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Nippon Connection 2013 Special: Tough Moms

Obviously, any work of literature (and I’m including other narrative media like comics, film and games here as well) conceived in Japan is best understood in the context of Japanese culture. This is true also for stories with fantasy settings, even if they seem to be based more on Western sources than on Japanese ones. The actions of the characters and their meaning, the plot progression and its meaning, they follow the logic of the culture shared by the author and its primary intended audience. That is not to say that a story doesn’t have an inner logic that can be understood on its own, even by readers outside the original culture. But the finer nuances and deeper implications might be hidden in cultural context that eludes readers not from that culture.

So the more exposure you get to that culture, either by personal experience or by way of more stories dealing with experiences of their authors, will provide you with useful insights, i.e. the puzzles to piece together the complete picture that is cultural context. The Japanese film festival Nippon Connection in Frankfurt with its wealth of original Japanese movies shown every year has frequently provided me with such insights and I want to talk about one film from this year’s selection that stood out, Tug of War! (Tsuna hiichatta!):

The city Ōita has an increasing problem to attract enough tourists so the mayor is looking for ideas to improve the city’s image. Between 1989 and 2009 Ōita had an all female tug-of-war team called the Cosmo Ladies who enjoyed worldwide success and repeatedly won both national and international tug-of-war championships. So he instructs NISHIKAWA Chiaki, a young woman from his PR team, to form a new female tug-of-war team to represent his city.

Chiaki struggles to find enough candidates for the team though. Hardly anyone remembers the Cosmo Ladies and the women who happen to show up came to protest against the planned lay offs of the women work force at the central kitchen cooking lunch for the the local schools in Ōita. The mayor is interested in contracting a manufacturer of frozen meals as a sponsor, who would provide school cafeterias with their meals, replacing the hand made food of the central kitchen.

Chiaki suggests that the mayor should offer to refrain from going through with the lay offs in case the tug-of-war team will be able to make it to the national finals. The mayor agrees and lets Chiaki make that promise to the women fighting for their jobs, even though it doesn’t suit his agenda. This way some of them can be convinced to join the team, but as they’re still not enough even Chiaki has to join and become team captain.

But no one except Chiaki seems to take the training seriously. For the other women, who are caught up in their main duties as mothers and with their real jobs, the training isn’t much more then a get together to chatter and even get some rest. For the career woman Chiaki this team is her main work and concern, so the pressure to turn it into a success weighs heavily on her. When the team, after hours of inefficient training cannot even win a friendly match against an opponent team consisting of elementary school students, Chiaki threatens to throw the towel. For the other team members this embarrassing defeat and Chiaki’s reaction serve as a wake up call. They come into their own as a team, resolve their differences and start to train seriously. Classic sports movie story material, but charmingly and well told.

So the team starts to win matches after that, versus actual adult female opponents. The project is finally on track to have a shot at succeeding. But then the mayor pulls the plug on his former favorite PR project. The sponsorship by the frozen meals company turns out to be more important to him and that partner demands for the tug-of-war team to be disbanded, snuffing out the chance of the central kitchen cooks to keep their jobs.

Chiaki and the other women go to confront the mayor, urging him to keep his promise. But he laughs it off making it perfectly clear that all he cares about is the money this sponsorship entails. The lay offs unaverted, and Chiaki’s career also compromised because of the project’s failure and her outbreak towards her boss. But the women feel they’ve come too far to quit now. Even without the city’s funding they go through with the championship that should have decided their fortunes.

Against the first professional women’s team they face their chances are slim and they struggle to even keep their position. All their families and friends in the audience cheer for them to succeed. Then, with the match unfinished the scene turns black and the credits roll. Did they win or did they lose? Why not let the viewer decide the ending for themselves.

Or not, because the movie is too realistic for that. In the ending credits footage we see a prize for participation for the team. Obviously a few months of training is not enough to win a championship competing with the country’s best professional tug-of-war players who have been training for years. But still, they lost to a team of other women. They could become them if they keep at it. It’s a men’s world but there are female success stories. They aren’t fairy tales but tales of hard work. And chance.

So what insight did this movie provide for me? There is an important line in the movie. One of the team members says: “Onna wa yowashi, haha wa tsuyoshi”. “A woman is weak but a mother is strong.” Proverbs like this are what society uses to urge women into the mother role. They’re not supposed to work but to stay at home and start a family. What the movie demonstrates though is that this proverb is a lie. The tug-of-war team members find a strength outside their usual female, mostly mother roles. A physical strength even and one that could make them famous. Women can have careers.

The reason why this line was so important to me is because I heard half of it before. “Haha wa tsuyoshi”, “A mother is strong.” This is what Hope’s mother says in Final Fantasy XIII before she dies. Hope Estheim is a teenaged boy and he and his mother Nora are among a group of people who are to be purged from Cocoon, an advanced city hovering in the sky above Pulse, the surface world with its ferocious monsters. Because they’ve been supposedly come in contact with Pulse and thus become tainted by it they have been sent into exile. Team Nora, a group of self proclaimed heroes headed by Snow, a bulky man with blond long hair, promises to protect them now that they have been dumped into a hostile world. It’s ironic that their team name is the same as the one of Hope’s mother, as neither her claim of being a tough mom (as the English localization translates the above line) nor Team Nora’s promise that nothing will happen to the exiled Cocoonites takes long to be refuted by the reality of the events unfolding.

Afterwards Hope has trust issues towards Snow for failing to keep his bold hero promise and insteads turns to Lightning as a grown up to confide in. Lightning is a trained former soldier of Cocoon and the older sister of Serah, Snow’s fiancée. Instead of talking about being a hero and about protecting people, she lets her actions speak and is actually much more reliable than Snow.

It would be easy to interpret the death of the mother as the defeat of the motherland in World War II and the incapable hero as a symbol for the failing military government of the time. Ideologically orphaned, youngsters like Hope turn to fantasies of fighting women in manga and other popular culture, represented by Lightning, who escape the perceived rape that the motherland had to endure.1 Compare SAITŌ Tamaki’s controversial interpretation of the Beautiful Fighting Girl as an expression of the male otaku’s supposed sexual hystery and his sharp dismissal of the idea that otaku culture could include feminist thought.

But the “haha wa tsuyoshi”/”a mother is strong” quote shows that there is some genuine feminist notion at the base of the story of Final Fantasy XIII.  Here also the proverb is proven a lie, including the left out part “onna wa yowashi”/”a woman is weak”. Of course Lightning always was a strong female character but how much she is supposed to stress that women are not weak as a rule becomes much more clear if we realize that Nora’s positively sounding statement that „mom is tough“ implies that she is supposed to be only tough because she is a mother.

Snow is of course the second coming of Seymour from Final Fantasy X. They don’t just share the initial S and the long hair but also their goal of marrying. Seymour was a scheming politician who needed to marry Yuna to cement his claim to power, a villain. Snow is a naïve hero, who wants to marry and protect Serah because he loves her. Both are Siegfried, the original Super Mario, the original Loto/Eldrick, the original dragon slayer. Defeat the monster, get the girl. Every video game hero ever. Well maybe not quite, but you get the picture.

Defeat (convince) the monstrous parent of the bride, or in Snow’s case, her older sister, and obtain the blessing to marry her. But what does marriage mean for the bride? Yuna was expected to sacrifice herself and consequently wises up to go another way and not marry Seymour. Serah has been turned into a l’Cie by a fal’Cie deity. That means she has been entrusted with a duty, that once fulfilled will turn her into crystal. Her task is easy, to bring together a group of people who will also be turned into l’Cie.

They are the woman soldier Lightning, the wannabe hero Snow, the orphan boy Hope and Sazh, a father looking for his son. Their task is less simple. They (and the player) will spend hours to find out what it actually entails.

Lightning blames Snow for Serah’s predicament. How could she give her blessing when he failed to protect Serah and instead becomes the reason for her crystalization. Not much was asked of Serah. Lightning wants more for her.

The group’s task is to destroy Cocoon, by defeating its fal’Cie deities who made the rules by which the Cocoonites lived. The group struggles to avoid that fate they’ve been cursed with but in the end kind of fulfill it, only able to avoid the casualties of the Cocoon population and their own crystalization. With the Cocoon fal’Cie defeated, Serah becomes human again and Lightning gives her blessing to a more mature Snow, who grew up during the course of the game.

The sequel, Final Fantasy XIII-2, was released shortly before christmas in Japan, which there is a romantic holiday for young couples to spend time together. Fittingly in the West it was released shortly before valentine’s day, which has a similar significance as a lovers‘ holiday both here in the West and in Japan. In this sequel Lightning has gone missing, the course of history has been changed and the blessing for Snow and Serah to marry has been retracted. No happily ever after for the couple just yet. Instead Serah sets out on her own journey, without Snow and instead accompanied by a new character called Noel Kreiss2 Compare Père Noël, the French Santa Claus, and Christ, each similarly named as the first and last name, respectively, of this new hero, who by his name seems to be linked to the game’s pre-christmas publication date., after being out of the story for the most part of the first game. Lightning wanted more for Serah and now Serah gets her own adventure.

The 13th installment of the Final Fantasy series and its direct sequel have been the target of various criticism, both in regards to their stories and their gameplay. Some of that criticism may be valid, some less so. But one thing should have become evident: the female characters and female identities given in the games, as well as their critical tackling of male identity is rather progressive. Final Fantasy uses its cultural influence to encourage women to be self assertive. And to make men more aware of the role they play in the lives of the women they love. So there is at least one thing FFXIII did very, very right.

  1. Compare SAITŌ Tamaki’s controversial interpretation of the Beautiful Fighting Girl as an expression of the male otaku’s supposed sexual hystery and his sharp dismissal of the idea that otaku culture could include feminist thought. []
  2. Compare Père Noël, the French Santa Claus, and Christ, each similarly named as the first and last name, respectively, of this new hero, who by his name seems to be linked to the game’s pre-christmas publication date. []
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