I love fandom. I hate fandom. It’s an object of my eternal adoration, and it’s a source of my constant frustration.
Navigating fandom is like walking through a minefield. Surprise racism. Unexpected misogynism. Bi erasure. There are so many pitfalls waiting to trip you up.
But you know where the biggest danger of fandom lies? The ship wars. It’s definitely the ship wars. Sure, they can be entertaining to watch from the sidelines, the same way it’s entertaining to watch a car drive over a cliff, but what if you’re in that fandom? What if you’re drawn into that ship war against your will? An accidental casualty, so to speak. I know from personal experience. I was in Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom when it was airing. The Zutara vs. Kataang ship wars were legendary. Even I would get dragged in occasionally, and I didn’t ship either one! How does that even happen?
Ship wars aren’t confined to Western comics and media, of course. They’re everywhere. Even in manga fandoms. And here are five of the most memorable ones: past, present, and maybe future.
Rurouni Kenshin: Kenshin/Kaoru vs. Kenshin/Tomoe
Rurouni Kenshin was my first fandom and as a result, this ended up being the first manga ship war I was ever exposed to. And, in a pattern that would characterize my opinions regarding ship wars in general, I didn’t even understand why it was happening! Tomoe is dead! She was the past and Kaoru was clearly the future. Most ship wars hinge around potential and possibility—what has yet to be confirmed in the comics. Kenshin and Tomoe were once a thing, but they were definitely in the past and could never compete with Kaoru and Kenshin. See: Tomoe’s rotting corpse.
In this case, the ship war revealed more about the people waging battle than I cared to know. Namely, their belief in the idea that a person could only love once in their entire lifetime. Or that Kenshin’s love for Kaoru was somehow better, purer, and truer than his love for Tomoe, rather than simply being different. It’s kind of sad to imagine that you can only love one person in your life, isn’t it? If we follow that idea, then Kenshin should have mourned Tomoe forever! Doesn’t he deserve some happiness? The one true love concept of romantic love just isn’t very healthy.
Vampire Knight: ZeKi vs. YuMe
Unlike the previous example, this manga ship war arises from the comic itself. Yuki, the heroine of Vampire Knight, loves both boys. There’s no question. Where the uncertainty rises is whether that love was romantic for both guys or whether it was different for one versus the other. Even though Yuki clearly chooses one guy at the end, it can be argued that there’s still some ambiguity regarding her relationship with the other… Matsuri Hino, laughing to the bank until the finale and beyond.
Naruto: Naruto/Hinata and Sasuke/Sakura vs. Naruto/Sakura
Speaking of endings that send manga fandoms into a tizzy, how about the end of Naruto? From a cultural and storytelling perspective, I would argue that Naruto/Hinata and Sasuke/Sakura were obvious endgame ships. Naruto is the orphan who becomes a hero and leader of his village. Of course he’s going to marry the equivalent of a princess. Sakura has been chasing Sasuke all this time. In what shounen series has a girl who’s done that suddenly up and said, “You know what? You’re a jerk. I’m done with you!” That’s right. None. As much as it pains me to say, it’s not really done in the genre. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be. We could stand to see more assholes kicked to the side of the road.
But there were many people who wanted Naruto and Sakura together. They wanted the orphan who’d grow up to be a hero and a leader to get the girl he’d travelled with and fought together with for so long. That his winning her love—which means winning her from Sasuke, his eternal rival—was another sign of his greatness.
Ultimately, though, that just isn’t the kind of narrative Naruto is.
Bleach: Ichigo/Rukia vs. Ichigo/Orihime
This comic-based ship war gets the award for longevity! After our anime redheads list, I decided to catch up on Bleach. Which meant rereading Bleach, because it’d been so long since I followed the manga and I pretty much forgot the details of what happened. And as always, I dipped back into the fandom to see what was going on.
Only to discover that the IchiRuki and IchiHime ship war still battling like it was 2005. I have to give them props: that is amazing.
To be fair, I completely understand why this ship war exists. Rukia is the first female character we meet. She’s the one who makes Ichigo into a Shinigami. For a long time, it’s just the two of them working together. The first major story arc involves him trying to save her!
But then the manga kept going (and going)…and that relationship stopped developing. Instead, Orihime gets more developed. She makes bombastic declarations of love to Ichigo. Narratively, it breaks the traditional storytelling patterns of a shounen manga series. It confuses readers who are used to certain tropes.
Who knows how this will end? Kubo Tite is better known for his cool, artistic style rather than his writing ability, so it’s anyone’s guess. The manga has yet to end—even though it’s supposedly been ending for the past few years now—so we’re in a wait and see game.
Attack on Titan: …it’s complicated
I personally do not think there will be any endgame ships in this manga series. Possibly Eren/Mikasa but even that is a longshot, in my opinion. I could be wrong, but I just don’t see it.
I didn’t even realize there were fights over ships in this fandom until recently. It’s a Japanese comic about people dying in awful ways—sometimes getting eaten by giants, sometimes getting their heads blown off. It didn’t even register on my radar!
Shows what I know.
This is a fandom where it’s not so much as a war as people slamming one specific ship. In this case, Eren/Levi. If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll understand why this ship is contentious. Eren is underaged and Levi is significantly older than him. One of the first encounters between the two involves Levi beating the hell out of Eren.
The thing I find fascinating is that the alternatives have their own arguably contentious traits. With Levi/Mikasa, they’re related. With Erwin/Levi, there’s a power differential because Erwin is Levi’s commander and Levi is his subordinate who was blackmailed into joining the military. Yes, Erwin and Levi are both adults, and yes, Levi and Mikasa are distantly related at best, but those things can’t be handwaved away. Not if the underaged argument is going to be used against Eren/Levi.
One of my biggest wishes for fandom is that people would let others ship in peace. Live and let live. It’s all in fun anyway, right?
So what other manga ship wars stand out in your mind?