This post was inspired by an article written by TWWK from Beneath the Tangles a while back, where they talked about the similarities between Asuna (SAO) and Rukia (BLEACH), the circumstances of their capture/imprisonment, and the typical case of Damsel syndrome that these shows heavily portray. I was impressed with the article, but as with anything, it raised a few questions for me, and, though it’s been a while, I want to air them out.
First, let’s talk about Damsel syndrome. Damsel Syndrome, when applied to a fantasy story, usually refers to a girl who gets captured, imprisoned, or otherwise ends up in a dire predicament, and can do little but wait for the protagonist to rescue them. This is a trope that is used extremely heavily in many stories, especially in the Shonen genre; however, the trope is definitely not exclusive to Anime.
At first glance, the two girls seem to be in very similar predicaments. Captured against their will by beings far more powerful than themselves, forced to bend to the will of their captor with little means of escape, other than the inevitable rescue attempt by the protagonist. However, i’d argue that their situations are actually immensely different.
Let’s look at Asuna’s situation, first. She’s stuck in a virtual world, trapped in a literal birdcage by a man who, in that world, literally has the powers of a god. It’s the kind of insurmountable odds that, no matter how she may have tried, there was no real chance of her escaping. As a mark in her favor, she did actually try getting out, but that attempt mainly just ended in her getting all tentacled up… (eugh…)
Sugo/Oberon, as a character, is about as classic a villain as you can get. He’s creepy, pervy, conniving, and entirely reliant on powers that he doesn’t really control, not to mention his IRL money and influence, to get what he wants. He’s the kind of guy who believes the world should revolve around himself, and thinks of other people as playthings. His constant spouting of monologues just helps to cement his role in the story; i.e. that of a b-rate villain waiting to be beaten up the the Hero. While he’s honestly a pretty shallow character, he does make for a great pin for the Damsel scenario to revolve around.
And oh boy, Asuna’s situation is very much the standard Damsel in Distress scenario; she’s stuck in a cage, captive by a very clearly evil and corrupt villain, with no chance of escape. Her entire escape strategy is based around getting Kirito to come rescue her, basically. It’s pretty much the most standard, down-to-earth, overdone case of Damsel syndrome you can find.
Rukia’s case, on the other hand, isn’t so cut-and-dry. For a very obvious start, her captor isn’t a meganomaniacal villain with a god complex; it’s her own brother. Rukia goes with him willingly back to Soul Society, her home, after being charged (not falsely) of violating a law of Soul Society by transferring her powers to a human (Ichigo, in this case.)
What I find interesting about Soul Society is that it’s heavily modeled after feudal Japan. The slums around the Seireitei house the common folk, while the strong become Soul Reapers and join the ranks of the 13 squads. The Soul Reapers themselves are very like samurai; they fight to protect the world from Hollows, and work to uphold their laws and their honor.
Having died as a child, most of Rukia’s existence has been lived out in Soul Society. As such, the honor, laws, and statutes of Soul Society have been engraved in her from a very young age, especially with a strict step-brother like Byakuya. I believe that, while Asuna was held captive by a literal birdcage, Rukia was held captive by little more than herself, the laws, statutes, and honor that she knew from her upbringing. She went with Byakuya willingly, and never asked to be rescued, even on the brink of execution, because that’s just part of the societal expectations that she was familiar with.
Society can be an even more powerful prison than a literal one, as the rules, regulations, devotions, connections, and expectations that you’ve known all your life collide with your own personal values. In ancient Japanese history, the 47 Ronin who took it upon themselves to kill the man who had defamed their master, willingly committed Seppuku at the behest of the Shogun, killing themselves to retain their honor. I believe this is part of Rukia’s mindset as she was accepting her execution.
Of course, nobody wants to die, and Rukia was certainly confused, and relieved, when Ichigo and company arrived to rescue her, which may have made her question why she really had to die for such a small offense that may have ended up working out for the better, in the end.
When you really think about it, Bleach’s scenario does seem far more interesting and compelling that that of SAO, (at least for me). With a look at the historical significance and cultural expectations of Soul Society, we can understand that, while Asuna was held captive in a literal birdcage by a very obvious “villain” character, Rukia was not held by a villain, and in fact was kept captive by her own beliefs and sense of duty as much as any actual prison.
I’d really like to extend another Thank You to TWWK for providing me with such an interesting and thought-provoking article to write about. Let me know what you guys think of my analysis, i’m always down for a bit of discussion!