Fast Times at San Guo High: a Visit to Erica Friedman of Yuricon

There’s a high probability you have seen Guan Yu, the hero from the classic Chinese novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a Chinese restaurant, on a shelf over the cash register or in a shrine near the door, recipient of incense and oranges. This heroic general served the Han pretender Liu Bei in a chaotic interregnum in the third century BC. Deified by the seventh century, he has become a ubiquitous figure in Chinese folk religion: warder-off of evil, patron of soldiers, businessmen, writers and bean-curd sellers.

In 2000 he reappeared, in a seinen manga (comic book aimed at young adult males) series called Ikki Tousen. (literally “”fighters of a thousand years,” but more appealingly Englished as “Battle Vixens.”) Here the great general has become Kan’u Unchou, a high-school girl with a talent for flashing her panties while battling enemy girls.  

 Gender transformations are relatively rare in classical literature. The only case from Western antiquity one can be expected to know of is Tiresias, a Greek prophet who became a woman for several years. (There are competing accounts as to how and why, but the most plausible one attributes his alteration to losing a bet.) In Asia, too, there is only one parade example: the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara became the goddess Kuan Yin in the course of his migration from India to China.

But if the transgender trope is a puzzling rarity in world literature, redeploying characters from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not. This enormous book, the Moby Dick of Chinese literature, a fourteenth-century historical novel, is set in the Three Kingdoms period (220-265), a particularly chaotic shake-up in early days of the Celestial Empire. The Han dynasty had fallen, and the competing claims of tradition and inherited kingship and brutal power politics all came to the fore. The heroes, villains, and issues of the time remained paradigmatic for all succeeding Chinese history. On these grounds, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is comparable to the Biblical Books of Kings. The Chinese consider it their greatest novel; phrases from it have passed into proverb as lines from Shakespeare have for us. It has been a major source of opera plots for centuries and has taken on new life in adaptations for many a movie and TV series.

The book has not, to my knowledge, been readably translated into English. Brewitt-Taylor did a bare translation in 1925; Moss Roberts published his scholarly, end-noted rendering in 1991, which could be understood, but only with the help of maps hunted up on the Internet, and by copiously annotating the text with post-it notes to keep track of who was who under what name and what they did when last seen. Tuttle brought out another one by Sumei and Iverson in 2014, which sounds promising, though I have not seen it.

All this is offered here merely by way of fanfare to introduce the altered form of the Three Kingdoms worthies, as they appear in Ikki Tousen.  Liu Bei, the tragic hero of the tale,

legitimate heir to the Han throne, is now Ryuubi Gentoku

Ryuubi Gentoku figurine

This perfect gentleman, paragon of modesty and general mirror of knighthood, is now a girly-girl bookworm with some of the biggest boobs in the series. Admittedly, his career was somewhat hapless—in the anime he regularly approaches the status of chew-toy, as his/her combats descend into slapstick.

A comprehensive list of the characters and their heroic prototypes may be found here. But this sample should suffice to teach the taste of the rest. The manga blossomed into a many-season anime series. To make sense of this audacious and transgressive seeming production, I consulted Erica Friedman, a world authority on Yuri (Lesbian-themed) manga and anime, renowned for her insight and her judgement, which makes up in clarity whatever it may lack in charity.

96 Are the modern characters possessed by the 3K personae?

EF Not really. The Ikki Tousen characters are all reincarnated beings from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and they know this. But they’re also not the same as their previous selves.

96 Are they in an imaginary Japan?

EF Well, it’s Japan, but that’s irrelevant. The place is not the point. The fights are the point.

96 There’s no explanation of how all this comes about?

EF No. It’s just the way it is. This is fiction written by and for creepy dudes. The kind of guys who want to see women’s clothing explode off so they can see their underwear. It’s for bottom feeders; guys who live to see panty shots. It’s not high literature. It’s meant to be fetishist crap.

96 Then it’s violent softcore?

EF Yes. The violence is the part I like.

96 So there’s no insight into Asian culture to be gained from this?

EF No more than you could learn about British history from watching Game of Thrones. That being said, there is, in men’s low popular culture in Japan—I don’t want to call it a genre—a tactic of changing the gender or the age or the situation of historical figures for anime. There’s one anime where Oda Nobunaga, the great unifying figure of Japanese history, is a girl. The warring states periods of both China and Japan  are really popular because they provide such good fight stories. In Ikki Tousen the Battle of Red  Cliffs (a decisive naval battle at the end of the Han Dynasty) becomes a conflict between three high schools. The gender changes aren’t really “trans,” they’re just switched for narrative ends.

96 Are these elements are combined at will? Like a chocolate sundae of unrelated goodies as tall as a pagoda?

EF That’s pretty much right. It’s all just anime. It’s just cute girls doing stuff.

96 Is there anything like this sophisticated recombination in Western culture? If not, why?

EF Manga in Japan involves a high degree of communication between creators and fans. Changes in the stories can be made in response to what the readers praise or dislike, so it’s more flexible. Feedback to the manga creators used to be on little cards they supplied, now you do it online. We don’t even have comic magazines as they do; we have pamphlet comics. Ours cost a lot more, and distribution is way more expensive. Their logistics, printing, and magazine format are all different; marketing and media—everything is so different a comparison isn’t possible. Their system evolved to accommodate flexibility in storytelling. Thus the Three Kingdoms with girls is possible.

For us, DC and Marvel have diverted all their resources from comics into making movies out of the comics they used to make, spending bazillions of dollars on them, and not tying them into the comics at all, though they continue to produce those as well. Then you have Disney and Netflix investing—giant conglomerates—and that means no flexibility. There was never the bottom-up structure that manga in Japan developed over the last sixty years. Over here we had fan fic and fan art, but that was never tied into comic production. There’s gender switching with well-known characters to be found there too (as in this page from Nerd Reactor), but it’s small-scale private creations. The Internet changes that, but that’s another story for another day.

[For an introduction to the world of manga and anime, a start might be made with Erica’s blog, Okazu, which has reviews of the entire Ikki Tousen series,  and Anime News Network an encyclopedia of anime news and information.]

Erica’s analysis make our initial assumptions about the Ikki Tousen appear somewhat quaint. There is clearly no real exploration of transgender issues, psychologically or existentially, and the literary descent from the Three Kingdoms novel is so indirect and tenuous that one might well question whether there’s any meaningful inheritance involved.

Still, though one might not wish to sit through an entire Ikki Tousen anime, crude both in animation and in sexual attitudes, the transformation of august Three Kingdoms characters into high school girls is peculiarly poignant and not a little witty. We offer a final instance: Zhuge Liang, the Taoist master and occult strategist for the embattled Han pretender. A man of magic powers, cryptic expression, and sardonic silences,

Zhuge Liang

is returned as Shoukatsuryou Koumei. Zhuge’s loyalty to Liu Bei is now a clinging jealous affection for Ryuubi Gentoku (the new Liu Bei); his occult knowledge has become Wednesday Addams creepiness; the everlasting youth of the Taoist adept has translated into her being the youngest looking student at Seito High,

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