Out of all the Fall 2019 anime I watched, I did not expect to find myself latching on to the hero of an isekai harem comedy.
Isekai is a genre that rarely interests me, and harem comedies, especially ecchi-flavoured ones, leave me cold. So what was it about ‘Kemono Michi: Rise Up’ that made it such a surprisingly entertaining experience for me?
I read the premise about a week before the Fall season started, and shared it with a friend who usually watches a few seasonal anime with me. Pro-wrestler Genzou is summoned, in the middle of a match against his arch rival, to a fantasy world of magic and monsters. The princess who transported him there begs him to defeat the monsters plaguing her land, but Genzou refuses. And suplexes her to make his point. Because Genzou loves animals far too much to ever kill them; instead, he sets out to capture them with a view to running his very own pet shop. Along the way, he’s joined by a bevvy of buxom beauties (yikes, that was a painful sentence to type!) who, for various reasons, want in on his quest.
That, on its own, wouldn’t have made for an interesting story. What grabbed my attention was Genzou’s complete lack of interest in those well-endowed women and their revealing outfits. Genzou didn’t even seem to acknowledge them. Nor did he care much for the rippling abs on display at the local tavern, where other local monster-hunters regularly strode around with their muscles flexing and their big swords unsheathed.
Could it be?
An asexual character? In my anime?
Of course, it’s not that simple. It never is, with non-cishet characters, is it?
Genzou’s lack of reaction to boobs and knickers and pecs is one of the show’s running gags. Haha, the big buff guy isn’t so manly if he’d rather play with fluffy animals than ogle some boobies. The joke is that any other male character would be nose-bleeding all over the place, or falling face-first into every available cleavage, but Genzou doesn’t react as expected so that’s funny.
That’s the joke. Someone has multiple opportunities for sex, but isn’t interested, and we’re supposed to laugh at them.
Welcome to the fun world of asexuality.
It’s not the first time I’ve found myself drawn to a character whose orientation, or whose gender expression, is meant to be a joke. I loved ‘Mahou Shoujo Ore’ for its gender-fuckery, fully aware that I was supposed to be laughing at Saki and the fact that her crush only paid attention when she looked like a dude.
Even as a kid, I was drawn to the camp and the queer moments in media. Kenneth Williams was a particular hero of mine, and even though I knew I was supposed to laugh at it, I secretly adored the ‘Saved By The Bell’ episode where Zack dressed as Bambi and got hit on by Slater. I was always aware that I was supposed to find those moments funny, but they spoke to me in a way that other people didn’t seem to get, and I started seeking out more moments like them in every film and TV show that even hinted at queerness.
Like a lot of queer folk who grew up before the turn of the milennium, I had to make the most of what I was given in terms of inclusion and representation. Stale bread might seem unappetising when you’re used to a full buffet table, but it’s a lifeline when you’re starving. Those moments, those characters who pushed gender boundaries or who didn’t react to obvious sexiness, told me that I wasn’t alone, and that there were others out there like me if only I knew where to look.
I’m pleased that people younger than me have more varied representation, and that they’re in a position to ask for more. I’m grateful that there are content creators who can make their characters every flavour of queer and acknowledge that queerness openly instead of settling for subtext and coding. And I’m relieved that it’s okay now to point out when content hurts us because it’s made to mock us instead of include us. But I do still cling to those gag characters like Genzou, because as much as anything, I can identify with their isolation and their outcast status. I see myself not just in Genzou’s lack of interest in sexiness, but in being the butt of jokes simply for not behaving as expected.
Recently I spotted a couple of tweets (not from anyone I follow) hinting that ecchi anime and eroge adaptations would become more mainstream over the next few years, thanks to recent releases like ‘Nekopara’ and ‘Seton Academy’. My sigh was long and heavy. Not because I object to ecchi in any way, but because of this continuing pervasive assumption that if you don’t like sexiness or don’t care for titillation, there’s something wrong with you. I’ve written before about how tiresome it can be to be faced with a constant barrage of sex-focused media when you’re asexual. The problem isn’t that the content is inherently offensive; rather, it’s more about knowing your own reactions to it mark you out as different, somehow. You can say ‘that type of comedy doesn’t match my sense of humour’ or ‘I don’t enjoy horror stories’ and that’s fine, but say ‘I don’t find sex or sexiness enjoyable’ and people want to know what’s wrong with you. You end up the gag character, more interested in cats or cake than cleavage while everyone around you thinks you’re weird.
I see a lot of focus on sex in geek-marketed media (especially, but not limited to, anime). Superheroes, once limited to male power fantasies, now have to be sex symbols as well. Female heroes especially have to be sexy to be marketable. Even the most cutesy anime characters tend to come with excessive endowments, and character designs are hentai-ified even when it’s entirely unnecessary – I know I enjoyed ‘Occultic Nine’, but ask me about it now and most of what I remember are the ridiculously distracting breasts slapped on to numerous female characters.
It is honestly tiring having to wade past so much sexiness to get to the stuff I care about.
Do I want more ace characters? Sure. I want to see more representation for all different types of queerness. But there’s more than one way to go about it. ‘Hoshiai No Sora’ did wonders for trans and non-binary kids with an episode focused on a character questioning their gender identity. Sometimes it’s great to get people talking about a particular orientation so that questioning folk can have the words to describe themselves and so that others can understand them better. But sometimes we don’t actually want to be the focus of a Very Special Episode. We just want to be present, the way cishet characters get to be present, with the same freedom to exist and be part of the story. Genzou was the lead in his story, and I saw his lack of sexual attraction as something I could identify with, even as he was working towards an entirely unrelated goal. It was there, and it might have been put there for other people to laugh at, but I took it and treasured it because how often do we see men in harem comedy-type stories who aren’t getting nosebleeds every five minutes? It wasn’t great, but it was something. And when your representation is minimal, you’ll take every little crumb you can get.
You may have noticed that I’m updating far less frequently than I did pre-hiatus. For various reasons, I have much less time these days for writing. If you still want to see opinions on seasonal anime and other nonsense, follow me on Twitter @oldanimefan or Tumblr @fanofacertainage.