Model for an Amazon: Wonder Woman and Kazuki Nakashima

Posted in The Screening Room by - August 15, 2016
Model for an Amazon: Wonder Woman and Kazuki Nakashima

Wonder Woman. Everybody knows her; the whole world is ready for her, and yet, for some reasons, including lack of consistency, a lack of investment on DC’s part, and a certain amount of self-contradiction built into the character herself, Wonder Woman is one of the characters DC seems to struggle with. In the last decade, she has had no less than four distinct continuities within her main title, and she has filled roles as varied as UN Ambassador and God of War. Every time a new writer gets a hold of Wonder Woman, they seem to want to take her in a drastically different direction, and DC tends just to let them. This has been going on since she moved on from her original creative team, and the inconsistencies between eras have only led to a muddling of her identity and further differences with later writers. So for anyone trying to figure out what elements would make a good foundation for Wonder Woman stories, I have a suggestion: the works of anime and tokusatsu writer Kazuki Nakashima.

Okay, so this is going to be a different thesis to deliver because both halves probably need some explanation. While Wonder Woman has had plenty of exposure due to her recognition as comics’ foremost superheroine, familiarity with the character and her mythos is nowhere near as universal as her name recognition. I’ll give you the short version: psychologist William Moulton Marston had an issue with comic books, namely, that he thought characters like Superman and Batman, who defeated their enemies through brawn, espoused a ‘might makes right’ attitude that sent a harmful message to comics’ target audience, the youth. Marston brought this to the attention of DC editors, who gave him a chance to create a superhero of his own who would attempt to solve crimes and violent predicaments in a more peaceful manner. Together with his wife Elizabeth and his live-in lover Olive Byrne, he created Wonder Woman. She was the champion of the goddess of love Aphrodite, who used love and understanding, rather than force or firepower, to stop her enemies and save the day. It should be noted that it was only after this essential description that the character was even decided to be female; upon outlining the theme of his creation, it was Elizabeth who suggested the character be a woman. The character was meant to represent peace seeking, conflict resolution, and empathy, illustrating the strength of femininity. She came not from a nation of barbarian warrior women but a Utopian Amazon society of artists, inventors, and philosophers. She was not born from the union of man and woman, but was sculpted from clay and brought to life by a cabal of Greek goddesses, and given their powers.

Which of course is why DC decided that her latest reboot should be Zeus’ bastard demigod child, trained by Ares and using weapons forged by Hephaestus, living on an island of man hating, sailor raping Amazon warriors, eventually taking on the title of God of War. Clearly, somewhere along the lines, DC lost their way.

Enter Kazuki Nakashima, a Japanese screen and play writer, the head writer for the anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill, and the live action, young adult superhero series Kamen Rider Fourze. All three of these properties were a single season, complete story arcs, with certain recurring themes and character templates. His unique style and favored topics would make an excellent, lively source of inspiration for future Wonder Woman projects.


“Believe In the Me That Believes In You”

Let’s start with Gurren Lagann; a mecha anime from 2007, Gurren Lagann tells the story of humanity living underground, and the courageous, bordering on foolhardy, characters who lead them from small settlements to the surface world and eventually into space, fighting increasingly larger enemy robots every step of the way.

Escalation is a major recurring element of Gurren Lagann. It’s one of the core themes of the story, frequently illustrated by the image of a drill, turning little by little and pushing farther, but it also takes a more distinct form of the continuously growing size of the robots. The heroes begin piloting a single robot that barely fits three people, but as the series progresses, they battle enemy robots that just keep getting bigger. A two story tall humanoid, an aircraft carrier ship, a skyscraper, a whole city, eventually a moon, and they don’t stop growing. The heroes keep up the fight by fusing their robot with those of their fallen enemies, a feat they accomplish purely through willpower. And that right there is the key: the feats of Gurren Lagann are inherently ridiculous, and they would border on parody if their point weren’t that determination and willpower can push through any obstacle and overcome any foe. It may be illustrated in increasingly over the top ways, but the underlying message is one that resonates because of its universal appeal, a message long associated with beings that can do more than the average person, be they mythological figures or modern day superheroes or in the case of Wonder Woman, both. Princess Diana is herself, no stranger to feats of ridiculous strength, and while DC at times pushes for a more grounded, down to earth approach to the Amazon, emphasizing her athleticism and warrior’s training to the point that they lose sight of the superhero, doing so fails to represent the strength she was created to display. Wonder Woman should stand alongside Superman regarding power level, and the themes of determination and indomitable will so pervasive in Gurren Lagann should be a part of that.

Gurren Lagann also explores the needed qualities of leadership. The show deals with charisma, faith, the ability to inspire others, and even the willingness to make sacrifices, all of which a good leader possesses. The sacrifices the leaders make are of particular import, as the show demonstrates good leaders making these sacrifices of themselves not just willingly, but good-naturedly, with a smile at the things they know will be accomplished by the people they lead, even as it pains them to do so. This contrasts with other, poorer leaders, who seek to find others to sacrifice for the sake of political stability, and when the need arises to sacrifice themselves, they do so with a grim stoicism that doesn’t help anyone. These kinds of explorations would be useful to most superheroes, who seem to wallow in the drudgery of needed personal sacrifice, but are especially prescient for Wonder Woman, who herself is a leader, a princess, and possible eventual queen, of the Amazons. This piece of Wonder Woman’s mythology which is so frequently underdeveloped could be used to tell great, and unique stories.

Last but not least, there’s the topic of emotional support. While Gurren Lagann was aimed primarily at an action crowd, for the genre, the leads are uncharacteristically in touch with their emotions and the need to help others express their feelings. Simon, the lead character always plagued by a lack of self-confidence, needs the kindly help of the charismatic and overly confident Kamina; sometimes this takes the form of Kamina’s frequently repeated phrase, “Believe in the me who believes in you”, sometimes this takes the form of tough love, and eventually this leads Simon to develop active self-confidence, considering no longer in the Kamina that believes in him, but in the Simon that believes in himself. The characters are there for each other, through times of hardship, celebration, and grief, and through this, they grow as individuals and as a group. And this is an absolute need to feature in Wonder Woman. Created by a psychologist, it only makes sense that Wonder Woman would frequently touch on topics of mental health; while much of the time this came down to her finding the reason behind a criminal’s actions, this also applied to her supportive nature to all she encountered. Once more, this is something that frequently gets forgotten when DC leans too heavily on the warrior aspect, but it is a fundamental element of her personality that cannot be ignored, and as Gurren Lagann proves, it can exist not just quickly, but intrinsically alongside crazy, awesome action.


“Winning With Friendship Means Winning At Life”

Kill la Kill seems relatively straightforward on the surface, and it all begins with your basic revenge story: when a young woman, Ryuko, finds her father murdered, she sets out to reveal and destroy his killer, who she has tracked to a high school ruled with an iron fist by their class president, Satsuki. Beset by enemies on all sides; she fights back by fusing with an experimental, sentient sailor suit that gives her great power at the cost of becoming extremely skimpy. And this is kind of where it gets weird, as the show deals a lot with clothes and coverings, resulting in just an utterly ridiculous amount of nudity. So much nudity that it stops even coming across as sex appeal and just becomes blasé, even. And yeah, it feels a little weird saying that Wonder Woman should be more like a show that on the surface seems this pervy, but Kill la Kill does, in fact, have a bizarrely, unexpectedly deep story and exploration of themes, including friendship and teamwork, the benefits of mercy, and the empathy needed to understand your enemies and make them your allies.

Ryuko begins the series as a classic loner, but she doesn’t stay that way for long. She’s motherless and frequently deals with abandonment issues, so when her father is stabbed to death with a giant pair of scissors, she takes it pretty hard. But at her lowest point, what pulls her out is friendship. Two friends, actually; her sentient, talking sailor uniform and her new classmate, Mako, who invites Ryuko to live in her house with her family. The bond of friendship and adoptive parents is a strong, recurring one, contrasted sharply with the dysfunctional and toxic relationships between blood relatives discovered later. And Ryuko isn’t the only one with friends; despite their initially villainous portrayal, class president Satsuki and the school’s Elite Four are portrayed quite sympathetically, and while their goals appear to be nothing short of global domination, with Satsuki herself as a conqueror and the Elite Four as her most useful subordinates, it’s eventually revealed that there is a trust, loyalty, and friendship between them far greater than what was at first implied. And this is something Wonder Woman would do well to utilize; the bonds between Diana and her Amazon family, or Diana and Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls, or even Diana and her superhero allies in the Justice League Beyond are powerful, but they’re also fairly obvious; less obvious, and less often explored, is the genuine kinship that can be found between those on the other side of the law, and finding the humanity in your enemies is meant to be one of the major themes of Wonder Woman.

Mercy and empathy are also incredibly important to Kill la Kill. As impossible as it seems at the start of the show, Ryuko and Satsuki end up on the same team, fighting an even greater threat. Portrayed initially as the bitterest of enemies, they become the closest of allies, and this is only made possible by the humanizing of Satsuki and the Elite Four while they’re still fighting Ryuko. It turns out Satsuki makes just as powerful an ally as she does an enemy, something that forms a fitting basis for Wonder Woman stories. For a while now, DC has been willing to let Wonder Woman be the member of the DC Trinity that didn’t have any kill policy. They’ve reasoned this is because she comes from a warrior society (which was originally envisioned to have given up war centuries ago), but it’s an element that struggles with Wonder Woman’s intended message of peace and love and understanding. It’s far more in line with the intentions of Wonder Woman’s creation for her to show mercy to even her worst enemies, as, like with Kill la Kill, you never know which enemies may turn out to be your greatest allies. Wonder Woman should be an empathetic character, not just willing and able but looking for the opportunity to convince an enemy to join her. As evidenced by Kill la Kill, that kind of villain-to-hero turnaround can be incredibly compelling, and can tell far more interesting stories than just defeating, or killing, those enemies would allow.


“No. I Don’t Forgive Him. That’s Why We’re Gonna Be Friends”

And then there’s Kamen Rider Fourze. Kamen Rider is a superhero anthology show that has been airing in Japan since 1971. Each season is its complete story with its own Kamen Rider, cast, and writers. Fourze focuses on a high school student who transforms into a space themed superhero to battle constellation monsters. Some unseen enemy is distributing ‘Astro switches’ among the student body, allowing students who feel wronged or hurt or lacking to transform into a monster to exact their revenge; meanwhile, Gentaro Kisaragi, Kamen Rider Fourze himself, has made it his goal to befriend every single person in the school. Then, after this stated goal, he gets superpowers. The show acts almost like a standard procedural, with a monster attacking and mystery as to the villain’s identity, though the solution to each and every mystery involves Fourze kicking the monster until it explodes, and then befriending them. There is a constant theme of Fourze wanting to solve all his problems with friendship (spoiler alert: he does), and if this seems light and happy, that’s because it was by design: the show aired in late 2011, the TV season following a devastating earthquake that rocked the country. Light and happy was what a lot of people, including the relatively young audience that watches Kamen Rider, needed, and the series was more than willing to oblige. And yet the show is not mere fluff. Beneath that naively optimistic exterior, this show develops and expresses a nuanced series of messages regarding the nature of friendship, kindness, empathy, and relationships. This show is astoundingly deep. Trust me.

I honestly could have written an entire article about how perfectly Kamen Rider Fourze illustrates the ideals Wonder Woman as a character is founded on, but suffice it to say the basic gist is that he seeks to befriend every person in the school, and this plays out in all the monster attack scenarios. Some kid gets attacked by a monster who wants revenge for something? Kamen Rider Fourze is there to save the child, find out what they did to wrong the monster, befriend the kid, defeat the monster, then help the monster’s human form. And as simplistic as this seems on the surface, they used this basic format to say so much about people and present a more complex and realistic image of friendship and what needs to go into it. People’s bad habits and flaws were not presented as problems that needed to be solved and then disappear once they became ‘good people’, they’re shown as elements of people’s personality that don’t go away but can be redirected more constructively. Finding the good in people as they are was stressed over finding a way to change them. This wasn’t just a one-time thing; this was a central conceit of the show. I lost count of how many times the show managed to present a character as unlikeable and evil, then flip the script and show you how their negative traits can make them excellent. The need for effort and hard work when it comes to winning people over was emphasized; the need to keep up with people and the risk of friendship fading was present; the fact that friendship and our ideas of friendship change over time, from the all-encompassing force of nature you see it as in youth to the more complex, and sometimes fragile construct it can be seen as in adulthood, is explored as a recurring theme. Also extremely worthy of note, the show delves into the concept of the friend zone, delivering a message Hollywood leaves off far too often: that just because you like someone doesn’t mean they will like you back, and persistence isn’t necessarily romantic, sometimes it turns into harassment. Friendship without romance between the genders is shown, and portrayed very positively, and the lesson is learned, at times you can’t always get what you want out of people, but you should still be there for them.

And this is exactly what Wonder Woman should be about. She was created to contrast with the punchier superheroes who fought their enemies as enemies; she was set up to try to help everyone, the victim, and the villain included. This is such a rich and unexplored area of storytelling in superhero comics, a hero who tries to reach out to the villains, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but never giving up. DC wants to tell us how badass Wonder Woman is because she sometimes lets herself kill where Superman and Batman don’t, but a far more interesting method of development is showing us the lengths she will go to to help everyone, and exploring the complexities of what that entails for the thoroughly damaged and unhealthy people who make up most supervillain rogues galleries. If you want an idea of how fascinating this type of storytelling can be, look no further than Kamen Rider Fourze, where this was the theme to be explored in a new light every episode.


The Strength of Femininity

Now, inherent to this suggestion of mine is something of a flaw; it feels a little disingenuous to claim Wonder Woman, the premier female superhero, should be more like the works of a male writer. But there’s another element to Nakashima’s writing that fits Wonder Woman to a rather satisfying degree: his explorations through all his stories of femininity vs. masculinity.

Gurren Lagann and Kamen Rider Fourze seem distinctly aimed at male audiences. They have male leads with primarily male supporting casts (though not without strong showings by varied and well developed primary female characters in both series), and they’re heavy on the action. But at the same time, both of these shows feature male leads in touch with their emotions to a degree not usually seen in male-driven narratives. Kamina of Gurren Lagann is one of the most badass, manly characters in fiction, and yet he knows exactly when and how to give emotional support to his friend Simon to draw him out of depression. He doesn’t belittle or emasculate Simon’s feelings, and he doesn’t try to get Simon to try and grit through it because what he’s feeling is unmasculine; Kamina is helping Simon overcome an emotional stumbling block preventing him from reaching his full potential, and Kamina seeks this by whatever means he recognizes as necessary. Gentaro Kisaragi of Kamen Rider Fourze is this character turned up to 11; he offers unconditional emotional support for all his friends to get them through whatever problems they face. And when he suffers a significant personal loss, his reaction isn’t to brood, or become cold or stoic; it’s to cry. He knows he needs a good cry, which that’s the emotionally healthy way to process grief, and so he does it, in front of everyone, without any concern for masculinity or appearances.

Kill la Kill, meanwhile, is in something of a weird position; it is populated primarily by major female characters, with the main hero, much of her supporting cast, and the main villains all being women. At the same time, however, many of these characters are driven by traditionally male narratives; Ryuko is alone, stoic, and furious, driven on a mission of vengeance, while her enemy, Satsuki, is a brilliant, sophisticated commander who leads her armies on a mission of global domination. In the end, however, they are only able to succeed in their goals through teamwork, forming an alliance based on mutual understanding. And then there’s Ryuko’s friend Mako: in each of these three shows, there is an overly enthusiastic, hyper friendly character who is defined by support and optimism. In Gurren Lagann, it’s Kamina, in Fourze it’s Fourze, and in Kill la Kill, it’s Mako. And while it’s never fully explored, never fully explained, and only subtly hinted at in points throughout the series, Mako just may be the most powerful of all the characters in Kill la Kill, even if she leaves the main chunk of the action up to the leads who are far more emotionally invested; she also happens to be the character most defined by feminine traits like emotional support and a nurturing personality.

And it’s here that it needs to be said; most if not all of what we consider masculine and feminine traits are social constructs. There may be subtle differences between male and female on a biological level, but when it comes to personality, all genders are capable of all traits in equal possibility. Society has grown to expect men to be strong and tough and stoic and logical and unemotional, while it expects women to be kind and sweet and emotional and nurturing and positive and supportive and passive. All genders are capable of these traits, and to some degree, all these qualities are necessary for healthy living and social interaction, and yet society expects them out of men and women differently and enforces this expectation by alienating those who deviate. This hurts everyone. So while we may see some of these traits as more prevalent among one gender or another, it’s harmful to expect or demand them exclusively in the way we are used to.

This is why I mention at the outset that the characterization of Wonder Woman as a nurturing, peace-seeking figure was decided upon before her gender was. While this characterization led to the decision that she would be female because it adhered to feminine archetypes, she was meant to be a character who represented these traits regardless of gender and demonstrated how powerful these traits could be. Society tends to see what is masculine as stronger and what is feminine as weaker, so the importance of Wonder Woman demonstrating the strength of these ‘feminine’ traits is beneficial for everyone because these are traits something everyone would do well to cultivate.

Kazuki Nakashima is a writer who recognizes this and peppers throughout his works the idea that male characters are capable of, and benefit from, exhibiting what are thought of as feminine traits; his female characters, meanwhile, demonstrate, and benefit from, what are thought of as masculine traits. This non-adherence by his characters to gender norms, which is demonstrated to be incredibly positive and useful, is hugely important and progressive for any story, but especially for Wonder Woman.

Now, it’s one thing to pick out properties that touch on subjects similar to Wonder Woman and just say this is what she should do more of, but the reason I chose the works of Kazuki Nakashima is that of success. DC’s trouble with Wonder Woman seems to be a lack of faith in the character’s ability to fit this mold and still be broadly appealing. This is why I find it necessary to point out that the work of this author is defined by much of the same storytelling themes that Wonder Woman was created to represent, and all of his works have been successful. Kill la Kill was the breakout anime hit of the 2013 season. Gurren Lagann was met with outstanding audience and critical acclaim. Both shows are award winning hits and are considered among the best anime series of all time. Kamen Rider Fourze is a favorite chapter in a series that has spanned decades, and its first theatrical movie was the number one at the Japanese Box Office for its opening weekend. These kinds of stories, when told well, are popular and have met with great critical and financial success. This can work for Wonder Woman, too, if DC would only commit to it.

One of Wonder Woman’s biggest problems is that for the last 75 years, there’s been little consistency from one writer to the next. Kazuki Nakashima has written three distinct shows for fairly different audiences, from the TV-MA rating of Kill la Kill to the kid’s programming of Kamen Rider, and yet touches on the same recurring themes and character traits again and again, to great success each time. It’s time DC take a page from Nakashima, and from Wonder Woman’s own origins, and give us the kind, nurturing, peace seeking Amazon that she was always meant to be

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He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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