How Important is Consistency of Character Design Across Genders?

In a 2013 podcast interview, Paul Dini, creator of the DC Animated Universe, described how a stubborn refusal to move away from traditional marketing tactics spelled the end for the popular and beloved Justice League cartoon. Esssentially, because Dini had given the female characters of Justice League equal prominence and strong character development, the higher-ups who had planned their marketing around appealing to boys told the staff to cut it out. Girls should be on the sidelines, and never as good as the boys, because boys were supposed to buy the toys and merchandise, dagnabit. It’s a sad fact that proper marketing, trying to find the demographic that’ll give you the most bang for your buck, can often lead to things like happening, especially when so much money has been invested into a project and having things go not according to plan is seen as a nightmare scenario. Gendered marketing has been around for centuries, and it likely isn’t going anywhere soon.

I began thinking about this idea relative to anime, if only because anime and manga are known for gendered marketing. While anime does on a number of occasions portray strong female characters such as in the Precure franchsie, the primary audience is indeed young girls, even if a sizable male audience is willing to shell out some big bucks to get some DVDs and nice figures. However, there’s another side of anime marketing I’ve seen, one that seemingly both defies and reinforces gendered marketing, by placing idealized male characters for women and idealized female characters for men in the same space.

One such title I reviewed for an Anime Secret Santa a couple of years back: Acchi Kocchi: Place to Place. In it, I described the main couple as consisting of the small, moe girl and the tall, quiet bishounen, resulting in a combination of two popular yet often disparate archetypes in one relationship. Series such as Aquarion EVOL and Tytania have different artists on duty to design the male and female characters separately for maximum appeal/pandering. Perhaps nowhere is this more extreme than in the currently-airing Show By Rock, which takes the cute girl/handsome guy incongruity of Acchi Kocchi to a whole other level:

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(This isn’t even taking into account the fact that Show By Rock is already a rather eclectic mishmash of styles that also includes CG cute animal anthropomorphs playing in rock concerts.)

So you have these series with various creative forces involved—Okada Mari (Lupin III: The Women Called Mine Fujiko) wrote Aquarion Evol, while Tanaka Yoshiki (Legend of the Galactic Heroes) is the original author of Tytania, for example—which means that different philosophies and beliefs are involved on various levels of production. Marketing is still at work, the creators are overall looking for you to buy their anime, and if not that, then to buy their products. Focused marketing, gendered marketing is still happening. And yet, why are these anime willing to try and bridge the gap so at least within a single work there are elements that actively appeal to men and women, boys and girls, even if it’s for the sake of hitting some basic desire buttons on the audience? And if the argument is that the merchandise is designed to reflect those gender differences as well, then why were the people responsible able to produce goods in such a way that the executives behind Justice League could not?

Of course, one recent example of a franchise that has tried to appeal to both men and women within the same films has been the Marvel cinematic universe. Thor and Captain America both have looks and personalities that garner admiration from men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, and marketing has capitalized on that. At the same time, there’s also been a bit of an uproar over the fact that what should have been a Black Widow toy became instead a Captain America one. If this were Japan, there would certainly be some figures of Black Widow, but there’s also a fair chance that those examples wouldn’t be targeting girls.

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Anime Secret Santa – Everyday Adventures of the Animest Couple: Acchi Kocchi

This review is a part of the Reverse Thieves’ 2013 Anime Secret Santa Project.

When anime fans throw around the term “slice of life,” they’re generally either enormously broad in its usage (anything that concerns non-fantastical events is slice of life!) or they’re talking about a certain type of slow-paced anime which due to the popularity of certain titles has become largely associated with a cast of primarily girls doing cute things. Acchi Kocchi falls more in line with the latter category, but where often such shows largely eschew the Y-chromosome, Acchi Kocchi decides that guys too can engage in relatively low-key hijinks without pillaging the secret garden of girlish innocence.

Acchi Kocchi follows a group of friends in high school, primarily a quiet, diminutive girl named Miniwa Tsumiki and her crush, a stoic boy named Otonashi Io. Though a lot of the show involves the characters doing silly things, the primary thrust of the humor is about highlighting the mutual feelings between Tsumiki and Io, and the seeming inevitability that they will become a couple (if they aren’t one by default already). Within this context, the gags can range from heartfelt to absurd, like a mix of Precious Moments cards and Roadrunner-esque slapstick. The humor never quite goes beyond the level it hits in Episode 1, so if you’re looking to experience increasingly powerful laughs it’s not going to happen but if you’re satisfied at that point you’ll remain content.

One thing of note is that the show enjoys making fighting game references. Not sure where that comes from but it’s appreciated.

Romance in this type of anime is not unusual, but it’s generally between two girls, and that’s even when putting aside the highly ambiguous shows which invite interpretation as yuri from the fans. Hidamari Sketch has Sae and Hiro, Kiniro Mosaic has Aya and Youko, Yuruyuri is…basically those combinations times ten. This is not a criticism of same-sex relationships in anime, more an observation about the perhaps surprising lack of heterosexual pairings, which Acchi Kocchi manages to not only include but accomplish in an entertaining and refreshing fashion.

I think that often the worry with a boy-girl romance in these shows is that one will act as the audience stand-in and the other will be the ideal (or ideally flawed) potential significant other, but Acchi Kocchi is more like if both of them were their respective anime ideals for the opposite sex. Tsumiki is small and cute, often portrayed with cat-like features, and is sort of like a fusion between Konata and Kagami from Lucky Star. While this is maybe more expected, Io’s low-key personality is less about being bland and generic and more about being an almost butler-esque bishounen. A lot of the gags involving Io involve him speaking with such natural and unconscious suaveness that the girls around him swoon. They’re quite the anime power couple.

My favorite character by the way is the scientist Katase Mayoi. While I could say quite a bit about how her quirky personality appeals to me, I think this screenshot explains it well enough.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed the show, and while it never felt entirely fresh it wasn’t stale either. Pleasantly humorous with a unique take on familiar territory in a genre which thrives on familiarity, Acchi Kocchi can be a nice change of pace for those who enjoy their so-called slice of life shows but want a bit more variety.