My Fave is Problematic: Fushigi Yugi

By: Dee February 9, 20181 Comment
A dirty, scuffed photo of a group of eight people in two rows. The top row features four people in China-inspired fantasy clothing: A feminine person, a tall man, a grinning redhead, and a smiling monk. The bottom row features another four people: Two young men, a boy, and a teen girl flashing a "victory" sign. Everyone but the girl is wearing China-inspired fantasy clothes, while the girl is wearing a school uniform. The photo is held in someone's hands.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of sexual assault and transphobia. SPOILERS for the entire Fushigi Yugi series.

I first watched Fushigi Yugi when I was 14 years old, and it has been a consistent, even integral part of my life ever since.

To say I fell in love with it wouldn’t be quite right. I mean, okay, I was enamored with most of its supporting cast (particularly a mask-wearing monk named Chichiri whose UFO doll still sits on my bed, reminding me to be courteous and compassionate and to come out the other side of my mistakes wiser and kinder than I was before). But there was never a “honeymoon period” when I thought of Fushigi Yugi as a flawless masterpiece.

Even as a kid, I found parts of it too over-the-top or cheesy. I thought its protagonist was frustratingly dense, I couldn’t have cared less about its central romance, and I loved poking fun at its more ridiculous moments. Heck, one of the first things my friend and I did after watching it was write an affectionate parody fanfic.

So it wasn’t “love,” exactly. No, what happened between Fushigi Yugi and me was much, much worse than that.

I fell deeply, hopelessly, head-over-heels in fandom with it.

A dreamlike mountain landscape with flowing waterfalls. There are a few figures standing in the center, but they're too far away to see clearly. Subtitles: "Welcome to Fushigi Yugi! If you have any question, just ask me!"

For those who don’t know, Fushigi Yugi is the story of Miaka Yuuki, a 15-year-old stressing out about high school entrance exams who gets sucked into a magic book called The Universe of the Four Gods. There, she becomes the legendary Priestess of Suzaku and goes on a quest to gather the seven Celestial Warriors and save the Konan Empire. Unsurprisingly, things get complicated in a big ol’ hurry.

Spanning nations, worlds, half a dozen genres (fantasy, romance, action, mystery—it even becomes a spy caper at one point!), and featuring a parade of compelling supporting characters, the Fushigi Yuu-niverse is an isekai sandbox that begs to be explored. It felt like mangaka Yuu Watase wanted her audience to fill in the gaps, and so I and many of my fellow fans were more than happy to comply. (There were definitely fanfics. And fanart. There may have been a teapot.)

Perhaps most notably, it’s an isekai sandbox custom-made for teen girls growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. Full of big adventure and bigger emotions, it scratched an itch I hadn’t even known I had: for fantastical, adventure-driven comics and TV shows that placed as much focus on character relationships and emotional turmoil as they did on action and intrigue, and treated those feelings not only with respect, but as powerful forces essential to the plot. It made me laugh, cry, cheer, and scream, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

A teen girl (Miaka) and a redheaded teen boy (Tasuki), both in China-inspired fantasy clothes, smile at each other and flash thumbs-ups. There is a ground behind them and it appears to be evening.

Of course, that was fifteen-odd years ago, and the times they do a-change. As I entered college (still writing FY fanfics) and began to study what made “good” fiction, I came to see Fushigi Yugi as a story with far more flaws than I’d first thought—so many, in fact, that I wondered if it had any value at all.

Some of this I now know was unfounded and based largely on internalized sexism (it’s amazing how quickly “imaginative and moving” becomes “unrealistic and melodramatic” when a story’s targeted at teen girls, something watchalong co-host Caitlin has written about before). Many of those realizations were legitimate, though, especially the way the series handled sexual assault and queer representation. As I moved on to grad school, it became harder and harder to justify my affection for it.

I still adored the franchise, mind you (I was translating the visual novel in my spare time, for heaven’s sake), but I came to see it as silly, problematic, and easily dismissed. I shielded myself with an embarrassed smile, a protective “oh, but I know it’s Bad” asterisk. I’d keep liking it but I’d never discuss it, lest I lose all Serious Critic Credibility. Much better, much safer, to write essays on Revolutionary Girl Utena, the show I loved that everyone agreed was Good, instead.

A teen girl (Miaka) in a school uniform sits dejected in a spotlight, sweatdropping. A small cat sit next to her.

And then the Chatty AF watchalong happened. I proposed it half-jokingly: an MST3K-style endeavor where I could finally give the series the dressing-down I’d convinced myself it (and, maybe by extension, my younger self) deserved. I could tear into it, dismiss it, and let it go. The watchalong was supposed to be my breakup date.

All those plans flew out the window the second I pressed play. Those opening chords rang out, Suzaku swooped across my screen, and just like that I was fourteen years old again. Fourteen, teary-eyed, and ready for an adventure.

A trio of chibi figures cluster together at the foot of a tree at night. On the ground is a redheaded teen boy (Tasuki) who's cushioning the fall of an excited-looking teen girl (Miaka). Just behind her, a smiling monk with flyaway bangs (Chichiri) looks as if he's just jumped and landed next to her.

There was more to it than just nostalgia goggles, though. I was seeing Fushigi Yugi in new ways, appreciating elements of it I’d always dismissed before (and wincing at elements I’d never thought twice about, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

I owe Miaka and Tamahome an apology, for one. Their relationship is undeniably melodramatic and they’ll never be my favorite ‘ship (how could they be when there’s a pair of good good bandits right there?), but they’re much better characters than I gave them credit for.

Miaka is spunky and stubborn, frustratingly dense at times but also proactive, compassionate, and endearingly goofy. She takes risks and screws up (a lot) and then gets right back up and tries again. She’s damseled for plot and romantic purposes too often, but she also drives that same plot with her decisions and is always at the center of every major narrative shift (for better and worse).

And, in the end, she grows into a responsible young woman who wields her power to save the people who matter most to her. She’s flawed but admirable, and she deserves better than much of the fandom—myself included—gave her.

A close-up of a teen girl (Miaka) with her hair pulled back, shouting "Don't go underestimating me just 'cuz I'm a girl!"

And Tamahome. Sweet, sparkly Tamahome. His relationship with Miaka is riddled with Big Declarations and miscommunication (sometimes in realistic teenage ways, and sometimes because The Plot calls for it), but over the course of the series he proves himself to be a loving, supportive boyfriend who always tries to consider Miaka’s feelings and respect her wishes. As is the case in a lot of fiction aimed at teenagers, Tamahome is an ideal, but he’s a positive ideal, unlike the sexy assholes and abusers that litter the dark side of shoujo manga.

Fushigi Yugi isn’t great at romance, but it is adept at depicting the many different kinds of love, be that between family, friends, or romantic partners. It understands that love is a powerful force with the potential to be both productive and destructive, and it always nudges its characters (and, by extension, its audience) towards consideration and kindness. The love and support Miaka shares not just with Tamahome but all of her warriors embodies that central message, and it warms my heart now as much as it did fifteen years ago.

A pastel image of a teen girl (Miaka), her shoulders bare, as she throws her arm around a teen boy (Taka) and sobs. Subtitles: "Miaka..."

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve come to realize just how earnestly Fushigi Yugi depicts the messy contradictions of female adolescence. The Universe of the Four Gods is a manifestation of Miaka’s hopes and anxieties—the increasing responsibilities of young adulthood, the delicate balance between friendship and romance, the desire for sexual intimacy contrasted against both the fear of assault and the cultural pressures to be “pure”—and it treats every last one of those concerns with sincerity and respect.

It also manages to handle many of those same elements with a fair amount of success, particularly when it comes to the fraught relationship between Miaka and her best friend Yui. While I spent most of my teen years annoyed at their (reluctant) rivalry, I now understand how smartly the series was engaging with the cultural expectations the two girls were facing.

Every authority figure in Miaka’s life tells her that she has to compete with her friend, that they must become enemies to achieve their goals—and every time, Miaka pushes back against it. She never stops fighting to repair their friendship, and that friendship ultimately plays just as important a role in the TV finale as the magical romance does. Fushigi Yugi understands the pressures placed on girls to compete with each other, and it encourages them to find a better way.

A teen girl with long brown hair (Miaka) hugs another teen girl wearing a school uniform (Yui) from behind, who looks surprised.

This is not to say that Fushigi Yugi is a shining treasure of feminist ideals, mind you. Goodness, no. It is raw and ambitious and written by a 22-year-old in the early 1990s, and that combination makes it not just messy but sometimes actively harmful. The result is a seesaw of pros and cons, a litany of “but”s and “on the other hand”s.

On the one hand, it tackles the very real fear and aftermath of sexual assault from a woman’s perspective with a great deal of sympathy, both addressing the guilt and anger felt by survivors while also refusing to take part in victim-blaming or vilification…

…But on the other hand, there’s an infamously awful stretch of episodes in the second act where rape becomes an overwrought plot device; so much so that it ends up trivializing the subject and nearly undoing the imperfect but respectful work that had come before.

A close-up of an angry teen girl's face (Yui). Tears rim her eyes as she shouts "Of what I went through when I came here? Of how I felt?"

On the one hand, it’s delightfully honest about Miaka’s thirst for Tamahome, making her an active participant in their relationship both emotionally and physically and never seeking to shame her for her desires…

…But on the other hand, the fact that the priestess must be a virgin creates an off-putting undercurrent about the importance of female “purity.” While the characters all think this rule is bullshit, making it a fairly accurate depiction of how society pressures young people, the fact that it exists at all undermines the series’ generally positive attitude regarding female sexual agency and makes it hard to get a grasp on just what Watase was going for there.

A teen girl (Yui) stands in the middle of the frame holding a phone and looking annoyed. To either side of the frame stand a teen girl (Miaka) and a teen boy (Taka) wearing exaggerated surprised expressions. Yui is saying: "They were just making out right in front of me."

And then, there’s Nuriko.

On the one hand, Nuriko is a bisexual trans character portrayed in a largely positive light. (It’s debatable whether Nuriko is a trans woman or gender-fluid, so I’ll err on the side of caution and use the neutral “they” throughout.) A close friend and confidante to both Miaka and Tamahome, Nuriko is much more than just a one-note “okama” stereotype. They have a layered personality, a detailed history, a full character arc, and are a major part of some of the show’s most memorable, emotional moments.

…But on the other hand. H’oh boy, on the other hand. Nuriko is regularly at the receiving end of queerphobic “jokes” from the other characters. Their backstory gives them a “reason” they “became” trans. The series continuously equates sexuality with gender, which culminates in it quasi-erasing Nuriko’s trans identity after they develop feelings for one of the other characters (the fact that the OVAs later backtrack on this point only makes it clearer that Watase had no damn clue what she was doing).

Oh, and not only does the series fall into shitty stereotypes and erasure, it also proceeds to then kill off Nuriko, its only canonically queer hero.

An angry person (Nuriko) with long hair in traditional Chinese female clothing grits their teeth and flails their arms in front of a flaming background.

True, Nuriko’s death isn’t explicitly tied to their queerness. They die nobly in battle protecting their friends and are mourned by the entire cast in one of the most raw, wrenching scenes I’ve seen in anime. But in the historical context of modern fiction, where so many queer characters have died that it has its own trope name, does it really matter how a show “buries its gays” if they wind up buried all the same?

As watchalong co-host Vrai noted in a Twitter thread, it’s not just a frustrating arc, but a hurtful one. For this reason, Vrai recommended that young trans viewers stay away from Fushigi Yugi altogether, and I trust their assessment and back them up on it.

That having been said… dammit if I didn’t watch that death sequence and find myself crying right alongside the characters. Even though I knew it was an awful arc that didn’t deserve anything but scathing critique, I was still moved, viscerally and deeply, just like I am every time I watch it. And there’s something to be said for that, I think, even if everything around it is a massive trainwreck.

A dreamlike shot of a teen girl (Miaka) at the bottom of the frame, eyes closed, her cheeks cupped by a ghostlike person (Nuriko) who seems to be descending from the sky.

As that last paragraph indicates, through the laughter, the tension, the tears, and the flipped tables, this is a series that always stays true to the tagline we jokingly coined a few episodes into the podcast: “Fushigi Yugi: You will have an emotion.”

Like its headstrong protagonist, it doesn’t always know what it’s doing. It overreaches and it screws up, but I’d much rather a series try and fumble than not try at all. I’d much rather a series get me to “have an emotion,” even if it’s sometimes anger, than leave me completely cold.

In the end, Fushigi Yugi is a rollercoaster of sincerity and stumbles, of charming or silly or emotionally resonant highs followed by (and sometimes occurring simultaneously with) maddening or outright harmful lows. This makes it messy. It makes it frustrating. It makes it… well, problematic.

A mid-range shot of a man (Chichiri) wearing monk's attire with flyaway bangs smiling lop-sidedly down at a teen girl (Miaka) wearing a battered school uniform.

It does not, however, make it dismissable. I was ready to dismiss it myself, but if this most recent rewatch proved anything to me, it’s that Fushigi Yugi is absolutely, despite its many flaws and failings, a series with value.

I’d even argue that it’s in many ways progressive for the time it was written. It challenges the cultural pressures placed on women to compete with each other, unilaterally depicts abuse and sexual assault as traumatic (which sounds like a given until you remember how many series have and still do romanticize it), and fights for its female protagonist’s agency in all aspects of her life. Hell, the fact that it has a sympathetic trans character at all, however poorly handled, is still a damn sight more than most popular fiction was doing in 1992.

A teen girl (Miaka) wearing boxing gloves and shorts puts up her dukes and stares down a redheaded teen boy (Tasuki), who has his back to the camera and is sweatdropping.

That said, Fushigi Yugi is still very much a product of its time in a way that, say, Utena is not. As much as I love this series, I’m hesitant to pass it down to the next generation without a hefty dose of asterisks, content warnings, and notes about its historical context. There are some viewers I’d warn away from it entirely. And that breaks my heart a little.

Framed within that historical context, though, I will fight tooth and nail for Fushigi Yugi’s place as a series worthy of discussion, analysis, affection, and scathing critique. It’s not just a problematic fave—it’s a problematic part of the anime and manga canon, and deserves to sit right next to the other flawed but important classics of its time.

So much for that breakup date. After all these years, it seems I’m still hopelessly in fandom after all.

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