Agency & Allies: Kaze Hikaru and the fight to be a woman with a “man’s job”

By: Lauren V. September 20, 20174 Comments

Kaze Hikaru is an exciting historical manga set in 1860s Japan shortly before the Meiji Restoration. The series follows teenage heroine Sei, who disguises herself as a boy in order to become a bushi—a samurai or warrior. Taking the name Seizaburo, she joins the Shinsengumi, a famous pro-Shogunate special police force. Sei’s comrade and love interest Okita Soji (a real-life member of the Shinsengumi) soon discovers her secret and becomes a valuable mentor and confidant, supporting her (sometimes grudgingly) in her goals as she strives to grow as both a person and a bushi.

I recently discovered this long-running, under-the-radar manga and was quickly sucked in, inspired by Sei’s determination to choose her own path and prove she’s capable of a dangerous role that society said women were unfit to have. The fact that Sei both succeeds in this role and gains supportive allies implicitly conveys the narrative’s approval of her “unfeminine” lifestyle.

Spoilers: Discussion of events from Kaze Hikaru Volumes 1-7.

Manga page: Men in hakama discuss a fighter who "gives up points, but refuses to surrender." In the bottom panel a girl in armor with a shaved pate and ponytail (Sei) lays on the ground, rubbing her head, saying "Oww. Damn it."

While Sei first becomes a warrior to avenge her murdered father and brother—a plot point that could have easily undercut her journey, making it about the men in her life instead of about her—she gradually redefines her goals and what the role of bushi means to her. In the second volume, she rejects revenge after an encounter with her family’s killer ends with Soji rescuing her and the killer committing suicide. Shocked at the violent reality of the life she’s chosen, Sei recoils from the idea of being “a mere murderer” and admits she’s no longer sure what it means to be a bushi.

She finds her answer by talking with fellow Shinsengumi member Saito Hajime (another real-life historical figure), who confides that he went through a similar emotional crisis after he first killed someone. Sei embraces the wisdom Saito’s father once imparted to him: “True bushi are soldiers with something to protect.”

Women often experience “imposter syndrome”—a feeling that their success isn’t real or good enough—and may worry that having to reassess their goals or what they see as important about their chosen profession makes them a failure. By showing Sei learning from Saito just as he learned from someone else, Kaze Hikaru reassures its readers that, regardless of your gender, it’s normal both to start off with an incomplete understanding of who you want to be and to have others help you in the process of defining your ideals.

Manga page: A girl in hakama calls after a man running off: "Saito-sensei!" In following panels, she remembers his words: "True bush are soldiers with something to protect. One is then both worthy of one's sword, as well as being a murdering oni."

Sei’s perspective continues to evolve as she realizes that her resolve to fight must come from within herself. Later in the story, she’s upset that the townspeople don’t appreciate how the Shinsengumi stopped radical pro-emperor samurai from burning down the city. After Sei berates a group of townspeople, Soji angrily asks her who she’s fighting for. Sei reflects on where her pride comes from and realizes she’s fighting not for others, but for herself and the values she believes in.

Kaze Hikaru is a long, steady journey (this revelation doesn’t occur until Volume 7), but the series understands the importance of Sei learning to fight for her own ideals and not the ideals of others, and steadily pushes her towards this revelation. She may get some help as she discovers what it means to live as a bushi, but ultimately her journey is about who she wants to be and why she wants to be that person, regardless of what society thinks her “place” is as a girl.

Manga page: Sei thinks "I wasn't praised by anyone or thank by anyone. It was simply the day I was proud of being able to follow through with what I believed to be true." She hugs another woman, thanking her, and then thinks: "It's not for anyone. I'm doing it for me. Sensei's doing it for himself. We're all fighting for our truth!"

As her fighting skills improve, Sei also moves from needing protection to defending others. As previously mentioned, Soji rescued her after she was captured by her family’s killer and his comrades; but a few volumes later, when Soji collapses from heat exhaustion during the battle at the Ikedaya Inn, Sei unleashes a furious assault on the men she believes have killed him. After she beats them back, she goes one step further, saving Soji’s life using the knowledge she gained while helping at her father’s medical clinic when she was younger.

Manga page: A blood-soaked girl in hakama holds out a katana and says "Drop your katana! No one can kill me in my current state." In the bottom panel, the man's sword hits the ground.

That said, Kaze Hikaru isn’t perfect in how it handles Sei’s agency. It often points to her romantic feelings as the reason she stays with the Shinsengumi. Consider a scene in the third volume, where Sei goes to her female friend Akesato for help hiding her period (yes, Kaze Hikaru actually deals with the less glamorous aspects of being a crossdressing heroine, including what Sei does when she’s on her period). When Akesato asks if Sei’s truly willing to live as warrior so she can be near Soji, Sei answers “Yes!!” without hesitation. Even Akesato is surprised by her “quick response.”

By making romance so important to Sei’s motivations, Kaze Hikaru undercuts the idea that she has chosen to live as a warrior for herself. It once again centers her decision on men: first her father and brother, and now Soji.

Manga page: A girl in hakama (Sei) and a woman in kimono (Akesata) talk to each other. Akesato asks Sei to quit being a warrior. She asks "You want to go through all this to stay close to Okita-san?" Sei replies "Yes!!" Akesato, annoyed, thinks "Such a quick response."

However, this issue doesn’t completely ruin the story’s focus on Sei’s agency, for two reasons. First, we see that Sei’s choice to become a warrior isn’t only about love. She wants to serve her country. She wants to protect other comrades in the Shinsengumi besides Soji. I wish that Kaze Hikaru did a better job of showing that these other goals are just as important to Sei as her desire to be with Soji, but they are important to her.

On a personal note, as a single (heterosexual) woman, I find Sei’s desire to be with the man she loves and also be the person she wants to be immensely relatable. The problem is simply clumsy execution—I would have no complaints if the split in screen-time between Sei’s love for Soji and her other motives was more even-handed.

Manga page: A girl in hakama and a boy in hakama run towards each other in shadow; the lower panels show close-ups of both them embracing, their faces surprised. SFX: "BA-BUMP BA-BUMP"

Second, the series shows that relationships are a major part of why men fight in the Shinsengumi as well. Perhaps the best example is the bond between Soji and Captain Kondo Isami. Soji was raised in Kondo’s sword-fighting school from the age of nine, and Kondo was the first person to tell Soji he’d grow into a strong man. As an adult, Soji idolizes Kondo and wants to help him achieve his dreams. He tells Sei that instead of being a kite that flies, he’d rather be the strong wind and carry his sensei high into the sky. This may not be framed romantically, but it still strongly mirrors Sei’s own desire to support Soji.

If Kaze Hikaru showed men fighting only for themselves and their ideals while Sei fights for personal relationships, it would play into the sexist trope that women are driven by emotions while men pursue their own ambitions or a “higher,” more “rational” calling like justice, truth, or honor. But instead the series takes a realistic and fair approach by giving the male characters and its heroine similar motivations.

The importance of having people you want to fight to protect becomes an overarching theme in the series, and this theme is reflected in Soji’s bond with Sei as well as in the various bonds of friendship and family. There are many war stories about men fighting to protect “a girl back home,” so it’s refreshing to see a heroine who wants to protect a male love interest by fighting alongside him.

Manga pages (2): A young man in hakama looks at the sky and says "I wanna be a strong wind so I can carry sensei high into the sky. If I could do that, I wouldn't even mind giving my life." A girl in hakama looks on, melancholy, and thinks, "For a second, I felt like crying."

In addition to her personal journey, Sei also combats sexist assumptions and transforms others into allies. Her passion and determination convince other characters to allow her to be the person she wants to be and even actively support her in her goals. Through a wager made in the third volume, Sei pushes Soji to accept that the choice to be a warrior is hers to make. He tells her to leave the Shinsengumi because it’s “no place for a girl,” but she persuades him to accept a bet. She has three days to score a hit on Soji as if they were sparring. She’ll leave if she loses, but he must “accept her as man” if she wins.

Sei tricks Soji into letting his guard down by taking advantage of his belief that women are fragile and need protecting. She meets Soji dressed in traditional women’s clothing (provided by her friend Akesato) and claims she’ll give up on being a bushi. Then Sei taps him on the head with a tobacco pipe and declares: “Gotcha.” Sei proves that while she may not be able to match Soji in combat (yet), it’s wrong to assume that she can’t be a real threat based on her gender and that Soji shouldn’t dismiss her potential.

While he honors the bet, Soji blames himself for allowing Sei to continue putting herself in danger. She points out that she chose to stay, but he insists it’s his fault for accepting the wager and even claims he “ruined her fate.” Sei forces Soji to consider the double standard at the heart of his guilt: “If you really are going to accept me as a man, then why do you try to bear the responsibility that another man chose for himself?” Soji’s shocked face reveals this is an eye-opening moment for him.

Manga pages (2): A girl in hakama punches a young man in hakama and scolds him for trying to go back on his word. The girl shouts: "Then why do you try to bear the responsibility that another man CHOSE for himself?!" and the man is surprised

Despite Sei’s insistence that he treat her like a bushi, Soji continues to struggle with the idea that he needs to protect Sei because she’s a girl. In Volume Seven, Soji orders Sei to care for the sick Vice-Captain Yamanami instead of joining an upcoming battle solely because he doesn’t want to put Sei in danger. Yamanami knows about Sei’s secret and aids Soji’s plan by exaggerating his symptoms, but once Yamanami talks with Sei, he’s moved by her desire to help their comrades instead of waiting helplessly. He agrees to let her fight.

While Sei is converting Yamanami into a new ally, Soji finds he’s gotten used to her presence. When Sei arrives just before the battle starts, Soji muses that since he always worries about her, it’s better if she’s there to answer him. Soji’s resigned acceptance isn’t perfect by any means, but these setbacks do a smart job of highlighting the struggle that comes with turning someone into an ally. It isn’t a one-time effort, but a process that requires tenacity.

Manga page: A girl in hakama bows to a man in hakama - she apologizes because she wants to go to battle instead of taking care of him while he's sick. The man remembers a woman saying "But there is! Osei-chan's that kind of girl!"

Despite his shortcomings, Soji does help Sei become a stronger fighter. He recognizes that having a shorter reach and less arm strength compared to a typical man can hinder Sei in combat. But instead of using these differences as an excuse for why Sei can’t be a warrior, Soji offers solutions based on her strengths and weaknesses.

When Sei’s long, heavy daito sword breaks, he suggests she wield a short wakizashi sword and use her speed to compensate for her short reach. He also orders a new daito for Sei that has been modified to make it lighter without compromising its strength. Later, Sei injures her hand trying to learn an advanced move that won’t kill her opponent. Soji tells Sei she can’t learn the move because her hands aren’t strong enough, but also gives her something she can use—a hand-slot string that will give her strikes more force.

Moments like these reward Sei for her passion and stubbornness, as she inspires others not just to accept her choice to live as a bushi, but to actively support her in her goals. Kaze Hikaru gives women and girls an encouraging example to look to when they doubt they can win any real support, despite the work they invest in converting skeptics into allies.

Manga pages (2): A girl in hakama and armor grips her bamboo sword and says "Not out yet!" Several men in hakama look out, dazed. The girl readies her sword: "One more...please!!"

Sei’s struggle to become a bushi doesn’t just make for entertaining historical fiction; it also reflects contemporary real-world biases faced by women in the military and other dangerous, traditionally masculine careers (like police officers and firefighters). Soji fears that Sei will get in the way early in the narrative, and he continually struggles with the idea that she must be protected because of her gender. Real women were kept out of the military for a long time (and out of combat positions for even longer) based on these same sexist assumptions.

Kaze Hikaru tacitly challenges these prejudices by showing that Sei can become a bushi. The depiction of Sei as a capable warrior was truly ahead of its time when Watanabe Taeko began writing the series in 1997 (when most countries, including Japan and the U.S., didn’t allow women to serve in any combat position), but the recent rant from a former Google employee about women in the tech industry underscores the fact that women in careers dominated by men still struggle against sexism. Kaze Hikaru doesn’t shy away from showing how women in traditionally masculine roles must grapple with sexism and prove themselves again and again, but it insists that women can overcome these challenges, find success, and convince others to support them in their goals.

It’s important that we have stories like Kaze Hikaru to look to for inspiration. Sei is a powerful example of how women and girls can choose their own path regardless of what society thinks, and that they can succeed in a role or job they’ve been told isn’t “for girls”—they all have the bushi spirit needed to fight for their dreams.

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