From an historical viewpoint, just about every culture on the planet has idealized males as dominate figures, while dismissing females as the lesser sex. Japan is certainly no exception to this way of thinking. Though in recent years, while the gap between both genders has slimmed, it is still there, and the Japanese reflect this ideology in their manga and anime. Manga has been around for quite some time, and anime first appeared in the last century to represent manga on the television screen. While manga has an incredibly wide fan base that continues to grow each year, it normally targets either boys or girls. Manga for boys is called shounen, and for girls it’s shoujo.
Both may display similar characteristics regarding gender roles, but they are quite dissimilar in their portrayal, and normally cater to different genres. Shoujo, for instance, tends to center more on romance and finding true love, while shounen, even though it may also have romance, focuses more on action and adventure. This is not to say that shoujo has neither action nor adventure; those are just not the main focus in a typical shoujo.
So what I’m going to talk about today are two different shounen, Kisimoto Masasi’s Naruto and Takahasi Rumiko’s InuYasha. I also hope to explain why they are both shounen and not shoujo. Obviously, Naruto is a shounen, but there are some discrepancies about what category InuYasha falls under. And you’re going to have to brace yourselves, but I’m also going to be discussing gender roles.
Okay, let’s get to it.
Firstly, as I said, there has been some debate as to whether or not InuYasha is shounen or shoujo. Shounen typically stars a male protagonist, such as Naruto staring Naruto, Bleach staring Kurosaki Ichigo, and so forth, while a shoujo’s main character is, more often than not, female. Just as Inuyasya is InuYasha’s main protagonist, Kagome equally shares that limelight. So at this point, InuYasha can go either way.
Like what one would expect from a shoujo and not a shounen, InuYasha has an abundance of romance: Kagome loves Inuyasha; Inuyasha loves Kagome; Inuyasha loves Kikyou; Naraku loves Kikyou; Miroku loves Sango; and even Sesshoumaru finds a little love in the later chapters.
But Naruto, which is most definitely a shounen and appears in Shonen Jump, a collection of new issues of shounen manga, also has a fair bit of romance: Sakura loves Sasuke; Ino loves Sasuke; Naruto loves Sakura; Hinata loves Naruto; Rock Lee loves Sakura; Kabuto loves Orochimaru; and so on and so forth.
It’s all rather annoying.
As both manga, especially Naruto, have a fair number of characters, a little romance is to be expected to create a more realistic setting. What makes the romance in these shounen different from romance in shoujo is that the stories don’t center on the romance. Instead, it more utilizes the characters’ feelings as plot devices to add to the story and help it progress and as a means of character development, while focusing on a bigger issue.
Hinata, a shy girl with almost no self-confidence who constantly crushes on Naruto in her own head, reflects on her past and lets the audience know more about herself after Naruto gives her some inspirational words at a tournament. Then, she faces her opponent, and even though she still loses, she becomes emotionally stronger. Her instructor even says that she has never seen Hinata like that before. Naraku, a human man infused with demons, cannot kill Kikyou because his human half loves her, so to overcome that, he finds a way to transform himself into a full demon and gain the emotional strength to murder her—or at least he becomes apathetic enough to not care about her demise.
I’m not going to lie. I was also more or less apathetic about it too.
This is not to say that shoujo does not use romance as a plot device, but a typical shoujo probably wouldn’t have one of the main romances a dark, love-hate relationship of two characters trying to kill each other with simultaneously attempting to take over the world.
The reason both InuYasha and Naruto are shounen is that they are action based. They have much more violence and blood than what something like Sailor Moon, a shoujo about a teenage girl superhero, would have. Shounen also normally have more sexualized female characters. Girls may have exaggerated breast sizes, or appear nude with little to no attempts at censoring, which happens to Kagome quite a few times. When Kikyou is brought back to life using part of Kagome’s soul, a clear shot of Kagome’s torso from the front can be seen while she is bathing. Though, to be fair, Kagome’s breasts aren’t huge, and her skirt has the decency to defy gravity whenever it might otherwise give us a lovely shot of what’s underneath. And despite the nudity in the manga, it is nowhere near as sexualized as other manga. And Naruto doesn’t do it that much either. But that doesn’t mean they’re completely exempt of sexualized women.
A portrayal of sexualized womanhood would be Miroku constantly trying to feel up every other girl he sees, such as caressing Kagome or Sango’s rear. Furthermore, Naruto spies Hinata practicing naked in the forest (though he doesn’t know it’s her, and while she’s clearly wearing nothing, the audience doesn’t see anything particularly provocative). This was, however, used as a means to make Hinata blush and to come across as more cute than anything provocative. Though, if you haven’t watched this episode, don’t. It’s filler, and it doesn’t add to the relationship any more than the non-filler episodes have.
Overall, sexualized females are not a shounen requirement. Neither Naruto nor InuYasha spend a large amount of effort on this. The shounen Dragon Ball Z, for instance, has almost no females, and the ones it does have, have very realistic bodies for manga characters.
The separation of Naruto and InuYasha from shoujo, other than the emphasis on action, comes also from the drawing styles. Shoujo is cute. The girls are cute. The boys they like are cute. What they own is cute. Their eyes are wider. They sparkle. They talk in high-pitched voices that are meant to be endearing rather than annoying, though they normally fail at making that distinction. The list goes on. Shoujo displays younger girls, and sometimes boys, through their cuteness, while shounen girls are more woman-like, despite their ages. And if there are strong female characters, then shounen must have an equally strong, if not stronger, male character or characters to take the spotlight.
Displaying a girl’s sexuality helps show what the female role is in shounen. Both males and females come across as certain archetypes. Very few girls in both InuYasha and Naruto are overly sexualized, but their roles are clear nonetheless.
Sakura, for instance, is a young girl training to be a ninja, a job that requires prowess, physical strength, and a stable emotional mindset. She’s intelligent. She aces every test, gets the top marks of the class, and can work out problems other students her age cannot even fathom how to do, as shown during the chuunin exams, when the attendees are meant to cheat on a test after being given questions that they shouldn’t be able to answer. Sakura, however, can do every single question without problem. So she does come across as a strong female character in that regard. In the sequel, Naruto Shippuden, she is the first one to kill an Akatsuki member, an organization of powerful and criminal ninja, using a technique that gives her super strength. Her body is so strong that, at one point in the sequel, she punches the ground and causes nothing short of a small earthquake.
However, while Sakura eventually grows more into this stronger role, before Shippuden she is weak and almost whiny. She portrays a stereotyped twelve-year-old girl who is more obsessed with boys than being a good ninja. She strives for good grades to impress Sasuke. She grows her hair long and pampers it because Sasuke likes long hair. She breaks up with her best friend, Ino, because they both want Sasuke. During fights, she forgets her teammate Naruto in favor of making certain Sasuke is all right. When the manga first begins, she’s a damsel in distress. She spends more time being saved than actually helping anyone, and the few times she does help, she’s shoved down.
Her friend Ino isn’t much better. If anything, Ino is even more feminine that Sakura, but as Ino doesn’t appear as often as Sakura, it’s harder to see. Ino likes Sasuke for all the same reasons Sakura does: he’s good looking, intelligent, a ninja prodigy. And by the time Shippuden comes around, unlike Sakura who tries to better herself because she feels useless, Ino doesn’t improve that much. At times she seems like a deus-ex-machina to further explain what Sakura is feeling.
Some of the girls in Naruto seem to exist in order to make the men look better, or to just fill a spot that needs filled, much like Ten Ten, who only ever appears when absolutely necessary, and the few times she does, she is also beaten down, though sometimes by other girls. Ten Ten is also the most useless character in the story. Sometimes it feels as though Kisimoto Masasi forget he wrote her in.
Alternatively, some of the women, like Tsunade and Temari (who’s awesome and everyone should love her), don’t cater to the traditional female archetype. Tsunade, for example, has been shown to beat up men who spy on her with her superior strength, though that reaction is a typical stereotyped strong-woman reaction. Eventually, she even becomes the leader of the Village Konoha. The times when she has to overcome her fears and faults, like her hemophobia, she manages to do in the space of a few chapters or less, unlike Sakura, who has still yet to move on from her love of Sasuke since chapter one, even though that love manipulates her throughout the whole series.
Additionally, Kagome doesn’t fall into a very typical female archetype, at least not a typical shoujo female archetype. She doesn’t exist to make Inuyasha look better, to have him show her up, or to cling onto the arm of a strong man for protection. She proves time and time again that she can take care of herself, that she doesn’t need Inuyasha for physical or emotional support, and that she is more than capable of making her own decisions. One time when Inuyasha refuses to protect her, she manages to create a makeshift blowtorch to fend off a demon, and she has the power to shoot magical arrows. At another point, she completely destroys Naraku’s body with one.
She doesn’t see Inyasha and fall madly in love with him because he’s good looking and strong. She loves him after she gets to know him, and both she and Kikyou even display a female dominance over him. Kikyou was his first love, so she can influence him and toy with his emotions, while Kagome has powers over magical beads around his neck. By saying “Sit!” or “Osuwari!” she can send him crashing to the ground. At times she uses this just when Inuyasha annoys her or says something she doesn’t like, while at others times she uses it to help him. When Inuyasha loses control over himself to his demon side, by making him “sit,” Kagome can subdue that evil part of him. Her love for him eventually grows so strong that in one chapter she runs through something that acted as nothing short of acid just to reach him. Of course, it takes just under forever for this love to develop, because that’s how long the series is.
Kagome also plays a part in a love triangle that seems common between two or more girls and one guy in shounen (Sakura, Ino, and a few others all like Sasuke). Kagome bears whiteness to Inuyasha and Kikyou together over and over again and always ends up jealous or angry, even if they were just holding hands or talking. The next scene is usually followed by a couple of Sits.
At times, even in Shippuden, Sakura still needs saving. Hinata tries to help Naruto and almost gets killed for it. Women in shounen are portrayed as weaker than men, so it’s normally the man’s job to provide, not only an emotional crutch, but to come in and save the day when the woman cannot.
The general male lead in both these manga might not be the most stable of people, but they do grow into someone the other characters can trust and rely on. Naruto starts off as an annoying juvenile delinquent boy who acts out for the sake of attention, but he is also the host to a powerful fox demon. This allows him extra strength in battle, and even when it looks like he might lose, he gets that burst of power that he needs and defeats all his enemies and saves all his friends. Inuyasya has an enchanted sword, and he also discovers his true potential in battle just in time, and in the process, he ensures that his friends are safe.
A common male theme in shounen is perverted men, as seen in Naruto’s Jiraiya and InuYasha’s Miroku. Jiraiya spends his days snooping around women’s bathhouses for the “sake of research” for the stories he writes. In flashbacks for his character, it becomes known to the audience that this sort of behavior has been going on all his life. Miroku, knowing that he will die to a curse one day, has to find someone to bear his children in order to avenge him and slay the demon, thus ending the curse. He asks just about every woman he sees to bear his children and manages to touch Kagome on her bottom the day they first meet. After Sango is introduced, his advances move from Kagome to Sango. In the midst of battle, however, both Jiraiya and Miroku can put aside their fantasies and become the serious men they need to be.
Sasuke from Naruto and Sesshoumaru from InuYasha also play typical male roles. Both can be considered bishounen, which means “beautiful youth.” They’re a step ahead of the other males (except for the leading character) and things come to them more naturally.
Sasuke has a whole band of girls who want to date him, but he shows no interest. Instead, his character is driven by revenge to kill his brother. During Shippuden, he decides to destroy everyone from Konoha and uses Sakura’s love for him to try to kill her. He joins one of the main antagonists to gain the strength he needs to meet his goals, and after those goals are met, he joins another main antagonist to gain the strength he needs for his other goals.
Sesshoumaru doesn’t have a band of women flocking after him, but he still has the same characteristics as Sasuke. He’s driven to kill his brother. He’s graceful. Battle comes easily to him. He’s someone his comrades can rely on instead of defending themselves. He shows little to no emotion, and if he does, it’s something to make him seem even more serious. He’s so badass that even losing an arm doesn’t faze him.
Manga has been showing misogynistic themes for years, and it most likely won’t stop anytime soon, even if it has gone down significantly. Naruto and InuYasha, while seeming misogynistic at times, do a fairly decent job of showing equality between both genders, especially InuYasha where a female role shares the spotlight. All manga, like just about any other work, has specific roles meant for men and women, and those roles become clear throughout the story.
Does that make the misogyny better? No. Can that make it forgivable? Maybe, depending on how overblown the themes are. Naruto and InuYasha do have a lot of good qualities to them, and being so long, it’s impossible to not have some bad. Unfortunately, we’re still a bit away from having both sexes portrayed equally, but both these shounen are a step in the right direction.
They are not, however, a step forward in storytelling techniques, as neither author really could figure out a good stopping point. I’m looking at you too, Bleach.