Shining Seinen Part 1: Leading Ladies in Anime and Manga for Men
Explore the Silk Road, cyberpunk futures, and a world full of bibliophile superwomen!
Seinen manga and anime is manga and anime that is aimed towards adult men. One might find it surprising considering the demographic, but this two-part series will explore an interesting range of female leads—not just super action heroes, but also teenage girls embroiled in romantic drama and 19th century brides. This article hopes to show that even stories that target men can be woman-friendly and feature and range of interesting women and unique female narratives. This particular article also showcases a fantastic lady creator that everyone needs to know about in Kaoru Mori. So let’s dig in and hopefully help you discover some new stories to consider!
Serial Experiments Lain
Serial Experiments Lain was released as a 12-episode anime directed by Ryūtarō Nakamura in 1998. There was a PlayStation video game based on the series released the same year.
Serial Experiments Lain can be best described as a heavily philosophical cyberpunk psychological horror anime. It takes place in an a future where everyone is enamored with a version of the internet called the “Wired” (of course, since this is a “future” imagined in the ’90s, computers still have honkin’ huge monitors). Recently students have been committing suicide, because with the Wired they feel they no longer have need of their physical forms. A teenage girl called Lain receives a posthumous email from a classmate who killed herself. From there, she is drawn into the world of the Wired and begins to question her very existence…
Lain is a surreal and philosophical anime that leaves a lot open to interpretation. It explores questions of existentialism, theology, identity, and technology. The whole thing has a very unsettling and creepy atmosphere, and it does a good job of keeping the tension high. Lain is a character who many read as not neurotypical. She is very much disconnected from others and shows several symptoms of various disorders, most strongly dissociative personality disorder. While Lain is an anime with many themes, at its core it is about a young girl exploring her identity and her place in the world, as well as the power she may have deep inside her.
As an anime with horror elements, there are several disturbing things in Lain. This includes on-screen suicide, harm of very young children, a lot of body horror, mental breakdowns, and depictions of stalking and invasions of privacy, including a teenage girl being spied on by another girl as she masturbates. The scene in question was relevant to the plot and not graphic or particularly sexualized, but it does happen.
Read or Die, Read or Dream, and R.O.D the TV
Read or Die started out as a series of light novels by Hideyuki Kurata, with the first novel being published in 2000 and a manga adaptation coming out the same year. A 3-episode Original Video Animation (OVA) series based on Read or Die was made in 2001. Kurata published the Read or Dream manga in 2003, the same year a 26-episode anime series called R.O.D the TV was released as an official sequel to the Read or Die OVA.
Read or Die has a premise I’ve always dreamed about—female superheroes with amazing powers based on literature. In the world of RoD, some have the power to manipulate paper in fantastic ways—they can use it to create gliders, monstrous puppets, weapons, or shields. The side effect is that the “Paper Masters” in question are generally huge bibliophiles. In the RoD universe, England is still the biggest superpower thanks mainly to the British Library actually being a powerful political organization that employs superpowered secret agents. One of these agents is the spacey but powerful Yomiko Readman, on whom the Read or Die manga OVA focuses. Read or Dream focuses on the Paper Sisters Detective Agency, a trio of Paper Master sisters from China. R.O.D. the TV brings Yomiko and the Paper Sisters together when the sisters end up serving as bodyguards to the writer Nenene Sumiregawa, a stubborn and tough old friend of Yomiko’s who has been depressed ever since Yumiko’s disappearance.
As you can see, this series is ridiculous, over-the-top sci-fi superhero fun. There are heartwrenching bits, but it also doesn’t have any limits when it comes to ridiculous plot elements and fast and furious action scenes. They fight superpowered clones of historical figures! With paper!
The story is about women with ridiculous superpowers kicking ass together and saving the world with bulletproof books and sisterly love. The cast is mostly female, and the characters are larger-than-life, with strong personalities and equally entertaining and dynamic bonds and interactions with each other. The anime also deals with characters suffering from PTSD. There is a female character heavily implied to be in love with a girl (the only way her dialogue about “her love” and surrounding scenes make any sense is if she’s in love with a specific girl, but the show never directly says it). The Read or Dream manga also has a scene where a girl wants to kiss a main female character, who’s shown as being OK with it.
The anime is my favorite version of the series. It’s the most easily accessible, has the most exciting storyline and action scenes, and it includes all the characters. Despite some iffy elements, the OVA prequel is worth a watch, but it isn’t necessary to understand the anime sequel. While the Dream manga is lighthearted fun, I’ll warn you I found the Die manga pretty gross and the characters way less empowered.
The anime includes a few gory deaths, a depiction of torture, a couple of consistently sexualized female characters, and a few moments of fanservice with other characters, including gratuitous naked breasts, a couple of stereotypical-looking Chinese characters (and stereotyping of England, though that’s not as big a deal), and a criminal committing sexual harassment (the target shuts him down spectacularly). The Die manga is even gorier and also includes a ton of really uncomfortable sexual assault, near-rape, and kidnapping scenes.
Despite all that, if you want to watch an anime about hardcore ladies kicking ass with the power of literacy, RoD is for you! Also, the OVA shows a George W. Bush doppelgänger peeing his pants like 3 times.
RideBack started as manga by Tetsuro Kasahara that was published from 2003 to 2009. In 2009 it was made into a 12-episode anime by Madhouse Studios. It tells the story of Rin Ogata, a girl from a future where a powerful global organization has taken over the world. Rin became a ballerina to follow in the footsteps of her late mother but quit after a permanent leg injury. She becomes fascinated by robotic motorcycle-like vehicles called RideBacks and finds that riding them reminds her a lot of ballet. But she ends up running into trouble with a shady govenment organization…
In all honesty, the plot of RideBack is very lacking, and the development of characters besides Rin is pretty much nonexistent. In the short time the anime had to tell its story, not much was explained or utilized properly. However, the series might make up for it by having incredibly gorgeous animation and great action scenes. It also helps that Rin is a great lead. She’s an introspective girl who is conflicted about her place in life and her eventually violent use of the RideBacks, but she’s also incredibly brave and heroic with a solid character arc. She is incredibly dedicated to her friendships with the women around her and the memory of her late mother. She is often motivated by the women in her life, such as when she charges into action and risks everything to rescue her best friend. It’s also very nice that, through her, ballet is shown to be really hardcore and awesome.
The show depicts murder and kidnapping—do not go into it expecting a happy story. But if you want to watch a very nicely animated show with a cool female lead and minimal fanservice (there are some incidental, not-focused-on underwear flashes during some action scenes, but that’s it), this will suit your needs.
A Bride’s Story
Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story, also known as Otoyomegatari, is an ongoing manga that started being published in 2008.
Set in Turkic Central Asia during the late 19th century, A Bride’s Story follows several women of marrying age, depicting their day-to-day experiences and exploring the social makeup of their societies. The first subject in the manga is twenty-year-old Amir, a eccentric woman and experienced hunter who is told to leave her clan and marry a twelve-year-old boy. A Bride’s Story is the only entry on this list that is written and drawn by what is known to be a woman.
The first thing most people notice about A Bride’s Story is that the art is absolutely gorgeous and detailed. It’s amazing to see that the patterns and backgrounds in particular are drawn by hand. Mori’s talent is incredible. The attention to detail extends to the historical setting, which Mori clearly put a lot of research and effort into.
Obviously, since this a historical story, there are a lot of elements that very much conflict with our modern values, like Amir marrying a child. Mori does not make much commentary on these things one way or another. The women in the story are not depicted as having our modern values or rebelling against their own cultural practices.
But Mori very much focuses on showing the inner lives and differing strengths of her women. In addition to the fantastic horsewoman and hunter Amir, there’s also a hardcore grandma who can climb mountains men cringe from and shoot arrows with amazing accuracy. But there is also emphasis on how incredibly hard traditional “woman’s work” is and how skilled the women have to be to do it. There’s a scene where a mother basically puts her twin daughters through marriage boot camp, showcasing the incredible physical and mental strength they’ll need to do their duties. The amount of detail the women put into their sewing and workmanship is shown off at every opportunity. Relationships between women are also heavily showcased; we see the bond between sisters, between mother and daughter, and between friends.
There is also a range of cultures explored. The narrative actually sort of follows an Englishman who is traveling to various places for study, though that’s really only a storytelling device to get readers from one village to another. The focus is still the inner lives of the women in said villages, who come from different societies. Darker-skinned people take the stage later on in the manga when the focus shifts to the mischievous twins Laila and Leily.
As a historical manga, A Bride’s Story has many things that can make people uncomfortable. Amir and her husband are not sexual yet, but it’s of course clear that they are expected to eventually be, and their romance is supposed to bloom from Amir’s initial motherly feelings. Abuse of women is referenced, and attempted kidnapping happens to one character, while another is in a very bad marriage situation. This manga also has nudity during expected situations like bathing.
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.