I’ve really come to hate the word bullying. It isn’t just that acts described as bullying are morally repugnant, it is more that the term gets thrown around to cover everything from excluding someone, minor pranks, staring at them, talking behind their back, openly harassing them, directly sabotaging their person, profession or possessions, to full on violence and acts that most definitely should be classified as criminal assault and never be given the cop out title of ‘bullying’. Bullying has become a catch all phrase to cover all those things we dislike about societal living where we realise that while humans do like to herd together we don’t really like to herd with everyone and while teaching tolerance and acceptance are lovely ideals the evidence strongly suggests they haven’t gone that far in reversing this culture. It has also become the excuse as people try to excuse these vicious and horrendous acts as misguided rather than malicious.
But that’s all just my personal view on bullying and it is one of those major social issues that most societies need to take a long hard look at the causes and why on earth we allow people to get away with it and tolerate it as ‘a part of growing up’ or part of ‘workplace culture’. And that’s not really within my blog’s scope so instead I want to look at how bullying has been portrayed in anime.
This kind of got inspired by a recent episode of The Master of Ragnarok, of all things, as in this very ancient world our out of time protagonist has decided to develop a school system to educate his population and build skills for the next generation. Such an admirable goal and yet from opening we instantly have a situation where a slave girl is being excluded by the other girls in the class. The reason: the patriarch of the clan, our protagonist himself, took her to school on the first day and dared to pay attention to her. I mean, how dare he. Such an unforgivable act being taken to school by someone who cares about you.
This episode moved me to title the episode review Create School, Create School Bullying and I realised after writing the episode review how I genuinely believe that these days bullying is ingrained in pretty much every institution despite decades of anti-bullying policies and ‘education’. There are a huge number of societal factors at work that drive this but anyone who has been to a school or workplace knows full well that bullying, in one form or another is prevalent there.
Then I started thinking about how this episode portrayed bullying. Effie, the slave girl, has so far been portrayed as a victim. At no point has she been seen in any other light. We met her when Yuuto, our wonderfully kind protagonist, came across Effie and her mother in the market place being sold as slaves. While creating sweeping social reform like universal education is easily enough done off-screen in the space of an episode, apparently ending institutional slavery isn’t and so rather than address the issue of the people suffering, he buys them and gives them jobs at the palace. At least I assume that’s where the mother is working because we never see her again.
Instead we see Effie getting dragged into the harem even though she does not fit there. They dragged her to the hot springs which sounds nice but then she was subjected to watching all the other girls flaunt their superior relationship with their ‘father’ while she was isolated and fairly uncomfortable with the situation. While she’s invited to eat with them, it is only after she’s delivered the food and after Yuuto has personally requested it. Effie remains on the outside of this harem at every turn separated by a class divide that no amount of ‘kindness’ is going to bridge.
So by the time we see Effie feeling pretty miserable about being ignored at school we as an audience already have it in our heads that Effie is a victim. And while at first I thought she was being ignored because of her class, it turned out she was being ignored because of Yuuto’s attention and petty jealousy, which was just as bad really. By the time a third party intervened, Albertina, it was obvious that Effie was not going to take any action to resolve the situation, that the other students were happily observing a status quo they themselves had assisted in creating, and the teacher never even got screen time so who knows if they were even aware of the situation.
While it might seem cathartic that in this case Effie’s bullying issue is resolved, this representation of bullying is all kinds of problematic. It almost trivialises the problem. My main issue with it includes the fact that the victim is seen as utterly blameless but without agency. Effie did nothing to deserve being picked on, did not retaliate in any way or do anything to draw attention to herself. She doesn’t even report the situation or mention being upset and it is only through Yuuto’s super sensitivity that anyone realises something is wrong.
But I also take issue with the very quick and easy resolution Albertina comes up with and how easily she reverses the situation. More importantly, solving one case of bullying through isolation by creating another doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. Maybe there will be some in the audience thinking ‘serve you right’ as the bully gets a taste of being ignored but switching the target from one character we like (or at least are supposed to) to another character isn’t really solving the problem so much as sweeping it under the rug. Then of course Effie does the sickly sweet thing and reaches out her hand to the former bully bringing her back into the group. Effie has just been victimised and hasn’t solved the problem on her own but has had someone else intervene on her behalf. There is no way she’s in a state to reach out to someone else.
Emotionally it just smacks of a desire for the show to finish off with this side show and move on. Which made me wonder why even address the issue at all – only that is all too easy to understand. Bullying is a universal and in Japan particularly it is something that is understood by pretty much anyone. If you ever want your isekai, military, harem story to ‘relate’ to your audience, throwing in a bullying subplot is one way to do it. Does it give this dire social issue the development it probably deserves? No. But it isn’t the main point of the story. So maybe this shallow dive approach is fine, only I just found it a little annoying.
I couldn’t help when watching this to compare it to Hina’s arc in March Comes in Like a Lion Season 2 from the beginning of the year. While watching that arc I felt it was such a great representation of bullying, and I still believe it is one of the best anime bullying arcs I’ve ever seen. There Hina is given agency as she actively takes steps to minimise the damage to first her friend and then herself. She eventually reaches out for help and while others certainly do play a part, Hina continues to have to stand on her own and fight (not physically).
We also see a teacher who has been destroyed by the weight of so many instances of bullying where there are no simple solutions that she ultimately has a full emotional collapse, and then we get the comparison to two other teachers. One takes over the class but has experience and a level head and addresses the problem head on. Even then it doesn’t instantly mend the damage but his actions create a space where the students can start to turn things around and at least he holds people accountable for their actions. The other is Rei’s teacher who listens to Rei as he vents about Hina’s situation and outlines the complexities even while feeling frustrated that there is little that he can practically do for either Rei or Hina. I do slightly object to the fact that the female teacher is portrayed as emotionally fragile and breaks under the pressure becoming hysterical where the two male teachers are more level headed about it, though realistically with only three teachers in play it is just nice that there was a mix of approaches to the issue and each one felt real in its own way. As in the audience might remember the teacher who was like A, B or C.
Bullying in March Comes in Like a Lion is treated with a great deal of respect and the ripples created by it in Hina’s life are observed as every character connected to her is impacted in some way by her situation. This arc is given an enormous amount of screen time and at times you could almost forget that this is Rei’s story as Hina and this situation takes centre stage, but it allows the situation to really be brought to life.
However, on reflection, I have to say that at least at the beginning Hina has the same issue Effie does. Hina is portrayed as the girl who did nothing wrong and just became the target. At all points throughout the arc Hina’s innocence and the unfairness of her situation are made clear to the audience. Where Hina becomes more palatable as a character is that she is given agency (even becoming the victim was a result of her standing up for another student) and that she doesn’t quietly accept it. She gets angry and she gets upset, even if she tries to hold those emotions in there are times when they explode.
Honestly, I’d love to see more series deal with bullying giving it the time and attention it needed to actually make it feel meaningful. I’d love to see more like March Comes in Like a Lion. I would really love to see bullying tackled by adult characters and more insidious forms of bullying on display rather than the overt cases on display here. Though more than anything, I’d love for societies to actually do something about this problem. What are your thoughts on bullying in anime?
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March Comes in Like a Lion Akari Kawamoto