Manga and The Battle of Gender Identity: The Case of Nuriko

Manga and Anime was one of the first visual media forms that I ever noticed blurring gender lines. The feminine looking men, girls in disguise as boys, and body switching all together. I’ve been witness to these transgender characters for nearly ten years. And as fans take a closer look to what these characters mean in the media, I’d like to take a moment to look at my first introduction to a transcharacter and the continued questions that face her gender identity.

Nuriko was one of the first transgendered characters I’ve ever read about. She’s complex, beautiful, gifted with the celestial power of strength, and … oh yeah, biologically a man. She appears in the hit Shoujo manga Fushigi Yuugi which was printed in 1992.

As far as transgender characters go Nuriko is probably one of the most over looked and complex of the bunch.

Watase crafts the first volume of Fushigi Yuugi masterfully so the reader believes Nuriko is a woman just as the protagonist Miaka does. We’re first introduced to her when Miaka sees a group of court women, Nuriko among them. She blends in perfectly with the other women and there’s no reason to suspect otherwise. Nuriko also has romantic interest in the Emperor Hotohori. It isn’t until later when Miaka clumsily reveals that Nuriko is in fact is a boy that the reader gets a shock as well! (Volume 2, Chapter 7)

After this point in the story Nuriko continues to dress like a women and shows no intention of slowing down in her goal to gain the attention of Hotohori. She’s comfortable in her appearance as a woman and later reveals that she took on the role after the death of her sister. This is how she helps keep her sister’s memory alive. During this conversation Nuriko admits for the first time that he’s considering to put her sister in the past. (Chapter 42)

A flashback to the moment Nuriko took on a role of a woman.

Later on, when her friendship is more cemented with Miaka she cuts her hair and declares she’ll become a man again. This is where things get tricky when discussing gender identity in regards to Nuriko. It feels strange that a character who has identified herself as a woman would simply just switch back to her old male identity. Many fans, at this point, decide to refer to Nuriko as “he” and see him as another piece of eye candy in Miaka’s group of handsome men. Here we see a push to make Nuriko more masculine. This is done by cutting her hair and hinting that Nuriko has also fallen in love with Miaka. It’s difficult to say if this switch in identity was Watase’s design or the result of her publisher.

And let’s talk more about that hair cutting scene. Miaka states, “Nuriko! You can’t pretend to be a woman anymore!” Which seems like a poor excuse in establishing Nuriko’s sudden male identity. Short hair doesn’t define a person’s gender. Even in the world of the Four-Gods; Miaka’s friend Yui doesn’t look any less feminine because of her short hair. If Nuriko wanted to pass as a woman she could still easily do.

Can Nuriko go back to identifying as a male? Absolutely, I would have no qualms about it if this shift hadn’t happened so suddenly (and with weak explanation.) We should not confuse this declaration as Nuriko being just a cross-dresser. There is plenty of evidence that points to her equally identifying as a woman.

It is important to note she doesn’t go back to using her male name, “Ryuuen Chou,” and continues to be her female identity of Nuriko. After telling Miaka she’s willing to move on from her sister’s death in Chapter 43, Nuriko is more then willing to continue to dress like a woman again. Leading the reader to still reference her as a “she.”

Even more telling is a scene in which Miaka is wounded and Nuriko jumps in to provide aid. She tells two male characters, “Turn around, I have to undress her.” And when Tamahome points out she is also a man she retorts with, “But I have a woman’s soul.” (Chapter 9)

For these reasons and more I believe Nuriko is a prominent transcharacter in her visual media. Her story development sparks conversation that a young girl like me would have never been revealed to otherwise.

And really the answer to the gender identity question is: Nuriko is Nuriko. A beautiful woman, an equally handsome man, and a celestial warrior regardless.

Tamahome and Hotohori discover Nuriko’s secret

By the way: In her later works Watase continued to write about characters who cross gender-lines. In Fushigi Yuugi: Genbu, we’re introduced to Uruki a man who turns into a woman when he uses his Celestial powers. Unlike Ranma 1/2, Watase doesn’t use this as a cheap gag. It’s instead a defining part of Uruki’s identity as a lost prince and doesn’t even play a obstacle in the love between Uruki and the female protagonist.

Then there’s Shuro Tsukasa, a Celestial maiden who appears in Ceres. Shuro is a girl raised as a boy and becomes a famous male pop icon. After she reveals her identity  to the main protagonist she still maintains her boyish fashion. Shuro later does embrace her gender after she quits pretending to be a boy. She even hosts a follow up concert where she reveals this identity to the world and is moved when fans continue to support her.

If you haven’t read any of Yuu Watase’s work then I highly recommend it! She’s matured a lot as a Mangaka since the first Fushigi Yuugi. And if you’re interested in reading another article about visual representation of trans-characters this article at The Mary Sue is a great place to start.

Senshi Study is where Cara Averna looks at anime, fanculture, and movies with squinty eyes and tries to gleam the deeper meaning. These articles are her own opinions based of self-research. 

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