Characterization, sexuality, and objectification are extremely dense subjects and the source of a great deal of debate in modern media. This is especially true in regards to female characters designed and directed to appeal to the heterosexual male audience. There is a lot to unpack in these discussions, including whether a character is being sexualized or owning their sexuality and if these subjects fall under artistic licence or if they should be open to criticism.
Rather than tackle the immense subject of characterization as a whole, my objective is to focus on one aspect of the portrayal of female characters in isolation: how camera and context can be used to sexualize or objectify a character in just about every conceivable situation. This is commonly referred to, but is just a smaller portion, of Laura Mulvey’s concept of male gaze. To tease out the sometimes minute differences that can result in either a neutral or sexualized portrayal, I’ll be comparing series with similar character designs and themes and their use of perspective and context to portray their female characters.
The first two I will focus on are Black Lagoon (BL) and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (TTGL), specifically the characters Revy and Yoko respectively. Each is the primary member of an ensemble cast and they have very similar character designs. Both put their hair in a ponytail and wear midriff-baring tops, hotpants, and boots. (I’ll leave the debate about the utility of such clothes in warm environs to someone else.)
I really love both these series and firmly believe that each offers a great deal to its audience, which illustrates what a tightrope walk it is for many anime fans. Every new season becomes a weeding process, navigating each premiere with a critical eye to determine which series have sufficient respect for their female characters, or at least enough merits to justify suffering through their worst moments.
The following screenshots were all gathered from the first five episodes of each series, which held more than enough similar situations from which I could draw comparisons. What I look for are perspectives that focus on sexual characteristics of the female characters’ bodies and scenarios in which they are put into provocative or otherwise compromising positions.
Let’s get started.
Our first full look at both characters isn’t exactly damning but it does set the tone (both originally appeared in partial shots aiming guns) then we see a difference in their poses. Revy is in a neutral stance while Yoko has a more dynamic posture with her posterior jutting out toward the camera.
We get a better look at both characters a bit later on as each is sitting during a discussion. The nature of the scenes is different, with the TTGL gang hiding from an enemy while the BL crew aren’t pressed by any immediate danger. Revy and Yoko are in similar reclining poses but the choice of camera angles is indefensible. In BL, the character focuses on the character who is speaking and keeps the upper half of their body in frame to capture body language from near the listener’s perspective while TTGL takes gratuitous close-up shots of Yoko’s body from empty areas around her.
Later on, there is a similar scene in which our protagonists accidentally make inappropriate physical contact with our heroines. Rock accidentally bumps into Revy’s leg while fleeing from gunfire and Simon falls face-first into Yoko’s breasts after they all plummet from the sky. In BL’s scenario, Rock recoils with a look of embarrassment to a nonplussed Revy. Simon responds similarly, but Yoko thrusts him back into her cleavage (with another “byoing” noise) as she spots approaching enemies.
On humorous scenes we have another similar scenario after both characters are put into compromising positions. Revy is thrown from her feet when their boat almost capsizes and Yoko is forced into a tight space along with Kamina and Simon. Arguably Revy is in a more embarrassing position, but the visual direction indicates an attempt at humor with the camera angle avoiding accentuating any areas of her body and a disgruntled expression on her face. Meanwhile, TTGL presents a perspective focusing under Yoko’s breasts with a suggestive blush on her face.
On to combat. Both series are action-heavy shonen series with many dynamic shots. In the first scene we can see a rear shot of both characters. Revy just landed from a somersault and almost immediately springs into the air again (it was really hard getting this screenshot) but we’ll see that the camera is level from behind, her pose is justified, and the camera is keeping enemies in sight for context on the unfolding fight. The perspective from Yoko is between her legs looking up, keeping the majority of her enemy out of the picture.
The second shot shows both aiming weapons. I’m sure anyone familiar with firearms can find issues with both characters’ stances but in Revy’s case, her pose is dynamic without emphasis on any gender specific features. Yoko’s behind-the-back grasp on her gun forces her to push her chest out and up with yet another perspective focusing on her exaggerated pose.
Even in less dynamic shots we can see the differences in visual direction. Yoko’s position could be considered more practical but the camera does its work. In the BL shot, the gun is in front of Revy’s chest from our perspective on her right and her right foot is most forward on the camera, blocking our view of her inner thigh and keeping attention on her upper body. The perspective on Yoko is from the other side so the camera can see her breast resting on the rock shelf beneath her. A later shot also emphasizes her lower back and butt from above and behind her.
Finally we’re going to focus on some conflict between main characters. Revy is hitting Rock for attempting to flee from a fight and Yoko hits Kamina for criticizing her body and violating her personal space. Both fights end with a shot including the female character’s inner-thigh. In BL’s case, Rock’s face is dead center on camera as he crawls out from under where she was straddling and punching him. Meanwhile, Yoko lifts her leg up to step on Kamina’s head with a camera perspective originating from somewhere around Kamina’s collarbone, focusing directly on the exposed skin of her upper-thigh.
The differences between Revy and Yoko are as considerable as the settings from which they are drawn. Revy is a dedicated nihilist with a bad temper while Yoko is a cheerful idealist. Just about the only similarity between them is their appearance, but there are clear differences in how the characters are treated visually.
Where Revy’s presentation sells a complex and volatile character, the choice of camera angles, exaggerated postures, and repeated compromising scenarios makes Yoko come off as a source of inappropriate humor at best or a pure source of visual titillation directed at the male audience at worst. Revy’s background and her relationship with Rock are able to be respectfully explored because she is presented as a serious character. Conversely, Yoko’s later development is undermined by her presentation as something less than a character, an ornament not to be taken seriously.
Peter has been an anime fan for 20 years and a professional writer working in anime, video games, and esports for five years. You can follow him on Twitter @peterfobian.
This post represents the independent views of the author, with no connection to his employer.
We would love to make this a regular feature, but watching, screencapping and analyzing these episodes is hours of work. We need to pay Peter for that work if we expect him to do this to a schedule rather than whenever he can fit it in around his full time job. If you enjoyed this feature, want to see more like it and believe in paying people fairly please consider supporting us for as little as $1 a month on our Patreon.