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"Anotsu/Makie: One of Those Love Stories"

I'll preface this post with an apology as I'm about to commit the error of writing meta about a series I don't know very intimately yet. Having been firmly schooled over my early misapprehensions about Mirage of Blaze, I'll approach Blade of the Immortal with a healthy degree of disclaiming: everything I'm about to say could be wrong or wildly incomplete. (I have only read brief summaries of the last 5 or so volumes.)

There's much to love about BotI, but I'll focus here on the relationship between Anotsu and Makie, which has peaked my fannish interest more strongly than any text I've encountered for quite some time. Their relationship, for me, has become part of a triad of related love stories. Compared to Naoe/Kagetora in Mirage of Blaze and Cathy/Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, the Anotsu/Makie subplot of BotI may be a junior sibling, but a sibling it is. Each of the central relationships in the triad resonates with the others. MoB and WH resonate along the axis obsessive love that transcends everything. Anotsu and Makie aren't quite there; rather, they resonate in terms of interpersonal dynamics.


Anotsu and Makie vs. Heathcliff and Cathy

Anotsu and Makie echo Heathcliff and Cathy in subverting typical gender dynamics. It has often been remarked that Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship is as fraternal as it is romantic (if not more so). This seems the root of the non-gendering of their relationship: it is, in some sense, pre-sexual. Anotsu and Makie do not have a fraternal relationship, but here too, the de-gendering of their relationship seems rooted in their meeting as pre-pubescent children. The foundational impression that Makie made on Anotsu was her martial skill. Since Anotsu's primary interest in life is fighting, this impression supersedes any concern with her femaleness. In WH, Heathcliff sees Cathy as a person who is (secondarily) a woman (as Cathy sees herself). So too in BotI, Anotsu sees Makie as a warrior who is a woman. Makie, on the other hand, sees herself as a woman who is a warrior. Unlike Cathy, she maintains an essentialized concept of her own femaleness.

This is the crucial contention between Anotsu and Makie. Both of them perceive her life as constrained to one of two options: 1) some sort of prostitution (or related work as a geisha) or 2) a career as a swordswoman. Of these two options, Anotsu pushes strongly for the latter while Makie is inclined to choose the former. In effect, while Makie gravitates toward a feminine space, Anotsu locates her value in the masculine sphere. (Both assume these spheres to be incommensurate. Thus, Anotsu refuses to sleep with her when he buys her out of prostitution in order to emphasize his interest in her martial skills. Conversely, Makie feels that if he had slept with her, she would feel absolved from using those skills; she would be "just a woman.") Their relationship is much more immersed in gender politics than Cathy and Heathcliff's. Yet some results are similar. In erasing gender roles, Heathcliff can acknowledge Cathy as the dominant partner. In framing Makie as masculine, Anotsu, likewise, acknowledges her as his "master," the superior warrior.

This move, in both stories, is the more remarkable because both men are strongly conventionally masculine. In the less gendered dynamics of Cathy and Heathcliff this fact is not very consequential. For Anotsu, however, his investment in a woman's martial superiority requires personal sacrifice. He is well aware (as a child made explicitly aware) that being "weaker" than a woman shames him, yet such is his admiration for Makie's prowess that he unflinchingly accepts that shame as the price of seeing her fulfill her talent. However, he reasserts authority in the relationship by incorporating her as a subordinate in the Itto-ryu, which he leads. Thus, simultaneously, both are master and both subordinate.

Makie and Anotsu vs. Kagetora and Naoe

It is clear that Makie = Cathy and Anotsu = Heathcliff, but which one is Naoe and which is Kagetora?

Well??

Both are both. And that's their problem. Makie and Anotsu are a Naoetora misfire. Their relationship exists in some similar dimensions, but they do not gel in the way that--for all their four hundred years of angst and agony--Kagetora and Naoe gel. They cannot find their proper places. (Or maybe--compared to that four hundred years--they just haven't had time to.) There is a Naoeness to Makie in her devotion to Anotsu, her self-subordination to him, and in her predilection for rescuing him. Similarly, there is a Kagetoraness to Anotsu in his leadership skills and unflagging dedication to his (much more dubious) cause.

But if their social dynamics cast Makie mildly as Naoe and Anotsu mildly as Kagetora, their personalities suggest the reverse. Makie and Kagetora, in particular, are very similar people. Both are highly self-reflective introverts, scarred by childhood abandonment and guilt for having brought shame on their families (ironically, Kagetora for being feminized [as a rape victim], Makie for being masculinized [as the girl who defeated her brother]). They are both natively extremely powerful, with a power that seems to come from intense--almost unhealthy--personal will power and lifelong work. At the same time, they are both self-flagellating self-doubters, morally rigid with themselves to the point of debilitation. Both are prodigies inclined to see themselves as worthless and to discredit praise. Thus, while both can be deadly adversaries, both are prone to bouts of poor performance, rooted in self-doubt and various kind of emotional overextension. Yet both have a strong moral sense, which they violate with difficulty and revert to by instinct. Both would rather suffer excruciatingly than unnecessarily harm others or let others be harmed. Thus, Makie calls life in a brothel morally superior to life as a killer; thus, Kagetora's four hundred years of service.

This sort of hypersensitive genius can achieve wonders but is prone to self-destruction. To function, they require massive amounts of positive reinforcement. When their relationship is working, Naoe does this for Kagetora, and he does it to just the utterly devoted, unwavering, obsessive degree that Kagetora needs to believe it. Anotsu is not Naoe. He shares something of Naoe's belief that the object of his affections is awesome and a little bit of Naoe's pride, admiration, and shame that this object is more awesome than he is. But basically, he is a man with a plan. While Naoe (from Kenshin's original order) exists to serve Kagetora, Anotsu exists to lead the Itto-ryu (he is Kagetora in that dimension). Makie, though he truly loves her, is ultimately a subset of the Itto-ryu project. Thus, when Anotsu pays attention to her, she tends to feel manipulated. And when he doesn't (and no one else does), she tends to do what Kagetora tends to in the absence of his supports: go off in a corner somewhere to languish.

If the joy of Naoetora ship is Naoe's giving Kagetora the support he needs, the fascinating frustration of the Anotsu-Makie ship is that Anotsu can't. He yearns wholeheartedly (more than Makie) for Makie to fulfill her potential. And even beyond her martial potential, he clearly deeply loves her. He is concerned for her wellbeing, her health, the way she treats herself. Yet he is not constituted to give her the support she would need to fulfill the potential he so desperately wants her to. For Makie to turn her talents to some positive mission she could devote herself to, she would need to be the center. She cannot be an adjunct to a project she does not believe in, and this is what he asks her to be.

In some sense, Anotsu and Makie's problem is that the wrong partner is the leader. Kagetora and Naoe are both natural leaders, but Kagetora is the stronger one. For all the Sturm und Drang, this works. Makie, however, is not a natural leader. She is an independent with no impulse to manage others and only slightly more to take orders herself. Anotsu, of course, is a very strong leader but an immature one. He lacks her moral instincts and is not amenable to being educated by them. For her part, she cannot dismiss them enough to fully join his cause. Thus, their potential, as individuals and a couple, is thwarted.

To Recap

While they occupy a subplot of BotI and do not get a lot of page time, Makie and Anotsu illustrate that it doesn't take a lot of page time to create a compelling pairing. Across the board, they hit the indicators of a well-written love story. Both are well depicted as complex and conflicting people, both fully human and clearly originating from their own distinct life experiences. The basis for their attraction is as clear as the basis for their difficulties. Their relationship is an intriguing mix of mutually supportive and dysfunctional. They get extra points for subverting gender roles. And they get extra, extra points for doing so in complex way that makes a passable fit for their historical times.

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