A Swing and a Miss: The mixed-up feminism of Princess Nine

By: Dee October 23, 20200 Comments
Ryo and Takasugi, wearing their baseball uniforms, stand on opposite sides of the frame and look away from each other. Both seem frustrated.

Content Considerations: Discussions of sexism and gender essentialism; brief mentions of adult men creeping on teen girls.

Spoilers: Detailed discussion of the entire Princess Nine series, including the finale.

“High school baseball is a national sport with a long tradition. Frankly, it is utterly ridiculous to allow girls to participate. It would be nothing more than cheap entertainment. If you are so determined to promote women’s status, why don’t you do it somewhere else?”

When Kisaragi Girls’ High School Chairman Himuro Keiko announces that her prestigious school will start an all-girls’ baseball team, her colleagues (all men) greet her with shock. When she promises that the girls’ team will make it to Koshien—the boys’ national high school baseball championships—within three years, they greet her with ridicule. They fight her and the team every step of the way, insisting girls don’t have a place in boys’ sports. 

It’s unladylike. They’re too weak to compete. They’ll just embarrass the school and themselves. Why can’t that female chairman just give up and start a softball team or something?

Himuro doesn’t flinch. She does it anyway. And the girls step up to every challenge their opponents throw at them, and they knock them all out of the park.

At least, until they don’t.

Chairman Himuro, shown in profile, closes her eyes and says "I'm not leaving until you take my request seriously."

Princess Nine follows the Kisaragi High all-girl baseball team during their first year, as they come together and work to prove the doubters wrong. The series spends the first three-quarters of its 26-episode run with an often spot-on understanding of the sexism girls and women face when trying to enter traditionally masculine fields. Through its narrative and characters, it challenges gender norms (albeit still in a cis-centered way) and argues for female participation both in boys’ sports and adult leadership positions.

Unfortunately, the series falls into its own sexist assumptions in the last act, becoming mired in a melodramatic love triangle and undercutting its progressive messaging in the process. It makes a strong early pitch for feminist-minded viewers to cheer it on, but by the time it staggers into home plate, it’s hard to manage more than a halfhearted sigh.

Two men in suits stand next to each other. The smaller one says "'She must be out of her mind to talk about a girls' baseball team."

“Kisaragi Girls’ High has a long tradition of educating girls so that they can be good wives and mothers. Don’t you think a baseball team here is rather barbaric?”

Created as an anime-original project in 1998, Princess Nine is in many ways a product of its time. As Vera Mackey explains in Feminism in Modern Japan, there was a marked uptick in women workers in Japan (many of them in part-time or temp positions) beginning in the 1970s. This also led to Japanese feminist organizations pushing for “reform of some of the most basic institutions of Japanese society,” including equality in both education and the workplace.

These social shifts continued into the 1990s, including a modest increase in female politicians and a fairly novel form of “state feminism,” culminating with the Basic Law for a Gender Equal Society of 1999. In Ayako Kano’s Japanese Feminist Debates, she describes the changes and overall political climate of the 1990s:

A series of laws were passed that appeared to aid women: laws that provided support for child care and elder care; laws that allowed women’s groups to gain stronger legal status; and laws that defined certain acts—such as stalking and domestic violence, previously tolerated as private matters—as crimes against women. The passage of these laws seemed to signal that the Japanese state was embracing feminist ideals, or conversely that feminist ideals had become part of state policy.

However, while feminist ideals like gender equality in schools and workplaces were becoming more mainstream, they were by no means the mainstream. Instead, as Kano goes on to discuss, feminist activists were often accused of being “anti-family,” women were overall paid less and expected to quit their jobs after marriage, and “the assumption that all women would become mothers continued to dominate.”

Two girls in baseball uniforms. The tan, blonde one clenches an angry fist and shouts "What unforgivable oppression! We should protest this!"

To summarize (and, admittedly, over-simplify): Japan in the 1990s was changing its policies on what girls and women could do, but the cultural norms of what they should do were still rooted in traditional ideas about masculine and feminine spheres. Princess Nine sits smack in the middle of this tension, and the push and pull becomes palpable as the series continues. 

As today’s women in Japan (who might have grown up cheering for the Kisaragi girls on TV) face their own struggles—including often nonexistent financial support or child care for working single mothers, everyday sexism about gendered labor in the workplace, and the inability to keep their own surname after marriage—it can be helpful to look back and see both how far we’ve come with feminist-minded media and how far there still is to go.

A young Ryo holds a baseball and looks at it curiously.

“I am not discriminating between men and women, but we can’t deny the physical differences between them.”

Initially, Princess Nine seems to be jumping on board with the more progressive edge of late ’90s feminism. It not only depicts a girls’ baseball team competing (and winning) against boys’ teams, but actively addresses and challenges sexist assumptions likely held by some of its audience.

This is especially noticeable in Chairman Himuro’s interactions with the all-male school board and, later, the baseball association. Both organizations are adamantly opposed to allowing girls to play against boys. It’s implied this is partly because they don’t like Himuro’s assertiveness (“Now we can finally take the wind out of that female chairman’s sails!” the vice principal crows at one point), but it’s explicitly framed as a concern that the girls will lose so badly they’ll embarrass both their school and the sport of baseball as a whole.

Chairman Himuro sits behind a table, hands clasped calmly in front of her, and says, "Yes, I believe our team is as good as any boys' team."

So, as is often the case in real life, the girls have to prove their worth just to be allowed through the front door. But they don’t have to prove they can compete with a boys’ team—no, they must compete with the best boys’ teams. First, if they can’t beat a veteran junior high team (last year’s Kanto Regional Tournament Champs), the school’s principal will use it as an excuse to disband them. Then, the only way they’ll be allowed to play in the high school tournament is if they can beat a boys’ team who went to Koshien the year prior.

Nobody would expect this from a newly formed all-freshmen boys’ team (many of whom have never played baseball before), but the girls are expected to be just as good as the top-tier boys’ teams right off the bat. It’s a prime example of how society expects girls and women to be twice as good as boys and men just to stand on the same field as them.

While the girls themselves aren’t worried about competing against boys, they are worried about facing a veteran team this early in the season. They use some gendered psychological warfare in the early innings (some of the more outgoing girls flirt with the boys to throw them off their game), but eventually it comes down to their pitcher Ryo against the boys’ hitters—and the girls pull out a win.

Three teen girls sit around a table with school bags on it. One leans forward excitedly and says "Anyway, it's clear now that we're capable of competing against the boys."

“Quite a few of them are pretty cute… Even the Assistant Chief Editor is thinking of taking off his wedding ring and interviewing them.”

Of course, no matter what the girls do to prove themselves, sexism remains baked into the way most of the men and boys treat them. The baseball association still tries to weasel out of their deal, and the principal still refuses to acknowledge the team as legitimate. The baseball association doesn’t give in until one of their members (another man) steps up to support the girls’ team. It’s a moment that highlights the value of male allies, especially in male-dominated fields.

Somewhat similarly, the principal doesn’t start supporting the team until his own daughter, herself a baseball player, stands up to him and practically begs him to allow the girls to play. Then, suddenly, he stops worrying about them being “barbaric” or “ruining the school’s atmosphere” and is talking about how they’re “young” and full of “potential” and should have the school’s support. It’s a hilariously pitch-perfect example of men who care about women because they have a wife or daughter and not, you know, because women are people who deserve the same respect as anyone else.

Two boys in baseball uniforms stand in a dugout. One cups a hand to his mouth and says "Don't stare at her form and miss the good balls!"

Likewise, the local newspapers start paying attention to the girls’ team primarily because they’re “charming” or “cute,” showing how society focuses on girls’ looks or femininity even when it’s irrelevant to the conversation. They’re also objectified to various degrees: sometimes by reporters creeping on them; other times by their coach making inappropriate comments about their bodies; and regularly by the boys on the other team talking (loudly) about their appearances.

While the girls by-and-large ignore the sexism around them and just focus on baseball, some of them are keenly aware of the pressures placed on them and how the world sees them. As Izumi, one of their star hitters, reminds them after a big win: “We get all this attention only because we are a girls’ school. If we don’t gain real strength, we’ll be laughed at all the more for the attention we received.”

A girl in glasses looks down, visibly upset. Subtitles read "It's shamless for young ladies to play ball games with such abandon!"

Izumi’s concerns are legitimate, especially given the way the gender-mixed Parents’ Association and the team’s female classmates later turn on them during a potential scandal, referring to them as “unrefined” and “not suitable” for this school of “good wives and wise mothers.” The girls’ baseball team is not just a threat to the traditional concept of male identity, but to female identity as well. They challenge the supposedly rigid barriers between “girls” and “boys” and force people to question why those barriers exist at all. They are a revolution simply by existing.

So maybe that’s why the narrative, afraid of its own implications, suddenly backtracks in its last quarter, barreling headfirst into cliche love triangles and romantic tension. You know, the stuff girls are “supposed” to be into.

Ryo kneels on the pitcher's mound. Across from her, Hiroki stands at home plate and points a bat at her. He shouts "From now on, I'll keep chasing you and only you!"

“But the girl I love so much doesn’t throw pitches like this! The girl I love isn’t so weak! If you feel the same about me… If you love me… your next pitch will be the lightning ball!”

“I love you, too, Takasugi! That’s why I’ll strike you out no matter what!”

The budding romance between girls’ pitcher Takashima Ryo and boys’ hitter Takasugi Hiroki is an off-and-on subplot from the beginning, but it suddenly comes into full focus for the final 7-odd episodes of the series, sending both the series’ momentum and its progressive messaging to a screeching halt. 

Suddenly Ryo is mired in a love triangle with Hiroki and childhood friend Izumi, complete with forced complications and shoehorned misunderstandings. Suddenly Ryo and Izumi’s series-long respected rivalry devolves into “catty women” stereotypes, with Izumi resorting to underhanded tactics and lies to “win” Hiroki’s love.

Hiroki and Izumi, both in baseball uniforms, stand next to each other. Hiroki says "What's wrong with you, Izumi?"

The strong focus on romantic rivalries would be frustrating on its own, but it’s especially egregious when it starts to impact the baseball storyline. After some tough games, the girls make it to the regional playoff finals and face off against their sister school, the all-boys Kisaragi High, where Hiroki plays baseball.

With the love triangle still lingering off the field, it spills on to the field—but, tellingly, it only impacts the girls’ team. Both Ryo and Izumi struggle to focus almost the entire game because they’re so distracted by Hiroki, making critical errors they normally would not. Ryo even intentionally walks Hiroki every inning because she can’t stand pitching to him directly.

Thanks to their teammates, they manage to make it to extra innings, where Ryo finally decides to face Hiroki head on. He shouts his love confession from home plate and she shouts her confession from the pitchers’ mound. Instead of walking him again, she pitches to him for real… 

…And he hits an out-of-the-park home run, and the boys win the game.

A long shot of the baseball stadium. Subtitles read "The Kisaragi Girls' Koshien dream has come ot an end!"

“I’d like to believe those girls will return to the playing field next year, full of energy and with the Koshien dream in their hearts.”

To be clear, the issue here is not that the girls’ team loses. They’re an all-freshman team with novice players and a nonexistent bench. It would be realistic to show fatigue and inexperience catching up with them. In fact, given how hard they had to fight to be taken seriously, this could have been a satisfying—even ambitious!—conclusion, since it would directly challenge the belief that the girls have to be the very best in order to be worthy of their own story.

And, in fairness, that may be exactly what Princess Nine was trying to do. After the girls lose the game, the final scenes are of the adults (the chairman, the principal, the reporters) talking about how well the girls played and how this is “just the beginning” for them. Their young team will have two more years to make it to Koshien, after all, and the final shots heavily imply they’ll go on to do just that.

A photo of the Kisaragi girls' baseball team pinned to a wall. All the girls are smiling, several flashing peace signs.

Unfortunately, intent and effect are not the same thing, and the way Princess Nine arrived at this finale lends it a lot of unfortunate implications. Because here’s the thing: the girls don’t lose because they’re young or inexperienced. Most of the inexperienced players do just fine, in fact!

Instead, they lose specifically because their “girly” feelings get in the way. Ryo and Izumi are so overcome with romantic emotions that it impacts their play—romantic emotions that, again, do not have any impact on Hiroki’s game.

Combined with the earlier game where the girls flirted with the boys to get them to make mistakes, it feeds into gendered (and heteronormative) stereotypes about how boys can’t control their libidos and girls can’t control their emotions, and lowkey suggests that maybe they shouldn’t be competing against each other after all.

A close-up of Ryo in her baseball uniform, looking intense and thinking "No, I have to concentrate right now!"

Furthermore, because Ryo’s love confession occurs right before Hiroki hits her pitch (and thus ends the series), it means that her romantic storyline serves as the series’ narrative and emotional climax. Ryo and her teammates’ growth takes a backseat to romance, strongly suggesting that what really matters for Ryo’s character arc is boys, not sports.

Which would have been irritating even if the girls had won the game, but because they lose, it just adds extra layers of unpleasant implications to the overall narrative. By having Hiroki beat Ryo head-to-head, it suggests that the only way for a boy to “win” a girl is to be better than her at something—or, on the flip side, that a girl can be strong, but not too strong, if she wants to find love. And, if Princess Nine’s final arc has taught us anything, it’s that girls definitely want to find love. All the time. Even at the cost of their other dreams.

Go team?

A concerned Ryo looks at Izumi, who looks away, also upset

Princess Nine wants to be an empowering lady-led sports anime, but it can’t quite shake off the gendered expectations about what girls “really” want or who society thinks they’re “supposed” to be. Despite having a keen understanding of sexist assumptions and the uphill battles girls and women have historically had to fight to be taken seriously when performing traditional masculine activities, the series undermines itself by slipping into some of the same sexist assumptions it initially sought to challenge. 

The end result is a thoroughly uneven series that both challenges and upholds the status quo (sometimes simultaneously). And, like the Kisaragi girls themselves, it falls frustratingly short of that first-place finish.

Neither wholly progressive nor regressive, Princess Nine is perhaps best understood as a snapshot of a mainstream late ’90s perspective that’s unfortunately still common today: girls are a lot stronger than most people think, but they’re still “just girls” at the end of the day—captives to their emotions, destined for marriage, and doomed to take second place.

About the Author : Dee

Dee has worn many hats at AniFem, including editor-in-chief, contributor liaison, and PR rep. She's mostly retired now, but the staff still lets her hang out and write sometimes. When she isn't facilitating Team Rocket's takeover of the website, she spends her free time devouring novels and comics, watching too much anime, and cheering very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can read more of her work at The Josei Next Door or hang out with her on Bluesky, Tumblr, or Twitter.

Read more articles from Dee

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