Six Leading Ladies of Shonen Anime Part 2: The 21st Century
Meet the beast tamers and demon killers!
We’re continuing our look at dynamic leading ladies from anime and manga aimed towards boys, this time getting into more modern stories. Here there be monsters! Lots of monsters.
Shonen is defined as anime and manga aimed towards preteen or teenage boys. A lot of the genre is thought of as being shirtless guys wrestling each other and comparing power levels (Example: Dragonball Z). It is true that shonen typically has male main characters, but there are some examples of shonen with dynamic leading ladies. You can read Part One: The ’90s here!
Claymore by Norihiro Yagi
Claymore is an ongoing manga that started in 2001 and will reportedly conclude this October. It was adapted into a 26-episode anime in 2007.
Claymore follows the adventures of a warrior named Clare. In this world, the people are only protected from the “youma” (demons who devour people and then shapeshift to imitate their prey so they can devour more) by an organization of warrior women nicknamed “Claymore” for the swords they carry. These women are actually part-youma themselves and must constantly battle their monstrous side to slay the real monsters.
This is a dark fantasy series with a very rich premise and an almost completely female cast, so obviously there are a lot of complex relationships between women. The most interesting is the relationship between Clare and her guardian Teresa. Teresa rescued Clare as a child and basically inspired her to be who she is. Clare continues Teresa’s legacy by taking in and caring for a young boy called Raki. A big theme in Claymore is the line between human and monster. There’s also a bit of a theme of fighting back against those who exploit you, as the women end up starting to resist and challenge the organization (staffed only by men) that gives them orders. If you want a violent series with a dark atmosphere starring hardcore women, this may be just what the doctor ordered.
Though the heroes aren’t often sexualized, there are a few monstrous naked ladies as opponents. It’s also very gory, with lots of severed limbs and violent death (the anime offsets it a bit by making the monster and Claymore blood purple). There are attempted rape scenes early on as well as violent physical and implied sexual abuse of children. In addition, the reason Claymore warriors are women is that becoming a monster gives a feeling of sexual pleasure and men couldn’t resist it… which is questionable, to say the least. I’ve actually not caught up with the manga, because it started to drag for me, so I could have missed some things. The anime only covers a certain portion of the manga and has its own original ending.
Soul Eater by Atsushi Ōkubo
The Soul Eater manga started publication in 2004 and ended in 2013. In 2008 Bones adapted it into an anime that got its own spinoff manga, Soul Eater Not!, in 2011. That was adapted into a 12-episode anime this year.
Soul Eater follows the adventures of Maka Albarn, a girl who reaps the souls of witches with her scythe. The scythe is actually her partner, a boy named Soul, who can turn into a weapon and resonate with Maka to destroy demons. The two of them go to an academy, presided over by the eccentric God of Death himself, that trains the weapons and their wielders in how to partner up and fight evil.
Soul Eater has a quirky cast of characters and a really great atmosphere with a lot of casual supernatural hijinks. There are zombie teachers, the son of the Grim Reaper riding around on a flying skateboard, and a Frankenstein-like scientist. The anime especially is really aesthetically pleasing, with unique character designs and animation, and the manga artist interestingly changes and refines his style throughout. Maka is a brave protagonist who works very hard at what she does and kicks a lot of ass.
One of my favorite things about the series is how the situation with Maka’s divorced father is handled. He’s presented as someone who genuinely loves Maka, yet she’s not required to forgive him the repeated wrongs he commits, nor is she ever condemned for avoiding him and fully supporting her mother. The series also deals with a character who is abused, and the way Maka reaches out to them is very touching. There’s a character with no given gender that a lot of people choose to read as non-binary (though the question of their gender is not treated very respectfully later in the manga). The story also has African-American supporting characters, specifically because the author noted the lack of black characters in manga.
The anime only covers a portion of the manga and has an original ending. I personally prefer the anime to the manga. The manga in general has way more underage fanservice, including panty shots for Maka early on. Also later on in the manga, Maka gets threatened with rape. However, there is additional development for some supporting female and PoC characters that wasn’t in the anime. The anime does have some fanservice (especially at the beginning), but it’s not constant and Maka is never sexualized. Sexual harassment is depicted somewhat lightheartedly in both versions. There are additional concerns about racism and sexism in Soul Eater that are covered here (beware spoilers).
Soul Eater Not! also has female protagonists. Unlike Soul Eater, it’s more a slice-of-life about cute girls (meaning lots of sexualization and fanservice) than action (though there is some), but the girls are fun characters and there’s an emphasis on female friendship. The main character even looks up to Maka as her hero. There’s a girl who has a crush on another girl, though it’s not really explored and she remains in denial about it, so it seems more thrown in for fanservice than actual character building and representation. The anime is pretty low-budget, with poor animation and a very generic art style.
Soul Eater is available on Funimation’s YouTube channel and website, plus Hulu and Netflix. The manga is licensed by Yen Press. Soul Eater Not! is on Funimation’s website as well as Hulu, and the manga has been licensed by Yen Press.
Beast Player Erin by Nahoko Uehashi
(created by a woman)
Beast Player Erin, also known as Kemono no Sōja (The Beast Player), started as a light novel series published between 2006 and 2009. It was adapted as a manga in 2008 and a 50-episode anime in 2009.
Erin follows the adventures of a girl of that name who has a dream of working with wild animals like her mother. In this fantasy world, the animals include giant lizards called Toh-da (which her mother raises) and wolf-headed griffins called Ohju. However, Erin’s nation is on the brink of war and these animals are often used as tools for battle. Erin finds herself pulled into the conflict.
This is by the same author as Moribito, so it’s very slow-paced, but it rewards its viewer with careful world-building, character development, and emotional gut-punches along the way. The viewer gets to see Erin slowly grow from a naïve ten year old to a mature adult. The series is deceptively gentle, but dark in an understated way—no character is really safe from getting maimed or killed, even if the events are treated with care.
A lot of the series focuses on Erin’s relationship with her mother and desire to continue her mother’s legacy, but the business of politics, war, and raising wild animals is also heavily explored. I have never seen a series so boldly acknowledge the dangers and consequences of working with wild animals or tackle the moral dilemmas inherent so deeply. For a fantasy world, it’s surprisingly real. Erin is a protagonist who grows a great deal and is able to be impressive without being an action hero. There are several interesting additional female characters, and sexism and internalized misogyny are even discussed. There are also major characters later on who are disabled.
Fantastical animal abuse is discussed and depicted, and there’s the aforementioned death and maiming. The series actually isn’t very graphic despite these, with a minimal amount of blood and lack of visual focus on the deaths. There’s also a scene where a man threatens to wage war against a woman unless she marries him that wasn’t explored well. But this isn’t a series that ever panders. Like Moribito, it’s a hidden gem that tells as story honestly and purely and isn’t afraid to confront darker matters. It may be slow, but I’d suggest sticking with it until episode 8, where the whole direction begins to change.
The anime is available on Crunchyroll under the title Erin.
Caitlin Donovan is a longtime comic geek and internet blogger who is currently working on her MFA and her first novel. She formerly wrote for Big Shiny Robot and for a time helped run the blog “When Fangirls Attack”. These days, she mostly can be found blogging on her Tumblr, Lady Love and Justice.
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