Yoko Case Study: Exploring the Visual Representation of Women’s Bodies in Anime

This article was originally released on September 17th 2016. In its previous iteration, the post contained a Frankenstein’s amalgamation of blog update, community drama and anecdotes that distracted from the points being made. In this release I have heavily edited the essay, removing now defunct fluff while adding new material to improve or change past positions held.

How Women are presented in anime is a hotly debated topic. While the medium itself often features female characters more frequently and in prominent contextual positions relative to western counterparts, it sill hasn’t avoided criticism for sexist or otherwise reductionist depictions in the process.

While debates on fanservice, as well as debates on the relevancy of fanservice debates, could be continued until the end of time, my intentions with this piece are to focus on Yoko from Gurren Lagann as a means of revealing how the characters strengths are undermined through visual practices which are prominently used within the anime industry.  In doing so, this will require me to explain how the camera is understood in relation to the narrative, while also addressing problems with applying theory designed around real world human interaction to animation, a medium without need for physical actors.


Yoko, from first impressions, adheres to the idea of self-engaged sexuality as a positive form of subjective identification. In the world of Gurren Lagann she is the master of herself. She does not conform to the fashion standards of contemporary society, opting to traverse the inhospitable terrain of the parallel earth in little other than a bikini bra and short-shorts. While this does raise concerns of practicality, especially if you have any understanding of the purpose of sports bras, it is how Yoko chooses to dress. She is conscious of the gaze this might engender, yet given the control she has in her appearance and the actions she takes, Yoko is fine to tolerate or enjoy it to whatever extent she decides. She might not be able to control exactly how others see her, however it is to be implicit that so long as Yoko herself understands her clothing as a extension of her individuality and autonomy, then gazes from others cannot take that validation away from her.

This is the key reason why objectification in pornography can be seen as an empowered experience for those participating, because they ‘opt in’ to the observers gaze and maintain their independence. Likewise an actor who partakes in a simulated sex scene for the latest blockbuster movie is aware of the objectification at play and is complicit in it, acknowledging the fact that it is their body that is being put on display.

So how could this ever be a negative? Well it’s because this modern understanding of self-determined presentation is typically taken as a function within the real world, where an individual is only ever contending with other people. While we can apply this to a character to impartially ignore the role of a creator in deciding their supposed autonomy, we still cannot ignore the fact that in the real world, there is always a intangible and unbreakable wall. Not a wall in the theatrical sense, that can be looked through or broken, but one that is imperceptible and unbreakable.

This introduces a major problem when applying the same theory of ‘self-objectification’ to a purely fictional, visual, medium by which animation is almost entirely unique. Since the characters themselves do not exist outside of the work, as in the world they inhabit is their ‘reality’, we cannot immediately account for their consent to the camera. As far as the narrative operates, without characters breaking that fourth wall we must stipulate that they do not acknowledge the cameras presence nor are they aware it is documenting their experiences. Furthermore, related to Yoko, while she can choose the confines by which she presents herself to other characters in the universe of Gurren Lagann, she does not have this same liberty when it comes to the camera.

Whilst you could argue that a character like Yoko who is in control of her sexuality doesn’t mind inviting the ‘gaze’, the way in which a persons gaze and a cameras gaze are differentiated means we cannot assume consent to one is automatically consent to the other. For example Simon can ogle her from a distance, but at any given moment Yoko can take any number of actions in response, demonstrating her control over the situation. Likewise the framing of Simons gaze is always limited by the ‘purest’ lens, his eyesight, meaning that artificial restrictions born from the framework of a camera lens are not applicable.

To better exemplify the issue lets use examples of camera framing from the show:

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[All these examples were taken from a 2 minute scene from episode 21 of the show. I apologize for the low quality but there is no way to get higher resolutions without blu-ray copies.]

In each of these frames particular focus is paid towards her body above all else. When Yoko takes off her coat to don her alter-ego, the camera is center frame on her chest. Immediately after Yoko saves one of her prized students, a shot of her cleavage steals the spotlight. On from that we are shown a slow upwards panning shot of Yoko from behind, only resuming the action when a sufficient amount has been shown. As Yoko sets up a shot on the enemy, the camera presents us Yoko from a downwards angle going from crotch to breasts and conveniently obscuring all other detail. Finally when Yoko takes the shot, shouting the enemy down, an angle is chosen that keeps her flailing breasts in frame with her face. In each shot the camera is absolutely aware of what it’s doing, especially in traditional animation where frames have to been constructed and not recorded, so bluntly speaking there are no ‘accidents’.

Yet in all of that, Yoko not once shows awareness of the cameras presence. Since it does not have a tangible existence in the world of Gurren Lagann, Yoko cannot account for all that it does. Yoko didn’t choose these angles, Yoko didn’t consent to her being viewed that way, Yoko can’t even respond in a way that would recategorize its gaze under her own terms. Yoko is a distinctly passive participant rather than an active one in direct contradiction with her established character. There is no serviceable obligation for the camera to do those things either, since it is not tied to a fixed position or subject to the laws of gravity as it would be in the real world. In these circumstances the camera is servicing the needs of the viewer and not the subject (Yoko) and therefore it cannot be said to be representing her fairly. If this process fundamentally keeps her out of the objectification it can no longer be prefixed with the unshackled “self-” that is so integral.

This clear dichotomy between the expression the character might wish to convey and what the camera decides to convey is how we can distinguish between what is and isn’t ‘fanservice’. In a discussion on the narrative theme of sexuality and the gaze of Yoko’s body, she cannot be used in conversation with anything the camera does. Instead that must be defined by her words and actions in relation to other elements within the story.

So without her input, what do these camera angles accomplish? Given that shots like the ones above are by no means exclusive or rare with Gurren Lagann, its more fanservice than any other ‘-service’. What it does convey could easily be conveyed through alternative methods, with calls into question the practical function it has. For example if the goal of having Yoko’s breasts in frame when she shouted down the enemy was to showcase a sense of velocity, that would’ve been just as easily portrayed by her hair shaking in the wind, or the rapid approach to the ground as she descended. If they have the capacity to animate breast movement they can at least take the hair option, so there isn’t a solid case for animation constraints. And what about the consideration for timing? It can be argued that even if it is necessary that the camera focus on her body for commentary purposes, this is disserviced by presenting it during life and death situations, or when Yoko displays maternal affection for her students, as examples.

Now this is not all to say we should ‘censor’ (read: avoid) natural body parts in companionship with visual storytelling, but if including actions such as breast flailing is inessential and can be interpreted as inviting the audiences voyeuristic gaze, it can be fairly argued that alternative approaches would communicate the work better and in a less exclusionary and contradictory manner. My argument is that creative choices like this fundamentally alter the way audiences interact with the work in a process that hinders any potential narrative message that could otherwise be conveyed.

“But couldn’t repeatedly showing the audiences this material seeks to criticize the observers judgement and/or indulging of Yoko’s body as a sexual object?”

I would argue that if that was ever the intention, it fails down to the fact that any legitimate criticism is indiscernible from regular objectification à la Poe’s law. However, supposing I humor this notion; could it not be said that excessive focus on characters as sexual entities, however appropriately, runs the risk of trivializing the original intent? Overexposure can not only beat the viewer over the head with the point, it can also misconstrue the message as its excessiveness is mistaken for absurdity, assuming that is not the end goal. In that case are we not again subject to the question, “how is this distinguishable from intentional objectification?”

To reiterate a previous point, a character holding ownership over their sexual expression is not enough on its own in an animated medium, because it is not free from the biased influence of the camera, but also not grounded by connection to the real world, wherein the characters body is the actors body. An unaccounted for observer can and will devalue that sense of ownership, or outright take it away.

Granted these elements alone do not make Yoko a ‘terrible’ character. When we refer to fanservice and objectification these are not static states of being. A character is not irredeemably a ‘fanservice’ character because they are presented in that way. However Yoko is indicative of a problem the medium has and is not to be taken as an exception to the rule. The sexual liberation of female characters is often a myth, driven by the misguided and incorrect interchangeability between real life body & sex positive movements and it’s application to heavily instructed works of fictions. Even when women’s bodies are explored through the experiences of a female character, there is still this ever looming undertone that what we’re seeing is a malformed version of what it could have been.

In order to have better representation of this subject matter in the future, we need to reject the perverse, corporate or misinformed involvement of select creatives. Examples like Yoko and Gurren Lagann with their insufficient “sexualization as pseudo-body positivity” messages need to be challenged for the misfire that they are (as this post has sought to accomplish) so alternatives that don’t introduce problematic elements into the mix can be pursued instead. Only when the presentation matches the feminist friendly intent can we happily celebrate the underlying message without need for pause.

I hope you agree.

For the record my application of the term fanservice here is more or less in line with my previous post on the subject. There is always room for a semantic debate on the matter but deconstructing the word fanservice as anything other than “servicing the needs of the popular fanbase” seems defunct to me.

2 thoughts on “Yoko Case Study: Exploring the Visual Representation of Women’s Bodies in Anime

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