Subverting Sexes in Japanese Mixed Media

Curator's Note

Content production in Japan has been widely referred to as the media mix, which refers to media forms such as anime, manga, games, and novels being utilized by companies to create multiple works belonging to the same intellectual property or media franchise.i Some works end up just having multiple versions of the same story, told over different, remediated tries. Others expand on the creation of new, related products by creating prequels, sequels and spinoffs, all of which are relayed to the consumer through different forms of media. Mixed media does not only refer to the creation of new narrative works, however, but covers aspects of modern everyday life as well. When we talk of the first media mix in modern Japan, for instance, we often refer to the anime Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy), which was released as early as 1963. What kicked off the popularity of Astro Boy was the sponsorship by Meiji Seika chocolates, which quickly made Atomu the new face of the chocolate manufacturer.ii The media mix in Japan extends heavily into media fandom, as well as to fan production of animation and video game related content, which is higher than anywhere else in the world. The biannual Comic Market convention, which peaked at 750,000 attendees on December 2020, for instance, offers a stark example.iii

To approach a mixed media franchise one needs to have a grasp of the circumstances of production and consumption, as well as the contents of a vast multitude of texts -- some paratextual some intertextual -- from TV commercials to spin-off games to adaptations that were at the forefront of the franchise’s production throughout its life cycle, rather than any single canonical text. What the video above shows is a humorous take on the mixed media nature of the popular Fate franchise, which recently skyrocketed in popularity through a 2015 spinoff mobile game based on a visual novel that was produced in 2004. Fate first appeared as a fairly niche, story-dense, adult visual novel with pornographic content (often referred to in Japanese as eroge). Set in the same universe as most of its creator’s work, Fate can be located within the fantasy genre, and at its core is about mages fighting over a wish-granting object by summoning heroic spirits, i.e., mythical and historical characters with great power. Fate is somewhat unique within Japanese popular culture in the sense that it was one of the first popular, new media products in Japan to shift the sexes and/or genders of its characters. What this means is that characters with whom the reader has prior knowledge before engaging with the story are gender-bent, which is done mainly by basing the characters on legendary people or historical figures. In the case of Fate, the most iconic example of gender-bending is the character King Arthur from British legend, who is turned into a woman with masculine social status and characteristics.

At first glance, this way of narrative crafting can appear to be a subversion of established norms of storytelling, and can be seen as a method to increase the representation of underrepresented groups and identities in popular media. How characters within the Fate universe have the potential to impact, reinforce and contribute to the consumers’ understanding of sexuality, gender and representation thereof is a problem one can only deal with by comprehending not only the unusually persistent growth of the franchise but also the media mix strategies employed by its producers and distributors, which results in the birth of a plethora of paratexts concerning different aspects of Fate. This in turn ties in to the ways in which mixed media, which in this case serve Capital’s attempt(s) to maximize profits, forces narratives, i.e., content, into operating within and reproducing a language that is the most legible for their consumers. Within the narrative of the Fate franchise, gender-bent characters often express non-conforming gender identities. Arthur’s son Mordred, for instance, while having a female body, refers to himself with male pronouns and demands to be treated as a man in his various appearances in the franchise.

However, as we move away from narratives to paratexts, mixed media, and meta-narratives -- that is to say, the information surrounding the characters, alternative products created in their image, their writers’ public inputs on them, and how gender is conceptualized in the market, exemplified by published information, character goods often eroticized for heterosexual male consumption, and supplemental materials and in-game profiles classifying the characters firmly within the female sex -- we are forced to move away from reading these characters as varying degrees of non-conforming or transgender, into an essentialist understanding of gender. It is not hard to spot within narratives too, a drive to pull the characters toward a concept of gender as determined by biological constraints. Fate’s King Arthur (or Artoria as her name is changed in the story) is just one of many characters whose gender can be described in a range of nonconformity in the Fate universe, characters who are often confined within a definition of womanhood which is scientifically and biologically fixed by the shared discourses of the market.

i For an English language discussion on the Japanese mixed media, see Steinberg, Marc. Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. Minnesapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2012; and for a North American focus, Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

ii This is detailed in Kusakawa, Shō. Terebi anime 20 nen shi. Tokyo: Rippu Shobō, 1981.

iii Numbers are available at Accessed March 30th 2020.

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