The Cross-Dressing Girls of Manga article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 2, No. 5, April 1999
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.
Last summer, we were finally treated to an Asian legend on the big screen. Though its origin is quite old, Disney's Mulan brought to us a story concept that has been avoided in U.S. animation: the idea of a woman dressing as a man to live a man's life. This concept has been used before in films like Victor Victoria, Yentl and, most recently, Shakespeare in Love. It has found its way into literature, such as Shakespeare's Viola and Tolkien's Eowin. This idea is neither unique nor unappreciated, yet it seems to have been a taboo in U.S. animation, until now. In Japan, however, there is a long tradition of women playing men's roles in anime and manga.
Cross-dressing and other gender-bending role reversals have appeared in all facets of anime and manga. Rumiko Takahashi's work has excellent examples; Ranma-chan, a boy's soul in the body of a girl, is just one of her numerous gender-mixed characters. There are too many stories to list which have landed their heroes in situations where the male protagonists must dress as women. Yet these stories tend to use the situation for comedic effect. It is primarily shojo stories which take gender reversal seriously.
The tradition of heroines taking on men's roles allows creators to infuse more drama, action and equality into their stories, liberating their heroines and readers from the limitations of gender. Yumi Tamura's BASARA finds Sarasa, the heroine, taking the place of her dead twin brother as "The Boy of Destiny." Chiho Saito's Kakan no Madonna and Lilac Serenade both find their heroines pretending to be boys for the sake of their personal freedom. In Saito's Shojo Kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena), the lead character dresses as a boy, not of necessity; but because she aspires to be a prince. Utena is the most recent variation of heroines who dress as men, a tradition which begins with the first modern shojo manga: Ribon no Kishi (Ribbon Knight).
After World War II, the manga industry in Japan changed drastically, thanks primarily to comic legend Osamu Tezuka. He invigorated the industry with a diverse selection of longer, dramatic stories and cinematic artistry. In the process, he planted a vital seed for shojo manga with the publication of Ribon no Kishi, the story of Sapphire, a princess raised as a prince. It would take 15 years, however, for this seed to bear fruit. Being the first of its kind, Ribon no Kishi established a story-writing precedent which has not been superceded: Shojo stories can have just as much action and adventure as shonen stories. This precedent was largely ignored by the predominantly male creators who produced the simplistic, pre-teen shojo manga of the '50s and early '60s.
It wasn't until the late '60s, when women began to break into the industry, that strong heroines and action began to seriously work their way into shojo manga. One of the vanguards of this change was Riyoko Ikeda's classic, Beruseiyu no Bara, the story of Oscar, a woman raised as a soldier in pre-revolutionary France. This story was so successful, that by the time the TV series aired in 1979, Beruseiyu no Bara had been performed by the Takarazuka theater group* hundreds of times to an estimated 1.5 million viewers and made into an international live-action film.
Riyoko Ikeda was not the only woman influencing change in shojo manga during that period, but there are several aspects of Beruseiyu no Bara which are unique. Many of the women writing at the time created strong female leads who must struggle to accomplish their goals. The classic sports stories of Attack No. 1 and Ace o Nerae! have plenty of action, but what makes Beruseiyu no Bara so unique is that Oscar lives as a man. She is a world-class swordsman, and while still a teen, becomes Commander of the French Royal Guard. Oscar's ability and intelligence are as undeniable as her charisma and beauty; she is a profoundly compelling character. Unlike the heroines of Beruseiyu no Bara's contemporaries, Oscar is considered an equal among men.
Another unique aspect of Beruseiyu no Bara is that Ikeda did not need to go into the future to find equality for her heroine, as Moto Hagio (A, A', They Were Eleven) did, but chose an historic setting instead. These aspects of Beruseiyu no Bara are significant not only to the history of shojo manga, but also from a social standpoint. The historic setting of Beruseiyu no Bara is as much the result of personal interest on the part of the creator as anything else. That Oscar lives in an historic era, however, gives more weight to her story. Though Oscar is fictional, Beruseiyu no Bara sets a precedent for gender equality. If Oscar could be treated as an equal in a man's role in the past, perhaps equality in men's roles is not beyond the reach of modern women. Oscar's position as a military officer, a station of authority and command which still remains almost exclusively male, further emphasizes the potential of women. That Ikeda, herself, is a woman who broke into a traditionally male field lends even more heft to this enlightened idea. In a country which, to this day, has a great deal of sexual discrimination, Oscar remains a potent, inspiring character.
Beruseiyu no Bara also helped reintroduce the tradition of action adventure in shojo manga, influencing the broad diversification of shojo manga genres in the '70s. Because of Sapphire, Oscar and their descendants, we can now enjoy a great abundance of action in shojo manga. From the charming CLAMP School Detectives to the occult-ish Kyuketsuki Miyu (first u long) to the drama (and humor) of Fushigi Yugi, shojo action now comes in a wide variety of tastes.
Oscar and Sapphire not only influenced shojo manga, but shonen manga as well. Although there had been a few strong female characters in shonen manga before, it was after Beruseiyu no Bara that women began to have lead roles and to regularly exhibit martial skills in action-oriented shonen titles. This is not to say that creators don't have a wide variety of influences outside the industry, but it can't be complete coincidence that there were no characters like Lena Inverse (Slayers) and Noa Izumi (Patolabor) back then. There have even been a few cross-dressing heroines to come out of shonen manga. Although less famous than their shojo counterparts, Ayanosuke from Yotoden (first o long), Aramis from Anime Sanjushi (Anime Three Musketeers) and Seneka from Arion are examples of how gender bias won't stop a good idea.
Like classic, Shakespearian theater, Japanese theater is traditionally performed by an all male cast. Takarazuka is an all female theater group which was established in 1914 and is, coincidentally, centered in Osamu Tezuka's hometown of Takarazuka, Hyogo.