Does Anime Believe Women? Three depictions of sexual harassment in fiction

By: Contributor December 29, 20179 Comments
close up of a schoolgirl's face, looking upset. caption: You were really asking for it!

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses depictions of sexual harassment and assault in media, including false accusation narratives and victim-blaming.

Women have always known that sexual abuse and harassment is a serious, systemic problem. It seems that problem is finally getting widespread attention in mainstream discourse (in many countries, including Japan) after news story after news story about abusive men in positions of power.

Conversations like #MeToo are emphasizing an important point: we need to believe survivors. That doesn’t mean we throw away due process, but it does mean that society needs to stop treating sexual assault and harassment victims with doubt and suspicion. It also means challenging victim-blaming, the attitude that victims “asked for it” because of what they did or wore, their past sexual history, and so on.

It’s worthwhile to take stock of whether the fiction we consume promotes trust and respect for survivors. This article examines three narratives from recent anime about real or alleged sexual harassment and assault.

King’s Game

King’s Game is a horror story centered on high school student Nobuaki, who along with his new classmates is pulled into a sadistic game where students must follow the orders of a mysterious figure known only as the king or face death as a punishment. Vrai’s AniFem premiere review warned viewers of the show’s penchant for misogyny. Episode Two proved them right with a cringe-worthy plot line where Nobuaki is falsely accused of rape by a girl named Natsuko.

King’s Game presents Natsuko as a cruel manipulator and Nobuaki as a victim. At the start of the episode, the King has ordered Natsuko to sleep with a boy named Teruaki. She tearfully begs Nobuaki to sleep with her first since she’s been crushing on him and wants to spend her first time with someone special, but Nobuaki rejects her.

Close up of a panicked looking girl pleading with a boy. the camera is over his shoulder. caption: listen to me. I'm still a virgin. What should I do?!

Later, Teruaki throws Natsuko onto the ground, seemingly about to rape her. Then Natsuko kicks away her attacker and reveals her frightened behavior was an act. She’d hoped to manipulate Nobuaki into revealing a way out of the King’s Game. She strips off her own shirt and demands that Teruaki take off his clothes. Nobuaki and the class are shocked and appalled by her behavior.

Natsuko soon turns her attention back to Nobuaki. She asks him to walk with her, then when they’re alone, she throws her shirt at him and screams. The other students run to the scene, and Natsuko claims that Nobuaki tried to attack her. As a group of boys beats Nobuaki, Natsuko gleefully sticks out her tongue.

Natsuko is not just a repellent character, she’s a harmful stereotype. Fictional portrayals of women as liars who accuse innocent men further a dangerous false narrative. False accusations of rape are exceedingly rare in real life. Research suggests the rate of false reporting is between two and 10 percent, and that number is likely inflated. Even so, many victims struggle to get people to believe them.

The woman who lies about sexual assault is a common archetype going back to ancient times (such as in the stories of Phaedra or Potiphar’s wife). Even Tvtropes.org has an entire page listing multiple stories about false rape accusations in film, television, and literature. Collectively, stories like these fuel society’s tendency to disbelieve victims and prevent women from speaking out.

close up of battered Nobuaki and a foot coming down on his face. caption: "Stop...:" "Lowlife!"

On top of making Natsuko a self-serving liar, King’s Game fails to acknowledge victim-blaming in its story while reinforcing it on a meta level. The students’ willingness to believe Natsuko suggests that “imperfect victims” are readily trusted, when in reality they are often disbelieved or blamed for their assault.

Those in a relationship with their attacker and those seen as promiscuous are particularly vulnerable to victim blaming. If King’s Game were realistic, Natsuko’s crush on Nobuaki and her “shamelessness” (commanding Teruaki to strip and sleep with her) would be held against her.

While victim-blaming is a non-issue for the plot, the show’s framing links lying with open female sexuality. Natsuko reveals that she’s a manipulator at the exact moment she changes from a “good girl” (sweet, shy, explicitly saying she’s a virgin) to a femme fatale (taking her shirt off, ordering a boy to strip). This fits into the idea that “easy” women’s rape claims aren’t trustworthy.

Natsuko standing with her hand on her hip, shirtless, between Nobuaki and another boy who is sitting on the ground. caption: Come on, Teruaki. You don't want to die, do you?

The conflict with Natsuko is resolved when a classmate named Kenta shows up. Kenta wasn’t present when Natsuko accused Nobuaki and has no idea what’s going on. He says that he won’t allow a “lynching” and that he’s taking Nobuaki to a hospital. When Natsuko says she wants to join them, Kenta slaps her.

In story, the boy is right to help the innocent Nobuaki. But the situation is reminiscent of the way some men rush to defend other men accused of abuse even though they don’t (and can’t) know what really happened.

It is also deeply disturbing for King’s Game to punish a female character for lying about rape by having someone slap her. Like sexual assault, physical abuse of women is a widespread problem. Additionally, some rapists threaten to beat or kill their victims if they resist or report the assault.

Stories about false allegations can be valuable when they explore specific, real-world issues that allow for miscarriages of justice (such as racism in To Kill a Mockingbird). However, suggesting that women commonly lie about rape is flat-out irresponsible.

Aftermath of a slap. A boy's hand is outstretched--Natsuko is falling sideways

Elegant Yokai Apartment Life

Elegant Yokai Apartment Life is an emotionally sincere, fun series about a boy who lives in an apartment full of ghosts and spirits. It has a good heart, so I wanted to like the story arc that deals with accusations of sexual harassment. The arc may be trying to subvert the character tropes of the falsely accused man and conniving woman. However, clumsy execution undercuts the (possible) message about believing victims.

During Episodes 10 through 12, the protagonist Yushi Inaba discovers that his new teacher Miura is possessed by an “id monster,” a malevolent entity animated by strong negative feelings—misogyny, in this case. Miura becomes emotionally unstable and physically attacks girls.

A man seen from behind outside an apartment, straddling a young girl and preparing to stab her

Yushi believes that Miura is a victim who needs to be saved from the id monster. Meanwhile, one of Yushi’s female classmates digs into Miura’s past and discovers hints that the teacher was emotionally scarred by something that happened to him at an all-girls school.

After a few close calls where Yushi uses his growing spiritual powers to keep Miura from harming girls and from being caught, Akine, a teenage girl and skilled exorcist, finally purges the id monster from Miura. The teacher immediately launches into a tirade about how he hates girls, proving his misogyny is part of his character and not simply the fault of the monster. He claims that the students at the all-girls school falsely accused him of sexual harassment.

Now, it’s possible to argue that the flashback which accompanies the teacher’s story sets him up as an unreliable narrator, indicating that he really was harassing students. In some moments, there seems to be a disconnect between the teacher’s narration and images that point to him being an unreliable narrator. Miura insists the girls lied and he did nothing wrong, but at the same time we see a girl slap the teacher’s hand away when he touches her shoulder and then cry while surrounded by friends.

Two girls in track suits comforting a third crying girl, glaring at a teacher. caption: those kids lied

However, if this was the show’s intention, the flashback does a poor job of clearly establishing that Miura is lying based on the context of the entire scene. The conflict begins when the students become angry at Miura for ordering them around during a rehearsal for Hamlet. It seems the girl slaps Miura’s hand and begins crying when Miura is giving stage directions to the class.

While Miura later reveals that he’s an unpleasant person when he yells “All they had to do was shut up and do as I said,” since the students had refused to follow his stage directions, the comment doesn’t prove he’s guilty of sexual harassment specifically. It can be interpreted as showing that Miura had a prideful and overbearing attitude that angered the students. That interpretation also fits with the rumors Yushi’s friend uncovered about how the girls could be “nasty” and difficult for new teachers to deal with.

There are also moments where what we see in the flashback closely matches Miura’s account. In one shot, girls with menacing expressions say they’ll teach Miura a lesson. In another, the camera shows Miura as a small figure surrounded by hostile students talking behind his back. The framing paints Miura as the vulnerable one rather than an abusive authority figure. While it’s possible this is Miura’s own skewed version of events, because every flashback is from his perspective (notably, nobody ever tries to contact the girls at his previous school and get their take on what happened), it’s impossible to know for sure.

Teacher surrounded by images of ominous looking whispering girls. caption: "creepy"? "Sexual Harassment?" "A perverted teacher?"

In fairness, I think the show expects its audience to distrust or at least question Miura’s claim of innocence based on his character, so I can understand why some people don’t feel frustrated and disappointed with it. After being freed from possession, Miura remains hateful towards women and engages in violent behavior. He even tries to stab Yushi at the conclusion of Episode 12. Yushi also calls him a bad adult.

That said, I still think that not making Miura’s guilt obvious in the flashback was a mistake. There is nothing inherently wrong with an indirect approach, but it becomes a problem when attentive viewers get the wrong idea. The first time I watched the story arc, I thought that Miura was falsely accused and that this experience is what made him unstable and misogynistic. A reviewer for Anime News Network had the same impression—but without the rage I felt at the show’s writing.

close up of a short-haired girl. caption: it's just that girls there can be nasty

The prevalence of stories about falsely accused men compounds the potential for confusion. Thanks to these past stories, there’s a strong narrative expectation that the accused man is actually innocent. Because of this, I feel that writers need to be fairly explicit if they want to get the audience to think an accused man is innocent and then subvert that expectation. Otherwise many viewers (even feminist ones) may read the situation as ambiguous.

As the story stands, there is the potential to see a lesson about the importance of believing harassment victims. Yushi blames Miura’s actions on the id monster in the same way that many men with good intentions dismiss troubling behavior as a misunderstanding (“just a friendly hug”) or create excuses for it (“he was drunk”). Unfortunately, I don’t think that many casual viewers will notice these parallels.

Making Miura’s guilt obvious would send a stronger message. I wish that this story arc had clearly depicted sexual harassment on-screen in a non-graphic way (similar to how an earlier episode handled child abuse). This would give the reveal that Yushi was wrong about Miura more emotional punch. It would also underline how Miura should never have had the opportunity to harm girls at Yushi’s school—the reports of harassment at his previous job should have ended his teaching career.

My Love Story!!

It’s refreshing when stories that depict sexual abuse or harassment are both respectful and well-executed. One example that stands out occurs in the shoujo rom-com series My Love Story. The first episode deals with sexual assault on trains, a widespread problem in Japan. Takeo meets Rinko, his future girlfriend, when he protects her from a groper.

My Love Story encourages empathy for victims and provides a positive model for how bystanders can step up to help them. Rather than focusing on the possibility of men being falsely accused, it makes the case that distrusting survivors or blaming them for their assault is wrong.

The series invites the audience to sympathize with victims of assault by respectfully portraying the distress it causes Rinko. It doesn’t use leering or sexualized framing when someone’s hand touches Rinko’s butt. Instead, the camera follows Takeo’s gaze as he sees the incident taking place across the crowded train. Rinko looks down and hunches her shoulders, clearly upset.

a schoolgirl on the train seen from behind, a hand touching her butt

Takeo and Suna provide examples of how bystanders can help stop an assault in progress as well as support the victim afterwards. Suna becomes suspicious of the passenger and alerts Takeo, who then grabs the man’s hand and demands that he get off at the next stop. The fact that only burly Takeo physically stops the attack smartly reflects the fact that not every bystander can safely confront an abuser. Suna’s actions demonstrate how less risky methods, such as alerting other people, can be effective.

After getting off the train, Suna and Takeo also make reporting the assault easier for Rinko. They offer to go to the police without her and give her the option of leaving. She quickly insists that she wants to come with them. My Love Story is aware that Rinko must have a choice about whether to go to the police. Some victims are afraid of reporting assault because the criminal might try to find and hurt them in retaliation. By going with Rinko to the station, the boys act as witnesses and emotional support.

Through the scene at the police station, My Love Story implicitly cautions against skepticism towards survivors. The groper initially insists that he did nothing wrong and that Takeo violently attacked him for no reason. He only drops the act when it becomes clear that, with Rinko saying he groped her and two witnesses backing her up, his lie won’t work.

close up of a man's leering face. caption: look who's talking, with your skirt up to there.

The moment reminds us that perpetrators of sexual assault have a strong motive to lie, and while they deserve due process, we should be wary of reflexively trusting accused men over alleged victims. This is a welcome contrast to false accusation narratives, which often don’t acknowledge that the scenario they depict is extremely rare while the flip-side—perpetrators of sexual assault feigning innocence—is very common.

When outright denial fails, the groper places blame for the incident on Rinko. He tells her, “Look who’s talking, with your skirt up to there. You were really asking for it!” The belief that victims provoke sexual assault by acting or dressing in certain ways is a problem in real life, too. Survivors have been subjected to questions about what they were wearing at the time of their assault. Fiction can play into and enforce these victim-blaming attitudes as well. Episode Seven of Interviews with Monster Girls is just one example from anime.

close up of a schoolgirl's face, looking upset. caption: You were really asking for it!

My Love Story suggests that we shouldn’t tolerate victim-blaming. It does this in three ways. First, the one who says that Rinko’s skirt was an invitation to grope her is obviously the bad guy. His story role, his nasty behavior, and the way he’s drawn (sleazy, grotesque) all make the audience view him, and by extension his opinions, in a negative light. Since the same person commits both sexual assault and victim-blaming, there’s an implication that shaming assault survivors means siding with abuse.

Second, My Love Story uses facial expressions to show that victim-blaming is cruel and humiliating. The groper leers at Rinko with a mocking smile when he says it’s her fault for wearing a skirt “up to there.” In the next shot, Rinko seems ready to cry.

Third, Takeo shuts the groper down by punching him in the face. Even though Takeo gets in trouble for his actions, we’re meant to sympathize with his anger. The scene is a funny and hard-hitting (pun intended) takedown of victim-blaming attitudes.

close up of a fist cross-cut punching the leering man's jaw

Stories about sexual harassment and assault are never “just fiction.” They can feed into dangerous myths, like the idea that men should be afraid of lying women calling them rapists, or the belief that dressing modestly can keep women safe from assault. But they can also challenge those myths and push us to change systems that enable abuse. We need more anime like My Love Story that challenge skepticism towards assault survivors and victim-blaming attitudes.

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