The Female Otaku: Gender and Identity in Kuragehime

Note: While this post focuses on discussion of the anime Kuragehime, I feel the need to first discuss the definition of “otaku” and consider reactions to the label.

We all know nerds, and most people are nerds about one thing or another.  Some view the term along with visuals of glasses, braces, acne, terrible style, and A+ smarts.  I view the term “nerd” as nothing more or less than someone with extreme tendencies over one or more subjects.  The Japanese have a word for these extremists: “otaku.”  While some non-Japanese anime fans have taken this word and proudly applied it to themselves as anime otaku, video game otaku, and the like, they greatly overlook the implications of the word.  Others understand the insinuation, and use it deliberately.

For the most part, the Japanese use of “otaku” is derisive; it is not simply a term of classification as a nerd to the extreme.  It is a put down.  Otakus are fans of any given topic to the excess and have little control of their obsessions, so say the negative definers.  A good portrayal of the attitude towards otaku in Japan can be seen in the live action show, Densha Otoko.  Taken from a supposedly true story, Densha Otoko follows a shut-in otaku and his interaction with online peers.  Since “normal” people treat him rudely, including his own sister, his social instabilities never have a chance to improve until a chance encounter on a train allows him to grow.  The otaku and most of his online friends are male, a trend that continues into anime representations of otaku.  And like many similar depictions, the lifestyle and attitudes of these people are presented as flawed.  Though Densha Otoko warms the heart with overcome barriers and budding new relationships, it still sets the main character up as someone in need of a “positive” change to his life.

Kuragehime covers the empty bases by giving us what seems mostly missing from shows about otaku: the female population, and the beauty of being yourself, even if you are a “nerd.”

Tsukimi-chan

Plot
“Kuragehime” translates as “jellyfish princess,” and describes our main character.  Voiced by the talented Hanazawa Kana, Kurashita Tsukimi loves jellyfish and illustrates them for a living.  In contrast to the opening sequence, which details every little girl wishing to grow up as a princess, Tsukimi-chan has somehow taken the wrong path.  She wears no make up, nor designer clothing.  The very idea of talking to “hipsters” petrifies her.  And yet she lives in Tokyo to make her living–you would think she’d encounter terrifying situations every day.

The ladies of Amamizukan

Luckily, she has found an apartment complex that only accepts women just like her: fashion backwards, anti-male, anti-hipster, and hobby obsessed.

  • Daughter of the landlady, Chieko collects traditional Japanese dolls and treats them like her daughters.  She dresses them in expensive cloth, and always wears her own handmade kimonos.
  • Banba has naturally permed, afro-style hair and knows everything about trains from any decade.  She also uses her special radar to rate the quality of tasty meats.
  • Mayaya always wears the same green track suit and jumps around all day executing martial arts moves and loves anything and everything associated with Records of Three Kingdoms.
  • Jiji is perhaps the shyest girl of the group, and is singularly attracted to elderly men.
  • Juon Mejiro hides in the topmost room of the complex and, other than Tsukimi, is probably the only other tenant making a steady income from her popular yaoi manga.  We never get to see her, and the only communication she has with the other tenants, except for a few meetings with Chieko, is by sheets of paper slipped underneath her door.
TRAP

Out to visit her favorite spotted jellyfish at the jellyfish shop, Tsukimi encounters the beautiful Koibuchi Kuranosuke–a “woman” passionate for couture.  The mysterious woman helps Tsukimi save Clara the jellyfish, and so starts a friendship both strange and fully accepting.  Through some awkward circumstances, Tsukimi discovers that the woman is actually a young man crazy for cross-dressing.  Because of Amamizukan’s strict house rules, Kuranosuke takes the alias “Kurako” and continues to visit dressed as a woman.  Throughout the course of the show, Tsukimi remains the only “Amars” (nun) to know of his sex.  It takes some time for the rest of the complex to warm up to Kurako due to their wariness of hipsters, but accept Kurako they do in the face of a greater danger: the redevelopment project that threatens to overtake Amamizukan.  So follows the focus of the rest of the show, to raise the money to buy Amamizukan and secure its future.

Gender
As mentioned before, I have a difficult time finding many shows that portray female nerds, much less cast them in a positive light.  Kuragehime gives us women who know what they like, and are unafraid to display those likes to others.  Their interests are not the typical otaku interests of anime, manga, video games, etc.; they are uniquely their own.  I appreciate this move, as it shows a deeper understanding of character.

Mmm, man nipples...

Kuranosuke is especially interesting, given his androgynous appearance.  Although he comes from a politically-invested family and seems to live in a household inhabited solely by men, he prefers the company of women and enjoys dressing up as one.  Based on his looks alone, some people might assume he harbors homosexual preferences, when this is in fact not the case.  His friendship with Tsukimi begins to turn to something more when he starts feeling jealous over her interactions with his older brother.  His friendships with and attractions to women allow him entrance into a world normally banned to men.  Although he stands along the border and participates in both worlds, he is also excluded from being completely a part of either one.  Of all characters, I felt his to be the least explained; by the last episode, his story still lacked the closure I sought (the location of his birth mother, his relationship with both his father and with Tsukimi, and the revelation of his sexual identity by the rest of Amamizukan).

In battle attire!

Identity
What pleased me the most in Kuragehime was its total acceptance of less than “normal” identities.  Unlike other shows that suggest that the qualities of a nerd are ones to be fixed (NHK ni Youkoso!), Kuragehime instead proves that not all traits are negative, and should be accepted as part of the person.  At several times in the anime, “Kurako” gives makeovers to the Amars, not because he disapproves of their looks and wants to make them look “better,” but to cloth them in “battle gear” that will help them associate easier in the outside world.  While it’s sad that such measures need to be taken for them to communicate with others and for others to acknowledge them, it makes me happy to see the Amars more comfortable with themselves.  As cheesy as it sounds, each of their individual characters are endearing in their own ways.  I wouldn’t want them to lie to themselves and try to be something other than who they really are.

The same idea holds true for Kuranosuke.  His personality doesn’t change even with the addition of impeccable makeup and designer clothing.  What does change is his sense of self.  No longer is he just the son of a politician bent on further power; he is a confident and gorgeous man whose looks many envy and admire.

Jellyfish dresses

Final Thoughts 8/10
The closing to the anime was about as perfect as I could imagine, minus the lack of closure on Kuranosuke’s part.  Seeing Tsukimi and Kuranosuke’s artistic talents, along with the hard work of the women of Amamizukan, rewarded so fully by recognition and applause summarized what I felt was the main message to this anime–having the confidence to be yourself in the face of possible ridicule is a beautiful thing (“beautiful” is such a tiring word, but sometimes it aptly outlines all the associated feelings).  Tsukimi didn’t miss becoming a princess; she was one all along.

Take your own Clara home today!

Looking for more nerdy girls in all their glory? Check out the following shows:

6 thoughts on “The Female Otaku: Gender and Identity in Kuragehime

  1. What’s the difference between passion and obssession? Degrees?

    Why are the obsessed ostricized? Is it because their behavior borders on what it means to be human? Is it coincidence ‘obssess’ and ‘possess’ are so closely related? Do we fear the obssessed because, like animals, we feel we can not reason with them? If obsession controls you, then doesn’t that question what it means to be human: choice and free will?

    In short, are the Otaku the monsters of society? And if so, it makes a bit more sense that the borders of borders (female and monsters) would be accepted after the male monsters.

    In other words, each Otaku re-defines who we ‘are’ by accepting who they ‘are’.

    Also, you didn’t find the male cross dresser to be under-minding in the overall message? Was his role pivotal in these women accepting themselves and society accepting these women? Or was he just another ‘monster’?

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    • You raise several good questions that I merely glossed over in my discussion on Kuragehime. I do agree that the line between passion and obsession is very, very thin, and no, I do not think it coincidence that the root words are so similar.

      Part of why I didn’t go into the whole “monster” discussion of otaku, female otaku, and straight cross-dressers is because I so recently talked about monsters and borders in my blog entry on gluttonous characters. Obviously with your comment, you’ve highlighted the weakness in in this decision.

      In regards to Kuranosuke’s character–no, I don’t find his character as undermining to the overall message. He fulfills both of the questions you raise: his role is pivotal to the Amars’ self-acceptance and he is also a “monster.” He is alien to both the masculine and feminine with his straddling of both worlds, thus making him ultimately an outsider, a monster.
      Your notion that he may undermine the message would make more sense with further explanation of what you mean, and I think you could only do this after watching the anime. How does he undermine the overall message? Is this in reference to how he dresses and acts, or are you looking mainly at how he gives the girls makeovers? Are you considering his familial relationships, or the relationships he shares solely with Amamizukan’s tenants, specifically Tsukimi?

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  2. Well after reading both the comments above I know I am thoroughly over my head here and will just kind of skip that part of the conversation since I obviously can’t contribute at that level.

    The anime does remind me very much of a friend of mine and I think she could really use a reminder of the message this anime seems to send. I have been trying to help her realize this very message for months now and now I think I’ll see if she will watch this. Thanks for sharing it. I really appreciate it.

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    • Sweet Tooth just likes to nitpick and I have fun needling him back for it, so don’t be afraid to reply :p

      Well, I certainly hope your friend does take a look at this and takes the messages in it to heart! I’m glad you found it helpful🙂

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  3. I would just like to say that all of the closure you were denied in the anime is explained in detail in the manga, Kuragehime(well, except the Amars finding out about Kuranosuke, that hasn’t happened yet!) so if you haven’t already, check it out.🙂

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