SPOILERS for the entirety of the Fushigi Yugi TV series. CONTENT WARNING for discussions of sexual assault and emotional abuse.
Yuu Watase was only 22 when she started writing Fushigi Yugi, and it shows. For better and worse, it’s obviously the work of a young, inexperienced writer. It’s a raw, emotional, often frustrating narrative driven more by feelings than logic.
On the other hand, Watase’s youth gives her an insight into the teenage psyche that many more polished narratives lack. Fushigi Yugi uses isekai trappings and the relationship between Miaka and Yui to explore common sources of desire and anxiety for teenage girls along with their potential consequences, both positive and negative. By tapping into the mentality of its audience and providing reassurance in its conclusion, Fushigi Yugi serves the function of a fable or fairy tale.
Escaping Anxiety in Another World
At fifteen, protagonist Miaka and her best friend Yui face a major transitional period in their lives. Japanese students prepare for high school entrance exams in the equivalent of ninth grade, and the school they get into can play a major role in determining the rest of their lives. Despite an increased interest in sex, romantic relationships are considered a waste of precious studying time. Friendships are on the cusp of breaking apart because people may get into different schools.
Miaka is anxious about these things—her first appearance is in an anxiety dream where her beloved snacks disappear and she’s scolded for not spending enough time studying. Her mother wants her to attend a prestigious high school despite her lack of book-smarts, which her friends tease her about. She can’t even be excited about the idea of trying for the same school as her best friend; when she excitedly tells her mother that Yui is also trying for Jonan, her mother angrily tells her this just means Miaka has another rival to compete against for a limited number of spots.
It’s no wonder that Miaka views the Universe of the Four Gods as an escape. Although the fantasy-China setting presents its own challenges—rapists seem to lurk around every corner and they don’t accept yen in the marketplace—Miaka feels freed from the expectations and standards of Japanese society. When she’s cornered by a gang of men trying to force her into slavery, she gleefully fights back by imitating women’s wrestling moves without having to worry about getting scolded by her teachers.
By becoming the Priestess of Suzaku, she accesses power and prestige without exams looming as a seemingly insurmountable barrier to entry. Even adults hold little sway over her, leaving her free to make her own decisions. In the Universe of the Four Gods, simply being Miaka is enough to make her special, without pressure to conform to others’ hopes and expectations. Freed from that pressure, the sources of her anxiety become powerful desires.
All that changes, though, when Yui is also drawn into the Universe of the Four Gods and becomes the Priestess of Seiryu.
Much like before, Miaka and Yui are set up as competitors, but with a major difference: this time, Miaka has all the advantages. Where Yui once had the brightest prospects while Miaka was left feeling inadequate, Yui’s entry into the Universe of the Four Gods is much darker and more traumatic. While Miaka was rescued by Tamahome and her warriors are all kind, benevolent people, the Kutou Empire and its Seiryuu warriors are very different.
This setup provides multiple narrative functions: not only does it transform Yui into an antagonist rather than an ally, but it also creates a situation that allows Fushigi Yugi to explore the positive and negative aspects of its teenage protagonists’ desires and anxieties.
Maturity, Mentors, and Malice
Becoming a priestess, in theory, brings power and prestige. They are hailed as saviors of their countries in times of turmoil, with the power to summon a god and bring peace to a nation. Similarly, attending an elite high school in Japan brings power and prestige (distinctive uniforms broadcast students’ affiliations and garner greater respect from people in power), but also greater scrutiny. Such scrutiny, combined with the pressure of academic expectations higher than Miaka feels she can meet, add a lot of pressure to an already-anxious girl.
At first, Miaka welcomes the role of priestess, seeing it as a way to make her dreams come true through the wishes Suzaku can grant. She struggles to grow into the role and take responsibility, since her poor choices can and often do have dire consequences.
When Chichiri lectures her about taking responsibility for her actions, she thinks this means she must do everything herself, lest someone get hurt because of her. However, she eventually learns that taking responsibility doesn’t mean acting on her own, but thinking before she acts and trusting those around her.
Yui, however, has a very different experience. Back home, she was a shoo-in for Jonan Academy, a top student, and Miaka’s opposite in pretty much every way. As the Priestess of Seiryuu, she should have similar power and prestige to the Priestess of Suzaku, but the Emperor of Kutou and the Seiryuu warriors are a very different group from the genial Suzaku warriors. Instead of the priestess acting as the leader, the warrior Nakago takes charge.
Nakago manipulates those around him without a second thought, including Yui. He uses his position as Yui’s advisor and confidant, coupled with Yui’s emotionally vulnerable state as a recent survivor of assault, to feed her lies, gaslight her, and control her in order to further his own goals. Under his malicious influence, Yui grows increasingly antagonistic toward Konan and the Suzaku warriors, until the two empires are embroiled in a war that threatens to devastate both worlds. At fifteen years old, Yui is a child and still susceptible to the manipulation of adults.
This dynamic touches on another focal point of Miaka’s anxieties: her relationships with the adults around her. As we see back in Japan, her relationship with most adults is contentious, centering around their disappointment in her or their expectations of her. As the priestess, two of her warriors are also adults: Chichiri and Mitsukake.
Of the two, her relationship with Chichiri is far more fleshed out. While Nakago manipulates Yui, Chichiri offers warm guidance and mentorship. He never gets angry at Miaka or scolds her, and even his lectures are brief and gentle. When Miaka feels lost and confused, such as when she’s torn about her conflicting relationships with Yui and Tamahome, she turns to Chichiri for advice. Since he’s an adult, he has his own experiences and hindsight to draw from, and advises her that she may have to choose or risk losing both, like he did.
Mitsukake, the other adult among the Suzaku Seven, is less developed as a character, but his power is more symbolic: the power to heal. In addition to his supernatural abilities, he trained as a doctor and can treat people traditionally. Mitsukake provides an even-tempered and calm atmosphere, moderating the more temperamental teenagers that make up much of the group.
While the adults in Miaka’s life in Japan may be sources of stress and pressure, the adults in the Universe of the Four Gods represent healing and wisdom to Miaka, using their power to support and empower her as mentors. Those surrounding Yui only abuse her and use her inexperience to turn her into a tool to advance their own agendas.
Sex, Love, and Lies
Miaka’s relationships with adults are far from the most important ones to her, though—that goes to her relationship with Tamahome. The two become embroiled in an emotionally intense love affair soon after Miaka arrives in the Universe of the Four Gods, and their entanglement provides much of Miaka’s motivation and informs every bit of plot movement.
Miaka, like many girls her age (and thus the intended audience of Fushigi Yugi), desires romance and sex, but she hasn’t had success in the real world. When Tamahome and the emperor Hotohori both pursue her, she comments, “Could it be possible that the way I look is considered attractive in this world?” After all, Miaka, with her big appetite, impulsiveness, and unapologetic tendency to take up space, is far from the ideal of a dainty, quiet young woman.
Every young woman is keenly aware of the gulf between their real selves and who they’re told they’re supposed to be. Through magazines and advertisements, they’re taught that they must look right, talk right, and act right, or they’ll be unlovable. If they don’t meet these exact criteria, they’ll never find a boyfriend or get married.
The messages girls receive about sex—that all boys want it and will stop at nothing to get it, and that even if they want it too, they can’t show it—can be even more confusing. I don’t think there’s a teenage girl in the world who doesn’t feel some sort of anxiety about sex and dating, and Miaka is no exception.
However, entering the Universe of the Four Gods earns Miaka instant adoration from handsome young men. Hotohori professes his love for her almost immediately, and while Tamahome takes a little longer to realize his own feelings for Miaka, he devotes himself entirely to her once he does. And, from the moment she first enters in the book, Miaka only has eyes for Tamahome.
Tamahome is the ideal fantasy boyfriend: handsome and strong, kind and understanding, and head-over-heels for his girlfriend. To him, her gluttony and naivete are cute quirks instead of failures. His purpose in life is to protect her, but he also chooses to love her—and that’s what makes him special to her.
Their relationship is actually unusually healthy for a shoujo manga, outside of some codependence and the occasional failure to communicate. He respects her space instead of pawing at her when she doesn’t want it, trusts her, and forgives her mistakes. When she thinks she’s been raped by Nakago and confesses that she went there intending to seduce him, Tamahome doesn’t get angry or hold it against her; he consoles her and tries to reassure her that she’s not tainted or dirty.
Sexual assault is omnipresent throughout Fushigi Yugi, and Nakago isn’t the only one who attempts to rape Miaka. Tamahome, however, is almost always there to protect her in the end. It’s a bit frustrating as a viewer, since it often comes down to rape being used as a cheap way to introduce drama, but it makes sense as a way of exploring Miaka’s anxiety about sex.
Tamahome isn’t a simple protector of her chastity, however; there’s plenty of sexual tension and mutual desire between the couple. The need for a virgin priestess is the only thing keeping the two from hopping into bed together. In fact, once they think it’s no longer an issue, they do exactly that—only to be interrupted by Miaka’s growling stomach. When that happens, Tamahome doesn’t grow angry or resentful about the mood being ruined, but suggests they spend the night together without having sex.
Shoujo manga has long been an important way for young women to confront their anxieties about emotional and physical intimacy. Heroines often desire and fear sex simultaneously, even as their boyfriends push harder and harder against their boundaries. Through Tamahome, Miaka’s experiences with sex and romance are affirming and positive.
Yui’s story, on the other hand, explores the potential negative consequences of these bonds. Right from the start, her exposure to sex is deeply negative. While the girls had Tamahome to help them when they first arrived in Konan, Yui has no such savior in Kutou. When she’s attacked, Nakago is the one to rescue her, and it serves his purposes better to have her believe she’s been raped.
Of her supposed allies, the only one who shows her genuine affection is Suboshi, but he’s also obsessive and emotionally unstable. He follows her like a puppy, hoping desperately for her attention, but never offers her real support. Yui herself is hurting too much to accept his feelings, and sometimes lashes out at him. The only way Suboshi can think to assist her is through violence.
Thanks to Nakago’s gaslighting, Yui’s trauma from the assault she faced when she first arrived in Kutou turns into anger and resentment towards Miaka. Yui takes Tamahome prisoner and uses drugs to brainwash him into loving her. In turn, Nakago convinces her he loves her, and uses her feelings for him so she’ll ask Seiryuu to grant him godlike powers.
Love can be manipulated and weaponized, which is the only way Yui experiences it in the Universe of the Four Gods. Falling in love involves a terrifying amount of vulnerability and trusting the other party, and among the Seiryuu warriors, that trust is inevitably exploited.
That exploitation extends to sexual relationships as well as romantic ones. Rape becomes something of an overused trope in Fushigi Yugi, and much of that comes from the Seiryuu warriors. In one particular stretch of episodes, Nakago, Tomo, and Suboshi all try to rape Miaka while Soi, the sole Seiryuu female warrior, simultaneously tries to trick Tamahome into having sex with her. Like love, the Seiryuu warriors only know how to use sex for exploitation.
In her time with her warriors, Miaka learns what it is to be loved and desired, and how to return that love and desire herself, unselfishly. But sex can be a weapon and love leaves one vulnerable, and it is up to Yui to illustrate the dark, potentially negative consequences of those experiences.
Fickle and Faithful Friendships
Miaka and Yui’s (and, by extension, the teen audience’s) anxieties about love and sex don’t just manifest in their relationships with men, but also in their friendship with one another.
Friendships in adolescence come and go, especially in times of transition. Tearful promises to keep in touch after graduation turn to dust as new circumstances, new friends, and new interests occupy one’s time and attention. When romantic love is new and strong, best friends often feel left behind or like they have to compete for their friend’s attention—which is exactly what happens in Fushigi Yugi.
One of the major factors that contributes to Miaka and Yui’s falling out is Miaka’s love for Tamahome, which Nakago uses to convince Yui that Miaka only cares about her boyfriend while Yui herself is nothing but an afterthought. Yui overhears Miaka telling Tamahome that she came back to the Universe of the Four Gods for him. That unfortunate timing, combined with months of Nakago’s persistent gaslighting, convinces her that Miaka never had any interest in helping her at all.
In truth, Miaka came back for both romance and friendship and went to great lengths to find Yui in Kutou, but Yui is too hurt to believe that. To her, it looks like Miaka has moved on, with a new boyfriend and new friends, leaving Yui alone, suffering, and friendless. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect a fifteen-year-old to step back and look at the situation rationally or make informed decisions; for Yui, the choice to hurt Miaka as badly as Miaka hurt her seems totally natural.
To an adolescent, a friendship breaking apart or growing distant can feel like an earth-shattering tragedy. Fushigi Yugi turns that feeling into something much more literal. Kutou and Konan are implied to have long been hostile to each other, and the arrival of the two priestesses escalates the tension into an all-out war. The two countries’ hostilities aren’t gone into in detail, though, because that’s not what the show is about; it’s about Miaka and Yui’s adolescent anxieties writ large.
This culminates in the two girls once again feeling forced to compete, just as they were when they were studying for high school entrance exams. After Nakago’s scheming causes the Suzaku summoning ceremony to fail and one of the Seiryuu warriors to go missing, neither Miaka nor Yui can summon their god in the normal way. Instead, they must race to obtain two artifacts known as “shinzaho” that would allow them to complete the summoning ceremony.
While they once could have both summoned their respective gods, Nakago manipulates them into an artificial rivalry, one Yui thinks is necessary because Nakago convinces her that Miaka acted in bad faith. The two girls are forced to compete because of someone else’s priorities, instead of peacefully cooperating (or at least coexisting).
While Miaka’s experiences as the Priestess of Suzaku were largely enjoyable in the first half of the show—one with struggles but also camaraderie, love, and adventure—the second half presents a much harsher vision, all because of the Seiryuu warriors’ sabotage. The forced rivalry takes something that was once joyful for Miaka and turns it bitter and painful.
Rivalries aren’t necessarily negative; they can come from a place of friendship and encourage both parties to work harder. But when malicious parties force a rivalry, it can turn unhealthy and destructive fast. In the Universe of the Four Gods, the “malicious party” is an abusive, manipulative man, but it’s an apt metaphor for the broader social norms and pressures that so often pit young women against each other.
At the series’ climax, the story shifts from the world in the book to actual Tokyo. Suzaku and Seiryuu, both summoned by their respective priestesses, fight a battle reminiscent of old kaiju movies like Godzilla vs. Mothra, destroying the city around them. The girls’ rivalry has come to a head, with Yui successfully summoning Seiryuu and wishing for Suzaku to be permanently sealed, and it looks like all hope is lost for them.
With their friendship of ten years seemingly at an end, Miaka feels like her world is ending, and the battle between the gods reflects that. While the Universe of the Four Gods was initially an escape for Miaka and an opportunity to explore her desires and fears in a safe environment, losing Yui takes things out of that safe space and makes them all too real. Sealing Suzaku was a symbolic act as much as a literal one for Yui, showing that she wants Miaka permanently eliminated from her life.
Overcoming and Surviving
When summoning their beast-gods, Miaka and Yui risk being wholly devoured by them after their wishes are granted. Embattled and weakened, they almost don’t survive the ceremony. Nakago essentially plans to sacrifice Yui for his own ends, but Miaka finally finds a way to communicate with her friend and make up.
Yui, knowing her final wish will result in her being devoured by Seiryuu, wishes to release Suzaku. As the embodiment of the potential negative consequences of adolescent hopes and desires, Yui is friendless and alone: her warriors are dead save for Nakago, who discarded her once he got what he wanted from her. She tries to make amends in death, because she sees no other way to escape her own pain.
Miaka, on the other hand, is the realization of all the positive consequences. With her boyfriend, friends, and adult mentors supporting her, she has the strength and determination to save Yui and both their worlds.
Yui’s plan for a noble self-sacrifice wouldn’t really fix anything, after all—it just removes her from the equation. It leaves Tokyo still destroyed, the two nations still at war, and Miaka still alone. When Miaka saves her, Yui says, “You must be so mad at me” and Miaka replies, “I’ve got a lot of things to yell at you about later. You better be ready for it.” As long as she’s alive, there are opportunities to make things right—and even though Miaka is weak and in pain, the growth and support she gained as a priestess allow her to do just that. Her final wish is not for personal gain, as she once imagined, but for Tokyo and Konan to be healed.
Fushigi Yugi ends on a hopeful note. As Miaka bids farewell to her warriors, she tells them that where she once felt powerless and unable to make her own choices, she now feels confident and capable. Before, she felt weak and insufficient, pulled in all directions by the people around her and doomed to disappoint them. As the Priestess of Suzaku, she explored her desires and fears and came out the other side knowing what she wanted and how to obtain it.
In the last moments of the series, we see the results: she failed to get into Jonan, but happily attends the perfectly respectable Yotsubadai High School with Yui at her side. Watase reassures her readers that, no matter how difficult things may seem, they can survive their transition to adulthood.