Anime Girls Bring Down the Patriarchy!

I was a reluctant convert to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, known affectionally to fans by just the last two words. You can easily see from pictures of the heroines that it’s what’s called a “magical girl” series, a sub-genre of “shoujo” (anime aimed squarely at female teens, of which I’m neither). These kind of granular categories of anime are well-established in Japan, but Westerners might recognize them just from familiar series like Magic Knight Rayearth, Pretty Cure, Cardcaptor Sakura, and of course, Sailor Moon.

I’m admittedly no expert on the genre, as most of the series haven’t really appealed to me. Aside from the Studio Ghibli films that every self-respecting cinephile should watch, the bread and butter of my anime enjoyment usually falls into the sub-genre apparently called “seinen”, which according to the guide from Reel Rundown “ targets male viewers around the age range of 18–40. The shows here are depicted in a more mature light and often include more explicit content such as gore, sex, and violence. More cerebral narratives are present as well.” Wow. I thought I was a beautiful and unique snowflake, but they’ve got me pegged.

“…Oh, and incidentally, it‘s all a metaphor for the nightlife Japanese Hostess Club industry….”

The basic setup of the show is not much different than the various MacGuffins that give other series a reason to empower their young heroines with magical abilities. Here, two middle school friends (Sakura and Madoka) find out they have the potential to become magical girls when they stumble into a “labyrinth” created by a “witch”, something most people would not be able to see. There, they encounter veteran magical girl Mami Tomoe, who is there to defeat the witch. Mami (which is pronounced like “mommy” in Japanese) fittingly takes the two girls under her wing so that they can see what becoming a magical girl is all about and decide if that’s truly what they want to do. Fun, frivolous stuff, no?

I won’t spoil what happens yet except to say that there’s a fundamental shift in the narrative early on, in how the main characters view the significance of what’s been happening. The series continues to pile on with revelations over the next seven episodes, becoming…I would say not so much of a “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre, but really an exploration of the ramifications these kind of shows would really have. Should have. It takes a concept that’s often used as an episodic framing device for magic battles and fun times, and turns it into an emotional and philosophical journey into the nature of girlhood, sacrifice, charity, womanhood, and selfless- versus selfish-love. Oh, and incidentally, it‘s all a metaphor for the nightlife Japanese Hostess Club industry.

“…hostessing has become one of the jobs that Japanese high school girls most want…”

The breadth and depth of the “mizu shobai” (nighttime business) in Japan is far too much to get into here, even just the sub-section of the industry called Hostesses. But bearing in mind that Japan is still a place with very traditional gender roles and ideas of marriage (many are still set-up by parents and a broker based on many factors other than “love”), take it from me that there is an extensive industry designed to give people attention and affection (in all varieties) outside of their marriages and relationships. And to be clear, don’t confuse hostesses with prostitutes…Japan has those, too. Hostesses are more akin to high-level escorts but working out of a central club which customers visit. They are paid their commissions (which can reach exorbitant heights) mostly for their company and attentiveness, the way they are insightful to their customers emotional needs and pamper them. They’re like all the good parts of a relationship, without the tough stretches. At the most prestigious hostess clubs, businessmen take clients just for the status of spending time with the ladies.

To an American, this might seem emotionally dishonest, icky, or outright immoral. And those might be valid criticisms, but it’s hard to understand the cultural issues at play from outside them. There are some good documentaries and articles and books, but what’s important to note is just how influential all this is on Japanese culture (including in media like anime), and in particular on how Japanese girls grow up within the culture. For a variety of complicated reasons, hostessing has become one of the jobs that Japanese high school girls most want (this survey ranks it as #12, but I’ve seen more recent articles ranking it as high as #2, behind only “housewife”.)

A Westerner might view hostessing as a reinforcement of patriarchal society, but there have also been arguments that it’s feminist. The fact is that if you’re young and even moderately attractive, you can get a shot in the hostess industry. What you do from there and how high you rise doesn’t depend on a manager or PR agency like with actresses and models, and there’s no double- or triple-threat expectation to sing/dance/act/model like a Japanese “idol” (pop starlet). You can become a popular hostess in various ways, through being funny, a good listener, kind, and of course, sexy. It’s sort of the American dream for Japanese girls that may not seem to have a lot of options available for independence and social mobility, and at the top levels, it promises glamour and glitter equal to the famed “streets paved with gold” line sold to American immigrants.

The analogy to the female empowerment in magical girl anime is low-hanging fruit, but Madoka Magica takes it further, with very specific correlations in the script by Gen Urobuchi. He’s known for work that is much darker, deeper, and more uncompromising than most anime series, and his take on the magical girl genre is no different. As we’re introduced to more girls and more witches, how they relate to each other parallels the ins and outs of the hostess industry closely, something that by the end of the series I was sure was no coincidence.

“The reality of the… hostess industry is that many of these girls get into it without fully knowing the (unsavory) dynamics…. like ‘magical girls’….”

And from here, we’ll have to get into SLIGHT SPOILER territory, so I’d encourage anyone interested in the series to just go watch it and then come back. We’ll wait. (Or watch it in movie form…I gave a spoiler-free review of part one here on Letterboxd, and a spoiler-filled review of part two here.)

Okay, how was that? Epic, am I right!?

So as you’re mulling over the heady philosophy that comes at the end of the story (and potentially recovering from some ugly crying), let me drop some “inside-Japan” comparisons on you. The reality of the Japanese hostess industry is that many of these girls get into it without fully knowing the dynamics, and by then it’s too late. Hostess clubs do have recruiters (we shall not use the word ‘pimps’) whose job it is to …not lie to the girls, but to present the favorable aspects of the job and leave out …er, less savory aspects that the girls don’t directly ask about. The guy (or girl!) may strike up a friendship with the prospect, calling repeatedly over time, making sure they’re aware that joining the club is still an option. Recruiters are paid in different ways, sometimes by head count but maybe more if they bring in a girl that turns out to earn a lot.

In Madoka Magica, the girls who can become magical girls generally suffer from a sense of compassion and helplessness. In various ways, they’re caught between a sense of duty or societal obligations, while also wishing they could do something to help their friends, family, or society at large. Their wishes are never truly selfish, but always to improve the lives of others in some way. Seemingly, what they get from it is just the thrill and confidence of having the power to help others, and to become more dynamic girls than they are.

These two dynamics are essentially the two main motivations to become a hostess in Japan. A large portion of these girls have come from the countryside of Japan, poorer areas, and nearby, less-wealthy countries. Hostessing represents the ability to not only help themselves, but to send money back home and drastically improve the lives of their loved ones. In order to do this, they just need to sell their youth, their ‘purity’. But there are also the urban Japanese girls who (like Madoka) don’t particularly want for anything. They’d be happy enough just to be personally empowered, and they focus on the sunnier aspect of the job: bringing joy and comfort to people who really need it.

Of course, once you become a hostess (or magical girl), the job can start to take its toll. Like the magical girls in the series, one like Mami who might take new girls under her wing and look out for them is pretty rare. It’s far more common for hostesses to view a new girl as a threat to their position and to be competitive. Kyoko’s attitude of “you’re a new girl, I deserve this post more than you” is representative of that. The hostess club industry is filled with people so eager to increase their own position that they’ll talk poorly about other girls, or switch clubs and then impugn the reputation of their former coworkers. It’s like high school or a sorority, but with real money on the line. Not only are clubs themselves ranked in monthly trade magazines, but usually rankings of girls within each club are updated daily, with bonuses monthly and yearly. It’s a highly competitive environment that pits the women against each other in their efforts to please men — the customers and owners.

After the death of what seems set up to be the main magical girl of the story, the next big spoiler is that all magical girls eventually become witches. The Kyubeys of the hostess industry know that it will eventually chew up and spit out most of these girls, but they don’t care. They’re so jaded that they just accept it as ‘part of the game’. (In fact, Kyubey’s catchphrase “If you make a contract with me, you will become _____!” won the 2011 Net Buzzword award. Er, it’s catchier in Japanese.) The girls of course are usually traumatized when they eventually realize that they have sold any control over their bodies in order to be magical girls. I’d compare this to the little-discussed aspect of hostessing called “douhan”.

Most hostesses willing to be quoted in articles (or write their own) will deny that any sexual favors are necessary in the job. Maybe they’ll acknowledge that guys get ‘overly familiar’, or that sometimes a girl “chooses to have a relationship” with a customer. What they often don’t mention is douhan: required dates outside of the club. These are setup by the mama-san at the request of a customer in order to keep that customer loyal to the club and coming back for a particular girl.

In typical Japanese fashion, nothing is explicitly said, but it’s made clear that the girl is expected to keep this customer happy. If the club loses an important customer, particularly one who regularly spends a lot of money, then the girl will lose her job. If the customer keeps pushing the hostess to detour from dinner to a love hotel, how long can she last before giving in?

This is rather like the subtly pervy and exploitative way that a lot of Japanese anime makes sure to offer enough for that kind of audience without being about the perviness. Madoka Magica features only one scene of actual nudity of its, I’ll remind you again, 12–14 year old stars. The cute character designs may make you overlook that their skirts are impossibly short and their magical girl outfits involve elements usually reserved for the bedroom: thigh highs, garter belts, corsets, bustiers, and cleavage cutaways. While there’s no explicit sexuality in the series (despite some implied lesbianism), the marketing and products for the series well take advantage of the potential for perviness and outright pedophilia. I won’t link anything here, but even my jaded ass was shocked at the plethora of outright porn based on these middle school girls.

This makes the series quite complicated, because its got all the trappings of the hostess/magical girl world: an exploitative, objectifying, superficial, patriarchal system. And yet the argument the story makes is about finding a way out of that system, a way to overthrow it. Urobuchi’s script takes two different tacts: on the one hand, Homura is a magical girl who grew up too fast. She’s the hostess who’s old beyond her years, telling other girls not to make the same mistakes she made. On the other hand is Madoka, who’s traumatized once her friend Sakura realizes she has no agency over her own body anymore. She wants to change the whole system by preventing magical girls from turning into witches.

And that choice of the word “witch” makes a lot more sense when you break it down in Japanese. The actual word is 魔女 (“majo”), which is made of two characters. The first character, 魔, can be translated as “evil spirit”. The second character, 女, can be read as “woman”, meaning an adult female. Not a girl. And suddenly the whole system in Madoka Magica makes sense, that each girl has a specific underlying source of trauma which will eventually overtake them when they become a witch. In the process of taking away other people’s negative emotions, the magical girls increase their own grief. Sooner or later, it will overcome each of them and they’ll lose their joy and purity, changing from magical girl to an adult woman: unable to let go of her emotional baggage.

“You could argue that it’s reinforcing the message that Japanese women should just stay cute and cheerful forever…”

The videogames and comics made since the series deepen and reinforce several themes within the series, including the way the series suggests to avoid the fate of becoming a bitter old adult. It’s remarkably similar to what this hostess did in Japan: unionize. If girls stop competing against each other and tearing each other down, they can support each other and keep their empowerment…without letting the job turn them into bitter old women. It’s actually rather heartening to see some hostesses wholesomely persevering, focusing on the job as a way to bring light and joy to some downtrodden folks (even women go to hostess clubs now!) even though there are plenty of men pushing them into the seedier side of the system.

The ending of Madoka Magica is what we all hope for: tearing down the old system and building something new that’s compassionate towards everyone. Is it too idealistic? Maybe. But I think the series puts these magical girls through enough that we feel their ending is earned. (And if you want a more complicated take on it, the follow-up movie re-defines things again.) I also love that no male character swoops in to mentor the girls or fix the problem for them. I think Urobuchi is well aware that men in Japan (and elsewhere) are not incentivized to fix the system so that it works for women. Whether he’s writing specifically about hostesses are just about the attitudes of young Japanese women in general (art influences life influences art), he seems aware that the young women of Japan are the ones who need to lead the change for themselves.

Personally, I’m less than optimistic that a hostess union is the start of a revolution.

The protest movements of the ’60s came and went rather rapidly in Japan, and social change in general is extremely slow there. Birth control still requires a doctor’s examination (and most are men) and a prescription. Rapes often go unreported because police take a blame-the-victim mentality. Panties are commonly stolen off of clotheslines and stalking is a national epidemic. Young girls are sexualized in so many ways that it’s taken for granted, women are rather constantly under attack, and the pressure to constantly compete with each other physically is crushing. It can be overwhelming. In this kind of environment, I don’t see a systemic change for hostesses coming soon.

But the idea is out there, and people are appreciating it. Madoka Magica got a Sisterhood Prize at the Sense of Gender Awards (about as close as Japan gets to feminism and open LGBTQ+ appreciation) in 2012. It’s been lauded in Western media, too. You could argue that it’s reinforcing the message that Japanese women should just stay cute and cheerful forever, like little school girls. Lord knows, all the spinoff materials with endless new magical girls support that reading. But I’m going to focus on the rare Japanese cultural phenomenon that says ‘the System is fundamentally fucked and we need to stop using up our young ladies and throwing them away when they become women.’ It’s encouraging to think that a series like this was made by mostly men. As imperfect as it may be, it feels like they’re going in the right direction.

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Jeff Light

Jeff Light

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Physical nomad converted to digital nomad; eating, drinking, reading, and tattooing my way around our little spinning rock. Panama-based, find me on Air B’nB.