Monday, July 8, 2013

Lost in Translation: Androgyny in CLAMP's RG Veda and Wish

"I, you, he, she, it, we, you, and they." The eight pronouns of the English language which every grade school grammar student has drilled into his or her head as they begin to master the language. Each of the eight do their fair share of assuring that referring to oneself and others is a simple task without much complication, but these pronouns do hit a roadblock when it comes to the word "it." The English language forgoes gendering objects like other European languages such as French, so "It" is our genderless pronoun, the one that stands in the place of numerous objects, abstract ideas, intangibles,  etc. Even things that do have gender-- a squirrel on the side of the road, for example-- receive the "it" treatment for convenience.

But the usefulness of "it" as a genderless pronoun falls short when the matter of politeness is considered. Pet owners hate having their dogs and cats referred to as "it," and as long as the pet's name and gender is known, they'll be affronted if their beloved Sofia isn't given the dignity of being a "she." Naturally, it would be even ruder to refer to a human being with an androgynous appearance as "it." "It" does not designate a lack of knowledge of gender or even a lack of gender altogether; rather, it has come to differentiate between living and non-living, human and non-human.

While this is not a problem unique to English, many other languages have circumvented it through truly genderless pronouns. Fans of Japanese yaoi and yuri are probably familiar with scenes where the main character is referring to their same-sex partner among friends and can carry off the entire conversation using genderless pronouns to leave everyone thinking the relationship is heterosexual. This always comes off a bit odd in the translated versions. A uke, for example, will be shown complaining about his boyfriend, clearly using phrases like "I don't understand him" or "I wish he wouldn't be so clingy," and the person he is talking to will rejoin with "Your girlfriend sounds really difficult." ("Well, actually he's a guy" will inevitably cross the uke's internal thoughts.)

Sounds convenient? Genderless pronouns are a great tool, and are often used quite cleverly in manga and anime, particularly yaoi and yuri. But when it comes to translation, "it" once again falls short as a replacement. A little vagueness in gender can work here and there in English, but when a human character transcends gender completely, how can the English language compensate for it?

Enter CLAMP, our favorite sadistic lady mangaka and mistresses of gender fluidity. CLAMP has always loved the notion of androgyny, as evidenced by the physical appearances in their collection of bishounens. Subaru Sumeragi of Tokyo Babylon is a dead ringer for his twin sis Hokuto until he grows up a little in X, and X's Kakyou is so feminine that he ends up passed off as a woman in the translated Tokyo Arc of the animated TsubasaBut while the appearances of these men embrace femininity, their gender itself is not in question. The true puzzles of CLAMP androgyny are the ones whose gender is unresolved: RG Veda's Ashura, Wish's Kohaku and Hisui, X's Nataku, and so on.
Kohaku of Wish
While Nataku's gender is openly discussed in X  due to it being a result  of a project to create an artificial being to replace a man's deceased daughter, characters like Ashura, Kohaku, and Hisui are assigned genders by the translators (TOKYOPOP) without any discrepancies further elaborated on. North American fans know Ashura as "he" and Kohaku and Hisui as "she," and without a little further examination of the Japanese originals, they may be unaware of the circumstances which makes these gender assignments false.

Of course, faulting the translators is hard. Under the constraints of the English language, I can't even manage this blog post without giving these characters gendered pronouns for the sake of convenience, and covering a whole manga would be even more difficult. Del-Ray/Kodansha managed to leave Ashura genderless in the Shara/Shura arc of Tsubasabut professional translators and fan translators alike have struggled with dealing with the genderless main characters.

Some argue that "he" is somewhat of a universal pronoun, and that terms such as "mankind" or "policemen" are umbrella words that still include women. However, when the eyes see "he," the mind is already filled with connotations of masculinity based on how we've come to associate the word. God, for example, is supposed to transcend gender, but since we use "He" to describe God, we more often than not view him as a masculine being with masculine traits. God is a father to us before he is a mother, and the language we use in regards to Him is in part responsible for that. Even if a reader knows Ashura's background before picking up RG Veda, the presence of the masculine "he" will still change the way he is read as a character.

But why does it matter? The plots of RG Veda and Wish can both be enjoyed without bringing the issue of gender identity into it, and Ashura, Hisui, and Kohaku associate well enough with their assigned genders that a casual reader would hardly be confused by them. Even more importantly, the three characters come along with plenty of roadblocks to make romance a complication, and that alone helps them fit into CLAMP's style of writing about nontraditional relationships. Why is the subtraction of the androgyny factor such an issue when the complex natures of characters like Ashura, Kohaku, and Hisui are revealed in other ways?            

A "he" or a "she"?

RG Veda's Ashura and Yasha
To get a better grasp on the issue, it's important to look at how CLAMP chose to include gender identity issues with these three characters, especially since the translated manga tend to factor these details out. In the case of Ashura, the lack of gender is due to a curse on the Ashura clan. The young Ashura is foretold to be a god who will bring calamity and destruction upon the heavens, and as such,  he is considered a blight to the clan. As due punishment, Ashura is born genderless, assuring that upon the destruction of the Ashura clan, he will remain the last of his line. The character of Ashura is defined by a battle with fate and its supposed inevitability, and the absence of gender as well as his nature as the remains of a destroyed clan keep his role mutable up until the dramatic conclusion. He embodies both feminine and masculine, and has inclinations both war-like and nurturing. The question of which side of himself will manifest in the long term keeps the reader wondering to the very end, and the fact that the conclusion features Ashura as both a merciless war-God (in destroying the heavens) and a loving sacrifice (in protecting Yasha) reveals that the duality of his nature isn't something he is meant to perfectly overcome.

Kohaku and Hisui are themselves intentionally mutable beings as angels, transcending gender and human limitations much like the heavenly beings of the Bible are meant to do. Contrary to human societies which emphasize gender in determining how one ought to behave, angels are collectivized simply by being angels, and any divisiveness is caused by those who reject that nature in favor of the world of humans or demons, much like Kohaku and Hisui do. In any case, the original Japanese version brings this up frequently, especially since Shuichiro's grandfather continually assumes Kohaku is a woman. Kohaku responds in the negative to each of these gender assumptions, but doesn't bother pressing the point seriously.

This naturally leads to a few additional questions. If Kobato was an angel, is she genderless as well despite very obviously associating feminine in Kobato? As a demon, is Kokuyo from Wish also without gender? And what about the ame-warashi and zashiki-warashi inxxxHolic?
In regards to Kobato, she is the product of two lives merging together: that of an angel and that of a human woman. Unlike Kohaku and Hisui, she was from the beginning intended to live her life as a human being in order to complete her mission, and it's only natural that she would be given a gender accordingly. As for characters such as Kokuyo and the spirits of xxxHolic, mutability is less of an issue since they possess gender identity, or a willingness to associate with one gender over another. What sets Ashura, Kohaku, and Hisui apart is a fluidity of identity and a character which resists definition under limiting terms.
A different kind of love

As I mentioned earlier, CLAMP is all about questioning a narrow definition of love. Nearly all of their manga feature leading couples who are in some way nontraditional. CLAMP School Detectives and Suki feature age gaps, CLAMP School Defenders introduces a romance between aliens, Chobits tackles humans loving computers, Magic Knight Rayearth culminates in a forbidden romance which nearly destroys the world, and is absolutely littered with destructive relationships, particularly Subaru and Seishirou's and Kamui's with Kotori and Fuuma. Nearly all of their titles feature implied homosexual relationships; RG Veda, for example has Kendappa and Souma as a lesbian pairing, as well as the elder Ashura and Taishakuten as a male/male romance.

However, it is arguable that gender or lack thereof is a small challenge in the relationships between Ashura and Yasha, Kohaku and Shuichiro, and Kokuyo and Hisui. In the case of Ashura and Yasha, they are challenged by fate: Ashura is the god destined to dismantle the heavens, and Yasha is one who not only stands in the way of its annihilation, but is someone Ashura loves too much to unquestioningly destroy. For Shuichiro and Kohaku, Kohaku's nature as an angel makes loving someone in the human world a challenge, and Shuichiro's closed off emotions due to a one-sided love in the past make him hesitant to give his heart again. Similarly, Kokyo and Hisui are the ultimate impossible pairing: an angel and a devil. Hisui gives up everything to be with him, even if doing so threatens both heaven and hell.

Wish's Hisui and Kokuyo

However, the lack of gender adds a new realm of consideration into the dialogue of what it means to love someone else. CLAMP is an advocate for love between souls as a more essential love than love between bodies. That being the case, it becomes important for characters to come to a fuller understanding of one another before being able to realize their love- in the more serious titles, this means looking beyond who they appear to be on the surface and seeking out their true self. And since CLAMP characters can reincarnate in any circumstances and still have the same true selves irrespective of gender or name, finding that inner person often means looking beyond their gender and instead determining the things which a person holds as most important and valuable.

Having no gender sounds like it would make this process easier, but it doesn't. Along with understanding how you view that person outside of the strict definitions of being a woman or a man, it also becomes necessary to understand how that person views themselves. When Yasha chooses to protect Ashura, for example, he is obligated to every side of Ashura from the bright and curious child, to the abandoned product of a loveless relationship, and at last to the cursed god of destruction lingering within. As Ashura's understanding of himself evolves, so too does Yasha's, and for much of the story both are kept uncertain of what Ashura's full capabilities are, and yet still are able to fall in love with each other as they little by little figure each other out. If we were Ashura and Yasha, would we be able to handle confusion and uncertainty on so many fronts and yet still love each other through it?
Family matters

Another subject CLAMP addresses in their relationships is the expectation of having a family. Homosexuality is challenged in Western society by the notion of the "Christian morals" in which it is supposedly in conflict with, but in Eastern societies such as Japan, homosexuality is an issue due to the importance of family lines and carrying on the family unit. Manga which seriously investigates homosexuality inevitably begs the questions "How can you live your life in a way directly contrary to the continuation of the human race?"

As women, this issue is problematic to CLAMP as it not only affects gays and lesbians, but women in general. Is our purpose in life to have children to contribute to the human race? Are we failing if this is something we can't do? Is it an even greater crime if we don't want to?

Shuichiro with Kohaku

CLAMP brought up this point at the conclusion of Chobits through the relationship between Hideki, a human male, and Chii, a female personal computer. Before being able to say he loves her, Chii (operating under the mindset of Freya) demands that Hideki consider the fact that not only will they be unable to have children, but he will be unable to have vaginal sex with her due to the location of her reset switch. This is not a simple request on her part. She wants Hideki to be fully aware from the onset that he is shattering several norms-- the need for a family, the drive for sexual relations, the very societal definition of love itself-- in order to be with her.

This also is a subtle issue for Yasha and Ashura. Ashura is cursed to be the last of his line, so no matter what choices he makes in his life, having children will not be a part of it. Yasha, on the other hand, is not limited in that way. His clan was destroyed for Ashura's sake, but as a remaining scion of the Yasha clan, he has the potential to rebuild it by having a family of his own. In fact, most people in his position would be obligated to. As the one responsible for the demise of the Yasha clan and the last member of it remaining, the legacy and continuation of the clan rests on his shoulders, and to give it up would serve as a second betrayal. All the same, Yasha still chooses Ashura and permits himself to join him in becoming the last of a line. With the heavens torn apart by Ashura, they also become the end of an era- the last of the gods ruling from the heavens.

A younger Ashura

For Shuichiro in Wish, living in the human world once again raises the issue of the "necessity" of having a family. His grandfather is thrilled to see him finally showing signs of settling down with Kohaku (who he assumes in female), but the fact remains that Shuichiro will also be unable to have a family with her. As a loner, this is not as troubling to Shuichiro, but he is also a member of a family, one who also longs for him to live a full life as a husband and a father. If they knew the truth about Kohaku, would her nature become a shortcoming, or would she still be welcome for who she is?

CLAMP's stories are deepened by their ability to find both good and bad and challenges and triumphs in the families they create. Families do not succeed or fail based solely on whether or not they are hetero or homosexual or between a human man and a human woman, but rather on how the individuals approach them. Akira from Man of Many Faces gets by just fine with two mothers, and Sakura Kinomoto from Card Captor Sakura is able to have a happy life with her widowed father even though she deeply misses her mother. Chii and Hideki make it work as a man and computer, but Shimizu-sensei's relationship with her husband is destroyed by the presence of Persocoms. Sakura and Syaoran receive unlikely parental figures in Kuro-daddy and Fai-mommy and form a hodge-podge family in Tsubasa, but the scattered marriages between Shashi and Ashura and Taishakuten end in tragedy through the children they produce, as well as the deadly promise made between the forbidden lovers Ashura and Taishakuten. No set arrangement works in these families- they flourish or fail on an individual level. Ashura, Kohaku, and Hisui cannot have traditional families, but CLAMP does not take that to mean that the lives they build are consequentially societal failures.  
A lover's tough decision

Of course, the challenges of these relationships do not fall solely on the genderless characters. These relationships give the chance for romantic interests such as Yasha, Shuichiro, and Kokuyo to prove their mettle. In ChobitsCLAMP emphasized the importance of considering all the things a person can and cannot do before loving them, and this is major part of the roles of these three characters. Each has quite a bit to consider. Ashura is a god of destruction, a cursed child, the last of his line, the reason behind the destruction of the Yasha clan and many other tragic deaths, and contains the possibility of losing himself to the urge to destroy within him. Kohaku is an angel who does not belong in the human world, and cannot stay there without defying the people important to her. Hisui is the least suitable mate for a child of Satan, and is so beloved by heaven that her being tainted by demons is the worst possible sin. That Yasha, Shuichiro, and Kokuyo can accept these relationships for what they are is a beautiful thing, and it becomes even more beautiful when you consider that they made this choice knowing that their lovers are "otherly" and cannot provide them with traditional families and traditional lives.

The fact remains that there is only so much the English language can do with this set up, and there's quite a bit lost in translation when the words and ideas cannot properly carry over. All the same, CLAMP's use of androgyny is important to understand when looking at their overall view of love. Though CLAMP specializes in different kinds of love, the truths apply to all of us. How much are we willing to accept in someone else? How do we define ourselves and others around us? What roles do we fall into because of our gender, and how do we challenge or rise above them? And the fact of the matter is that even if we hide ourselves under a rock and shriek that male is male and female is female and that's the only way it is and will ever be, our world is continuing to question gender identity, and with every question we ask, the more our ideas grow and change.

Sure, there are different kinds of love out there, and CLAMP uses characters in their manga to teach us to afford dignity to these nontraditional lovers. But whether traditional or not, love is love. Let's hope our ability to respond to and react to it isn't something else that gets lost in translation. 


  1. As a genderless trans person finally having just finished Wish a few minutes ago, I have a lot of feelings about that series and well- the entire concept of "Gender" as usual...

    I'm not going to articulate everything here and now since that would necessitate me writing at least a book's worth of content and that's not suited to a blog comment.

    At any rate, thank you, so, SO MUCH for having written this back in 2013, I thank you!

    -okay, my wish for Wish and other series with Genderless characters is that said series will have new translations with better pronouns for the characters in the stories, like "singular they" (which are my own pronouns too).

    this is my hope for the future going forward!~ ;w;

  2. Hi, your post has been really helpful to me because I'm about to do an investigation about androgyny and intersexuality related to antique mythology applied in anime. I was going to pick Saint Seiya as my investigation case but now that I've read your article, I'm more excited in working on CLAMP's work.

    I've only seen Card Captor Sakura and The Reservoir Chronicles long ago, so I don't remember quite well some of the androgynous characters besides Yue. I want to do a list of all the androgynous characters in CLAMP so I can pick some to work on. You mention a few so I was hoping that you could name the other ones so I can do more research about it.

    Thank you very much.