Help Me! Why is “S&M” Lingo So Common in Anime and Manga?

Out of the many tropes and trends to come out of anime and manga, there’s one I find especially curious: the casual use of “sadist” and “masochist” to describe characters. It’d be more understandable if it was limited to more sexually charged series, or to describe villains as “sadistic bastards,” but it occurs in just about everything—romances, kids’ shows, sports/competition series, and so-on. You see the letters “S” and “M” thrown around by characters as if it’s the most normal thing to say in a conversation.

In series like Prison School, “S&M” is used conventionally to refer to kinks and fetishes. In other cases, like Chihayafuru, the phrase is more removed from an explicitly sexual context, and could potentially be seen as simply referring to a non-sexual pleasure derived from inflicting or receiving pain. Or perhaps that layer of sexual tension and mild eroticism that permeates many anime and manga also trickle down into the ones that aren’t like that. The same could perhaps be extended to phrases like “siscon,” though many recent anime have gone out of their way to make that particular phrase anything but innocent.

I’m not against this trend of using “S&M” terminology, or at least find no need to take umbrage with it, but it really makes me wonder where the heck it all comes from. Is it a few famous titles? Could it be from some visual novels that got big among otaku? Or maybe it’s from something more mainstream, like classic Japanese literature. Yet, try as I might, any attempts at cursory research turn up fruitless. I get the feeling that there’s no straightforward answer, and that it might be bits and pieces of both Japanese domestic and foreign imported culture mixed together into a complex stew.

If anyone has any expertise on this matter, or knows any potential resources that could point me in the right direction, I’d love to know. This is one mystery that I really want to solve.

 

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Dominatrix Gameplay: The S&M Fighting Style of Smash 4 Bayonetta

Bayonetta is generally considered the best character in Smash 4. While her strengths are many, her key trait is the ability to instantly turn the tables on her opponent’s assault and transform a disadvantageous situation into a chance for victory. As with many #1 characters in games, there have even been calls to ban her from competitive play, more than any other character in the game. But I don’t believe the outcry is simply because she’s “too good.” Rather, it’s about why she’s good. Her character strategies are akin to those of a dominatrix, and her denial of pleasure in Smash 4 is what frustrates many to the point of crying foul.

Heroic stories are often built on giving antagonists their just desserts. Whenever Stone Cold Steve Austin managed to corner Vince McMahon, fans cheered as Austin drowned his evil boss in beer. When Kenshiro in Fist of the North Star confronts Jagi, the satisfaction of having Kenshiro beat Jagi to death for all his injustice is a moment meant to scratch that revenge itch. The villain, by virtue of being a villain, must pay.

Looking at fighting games, it’s possible to label the top tier characters as the villains in the story of competition. They’re the fastest, the strongest, and the most dominant. So what happens when the “hero,” i.e. whoever’s fighting the top tier, finally catches up to this scoundrel? Well, it depends.

Take Fox, from Super Smash Bros. Melee. Widely considered the strongest character in that game by a margin wider than Bayonetta’s grip over Smash 4. But while Fox is basically a master of all trades, he’s also a glass cannon who, if hit, can be combo’d hard by many of the best and worst characters in the game. Stringing a series of attacks together and watching Fox’s damage percentage rapidly rise is satisfying. So is spiking him offstage and seeing him plummet like a rock to his doom. Making Fox pay goes a long way in providing pleasure to the player or viewer opposing him.

This results in a kind of “combo catharsis.” Even if the opponent loses to Fox, seeing a Marth or a Mewtwo chain grab him for a couple of stocks can still make it seem like the dastardly space animal was on the ropes, if only for a few moments. The villain barely got away! Even in loss, it’s possible to feel powerful—a quality that I believe is important in attracting and keeping players.

Bayonetta, in contrast, is intentionally designed to deny easy combos and follow-ups on her. Multiple jumps and ways to recover mean edgeguarding her is difficult. Afterburner Kick acts as an escape button for those trying to juggle her. Witch Twist deflects and draws in the opponent into a potentially high-damage or even fatal string of attacks. Witch Time actively punishes overly aggressive and predictable players. While it’s possible to land multiple blows on her, each hit requires about as much work as the last. Bayonetta stymies combo catharsis, making the release that comes with it incredibly difficult to achieve. Even in gameplay, she’s truly a dominatrix.

A unifying point between Bayonetta and Fox is another character notorious for denying combo catharsis: Melee Jigglypuff. A proverbial flyweight who makes up for its lack of diverse tools by stonewalling opponents through strong aerial attacks and deft aerial movement, Jigglypuff is so light that the opponent can usually only land one or two hits before it goes flying out of reach. And yet, when it comes to Fox’s reputation vs. Jigglypuff’s, the latter receives more scorn from players and spectators despite the fact that the former excels at nearly everything and boasts a much larger player base at the lowest and highest levels of competition. Catch Fox, and you can pound him for an extended period. Catch Jigglypuff or Bayonetta, and you might get just a single lick before you have to start all over again.

In spite all of the above innuendo, this is only an analogy, and I don’t think anyone actually derives sexual pleasure from playing Smash Bros.—though I could see it being just as satisfying. But at the same time, it’s clear that Bayonetta is, by design, hard to combo, and that one of the most popular and enduring elements of Smash Bros. and fighting games in general is the combos (or chains or strings). I don’t know if it’s intentional, but Bayonetta in essence works from an almost BDSM-like playbook. This doesn’t necessarily mean Smash 4 players are masochists, but those who still choose to fight Bayonetta are at least those who can manage to hold back their desire to just let loose.