When Your Fav Anime Couple is Problematic – This Week in Anime

Chris and Nicky take on fandom shipping discourse and coming to grips with your problematic favorite couple.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, BanG Dream! It’s MyGo!!!!!, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Chainsaw Man, Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999,
Kakuriyo -Bed & Breakfast for Spirits-, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo are streaming on Crunchyroll. Tokyo Mew Mew New is streaming on HIDIVE. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean is streaming on Netflix. Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Adolescence of Utena is streaming on RetroCrush. Puella Magi Madoka Magica The Movie Part 3: Rebellion and Candy Boy are currently unavailable via streaming.


Nicky, for Valentine’s Day, the boss said she wanted us to cover problematic ships. I have no idea why, but after the stunts I’ve been pulling in my Gushing Over Magical Girls reviews, I’m hardly in a position to argue. So, I’ll start us off: My first problematic ship is Strength from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. It’s poorly maintained, under-crewed, and the enemy Stand of a villainous orangutan.

I can’t imagine anybody would be in favor of this floating OSHA violation.

LOL, I’m not sure that’s the right kind of ship. To be clear, the kind of shipping we’re talking about today isn’t related to seafaring vessels. I would hardly call myself a boat expert, but I know a thing or two about shipping, so I will try my best to define it if people may be unfamiliar:

“Shipping” is a term that developed in fandom to express the desire for two (or more) characters to be in a romantic or sexual relationship together, abbreviated to “ship.” As a phenomenon, shipping is most likely to occur around serialized media when the overall status of most relationships is ambiguous. People in fandom will often form cults around specific ships or characters/pairings and celebrate or root for them in the same way sports fans might root for their favorite athlete or sports team. Shipping is a common motivator for fan works, driving many to pour hours into crafting fanfiction and fan art dedicated to their choice of pairing.

However, one does not have to participate in fandom to ship. The act of shipping can be an independent response and interpretation of media. Elements of romance come in different ways, shapes, and fashions and may even extend beyond the text or creators’ intentions. Either way, the potential stops at people’s imaginations. Whether you’ve felt your heartbeat seeing two characters pining over each other or started thinking about how cute it would be for the hero and the villain to stop fighting and start holding hands, it’s unlikely you’ve gone your whole life consuming media without encountering any shipping done by you or someone else. As shipping is highly prevalent in anime fandom, it’s a perfect topic for celebrating the season of love!

Of course, talking about regular old speculatory anime relationships can be done elsewhere by normal editorial teams. Here at TWIA, we’re no strangers to controversy, so why not take the fun of discussing “Problematic Faves” and apply that specifically to which cartoon characters we want to see smooch?

Yes, but first, I should define “problematic.” We talk about ourselves being problematic and things in media being problematic all the time, but it has a particular usage when applied to ships. A problematic ship refers to a dynamic that is transgressive or otherwise taboo. People may find said ship uncomfortable because it goes against societal norms, or it could create a hot button within a fandom. Often, it may refer to a ship that’s less than ideal, contains one or more flawed characters, or is overall “complicated.” It’s the exact opposite of wholesome romances. For some, such drama can be exciting and sexy. The forbidden nature of problematic ships can also make them more alluring to imagine.

In those respects, the appeal can be similar to the “Problematic Fave” series. As someone who enjoys stories of the messy variety, these are the relationships I’ll enjoy in a series (to say nothing of sharing spicy fan art online). I’m the guy who was watching the 2018 She-Ra reboot and actively rooting for the Adora/Catra dynamic to get more toxic before they finally got together.

That’s admittedly just in terms of messy, unhealthy relationship dynamics. Ships involving taboo or illegal elements can have some crossover with that but also come with their particular cans of worms.

They might also refer to any pairing with a character that has already been deemed problematic, like a fan-favorite smarmy villain, an ally with dubious morals, or any character with enough toxic traits that they might as well be marked as hazardous materials. Other times, it can refer to a pairing or character that people do not like for whatever reason. That’s part of what makes it a bit nebulous. Everyone has their threshold for what they consider acceptable behavior, especially when it comes to relationships, even when it’s only happening in fiction.

That personal element drives the appeal of these sorts of ships for some while drawing ire from others. Sometimes, the dysfunction between characters is the motivating factor in wanting to mash them together from the fandom side. Anon and Soyo from BanG Dream! It’s MyGo!!!!! are purely prickly with each other through the series, but one look at my art retweets makes clear that that’s a dynamic I think would shine if they tried dating.

As far as “problematic” goes, that’s baby stuff, but it’s an excellent example of the baseline appeal of watching this kind of toxicity play out between fictitious would-be hate-lovers.
Yet, even small stuff can start huge fights within a single fandom, and it’s not uncommon to see call-out posts for the most minor things as ammo against another faction, especially if it’s coming from the side of an enemy ship! Idol anime fandoms, in particular, can be brutal given the huge amount of potential pairings they possess, and of course, the bigger the fandom, the bigger the wars. It brings a whole other meaning to the term “Love is War.”

Yet, it’s not as if all media is pure, wholesome, and conflict-free. Plenty of series might portray toxic characters’ relationships for drama or as part of their story. To bring up a classic, Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s thesis is that the entire cast needs to go to therapy.

As an episodic series, most of the run time is dedicated to exploring the characters and their relationships. Some of them even center on taboos such as power, abuse, manipulation, and even incest, all in that delicate shōjo-style, exploring the darker aspects of humanity, all while sympathizing with the characters without necessarily condoning their actions. Yet, one of the best and most exciting relationships also features a character most people would find challenging to sympathize with, and that’s the whole deal with Juri and Shiori.

Kunihiko Ikuhara is no stranger to depicting the thornier side of shōjo series and the girls who love each other in them. Yuri Kuma Arashi was a whole thesis on, among other things, purity culture in yuri series and the stifling limitations that it brings. Foundational as Utena was to Ikuhara’s trademark conceptual tropes, it makes sense that depictions of characters like Shiori would be a driving force in the kinds of messy relationships used as a vehicle to communicate those ideas.
In the introduction, the whole deal with Juri feeling unrequited towards Shiori and Shiori going through a complicated love triangle to make Juri jealous is already dramatic. Still, throughout the series, they continue to hurt each other in the name of love. They’re toxic to a T, but the emphasis on their mutual love underscores it as a tragedy you want to see them overcome when everyone else tells them to walk away from each other.

I like a sweet, positive romantic comedy as much as anybody else. Still, sometimes there is something to seeing a relationship between two people who are provably terrible for each other. It goes hand-in-hand with some of the worst qualities in characters that audience members might find appealing. These toxic traits would be red flags to run away from in real life, but through the veneer of fiction, it can make for an enthralling fantasy to watch play out.

In the sixth installment of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stone Ocean, every character is a stone-cold criminal deemed unforgivable by society. Yet, they all share the same aspiration of a better life. When Chris and I discussed it, I became fascinated with the character of Anasui, someone most people would probably find pretty despicable. The way he initially treats Jolyne with possessiveness is in no way admirable. Still, watching how his character and feelings grew into something more sincere despite being such a bad person was interesting.
Your explanation and the following discussion certainly talked me around on a character I’d been pretty repelled by initially. That’s not always the case when you try to explain your problematic ships to someone who isn’t receptive. Thankfully, the TWIA team enjoys a decidedly non-toxic relationship. Or maybe I was predisposed to understand this sort of thing all along. We both agreed on the inherent appeal of Ichigo’s #1 Danger Boyfriend, Kish, in Tokyo Mew Mew, after all.

I don’t know why he’s named after a sweet dessert; that boy is spicy.
That’s the smile of a criminal who has caused too many casualties. I never participated in the old fandom, but I can only imagine this guy had an entire fan army at his disposal judging by the numbers of AMVs set to Cascada’s “Bad Boy” still on YouTube. (Markers of historical importance.)
The AMV Index has been a reliable unit of fandom measurement for decades! And shipping with villains like Kish is hardly new for the kinds of kids watching these cartoons. It’s basic to the point that I don’t know if it can inspire that much genuine discourse. That sort of thing more effectively gets going when the morality of one or both of the shipped parties is more…debatable at the outset.

I’m sure many people are giving us a hard side-eye or are getting ready to get up and leave the room at this point because the appeal of a bad character or a bad relationship is lost on them, like what’s so good about something bad?! What’s the difference between breaking a taboo in fiction vs real life? Does finding this kind of portrayal desirable make someone a bad person? Like, I’m sure some of you think we have some sort of screws loose for admitting this casually without shame, but that’s because we think this kind of response to media is normal.

As I’ve talked about in other reviews and columns, I don’t fault anyone who nopes out of something as soon as it squicks them away. I’ve also only ever been 100% correct about the things I like and why, so I haven’t attracted a lot of call-outs for my earnest enjoyment of glorified fetish scenarios like the relationships in How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord or Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro.

These love stories make clear what they’re about and who they’re for, so it’s easy to give them a problematic pass if they’re more a yuck than a yum. Comparatively, when a character connection that a large fandom is already attracted to evolves into toxicity, the discourse machine can start a-runnin’.

Do you ever watch a fandom split right in two like it was just struck by some natural disaster? Sometimes, ships can do that. That’s basically what happened when Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion dropped to screens.

Oh yeah, I told y’all we like to court controversy.

What’s extremely funny about Gen Urobuchi‘s wild movie addition to the world of Madoka is that Rebellion technically fully confirmed the overwhelmingly popular Homura/Madoka ship. It’s just that it did so via the most toxic methodology possible, with an absolute gut-punch of a cliffhanger as garnish.

I loved it.

Madoka and Homura are already great and somewhat tragic from the get-go. Homura went through so many time loops to save Madoka and did not find catharsis until the end of the TV series, where Madoka nobly sacrifices herself for all the magical girls’ sins, which is why it’s pretty shocking when a sequel movie comes along and pretty much undoes all of that with Homura now declaring herself a villain for loving Madoka. It’s a scene that enraged many fans but also delighted them for textually stating a ship that was previously subtext and opening it to new (tragic) possibilities.

I personally found the development fascinating from a lot of the angles we’ve already discussed. There was already an argument to be made in the Madoka TV series that Homura’s ideation of Madoka was an unhealthy attachment on the former’s part. Rebellion just canonized that element of her attraction alongside the attraction itself.

We know Homura’s obsession is based on a previously healthy and mutual affection that was fostered between the two girls during their brief time together. Still, in her monologues, she states that her suffering and pain are all a part of her “love.” Her determination to be with Madoka is an unwavering devotion that might as well destroy everything, like rules, morals, and the universe. None of those matter if she can’t be happy with her beloved. The same thing that made her heroic in the series made her become the villain. I can’t help but think she’s right.

It’s layers and layers of complexity! Part of me does understand those who take issue with Rebellion’s swerve. There’s an argument that it plays into the trope of the toxic and possessive lesbian that undermines so many portrayals of queer women in media. But I believe, in my viewing of Rebellion, that Homura’s flaws are meant to characterize her alone. And they sure create some serious retroactive reading for her in the preceding TV series!

Still, not everyone was down on this development. Many fans were happy for Homura’s cool and incredible transformation and desire to be united with her god gf! It’s like they have matching cosplays now. Even if her methods are ultimately terrible and have left to see the full repercussions until the next movie (that still hasn’t come out). Look, sometimes nothing fuels the fan art machines like the fans’ tears. We love suffering.

On the topic of LGBT relationships, there’s a meta-commentary on Homura’s decision and Class S and the expectation of purity placed on young girls’ relationships in yuri. I explained much about Class S in our Yuri Is My Job! discussion (another outstanding series with many messy ships), but Dokes initial ending fulfills the old Class S cliches of killing sapphic relationships to maintain status quo. Madoka and Homura get to remain pure but separate beings, as living happily together as a real couple would be too taboo. Homura’s rebellion is a way of taking back her agency and sapphic identity against a universe that would have her sacrifice her personal happiness for normalcy.

That’s a neat take on the results of Rebellion and ties neatly into our overall discussion of the appeal of toxic ships! There’s strong “then let me be a villain” energy in Homura’s decision there. It also underscores the entertainment value of people making fun dating decisions in fiction where they’d be catastrophic in real life. Not that there are a ton of real-life parallels to Homura entrapping her metaphysical manifestation of hope in a possessive pocket dimension, but these excesses, too, are why we are drawn to these sorts of anime.

The movie’s infamous ending also came with the asterisk that there would be a continuation of some sort following up on the fallout of Homura’s decision. The fandom just had to wait ten years wading through debates for it to happen, but it does look like it’ll finally actually be happening!

It’s also no wonder there’s a certain number of queer fans who resonate with these less-than-perfect portrayals. After all, queer people have historically been labeled as taboo, degenerate, and even villainized for embracing our desires with honesty and pride. On the other hand, what heteronormative society finds to be acceptable can leave us feeling alienated and restricted for simply existing as humans do. Real people have desires and flaws and generally act in ways that don’t make any sense. That doesn’t make us undeserving of things like love and acceptance.

Even if they aren’t all metaphysical magical girl messes, the reality of relationships is a perpendicular reason to the fantasy that fans might gravitate towards these problematic portrayals for. Exploring that toxicity from behind the safety of a screen can provide an engaging way to explore those elements. It also often results in some imminently interesting storytelling.

Sometimes, that includes entirely technical taboo elements like My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999 and a heroine in her twenties dating a high schooler. But look, I’ve read Cardcaptor Sakura, I know age gaps can get way worse.
Of course, most of this depends on your suspension of disbelief and your person. There are many ships I won’t touch because I find it unappealing or some other hang-up that prevents me from enjoying it for whatever reason. So, I don’t blame anyone when they don’t find the things I like appealing. Execution also matters more than the premise. I remember a few people being turned off by a comfort series of mine, Kakuriyo -Bed & Breakfast for Spirits-, since the premise features the heroine getting spirited away for an arranged marriage with the oni in charge of a prestigious inn in the spirit realm. Although this is pretty much a plot out of a fairy tale, our modern protagonist is unsurprisingly reluctant about marrying a stranger who kidnapped her and worked out a deal to pay off her grandpa’s debt instead of being forced into a marriage. As a hostage in a strange land, there’s an obvious power imbalance, but watching Aoi work for herself makes her feel capable of standing on equal footing with even the worst demon.

I can’t smack-talk that setup; I just made my court-mandated reference to How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord a few paragraphs back. I also habitually rewatch Candy Boy, a series that’s probably for the best that is not officially streaming anywhere.

Still, it shows how even a relationship with a rocky start can improve into something supportive. I’ve seen similar plots in other series, and in fandom, it’s pretty standard to imagine bad guys turning good or what-ifs where your worst couple can find a way to a happy ending. Which reminds me, why the hell has no one made an OVA for Scum’s Wish‘s short sequel manga, Scum’s Wish décor?! Talk about messy characters needing a happy ending. I need it solely to see the chapter where Sanae gets to be happy with her teacher GF (problematic in a different way but happy).
See, we didn’t even get to go into the taboo takes of teacher-shipping and mentor-shipping—there’s a whole other row of cancel-worthy chocolates in this box! But that’s the reality of toxic relationships, in that you often don’t get the great ending you’re hoping for. Sometimes, you get an enjoyably messy story that appeals to weirdos like us who revel in these kinds of problems.

Yeah, although generally, many people want their ships to end happily, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, it’s because we love a tragedy and watch it with the curiosity of watching a train wreck, or other times, it’s because we know that in our hearts, they’d be better off without each other, and that kind of fleetingness is its own kind of romance. The best series I can ascribe to that feeling is the strange anime adaption of the literary classic Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo. The entire series is a whirlwind of watching a young lad chase after a blue space vampire who’s only associating with him to seek revenge on his family. It’s an odd swerve on the book and impossible to look away from, even if you see the terrible events coming from miles away. (Well, especially if you’ve already read the book.)

I mean, what is The Count of Monte Cristo if not a man who spent at least a portion of his time on a problematic ship?

Watching this series will have you flopping so hard between feelings of awe and dread that you might as well call it seasickness. It’s incredibly sympathetic to Albert’s gay coming-of-age while all his friends yell at him for being too gullible. His bromance with Franz is much healthier, I should add.

When it came out, my strongest memory of Gankutsuou was hoping that Albert would get together with Peppo, so I’ve been rooting for these roller coasters of relationship dynamics all that time.

Who wouldn’t want to be deceived by a hot blue space vampire, though? It’s important to understand how it is a fantasy for the audience. Sometimes, it’s nice to put yourself right in the center of the drama without the damage it causes.

A lot of fantasies are about putting ourselves in roles we might not typically experience. So, the self-insertive practice of putting yourself in the character’s scenario is also important, whether being spoiled by an older gentleman or living it up as the upper class of future France. How people enjoy media is actually quite abstract to the point that even I don’t always know what I’m going to get out of something until I do.
In that respect, rooting for problematic relationships is as part-and-parcel to the anime experience as enjoying any other toxically tuned elements. That’s the kind of confidence you’ve got to carry into celebrating Valentine’s Day. And remember, no matter how bad you feel about your support of a problematic ship, at least you aren’t Crunchyroll celebrating the day with a tweet about Citrus.

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