In a medium as varied in voice as any other, the fight is on for anime creators to defend the right for gender 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 shoujo 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.
This is a struggle many 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 NB 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.
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 at them than accept their presence as plain point of fact. Tiger & Bunny’s Nathan Seymour is given 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 whole purpose is to be the something 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 also 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 obliviousness, 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 this character was pulled into this performance by the adoring insistence of her peers.
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, was 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, 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.