From Hibari to Yu and beyond – trans* characters in anime

In the previous post, I made some short mention about gender identity representation, but wanted to dedicate more space. Manga in general have faired better and you can check my Trans Manga Masterpost for good recommendations that I try to update every couple of years. Anime, though, is the medium that has wider appeal, especially after mid 2000s that streaming sites started to pop up and soon enough legal content distribution platforms followed suit. Their influence can be seen nowadays in American cartoon series like Steven Universe. But let’s go back a few decades to have a better view -especially since progress is not as linear as we tend to think.

Much like before I’ll be nitpicking and I’ll stay away from gender/ body swaps or overly effeminate male characters that are inserted as fanservice or “joke”.

From left to right: Stop!! Hibari-kun, Wandering Son (Hourou Musuko), and Tokyo Godfathers

There are two anime with trans main characters with trans narratives at their core: Stop!! Hibari-kun (35 eps, 1983-4) and Wandering Son (12 eps, 2011). The former is a romcom between the orphaned Kousaka and the titular Hibari, a very charming, sassy, and strong trans girl, who’s also the heir to a Yakuza clan. The series is their every day life, their mutual crush that Kousaka is stunned to find himself in, and hijinks from both family and schoolmates. Granted the era it was produced in, one would expect a lot of problematic humour, it’s surprisingly not the case. Although Hibari is misgendered by her family, and Kousaka is at first devastated to know the super cute girl in front of him is “actually a boy”, they do love her and the jokes are made at their expense for their complexes and stupid but futile efforts to change her. After all is said and done, Hibari attends the school registered as a girl, and minus some jealous girls, who target her with doubts, she is confident and happy to live her life the way she wants. She stands up for herself and she has the last word -which is that she isn’t a pervert. Part of the reason this series is so welcoming is because the mangaka who wrote the original has admitted in an interview that he drew the girl he wanted to be, frustrated he wasn’t born one.

The latter is a soft drama, revolving a trans girl and a trans boy, as well as their friends, their adult trans role models, and their relationships while puberty hits them like a brick. It’s a very important milestone for trans stories in anime, showing not only the realities of prejudice and the inflexibility of a highly gendered society like the Japanese but also the inner struggles of the kids, their desire to be loved the way they look at themselves. One could say that gender becomes the hyperfocus, almost at the expense of any other interests, but it does highlight how essential it is for one to be at peace with themselves and how the gaze of others may arrest an individual’s development. We were very glad that the anime, probably due to funds and time limitations, had to pick to adapt the part of the manga with the most growth displayed, leaving out thankfully details or developments that have been less than agreeable. Shimura-sensei has had zero lived experience in the end and she wrote based on information. If you think about it, the name of the story is quite clumsy itself and sticks to the gender assigned at birth for Nitori, to whom it refers.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) is the only film so far including a main trans character; it may not focus on the desire to transition, on gender dysphoria or the concept of gender, but Hana is a homeless ex-singer, who fervently wants to be a mother, and is the most loving and practical-minded from the other two leads. Satoshi Kon depicted this bunch of people from the margins with compassion and it’s his only story with a truly happy ending. That said, the word okama [1] is often used.

Venus (Heaven’s Design Team), Lily (Zombieland Saga), Kite (Japan Sinks)

In the recent years we’ve had a couple more titles with transgender protagonists, which were though part of an ensemble, rather than clearly taking the spotlight. Such cases have been Zombieland Saga (2018) and its sequel, Revenge (2021), Japan Sinks 2020, and Heaven’s Design Team (2021). Lily Hoshikawa has a whole episode dedicated to her identity and how dysphoria basically lead to her death by suicide, while she makes clear that her dead name should remain burried in the past. It’s a shame that the promotional material isn’t equally progressive and almost passes her for a crossdresser. Kite’s gender identity is on the other hand a blink it and you miss it thing. Yet, he’s one of the very few trans men in anime [2], and he plays a big role in carrying the plot, so there’s definitely a place for him in this list. Inclusivity doesn’t always have to be loud and differentiating; subtlety plays its role in normalising such characters. Lastly, Kanamori-san or Venus is a particular tasteful case, when her gender is affirmed not by passing as a cis woman but by being shown to bathe in the women’s section in the onsen.

From left to right: Miyuki (Yu You Hakusho), Nuriko (Fushigi Yuugi), Isabella (Paradise Kiss), Alluka (Hunter X Hunter)

Voice casting and subtitling [3] have a long way to go, but there’s a shift in depiction that is positive. This is more evident when we take a look at side characters. We moved on from Miyuki and Nuriko to Isabella and Alluka. Miyuki, a trans female oni, was sexually assaulted and lectured for not transitioning by a cis male teen. Nuriko’s gender identity was confused with their gender presentation, was blamed on grief and then casted aside when it didn’t fit the heteronormative picture of flirting the protagonist, before they’re killed. Fast forward a couple of years, Isabella is shown genuine friendship and acceptance by the protagonist and goes on to live her life as a stereotypical femme with unrequited feelings for him. Alluka’s gender identity is defended vehemently by her brother and is very much loved. The case of Miyuki and Alluka is a rather interesting one, since they’re both characters written by the same mangaka and goes to show that openness is what’s really needed to change the field.

On the left: Miko and Momoko (Shangri-la), On the right: Nathan Seymour (Tiger & Bunny: the Rising)

It comes down to the people writing the story and the ones executing it rather than clearly blaming it on the demographic. The mainstream action/superhero genre does tend to still mess up majestically when LGBTQ characters are inserted, eg. My Hero Academia and ONE-PUNCH man [4], but lesser-known predecessors have shown willingness to improve on how they write them. Shangri-la (2009) has not one, but two transfemme side characters of different body types and skillset -Momoko is badass with the whip, both excellent and endearing mother figures to the protagonists, who also have their own past. They do get misgendered but it’s by the villains, and when one of them ends up having an ill fortune, the fact doesn’t weigh the same as if she were the only trans character. Similarly, the Tiger & Bunny series had a rather handsy Fire Emblem [5] who’s written in a very confusing way during the TV episodes (2011) but thankfully gets a dynamic spotlight during the second film, the Rising (2014), where Kotetsu knows how to take a joke and not be transphobic, and Nathan themselves essentially saves everyone’s lives by finding confidence in who they are and not letting trauma rule over them.

Kino (Kino’s Journey), Aer (Simoun), Ed (Cowboy Bebop)

Non-binary characters have existed for some time now and by no means is the Land of the Lustrous (2017) the first one to feature an enby protagonist. Haruhi from Ouran High School Host Club (2006), Kino from Kino’s Journey (2003), and Aer from Simoun (2006) have all stated one way or another that they don’t see themselves as a girl or a boy. Even Ed from Cowboy Bebop (1998) could be considered non-binary with their androgynous appearance and the change of their own name to a more masculine one.

Yu (Stars Align)

Where we have a very intended coming out though is in Stars Align (2019), where Yu discusses with the protagonist their worries about how they perceive themselves and how the more precise label for them would be x-gender. It is the first time ever such a term has been used in an anime. Even in Wandering Son, real life LGBTQ terminology doesn’t come up. Furthermore, Yu is AMAB, while the characters above are all AFAB, with more masculine looks and activities. This is of importance as it establishes that gender questioning, fluidity or non-conformity isn’t something associated with a specific set of genitalia or type of social conditioning.

In the middle: Land of the Lustrous| From left to right: Nataku (X/1999), Ruby Moon (Cardcaptor Sakura), Kohaku (here in Kobato.), Ashura (RG Veda)

When it comes to secondary non-binary characters, CLAMP has created an array of them through the years and the different universes their stories take place. No matter my personal feelings of fondness for their properties, CLAMP consistently [6] have given such identity only to supernatural (Kohaku featured in Kobato., Ashura from RG Veda) or artificially made (Nataku from X/1999, Ruby Moon from Cardcaptor Sakura) beings. Although this sort of representation isn’t inherently bad or harmful, it can also be easily dismissed in real life as nothing more than fiction, and this is why when cases like Stars Align come up, there’s serious reasons to celebrate.

With more manga about and with trans and non-binary characters getting published, I look forward to seeing more ground being broken in anime as well.

Notes & Sources:

  1. It’s good to keep in mind that Japanese society, although westernised, still has its own culture and history and thus its own terms to refer to queer gender. Some terms have been borrowed from English, others are uniquely Japanese even if they’re anglicised. Additionally, it’s very important not to forget that language is ever-changing because it reflects the people that use it, so some words have started becoming obsolete or at least considered nowadays a slur. Reclamation can happen, but that’s up to the individual and the type of relationships they have with those around them. You can read more about Japanese LGBTQ vocabulary on Tofugu and GaijinPot. Very briefly here are some basic terms:
    • Okama: it’s considered a slur, equivalent to faggot. It’s used for both gay men and trans women, as their gender isn’t acknowledged by bigots.
    • New half: the Japanese word for transgender
    • Trap: how fans refer to femme male characters (or butch female ones). If it’s used outside of intentionally fanservicey settings, it can be deemed derogatory as it plays up the harmful stereotype that trans people try to deceive cis ones.
    • FtM/ MtF: female to male or male to female. It’s used for people who are transitioning or have transitioned. In the West the terms AMAB/AFAB are now in use, namely assigned male/female at birth.
    • X-gender: the Japanese term for non-binary, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender non conforming or agender.
  2. Another case of trans boy we got recently is Kaoru from Wonder Egg Priority (2021). The reason I’m not mentioning him more thoroughly is how he died by suicide after being raped and impregnated. Definitely not a narrative one would want to look up to.
  3. Trans characters are still voiced by either cis men or cis women. Although one might bring up how boys are voiced by cis women, too, this isn’t a matter of not understanding how acting works or even advocating for trans voice actors to be given work (very legit). It’s more about how trans female characters are still made to sound like the stereotypical effeminate gay man and this cliche needs to retire slowly.
  4. I found this article on Anime Feminist very interesting.
  5. Fire Emblem hasn’t come out with a label and at first they seemed to be written like just another gay drag queen or a badly written trans woman. I had explored that case in an older post. With the talk amongst staff and the improved writing of the Rising, it looks like Fire Emblem is non-binary.
  6. I’ve also ranted extensively about CLAMP and their queer characters here.

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