While watching any new series, I often do searches for other folks' reviews. Pile on enough blog-reports and tiny things filter in for a bigger picture -- that is, one small question over here and another over there, that sort of thing. Then there are the things that a lot of people question. That's where I can get a pretty good idea of what's working (or not working) for non-Japanese viewers, because such things intrigue me.
In Mo No No Ke, the biggest complaints were these three things.
One, the medicine seller doesn't have a name. This really bugged a lot of people.
Two, the disconnect between his help and the actual results. In the end, just whose side is he on, anyway?
Three, there wasn't an easy-to-hand analogue for western viewers. They couldn't seem to place the archetype outside a catchall category of 'obscure/opaque Japanimanga characters'.
As I worked my way through the series, I kept thinking about those three complaints. Identity, alliance, archetype, but since the last one is often the best for understanding a character's place in a literary mindset, it seemed the place to start.
Basically, you've got some guy who strolls into the scene -- with a reasonable excuse for being there, true, but otherwise seemingly random -- and at the same time offers no name, no background, no explanations. He just is. Somehow he ingratiates himself into the story, but soon enough he's no longer showing expected loyalty for the locals' or hosts' benevolence; he may even appear to betray them. And then, perhaps, another double-cross...
Yet, characterization-wise, he seems consistent, maybe even like he has a plan (mostly), but it's not a plan that makes even the least bit of sense. If you just look at the facts of the story, he hasn't really resolved anything so much as resolved conflicts by decimating everything, ruthlessly and unequivocally. Perhaps the most chilling, at times he displays just the slightest touch of (possibly morbid) humor, which in the wrong light looks almost like delighted malice.
Gee. What archetype could we possibly have in the western world that could be an analogue to a character like Kusuri-uri? Five words, people.
The man with no name.
The "Man with No Name", as personified by [Clint] Eastwood, embodies the archetypal characteristics of the American movie cowboy — toughness, exceptional physical strength or size, independence, and skill with a gun — but departed from the original archetype due to his moral ambiguity. Unlike the traditional cowboy ... the Man with No Name will fight dirty and shoot first, if required by his own self-defined sense of justice. ... Although he tends to look for ways to benefit himself, he has, in a few cases, aided others if he feels an obligation... He is generally portrayed as an outsider, a mercenary or bounty hunter, or even an outlaw. He is characteristically soft-spoken and laconic, speaking only when necessary, with as few words as possible. The character is an oft-cited example of an anti-hero, although he has a soft spot for people in deep trouble.I get the biggest kick out of the fact that A Fistful of Dollars (the first in the Eastwood/Leone 'Dollars' trilogy) was based on Kurosawa's Yojimbo (and the subject of a successful lawsuit for doing it, too) which in turn was based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest. Go figure.
So it's inaccurate to say we lack this archetype in the west. (Who was that Masked Man?) The introduction of moral ambiguity is a modern element, but the concept otherwise runs deep in our stories. The reason, though, I think may be a little different than for older cultures.
This is only tangential but hell, as long as I'm thinking out loud. Just seems to me that America has always had this big thing about elbow room, westward ho, and the bloodsoaked ideal of Manifest Destiny. When, in our stories, characters are travelling, this is not because they're necessarily on the run or are landless or some other lower-caste stature. Pretty much the vast majority of our population and our culture got to where it is by travelling. Pilgrims to pioneers, like Gallagher's comment about the people who pushed all the way to California and hit water, so they built really long piers to get them just a little bit farther. Now their children stand there at the very end, staring out across the water and thinking, "where else can we go, now?"
Other countries, of course, have travelling-stranger stories, but when it's a culture for which a person can feasibly live their entire life in a single town (and for which this is seen as preferable, even), the visiting stranger is going to be interpreted just a bit differently. I mean, right off the bat, it seems, there's an assumption that this guy must be a little tetched, to be traipsing about when good honest folk find a home and settle down. Yeah, we have that "good people stay home" attitude in the US, but a fair amount of the time the real hero of the story isn't the visiting stranger but the towns-person who says, "y'know what, I'm gonna head out, too."
Pretty much our entire history is based on people going off on wild goose chases, from the trip to get here to the treks across Kentucky to Colorado to find the perfect place. For someone in an American story, then, to choose to leave home and begin a journey is, in a way, a personal enactment of our culture's cornerstone, or maybe we've repeated it so often that this conclusion has a kind of rightness, for us. I'm not saying we don't have American stories that end with the stranger riding off and leaving behind peace and harmony ("I didn't even get a chance to thank that Masked Man!"). That's a universal element in stories with travelling heroes.
It's just that we also have a strong appreciation for stories that end with a new traveller on the road. In a lot of our stories, the best endings are new beginnings, and perhaps for this culture, the start of a new journey is thus the penultimate ending: and this is the further step that Mo No No Ke doesn't take.
ETA: CP promptly challenged me to NAME ONE. Okay, I had to think, and then I realized that (outside of theater/film) most of the stories are real-stories-into-folklore. Laura Ingalls Wilder's series has this theme over and over and hers is mostly autobiography. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) we have a lot of created folklore -- I mean, if anyone, Mark Twain is the master of them all -- and at what point does a much-repeated recent-fiction (relatively) become general folklore? Wait, does anyone tell stories about Paul Bunyan anymore?
The more folklorish type is about specific folk heroes (real or quasi-real) that came into town, had Major Impact on someone local, who then either goes on to do the same or grows up and goes on to do the same. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett show up in plenty of those, where the story gets a epilogue of "and then that boy grew up to be so-and-so, who did such-and-such" in homage to the travelling hero.
There are also a fair share of trickster-type stories (many coming from the Native traditions) in which the traveller is the real hero, and his repeated task is often to point out the ridiculousness of the townsfolk, cause havoc, have fun, and move along. Most of the coyote-styled stories I've read sure come across like it's Coyote you want to be (or Little Blue Fox, in some cases), and not the hapless townsfolk stuck in their ignorance.
Or maybe the real moral in trickster-traveller stories is just that sitting still makes you a really easy target for wandering coyotes.
Back to Kusuri-uri.
There's one element of his appearance that really throws you for a loop if you have the least bit of familiarity with Japanese culture/dress. The freaking obi.
I'm not going into the references for this cross-gender dress; I'll save that for a post that goes back to focusing on the series for those who are specifically interested in the series & its details. The gist of my rambling here is related but it doesn't require you know the entirety of Mo No No Ke. (I'm just hoping I can do the vague mental mutterings justice.)
First off, his robe/kosode is more similar to a priest's robe. (Zen priest, more specifically.) There is a definite line between the two, in East as well as West. Without belaboring the dogma, the simplest is probably "priests work among/with people, monks are secluded". Most priest-garments are codified to a great degree, and haven't been contemporary garb in generations... but once upon a time, the majority of such garments would have been similar to fashions among the laity. (I'm not really sure the same could be said for monk-robes, in general.)
So to see someone wearing a garment that looks quasi-ecclesiastical -- whether or not we were raised in that religion, so long as the religion has some familiarity in our culture -- is to provoke a certain reaction. Usually one of a bit more reverence (if only for a quick passing moment), maybe a bit of curiosity, maybe an assumption of especial authority. Granted, if the person turns around and we realize we were standing behind some kid wearing a second-hand cassock, a lot of that first reaction will get dismissed. But it's still there.
Gee. Let me see if I can think of a good example in our Western world, where a civilian wears a priest-like garment to imply a kind of spiritual authority.
One is a traditional Catholic cassock; the other is -- well, if you don't know, you're beyond my help. I included both to show that the cassock looks somewhat straight-lined when hung, but on the body it sits close until mid-waist, and from there flares to the floor. HELLO it's a tailored short-jacket and a SKIRT, and the way it's been flipped to hang open in the picture on the right just accentuates this. (Even as it also reveals legs that further underscore the masculinity of the wearer.)
In the modern western world, this would be a DRESS, if we didn't have that overlay of "ecclesiastical garment". It's hard to deny that there is -- even if that wasn't in the original design -- a strong element of the feminine in the garb. It's just plain a silhouette that we identify with such, and that's where the androgyny comes in.
Thing is, I don't mean formal/complete androgyny, like this.
I mean something a bit less... total. (Definitely less contrived.)
When I was in college, I dated someone who had red-brown hair that fell to the elbows or thereabouts, and in natural ringlets to boot. About 5'9" and of slender build, and he'd grown a beard because while he usually took the confusion with a good-natured shrug, it did get old sometimes. There wasn't really a sense of planning about it so much as personal style choices intersected with cultural expectations and suddenly his 'clues' contain both male -- broader shoulders, flat chest, smaller hips, a beard -- and female -- long eyelashes, softer chin line, long hair tied only in loose ponytail.
Every now and then in books or movies there might be a gagline of a (usually strongly heteronormative) character mistaking someone for being a girl, and getting all attracted and chasing, only to discover it's a boy. Most of the time this is played only for laughs, with sympathy weighted to the hetero-character because, hey, Lola was in a dress, he was wearing a pretty wig, he had on heels, he spoke in a soft voice. The message is: Lola had all the clues of Being A Girl. Far less often in popular culture (but from what I've seen, relatively often in daily life, especially in large urban areas where you see lots and lots of people but only in glimpses), do you get the more realistic event.
That is, when someone (like those guys in trucks) yells out of the window at what looks like a hot babe strolling down the sidewalk. Then, as the truck keeps going and the guy-in-truck looks back with hopes of getting friendly response, he sees, OMG BEARD. And does this jaw-drop embarrassed-lobster sudden jerk back into the truck. (Bad reactions include violence; better reactions include a weak smile and a waved apology.)
Because when we first relate to someone -- and a level of sexual attraction/relation is perfectly normal once you hit adulthood, I say -- we have to judge this book by its cover. We don't have any other basis at first, so we look, and we make basic assumptions based on what we see. No biggie. But, I think, sometimes we don't realize that we instinctively (or in the case of Hollywood, possibly purposefully if not in so many words) choose certain cross-gender tags to broaden the scope of who will react to the visual clues.
In the past few years, the Western pop culture has embraced a notion of 'man crushes' and 'girl crushes' (and don't even get me started on why it's not boy-crushes and girl-crushes, or man-crushes and woman-crushes AAARGHHH) -- even if such same-sex, if sexless, crushes have been a facet of humanity since time began. I mean, really, didn't we all have a crush at some point on a school teacher or a babysitter? I don't mean the "imagine us naked together" crush, either, but the fundamental definition of a crush: pure, simple infatuation.
It's a kind of ambivalence where you're not entirely sure you're (sexually) attracted to the person, but something in them and/or their appearance has you infatuated, and a lot of folks will rationalize or externalize this as "I'm not attracted to him/her, but I'd like to be him/her." The external behavior looks sure like a crush to me, though, a lot of noise and talk about how awesome that person is, how cool they look, a bit of adulation, a bit of emulation.
I've met guys who liked Clint Eastwood's character in the Dollars trilogy. I've met women who liked Princess Leia in the Star Wars trilogy. But if we're talking about crushes, I've met far more men who've raved at length about Eric Draven.
Here, the gender-tags, let me show you them.
On the left is a model for a Parisian fashion house (of course), and I include that because look at all the clues: bracelets, even corset-with-skirt, and (strangely the one thing that does weirds me out) flat-soled shoes. But there's no doubt, despite all that, that the model is anything but male. The masculinity remains strong enough in other visual clues -- shape of the jaw, breadth of the shoulders, length of the legs, build of the forearms -- that it's undoubtedly male.
On the right is the main character of The Crow, the aforementioned Eric. He's not overloaded the clues quite like the model on the left, but there are still feminine tags all over him. Most obvious is the waist-cinching duct-tape wrapped around his middle. Whether or not this has basis in storyline, the fact is that it's incorporated into his dress early on and remains his garb to the end, and it's a subtle-but-very-there nod to the small, cinched, corseted waistline that will make guys' heads turn if they see it before taking in the entirety of the appearance and registering overall gender. Plus, longer hair, a bit rakish, and face/eye makeup. (This image is from the publicity stills, but I'm almost positive his nails were painted in the movie; another gender-tag.)
Even the higher waistline of the leather pants is more of a feminine-cut than the lower-waisted masculine cut -- but there's no doubt he's definitely male-gender. The upper arms are muscled, the flatter curves of the chest, the hips/waist relatively even and smaller than shoulder-width, the shape of the jaw, the size of the hands/fingers.
It's kind of like, maybe, by adding a slight veneer of the object-of-attraction gender (whatever that may be), visual media can create just enough of an overload to make someone who'd normally notice/dismiss instead notice/respond to. Even if the overall package wouldn't, doesn't, get the response, those other signals remain subtle enough to be unnoticed but strong enough to still provoke a reaction.
It gets verbalized/acted out as infatuation, and even as "I wanna be that person", because I think when we're attracted to someone we wouldn't normally find so attractive, people can't always face that head-on (for whatever reason)... so it gets flipped around inside and the mental argument may go something like this: "I don't know why but I'm infatuated and since I'm not entirely comfortable with it, it'd be easier to just appropriate whatever he's doing so that way others will be attracted to me, like I am to him..." Or roughly like that.
It's not just men. You have no idea how many straight women I met who quietly drooled into their popcorn buckets and none of it had the damned least bit to do with some overmuscled robot-person guy.
I found Sarah Connor, in the first movie, boring and predictable and totally whitebread. I adored her in the second. Not because it was a great movie but because she was hitting every freaking button imaginable when it comes to layering on alternate-gender tags on top of primary gender. She walks the line of androgyny more than Eric Draven's character, but at the same time there's no denial/erasure of original gender. This isn't Jaye Davidson, after all, who is far more of an androgyne in the sense of removing gender-tags to the point that feminine- and masculine-tags balance each other out (similar to the photograph of the model at the start of this).
Keep in mind that this was way before Tomb Raider, okay? Women dressed like this -- let alone built like this! -- were not a dime-a-dozen yet, not on the big screen. (The only other long-impact contemporary for this character might be that of Ripley, in the Aliens trilogy.) I would have used Ripley as the example, but seriously, it doesn't entirely work -- in part because the Aliens movies do have her as the main role, so she's the focus. In the Terminator movies, the focus was really Arnold Impossible-to-Spell-Name. Conner was clearly written to be support, so most of the women I knew were going either because they secretly thought Arnold cute, or their boyfriends wanted to see things blow up, and then the women walked back out of the theater sighing Linda Hamilton's name.
I mean, look at the muscles in those arms! There's not an ounce of fat on the woman, and while the hint of breasts does indicate a feminine-curve, it's not nearly pronounced enough to make the mammaries the focus of attention. (Unlike, say, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, whose breasts are so damn large and such a focus, along with her ass, that it drowns out any alternate-gender tags in her veneer, if you ask me, which is probably why I can't think of any women I've known ever saying that they'd like to be Lara Croft, or that they're all that hung up on her.)
Connor is not "lithe" and she's not "slender", she's powerfully sleek and trim and obviously physically capable. Not just in build, but in the things she's able to do during the movie as well. Beyond just "we see her working out," she's also vicious, violent, ruthless, curt, single-minded, and able to strike out without a second thought. These are all behavioral gender-tags, as well: they're what men accuse women of being when women are acting "too much like guys" -- to the point of being butch, or trying to be a guy. ("Why can't you be more like a girl?" I hear someone in my past whine.)
Yet Sarah Connor's character appealed strongly to guys, too, because she didn't bury the feminine in the masculine anymore than Draven did in the opposite direction. Those are still hips; the waist is still proportionally smaller than the chest/hips; she doesn't artificially increase her height but remains quite petite compared to the men; her hair remains long, not shaved or cropped (like Ripley or GI Jane); she even wears makeup, if not a huge amount. Her fingers are long and slender, wrists and neck delicate, voice husky but still within the range of most women. All the clues for feminine-gender are there, but she also incorporates a boatload of tags for masculine identity, too -- and the women I knew (and yeah, me too) were just completely infatuated.
That's what I mean by androgyny-by-veneer. If formal/true androgyny is "having no tags of a gender or having tags of equal amount such that gender can't be specifically defined" then veneer means that original gender is unquestionable but that... there's just something else laid on top. The result of a successful veneer is that both genders (regardless of actual sexual orientation) are going to twig on just enough tags to turn their heads and wonder what has them so attracted.
Sometimes I wonder just how much time the Japanese culture has had on its hands, over the centuries, to come up with terms for the most incomprehensibly intangible yet specific things. (Yeah, we have them in English but that's usually because we snagged it from someone else: schadenfreude, anyone?)
Every now and then, the Iwa ni Hana blog will expand on one of these peculiar untranslatable terms, like youen (妖艶). I'm quoting nearly in full because there's just no decent way to truncate the post because a lot of it's relevant here (but if you like the insight, go there & thank the blogger!). The term youen, according to my dictionary, is "fascinating; voluptuous" -- it sounds like decadent might also be an implied English value, as well. Another dictionary says "bewitching"; a third says "fascinating; glamorous". According to Iwa ni Hana, this just doesn't fit. S/he remarks that in context, youen has referred to:
i) The erotic attractiveness of a woman who is outside the traditional norm of feminine virtue (eg. a geisha etc) and avails herself amply of man-made enhancements to her beauty (eg. flamboyant dress, cosmetics etc). In other words, you cannot be a virtuous woman and be youen, nor can you go casual in your dress, wear no make-up and be youen. Moreover, there must be a sinister vibe to your erotic attractiveness.She goes on to note that youen in art is a lot like zen -- you either get it, or you don't... and there are some days I can't help but think the entirety of obscure Japanese artistic terms, if not the entire Japanese language, is pretty much a talking case of zen. You get it, or you don't.
ii) Youen in this sense is sometimes applied to effeminate men. A manly man is never youen. Youen is a distinctly feminine/effeminate quality.
iii) This quality is sometimes extended to the afterlife in supernatural tales, where the ghost of a dead woman bearing some personal grudge appear as a youen ghost to execute her revenge. In fact, one may go further to say that youen is the default characteristic of such female ghosts in supernatural tales - in other words, if you are a female ghost in Japanese supernatural tale, you had better be youen. Fox spirits, when they take on a feminine guise, are also typically youen.
The 'eroticism' referred in youen is different from 'sexiness' - the eroticism denotes something remote and unapproachable, typically aided by man-made effects like make-believes in a play on stage or else supernatural magic. You more or less allow yourself to be hoodwinked for the time being in order to appreciate the eroticism. It is more intellectual than physical.
Me, I don't always get it. But I figure that what really matters (to me) is whether I can see how to apply this term into my own contexts.
In this particular case, I think the general sensation (as it were) is one that's universal, and I'm just deconstructing it further to note that some element of eroticism may also be enhanced by (or implied by) the addition of cross-gender tags. I know it's not necessarily a loaded term in the original post, but I can't seem to stop myself from returning to the expression "man-made"... because in a lot of ways, the cosmetics and enhancements women do to themselves are purely, or at least significantly so, for the purpose of creating attraction -- and traditionally the expected audience was entirely male.
[Let's just not talk about how many times I've researched cultures and subcultures and found copious documents on homosexuality... and nothing on lesbianism. Because, y'know, men may be doing the wacky wet weasel with each other for millennia but women didn't actually, like, discover sex between each other until, oh, my mother was in grade school. After all, if no one wrote it down or even noticed it happened, then it didn't, right? Hello, Queen Victoria. Let's all recite that favorite expression: the absence of proof is not proof of absence. Feel free to sing along when we get to the chorus.]
The sinister vibe is a curious thing, and when you get into gender-issues, it often makes me think of people I've met who've felt threatened by members of a specific gender. I've known drag queens who are just vicious, truly vicious, to women -- a sort of malicious "if I can't have what you got by birth, I'll make you feel like dirt out of spite." Then again, I've also known women who do the same thing to other women. (What is up with that?) And going farther back though it stretches into my personal experience, there's a large segment of the male population that finds it disquieting when a woman exhibits a strong sexuality. For those men from cultures where women are supposed to be invisible, retiring, unassuming (if not divided outright into virgin/whore dichotomy), a woman who flaunts her sexuality in a voluptuous, decadent, bewitching manner is most definitely a dangerous creature.
CP: Basically, you're talking about a vamp.
Yeah. Except that in the west, "vamp" has been trivialized to a certain degree, to imply cheapness, as well. If Dolly Parton weren't so much homegrown goodness and down-to-earth humor, she'd probably be a vamp, just like Elvira. Drugstore Maybelline eyeshadow, cheap-ass slinky clothes suitable for the latest streetwalker fashion show, and all while tottering on high heels. The original idea was femme fatale, but both words have come a long, long way from the dangerous attractions of Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, Veronica Lake, or even Lauren Bacall when she was in the right mood.
Thing is, when you look at the stills of historical vamps like those above, the pictures don't always do the actresses justice. I mean, the images don't always look sexy in the "wow, she's pretty" kind of sexually-attractive way. Because it's not really about the basic facts of the physical so much as how the femme fatale speaks, behaves, carries herself. It's an eroticism, and it's doing a lot more work in our heads to make us believe this person is fascinating, alluring, bewitching, enthralling. Any physical sensations to go along with it are almost a byproduct.
Okay, the same is true of homme fatal, as well, and they are out there -- but that's not a phrase I've ever seen. Why is it that women are the ones who -- when sexually strong, are considered "predatory"? or when unabashed in their sexuality, thus gain a veneer of "dangerous"? -- oh, wait, I remember, because MEN have been writing the rulebooks for so long. RIGHT. Silly me, for forgetting that. (Wait, does this mean when we start seeing homme fatal on the screen as well that we've reached some kind of equitable predation? Say, hunh?)
All that meandering aside, I think the point that it's eroticism, not (the slightly more crass level of physicality) sexiness -- and that it's mental, not physical -- is the important thing, here. Because on some level, I can't help but think that those guys who used to whistle at my boyfriend must've known, somewhere on an instinctual level, that the overall body-shape and basic visual clues were all saying unequivocally MALE. Yet something in there triggered the brain to override that, to go with the mental suggestion and react accordingly; the intellectual had, for a short while, foregone double-checking with the rest of the evidence.
Which is to say, when those otherwise heterosexual guys were whistling at a long-haired guy, they were actually thinking themselves into the attraction. It came from the head, not from... well, wherever it is that sexual attraction resides. (Yeah, yeah, I know how you were gonna finish that statement.) Although from that point, I must admit that personally, I think pretty much all attraction comes from the mental, not the physical: if you're willing to believe you find something attractive, you probably will. And, too, if you're open to being convinced, you can.
I can't even count the number of people I've known in my life who would never be fashion models but were incredibly sexy/erotic, always had someone on the arm and a list of more people waiting, and always turned heads and stopped traffic. Yet, so many of them weren't really 'classically' good-looking, male or female, but they had something. In experience-laden hindsight, I think they had an unwavering innate, if unvoiced, belief that they were attractive... and that confidence on some level invariably affected (effected?) others. My mother used to tell me, always smile like you know something. What she didn't explain (and took me to college to figure out) was that you should smile like you know something about that person -- it has to be personal. Strangely, people react to this, sometimes really strongly. They're fascinated, sometimes surprisingly so, and for those rare perceptive types willing to think twice about it, they're apparently surprised themselves, because they can't identify a concrete reason for this bewitchment.
We all find it flattering to have someone fascinated with us; I think eroticism is partially about that focus, too. It's not just that this youen, this femme fatale quality, is going at full-steam, but that we're able to delude ourselves that this quality exists solely for us, as an individual. Those folks who can turn heads do it, I think, in part because when they smile at someone, there's a way of doing it such that the recipient feels like that smile was solely and totally because of, and for, him/her.
There's a lot more (obviously) going on in youen, because it just feels like it's a culturally-loaded term far past what I could, or would, go into right now. I mean, it's a term from a culture with incredibly strong gender roles to this day, and thus to say a manly man isn't youen, that this requires a certain femininity... well, I can't be the only person suspecting landmines all around when it comes to the implied gender-issues underneath that. A man who displays/emphasizes elements of femininity thus increases both his eroticism and a sense of the sinister: is it because he's preempting the threatening element already present when a woman flaunts/expands her sexuality/attractiveness? Or is it ominous because he's not playing by the usual (manly-man) rules?
Getting back to Kusuri-uri, in each scene where he elicits a startled blush from a woman, the predecessor to the woman's reaction is a focused and intense look from Kusuri-uri. I guess the implication may be that his expression is the cultural equivalent of "undressing with the eyes" but... I dunno if that's really the entirety of it. Outside any generalizations about the culture overall (excepting the strong gender roles), within the storyline, women are almost always the victims. (One storyline's apparent exception is a superficial one, because it was a man's denial of a woman that led to the mononoke -- which is a cousin to the other storylines in that it's denying sexuality but from the opposite side of the fence.)
Whether by dint of choice or just how things seem to work out, Kusuri-uri is effectively an advocate for women in that he manipulates the mononoke-situations to force men to realize the regret/truth, and harm, of their actions. No, he is not a force for women's rights, so much as a force for compassion and regret in light of wrong actions -- it just so happens that the ones mostly being wronged are women.
I mention that because the intense stare he gives may also carry the weight of someone who truly sees the woman in question. What I can't put my finger on is the cultural whispers underneath, to articulate the difference between being seen by a potential rapist/abuser versus being seen by this kabuki-inspired travelling man with no name. Perhaps it's also because, in the instances I can immediately recall, he's also speaking to the woman, so he's not just noticing her as an object (ie, a vase or a painting to stare at) but also something for which communication is necessary. Perhaps?
I'm not sure. But for whatever reason, there is something dangerous-yet-enthralling about him, and something erotic, but nothing in the storylines twig on sexual, for me (at least not for/about Kusuri-uri, though sexuality and sexual warfare are buried in several of the storylines).
Oh, and otherworldly, too, but let's save that for some other post.
Getting back to the issue of Mo No No Ke using this tactic, I know some of you are probably thinking already that Japan has a long tradition of androgyny, and cross-dressing (at least for men to dress like women), and that their attitudes are undoubtedly different. Well, yeah. Except, not.
I've never really cared for Visual Kei, Japan's homegrown cross-dressing musical style, and a lot of that has to do (I suspect) on some level with the strong androgyny. I'm not saying I want guys to look like guys and girls to look like girls (whatever that means) but that I find more depth and attraction in those who take the original gender and build on it, instead of bury it.
It's not even that I don't know how to interact with someone with such appearance -- I have my share of androgynous friends, and I've done my time playing the game with goths of not finding out what's really in the package until you get it home and unwrap it. It's that I just don't find it as attractive as gender-layered, because it ends up being an absence of gender, and it's gender that is one of the main elements of attraction. Genderless often translates (visually) as a kind of asexuality: an absence.
I'm not entirely certain the traditional androgyny applies here: the visual seen in most animanga, for the cross-dressing boy, is that s/he does fool onlookers at first, if not for a fair number of frames/meetings afterwards, until someone clues in. (Why is it that the hero is always the last to clue in? Is there something about heroes being required to take things at face value?) The voice may not be a majorly-higher pitch, but again (like with Sarah Connor or Aliens' Ripley) there are ranges in which male/female overlap. The hair is definitely longer, the dress predominantly female; the goal is to subvert the masculine altogether to present a predominantly feminine-gender veneer -- such that what few masculine-tags may remain come don't come across as the original-gender but as the veneer-gender, which I guess is a kind of hiding-in-plain-sight.
Kusuri-uri's face, voice, behavior, and the rest of his dress leave no doubt that he's male. (Especially the voice, which every now and then lightens into the higher end of the voice actor's natural tenor, but otherwise he keeps it on the low end.) Plus, in Japanese, the language is gender-specific, such that one's pronouns are gender-based: to truly 'pass' as a gender, one must use the appropriate I-form, etc. Kusuri-uri uses a very clear and definite 'masculine' I-form, which just further underlines that this guy is definitely, well, a guy.
Yet there's the obi; there's the painted fingernails which are also quite long; the delicate fingers...
Hm. Maybe there's another element, too, in this: in cultures with otherwise near-impenetrable gender-lines -- those who identify in some way with the alternate-gender (if the alternate is the 'weaker') are also, by extension, dismissed. In some ways, it's like choosing to ally yourself -- using the visual as a clue -- with the weaker/lesser gender. The more a culture considers that alternate gender (almost always women, across most of this world, damn it) to be unimportant, the more anyone who preempts those gender-clues can, by extension, also become unnoticeable.
[I'm putting that really badly, I know. I had some persuasive analogies, I think I did, but I'm already at the insert-image & spellcheck stage for this post and haven't remembered them at all, so, there you go.]
In the very first storyline for this series (the pilot episode, that is), I noticed on rewatching that the household is at first suspicious of Kusuri-uri ... and then, as they keep talking about the crazy events of the day, they seem to forget he's there and go back to letting all sorts of information drop. They're not on guard against him; they've dismissed him even if they've not freed him. He's just plain not important enough to even care whether he overhears.
At first, I admit, I figured this was because "peddler" and "lower social class" added up to "who cares what he hears, because he's unimportant." But that's not entirely true -- the household is clearly agitated about word of the goblin-cat getting out to their neighbors. To discuss the situation (and let slip the undercurrents) in front of a peddler seems like the absolute in stupidity, because when he leaves (and he always does, by definition), how do you know who he's going to tell next, about the skeletons in your closet?
Unless you see him as allied with the alternate/weaker gender, thanks to the visual clues. If those clues -- like the obi, the fingernails, the height, the polite behavior -- are enough to override even the obvious original-gender, then it might not even occur to you to think twice when you let him quietly slide into the role of invisible, forgettable, female hovering in the background.
Thinking back over that first episode, I think maybe there is something to that paragraph... There are six men in the household, of which the two advisers bicker, another looks lost, a third gets drunk, and the patriarch watches all of it silently. The last one is a guard (or similar; I'm not really certain), and he's the only one who remains acutely sensitive to Kusuri-uri's location and motivation. That guard is also the only character to react to the girl-maid's distress about having to leave the room to light candles as dark approaches, or being sent to the kitchen (outside the barrier) to fetch more sake.
When higher-ranked characters harangue the girl about her fears, that guard is the only one who pays attention to the conversation, notes and reacts to the girl's distress, and then offers to accompany her. She is not invisible to him, though there's never an indication that this is a result of him being attracted to her on a sexual level; it's just plain that he recognizes she exists, which is far more than you ever see any of the other male characters (outside of Kusuri-uri) ever doing.
I think it's the guard's willingness/ability to see the invisible (the female role) that makes him unable to dismiss Kusuri-uri as non-threatening. For that matter, such sensitivity may be the reason he's the only one in the household who shows any significant sensitivity to the goblin cat itself.
One thing that's really important to remember about the differences in US/EU cross-dressing attitudes versus Japan is that -- or so I've read over and over -- when a Japanese man adopts feminine elements (or outright takes on a feminine persona), he's not making a statement about his sexuality, or even his gender. He may be dressing as a woman, but he is not a woman, even temporarily.
Granted, Japan does have that kabuki/noh/theater "men playing women roles" tradition (which we might have today, if women hadn't been allowed back on the stage in the, uh, late 1700s, was it?). There is cultural precedent for more easily accepting cross-dressing as cross-dressing-only; that is, devoid of statements about who-you're-attracted-to or who-you-are.
That kind of perspective is really rare in the US, from what I've seen. I mean, when drag queens dress as women, every single one I've ever met gets really pissed if you use the "he" pronoun when they're dressed as a "she" (with the possible exception of RuPaul, from what I hear). In Japan, there's the benefit of gender-based pronouns, so if you don't change the I-form to a female one, you're clearly stating you're male regardless of how you look. If we had that in English, it seems most drag queens would go with the female I-form for the duration of being in a dress.
I have only met four men in my life who were straight men who also liked to wear dresses, heels, even makeup -- and did not at any point require (or even care for) the female pronouns as identifier. They remained male, and just happened to be dressed as a woman, what about it? (I should probably note that two were born-and-bred Americans; of the two who were not, one is Japanese.)
However, in some ways, I personally (thank you dear culture for this bias, I'm sure) find the Japanese attitude more offensive. It's like, yes, you can wear the pretty dresses and show off your legs but you're just taking the best of both worlds. Don't even pretend to say in interview or print that you like "to be a woman" because you're not -- your base-gender remains reinforced such that it protects you, insulates you. You may look like a woman, but you're insisting on being treated as a man, and it's the treatment of others that in many ways defines our experience of our gender, as much as our own internal sense of gender.
*shoves soapbox back into closet*
erm, pun really not intended there
At the same time as all that, I also remember the character in Fruits Basket -- one of the myriad cousins -- who prefers to dress like a woman, and does very much consider himself a woman. He definitely fools the main character until he's finally outed when dressed in boy-clothes, later, so I'm guessing he must use female-pronouns when speaking or else the "hunh?" moment would've come as soon as he'd opened his mouth. His explanation is that with all the familial pressures, and his uneasiness with being good enough against the too-high standards, it's just 'easier' to be a girl. That way, no one notices him, he's left alone, he's not worth fussing at or hassling about making the grade.
That, I think, is a sad observation about the pressures on a young man. Under that, it's a far sadder observation about the position of young women.
So while I don't think that Kusuri-uri is necessarily taking on the persona of a woman, or even trying to imply he's crossing the gender lines, I can't help but think of that cross-dressing boy, and the not-noticing actions in the stories themselves, and wonder if the obi isn't representative somehow. After all, he says himself, in the very first episode of the Bakeneko arc, that he's "an unremarkable person." Nothing to see here, move along; the various feminine elements to his dress may serve to accentuate the message that he's not someone of note.
In that sense, the fact that he repeatedly reveals himself to very much be someone of quite significant, even remarkable, note, may in turn be a comment on those he's protecting -- and in some literary ways, echoing. The unremarkable may in fact be something very much of import.
I had more to say, you know I did, but I'm not up to it right now. First, I have a dishwasher to fix.