The Failed Feminism of 18if

By: Michelle Liu October 27, 20172 Comments

Sparse as it was, the Summer 2017 anime season did bring us a number of ambitious projects. For instance, A Centaur’s Life attempted to tackle themes of racism, disability rights, and queer sexuality through its monster girl metaphors. Meanwhile, the conclusion of Re:CREATORS spoke to the changing nature of author-audience relationships and the emotional power of fiction.

Less discussed in my circles, however, was this little show called 18ifunderstandably so, given its often less-than-stellar animation and lack of an obvious narrative hook. The most distinctive thing about it is easily the production itself: each episode offers lesser-known creatives free reign over a largely self-contained story. Supervised by industry veteran Morimoto Koji (Magnetic Rose, Animatrix), 18if varies wildly from episode to episode in both writing and visual design, which is both a strength and debilitating weakness.

A teddy bear examines his paw and sas "Anything really CAN happen, huh?" while a cat with a cheesecake for a torso looks down, started

The premise of 18if is simple: at some point in the future, “Sleeping Beauty Syndrome” spreads among the women of the world. Victims of emotional trauma retreat into their dreams, letting their id run wild in the limbo between life and death. Our nondescript protagonist Haruto has the unique ability to enter the dreams of these womendubbed “witches”and so he crosses from dream to dream, helping each victim come to terms with her grief so she can return to reality.

Each episode considers a new case: one episode confronts themes of body image, another features a pop idol who exacts revenge on her tormentors, while a third examines the conflicting expectations a model student has to fulfill. While varied in subject, many episodes are tied together by a focus on highly gendered issues. In its depiction of women’s anger and frustration with patriarchal norms, 18if shows the potential for feminist commentary. However, any points it might have made are ultimately undercut by relying on the male protagonist to resolve all conflicts.

a girl wearing a crown, surrounded by brightly colored architecture

Taken on its broadest terms, 18if does succeed in some respects. The dream world conceit offers a unique avenue for expressing the female characters’ dilemmas. In their dreams, they can be free; no one can tell them how they should act, what they should look like, or what emotions they can express.

Episode 4, “The Witch of Gluttony,” tells the story of a woman who retreats to a candyland dream world because she’s constantly disparaged for her weight in real life. We’re treated to uncomfortable images of her nighttime binge eating and vomiting; episode director Hiroko Kazui pulls no punches in showing exactly how damaging the pressure for women to be thin (and therefore sexually desirable) can be.

In the sixth episode, “Curses Return Upon the Casters,” we see schoolgirl bullying-by-exclusion similar to that depicted in Yurikuma Arashi, abuse more emotional than physical. Ostracized by her classmates, the victim finds solace in anime fandom, a coping method no doubt familiar to my fellow nerds. Both nerdy and awkward, Natsuki is more relatable a character to me than the geek girl fantasy girlfriends in anime targeted at male otaku (such as Sagiri Izumi from Eromanga-sensei, for a recent example).

A close-up of a young woman in front of a purple-and-black, smoky background. Subtitle: "It's gutless to know bullying is going on and pretend not to see it!"

My problematic fave, “Idols Don’t Go to the Bathroom,” directly addresses the male-dominated power structures that define the idol industry. In the cold open, we’re shown how Misaki, the center of the idol group Shark Lady, has been sexually harassed by producers, accused of sleeping around by colleagues and fans, and left without support by a manager either deliberately ignoring the problem or too inept to handle it.

When a fan stabs her for failing to live up to the pure image she’s maintained as an idol, she falls into a coma, dragging everyone who wronged her into her dream world. There, Misaki becomes a blonde, whip-brandishing dominatrix, the antithesis of the innocent persona she’s had to assume as an idol.

The new Misaki subjects the skeevy industry guys to the same hell that she went through: no outside relationships, no complaining about dance and voice lessons—and most importantly, no going to the bathroom. After all, idols would never do something so revolting as take a dump. Anyone who fails her grueling idol boot camp either becomes a glittering pink turd or gets their crotch set on fire.

A large woman in a body suit running around with fire on her crotch while a smirking dominatrix looks on
18if is a classy show, I swear. No wonder this episode’s director worked under a pseudonym.

For me, at least, Misaki’s revenge is incredibly cathartic, doing away with any pretenses of purity and perfection. Misaki isn’t the ideal woman she’s marketed as, so screw anyone who holds her to that standard. She’s more than a face on an album cover or an automated handshake machine. She poops. She has sexual desires of her own. She’s a complex human being who can’t be neatly compartmentalized the way people would like. Her story is such a direct criticism of the virgin/whore dichotomy that I can’t help but respect it. What’s more, it’s a pointed critique of a real-world industry.

It’s no secret that the Japanese idol industry has problems with harassment (as do all forms of media), while simultaneously mandating (explicitly or implicitly) that the performers remain chaste, “untaken,” and therefore marketable to a heterosexual male audience. Rejecting obsessive fans’ advances also has dire consequences: just last year, idol Mayu Tomita was attacked by a stalker, apparently for refusing his gifts. 

As much as I like idols, there’s no hiding the fact that the industry fails to prevent—and sometimes even enables—an atmosphere of potential violence for its stars. In this episode, 18if succeeds at portraying the very real consequences of male entitlement and female objectification. To me, Misaki’s anger feels justified, not needlessly cruel.

A blond ewoman wearing bondage gear holds a whip and smirks. Subtitle: "Starting today, I'll have you all undergo harsh training so you can become true idols."

Where the episode falters is in its resolution. The admiring fan willing to undergo her idol training turns out to be Haruto in disguise. Haruto apparently sees who Misaki is underneath the idol veneer: a driven, passionate young woman pursuing a long-held dream and (more or less) succeeding. Stop wallowing in anger, he suggests. Don’t punish the other Shark Ladies for buying into patriarchal nonsense; they’re victims too. (Never mind how much the script emphasizes their cattiness.) It does no good, Haruto insists, to target a handful of people for systemic problems.

When the idols-in-training discover Haruto’s identity, they capture and threaten to castrate him. Shaken by his screams of torture, Misaki is overcome with guilt and flees. Her pupils’ sadism scares even her; perhaps this fantasy has gone too far. Maybe it’s unfair to take her anger out on one guy. After all, it’s not his fault that the patriarchy exists. Right?

an unimpressed looking white-haired girl

Putting aside the implications of equating genitalia with gender, this moment is frustrating in a number of ways. First of all, Haruto isn’t innocent; he too puts her on a pedestal, just like thousands of other fans do. Earlier in the episode, Haruto (in disguise as diehard fan Nana) flat-out admits he believes Misaki to be a “perfect idol” who doesn’t fall in love or go to the bathroom. While dick-guillotine threats against a single man might be overkill, it’s gross to pretend he’s completely blameless when he helps to perpetuate that standard.

Second, it’s not his place to tell a woman what she should and shouldn’t feel. Misaki can’t stay asleep in her dream world forever, sure, but that’s not his call to make. What could be a story of a woman learning to navigate a patriarchal society—not a happy conclusion, but perhaps a “real” one—becomes “Men Are Bad, Except For Nice Guy™ Haruto.” Most egregiously, he saves himself with a literal penis genie.

A shirtless haruto with his hands on his hips; a genie in the foreground has emerged from under Haruto's skirt
I’m not kidding.

Though the scene is an amusing spectacle (if only for the sheer audacity), there’s something insidious about solving a woman’s problems with a symbol of cis male libido. There’s a place for absurdly transparent innuendo. This isn’t it.

The episode spends most of its run criticizing the patriarchy only to imply in its conclusion that this woman needs a cishet man to show her the right way in life. This bizarre contradiction neuters any emotional impact Misaki’s final decision may have carried.

In the episode’s final scene, she announces her intention to focus on a solo career, leaving behind the strict group dynamic. She’s finally free from the demands of being a member of Shark Lady; Misaki is now just Misaki. But because Haruto’s the one who “saves” her, this conclusion rings hollow. She’s free, but only on Haruto’s terms. Any feminist statement the episode could’ve made is thus flattened.

A close up of a blonde woman seen in profile. Behind her are hills at dawn. Subtitle: "Could you be the prince?"

Other episodes are less egregious, but the Nice Guy™ savior conclusion still mars most of them. “The Witch of Gluttony” does address body image issues, but ultimately Airi’s motivations boil down to a desire for male approval. Haruto’s advice to her is to simply enjoy food the way she wants. Instead of addressing how the societal pressure to be thin is wrong, the episode ends on a superficially feel-good note.

Either underdeveloped or hampered by time constraints, Kazui’s script shies away from more incisive commentary to settle for generic platitudes. Haruto’s shallow “love yourself” advice shouldn’t work, yet it’s somehow an instant fix for Airi’s self-esteem problems. This isn’t Mononoke, where the recurring male character is largely an observer who only brings trauma to light so the women involved can process it for themselves. Haruto is apparently just that profound.

a blushing schoolgirl in profile with blooming sakura trees in the background

Our milquetoast protagonist is so powerful that even in otherwise decent episodes, he’s the one to solve the witches’ emotional crises. In the third episode “The Witch of First Love,” the witch, a young girl with a terminal illness, finds closure only after falling in love with Haruto. In “The Witch of Ordinariness,” Haruto takes an elite figure skater out on a date to show her what it’s like to be normal.

In isolation, these stories aren’t particularly offensive, but when eight or nine of the 13 episodes conclude with some variation of “Haruto tells the witch how to live,” the narrative seems to shift focus to be all about him. In the last third of the show, each awakened witch independently decides to track down Haruto to return the favor. Instead of moving on with their lives, the women all willingly tie themselves to the man who saved them. Sorry, viewers, this show is actually about the wonderful guy who saved them all.

A young man in a waiter uniform holding a tray stands under a spotlight. Beside him in shadow stands a cat-person in the same waiter's uniform and a girl in a white dress.

The final arc of 18if is perhaps its most ambitious: embittered by millennia of blame for mankind’s ejection from Eden, Eve (yes, that Eve) decides to destroy the entire world, eliminating oppressive systems altogether. It’s an attempt at addressing the underlying misogyny of the Abrahamic creation myth, where a representational woman is punished for succumbing to temptation and dooming all of humanity.

It was a mistake, says Eve; she was impulsive and never meant to incriminate all women. The patriarchy has lasted too long, so she’ll just do away with its existence entirely. Better than letting generations of women suffer.

To placate Eve’s wrath, the former witches band together to reassure her of the progress that society has made since her time. If handled well, the scene could easily be a heartwarming display of female camaraderie. However, their grand thesis is this:

A girl leaning in to reassure Eve. Caption: These days, women decide everything

Honestly, what. Several episodes examining different forms of misogyny and that’s the conclusion you draw? An impossibly shallow understanding of the show’s own themes which is directly contradicted by previous material? The patriarchy is more complex than subservience to men. Airi’s and Misaki’s episodes alone show harmful beauty standards and sexuality-policing at play. Add the reveal that Haruto can turn Eve human again by “sullying her purity” (kissing, but the virginity metaphor is clear) and we have a supremely frustrating conclusion.

On one hand, 18if shows how patriarchy hurts its female characters. On the other, the finale seems to settle for “women have it better, actually” with a tasteless joke about Haruto waiting on the girls hand and foot. Head writer Atsuhiro Tomioka (Heybot!, Dragon Ball Super) seems to have missed the point of the episodes he didn’t personally script (all but the first two and final three). I, for one, can’t think of a better explanation for how 18if so thoroughly sabotages itself.

The decision to center the series around a male character really taints the show. Reduce Haruto’s role, and 18if becomes a story about women taking the initiative to live their lives as they want, expectations be damned. Change his gender, and we eliminate the subtext that women need men to offer them salvation. Neither option would fix the show’s writing problems entirely, but they might at least produce something with consistent gender politics.

Five women stand under spotlights: A woman in bondage gear, a woman in a long skirt and cardigan, a woman in a frilly, colorful dress, a woman in a white dress, and a woman in a bikini top and hairbow. Subtitle: "Haruto accepted everything about us."

As 18if is, it’s a few good ideas buried in twelve layers of confused rambling about gender and identity. It’s no coincidence that the most coherent episodes of the show (7, “And Now There Are None,” and 10, “Dream Dimension Alpha”) are the ones where Haruto barely appears. Without the misguided urge to tie every conflict into Haruto’s personal development, episode directors Chigira Koichi and Morimoto Koji are free to tell interesting, truly memorable stories. The rest of 18if, beholden to this abominable male savior narrative, pales in comparison.

Ultimately, I’d recommend that people look elsewhere for feminist-friendly content. 18if is ambitious, but it’s inconsistent writing muddles any messages it might have had. That said, I’d still suggest checking out the better installments. Chigira’s “And Now There Are None” is perhaps one of the most unique-looking TV anime in recent memory, integrating 3DCG with an illustrated storybook aesthetic; and Morimoto’s design in “Dream Dimension Alpha” is every bit as gorgeous as the rest of his oeuvre. Neither episode suffers from the awkward pacing of the more narratively ambitious ones; they’re essentially short films, structured to fit within 22 minutes. “The Witch of First Love,” impeccably directed by Fujii Toshiro, might also be worth a look for its clever use of perspective.

Seriously, just watch those three. Fictionalized accounts of Cambodian dictators are way cooler than idols anyway.

a chair seen from the back, overlooking a field of guillotines. Subtitle: And then there were none

About the Author : Michelle Liu

Michelle Liu got into anime in 2011 with Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan and has only fallen deeper into the anime abyss since then. Currently she's doing her best to hide her nerd power level at a New England university but failing on all metrics. You can find her on Twitter, where she yells about Sayo Yamamoto and bad children's cartoons, or at Anime News Network co-hosting the This Week in Anime column.

Read more articles from Michelle Liu

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