So Wednesday rolls around again, and as we established last week, that means it’s time for Waifu Wednesday.
Before that, a
short hefty preamble, though, because it’s being discussed as something of a hot topic on the social media Interwebs at the very time I type this. I refer to the issue summarised under the Twitter hashtag #BoobsNotBlood, in which a number of people have begun pointing out the hypocrisy of popular media in being absolutely fine with graphic violence — the most recent example of which being the new Mortal Kombat game — but immediately shunning anything that has even the slightest hint of being sexual. (Unless, of course, it’s being used for advertising, in which case it’s fucking everywhere, no play on words intended.)
Mortal Kombat, to put things in context for those who are less familiar, is a series that has always prided itself on being graphic. Back on its original release, it was one of the first games to use digitised real actors as its sprites, and one of the first arcade fighting games to feature blood and gore splattering around the screen as the fight continued. Its most notorious feature, though, was the ability to perform a “Fatality” move on a defeated opponent — by entering a convoluted series of button inputs, you could kill your opponent in an assortment of overblown and violent ways, ranging from ripping out their heart to pulling out their spine. The latest Mortal Kombat continues this tradition, even going so far as to provide some of the most obnoxious microtransactions I’ve ever seen — the ability to buy tokens allowing you to perform these Fatality moves more easily without having to learn the button inputs. That’s a whole separate issue, though, that I’m sure we’ll talk about another time.
Anyway. I have absolutely no problem with Mortal Kombat, or indeed pretty much any violent game or piece of media. Violence has become so normalised in modern popular culture that, for the most part, people tend not to bat an eyelid at it any more. (There are exceptions; very realistic gore, torture and any form of depicting realistic violence against women still tends to make people uncomfortable at the very least.) That, in itself, is perhaps a concern for some people, but so long as you’re able to distinguish fantasy from reality — and pretty much everyone is, with the exception of people who already have some pretty severe mental disorders — it’s not a problem as such for your average adult human. (We could get into the whole “think of the children” thing here, but again, that’s probably an issue to tackle another day; I’m primarily concerned with people old enough to make their own decisions here.)
So violence is, for the most part, A-OK in the eyes of popular culture in the West. Sexuality, though, is a big no-no. And this is where the primary resistance to modern Japanese games tends to come from: because the otaku market in Japan — who enjoy fanservice and sexualised content — is a sizeable one with disposable income to throw around, that is the market that many anime and game creators choose to focus their attention on. And with good reason: you go where the money is. It’s the exact same reason we have so many annualised sports games and dudebro shooters here in the West: they sell.
You may not think that otaku games and dudebro shooters have much in common, but there’s one very important aspect in which they’re very much alike: people outside of their core demographic seem to wilfully misunderstand and misinterpret them, and then make a point of talking them down — in the process alienating the people who do like them — at every opportunity. I’ve been guilty of this myself over the years, but since throwing myself more into the things I love to the exclusion of things I didn’t like but explored because I felt I “had” to, I’ve become more content to simply live and let live: I’m never going to play, say, Halo 5 because it just doesn’t appeal, but I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who will enjoy it the experience of playing it.
A key difference, though, is that otaku games are a relatively small market in the West, while dudebro shooters make up the majority of the market. This is the complete inverse of the situation in Japan. The otaku games are seen as a minority, so they’re an easy target; I don’t know if their critics are simply trying to outright get rid of them altogether — I suspect there are at least a few people out there who wouldn’t mind if we never saw a doe-eyed moe girl ever again — and so it’s their controversial aspects — their sexuality — that tends to inflame the ire of critics who, generally, have absolutely no fucking idea what they’re talking about.
And yet, as Mr Matt Sainsbury of Digitally Downloaded said during a Twitter discussion yesterday, sex has been a crucial part of artistic expression since… well, forever. And yet the moment we see a flash of panties, a bit of cleavage, a provocative pose or a bit of dialogue about boob size, that seemingly invalidates the whole experience in the eyes of some critics. It’s painfully inconsistent and hypocritical to completely devalue an experience on the grounds of sexualised content when extreme violence passes without comment. (To clarify: I don’t have a problem with either, and believe that content creators are free to make whatever they like — or what they feel will be popular — without external pressure from people who speak from an ill-informed perspective.)
So with that in mind, let’s take a conspicuously sexy character for this week’s Waifu Wednesday.
This is Katsuragi from the Senran Kagura series. She’s a member of the Hanzou Academy, a school that trains “good shinobi” — ninjas who supposedly do work for the benefit of all, rather than individual self-interest.
Katsuragi is an interesting character in a number of ways. She’s arguably not the most explicitly sexual of the Senran Kagura girls — that honour probably goes to Haruka, who I’m sure we’ll talk about in the near future — but she is certainly one of those who is most comfortable with her own body, personality and sexuality.
This is an important and interesting point about most of the cast of Senran Kagura, actually; while the series is most widely renowned for its exaggerated jiggling boobs — indeed, the series creator has gone on record as unashamedly saying the reason the series exists at all is because he wanted to see pretty girls with jiggling boobs in 3D on the Nintendo 3DS — the girls aren’t simply well-stacked stick-figures, as sometimes seen in other anime-inspired work. Rather, in most official artwork — and indeed in the game, too — they’re depicted as having healthy curves and, in most cases, being happy with their bodies. (The couple of exceptions to this — Mirai and Ryoubi — have their dissatisfaction with their bodies explored as part of their own personal story arcs.)
Like most of the cast of Senran Kagura, it was not happy circumstances that drew Katsuragi to the Path of the Shinobi. I shan’t spoil her personal plot here, as it’s explored in more detail than I can give justice to in a few short paragraphs in both Senran Kagura Burst and Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus (and, presumably, the recently released Estival Versus, which is currently only available in Japanese). Suffice to say, though, Katsuragi has a fair amount of personal demons to take on, and a lot of sorrow to deal with.
She has two main means of dealing with these things: firstly, by acting as an “older sister” figure for many of the other group members, who recognise this and refer to her as “Katsu-nee”, “-nee” being a Japanese suffix to denote an older female sibling, but also often used in contexts like this where intimate personal relationships take on a “sister-like” quality. She is a character that her friends in Hanzou look up to and trust greatly, and often confide in.
Her second means of dealing with the emotional baggage she’s been dragging around with her is being a complete pervert, and it’s this aspect of her personality that is more obvious from the start. It’s also this aspect of her personality that cause many people to write her off as little more than a shallow, fanservicey character, but it goes much deeper than that.
Katsuragi’s perversions — particularly her habitual groping of her peers’ breasts — are a form of self-expression for her, and a reflection of the fact she has had to, to a certain degree, bring herself up without some of the normal “boundaries” set for youngsters. She herself refers to her behaviour as sekuhara (sexual harassment) and confesses in Shinovi Versus that she uses it as something of an icebreaker. Her peers don’t always see it the same way, of course — it’s a rather intimate invasion of personal space, after all — but as they — and the player — come to understand Katsuragi, it becomes more and more apparent that this exaggerated behaviour of hers is simply a front for how she’s really feeling inside; she maintains the facade of an energetic, enthusiastic, overly sexual young woman in order to avoid having to burden others with her own emotional turmoil; while others are happy to confide in her, she has some difficulty in being truly honest with them.
Katsuragi develops something of a rivalry with Hikage from Homura’s Crimson Squad. In many ways, Hikage is the polar opposite of Katsuragi, in that while Katsuragi is vibrant and, at first glance, extremely open about her feelings and passions — although as we’ve just talked about, the truth becomes apparent over time — Hikage is dour, emotionless and seemingly unable to enjoy anything. Katsuragi makes it her mission to try and get Hikage to “enjoy” a fight between the two of them, even though they are technically on “opposite” sides of the good/evil divide between shinobi. The two eventually strike up something of a friendship as a result; opposites, as they say, attract.
Katsuragi is an unashamedly sexual character who likes to show off — she explicitly says so when she performs her Ninja Transformation sequence in Shinovi Versus. Where critics tend to habitually misunderstand her — and the Senran Kagura series as a whole — is that this isn’t just there “for the sake of it”. It’s part of who she is, and that should be acknowledged — without shaming it — but, more importantly, it’s not the entirety of her being. She’s a complex, interesting character, and very much one of my favourites in the series, and that’s why I’ve devoted so many words to her today.