Decade Apart, Miles Ahead: Lady action heroes in Bubblegum Crisis and Tokyo 2040

By: Aysha U. Farah August 9, 20190 Comments
Close-up of the four Bubblegum Crisis female leads in profile, wearing their mecha-suit helmets and looking serious

Directed by Hiroki Hiyashi (Tenchi Muyo!) and written by Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain), Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 aired from 1999-2000, and I have recently discovered that I love it as much today as when I was a preteen girl with a deep hunger for ladies kicking ass. While rewatching Tokyo 2040—along with the original 1980s series it’s based on—I realized that my frustration with a lot anime centers around weighing how much I have to turn off my “feminist brain” in order to enjoy it. 

What’s the tipping point of compartmentalization where it’s no longer worth it for the other elements I could get out of the story? I think that question is much more useful than asking whether a work can check an all-encompassing “is this feminist” box. 

As I get older and my patience for sexist and stereotypical treatment of women in media grows shorter, I find myself more and more nostalgic for this brilliant, quietly groundbreaking show, which remains one of the best women-centered anime I’ve seen even 20 years later. And since Neon Genesis Evangelion was recently re-released on Netflix, I can’t help but think that Tokyo 2040 deserves a place as a cult classic alongside its contemporaries.

The four leads of Tokyo 2040 looking toward the horizon

Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 takes place, as you might guess, in Tokyo in the year 2040, where all menial labor and service industry jobs are performed by advanced AI robots known as “boomers.” These boomers make life a lot easier, but have a tendency to every so often go completely rogue, killing and destroying everything in their path. A special unit of the Tokyo PD known as the AD Police has been created to deal with boomer-related crime. They are, however, not very good at it. 

Protagonist Linna Yamazaki has just moved from a small town to downtown Tokyo, ostensibly for a crappy temp job. But in reality she’s been closely following The Knight Sabers, a group of vigilantes who show up to protect the public from rogue boomers and deal with them far more effectively than the cops. They hide their identity by wearing robotic suits of their own, called “hardsuits.”

The four leads of Tokyo 2040 in their combat armor

The original show from the ‘80s has the same basic premise. It’s also about a group of women called The Knight Sabers who fight robot crime in a futuristic city. They have the same names (although the dub actors pronounce them terribly, in true ‘80s fashion) and they are painted with the same personality brushes: Priss Ashigiri, the laconic and impenetrable dive-bar singer; Nene Romanova, a teenage hacker with a day job as a dispatcher for the AD Police; and Sylia Stingray, a beautiful, reclusive millionaire and founder of the Knight Sabers. 

Both shows put the women into provocative clothes, complete with mecha-suits with impractical curves and boob bump-outs. They both involve interpersonal sniping about weight and femininity and the fact that they’re all single. However, the remake comes out miles ahead to me because, unlike the original, it concerns itself with the interiority of the characters: their motivations and relationships to one another.

Bubblegum Crisis is a Girls™ Fight Crime show. Tokyo 2040 is a show about crime fighters who all just happen to be women. 

close-up of a woman in her underwear fastening a halter top

Setting the Stage: Women as objects versus subjects

The difference in approaches to the two shows is immediately apparent in the opening scenes. The original begins with a big musical number, complete with Priss performing at a club, intercut with a boomer destroying the city. Don’t get me wrong—it’s a terrific opening. The song slaps, the animation is great, and it’s just generally a very flashy way to open a show.

But the first shot you get of Priss is in her underwear, getting dressed to go on stage. Very obviously, we are told she is an object, not a subject.

In Tokyo 2040, on the other hand, our introduction to Priss is through Linna—when Priss clips her and knocks her to the ground, cutting up her face and spilling her lunch. We’ve already watched Linna and her coworker stand in a long line to buy that lunch and repeatedly warn each other that they’re going to be late. Up until then, Linna’s voice has been high, breathy, and a little ditzy.

A shot of the city in the original Bubblegum Crisis

But as soon as the woman knocks her down and makes it clear she isn’t going to stop or apologize, Linna totally loses her shit. She shouts after the woman, demands that she replace her lunch, and wants to know what the hell she was thinking, driving like a lunatic. Linna chases the woman down several flights of stairs and throws her shoe after her.

Not to say that women injuring and yelling at each other is more empowering than them taking their clothes off, necessarily, but it does center them as having immediate, distinct personalities and a unique dynamic. Priss is surprised and grudgingly impressed by this tiny woman in a pencil skirt chasing her and shouting obscenities, and eventually orchestrates Linna’s introduction to the rest of the team. 

We also see Linna’s initial driving determination to join these women she has admired from afar. All of this centers the women more solidly as the subjects of the story, rather than objects to be admired as they’re moved across a scene.

An angry shouting Linna. subtitle: You should pay for it. Pay me back for my lunch!

Driving the Action: Heroic motivations

There are plenty of action shows featuring girls and women. Kill la Kill, Madoka Magica, and Terror in Resonance all come to mind. In my experience, most of these involve a story where the main protagonist has an ulterior motive for seeking adventure—avenging the death of a loved one, taking on the duty of a sacred calling, or getting swept up in circumstances beyond her control. While they often do amazing things, they are also often either reacting to something happening to them or marked from birth as special.

Very rarely do you come across an “everywoman” in an action series—a woman who is nothing special until she decides to become a part of something greater than herself. That role is usually reserved for men.

But in Tokyo 2040, Linna insists that she wants to join the Knight Sabers to help protect people from the dangerous rogue boomers terrorizing the city. She is here out of ambition: to become one of the vigilantes she has admired from afar. She wants to fight crime and kick ass, and it’s obvious from the very first episode that she has a bit of a brutal streak.

Linna talking to Priss in a rundown bar. Subtitle: But I've been an admirer for a long time

As the story progresses and the conspiracy behind the increasing numbers of rogue boomers comes to light, the four women of the Knight Sabers begin to work more closely together and form a cohesive fighting unit. The four of them have varied and interesting dynamics: Priss acts as a mentor and stand-in older sister for Nene (however grudgingly) and a rival for Linna; Linna and Nene are friends; while Sylia behaves more like a mother to Nene and Priss and expresses romantic interest in Linna (although that doesn’t ever go anywhere).

In the end, they come together as a group of people who are just doing their jobs. It normalizes the expertise of professional women in an era where most stories lacked that particular focus.

An old man with a mustache working on a machine while a younger man in a long coat watches him

Supporting Actors: Male characters and relationships

The other standout difference between the two shows is the role of men in the story. Leon McNickels is an AD Police officer who shows up in both versions as a love interest for Priss. In the ‘80s version, they have a series of played-out, boring interactions where he chases her and she rebuffs him, while occasionally using her feminine wiles to get information. In the remake, although his interest in undoubtedly romantic, he initially becomes interested in her because he suspects she’s one of the Knight Sabers and they become allies.

Likewise, Sylia’s brother Maki is a fascinating and relevant element to the overarching plot of Tokyo 2040. His relationships with Nene and Sylia are thoughtful and subtle. In the original Bubblegum Crisis, Maki drives their van, does menial tasks, and spends an upsetting amount of time trying to see his sister naked.

Completely eradicating this Peeping Tom behavior from the remake prevents Sylia from becoming an object to be gawked at. It also makes Maki likable enough for the viewer to care about his story line and his relationship with his sister.

Nene and Sylia sitting together and smiling

The third male character is completely different in both series: the mechanic. In the original, he is an old man known as “Doc” who fixes Priss’s motorcycle. In the remake he is much younger, hotter, and a love interest for Sylia, with connections to her past and boomer technology.

There really doesn’t seem to be any reason for this decision other than to deepen Sylia’s character, and possibly for eye candy. Like the rest of the men in the story, there isn’t much to Nigel beyond the role he plays in the women of the Knight Sabers’ stories. 

Despite the existence of romantic subplots in the series, it isn’t a main goal for the heroines. Linna meets a guy in her hometown and spends an episode considering whether she should give up her place in the Knight Sabers for him, before she receives an urgent call from the rest of her team and immediately runs back to Tokyo to help them. 

In the end, she chooses her career over the possibility of love, and the narrative doesn’t punish her for it. Neither does it ever punish her for having a deep ambition and drive for glory, not even in her weaker moments early on where she questions whether or not she’s cut out for the dangerous work of being a Knight Saber.

Priss stands in an alley and looks down thoughtfully

Building Blocks: How little changes make a big difference

Despite both shows ostensibly being about women who put on sexy outfits to fight crime, Tokyo 2040 will always come out on top for me because it concerns itself with the interior lives and driving motivations of its female characters. The ‘80s versions of these characters are motivated by… money, maybe? That’s what they most seem concerned about. 

But the four women of Tokyo 2040 all have disparate and well-defined reasons for doing what they do. It can and does fall prey to a couple “ugh” moments of many anime of the time (and of the present, if we’re being honest). For instance, Priss habitually mocks Nene’s physique, and upon discovering that Priss doesn’t have a boyfriend, Linna pearl-clutchingly asks if Priss is “like that.” But despite these flaws, it’s still significantly stronger than its source material.

A poster of the four Bubblegum Crisis leads in the foreground in everyday clothes, with the mecha-suits large in the background

I don’t know if the creators of Tokyo 2040 explicitly set out to rectify the series’s former missteps and give the Knight Sabers the stories they deserve, but it comes through. It’s there in the subtle ways the show juxtaposes the AD Police’s method—rumbling in with huge tanks, hails of bullets, and drones—with the Knight Sabers’ swift, surgical approach—darting in close and tearing the robot’s core out of its chest. Or how Sylia says she only builds hardsuits for women because she understands women’s bodies the way she never will men’s.

Most of all, it’s in the way women’s rage and crises and pain take center stage rather than shoring up a man’s story, allowing viewers like myself to draw the same strength from the show as adults that we did as kids. Sometimes, creating a story that appeals to female audiences can be as simple as remembering that the female characters on screen are rounded human beings.

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