SPOILERS: Minor spoilers for episode one of BBK/BRNK.
I’ve talked elsewhere about how I can switch off a show at the first sign of gratuitous sexualisation in episode one. It’s an easy way to put me and some other feminist viewers off. Now let’s talk about how anime premieres can draw such viewers in, using my favourite example from 2016: BBK/BRNK.
BBK/BRNK is not my favourite anime of the year. It’s not even in my top five. But as far as I’m concerned it has the strongest premiere of any brand new series this year. Let’s look at why.
We’ve talked here before about the connection between gratuitous sexualisation and the writers’ lack of confidence in their own material. That’s a worst case scenario, but there are plenty of sloppy storytelling options before panty shots and boob grabs, which many, many anime lean on. How many anime have you seen that introduce a crowd of characters at once with their names popping up on screen to tell you who they are? Or launch into an “as we all know” preamble? Or start off with a voiceover prologue bringing you up to speed on years of warfare and politics?
Every one of these tactics can be used skilfully to great effect, but too many misuse them to cut corners. Either they don’t know story craft well enough to do better, or they don’t care. BBK/BRNK does none of this in its premiere. Writers Jiro Ishii and Yukinori Kitajima clearly understand how to leave breadcrumbs of information and trust viewers to follow the trail. They know we don’t need the entire backstory in episode one; we just need to be intrigued enough to keep watching.
Halfway through the episode we have our only text on screen: “10 years later. Shinjuku, Tokyo.” After detailing domestic life on a floating island with magical powers and sleepwalking monsters, they turn their back on all of it and start again. There is only a small overlap in our knowledge of the characters and their world from the first half of the episode to the second. It’s like starting a second premiere in the middle of the first – and it works, because the confidence with which they handle this material reassures us that they will answer all our questions later.
What’s that got to do with feminism? Well, the appeal of BBK/BRNK‘s premiere is in what they don’t do. They don’t take the easy option, which is to rely on cobbling together known tropes and archetypes to make a mediocre franken-story from minute one. It falls into certain patterns later, but in this first episode it steers mostly clear of overused story paths. Considering so many of these paths, tropes and archetypes are weighed down with gendered baggage, simply the act of taking a risk to tell a story off this beaten path makes it more likely to be feminist-friendly.
BBK/BRNK put a lot of people off with its animation, and I understand that, but this show is very often beautiful. I could quite happily just fill this post with screenshots.
(Seriously, just watch it. Episode one is all I ask.)
But let’s talk about how the characters are visually presented, especially the female characters.
The first character we meet is six-year-old Kaoruko, closely followed by her twin brother Azuma. Kaoruko is often shown in a strong stance, with feet planted, arms folded or hands on hips. The way she stands and moves is always self-assured, hardly a pigeon-toe in sight.
Kaoruko’s clothing is cute, all pink and patterned, but still comfortable and practical, allowing her to move freely. Azuma’s clothing is more typically “boyish”, in both colour and style. When we meet their parents though, we see that this is not out of any gender segregation on the show. Kaoruko’s pink is most similar to the colour of their father’s shirt, while the blue of Azuma’s shirt is reflected most obviously in their mother’s skirt.
The parents both have obvious splashes of yellow in their outfits, visually connecting them as adults, while Azuma’s yellow shoes mark him as the older brother. As the youngest, Kaoruko has no yellow, but she does have blue parts to her outfit. The children are dressed in largely gendered colours, but without the baggage of gender expectations.
This is confirmed when we consider the parents’ introductions. Their father is fishing and their mother holding a basket of vegetables, while both are gentle and affectionate with the children. Yes, their father is stocky and physically strong while their mother is more delicate looking and wears a skirt, but there is no sense of hierarchy: these are partners co-operating equally to run a household and raise a family. These are Azuma and Kaoruko’s earliest role models.
After the time jump we meet multiple young women, starting with sweet little Kogane…
…whose cute character design easily accommodates fighting and fierceness.
Her aesthetic does not rely on frills, puffy skirts or thigh high stockings to convey cuteness. Instead, she uses flowers, bows and overly long sleeves, which works just as effectively without being the classic lolita-inspired character design we see on so many adorable young girls in anime. Her clothes are practical in a way many of the delicate-looking lolita-inspired designs aren’t, not least because she is wearing trainers and a loose sweater rather than anything rigid or skin-tight.
Next we meet Kinoa…
Both of them appear in powerful poses from low angles which deliberately avoid upskirt shots. Both wear flat shoes, not high heels. Kinoa’s design includes a plunging neckline and Shizuru sometimes sits astride her gun, Izetta style, but neither is presented sexually at any point. Again, what this episode chooses not to do makes the best impression.
Finally, Reoko and underling Zetsubi are dressed very differently, with Reoko almost in a school uniform and Zetsubi in something that feels a bit Rainbow Brite with cleavage, but still neither is sexualised.
That’s all a show has to do. Just don’t sexualise characters in the first episodes of a non-sexual show. Portray them as full humans rather than body parts. Animate them to convey character, not cup size. Frame them to show power, not panties. This should be bare minimum stuff, the lowest bar. It’s not.
In the first minute BBK/BRNK‘s premiere introduces us to the two main characters, a twin boy and girl. We learn, among other things, that the two children on screen are Kaoruko and Azuma, that they are siblings, that Kaoruko is an assertive leader while Azuma is a nervous follower, and that they have some kind of power, though confident Kaoruko has more than scared Azuma. All in the first minute.
It seems like such a simple thing, but lesser storytellers would have made Azuma brash and Kaoruko sensitive and called it a day. To deliberately avoid giving the male and female character stereotypical masculine and feminine traits respectively, and to just as deliberately present that choice in the first minute, gives a very good first impression. That they follow it up to add layers and layers which undermine, subvert and reinforce these first impressions just makes the whole characters more satisfying and complex.
This isn’t just restricted to the twins. Within 10 minutes we see hints of strengths, weaknesses, motivations and a history their mother doesn’t share with them just yet. Within 10 minutes, Kogane goes from blushing and almost toppling over to screaming at and attacking someone who has wronged her. It takes other characters longer to show their complexities and vulnerabilities, but we see glimpses of it in enough characters in episode one that we can be confident those layers exist in all the characters.
BBK/BRNK is not a perfect show. Particularly the second cour, named BBK/BRNK: The Gentle Giants of the Galaxy, suddenly discovers the worst kind of fanservice and incorporates messages about traditional gender roles that are pretty sad to see. However, it is also a mecha show with an ensemble cast of complicated men and women working together, the plot is often driven by the relationships and conflicts of women, and it offers a kaleidoscope of masculinities and femininities to choose from (though still operating pretty firmly within the binary).
Even when I consider its best points though, the subsequent episodes just do not live up to the promise of this beautiful, expertly handled premiere. If the entire series had been like this, it definitely would have been in my top five, and one of the most feminist-friendly shows of the year.