On Loli Vampires, Morality, and Fiction

Anime and manga are full of relationships with large age disparities, ones that would assuredly get people arrested in real life. While fiction isn’t reality, and therefore doesn’t necessarily reflect what people desire or are willing to do in their actual lives, the fear of harm is founded in a simple and important value: adults having physical and romantic relationships with kids is wrong and impossible to justify in reality.

“But why is it wrong?” Generally, when presented with this question, people react that it is just morally repugnant, that it should cause disgust in all people. But what often isn’t taken into account is that there are two components to this answer that are conflated into a single response: the physical disgust and the moral disgust.

The Power of Fiction for Breaking Down Ideas

Before getting into the subject at hand, I want to emphasize some of the strengths of fiction: it can introduce ideas not easily found in reality, working alongside imagination to help people envision a world different from their own. It can also dissect and decouple concepts we believe to be either inextricably tied together, even those multifaceted ideas thought to be a single entity. This aspect of fiction enables people to reflect on its assumptions, and to further clarify how we think as human beings.

Take the example of being transgender, that one can potentially appear as one sex on the outside, but feel they are truly another gender on the inside. Thousands of years of social reinforcement emphasizes that the outer appearance dictates the inner mind, so for many someone being transgender is still a difficult concept to grasp. They cannot divorce sex from gender.

Yet fiction helps make this comprehensible. For instance, the old manga and anime Ranma 1/2 stars a boy who, due to a curse, changes physically into a girl every time he’s hit by cold water (hot water reverses the transformation). The more recent and wildly successful anime film, your name., features a boy and a girl who switch minds and have to live in each other’s bodies. In both works, the idea of “a girl on the outside but a boy on the inside” becomes more easily relatable. One need only watch these works, then think, “If I was in their shoes, how would I think? How would I feel?”

Physical vs. Logical Morality

Adults having relationships with minors is morally wrong, but in order to illustrate the complexities of this idea, I’m going to reference two characters from the company Arc System Works’, which specializes in fighting games. First is Dizzy from the Guilty Gear series. Second is Rachel Alucard from the BlazBlue series.

Visually, Dizzy appears as a fully-grown adult. Tall and voluptuous, she holds zero physical appeal for anyone who would be into much younger characters. However, in her first appearance in Guilty Gear X, she’s stated as being a mere three years old. While it’s more the case that she emerged fully grown like the goddess Athena, the conceptual contrast is still there: young in age, but old in appearance.

Rachel Alucard is the opposite. Having the appearance of a child, Rachel is actually an ageless vampire with the maturity and wisdom to go along with it. She’s very intentionally designed to follow that old lolicon trope of “she looks 10 but she’s 1,000 years old!” that often comes across as the flimsiest of excuses.

If you were to apply real-world laws to Dizzy and Rachel, you’d get two different results. If an adult had a sexual relationship with Dizzy, they’d be breaking the law 100%, but at first glance no one would find anything amiss. If an adult had something with Rachel, it would be legally justified but they would get pulled over by the cops every day for the rest of their lives.

Being bothered by Rachel’s design reflects a physical, visceral disgust—that one should not perceive her appearance as sexually attractive. On the other hand, being disturbed by Dizzy’s situation has more to do with the logic of morality. Even if someone appears fully mature, that does not mean they are mentally or emotionally ready. Age of consent laws are designed to protect minors from the inherent power imbalances that exist in adult-child interactions, even if she “looks like an adult.” The two sides of this argument can and do join together, but they’re fundamentally separate ideas.

So What About Those Stories?

While there is a clear immorality to having an underage relationship in reality, I do not believe that fiction is beholden to the same rules. Putting aside the fact that fiction, in and of itself, causes no harm, what ultimately makes those large age gaps morally problematic is the power dynamic. Adults inherently hold authority over children, even if those kids could pass for adults themselves, and the excuse that “she looked 18” doesn’t take into account the psychological harm that can occur. In stories, however, “power” comes in many different forms, and a story can be all about seeing how two individual characters can join together as equals. This doesn’t mean that people should never feel disgust at what’s depicted in fiction, especially because what goes on can potentially be used as an excuse or justification for bad behavior in real life. But it still, in the end, highlights how we perceive equality (or lack thereof) in fictional portrayals of romance.

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Bodies Aparts, Souls Together: Your Name

An emotionally complex tale of humanity’s connection to both itself and the environment, Your Name marks Shinkai Makoto’s transformation from critically acclaimed director into social phenomenon. Breaking the box office record for animated films in Japan previously held by Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Your Name is a kind of culmination of Shinkai’s films, carrying many of its predecessors’ ideas and themes (lush background environments, adolescence, time and space) while also gearing them towards a more mainstream audience.

Your Name follows two teenagers who, one day, discover that they’ve been switching bodies without memory of doing so. Part-time waiter Taki is a resident of Tokyo, while shrine daughter Mitsuha lives in the small, rural town of Itomori. As they continue to get a very personal look at each others’ lives, the two find themselves growing closer despite being physically located on opposite sides of Japan.

Shinkai’s previous long film, Children who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below, can be described as an attempt to make something more mainstream, even Miyazaki-esque. However, the film’s emphasis on atmosphere and scenery could not quite support the plodding narrative, leaving Children a significantly flawed work. Your Name, in contrast, ucceeds in tapping into the mainstream not only because of its thematic responses to the events of 3.11, but because he keeps the characters much more front and center compared to his previous works. In most Shinkai films, the backgrounds—especially the clouds—are so brimming with life that the environment becomes a kind of character in itself. With Your Name, however, the backgrounds are regressed just enough that Taki and Mitsuha stand at the forefront, while maintaining their signature luster or its aesthetic and narrative impact. Notably, the film does an excellent job of showing off both the cosmopolitan energy of Tokyo and the splendorous beauty of Itomori.

A few thematic concepts persist throughout the entirety of Your Name. One is “twilight,” written in Japanese in various ways but invariably consisting of the kanji for “who” and “he.” Twilight is viewed as a convergence point. Another is “threads.” According to Mitsuha’s grandmother, when their family weaves, they are copying the behavior of the gods. People can be viewed as threads that are woven, tangle up, break apart, and come together again. Mitsuha is known for the ornately tied ribbon adorning her hair, while Taki’s inability to replicate Mitsuha’s skill acts as one of the visual markers for their body switch. Multiple scenes of train stations in Tokyo draw parallels to threads, as they gather up on tracks, allow people to transfer, and then head out in separate directions. Dragons and their divine place in Japanese folklore also play a prominent role. Taki’s name means “waterfall,” which is associated with dragons, while the comet Tiamat that figures heavily in the narrative also alludes to the mythical creature.

Your Name deftly juggles a variety of elements without feeling overly complex. Its story tugs at the heart but also inspires, rendering it an unforgettable film. It may very well become the defining film of an entire generation.