If you’ve been under a rock for most of last year, you may not have heard about Shingeki no Kyojin (officially translated: Attack on Titan). It’s a manga and anime series about the last outpost of humanity under siege by some very hungry giants—and it’s adopted a wide following that cuts significantly across traditional demographics, in part due to its rich story and gender dynamics.
More recently, Kodansha’s North American publishing arm—which is officially overseeing the English localization of the manga—announced via its Tumblr that it had been asked by the franchise’s lead artist and author, Hajime Isayama, to avoid gendering one of Attack on Titan’s central characters, Squad Leader Hange Zoe (above).
The Mary Sue has a decent breakdown of the story, and while it’s encouraging to see both an American publishing arm respect an author’s intentions and a fanbase warmly receiving this bit of news, the situation is a bit more nuanced than it first appears. For one thing, Western discourses of gender politics don’t necessarily map one-to-one onto similar spaces in Japan. For another, while it’s great to actually see and discuss non-binary characters in media, for those who have followed Attack on Titan long enough, Isayama’s announcement is actually pretty old news.
Out on the Front Lines
“We knew pretty early on,” Esther tells me. “Japanese is often a very ambiguous language, so we try not to infer too much, and instead try to do as much research ahead of time as we can.”
Esther (not her real name) is one of the translators for MX International’s Attack on Titan simulcast team, which works to bring the show to popular anime streaming service Crunchyroll. The teams work on a fast turnaround, providing high-definition legal streams of subtitled anime often within hours of the original Japanese broadcast—a boon to English-speaking anime fans, who want their shows quickly, as well as to rights-owners who want to drive consumers to legal alternatives away from piracy.
For Esther and her group, who are both versed in the language and engaged in Japanese fan spaces like 2channel (a precursor to and, shall we say, more civil version of the West’s notorious 4chan), browsing threads and digging up interesting discussion posts on popular shows is part of the job. In the case of Attack on Titan, which ran for some time as a manga before being picked up for an animated adaptation, the team were able to glean quite a bit from reading ahead and seeing what Japanese fans—and the author himself—had to say about the characters.
“Usually, you know, it’s not difficult to determine a character’s gender. And if there’s a gray area we try to look at what the fandom consensus is,” Esther explains. “In the case of Zoe, the mangaka had actually posted a blog about the character’s gender.” A team member brought the link to the group’s attention soon after the character appeared so that the subtitles could be adjusted.
MX International has no official policy for determining gender for characters in cases of ambiguity, so in Attack on Titan’s case it was simply fortuitous that the simulcast translation team had come across this information during its research, says Esther. Also lucky was the fact that, because the streams’ subtitles were easy to edit, it was a simple matter for the team to go back and change any gendered pronouns which had managed to slip in.
Kodansha’s solution was a little trickier, as it already had books in circulation in North America referring to Hange Zoe as “she.” The publisher’s decision was to revise the translation for subsequent reprints, and to avoid gendering the character going forward.
In general, Kodansha’s announcement was well-received by readers, including genderqueer individuals of various stripes. One Tumblr user wrote in to the publisher saying:
as a non-binary person who has literally NEVER seen a character or popular figure in media who is not gendered as a man or a woman a single time in their entire life, your dedication to using the communicating with isayama and using the right pronouns for hanji/hange means SO much to me!
Other readers are adamant about using a binary gender such as “she” for the character. For Kodansha and localizers such as those found at Crunchyroll, however, the disagreement is rather moot.
“It’s not usually very hard to write around gender anyway,” says Esther. “If you want to talk grammatical issues with translations, the fact that Japanese doesn’t differentiate between singular and plural comes up far more often. Gender is almost a non-issue.”
A Tradition of Fluidity
Another factor that may surprise Western readers is that, coming at it from a Japanese perspective, gender-neutral characters are not actually that uncommon at all.
“It’s really American marketers who are especially interested in assigning genders to these characters,” says Tomomi Yamaguchi, a professor of Anthropology at Montana State University. Her work includes investigation into contemporary gender studies in Japan—an area of discourse not many are well-acquainted with. “It’s quite common in Japanese pop culture for gender to be presented as fluid or ambiguous.”
Yamaguchi cites early attempts by marketers to localize Pokemon as an example of this obsession with gendered culture products. Referring to work by scholar Anne Allison, she says early marketing of the franchise heavily courted boys by playing up the male hero of the cartoon, Ash Ketchum.
“What they soon found was that it was not this boy character but Pikachu, who hadn’t been assigned any gender, which people gravitated towards,” Yamaguchi explains. “And they did so equally across the gender spectrum.”
Many other characters in anime, manga, games and related media don’t rely heavily on clear gendering. This is particularly true of kids’ media and non-human characters, naturally, but it can be seen in human characters as well. Naoko Takeuchi’s famous Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon manga—and to a lesser extent its anime adaptation—played around frequently with several characters’ gender representation, particularly Haruka Tenou. In the manga, Haruka is presented fairly equally in both masculine and feminine attire, and at one point kisses the teenaged Sailor Moon, leading to a kind of bisexual awakening (bet you don’t remember that from the TV show).
This is felt across other forms of Japanese art as well, including Takarazuka, a particular form of Japanese theater in which all roles are played by women. Gender in Japanese art, Yamaguchi says, has been exploratory for quite a while.
“That doesn’t mean that there are not clearly-defined gender roles and norms socially. There very much are,” she says. And negotiating these social expectations remains tough for women and other sexual minorities—but anime, at least, is allowed to be freer.
Beyond the Wall
Hange Zoe, in many ways, epitomizes what makes Attack on Titan so successful among such a broad spectrum of readers and viewers. The franchise goes to considerable length to depict men and women as social equals, particularly within the military, which is visually unisex and tends not to differentiate among its soldiers. Its creator Isayama has not compromised in showing its leading women, especially Mikasa, as strong and nuanced individuals suited to the story’s setting. In that context, Hange Zoe being explicitly presented by the author as gender-neutral makes perfect and refreshing sense.
Central to Attack on Titan’s premise is the idea that humanity, when pushed to the brink of extinction, will have to reexamine its priorities. Far from rallying under traditional ideas, however, the major characters very literally have to step outside their known world in order to make any headway against an advancing threat.
So while it would be a mistake to assume any creative work is completely divorced of the social context in which it was made, Attack on Titan very explicitly presents us with a liminal space, where other questions are foregrounded—and, more often than not, either-or binaries simply fall away.