There are some gendered character types that the Japanese return to, again and again, that simply don’t exist in Western Narratives. They surface mostly in pop-culture; Azumi, based on a manga, was no exception. Azumi herself is the heroic-but-unwilling girl-swordsman in boy’s clothes, fighting an epic battle in a Western military-style cape that wouldn’t look out of place in Rose of Versailles, Ribon no Kishi or Revolutionary Girl Utena. In a country where gender is as sharply defined as it is in Japan, these girls-in-drag, who appear again and again in shoujo (girls’) manga, enjoy a relaxed self-expression, freedom and assuredness unavailable to ‘real’ Japanese girls, who are encouraged to assume feminine, even childlike social roles, and they have the opportunity for wider social experiences, though still with the familiar perspective a female audience is able to identify with (unlike here in the West, a large portion of
comics-culture consumers are female). Azumi is not only able to protect her more feminine friend better than her male counterpart, but is also able to understand her. Unlike the other women in the film, Azumi is driven by a very masculine, Samurai sense of duty. Persuaded to become more feminine, to return to a life more ‘natural’ for a girl, she finds she cannot also return to a female helplessness, picking up the sword with a cry of "I have no choice" whilst eradicating a slew of attackers with deadly accuracy. Unlike Western pop-culture girls who assume male characteristics, these Japanese boy-girls tend to be balanced rather than imbalanced by their androgyny, and prefer to remain the way they are rather reverting to a more socially-acceptable gender stereotype. Azumi, like Utena(Revolutionary Girl Utena) and Oscar (Rose of Versailles), doesn’t simply get the job done and settle comfortably back into femininity; she moves fluidly between gender roles, combining gentleness with dutifulness, grace, physical skill, the ability to protect the weak.
Azumi also features that confusing but satisfyingly effective staple, the completely psychotic, mincing bishonen ('pretty boy') supervillain with the fluting voice. Those of you who’ve played Final Fantasy 10 or seen Vampire Hunter D will find him endearingly familiar. Many androgynous characters, be they bishi of the shonen(boy) or shoujo(girl) variety, exhibit some sort of tension during their storylines, regarding their own gender balance. Heroines like Oscar, Utena, and Azumi all challenge themselves against a template of widely-accepted femininity; certainly all three of these characters 'give up' at one stage and try to take the easier, gendered road, losing their special uniqueness in a stereotype (and simultaneously demonstrating the imbalance inherent within normative ideas of gender). Likewise, characters sometimes lose balance in the other direction – interestingly enough, these are often the male characters - and stray over the line into an imbalanced, over-feminised paradigm. These are the 'insane' bad guys, like Kuja(Final Fantasy 7), Seymour(Final Fantasy 10), that guy from Vampire Hunter D whose name completely escapes me, and the rose-wielding psycho from Azumi. This imbalanced femininity is all surface; mincing gestures, a fluting eunuch's voice, and an exaggerated Noh-style aesthetic are rarely accompanied by extra sensitivity, romanticism, or any other 'female' (please note inverted commas!) characteristics. Which is an indicator of one of my favourite aspects of this uniquely Japanese brand of gender-play; that the balance has to be internal and experiential – dressing up in drag and mincing about isn't balance. It's a surface emulation of a deeply unbalanced extreme of femininity. A lot of the appeal of androgynous characters in their lack of dependence on others, symbolising a completeness which 'gendered' characters lack. That alchemical marriage.
Androgynous characters are a staple of Japanese shoujo (girls') popular culture. They not only appear in manga and anime; one of the more interesting phenomena is the Takarazuka Revue Theatre, an all-female theatre company established in 1914 in Osaka (there's a precedent in Kabuki, in which men play both male and female roles). The otoko-yaku - women who play the male roles - are the main stars of the company, much more popular than the musume-yaku, the actors playing women. Many of their productions’ stories are taken from shoujo manga such as Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles. Otoko-yaku are not simply male impersonators; they do not attempt to disguise their femininity and it is this androgynous quality which makes them so popular. Rosemary Iwamura quotes a fan as saying that the otoko-yaku are "much more manly and much cooler...than Japanese men". The grace and sensitivity of these ‘different’ males provides a symmetry and completeness that fans find bewitching. Iwamura cites an example of the devotion these actors inspire:
“fans staged a protest demonstration when one of their idols was required to play Scarlett O’Hara, they’ve turned Mari into a women, they screamed..”
It's fascinating - and inspiring - stuff. I find this particular cultural iteration of androgyny to be very sympathic with my own; it's less appearance-based, and more internal.
For those who are interested in Takarazuka, there's a review here.