexuality, which in turn elucidates the way in which popular fictional narratives of Japan are consumed, interpreted, and reproduced. Beautiful Fighting Girl is thus of interest not only to students of Japanese popular culture but to anyone interested in issues of narrative consumption, gender performance and representation, and cultural politics.

In his preface, Saitō explains that he was inspired to consider the icon of the beautiful fighting girl, or bishōjo, after being introduced to the work of the American “outsider artist” Henry Darger, specifically his Vivian Girls, young women who fought evil on a global scale in the same manner as the bishōjo of anime, such as Sailor Moon. Saitō explains that exposure to Darger’s work allowed him to formulate the central theory of Beautiful Fighting Girl, which is that the “thoroughly fictional” bishōjo have attained a reality of their own through the sexual desire and narrative consumption of otaku, a subcultural community of Japanese media consumers (5).

In his first chapter, “The Psychopathology of the Otaku,” Saitō begins by listing several common assumptions regarding otaku, such as “otaku are immature human beings who have grown up without being able to let go of infantile transitional objects such as anime and monsters” (9). Saitō rejects such assumptions and attempts to define the otaku through the writing of preeminent otaku theorists such as Okada Toshio, the self-proclaimed “Otakingu” (king of otaku) and author of An Introduction to Otaku Studies (Otakugaku nyūmon). Saitō observes that otaku are characterized by their attachment to stories and characters that they know are fictional. Saitō claims, however, that otaku do not privilege reality over fiction. They do not avoid reality, as is often assumed, but rather do not consider the reality of their daily lives to be any more “real” than the reality of the stories they consume. Because fictional characters are therefore just as real to them as flesh-and-blood human beings, otaku are able to develop sexual attraction to celluloid bishōjo.

To better understand otaku sexuality, Saitō entered into correspondence with a male fan of bishōjo. In his second chapter, “Letter from an Otaku,” Saitō reproduces edited excerpts from this correspondence, in which Saitō’s otaku interlocutor speaks frankly about masturbation and defends erotic interest in anime characters. Saitō’s correspondent strongly asserts that people who express their sexual attraction to fictional characters through masturbation or erotic fan art are “otaku first and foremost and not sexual perverts” (39). What Saitō takes away from this correspondence is that Japanese otaku are defined by their attitudes towards fiction and reality, particularly when these are expressed in sexual interests and activities focused on fictional female characters.

Saitō’s third chapter, “Beautiful Fighting Girls Outside Japan,” is a survey of non-Japanese otaku that Saitō conducted by contacting people involved with university anime clubs and anime-related websites via email. In his analysis of the responses, Saitō differentiates between “beautiful fighting girls” and “Amazonian women warriors,” with Western examples such as the protagonists of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess falling into the latter category. In the second half of the chapter, Saitō quotes two responses from former members of the Harvard University Anime Club in order to emphasize two of the main points of his study: namely, that beautiful fighting girls are not to be equated with attitudes concerning real women, and that otaku enjoy anime featuring bishōjo because of their fantastic quality.

“The Strange Kingdom of Henry Darger,” Saitō’s fourth chapter, is a description of the early twentieth century American artist’s multi-volume illustrated fantasy epic In the Realms of the Unreal, as well as the conditions under which Darger composed this work. Saitō argues that Darger’s beautiful young female protagonists, who are pure of heart yet extraordinarily capable on the battlefield, are highly reminiscent of Japanese bishōjo. Furthermore, Darger himself possessed a mentality not far removed from the Japanese hikikomori (social recluse). Despite the parallels Saitō draws between Japanese bishōjo and Darger’s Vivian Girls, however, his purpose in discussing Darger’s work is not immediately clear, except to perhaps suggest that, like Japanese otaku, Darger was not “mentally ill” but rather “a neurotic like the rest of us” and somehow fascinated by the figure of the beautiful fighting girl (80).

The following chapter, “A Genealogy of the Beautiful Fighting Girl,” is the longest chapter of the book. In this essay, Saitō provides example upon example of bishōjo characters, drawing upon television series as varied as Cutie HoneyPrincess KnightUrusei Yatsura, and Serial Experiments Lain, as well as Studio Ghibli films such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. Saitō’s main point is that “Japanese fighting girls are beloved precisely for the purity, frailty, and sweetness they evince at the height of battle” (93). In his brief overviews of a number of anime, Saitō discusses the virginal sexuality of the beautiful fighting girl, as well as the appeal of the weak triumphing over the strong, which he compares to the psychological process of trauma and repetition.

The most focused expression of the thesis of Beautiful Fighting Girl is its sixth chapter, “The Emergence of the Phallic Girls,” in which Saitō interprets interest in beautiful fighting girls not as an indicator of sexual perversion but rather as a manifestation of a different understanding of reality. Saitō structures his argument around three key terms: atemporality, multiple personality space, and high context. By “atemporality,” Saitō means that anime and manga downplay the progression of chronological time—characters do not age or do not act in an age-appropriate manner. By “multiple personality space,” Saitō means that various aspects of one personality (presumably that of the artist or director) are often distributed across multiple characters in the same anime or manga. By “high context,” Saitō seems to mean that a narrative can be transferred from one medium to another (i.e., from manga to anime) and that the level of visual representation in these narratives is highly stylized and symbolic. Such abbreviations in time, characterization, and visual exposition place anime and manga narratives deeper into the realm of the symbolic. According to Saitō, symbolically represented objects of sexuality began to explode across these narratives beginning in the early 1980s. The goal of the otaku creators and consumers was “an autonomous object of desire” that did not belong to any reality outside of anime and manga (151). Therefore, anime babes were never supposed to stand in for real women—for otaku, the appeal of these characters is their very fictionality.

Saitō’s argument is important not merely for our understanding of sexualized images in anime and manga but also for our understanding of the consumption of anime and manga as narratives. He differentiates between the reality of the phenomenal world and the perceived reality of the fictional narrative by referring to the former by the Japanese word for “reality,” genjitsu, and to the latter by the English world, riariti. For the otaku who lives in both genjitsu and riariti, “real (riaru) fictions do not necessarily require the security of reality (genjitsu). There is absolutely no need in this space for fiction to imitate reality” (156). The unrealities of this reality, such as omnipotent girls who never seem to age, are not only the products of a reality untethered to the phenomenal world but also are the very factors that ensure the continued existence of this world in the minds of otaku. Such beautiful fighting girls neither reflect nor are meant to inspire the empowerment of women in the real world. They simply have nothing to do with the real world (genjitsu); the world they create and inhabit is a world that exists only inside the mind of otaku.

Unfortunately, organizational issues disrupt the coherence of Beautiful Fighting Girl. The transition between chapters is often abrupt, and the chapter on the work of Henry Darger in particular seems irrelevant and extraneous in its lack of cohesion to Saitō’s main argument. Furthermore, Saitō’s use of psychoanalytic terminology is loosely anchored to his subject matter. For example, bishōjo are identified as phallic virgins without explanation of this term or why it is significant. Also, the otaku attachment to these bishōjo is repeatedly referred to as an enactment of trauma, the exact nature of which is never detailed, even in the most cursory of terms. Moreover, despite the highly gendered nature of his subject matter, Saitō fails to address the oft-cited phallocentrism of Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

This particular failure is a symptom of a major problem of Beautiful Fighting Girl, the persistent focus on a heterosexual male perspective. Saitō repeatedly claims that bishōjo have nothing to do with real women, as they exist solely within the imaginations of their male creators and consumers. Although Saitō occasionally acknowledges the existence of female fans of boys’ love, he ignores both the women who create bishōjo characters (such as Takeuchi Naoko, the author of the Sailor Moon manga) and the women who enjoy and are inspired by these characters. By arguing that bishōjo exist solely in an imaginary world (riariti) for male otaku, Saitō fails to take advantage of the opportunity to examine how images of fictional women may affect the reality (genjitsu) of both female and male consumers of popular media. Thus, in insisting on a clear divide between genjitsu and riariti, Saitō removes real, flesh-and-blood women from the bishōjo equation altogether. Therefore, Beautiful Fighting Girl seems at times one-sided and claustrophobic, as the male gaze Saitō applies to the bishōjo remains unchallenged by an alternate set of interpretations inspired by the possibility of a female gaze.

Also included in the translated edition of Beautiful Fighting Girl are two short Afterwords by the author and a four-page “Commentary” section by Azuma Hiroki. The main addition to this translated volume, however, is Keith Vincent’s introduction, “Making It Real: Fiction, Desire, and the Queerness of the Beautiful Fighting Girl.” In this introduction, Vincent summarizes Saitō’s main points and connects them directly to many of the issues currently under critical investigation in the field of Japanese Studies, such as the representation of gender in popular culture, the ways in which fandom interrogates texts, and the evolution of fictional narratives in a postmodern digital culture. Despite Saitō’s focus on the male otaku consumer of bishōjo, Vincent proves that his theories of reader and viewer identification with fictional characters may easily apply to female otaku, or fujoshi, as well. Vincent also situates Saitō’s work within the context of a larger discussion on otaku sexuality carried out by cultural theorists such as Okada Toshio and Thomas Lamarre. Most intriguingly, Vincent ends by suggesting that Beautiful Fighting Girl is capable of providing a unique counterargument to the idea of “melancholic heterosexuality” laid out by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. This introductory essay thus encourages readers to find applications for Saitō’s main arguments beyond the scope of Saitō’s own work. Beautiful Fighting Girl has the potential to open exciting new paths of inquiry in the study of Japanese popular culture and transnational fan communities, and we owe Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson an enormous debt of gratitude for making it available in translation.

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