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The Taming of the Tsundere: Japan’s Fascination with Obstinate Women

I was asked in my Literary Criticism class to come up with a comparison of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew with some (read: ANY) form of pop culture. That was their first mistake. The following is copy from the 12 pages of references to anime bullshit Shakespeare could have always done without. I may or may not believe any of this, but hey, do what you gotta do.

The Taming of the Tsundere: Japan’s Fascination with Obstinate Women

When we are introduced to Kate at the onset of Taming of the Shrew’s first act, her very first lines are used to threaten any men that might undermine her pride or treat her lightly. From the very first moment, it is obvious what Kate is supposed to be: the shrew. Resistant, prideful, and strong-willed women that fell into this archetype were a hot topic when Taming of the Shrew was first written:

Ballads, folktales, jokes, and plays about outspoken, assertive women suggest that the English found disorderly women simultaneously threatening and fascinating; stories of their taming were, apparently, reassuring and amusing. (Dolan 3)

It is this fascination, this “amusement” with the idea of an assertive woman that captivated audiences then, and though more serious debates have long since been established around the play, it does not require a great stretch of the imagination to claim that it is what continues to captivate audiences to this day. The story of tenacious Kate and persistent Petruchio has lived long after Shakespeare’s time, and remains a timeless classic that explores the universal ideas of social gender roles.

Adaptations and revivals of Shakespeare’s classics have become fairly common in our modern age, and have been more or less so since Shakespeare himself drafted the original works. They come and go as stage plays, movies, primetime TV specials, and so forth; always using clever allusions and subtle references to make sure the audience is still aware that whatever it is they are partaking in is indeed modeled very closely after an older, far more famous work. Consciously referencing Shakespeare in media modeled after a Shakespearean work, interestingly enough, confines the work to the same conventions, debates, conclusions, and theories Shakespeare’s works are subject to. In doing so, questions concerning theme, motives, character attributes or plot developments are overlooked; written off as if they have already been answered: the media in question is Shakespearean by design, ergo it must be Shakespearean in nature. Why we are continually drawn towards these adaptations is handled similarly as well: it’s Shakespeare.

What, then, can we say about media that shares similar themes, concepts, and ideas with Shakespeare, yet is not intentionally modeled after Shakespeare? Might we derive legitimate, profound insight into Shakespeare’s motivations for writing Taming of the Shrew from modern media modeled after Shakespeare, let alone from modern media completely removed from Shakespeare’s works? To answer the latter question, we must look no further than Japan to find an entire genre of media that, while borrowing seemingly fundamental concepts from Shakespeare, are by and large completely removed from the playwright and his legacy. Japanese animation, referred to internationally as anime, has of late adopted the trend of exploring relationship dynamics much like the one between Kate and Petruchio’s in Taming of the Shrew. If the idea of a significant female figure playing the “shrew” is not unique to Shakespeare nor the time during which Taming of the Shrew was written, then this archetypal character must be culturally and universally significant for other reasons. In this essay, I intend to explore what exactly makes the “shrew” a captivating character through comparison between its classical use in Taming of the Shrew and its modern use in Japanese animation, and in doing so, hope to reveal new insight into the culture behind Taming of the Shrew’s creation.

Anime has existed, more or less, since the dawn of the 20th century. It took root in Japan as an alternative to live-action, filmed storytelling in the 1930s, drew inspiration from Walt Disney Company’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, came into its own right in the 60s and 70s, and has since evolved into an internationally-known art form (Schodt). Its characteristically exaggerated depictions of characters with large eyes; small mouths; stylized features; acute, two-dimensional edges; and sharp colors have intrigued audiences with unique storytelling devices and aesthetic techniques unique to the medium. Anime has continued to explore everything from Japan’s feudal, unique past on into visions of the far future, and has been responsible for innumerable critically-acclaimed titles over its lifetime. Its printed cousin, manga, Japanese comics, borrow heavily from its audio-visual counterpart and are equally significant.

Understandably, the unique medium has built up a wide fanbase both in Japan and abroad; fans that have gone from watching children’s cartoon on Saturday mornings to commanding the direction of the medium as artists, producers, directors and writers. Because of this, anime production studios and the content they produce are both very self-aware. This acute awareness has contributed to a recent production trend to cater very specifically to their core audience’s tastes, likes, and dislikes, resulting in many common character types or scenarios that the core fanbase enjoys being reused in countless works. Among the character types Japanese fans have learned to love over the years is that of the tsundere.

To best summarize tsundere, it is only fitting to borrow from Patrick Galbraith, a Tokyo University scholar who wrote his doctoral thesis on Japanese female character archetypes found only in anime:

Tsundere is a Japanese character development process which describes a person who is initially cold and even hostile towards another person before gradually showing their warm side over time. The word is derived from the terms “tsun tsun,” meaning to turn away in disgust, and “dere dere,” meaning to become 'lovey dovey'. (Galbraith, Otaku Encyclopedia)

To further describe how this character type has grown and evolved, one might look to anime itself, specifically to a monologue delivered on the popular title “Lucky Star,” a series that was critically acclaimed in Japan for often breaking the “fourth wall” and being comically critical of the anime industry and its fans:

MINORU: …unfortunately the word tsundere has suffered misues and decay, and one could say that the definition has evolved. To begin with, the word tsundere was born in the year 2002 [as] an internet term, but the original definition a character who starts off tsun tsun and eventually becomes dere dere. Yes! In other words, it was supposed to describe a change over time!

AKIRA [sarcastically]: Do you really understand?

MINORU: …and now, it is used to describe the multiple faces of a character. In other words, hostile on the outside and affectionate on the inside would be how the word is currently understood.

This monologue is delivered by fictional variety show host Shriaishi Minoru, an anime characterization of the real Shiraishi Minoru, a famous anime voice actor and the voice of his own namesake in the show. Minoru goes on to declare this misunderstanding a cardinal sin of a “depraved nation,” referring with mock resolution to Japan and anime fans as a whole. The whole diatribe is given during a joke segment at the end of the episode proper. Self-aware, indeed (“Desires”).

Self-referential jokes aside, the tsundere character archetype is one that has appeared in countless anime by chance since the 70s, but only recently has become exploited as the defining aspect of many female characters due to popular demand (Galbraith, Otaku Encyclopedia). To say a character is tsundere, by both Galbraith’s and Minoru’s “original” definition of the term, would mean that she is cold, uncaring, aloof, or even hostile towards a male protagonist in the beginning, but gradually comes to appreciate, and often love, the very male protagonist she was wholly at odds with in the onset of the series or story.

The very definition of tsundere lines up surprisingly well with Kate’s character in Taming of the Shrew: where the tsundere might be cold and aloof to her potential love interest, Kate is cold, aggressive and uncaring towards all men. As arranging her marriage is by and large her father’s responsibility, one might argue that Kate is aggressive towards men in general because they are all potentially her candidates for marriage, whether she likes it or not.

In order to better link Taming of the Shrew to anime and the stereotypical tsundere, there must be an equivalent character or series to adequately compare to. Kaichou wa Maid-sama!, “The Student Council President is a Maid!” best exemplifies the themes found in Taming of the Shrew as well as the stereotypical tsundere. This particular comic series begins immediately after highschooler Ayuzawa Misaki becomes the first female student council president in a predominately male high school. She is very violently against having to interact with men by any means, believes them to be filthy and disgusting, and initially vows to user her power as student council president to “rule those boys with an iron fist!” (see Fig. 1). Every boy in the school is beneath her for any number of reasons: throughout the series she cites her ill behavior as a response to inconsiderate men, misrepresentation of the few girls that attend the school, her temper, or any number of situational excuses. She is caught off guard only by one boy: Takumi Usui—resident heartbreaker, pretty-boy, and genius wonder child—after catching him “making a girl cry for no reason,” as Misaki so vehemently asserts (Fujiwara 6).

Misaki’s part-time job is waitressing at a maid café: restaurants popular in metropolitan areas of Japan that have become famous for having their employees dress in French maid costumes and address their customers politely and courteously, and using honorifics such as “Master” or “Mistress” in place of sir or madam (“Cosplay restaurant”). It is both ironic in that the personality of a submissive, courteous maidservant is entirely contradictory to Misaki’s character, and in the sense that the tsundere character type has very recently begun to extend itself into maid cafes themselves (Galbraith, Moe). Misaki’s workplace is both a compliment to the cultural aspect of her work, and a contradiction to her personal disposition.

The plot is further complicated when Usui discovers her “secret” part-time job and begins to harass her. He constantly makes blatant romantic advances on her, lends her a hand when he sees fit, and makes public statements that they are both deeply in love—statements that are immediately refuted by Misaki, much to her embarrassment. These constant advances are Usui’s expressions of true love towards Misaki, which she very quickly figures out and refuses to accept at first. As the story progresses, Misaki reluctantly comes to appreciate Usui and becomes less resistant to his persistent affection, ultimately ending in him winning her over (Fujiwara).

[Figure 1: ]

The similarities between Maid-sama! and Taming of the Shrew begin with the analogous characters of Misaki and Kate. Both women are incredibly hostile towards their male counterparts and potential suitors, both suffer (to varying degrees) at the hands of their respective men, and both are eventually “trained” in the end. The comparisons do not, however, end here. Though not nearly as brash or crude, Usui’s tactics for “taming” Misaki are quite similar to Petruchio’s. Just as Petruchio insists that he and Kate are happily wed, Usui insists to anyone willing to listen that he and Misaki are lovers. Petruchio domesticates Kate by forcing housework upon her; Usui forces Misaki to serve him at her restaurant. Petruchio purposefully lies to convince Kate he is smarter than her, and Usui constantly proves Misaki wrong when she is faced with a difficult decision or situation.

More interesting, however, are how their tactics differ, and how equally effective they are interpreted to be: Petruchio belittles Kate, subjects her to ridiculous amounts of stress and strain, and deprives her of food and sleep—for all intents and purposes, he may as well be torturing her into submission. Usui’s “torture” is far from deprivation: he goes out of his way to profess his love to her, steal kisses from her, help her in any way he can when she becomes overwhelmed or exhausted from all of her responsibilities, and does not hesitate to outdo Misaki in feats of mental, physical, or emotional strength: he takes the position at the top of the class from her with ease, bests her in sporting events, and takes her place in a game of chess when she herself has no idea how to play. He also serves to provide her bits of wisdom contrary to Misaki’s old, typical way of thinking, which she immediately applies to her life and conveniently learns from—asserting that he is smarter than her by constantly teaching her the error of her ways.

Even the texts themselves are supported a history of contradicting works. Taming of the Shrew was written and produced during a time when handbooks on gentlemanly conduct and how wives and mistresses should behave—books written by men, specifically catering to men’s needs and desires, even when they were “written for” women. Maid-sama! is backed by an extensive catalog of similar comics and anime considered by fans to be shoujo titles: anime and manga specifically targeted at a female audience between the ages of 10 and 18 (Thorn).

Despite monumental differences between the two media, there are still fundamental similarities between the two. This begs the question of where, then, do they take their shared themes and concepts? Where does this concept of the hostile, abrasive “shrew” come from? Though the subject of the husband’s pride and honor in marital affairs was indeed a serious topic of Shakespeare’s time, this is not an idea unique to Shakespeare. There are the obvious ideas of male dominion, female servitude or weakness, and even an obligation on the woman’s behalf to serve men: this is a common concept that goes back as far as the Bible itself. There is something more cerebral to the parallels drawn between these two examples, however: both instances are related to romance. Though Petruchio’s motives are purely aimed to Kate’s dowry, he must attain it through pursuing marriage, and his “taming” is more or less complete only after taking his miserably-married wife to bed: feigned romance, but romance nonetheless. Likewise, Usui’s advances on Misaki are very obviously steeped in romantic attraction. As The Taming of the Shrew is certainly not the only story of a shrew being tamed and married (in no particular order), so too is Maid-sama! equally common: there are hundreds of shoujo manga and dozens of animated series where the tsundere female lead character eventually falls for the male protagonist.

Might, then, these similar romantic underpinnings be a part of what made Taming of the Shrew so alluring when it was first written? Though the times have changed significantly, the concepts of love and romance are very obviously universal. So too is the knowledge of the feminine disposition, a mysterious thing men have attempted to perfect and master since time immemorial. One does not have to look far to find ill-behaved women throughout history, and though they appear frightening and threatening to English gentlemen at the height of Taming of the Shrew’s creation, one cannot discount the possibility of even the most resolute gentleman loving the shrew. This very possibility is explored in an alternate ending to the play, revised in 1756:

PETRUCHIO: My fortune is sufficient, here’s my wealth:

Kiss me, my Kate, and since thou art become

So prudent, kind, and dutiful a wife,

Petruchio here shall doff the lordly husband —

An honest mask, which I throw off with pleasure.

Far hence all rudeness, willfulness, and noise.

And be our future lives one gentle stream

Of mutual love, compliance, and regard. (Garrick 159)

Though this revision is made just short of two hundred years after the play was originally thought to have been conceived (Dolan 2), it is not hard to imagine that the possibility of the supposed “shrew” being, even in some private, unspoken manner, an object of desire. Although it may sound somewhat ridiculous, the idea is not entirely implausible, nor does it contradict commonly perceived roles of women at the time: the tenacity of the shrew would still technically satisfy male desires if she were secretly, even as a shrew, an object of desire to begin with.

This idea of the shrew as both an object of desire would only further connect the use of tsundere character types in anime and the use of the shrew in Shakespeare’s play. Though Maid-sama! is not one such series, tsundere characters and the series that feature them are often purposefully meant to satisfy, to some degree, the whims and fantasies of a primarily male audience. Other wildly successful series featuring tsundere women, even those that share a remarkably similar premise as Maid-sama!, fall into the category of boys’ manga rather than girls’ manga usually due to comparatively shallow content and remarkably lewd depictions of both male and female characters.

Though The Taming of the Shrew and Kaichou wa Maid-sama! indeed share likenesses between one another in their thematic structure as well as the development of both plot and characterization, it is in the idea of the shrew as an object of desire that Shakespeare’s classic work finds new cultural meaning. This idea makes the English fixation on the shrew all the more interesting, as it contributes to the ridiculous chauvinism of the time at least a sliver of humanity. Might Englishmen simply have been so frustrated by not being able to obtain easily the women they wanted that they resorted to a wholesale dehumanization of the objects of their desire? Might it have been this wholesale objectification that enabled them to be so cruel in the first place? Whatever the explanation, evidence that this behavior is indeed universal begins with tsundere, its myriad portrayals, and its significance to Japanese media and its highly-specialized character types as a whole.

Works Cited

“Cosplay restaurant.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2010.

“Desires.” Lucky Star. Prod. Kyoto Animation. Chiba TV, Chiba, Japan. June 10, 2007. Clip found at

Dolan, Frances E. ed. William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.

Fujiwara, Hiro. Kaichou wa Maid-sama! vol. 1. December 2006, Hakusensha. Digital copy accessed 22 April 2010:

Galbraith, Patrick W. "Moe: Exploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan". Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies. Accessed 22 April 2010.

Galbraith, Patrick W. The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan. Kodansha International, 2009.

Garrick, David. “Catharine and Petruchio.William Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew. Dolan, Frances E. ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996.

Schodt, Frederik L. Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha International, August 1997.

Shakespeare, William. “The Taming of the Shrew.” The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington. 4th ed. HarperCollins, Inc., 1992.

Thorn, Matt. "Shôjo Manga—Something for the Girls", The Japan Quarterly. vol. 48, no. 3. 2001. Accessed 22 April 2010:

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