Content warning: sexual assault will be discussed later in this article
Towards the end of 2019, I decided to embark on a rewatch of one of my first anime – Fushigi Yuugi. The headline work of mangaka Yuu Watase, Fushigi Yuugi tells the tale of Miaka Yuki, a middle school student who gets drawn into the Universe of the Four Gods, a fantasy world based on ancient China.
Back when isekai was something that happened more to girls than to boys, Fushigi Yuugi set the standard for the genre. Take one teenager who is unhappy with the pressures of school and family life, and transport her to a world where she is the most important person, and where lots of handsome young men are in love with her. It’s a series that has drawn much criticism over the years, but at its core, it turns out that it’s still a solid show that’s very much worth watching. Let’s try to address some of that criticism, and decide whether it’s truly warranted.
“Mary Sue” Miaka
The first and most obvious accusation levelled at Fushigi Yuugi is that Miaka is an obvious Mary Sue. She’s an average middle-schooler experiencing typical teenage problems, and yet she gets to get to go a world where everyone loves her and puts her at the centre of their universe. And yet, in many ways I have to say – so what? Pick out pretty much any isekai from the last thirty years, and that’s going to be the case. That’s what this genre – and so many others – are about. The hero character is very often an average, borderline bland personality, a self-insert for both author and viewer. To be honest, I’m willing to accept that that comes with the territory.
Of course, that’s not to say that Miaka isn’t annoying at times, especially when she makes stupid decisions that endanger herself and others. Then again, we can surely cut her some slack – I’m sure that in our teenaged years, all of us did stupid things or got overly worked up about events that now seem trivial.
Not only that, but at its core, Fushigi Yuugi is a pretty good coming-of-age story. The Miaka we see at the start is entirely self-absorbed, accepting the role of the Priestess of Suzaku because she imagines it will be the answer to all her personal desires. It’s only through the hardship of her journey that she learns to grow up a little, exploring love and friendship, and learning to put herself on the line for the sake of others.
But why is Yui such a bitch?
When Miaka is first drawn into the Universe of the Four Gods, she is joined by her best friend Yui. Yui then gets sent back to the real world, only to later return as Miaka’s enemy and rival, the Priestess of Seiryu. For much of the series, Yui and Miaka are at loggerheads, each trying to summon a different beast god, and both craving the love of the series’ main heartthrob, Tamahome.
Yui gets a lot of hate for turning against Miaka, but if we look at her situation in detail, it’s actually pretty understandable. At the very start of the story, Miaka and Yui are effectively the same – they both get drawn into the Universe of the Four Gods, where they are rescued by the dashing Tamahome. However, from there, their paths diverge.
First off, Yui gets sent back to the real world, where she ends up reading all of Miaka’s subsequent exploits as they appear on the pages of the book of the Universe of the Four Gods. During this time, the two girls are connected by their school uniforms – through the uniform, Yui is able to feel whatever happens to Miaka. At this point, Miaka is already falling in love with Tamahome, so it makes sense that some of her feelings are transferred to Yui.
The shared connection is then used to bring Miaka back to the real world, but in exchange Yui is returned to the Universe of the Four Gods. Unlike Miaka, who is sent to a place where handsome bishounen love and protect her, Yui is assaulted by a gang of street thugs. She too is rescued by a handsome man – but in her case it’s the manipulative Nakago. Wile Yui waits for Miaka to come and save her, Nakago spends several months gaslighting her, even going so far as to convince her that she was raped by the street thugs.
Given all that, is it no wonder that Yui might harbour some jealousy towards Miaka, whilst also romanticising Miaka’s saviour, Tamahome? And even when Miaka does return to save Yui, a chance remark about coming back to see Tamahome is enough to drive Yui over the edge. Not only has she had to suffer more than Miaka, but her best friend seems to care more about her new boyfriend.
Under normal circumstances, this kind of teenaged spat could probably be sorted out fairly swiftly – especially with supportive friends and family on both sides. But given that Yui is alone and isolated with Nakago deliberately feeding the conflict, it’s no wonder that things get so out of hand.
Fushigi Yuugi is fuelled by the angsty love affair between Miaka and Tamahome. Throughout the series, their love is beset by peril and misunderstanding, as some revelation or another causes one of the pair to push the other away, while the other mopes around and wonders what they did wrong. In a sidebar to the Genbu Kaiden spin-off manga, even Yuu Watase admitted to skipping over the Miaka/Tamahome drama on their rewatch of the anime.
While this kind of melodrama is probably appropriate to a stereotypical teenage romance, I’m not particularly here to defend it. Early in the series, Miaka and Tamahome’s relationship didn’t seem as angst-filled as I remembered, and I even wondered if I’d judged it too harshly. But the more episodes I watched, the more the angst got dialled up to eleven.
And of course, this is before we factor in the various other men in love with Miaka. Of particular note is the steadfastly loyal Hotohori, who loved Miaka before he ever met her, and remains committed to “taking her for himself” should Tamahome prove an unworthy match. For all her frequent inability to make sensible decisions, Miaka isn’t a prize to be “taken” by any man – give her some agency to choose who she wants to be with!
Seiryu sexual predators
A major plot point later on in the series is that only virgin priestesses can summon the beast gods. With that in mind, Nakago and the Seiryu warriors decide to preventing Miaka from summoning Suzaku – by raping her.
Obviously, there are many things wrong with this storyline. First off, it’s downright disturbing to have to sit through a batch of episodes in which three different male characters all try to rape Miaka using either force or deception. Do we really have to be subjected to this? Apparently so.
And then there’s the driver behind it all – the reinforcement of the stereotype of virginity as being some sort of pure, unsullied state, and penis-in-vagina sex as some kind of ultimate, watershed moment. Could Miaka have still summoned Suzaku if fingers or a dildo were inserted? Does anal sex or masturbation count? Is ejaculation required?
It’s also worth noting that the act of summoning a beast god requires the priestess to “couple” with them? Maybe it’s just my corrupt mind, but this seems to be heavily implied to be a sexual act between the human form of the beast god, and a teenaged girl. That in itself is pretty creepy.
In May 2019, Yuu Watase came out as X-gender – a Japanese non-binary gender identity. This casts a new light on some of their explorations of gender roles in their manga.
Nuriko is the most obvious example here. Is he a cross-dressing gay man? Is she a trans woman? Is Nuriko bisexual and genderfluid? At one point, we have Nuriko saying “I have the soul of a woman” and expressing love for Hotohori, but later we see him dressing in men’s clothes and admitting to a secret love for Miaka.
After Nuriko’s death, it is Tasuki who summarises – “Nuriko was Nuriko”. If Fushigi Yuugi were being written today, there would surely be some things about him that would be expressed differently. At the very least, the outdated gay jokes would be excised. Would a modern Nuriko come down on one side or the other, expressing a more definite identity? Or would Nuriko continue to be Nuriko, exploring all possibilities without ever confining himself to any one in particular?
Despite having a generous 52 episodes for the TV series (we’ll get to the OVAs in a moment), Fushigi Yugi doesn’t really have the space or time to animate all of its source material. With seven warriors each for Suzaku and Seiryu, it’s no surprise that some of the minor characters get little in the way of development or screen time. On the Suzaku side, Chiriko suffers the worst, with much of his character development simply cut for time. It’s unfortunate that, in his TV incarnation, his death is actually his most interesting moment.
Unsurprisingly, the Seiryu characters also get short shrift. In particular, Tomo’s love for Nakago and his jealousy of Soi is massively cut down.
Even though the TV series has the cheesiest of happy endings, I thought it was a good place to end the story. Admittedly, it doesn’t adapt all the manga, but it felt like a good journey – Miaka has gone on a journey, lost friends, grown up a bit, and now she gets to live the rest of her life in the real world with her beloved Tamahome. Imagine if we could just leave it at that.
Unfortunately, there was more to come. First up was OVA1, a three episode original story that makes little to no sense. Dead characters are randomly alive again, and the show’s lore is pretty much ignored for the sake of a bit of drama. The only thing of worth to come out of this OVA is the comedy extra, in which the characters head to a women-only hot springs.
OVA2 is more faithful to the final volumes of the manga, following Tamahome’s real-world reincarnation Taka as he attempts to retrieve the memories of his past life while battling a new evil. I have mixed feelings about this OVA. On the one hand, we get a bit of extra time to flesh out some of the less developed characters. On the other, everything feels a bit tacked on – there’s a new villain who was only briefly mentioned in preceding episodes, and a whole array of previously unmentioned family members and tragic backstories.
Both of these OVAs are masterpieces, however, compared to the final OVA – Eikoden. Eikoden is the adaptation of a couple of Fushigi Yuugi spin-off novels, and definitely carries the story on way beyond its sell-by date.
By the time of Eikoden, Miaka and Taka are happily married and expecting their first child. Enter Mayo Sakaki, a troubled high school student with a huge crush on Taka. After coming across the Universe of the Four Gods and reading what happened to Miaka, Mayo decides to get her own happy ending – by taking herself and Taka back into the book. Within the book, Mayo becomes the new Priestess of Suzaku – with Miaka’s unborn baby now residing inside her. Desperate to get back to Miaka, Taka has no choice but to find the reincarnations of the Suzaku warriors.
As you might guess from even that brief summary, there is a lot that is bad about Eikoden. Miaka, once the heroine, spends most the OVA in a coma. Mayo, although initially sympathetic, has a scene where she is so cruelly manipulative that it swiftly becomes impossible to like her. Add in yet another “gather the spirits of the Suzaku warriors” plot, season with awful CG monsters, and you’ve got a recipe for awfulness. The only really good thing to come out of Eikoden is the music.
Some aspects of Fushigi Yuugi haven’t aged well – and others weren’t perfect to begin with, but there’s still a lot to like about this series. If you fancy some classic isekai with a heavy dose of drama, romance, and beautiful bishounen, then this is exactly the right place to come.