Akito’s Girl Trouble

[PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Fruits Basket, Volume 16 (Chapter 97) and onward. If you want to avoid MAJOR spoilers, do NOT read. This warning will not be repeated.]
One of the few mangas I follow on an on-going basis is Fruits Basket. Part of it is tradition: I watched the anime 6 years ago and loved it, getting into the manga as soon as it started publication. Part of it is its popularity, which renders it relevant due to its huge circulation numbers all over the world. But mostly, it is because I love it to bits, warts and all. It’s an amazing comic despite its (at times numerous) flaws. When the final volume is out in English, I’ll do one or two columns talking about the story as a whole. But not today.
No, today I want to talk about a big curveball thrown at the reader by author Natsuki Takaya. This is something I wanted to talk about because it was published only recently in English (last year) and I find it to be greatly relevant to this blog. Avid Fruits Basket followers know that this big revelation was originally published in 2004. I feel quite out of the loop, as I only found out upon recently picked up the English volume that contained the now-famous Chapter 97.
The audience which has only seen the anime may ignore that the anime was produced in 2002 and covered less than a third of the manga’s completed storyline. As such, large alterations were required to make the animated story cohesive. One of the biggest alterations was done to Akito Sohma, head of the Sohma clan. Akito is a big mystery in the storyline, and as such many details about him were withheld for a long time in the comic. Since the Fruits Basket anime was to be one short season, it was necessary to give the viewer information about Akito based on his characterization in the manga up to that point. An example of this is the revelation in the anime that Akito’s sickliness is due to the Zodiac Curse, and that he will die young because of it. In the manga, on the other hand, this is not the case, and it is heavily implied that Akito’s illness and delicate state are psychological, more than anything.
Then, in volume 16 of the manga, Takaya provides us with more background regarding Akito’s psychological make-up. It is revealed by Kureno Sohma that Akito is, in fact, biologically female. He has been raised as a male, and is male-identified, however.
Oh goodie, thought I, late to the party as usual. However, as of this writing, I have yet to find any thought or analysis of this big revelation, at least from a feminist/gender-aware perspective. I am still in the process of locating friendly feminist anime/manga blogs, I must admit (please leave any handy links in the comments, maybe I didn’t look hard enough). But aside from the academic essays printed in Mechademia, so far I feel like an unconnected island.
Back to the topic, while I have not read past volume 18, so far the plot purpose of this revelation is to highlight Akito’s delicate emotional state, in opposition to his violent outbursts. In fact, when Kureno reveals this secret to Tohru, he emphasizes Akito’s emotional fragility and weakness. Identifying as male allows Akito to present a facade that does not have this ‘female weakness. This is the explicit message.
Akito’s male identity is not voluntary. It has been imposed from above by her mother, who believed ahead of the Sohma clan should not be female, because females are weak (again!). However, her misogyny is not exactly advocated by the text, since she is portrayed as an aggressive, violent, selfish character.
No, my bone is that this is not the first time I have seen gender identity used as a narrative tool to highlight a character’s oppression. Here I recall one of my favorite manga, The Rose of Versailles, which features a similar situation: the main character, Oscar, is raised as a male to satisfy the wishes of her father. While this only comes into play near the end, it is used as a plot device to highlight oppressive forces bearing down on the character. And this is exactly what Akito’s case is: Akito is not only constrained by the curse and his own psychological problems, but he is also constrained by a gender identity that is presented as ‘unnatural’.
Now, I will say here that I believe the aggressive imposition of gender identity on someone is wrong. This is very broad, however, and it includes the way in which many people, dare I say most, are bullied into gender conformity. However, what I see in Fruits Basket is the opposite: someone who is crossing gender barriers is seen as unnatural, with the implication that biological sex is what really matters. Further, any deviation from that is an artificial imposition.
This isn’t the first time Fruits Basket has dealt with the gender binary in such a way, the other case being Ritsu Sohma. Ritsu is male-identified yet dresses as a woman. To recap, Ritsu dresses as a female because he feels inadequate. He feels he is too weak and pathetic to be a man so he… dresses as a woman. Once more, the ‘female=weak’ motif emerges, to my chagrin.
What both of these cases have in common is that they are not representative of the real issues faced by people who do not conform to the gender binary. I admit ignorance on the situation of trans people in Japan. Yet in my experience as a Westerner, these two characters are not representative of trans issues. Rather, transgenderism is being utilized as a blunt tool for characterization, with a number of rather worrying assumptions.
Before writing this, I came across Keith Vincent’s article on Yaoi, entitled ‘A Japanese Electra and her Queer Progeny’ (published in Mechademia vol.2). Vincent cites debates rising from the queer community regarding the portrayal of homosexuality in the manga. An ongoing debate involves Gay activists arguing against yaoi. They feel it does not represent real gay men, but rather a fantastic, idealized notion of them created for women.
Transgenderism in manga seems to be suffering from the same problem, a lack of connection to the reality of these situations. Gender-bending has been used as entertainment for a very, very long time, mostly as comedy. And Fruits Basket has done this, but I am not entirely sure that is necessarily damaging.
However, when it comes to dealing with these issues seriously, Fruits Basket fails due to its lack of realism. This is worrying in a series typically held up for its realistic, complex characters in spite of the slightly fantastic setting. In Fruits Basket, transgender is simply a dramatic plot device and an oppressive, ‘unnatural one’ at that. The ‘female=weak’ motif doesn’t help either. In Fruits Basket’s defense, however, a motif of the story seems to be that everyone is weak. Regardless, time and again the ideas that ‘men are weak despite being men’ and ‘women are strong despite being women’ are driven home.
Finally, the last thing I wanted to point out is the fandom reaction to this, which has been divided. This was to be expected due to wide ignorance regarding trans issues, including the ignorance of the author. While I am sure discerning queer fans read Fruits Basket, the reactions I have seen more often fall into two camps. Camp one regards the plot device as incredibly contrived and unnecessary, and claim that it has ‘ruined’ Akito. I suppose they have never met a female-to-male transgender person if it seems so unrealistic that someone biologically female could be male-identified.
Camp two is equally problematic. In opposition to camp one, they accept the revelation and continue to appreciate Akito as an interesting, complex character. An inclination in this camp has been to refer to Akito as female. ‘After all,’ the reasoning goes, ‘that is her real sex, right?’
Admittedly, talking about the wishes of fictional characters is dodgy at best, tedious at worst. But as far as I have read in the story, despite his troubles, I have not seen Akito wanting to be a woman. This is an issue that most people have problems with when first learning about transgender issues. Something one quickly learns is that what matters is the way an individual identifies themselves. Akito identifies as a male. This is why I still refer to him in such a fashion.
In conclusion, Akito’s reveal highlights the problematic situation of queer representation in Japanese media. The largely male-dominated world of Western comics often chooses to simply pretend transgender, bisexual or homosexual people do not exist. In the Japanese Shoujo tradition, queerness has been co-opted for a number of reasons, sometimes with less-than-optimal results.
I do understand that different people interpret things differently. I spoke before of how queer anime fans in Argentina saw Sailor Moon as very positive. This is despite being as problematic as Yaoi often is, upon deeper analysis. However, I cannot see how a transgender teen reading of Akito’s story can derive a positive message about their own gender identity. And this bothers me to no end.
Identifying these issues made me wince a bit when re-reading some old Furuba books. It happened because I love this comic, dammit. I think Fruits Basket does a lot of things extremely well as a comic and a piece of human drama. Sadly, dealing with queer issues seriously seems to be marked ‘pending’ in the mainstream manga.