Anime isn’t usually hailed as a feminist-friendly art form unless speaking about a very specific example. With images of illogical breasts floating around the internet at alarming speeds and subtypes like harem anime being some of the most popular and readily accessed genres, the apprehension is easy to understand. As a fan of anime, especially as someone who happens to like some of those Escher girl-esque harem shows, ignoring these things has become impossible. However, pointing out such obvious examples of poorly written or drawn representation does little to actually further the conversation outside of “wow, yeah, that’s bad.” Of course, there’s a time for these conversations with more obvious examples, but it’s perhaps more important to look at underlying elements in these narratives.
With two of my favorite anime/manga series, Trigun and X/1999, something always sat wrong with me in the way the series gave their male leads incentives to further the story’s plot. Namely, by killing off a female character. These deaths begin the series-long lament of the male protagonist over how they could have/should have saved her and all the fun times that come along with such thoughts. But the more I thought about it, the more the two deaths began to seem less similar, although they functionally serve the same purpose in terms of the male protagonist outside of plot progression—they give the protagonists some goddess-like martyr to aspire to.
Trigger warning for gore under the cut.
In Trigun, protagonist Vash the Stampede is haunted by the death of his mother figure, Rem, who died on a spaceship after getting both Vash and his brother, Knives, to an escape pod. And though Rem’s sacrifice brought about the continuation of the human race, for the rest of the series, Vash hunts down his brother to seek revenge for Rem’s death, while dreaming of Rem telling him that his future has yet to be decided. While in X/1999, protagonist Kamui mourns the death of his childhood friend/crush, Kotori, whose death sets in motion the beginning of the end of the world. Both of them take on this god-like status, with Rem literally saving the human race and Kotori, only shown as innocent and pure, taking away much of the world’s goodness with her death. At first, I believed that both of them could be considered examples of women being fridged, however, upon further inspection this wasn’t true at all. In this situation, we’re not dealing with two women being killed to further the pain of the male protagonist, rather, we have one example of that and one example of the protagonist’s pain being a side-effect of the woman’s death. The difference comes in terms of motivation and power.
Kotori’s case is very easily a situation of a woman being fridged. She doesn’t share the same powers as Kamui and her brother—which are the powers to save or destroy the world—but she does have a power: she can see the future. Yet, even in the end she can’t do anything to fight her fate: she is only a victim and nothing more. She can see her death, but can do nothing to prevent it because it’s her death that determines whether Kamui will be good or evil.
Because of this, Kotori becomes just a plot device with no other reason to exist than to make Kamui hate or want to protect the world. What solidifies this as a fridging even more is the method in which she dies. Really, all she needed to do was die; however, she dies in one of the most gruesome methods in the series, all to further Kamui’s ascent or decent. Again, Kotori is only a tool, and what’s worse is that she’s fine with this. Chapters after her murder, someone that can interact with the dead speaks to Kotori and she seems pretty fine with the whole thing—further cementing that she never had a chance to be an actual character
On first watch-through, it felt like Rem suffered the same fate: she was going to die no matter what she did and her only purpose was to create some sort of unsolvable pain in Vash. And while, yes, she is the source of his trauma, the difference between her and Kotori is that, in the end, she actually had a choice concerning her actions. Rem made the conscious decision to return to the failing spaceship. She could have just as easily absconded into the escape pod with Vash and Knives. This is what I mean by Vash’s pain being a by-product of Rem’s death: he will, of course, mourn her death, but her death held more meaning than simply to make him suffer. Where Kotori was forced to her death, stripped of her agency and power, and turned into an object, Rem always kept a firm grasp on her agency and remained a character even after her death because of it.
While it’s always important to point out the unfair treatment of women in media, it’s also important to sometimes step back and truly consider the events in a narrative. It’s easy to consider the death of a woman in relation to a male character as a cheap move by the writers to add drama at the expense of actual female representation, but sometimes the death adds more character to the deceased than the living. And while examples like Rem are rare—and should stay as such—if a female death must absolutely happen, then it should be done while taking into consideration the motives and characterization of said female character. In the end, women should have their own stories; stories that aren’t dictated by how their male counterparts react to or internalize them.