Momoe Sawaki, and good trans representation [Wonder Egg Priority]

I doubt it’s controversial to say that the depiction of trans people in media has been, historically, pretty terrible. There are a number of reasons for that, most notably the basic truth that the trans experience is one that is yet to be widely accepted or understood by the general populace. For a while, western media portrayed transness as the lifestyle of freaks and outcasts, often being framed in stories as serial killers and sexual deviants, not to be accepted by society by any means. While this version of events is rare these days as trans people are inevitably seen more and more as actual human beings (I know, imagine that!), anime is unfortunately a medium that hasn’t really moved on yet.

What makes Japanese media’s depiction of trans people unique, however, is the way they are framed. Typically they are jokes in and of themselves, trans women often shown as predatory, the Persona games from 3 to 5 including at least one instance per game of a trans woman attempting to seduce the cast of teenage boys, always failing their mission. They aren’t shown to be particularly dangerous or troublesome like in western media, but that same mean-spirited sentiment remains: these people are strange and untrustworthy, and their lifestyle ought not to be entertained; they can do whatever they want, but only so long as it’s far away from all the normal people.

In the world of anime, things have, at a crippled snail’s pace, been improving for LGBTQ+ people. I’ve spoken before about last year’s Adachi and Shimamura which depicted the blossoming relationship between two high school girls and the anxieties that come with a situation like that, but there’s also Britney, the delightful gender nonconforming acupuncturist from Taiso Samurai, Ryo and Akira’s tragic romance in Devilman Crybaby, pretty much every character in Given, among a few other notable positive examples. My Hero Academia even had a villain character who’s openly trans, and when the big bad guy misgenders her in passing, her villain friends threaten him with violence should he do it again, which is just the best kind of allyship in my eyes (heroes of My Hero Aca, your silence on contemporary trans issues is deafening). However, no other show in recent memory has so definitively hit the mark in its trans representation other than Wonder Egg Priority.

If you don’t know what Wonder Egg Priority is about yet, allow me to explain in as brief and straightforward a way as I can, which, as you’ll soon see, might be tricky. The story revolves around four teenage girls, whose key connecting factor is the recent losses of people they dearly care about, the deaths all a result of suicide. Wracked with grief, they are each met by a talking cicada, who directs them to a secret underground world where they can receive eggs out of a gacha machine. These eggs, if taken to bed, transform into other recent suicide victims during the girls’ respective dreams, and the protagonists’ job becomes to keep the newly-hatched away from danger and defeat the source of their anguish that led them to their self-inflicted deaths, manifested as big, scary monsters, so that these victims may pass into the afterlife peacefully. The more people the girls save, the closer they get to reviving their loved ones, so says the mysterious talking mannequins who appear to be responsible for the existence of the egg world. However, as time goes on and more and more oddities and inconsistencies arise, it becomes clear that perhaps these mannequin guys ought not to be trusted.

It’s not exactly a conventional premise and it certainly wasn’t easy to summarise it like that without sounding absolutely insane, but this bizarre framing device allows for some of the rawest discussions of mental health I may have ever seen in an anime. Behind the wacky fantasy antics lies a deeply uncompromising human tale of psychologically distraught teens in terrible circumstances no child ought to experience. The show interrogates subjects such as self-harm, social isolation, anxiety, depression, and, of course, suicide. It brings into sharp focus what causes a person to succumb to that darkness, and how easily it can happen the moment the possibility of ending it all is entertained. Furthermore, it explores the ways in which people can escape that hellish internal cycle of despair, particularly through having a strong support network at your side, keeping you safe and providing a space to be open about your experiences. In other words, it’s the power of friendship because anime is anime and so on. Beyond that, however, it acknowledges the importance of strengthening yourself as an individual, since everyone’s experiences are different and finding what works for you specifically is essential to the healing process.

Enter Momoe Sawaki, the fourth and final main girl to appear in the show. Very quickly, we are made aware of her primary insecurity: her femininity. She has a recurring problem where the girls she saves in the egg world think she is a boy and fall in love with her, which she barely tries to refute, presumably because she’s grown accustomed to this kind of treatment. As a result of all this romantic attention from girls, she develops a paranoia that it is due to her more masculine physique and boyish looks, further cementing her anxieties surrounding her outward appearance. She never complains about it, but it’s apparent from the look on her face that these moments are slowly chipping away at her composure. She meets two of the other main girls in passing who regard her instinctively as a boy, which causes her to quickly leave. Noticing her reflection in a shop window causes her to burst into tears, and it’s through this that she bumps into the show’s protagonist, Ai, who regards her as “a crying girl…who looks like a model!”. Momoe is pleased by this, thus starting the group friendship at the core of the series.

The similarities to the trans experience should be pretty obvious from the start. Momoe, as a character, exists to explore the topic of gender expression and the frustration that forms through not meeting societal expectations, which any trans person, myself included, can instantly relate to. However, by this point in the show, there hasn’t been any specific mention of trans people, which one could easily interpret as the show not deliberately addressing prominent personal trans issues, and was simply wishing to talk about gender through the eyes of a teenage girl. That’s fine, of course, and I was entirely happy to believe the show would finish without addressing trans people, but then, like a bottle of nectar dropped unto the earth from the peak of Olympus, episode 10 proved me wrong.

CONTENT WARNING: this next part discusses the topics of intense transphobia, suicide, and sexual violence, specifically against a trans boy. I won’t go into detail about it and attempt to avoid using any triggering language, but if you’d rather not read about that, here’s your warning.

Rather than vaguely alluding to the trans experience, the tenth episode of the show, titled Confession, includes an honest-to-god, no-messing-about, for-real-this-time trans character. He’s one of the suicide victims Momoe has to help out, so naturally his story is an unpleasant one. Despite this, he finds time to joke around and flirt with Momoe, who initially shrugs the guy off as yet another hopeless romantic. However, that changes once the boy, named Kaoru, confesses that he is trans. All of a sudden, amidst all the action-packed carnage occurring around them, Momoe feels something new.

The evil spirit hunting Kaoru is a surreal manifestation of the man who created the circumstances for his death. Kaoru went to the man, his kendo instructor, looking for advice on his situation, but the man, presumably seeking to validate his attraction to him, responded by raping him, leaving him pregnant and, eventually, the victim of suicide. It’s a terrible thing, but it seeks to illustrate something important about the dangers of societal gender expectations. It’s a moment that shows it isn’t just trans people that this fixation on strict gender norms affects. Kaoru’s attacker did what he did not because he’s just inherently evil, but rather as a direct result of a societal labelling of trans people as “traps” or liars caused by decades of cisheteronormativity. The man is by no means excusable for the awful thing he did, but the show makes it apparent that he likely would not have reacted that way if transness wasn’t considered a threatening, alien concept, and if society didn’t consistently perpetuate the view of women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people as subservient and lacking in agency over their own identities. Transphobia isn’t a case of a few bad eggs; it’s a systemic problem, and one only rectified by removing the rigidity surrounding gender expression and fluidity.

Momoe, confronted by the news of Kaoru’s past, rushes to his aid. This wouldn’t be any different to Momoe’s other encounters in the egg world, except this time, the fight feels intensely personal. Momoe rips off her shirt to reveal a bra and top underneath (coloured in the pink, blue and white of the transgender flag, which I thought was a cute touch), a seeming declaration of her womanhood by tearing away the clothing that made her gender intentionally ambiguous. She fights the monster and wins, of course, and as she and Kaoru wait on a train platform for him to vanish like the others, he tells Momoe that she’s a lovely girl, and without warning, kisses her before disappearing in a puff of smoke. This is a situation that’s happened with girls Momoe has helped before, but this time is different. This time, Momoe was approached not because she resembles a boy, but for quite the opposite reason. She is acknowledged by a boy as a girl, and that clearly means a lot to her.

And that’s where the interaction ends. It’s quite brief and its lack of significant presence in the show as a whole might be a bit of a red flag for some who are used to half-assed LGBTQ+ representation. However, I think this aspect of the show is executed perfectly, because what it does brilliantly is recontextualise Momoe’s character across the whole show by framing her struggles through the trans experience. That statement might be somewhat strange since it seems as though Momoe is trans herself, but truthfully the show doesn’t actually make state this outright at any point.

Again, it’s easy to look at this as yet another instance of media chickening out of having an LGBTQ+ main character, but I’d like to offer a defence of the show’s handling of this subject matter. I think the intended message in episode 10 isn’t simply to communicate the trans experience in its many forms, but it goes beyond that. The message is one of solidarity and intersectionality, between two characters in quite different contexts, met with the exact same problems along their way. Both Momoe and Kaoru want to be seen as the gender that they are, but are unable to exist as their true selves because of socially constructed gender norms. More than that, these gendered expectations placed upon them ends up actively hurting them, to a tragic extent in Kaoru’s case. For those who do not fit that preordained mold, life is inherently worse.

As a society, it has become generally acceptable to hold the opinion that treating somebody different or restricting someone’s choices based purely on their gender is wrong. However, where we are now is learning to accept transness into that perspective. What makes Wonder Egg Priority so incredible is that it not only presents a trans person with a level of respect rarely seen in any medium, it also illustrates that person’s struggles as a universal one. All transphobia really is, at the end of the day, is an arbitrary policing of perceived gender norms. Calling yourself a feminist who rejects gender stereotypes and then proceeding to spout transphobic bullshit, masking your bigoted worldview as “protecting womanhood”, isn’t just shitty, but also completely illogical. Feminism isn’t simply about girl power; it’s the pursuit of equal standing between all genders without the baggage of labels or unnecessary gendered expectations. To fail to recognise trans issues as a feminist issue is to disagree with the basic fundamentals of feminism.

I believe that is the point of Wonder Egg Priority episode 10. Whether Momoe is trans or not doesn’t really matter, because ultimately it shouldn’t matter at all. Even if she was confirmed to be trans, that shouldn’t change anything about how you choose to view her as a character. Wonder Egg Priority wants us to treat each other with respect and understanding, no matter who we are or where we came from, and as a whole, I think that’s a pretty beautiful sentiment. All that matters is we support one another through tough times, so we can all live our best possible lives.

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