I love the pleasure of watching anime where the female protagonist is a fully mature woman who is strong, competent and beautiful. Not talking bishoujo here. We’re talking the real deal, kireina josei. They are out there in anime land. Perhaps outnumbered in anime by the bishies ten to one but they still shine!
Utsukushii josei is closely related. While kiriena has power and vigor associated with it, utsukushii is quiet, elegant, reserved, stylized beauty. Kireina josei translates into “beautiful woman” while utsukushii josei is better read as “beautiful lady”. See the difference in nuance? My personal preference is kireina. I like my female leads to be strong, direct and challenging. It is also easier to pronounce and type.
This does not mean that an utsukushii josei is weak. She is often written that way because
some male egos are more comfortable when the woman leaves kicking butt and taking names to them. (Damsel in distress syndrome.) Rather, she will kill you with a hairpin to the base of the brain during sex instead of a blaster to your chest during battle. This style of woman is better suited to the intrigues of a royal court and can become very powerful indeed through manipulation and scheming, often being the power behind the throne.
Kireina josei in their unalloyed state are uncommon in josei characters. A pure utsukushii josei is very rare. Usually, you get a helpless bishoujo instead.
To see both types in competition with each other, let us first examine Tenchi Muyo. Everyone knows all there is to know about the franchise, right?
Tenchi Muyo is a harem. The leading two members are Princess Ayeka and Space Pirate
Ryoko. These two fight endlessly over Tenchi. Ryoko is kireina josei taken to the extreme. She is certainly no little girl and she is immensely powerful. And while beautiful, she is totally lacking in social graces. Ayeka is extremely beautiful. She is mannered and graceful (yūbi) and subdued in her relationship to the world. Adherence to custom and tradition is fundamental to who she is. However, she is willing (and able) to vary from the
standard utsukushii josei role in time of emergency or when squabbling with Ryoko over Tenchi. She is not a person to wait for her hero to rescue her and has significant offenses and formidable defenses at her disposal.
A pure utsukushii josei lead is rare in anime. Let’s see if I can dig through my memory banks and find some examples…
Not exactly a lead… but… In Rurouni Kenshin, his greatest enemy is Shishio Makoto, Shishio’s lover is Yumi Komagata. Yumi is a courtesan. Very beautiful, very refined, and devoted completely to him. As long as she remains with Shishio, she is probably incapable of independent action. In a fight, she has little to do but be brave and hope. But brave she is! So much so that in the final battle between the two man-slayers she places herself between the two combatants. Shisho stabs Kenshin through her body and she is thankful to be of assistance.
Again in Rurouni Kenshin, Megumi Takani fits the utsukushii josei pattern better. OTOH, Kaoru Kamiya fits the kireina josei pattern best.
The mothers of protagonists in anime are a mixed bag. Certainly, they represent the overwhelming balance of josei anime characters. Some are clearly kireina, some are clearly utsukushii, some are mixtures but most never get enough screen time to leave a definitive impression. I find that incredibly sad. Japan is so enamored with moe and kawaii and school uniforms and loli they have completely missed out on the beauty, grace, and power of the adult woman.
Two different takes on motherhood.
Nasty comment follows:
<grumble> Bunch of pedophiles and ephebophiles too insecure to lust over a grown woman.</grumble>
Nasty comment complete.
But… never mind that. Here are just a few of the fully realized anime women I have grown to love:
The opening image at top is of Holo, the Wise Wolf from Spice and Wolf.
Michiko in Michiko and Hatchin
Who can forget Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop? (above) Or Julia?
JB and Asako in the Fruit of Grisaia
Mokoto Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell
Erza Scarlett (and others) in Fairy Tale.
Rokka from Natsuyuki Rendezvous
Hiroko of Hataraki Man
Noriko, Hatoko, Mimi, and Maho in the four stories of Otona Joshi no Anime Time
Hana from Wolf Children
Yukino from The Garden of Words.
Sakurako from Beautiful Bones
Revy from Black Lagoon
So here is to the beautiful, graceful and powerful grown-up women in anime! May anime directors see the error of their ways, grow up, and give us many more of them.