When approaching the world of anime and manga, there are a few things worth keeping in mind. Most media (just like Western media generally) will fall back on uncomfortable tropes and cliches. People will be stereotyped because of race, gender and age, and unhelpful/dangerous "ideals" will be presented. And as with any cultural background, a whole new set of problems arises. In order to best appreciate the medium, a working knowledge of these issues helps to get to the essence of the story, without being too bogged down by the shocking characterisations and uncomfortable visuals around every corner.
Today's post is about how very happy I was with The Last Of Us, and how very disappointed I was with the first volume of Puella Magi Kazumi Magica and for largely the same reasons. I think I'll start with the bad.
Kazumi starts off with a naked, teenage girl in a box. Enough said? I wish. This girl is the essence of cutesy. She steers clear of the helplessness depicted by many other "moe" characters, but of course she doesn't get off completely. She's an amnesiac. One that loves cute clothes, eating everything on her plate, and hates it when people have bad skin and when women try to do men's jobs. Ouch. I might be being a little harsh, but not much.
This comes from the IP that turned the magical girl genre on its head, with a gritty depiction of the reality of this trope. How do these powers manifest? What must be given up in order to wield such power?
Within the first half of the book, she's forgotten to wear a skirt, (which exposes her underwear, but when she DOES wear a skirt, it's clear she isn't wearing any because half of her bottom is exposed from above anyway) and she's had run ins with two witches with problematic representations. One is a woman trying to succeed in a man's profession, and the other is a cosmetics salesperson who preys on girls with ugly skin and damaged hair. This is hardly progressive stuff, but please. I've been dying for more Puella Magi, and now this?
Let's talk about some good things. I was very pleased with the brief discussions of our own ability to be drawn into and taken over by depression (a running theme of the series) and the other two girls in the witch-fighting trio are girls with drive and ambition. There you go. A balanced review? Hardly. But it's the best you'll get.
For all the aforementioned reasons and more, The Last Of Us represents a better look at how characterisation should be handled. These aren't just characters breaking the mould, these are characters for whom race, gender, age and sexuality have no bearing on their potential and demeanor. The best character is the 14 year old Ellie, a product of the post-apocalyptic world who has seen horrors and knows what she needs to do to survive. There isn't time for fear. All these characters exist in a world 20 years after the collapse of mankind at the hands of a strain of cordyceps that attacks humans, adding a great pseudo-scientific spin on the zombie apocalypse trope. They don't have time or energy for terror and grief, which is ultimately the main character flaw of our other main character, Joel. Without wanting to be too spoiler-heavy, the cliche of the white, male hero is turned on its head in a glorious and unsettling way. Stick it out to the end, people. The payoff is marvelous.
The leader of the main organisation trying to right the capsized boat called humanity, is a young, driven, black woman, and one of the very few characters with a still-functioning sense of morality. There is at least one (living) homosexual character in the plot, and he is gruff, resourceful and jaded. His sexuality is only referenced by a few mentions of his "partner" and a side-splitting scene involving Ellie and a magazine; a moment which makes up one of several poignant set-pieces that emphasize the need to hold on to what humanity remains.
This is a story about dealing with grief, resourcefulness in the face of terror and ultimately a tale which leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, with little hope for humanity (not their survival, but their worth, generally). This is not a happy tale, but one as thought-provoking as it is well-executed.
I'd like to see more genre-defying IP's like The Last Of Us, and less like Puella Magi Kazumi Magica, thank you. You may not constitute the essence of a typical Magical Girl fare, but you're riddled with cliches and sexism, Kazumi.