Stories about gender and women have always fascinated me. Seek me out as a kid and you’d find me watching Mulan with a copy of Bruce Coville’s The Dragonslayers clutched to my chest. Discovering a relatively obscure series called Basara during my college years was just an extension of that. Basara follows the journey of Sarasa, a 16-year-old girl trying to save her village, and later her country, from the tyrannical king and his sons. The catch: she’s doing this in her brother’s name, as he’s the Child of Destiny who was supposed to save them.
Set in a feudal Japan (implied to be post-apocalyptic), gender in the world of Basara is not so far removed from the real world. With rare exception, the leaders of this world are men. Gender roles are enforced. Women are discouraged or barred from certain professions, culturally if not specifically by law. A scene in volume one has Sarasa’s father slapping her for trying to touch the village sword because “no female hands can defile it”. And when the prediction about the Child of Destiny is made at her birth, the village assumes it applies to her twin brother, Tatara, who is then on raised to eventually be a hero. On the surface, it looks like every bog-standard farm boy turns hero to lead a revolution story, except with katanas.
But this isn’t Tatara’s story; it’s Sarasa’s. After her brother is killed by one of the king’s sons, Sarasa takes his name and place, convincing the villagers that “Sarasa” has died instead. From there on, the characters around her treat her as a man, giving her trust and authority, but also responsibility. Sarasa’s relationship with her new gender role is one of an uncomfortable alliance. Despite the benefits and freedoms offered to a man in a patriarchal society, Sarasa never expresses any desire to remain in her brother’s role indefinitely. Rather, she holds firmly to her female identity, expressing the desire to return to it more than once, compartmentalizing her male presentation, and enjoying her moments “in disguise” as a woman. That she remains a woman does not mean her identity remains static. Sarasa frequently questions to herself and the narrative the differences between men and women and what women are really capable of.
The gender narrative continues with the introduction of a foil to Sarasa’s quiet questioning. Chacha, the female pirate leader, is openly a woman, and openly ambitious. Physically strong, capable in battle, and tolerant of no bullshit, Chacha is what many would associate with a “strong female character”. She, too, expresses no desire to become a man or display masculine traits. Chacha embraces both her status as a strong leader and warrior, and her status as a woman, neither mutually exclusive of the other.
On the other end of the scale, another woman, Senju, is a princess who dresses in pretty clothing and cherishes her role as a domestic wife in a noble household. Despite her sheltered existence, when her life is interrupted by a traumatic event, she walks across the desert in her tattered shoes and silks to seek revenge against the one who caused the trauma. Senju’s character arc mingles revenge with motherhood as her pregnancy advances and completes in the presence of her enemies. In her world with traditional cis gender roles, there are few stories that could be more feminine.
While some embrace traditional feminine roles, others defy them, and still others question them, all the female characters have something in common: they have agency. Every woman, from Sarasa’s quiet, nonviolent mother to the perky, fun-loving Kikune, to the bitter, scheming Ginko, at some point in their character arc, decides what they want and takes steps to achieve it. In Sarasa’s world, even women who are brutalized and trod upon are not victims who passively have things happen to them. That’s not to say that they always manage to achieve their wants; tragedy is a ongoing presence in a world teetering between revolution and increasing oppression. No one gets fridged: each death or ruination is delivered with a human element. You know who each tragedy is for, and why it’s a tragedy. And that tragedy is delivered with parity. Men are equally struck with tragedy, and react with equal desperation, hope, despair, or quiet death.
Basara is both a manga that is exceedingly aware of the differences between men and women in its fictional society, and simultaneously doesn’t care. It doesn’t shy away from speaking specifically to (cis) women’s issues (there’s a few pages dedicated to menstruation, Sarasa binds her breasts as part of her disguise, and so on.) Women as a whole are no more nor less fortunate, capable, or oppressed—treated equally by a narrative set in a world that doesn’t. To me, feminism in a fictional work isn’t about a utopian gender-neutral or matriarchal society, but what feminism itself is about: choice. In a world where you can be a princess, an inventor, a seamstress, a pirate, a dancer, a mother, or a hero, seems like you’ve got a pretty good range of options.