At this point in my life, I know better than to go into any shoujo anime—or any anime, actually—expecting to find any particularly feminist themes. As such, when I sat down the other day and started watching through Ore Monogatari, it was more to satiate my sweet-romance tooth than anything else. Really, the 2015 series is mostly just cute fluff with a recurring, underlying “no homo” motif between the two male leads (but only bordering on the edge of queerbait-y when compared to, say, Supernatural); everything mostly travels on its doki-doki course with a couple surprisingly good morals along the way. However, there’s one character whose attitude and looks almost seem out of place in a shoujo series, and I would argue that everyone from the series benefits from her just being herself. This character is, of course, protagonist Takeo Gouro’s mother, Yuriko.
A couple weeks ago I talked about how Presea from CLAMP’s Rayearth attempted to redefine the narrow mold for older women in the shoujo genre. Yet, if Presea does “redefine”, Yuriko takes that to a level that CLAMP could never achieve. Ore Monogatari focuses on the blooming relationship between Takeo, a high school student, and Rinko, a fellow high school student from an all-girls school. Takeo simply cannot believe, at first, that Rinko has any feelings for him, and instead pushes his own feelings aside and vows to help get her and his more conventionally attractive (and hella popular) friend together, thinking this is what she wants. The misunderstanding is quickly cleared up, and the rest of the series focuses on basic shoujo cuteness with surprisingly little negative drama. However, I wouldn’t say that it’s groundbreaking or anything. Even Yuriko, at first glance, is nothing groundbreaking. Mothers in shoujo are typically relegated to either being dead a la Disney or are just… around for plot convenience purposes or to simply show that the protagonist isn’t an orphan. True enough, Yuriko shows up at first as a tool used to really hammer in that yes, Takeo has a really cute girlfriend despite his unconventional looks, and then goes into mom mode, cleaning up the house and being a little too hospitable to Rinko.
Despite not getting a huge increase in screen time after this, the audience does slowly get to know Yuriko. Unlike the more stereotypical mother archetype in most pieces of media, Yuriko carries herself with a flippant, almost curmudgeonly nature. She often makes comments about how the men in her family worry about her too much, and that she’s fine carrying huge bags of rice up to their apartment despite being pregnant. Neither is she a quote-unquote harpy who demands things be done perfectly or not at all, instead she takes things as they come; and further still, she does not thrive off of constantly combating her husband’s/son’s competency in that “oh, men can’t do anything right” kind of way.
One of the sources of comedy of Ore Monogatari is from how Takeo looks: he has pronounced lips and a somewhat threatening face and stature which is juxtaposed with the sparkling looks of love and adoration he gives his girlfriend and other friends. Yuriko, too, has this sort of physiology to her, and about half-way through the series it’s revealed that Takeo gets his looks almost exclusively from his mother, but his physique from his father. While it’s easy to draw the parallels between Takeo’s and Yuriko’s Beauty and the Beast-esque situations, neither Takeo’s nor Yuriko’s looks are ever made out to be disgusting. In Takeo’s case, physically imposing and threatening, yes, but where it would have been a gimme to point out the degree of difference between Yuriko and her husband’s socially defined attractiveness, it never happens. She is slightly overweight and wears sweats a lot, but she is beautiful and happy because she is confident in herself. Takeo’s father explains that he fell for Yuriko because of who she was as a person, and never gives the impression that this is despite her looks. In a cast inundated with intensely conventionally attractive characters, it’s important that no one ever mentions giving Yuriko a make-over or anything, because she does not need it.
What I find most important about Yuriko’s station in shoujo is that she is exactly what older women should aspire to be. Her husband recounts in an episode that the moment he fell in love with her, he promised that he would protect her as she protected the other people around her. However, Yuriko doesn’t need to be protected. And more so than a woman who takes care of her family, Yuriko is a woman who is devoted to helping other women. Her home is always open as a place of comfort to Rinko, and she always has words of wisdom for the young girl, but it extends beyond that. In one episode, right at the end of her own pregnancy, Yuriko saves another pregnant woman from falling down some stairs at a park, putting her own pregnancy at risk. Though her child is safe, this continues when at the hospital she gives up her wheelchair to another woman who needs it, and instead is helped to the delivery room by her son. Many shoujo series explore this ideal of self-sacrifice, but instead of placing Yuriko on some unobtainable platform of godly purity, in this case Ore Monogatari is showing a much more normalized version of the concept, all while keeping Yuriko’s character.
While Ore Monogatari does have its own problems, what it does exceedingly well is exploring different facets of being a woman, both within and outside of the comfortable tropes—even though the audience only ever experiences the story through Takeo’s perspective. Yuriko is a character that’s easy to overlook, but holds so much promise for the evolution of older women characters in the genre. A housewife doesn’t need to be confined to some perfect image of cleaning and cooking, and she doesn’t need to completely rebel against the system to be remarkable. There will always be a need for older women characters who define their lives for themselves, with all the complexities that such a thing brings, and the more creators choose to explore this and escape this mold, the richer stories will become.