Friday, July 4, 2014

Abaranger : a very female empowering show which challenges traditional gender roles and handles very daring themes

 Our female characters : adults above : left to right : Ranru Itsuki/Abareyellow, Emiri Imanaka and Jeanne/Mahoro ; kids below, left to right : Mai Hakua and Lije

1) Introduction 

Among the classic Tokusatsu franchise aimed at a classic male audience, Super Sentai is certainly the most female friendly of all, because it always (except for one case, Sun Vulcan) involves heroines who are able to transform like their male counterparts, and show that they can be as valuable and useful to the team. Goranger, the first series of the franchise, already had great female characters, like Peggy/ Momoranger, who, not only was as good as a fighter as her male partners, but also was an explosive expert, skill which ended up being useful to the team. Her competences were never questioned because of her gender. Besides, Gorenger also had good supporting characters, like Yoko/007, who helped the heroes, and even, sometimes, filled as Momo.
Bioman went even further by having two heroines, which allowed to have almost a balanced male/female ratio, with three boys and two girls. Changeman also had two girls rangers, but also a rich female supporting cast, and some great female villainesses, like Ahames, who even became a leader among the antagonists, and Shima.
Since then, other shows have shown great female characters, who were as badass as the boys, but also an interesting supporting cast, with cool female allies and fun villainesses. Some very nice series in that regard include Jetman, Megaranger, Dekaranger and Gekiranger. 

However, Abaranger has a special place, because it went much further than those shows. It had a strong female cast, but more than all those shows, it managed to give the female characters a very important focus and handle some very daring themes.

2) Abaranger : powerful ladies, and men showing their sensitive sides

Bakuryuu Sentai Abaranger is in my opinion one of the most interesting sentai (at least official sentai) with the way it dealt its characters. Not only because it had cool female characters, with a good balance between male and female, but also because of the way the male characters were written, and, most importantly, how the plot is more female centric than all other sentai series, and especially how it dealt with the theme of rape,  even if it was course very indirectly and subtly, since it's a kid show.
Let's review those different elements:

2-1  Abaranger's female characters : a diverse cast

Abaranger has about 14 main characters (not counting the Bakuryuu), 5 of them being female. If you only take into  account the cast played by actors, Abaranger has 10 main characters, including the 5 females (which photos are shown above). As such, it has a very balanced ratio between its male and female cast.

Moreover, those female characters are very diverse, and play very different roles in the show.

a) Ranru Itsuki/Abareyellow : She's the only ranger among the girls. Howeve,r it must be precised that while Abaranger has 5 rangers, it only has 3 core rangers (Red, Blue and Yellow), two boys and Ranru. Asuka (Black) is less regular as a ranger, and Mikoto (Killer) is pretty much an antagonist during most of the show. As such, while Abaranger doesn't have the best male/female balance seen in a sentai series for rangers, it is still pretty good. Besides, Ranru is never seen as a special case, because she's the lone girl. She's always written as an equal to the others, and the fact she's a girl is completely irrelevant. Moreover, she's shown as being at least as badass as her partners, even more (she's introduced in the show while she stops a thief using her skills as a biker, even before getting her Abareyellow powers). She also has an additional role, being the technological expert of the team, creating special devices in order to help fighting the Evolian, and she's shown as a very smart characters. Lastly, she also shows interest in stuff which is more traditionally associated with men, like mechanics, science and at the end of the show, she's seen working in a racetrack ; contrarywise, she pretty much gave up being an idol ( a cliche career for toku female characters).  

b) Emiri Imanaka : a hight school student, she wanted to become an Abaranger, but unfortunately, her body wasn't strong enough to  handle the Abare suit. However, she's still doing her best to help the heroes, and became a valuable assistant to them, helping them from the headquartes while the heroes were on the battlefield, notably by seeking info, or helping dealing with Mai, or looking after the heroes when they needed it. She even was more involved in the fights, like in episode 11 (the "special  cram school " plot), episode 24 (the Mikela/Voffa on Another Earth plot) or episode 28 (the kidnapped bride plot), even risking her life to help her friends. While her attempts to become a new Abaranger ("Abarepink/Pig") often failed in a comedic way, she still was a valuable asset to the team.
As such, she's a great supporting female characters, as a the valuable assistant.

c) Jeanne/Mahoro : Asuka/Abareblack's wife, who ended up becoming temporarly an Evolian. She's a very interesting characters, because she played very various roles. During the first 32 episodes of Abaranger, she was Messenger of Destruction Jeanne, a very dangerous villainess. She was the only regular skilled fighter among the villains during the first 16 episodes, until Abarekiller appeared. She's a skilled swordwoman, who trains regularly, and she's been shown to be a very dangerous enemy. Between episode 33 and 39, she ended up losing her memories, and became good again, joining the heroes and becoming a new helper, with a role similar to Emiri's. Lastly, starting with episode 40, she became Jeanne again, but she was still on the side of good, becoming a spy in order to bring valuable info to the Abarangers, which would help to defeat the Evolian. As such, she showed incredible bravery, and determination, and often used her intelligence to be able to send important info. She played at least as important a role as the Abarangers in order to defeat the enemy.
Few female characters in sentai have shown such diversity in their role in a sentai show, being as important as a villainess as she was as an heroine. Besides, her whole arc has a very deep theme, which I would explore later in the post.

d) Mai Hakua : Ryouga/Abared's niece/adoptive daughter. While her role in the plot is pretty limited, she's still a major character because of her role in Abared's personality and development. Moreover, since she's a regular kid character, she's also a character which little girls can relate with, and it helps making Abaranger appealing to a young female audience.

e) Lije/Lijewel/ Mysterious girl : Because all those different incarnations are in fact one unique character (Asuka and Mahoro's daughter), I'm gonna explore all of them at once. Like Mahoro, Lije shows great diversity in her role in the show, being both the Abaranger's enemy (as Lije/Lijewel) and ally (as the Mysterious girl).
Once again, we have major little girl character, which makes Aba unique  having two major kid characters who are female. While Lije isn't very active until episode 28, she's still the one who sends the Evolian monsters to Another Earth, cheering up her fellow Evolian to help them, and, by being the Big Bad's channel and host body, act as the de facto leader of the group. Starting with episode 28, she develops a crush on Abarekiller, and is intrumental in getting him becoming temporarly the leader of the Evolian, which made him even a more dangerous enemy to the Abarangers. She herself was able to use her powers to grow herself up, becoming Lijewel, the new Evolian Queen, and, as such, ended up being able to directly fight the Abarangers thanks to her magical powers, often giving them a hard time. However, her loyalty to Mikoto was so great she was ready to betray her fellow Evolian to save him, and was involved in making Mikoto switch sides and join the other Abarangers to defeat the Evolian. She even was able to save his life once, managing to overcome Dezumozorya's hold on her when he was about to kill Mikoto. While her crush on Mikoto (and Lijewel's actress's acting skills) might be a little controversial, feminism wise, at least, it was explained by her personal situation.
Lije's good alter ego, the mysterious girl, was a major ally to the Abarangers, helping Asuka several times, saving his life, bringing him important info, and also helping Jeanne /Mahoro overcome her pain, saving her life, and she was a key player in Jeanne becoming good Mahoro again. She also became little Mai's new friend, and she also was the key element in a major battle against Dezumozorya, expelling the evil god from Lijewel's body.

Abaranger showed a very interesting female cast, with very diverse roles, and a key involvment in major story arcs.

2-2 Abaranger's atypical male heroes
Another very interesting element of Abaranger is how the male characters are written. Indeed, Abaranger did some very daring choices, with its male characters who are very different from the classic manly strong hero (which is especially shown in the 70' and 80' sentai shows), and often in very atypical roles
a) Ryouga Hakua/Abared : the single father
It's perhaps the most remarkable element of Abaranger : the show has its main hero, its red ranger, being a single father (adoptive father and biological uncle, but still a father figure). Given how Japan is conservative about gender roles, how Super Sentai is more targeted to a boy demographic, it's pretty amazing to see a show with the main hero having a parenting role, which is a more traditional "female" role. It's even remarkable since it's a major element of the show and of Ryouga's character. A lot of episodes are focused on Ryouga struggling to be a good father to Mai, balancing his duties as as a father with his duty as an Abaranger (when the dilemma family/career is more traditionally involving mothers), notably in episodes 3 and 37. While Ryouga is helped by Emiri who, as a good assistant, acts as a babysitter to Mai when necessary, he's still doing most of the work, and is the one who does most of the nurturing to his daughter. As such, Ryouga is a very unique male character among the franchise who completely goes beyond the traditional "male role" ,   and the fact he's the Red Ranger makes it even more remarkable.

b) Yukito Sanjou/Abareblue : the effeminate hero
While Yukito has the classic role of the sarcastic hero and foil to the optimistic Red, he also has an effeminate look, being able to pretend being a high school girl in episode 24, and he was even briefly considered as playing the "bride" role in the "Kidnapping bride" episode (Ranru ended up being the bride, but he still disguised... as a nun). While otherwise, he has a manly behaviour, his looks allowed him to easily diguise as a girl.

c) Asuka/Abareblack : the fragile and sensitive warrior.
Asuka is shown to be a skilled fighter, even without transforming, and when he tranforms into Abareblack, he is able to make incredibly powerful moves, notably his elemental attacks, even able to defeat a giant monster by himself or creating a big wave (Splash inferno) used by Abarenoh-Slidon to defeat the enemies.
However, Asuka's more vulnerable side is shown as well. While Asuka uses very powerful attacks, he often ends up being exhausted because he uses them, and he would end up sleeping a lot afterwards, being temporarly unable to fight. Asuka is obviously a man who has been deeply traumatised by the incessant war he had to face since he was a kid. Once, his trauma was unintentionally awakened by Suke san, and he ended up being unable to transform into Abareblack, because of how the traumatic experiences he undewent messed his mind. Asuka's deep pain in losing Mahoro and facing the one he believed killed her made him also vulnerable, because he was blinded by hate. Asuka was also shown to make reckless choices, like when he used twice the Legendary armor to try to save his wife, twice losing control of it with devastating consequences.
Asuka and Mahoro are shown as pretty much equals, since they both show strength and flaws. Mahoro isn't just the girlfriend the hero has to save, even if unlike him, she isn't a ranger. While Asuka has indeed saved her, Mahoro has also saved him at least once. Besides, during the final arc, she's the one who's the driving force in the attacks against the enemies, because of her role as a spy. 

d) Ryunnosuke Sugishita : a non action mentor
The owner of the Dino House restaurant, Sugishita is an old man, who, like Emiri was unable to become an Abaranger because his body was too weak. While he became the father figure to the heroes, unlike most sentai mentors, he isn't a fighter himself, and his mentor role doesn't include a training role.In fact,  instead of being a commader, his role  is pretty similar to Emiri's, which is unusual for the elderly male ally of a team.

2-3 Abaranger's themes : an incredible exploration about how rape can damage a woman, but also how she has the power to overcome her ordeal

Abaranger's main storyline has a major plot involving Asuka/ Abareblack and his wife turned enemy, Jeanne/ Mahoro. The major theme of that plot was exploring their relationship, and how they would able to overcome a lot of ordeals in order to be again together.

Mahoro/ Jeanne is especially explored in the show, and her storyline is very interesting, because she basically is a woman who has been raped, believed she was betrayed by her lover, and had to deal with her trauma and eventually, overcome it in order to be able to have a normal life again.

a) A woman destroyed by her rape

Mahoro grew up with Asuka on Dino Earth, where they fell in love while they were forced to fight the Evolian. Mahoro was a major fighter among the Ryujin, as seen when she was sent in a very dangerous mission with her brother. While she was a skilled warrior, she ended up being captured by the Evolian with her brother. The Evolian God  Dezumozorya decided to introduce his essence in her body, in order to have her bear his "child". In order to weaken her strong spirit, he showed her images of Asuka being with another woman, bringing her into despair, because she believed Asuka wouldn't come to save her.   She was pregnant at that time, and the Evil God, takign advantage of her despair managed to force his essence into her body and her unborn child's body. Episode 32 shows Mahoro screaming in pain when the Evil God invaded her body, and, basically, pretty much raped her. While it's not a "classical rape", it's pretty much similar in spirit, Mahoro having her body awfully violated, and forced to have the essence of her hated enemy in her body.

Abaranger shows very well how Mahoro was completely destroyed by her rape. Abandoned by the man she trusted, having to endure seeing the offspring of her rape, she even renounced her former name. Since the evil god was too powerful, all the rage and hate she felt because of how she was violated ended up being directed against her former lover, Asuka. Because he wasn't here to save her, when she needed him, she viewed him as a traitor, and joined the Evolian in order to get revenge.
Basically, the trauma linked to her rape and her feeling of betrayal were the key elements who made Mahoro become evil. By giving up her real name, and becoming the Messenger of destruction Jeanne, she tried to stop seeing herself as a "victim" to become an "avenger" who would punish Asuka for his betrayal. Her main motivation was revenge, even if, in her eyes, she was not avenging herself, but she was avenging someone she wasn't anymore, Mahoro. Her desire for revenge was so powerful that she wanted to make Asuka pay by destroying the world, since he wanted to protect it. Her desire for destruction was also fueled by the power of the Dark Armor she inherited from her brother, after killing him (or more precisely, giving the final blow to her already critically wound brother, at his request).   Asuka was her main target, and she made everything to make him suffer, while she pretty much almost didn't care about the other Abarangers. Jeanne also had trouble dealing with Lije, which she saw as a rape child, even refusing to aknowledge being her mother, being sometimes pretty violent towards her, even if she sometimes showed a more caring side.

However, Jeanne was pretty much lying to herself; in order to cope with her pain, she tried to bury it by pretending to be someone else: but in fact, her pain was real, and the mysterious girl was very aware of it. The mysterious girl knew that in fact, Jeanne was crying, which is pretty much the tears linked to her violation. In episode 32, the mysterious girl forced Jeanne to face her memories. Asuka faced Jeanne a little afterwards, and when he realized Jeanne was none other than his wife Mahoro, Jeanne was at last able to be receptive in Asuka words, and at last realized that Asuka never betrayed her. At long last, she was able to confront her terrible memories, and she was able to become Mahoro again. However, her heart was still stuck in darkness because of the power of the evil armor, and in order to completely free her, Asuka decided to defeat her and have the power of the armor go to him.

b) Recovery and courage overcoming pain : a woman's victory

However, Jeanne survived, and had become Mahoro again, but she has lost her memories. During the next episodes, she ended up living with the Abarangers at the Dino House, while she slowly recovered her memories. That time at the Dino House was very important, because she was able to heal even more, being in a warm environment, with nice people, and even showing a maternal side with little Mai. I feel that these episodes brought major elements in Mahoro's development, because it allowed to show her kindness, but also her intelligence. When Mahoro at last competely recovered her memories, she wasn't the same woman she was before. She had the time to heal from her trauma, and was much stronger to confront the Evolian. When she was unable to free Asuka from the armor through her love, she decided to make one of the bravest stuff that has ever been done by a sentai character : pretending to become Jeanne again, in order to free her husband from the armor, and help the Abarangers to defeat the Evolian. In order to become Jeanne again, she managed to accept being violated again, in order to be more powerful. She had to make a very complex plan to free her husband, eventually succeeding. She even managed to keep her cover as a spy, while using her scales in her cheeks to make Asuka realize she was still his beloved wife.

Mahoro had other plans. Unlike the time she was Jeanne, she was able to aknowledge Lijewel as her child, even if she still believed she was born from her rape. At that time, she had managed to get strong enough to love her child, despite the horrible circumstances of her birth. Being able to save her daughter was a major driving force in her work as a spy. She showed amazing strength during that time, beign separated from her husband and friends, being forced to be with the enemy, pretending to be an ally, witnessing her Evil God rapist take over her daughter's body and being forced to face him alone. It really showed how Mahoro had managed to overcome her pain in order to save her family.
Eventually, with the help of the Abarangers and the mysterious girl, she was at last able to free her daughter from Dezumozorya. However, she ended up being the evil god's captive, despite a brave attempt to defeat him, and managing to stay defiant before him.

Moreover, she wasn't free from guilt. While she was an Evolian, she ended up killing her older brother, attacking her beloved husband, doing dreadful stuff, and it made her feel desperate. When Dezumozorya did his final attack on Earth, Mahoro was ready to die if it meant the defeat of the evil god, since she felt she deserved death. Even when Asuka rescued her, she was still vulnerable, and during an attack from Dezumozorya, Asuka and her almost died, accepting death as expiation for their misdeeds. However, Ranru managed at last to make Mahoro(and Asuka) overcome their despair by telling them that Mahoro's child was also Asuka's. As such Mahoro at last realized that her daughter hasn't been born from a rape, but from true love, her love for her husband. Because of that, Mahoro was able to gather more strength and she managed use her Dino Guts to survive her attack, while Asuka himself did the same. While Mahoro was exhausted from the effort, and ended up being unable to fight anymore, she was at last freed from her trauma, had her mind in peace, and at the end, was ready to rebuild her life in Dino Earth with Asuka and her kid.

This storyline is pretty incredible, and it's a very interesting metaphor of how a woman can be destroyed by a rape, but also is able to overcome her pain, and start a new life.
Having a kid show showing a storyline with such powerful themes is pretty incredible, especially with how subtly it has been shown. That tale of a woman suffering from rape, but also being eventually able to face and defeat her rapist, and start a new life is impressive, and obviously brings a strong message to women, how they can survive and overcome the consequences of abuse and rape : it's pretty a incredible female empowering message for a kid's show.

3 Conclusion

While a lot of sentai have shown pretty powerful female characters, Abaranger was unique, first, by having male characters in arcs more traditionally associated with women (especially, Abared's single dad life), but also by having a main arc involving a rape-like situation, how destructive it can be to a woman, but also how a woman can be strong enough to overcome that ordeal.
Because of that, I feel Abaranger is the most female friendly super sentai series.

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