Recently Netflix has added InuYasha, a popular anime that aired in the early 2000’s, to their anime roster. For many people–especially if you were a ’90s kid–InuYasha was a part of your anime experience growing up. It was hugely popular, and still is today. Rumiko Takahashi’s influence on the anime industry is well documented and respected both here and in Japan. I decided to rewatch the series in part due to nostalgia and to see if I could let go of some of the more bitter feelings I had about the show’s progression and the development of the main character, Kagome Higurashi.
When I was in fifth grade I was already well acquainted with Americanized anime like Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Yugioh, Beyblade, and Cardcaptors. I accidentally stayed up late one night and caught the ending ten minutes of InuYasha on Adult Swim.
Instantly, I was captured. It was the first anime that wasn’t heavily edited; it had Japanese names, blood that I could see, and a mythical element that I fell in love with. InuYasha had adorable dog ears, Sango had a badass giant boomerang weapon, Miroku’s wind tunnel was both inventive and tragic, and Kagome could shoot laser arrows of magic! There were demons, and romance, and oh the mythology! InuYasha captivated me like no other show on TV at the time. I embarrassingly recall scribbling “InuYasha” on my notebooks and it was the first fandom I ever truly immersed myself in. I read fanfiction, liked fanart, talked about the characters on age old Fanfiction.net forums. My eleven year-old self was obsessed.
My twenty-three year-old self is less so.
See, Kagome is similar to Dragon Ball’s Chi Chi in a way because both their narratives do them dirty. Only, I’d argue Kagome gets an even shorter stick because she’s suppose to be the protagonist of the story. Sure the show is called “InuYasha” but Kagome is the narrator of the story. If she’s not the lead protagonist, she certainly shares that spotlight with InuYasha. It’s as much her journey–if not more so–as it is his.
This is where my problem with Kagome Higurashi comes in. She doesn’t get to be the protagonist in the show. I can’t speak for the manga, I haven’t gotten the chance to read it, but in the anime, Kagome hardly ever has her position as the heroine of this feudal fairy tale validated.
Kagome has three main struggles within the anime: her desire to remain in school, which represents her “normal” life; her desire to be with InuYasha, who represents her “fairy tale” life; and her abilities as a priestess with spiritual powers.
Kagome’s powers stem from the fact that she is the holder of the Shikon no Tama, or The Jewel of Four Souls, and the reincarnation of the priestess Kikyo. Long story short, Kikyo was the jewels protector who fell in love with InuYyasha. Naraku, the show’s main antagonist, also loved Kikyo and he tricked InuYasha and Kikyo into killing each other. Kikyo died and InuYasha was stuck to a tree for fifty years. The show will repeat this story to you once every twenty or so episodes. The point is, Kagome is supposed to be super powerful. And sometimes she is allowed to be.
In the second episode, “Seekers of the Sacred Jewel”, Kagome is able to shatter the Shikon Jewel into pieces with her powers. In “Tetsusaiga Is Stolen! Showdown At Naraku’s Castle!” Kagome is so enraged by Naraku’s horrid manipulation of InuYasha, Kikyo, Sango, and Kohaku, and his disregard for others’ lives, that she nearly kills him. Again, nearly, because he gets away, but canonically Kagome was one of the only characters Naraku ever viewed as a viable threat. The other was Kikyo for emotional reasons. Kagome was also one of the only characters who could take Naraku on solo and do serious damage and nearly kill him.
However, we never actually see this development. Kagome, at the start of the series, is a normal middle school teenager. The show repeatedly emphasizes this. Kagome’s main goal pre-fairy tale adventure was getting into a good high school. She’s never been taught archery, but we’re suppose to believe she’s a talented archer with incredible power because she’s the reincarnation of Kikyo who was all these things. So Kagome’s powers aren’t earned by her own merit and are often disregarded completely.
Kagome hardly ever gets to fight, even though she’s supposedly amazingly powerful. Unlike InuYasha, who goes through a series of shounen hero power ups, Kagome is never once taught anything about her powers outside of the plot warranted exposition. Kagome can see jewel shards which makes her valuable to other demons and earns her a place within InuYasha’s group since both Miruko and Sango can fight. This isn’t to say Kagome has to be a fighter; I would have been fine with her not fighting, if the show didn’t pull out her spiritual powers to showcase how powerful she was when it serviced the plot but not her character.
Why doesn’t Kaede ever teach Kagome proper archery? Why doesn’t Sango or Miroku ever teach her basic defensive techniques? Why doesn’t InuYasha? Kagome is suppose to be a pretty powerful priestess, but it we are more likely to see Kagome kidnapped by the demon-of-the-week than figure out how to save herself. As she is a protagonist, you’d think the show would take some time showcasing how Kagome learned how to shoot an arrow, or use her spiritual powers, or maybe take an active stance against being kidnapped. But that might have made InuYasha look bad.
Kagome’s homelife? What homelife? Her mother was the most carefree mother of any anime I’ve ever seen save for Kyou Kara Maou’s Cheri. Kagome’s mom and grandfather probably fully understand the immense amounts of danger Kagome is in everytime she travels to feudal Japan, considering she packs first aid kits, gets blood on her uniform on the regular, and has repeatedly cried over her love for InuYasha. You’d think there’d be some tension there, with her family not wanting her to go to a place full of demons and things that want to kill their daughter/granddaughter.
Nope. Kagome’s mother openly seems to support Kagome’s travels, or at least, we never hear her object or even acknowledge the danger Kagome is in. She plays an extremely passive part in Kagome’s life. An ever smiling figure who only once takes an active role in Kagome’s adventure in “Return to the Place Where We First Met”. After seeing InuYasha with Kikyo again–we’ll cover this in a bit–and hearing him swear his love and loyalty to the dead priestess, Kagome flees back to her own time, heartbroken. Mom comes through with a hug and some kind words that basically amount to, “yeah he treats you badly but that’s okay, you’ll pull through!”
Kagome’s classmates are basically non-player characters who all look alike, talk alike, and have no individual personalities. They exist to repeatedly encourage Kagome to go out with another classmate Hojo, and denounce her relationship with InuYasha. The ironic part is her friends are the only ones who seem to understand how awfully InuYasha treats Kagome. Yet, because Hojo is more boring than watching paint dry, her friends have no personalities, and her family are the most careful individuals ever, Kagome doesn’t have any real ties to her “normal” life.
Thus, there’s no real tension that exists in terms of where Kagome will end up. We all knew she’d choose to stay in the feudal era with InuYasha no matter how terribly he treated her, or the issue of losing indoor plumbing. Kagome is meant to be our narrator, yet her life is barely touched upon. Miruko, Sango, and InuYasha’s various family members, or their childhoods, are routinely acknowledged (especially InuYasha’s) but we learn very little about Kagome. She’s a teenager, and a would-be high school student. It’s as if she had no life before being forcibly thrust into a feudal fairy tale. The narrative positions Kagome’s desire to study, to get into a good school, and to eventually graduate high school with her friends, as something petty and childish. InuYasha routinely belittles this desire, and no one in the show validates Kagome’s personal goals.
I get it. Traveling across a beautiful landscape untouched by modern technology with hot companions and having adventures sounds awesome. Way better than staying at home and doing homework. But that life is a part of Kagome’s story and we never get to see it. Furthermore, we don’t learn anything about her past, or family history until The Final Act, which takes place two hundred episodes later. Meanwhile, the show showcases nearly all the other main characters’ backstories and childhoods. In detail.
The narrative consistently favors one side of the story: the one with InuYasha. From the get-go, we know these two are going to get together; they have “romantic destiny” written all over them. InuYasha and Kagome are always going to happen, but how they happened could have really helped Kagome’s story, instead of hindering it.
The show repeatedly pits Kagome and Kikyo against each other. Kikyo is InuYasha’s first great love. Kagome is meant to be his future. They’re narrative foils of each other in nearly all aspects. Kikyo is skilled in battle, a talented priestess, calm and collected, and was well respected in her village. Kagome on the other hand is a normal girl who knows nothing about demons or battle. Unlike Kikyo, who was raised a priestess with all the training to come with it, Kagome is less skilled, and her powers less refined. Kagome is also prone to angry outbursts, crying, and needing protection from others. This creates a specific image of both of them, Kikyo being the “capable” priestess, and Kagome being the “incapable” priestess.
InuYasha’s part does little to help this perception. He routinely abandons Kagome–even after promising her he wouldn’t–in favor of Kikyo. InuYasha knows Kagome has romantic feelings for him. It becomes rather an unspoken agreement between them that they’re together romantically in “Return to the Place Where We First Met”, when Kagome returns to be with InuYasha because she loves him. Even so, when InuYasha learns that Kikyo might be alive–after she’s been killed again–he chases a rumor and abandons Kagome. This leaves Kagome open to be kidnapped by one of Naraku’s latest incarnations and possessed. The demon digs into Kagome’s soul for darkness, and only when Kagome realizes InuYasha won’t come for her because he’s chasing Kikyo does the demon infant find it.
This repeated storyline is extremely frustrating. Kagome repeatedly feels inadequate compared to Kikyo and no one ever denies this. Not even InuYasha. It’s not so much that someone has to say, “you’re better than her”; just a simple, “you’re as good as her” would have been nice. Heck, someone listening to Kagome’s feelings of extreme inadequacy when it came to Kikyo would have been nice. Miroku and Sango provide moderate support, acknowledging that InuYasha should apologize a bit more for his behavior, but for the most part they stay out of it. Surprisingly Shippo is one of the few characters that repeatedly call InuYasha out on his dreadful behavior, but Shippo is also narratively useless. He provides nothing to the plot save for being a cute mascot, and never grows as an individual character.
The real kicker between InuYasha and Kagome is that Kagome’s jealousy over Kikyo isn’t validated, but InuYasha’s over the men in Kagome’s life is. That jealousy slapstick humor is often used in anime, but this was especially obnoxious considering InuYasha’s relationship with Kikyo.
Kagome suffers silently, having to martyr herself in order to give InuYasha space, closure, or time with Kikyo. InuYasha could never be bothered to be held to the same standard. When Hojo spends time with Kagome, InuYasha puts him down. When Koga shows open interest in Kagome, protects her, moderately respects her, and treats her kindly, InuYasha goes into a jealous rage. In the episode “Two Hearts, One Mind”, after Kagome and InuYasha get into a huge fight over him taking his jealousy out on Kagome, Kagome laments her own behavior in their fight, even going as far as blaming herself. When she returns to the feudal era to reconcile with InuYasha, Kagome apologizes for yelling at him–even though she was justified in doing so. InuYasha also apologies–for breaking her clock.
We’re suppose to root for InuYasha because he’s awkward, and is unable to own up to his feelings for Kagome, but when his inability to be honest with himself leads to him treating her with disrespect, we have a problem. Kagome has to sacrafice herself and disregard her feelings when it comes to InuYasha and Kikyo’s relationship. InuYasha on the other hand can’t even stand it when Koga holds Kagome’s hand or tells her how much he cares for her or how amazing she is.
Make no mistake, Koga isn’t the perfect partner for Kagome either. She clearly lacks any romantic interest in him, yet he still pushes his romantic feelings onto her throughout the show. Even so, there’s a clear difference in how Kagome and InuYasha’s romantic subplots are handled.
InuYasha’s romance with Kikyo is treated with grace, and subtlety, while Kagome’s potential romantic relationships are treated with kid gloves. Hojo is boring, Koga is never given a second thought, and InuYasha’s jealousy is validated, while Kagome’s feelings of inferiority aren’t. This circle of storytelling continues on for most of the series, puffed out with filler episodes, and never gets truly resolved by the end of the original series.
In The Final Act, a completion of the series that wraps up all the storylines, this gets marginally better. Kagome is given a more active role in her story, and InuYasha shows her more respect as a partner, friend, and romantic interest. Even so, I could never fully forget how awful Kagome was treated throughout the show. The Final Act corrected a lot of the problems the original series suffered from–namely the never-ending plotlines and fillers–but there were still two hundred plus episodes that did Kagome dirty. I still find myself, after watching The Final Act, feeling fondness for InuYasha and Kagome’s relationship. Then I watch the original series and I just get mad. Kagome deserved a better narrative than what was given to her. Kagome deserved to play an active role in the story she narrated and given a love interest who respected her. She was given neither.