Major spoilers for the manga Basara by Yumi Tamura ahead. Also like the title suggests, I will be discussing rape in the manga pretty extensively.

I was avoiding talking about Basara on Shoujo Spotlight since I feel like all I do is rave about this manga, but considering how many anime and manga I’ve come across with questionable rape themes or scenarios, well, I just could not leave this topic alone much longer. I’ve already written about how the framing of rape has been problematic before, but I’ve never really written about good use of rape in a story. And since Basara is currently the only shoujo I have read that I feel does the topic justice, it was unavoidable that I must once again sing the praises of this manga. Strikingly, Basara actually has three rape victims that play pretty integral roles in its plot while not being centre focus, and what’s more, one is male and two are female. However, I think the biggest indicator of why Basara doesn’t trivialize rape is because it doesn’t use it like other shoujo manga do.

sarasa_&_tatara

Gender plays a key role in Basara, but rape is never played as a means to enforce Sarasa’s vulnerability as a woman.

As I pointed out in my impression of Fushig Yugi 10, rape plays an almost dramatic role in the series. It is there to raise the tension: Miaka can only summon Suzaku if she is a virgin, so her enemies try to prevent her from doing that by attempting to rape her, twice. Furthermore, it adds another moment of drama for our heroine since it causes her to feel unworthy of being with her true love when she believes she really has been raped. Likewise in Black Bird, rape is also being used for tension: Misao, our heroine, has to constantly watch her back because demons want to either rape or kill her. It’s also being used to paint the sole demon not willing to do that to Misao as romantic and to use that constant threat of rape as a mean to bring them together. Even Boys Over Flowers, as much as I like it, plays into this when Tsukasa sends some guys to rape (well ok just scare her by threatening to do so) Tsukushi in the very first volume. So yes, rape as tension/drama is a pretty regular occurrence in shoujo manga. However, I think this is a pretty basic and tasteless way to include such a touchy subject in a story. Most women are more than aware that rape is this ever present threat. We’ve been brought up in a culture that makes it pretty clear to us, so I feel like these instances don’t really add anything and just reinforce the “rape = bad” idea. Yes rape is awful, but so what? If that’s all you want to express, I feel it’s pretty pointless and in fact tasteless, because it uses a common problem for women to add some oomph to the story. Rape shouldn’t just be some vehicle to spice up your story precisely because it is such a problem. It shows a lack of empathy if all you think rape is worth is some drama.

Here is where Basara differs. See the manga has ample chances to play the rape as drama card but never does. At one point, Sarasa is taken by the Blue King to be a sacrifice. Right here, right now, she is at her most vulnerable since she is exposed as a woman, weaponless and in the enemy stronghold; and Ms.Tamura could have easily added the threat of rape to amp up the drama, yet she doesn’t. As the sacrifice, death is the only threat the heroine faces, and it is more than enough. Likewise, Shuri is rather touchy feely with Sarasa, but Basara steers clear of adding any rape subtext into their relationship, and it would have been so easy to do so. Instead, it comes off as playful teasing with Shuri not pursuing matters after Sarasa draws the boundaries (usually by punching him in classic Japanese slap stick fashion). And the most striking thing about all this? The setting for Basara is a post-apocalyptic world where gender roles are tightly regulated, for the most part, and where writing in the threat of rape for the main heroine would have been so easy. This is precisely why I was so happy that Ms.Tamura avoided this for the most part. I will admit there is some rape subtext in one encounter between Sarasa and Asagi, but given that it is used only once and that it is used not for drama but to instill a sense of vulnerability in the sightless Sarasa due to her reliance on sight instead of due to her sex, it works.

kazan and chigusa

Chigusa and Kazan

Now, it is definitely all well and good that Basara manages to avoid playing the rape as drama card so many shoujo stories fall prey to, but what further increases what a great work this manga is, is that it has three character stories that deal with rape and do so in very interesting, realistic, and positive ways. It also cleverly avoids depicting the rape as titillating in very ingenious ways. The first character is Sarasa’s very own mother. Now, in the case of Chigusa, the actual rape isn’t shown, but it’s made pretty damn clear based on how she looks when Kazan finds her and what she says to him. Now, I was pretty blown away by the fact that Basara did not shy away from depicting the reality of women caught by enemy soldiers. For the me that was reading this at the time, this alone would have been enough, but Basara doesn’t stop there. It’s not interested in just showing us the realities of war, it actually shows us Chigusa struggling with her emerging feelings for Kazan, who is the man who killed her husband and son but also who rescued her and treats her with respect, and her rage against him and the Red Army for what they did to her and her family. And in the end, Chigusa is unable to move on and becomes Kazan’s second in his ritual suicide, putting her rage first. Yet, even then Basara knows that’s not enough, it takes pains to show us that Chigusa eventually comes to feel that hatred is not the solution, that Kazan’s death brought her nothing, and she decides to help out wounded soldiers regardless of the side because she is tired of hating as it brings nothing. This is amazing. A war victim is shown to hate and yet move on.

Next is Ageha, a very beautiful man, who was once a slave and raped by his owner. Once again, Basara doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of slavery. Yet, like with Chigusa, while this alone would normally be enough to get Basara a pass in using rape correctly, the manga isn’t satisfied with leaving things there. There is a whole side story dedicated to Ageha learning to love again after being traumatized as a child. It’s a tough painful story, especially given how it ends, but even then, it’s a very positive story because it shows that rape does not “damage” people. They can move on, they can love again and have regular relationships. They can find some happiness and peace. Both Ageha and Chigusa clearly have problems after experiencing such dreadful things, but that’s not what the manga dwells on. Instead, it decides to show us that these characters can continue living and loving. It’s a very positive message.

ageha

While Ageha looks very feminine with long hair, the manga never treats him as “feminine”, thus avoiding conflating vulnerability with female-ness.

That said, Basara does examine the other side of the coin through the final character, the White King. The White King, unlike what the title suggests, is really the daughter of the current king of Japan, and is another character with a very painful story. She falls in love with her bodyguard Hiiragi when she is a girl, but is sent off to marry a prince for political reasons. Even still, she learns to love her husband, who is shown to be a gentle and loving man. However, her father later decides the alliance isn’t worthwhile, and attacks the castle. Hiiragi is sent to bring his daughter back. However, the building catches fire and the White King’s, Ginko’s, legs get caught in the fire. She intends to die with her husband then and there, but Hiiragi forcibly rescues her. Back in the palace, one night her drunk father mistakes her for her mother and rapes her. The interesting thing about this scene is that it is depicted in a very psychological way: Ginko becomes a doll and her father a monstrous bull. There is not titillation to be garnered from this. The other thing to note about this is that Basara goes to great lengths to tell us that it was not the rape that destroyed Ginko. It was the very suffocating gender roles and lack of rights she had because she was a woman. In fact, during her death, she says something along the lines of: I will finally bring down this system that refused to let me choose my own destiny. The rape is played as the trigger for her becoming so twisted and angry and not the rape itself, which I do believe helps avoid the “rape is the worst thing that could happen to a woman” trope. Yes, rape is horrible, but the worst thing ever? I think that is a pretty big exaggeration. People definitely have baggage after such trauma but not to the extent that Ginko displays and I do think it was a very good call for Basara to only use the rape as a trigger rather than the origin of Ginko becoming so destructive.

So what do all three of these examples of rape have in common? They humanize and develop the characters. The rape isn’t there for cheap drama, but as an integral part of the story of these characters. Furthermore, it is never once framed in a way that shows rape victims as totally helpless and damaged people, which I do think is somewhat problematic. Instead, Basara focuses on how these characters come to terms with their experiences, which is a very positive and inspiring message. And finally, even in the case of Ginko, who turns very destructive, Basara never plays the rape card as the reason Ginko became so twisted, which would have been so easy to do. Yes, it was the trigger, but the rape itself did not destroy Ginko to such an extent. It was the fact that she was treated as a thing by her father and society. She was given away in a political marriage and then taken back when it was no longer necessary and this, I believe, hurt her far more than the rape ever did. The rape only solidified, in her mind, how powerless she was and how she was treated as a thing. In short, Basara shows an understanding of rape that few other shoujo series show. Rather than superficial “rape = bad”, Basara uses this very touchy and difficult topic to show inspiration and injustice. It treats this subject matter with the investment it duly deserves. If one intends to bring into their story a heavy topic as rape, they need the conviction to do the subject matter justice. Anything less shows a lack of maturity and empathy. Basara showed us it is possible to do that.

–SW

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