The everyday heroism of anime’s genderqueer characters


In a medium as varied in voice as any other, the fight is on for anime creators to defend the right for genderqueer and non-binary (NB) people to be beautiful, proud and not just the shattered screw-ups on the sidelines. Though they may seem the buried few, there are more titles that make NB folks heroes than a quick skim of the surface would suggest. They just have more of a battle facing them than the shonen or shojo protagonist setting out to become king of the pirates or princess of the universe.

These characters don’t always have the backing of their elders and allies, their cisgender counterparts’ excitement or daydream determination standing them in sure stead. First, having the courage to be themselves must be accepted as a kind of everyday heroism, in their act of walking out onto the streets; like Yoshino in the manga Wandering Son, assigned female at birth but going to school for the first time in boys’ uniform.

Admonishment awaits as soon as Yoshino gets through the gates, taken aside and given a sound telling off for his violation of school rules. But Shuichi, a trans girl who braves the day in a skirt, faces patronised bafflement. Her parents are called and asked to come and pick her up, as though she’s ill. For her, it’s a choice between showing her small world who she is, or continuing her education without more severe repercussions.

Wandering Son ultimately applies a double standard to transness, allowing Shuichi to be femme with pride but passing off transmasculinity as a phase (apparently Yoshino only needed to try on some girls’ clothes). The struggles portrayed by this story, intentionally or otherwise, are ones the majority of trans and non-binary kids and teens have to face, navigating the unsteady road to self-expression with added disbelief and disgust from elders and peers. Not considered adults enough in their own minds to make even these personal choices, there’s a sacrifice of safety and self-confidence. School is a minefield for queer kids the world over, including Japan with its conservative culture. Because of this, it’s a gift to see a non-heteronormative individual not only surviving the school days, but blossoming as in Ouran High School Host Club.

Ouran High School Host Club - Haruhi
A blooming Haruhi in Ouran High School Host Club

Haruhi is eventually asked by Tamaki if she is a girl, after much blinking of dim lightbulbs amongst the cast regarding her gender. Haruhi replies with “Biologically, kinda”. But she doesn’t care how people view her, masculine or feminine aside, casting off all expectations of how she should act and simply being herself. With this set-up, it might have been that Haruhi had to play the straight man out of necessity, a requirement of her debt to the host club after she smashes a valuable vase meant for auction as club funding. But she enjoys the performance, and that’s refreshing to see in a show which could have taken the route of torturing the character as a source of comedy.

Even so, many anime featuring these would-be progressive characters are more prepared to laugh than accept their presence as plain point of fact. Tiger & Bunny’s Nathan Seymour has a backstory that’s relatable to many queer people, bullied at school and despised by his parents for his interest in accessorising and feminine beauty. Nonetheless, the issue remains that he is a pouting, effeminate clown, and it’s the same with Black Butler’s Grell to a degree, even if his ipso facto bisexuality is something to be celebrated. Nathan seems pushed by past experience to be even more flaming to compensate, where a queer person of colour should have been made a much more complex and sensitive example.

The gender non-binary as pantomime, or as the shocker ‘trap’ in anime is scattered with characters whose entire purpose is to be the ‘other’. The main crux of cat boy Ferris’ character arc in Re:ZERO is the discovery that he is a boy, though his appearance and demeanour both come across feminine. For him, it’s no performance, but here the audience is fed the revelation that his parents abused him, dangling the assumption that this was the root of his ‘strange’ behaviour. We are led into playing along with the shock through unavoidable ignorance, surprise or excitement firing a ‘but they couldn’t be’ response in our cognitive brains.

“Such a cute girl couldn’t be a guy,” as Rintaro Okabe says of Ruka Urushibara in Steins;Gate. The same goes for Gren in Cowboy Bebop, Haku in Naruto, Oboro in Shimoneta. Characters who are otherwise leading their lives unashamed in their own skins are called out by the narrative without need, creating deception where there was none. On the other end of the gender confusion, girls who look like boys, such as Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun’s Yuu Kashima, are often placed on pedestals as princes. Yuu has embraced the desire she arouses in the girls at school, brazenly emanating her masculine aura and accepting the role of the prince for the drama club’s culture festival play. But it isn’t clear to what degree she was pulled into this performance by the adoring insistence of her peers.

Fullmetal Alchemist - Envy
Green with Envy

In stories where an individual is stated non-binary or genderless from the outset, happiness is hard to come by. Fullmetal Alchemist’s Envy is described in the manga as “of uncertain gender”, their ability to shapeshift true to their namesake. They are the most tragic of the demon homunculi, having never known contentment, ever attempting to fill that space by changing form.

Soul Eater’s Crona, the demon who would be if they gave in to their mother Medusa’s murderous demands, is traumatised by her disappointment. But crucially, it is not Crona’s gender, confirmed “unknown” by creator Atsushi Okubo, which underpins the character’s suffering. Madness is thickening in the air of Death City as an ancient evil is reborn, and Crona’s pain flows from the font of that madness. Crona’s beginnings are very much in creep category, a dead-eyed smile and a boneless look to the way their body bends to the influence of madness. But Crona is given a chance to love and be loved, becoming a hero in defending the friends they want to protect, who have accepted Crona without condition.

Attack on Titan’s Zoe Hange, though falsely presumed as female for English translations and subtitles, is affirmed as genderless by mangaka Hajime Isayama, who wrote on his blog that the character’s gender was “better left unstated”. In response, Kodansha USA removed gender-specific pronouns for the character from volume five onwards in their English release of the manga. Zoe could then go on unhampered by questioning from audience and character alike, as essential and unchallenged as any other hero in their world which, even while falling apart, makes unity an absolute necessity.

Trawling through anime for honest tales of the gender non-binary experience can seem fruitless, despite the medium teaching the powers of togetherness and friendship against injustice. Only preaching this for the heterosexual norm can’t be the acceptable way for an art form in which transformation, the power that comes with unlocking and accepting one’s true self, is a mark of Japan’s cultural pride. Thankfully, the NB community are accumulating characters who reflect not only their suffering, but their victories in the everyday. Slowly, they are becoming able to hear ‘ganbatte’, enthusing a hero to do their best, and see themselves.

About Elisabeth (1360 Articles)
Otaku blogger, mum and hyper-pixie of the cosmic realms. Might have made that last part up. Or did I?

9 Comments on The everyday heroism of anime’s genderqueer characters

  1. You weren’t kidding when you said on Twitter that you would have a great post for this subject coming up. It’s pretty much an understatement. It was an awesome post! Really enjoyed reading it. I just wish that people would stop being so judgemental and putting labels on everything. In the end it allo comes down to respect, and just letting everyone be happy with the way they are.
    Really loved this post! Job, well done I would say 😀


    • Elisabeth O'Neill // February 24, 2018 at 11:40 // Reply

      Aww thanks so much, so glad it met your expectations. Hear hear, to live in a world where each person could just be. Would be wonderful 😊


  2. It is good to see more diversity in anime casts as it gives more people a chance to connect with some of the characters. Thanks for a thought provoking post.


  3. negativeprimes // February 22, 2018 at 03:55 // Reply

    Thanks for this, it was enlightening and enjoyable. 🙂


  4. Hourou Musuko is suchhhh a wonderful series, so full of warmth and understanding. It’s strength is in presenting each of its characters as genuine: some of them, of course, are experiencing gender dysphoria, but other characters, too, have their own struggles, and not just because this is an anime and each character needs to be interesting, but because each character is real. And in that way, even without grand scenes like Nitori going to school in a dress and wig, the series would still be a wonderful and rare example of how to show transgendered people as people.


    • Elisabeth O'Neill // February 24, 2018 at 11:50 // Reply

      That humans each have their own struggles and all should be equally respected, is such a simple thing that needs to be represented more than it is. It’s truly beautiful that Wandering Son made that effort.


  5. This is such a good manga and a beautiful adaption, though it skipped a good portion of the story and started right after the time skip in the manga. This series did what few series have accomplished, I hope it inspires more series like this and the community gets touched.
    Beautiful post 💗


  6. Amazing. I’m, so happy there are some well represented nb people in anime, it’s hard to find good ones. However, why choose a wondering son picture? Wandering son focuses on binary trans people not nonbinary people. Besides that, everything is amazing.


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