The Great Feminist Anime and Manga Review: A Certain Scientific Railgun
These reviews are to examine the feminist-friendly elements of each series as well as the problematic elements.
In other words, this is simply meant to be a guide to recommend anime feminists like me might enjoy and also give warning of any elements that might disturb or affect someone. I am also aware I am limited by my white, Western feminist context in these reviews and thus, can’t really give anything other than the perspective of a Western feminist fan on various themes. I can only say what these series mean to me and what I take away from them as an outsider who is not the primary audience. If I get something wrong or if you are aware something has an entirely different connotation in Japanese culture that I am not privy to, I would love to hear about it so please feel free to tell me about it.
This series is actually a spinoff of another series, “A Certain Magical Index”, which I actually haven’t seen and don’t have as much interest in. The reason I was attracted to this series is because it is entirely about badass teenage girls and and their bond with each other plus superpowers, which you should know is basically my favorite thing. Also, the main character wears shorts under her school uniform. This isn’t like, a feminist point, but it interested me because it’s rare to see a character do that in anime and I would totally do that if I had to wear a school uniform every day, especially if I was active.
The anime and manga focus on four girls and their lives in Academy City, which is basically a city for people with superpowers to go to school and hone their abilities. It’s a pretty fun, comic book-y premise, especially since there’s an official superpowered task force made up of teenagers crack down on those who break the law in the city (and also find lost pets, give directions, and clean the streets). Those with powers are divided into levels, with level five being the elite- the most powerful and skilled. Level zeros don’t exhibit powers at all. The protagonist of the series, Misaka Mikoto, is one of the few level fives, with stunning electrical powers. She can take people down with them in a way that earned her the nickname “Railgun”.
The world-building in this anime is done rather well, the city has a very specific hierarchy that leads to a lot of themes that can be explored The theme of the divide between those without abilities and those with them is fully explored. The girl without abilities in Misaka’s group of friends feels inadequate because she can’t demonstrate powers, especially within the strictly structured city designed for people with powers. There’s a struggle for Misaka and the others to understand her feelings completely and get that they’ve treated her dismissively at times. There’s also some slight class commentary that sometimes intersects, Misaka and Kuroko are rich girls afforded privileges and their friends can be resentful or envious about it. Then there’s the fact there’s orphans in the city who are called “Child Errors” and exploited and abused by the government- the government in the city is super shady in general, with lots of scientists trying to use abilities to gain more power.
It’s a fun anime and manga in general with lots of action and fun characters, and why it’s special is that all these characters are girls. It’s girls saving the day with electrical shock and teleporting, girls being gangsters or laying waste to thugs, women on the police force laying down the law, women being the mad scientists attacking with robots or creating eldritch abominations. The action packed mission to save the city is in the hands of a girls, and it’s not even made a thing of. They just happen to be the ones in the middle of all of this with the courage and skill to handle it.
What’s more, it’s the comradery between these four girls that drives the show. Misaka has a guy she’s all tsundere for (he’s the main character of the series this is spun off from) who waltzes in briefly a couple times, but that’s about it- the series is actually about exploring the individual bonds of friendship between each of the four girls of Misaka’s group and how important they are to each other. They fight over things like different viewpoints and power levels and struggle with each other, but always come together to support each other and save the day with the might of their teamwork and by blowing stuff up. They each have their own character arcs and conflicts and significant flaws that they have to work with and they’re all ultimately pretty heroic and amazing in their own individual ways, and are really there for each other.
However, the series also has a lot of problematic stuff in it. Kuroko is basically the only queer character, she has an obsessive crush on Misaka. She’s undeniably important and heroic and loveable and has character development and is a badass and good friend and all, but her crush on Misaka is only ever presented as comedic and perverse. This is because Misaka is clearly not interested, but Kuroko will basically sexually harass and throw herself at her, and Misaka will respond by electrocuting her or beating her. And her “comedic” harassment of Misaka can get really disturbing, like she tries to drug Misaka’s drink once, and also teleports behind Misaka while she’s in the shower to grope her. Despite this, Misaka and Kuroko’s relationship is really important to the show, and Misaka does deeply care for Kuroko even though she isn’t into her sexually and Kuroko really cares about Misaka too (though she tends to ruin their touching moments by attempting sexual harassment).
There’s also the fact that the other pair of friends has the a girl constantly greet the other girl by flipping her skirt in public, even though the other girl has repeatedly asked her not to and is clearly upset by it. This is entirely treated as comedy.
Finally, there’s a lot of fanservice in the show, though not to a gross level and it tends to be tongue in cheek and comedic when it’s there. It is mostly pubescent girls though, so YMMV. For instance, in the anime there are never any panty shots (despite the skirt flippage, yes. Only Misaka’s skirt follows the laws of physics in fights, because she has shorts on under it), and action scenes/non-comedic scenes tend to be pretty much completely free of any sexualization. But there’s a fanservice-heavy swimsuit episode with skimpy clothes and close-ups on breasts and butts, bath/nude scenes clearly meant to titillate, a woman who undresses in public, that sort of stuff.
The anime follows expands a lot on the first three volumes of the manga, with more character development and a new story arc added on that properly concludes the first story arc of the manga. The manga is ongoing (over in the US, at least. Volume four just came out). Volume four has the manga start a new storyline not covered by the anime. The manga can be even heavier/more problematic with its fanservice than the anime, for instance, volume four does have a panty shot.
So yeah, it’s not the most sterling and groundbreaking example of girl-positive anime, but rewatching it reminded me that it is very focused on awesome ladies doing stuff together and being fully rounded character and heroes, and it’s a fun anime to watch in general, with really nice animation, fights and kickass opening themes.
Women and Gender: (lots of cool ladies, though some problematic elements with sexualization/harassment)
LGBTQ: (main heroic queer character, but her queerness is presented problematically)
Race and other cultures: (no representation)
Disability: (no representation other than a moment in the manga where a boy with muscular dystrophy is shown doing physical therapy, but for the sake of the plot, he’s not a character)
Weight/Size: (no representation)
Oh, and I should warn around volume four the manga gets a bit gory. Limbs being ripped off, etc.