[Editorial Note: The topic of this essay is nigh impossible to discuss without spoilers, given how the show’s narrative is constructed. While I’m usually all for theoretical reading, I’d highly, HIGHLY recommend watching the series before reading on. As you might have noticed, I think it’s kind of great.]
Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine has made its rounds by this point, gaining a respectable and deserved amount of buzz as one of the best anime to come out of 2012 (and if no one else is saying it I am, loudly and determinedly). There’s plenty of praise to go around for the jazzy score (produced by Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichiro Watanabe), the dark and intriguing plot, and the breathtaking action. Granted, it’s a little more on the divisive side among longstanding Lupin fans, but that more often comes down to a debate on whether the tonal departures from the franchise norm are intriguing or irritating.
Still, in my travels across the internet there’s one constant that continually baffles me: nobody seems to like Oscar. Either he’s labeled unnecessary and irritating, resented for the amount of screen time he received, or (in a moment that was at least a nice change of pace, and not out of step with the franchise’s somewhat dubious record on that front) lambasted as being a particularly offensive portrayal of a queer character. I, meanwhile, find myself sitting in the corner with one persistently recurring thesis: Oscar’s the most important thing about The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, after Fujiko herself.
Conspiracy and Memory: An Overview
Before we can talk about Oscar we have to talk about Aisha, the woman at the center of the Fraulein Eule conspiracy and the real owner of the memories that plague Fujiko throughout the series. In brief: Aisha was the daughter of one of the head researchers working at Glaucus Pharmaceuticals; his experiments centered on the manipulation of memory and perception by way of a hallucinogenic drug coded ‘Fraulein Eule;’ however, the head benefactor of the experiments, Count Luis Yu Almeda, decided to clean up loose ends following an ‘accident’ at the lab, and manipulated events so that Aisha ended up in his care.
Almeda then tormented a succession of young girls, recording their reactions and transferring the most successful memories into Aisha in the hopes of making her his perfect young bride. The strain of this, coupled with sexual and physical abuse, left Aisha bedbound and only able to speak through a machine that read the movements of her eyes. When news came at last that Almeda had died, Aisha was unable to deal with this knowledge. Rather than accept that the man who had stolen her life was gone, she chose to become him.
Here the experiments took a twist – because her life had been controlled since childhood, Aisha took a deep interest in the lives of others. She ordered the kidnapping of many young girls and implanted her own memories into them, before releasing them and observing their actions. All, we’re told, went mad and committed suicide shortly after leaving the castle. Only Fujiko, the sole victim captured as an adult, was able to overcome the influence of the memories by means of locking them away (and Aisha’s rage at Fujiko’s ability to overcome such trauma kicks the plot into motion).
The Parallel Victim: Oscar as ‘What if’ Scenario
While it’s never once mentioned explicitly, I would lay down serious cash on the wager that Oscar – Fujiko’s rival, foil, and companion in spiraling madness – was one of the children put through Aisha’s experiments. And because that theory will be crucial once we get into the larger-applicability portion of the essay, I’m going to spend some time sketching it out (this has been covered during the recap series, so consider this a condensed overview).
Oscar’s breakdown over the second half of the series mirrors Fujiko’s own: despite starting the series as a fairly levelheaded lieutenant, one whom Zenigata trusts with planning and commanding field work, he begins acting erratically at the very time Fujiko gets her first visions of the implanted memories (as if he too is being affected, with similarly erratic behavior if different triggers); from there each episode focusing on him loosely links to what is going on with Fujiko at the time, allowing us to observe a kind of warped feedback once the pieces have been noticed.
It could be that he was one of the original cast-offs who was experimented on by Almeda, given the prominent and unexplained tattoo on his chest that matches Aisha’s foot brand (Fujiko, by contrast, has memories of receiving the brand but no actual marks) and the uncanny similarity he bears to the other kidnapped children. And assuming it’s been roughly 13 years since the events at the chemical plant, Oscar could well have been one of the last of the original batch of test subjects released into the world (if we consider him early 20s, the timeline about matches up). He’s the other great (and likely unintentional) “what if” scenario – what if Aisha had been male. Why, then, did Aisha’s focus shift to Fujiko?
As I mentioned, all of the other ‘what-ifs’ killed themselves shortly after release (there’s even a grainy shot of a small, curly haired child jumping from a tall ledge). Oscar should have died jumping from that bridge, were it not for Zenigata’s intervention. It’s not too hard to imagine, given the tech of the time, that the owls lost track of him and presumed him dead until his paths crossed with Fujiko.
Given the complete reversal of Oscar’s demeanor pre- and post- bridge jump, I’d also postulate that he suffered some kind of head trauma when he hit the water, causing a bout of amnesia (much the same as Fujiko locked away her implanted memories accidentally, explaining why they begin to show similar trajectories once they’re re-exposed to triggers). Note also that in the episode preceding the flashback aggression is explicitly stated as a symptom of Fraulein Eule poisoning, which checks out with young Oscar’s almost feral behavior.
By the time all this comes to light, however, Aisha is no longer interested in playing her game. She’s looking to destroy Fujiko now, not to watch her – so Oscar is not so much another toy to be watched as he is a pawn with pre-programmed buttons to push. His story becomes a kind of sickening inception, an unintended manipulation within another manipulation born out of the culmination of a multitude of life-ruining memory altering experiments (yeah, I know matryoshka dolls are a better suited metaphor, but I’m fairly certain Oscar is somehow the anime version of Cillian Murphy, so the movie reference stays).
Queerness and Meta
I mentioned before that Oscar is Fujiko’s foil, and this is true on both an in-world/character level (primarily acting as the Zenigata to Fujiko’s Lupin) as well as a meta-textual/thematic one. Before we can talk about what Oscar’s story arc means, let’s place it in context. The main thematic consideration of The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, as a whole, is about how the stories of women are written – about how they are coopted by others, forced into standards stemming from harmful and often deliberately demeaning sources, and how those standards are then meant to be enforced as if they were the ones that were meant to exist all along (thus, the memory implants).
So we have Fujiko, an existing character standing in for a group (loosely, females, since that’s tragically rare enough to be qualified as a subgenre). Her ‘expected’ character is shaded as the edgy femme fatale: a woman who wears revealing clothing and indulges in sex because she is somehow ‘broken’ by physical and sexual abuse, and has formed a tough personality to compensate for that pain (implying, then, that if not for the abuse she would be ‘normal’ i.e. more docile and stereotypically feminine); there’s even a touch of the ‘good man cure’ in her stay at Goemon’s cabin.
Knowing that, let’s take Oscar. Like Fujiko, he has a defining character trait that sets him apart from most of the cast, and that stands in for a diverse but underrepresented group in media (yup, the Token Queer Character). And everything Fujiko is, Oscar most emphatically is not: he hides his feelings through rigid behavior (while Fujiko hides behind playfulness and nonchalance), wears an outfit that covers absolutely everything from the neck down while Fujiko’s wardrobe is largely revealing (an interesting costuming choice reflecting a common theory/assumption about abuse victims reacting with either hypersexuality or sex-repulsion), and seeks safety in structure while Fujiko deliberately keeps her life in constant shift.
So, if Fujiko’s grafted-on traits (which we can mark as the ones that start showing up specifically once the memories are agitated) reflect the expected ‘damaged goods’ archetype, what does Oscar tell us about expected queer portrayals? First of all, that they’re hidden – Oscar’s role as victim is coded with enough clues (particularly in that it’s the only way his role in the finale makes much sense) that we can assume it to be intentional, but it’s never explicitly discussed. Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name” quote spread like wildfire for a reason. Secondly, they are aggressively desexualized, with any physical desire being coded as shameful – see again the covering clothing, Oscar’s physical responses of shock and revulsion at the sight of same sex kissing, the fact that even having sexual thoughts about a man (when pretty much every other character at this point has had sex or sexual thoughts) is used as a weapon intended to unbalance him and reveal weakness.
Third, that it is inherently misogynistic (let’s not kid ourselves, Oscar says some very skewed, awful things about women and sex) while also desiring to become biologically female (Oscar becoming a ‘bride’ is presented by the owls as the solution to all his problems), conflating transgenderism and homosexuality while erasing them in the name of fitting an ‘acceptable’ heterosexual image. And finally, that it is without doubt tragic: there’s never doubt in anyone’s mind that Oscar’s feelings will go unrequited, and episode 11 plays what would be an expected and traditional ‘tragic sacrifice’/suicide death for him (that’s the end of about 85% of queer character storylines in the early to mid-20th century alone – The Celluloid Closet is an extremely enlightening documentary, if you’re interested).
All of that put together is a pretty weighty burden if you want to add anything on the level of making a character likable, and on that level it really doesn’t surprise me at all that Oscar is polarizing – there are parts of his character that are downright unpleasant, and he’s a whole bucket of issues besides. Of course he is – he’s bearing the burden of a tradition of corrosively toxic queer narratives in the public sphere.
Now, what ultimately makes Fujiko Mine work as a story-about-storytelling is that it spends its last episode dismantling and rejecting the narrative forced onto Fujiko in the name of free will and self-ownership – that Fujiko (and thus, women) will write their own stories rather than conform to the demands of previous generations (read: Dead White Dudes). And while I’m hardly about to throw a celebratory parade declaring all media to be gender equal (on the contrary, there are many NEW problems alongside the lingering old ones), there have been strides forward in terms of writing interesting and diverse female characters and leads since the time period when the show is set.
Quick, name me an anime (fuck, name me anything) that has a queer main character that is not either a) doomed to end in tragedy, b) restricted to being solely about the romance with no other driving plot element, or c) immediately dismissed as a niche genre effort and summarily ignored by a sizable portion of the mainstream viewing public (No. 6, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Welcome to Night Vale, all grant you points. Points are retracted again because those three titles, from a great deal of searching on my part, span almost a decade of media). You begin to see how the ending of Oscar’s character arc might have come about, yes?
Because I just can’t bring myself to believe that a series as meticulous as this would just forget about the only major addition it brought to the existing cast. I cannot believe that it deliberately brought Oscar back from what was a functional and, again, traditional death scene without wanting the audience to think about it. And if we’ve been trained to compare Oscar against Fujiko, we must begin to think about the storytelling tradition that Oscar represents. Unlike Fujiko and the imperfect but burgeoning world of stories by and about women in mainstream media, there’s nothing for Oscar to draw on.
He is able, still functioning within the self-loathing parameters of the false memories (“bad girls get punished”), to destroy the place that had hold of him. But from there, there is nowhere for him to go. He can’t return to Zenigata, representation of eternal pining and traditional paradigms of masculinity and femininity. But nor can he imagine a future for himself, because there are none written. There is no framework of positive queerness that he can turn to, looking to shape his life – for though I haven’t mentioned it much Oscar is so very young, and in need of role models he can look up to. Not for who he is expected to be but for who he is, and what can be made of that. There is nothing for him, and so he weeps.
And from there, the future is unclear. We know that Oscar is alive, and that he didn’t return to Zenigata or the world as we know it (to further the Utena parallels so entwined with his story, one could say he ‘escaped to the outside world’). And because all the other characters are so satisfactorily delivered to where they ‘should’ be, in light of the rest of the franchise, the audience is left to ponder over Oscar. To ask not only what happened to him but why there was no resolution, and why his character arc proceeded as it did rather than taking the trappings of cliché (which the anime took great pains to dismantle from Fujiko before our eyes) as acceptable fact.
Oscar encourages, I hope, a future where there might be a story he can live up to. Not as a ‘hilarious’ sidekick or the butt of a joke, not as a tightly wound closet case or eternally unrequited lover, but as a hero. Before he was told, by the Owls That Be if you will, that his sexuality made him corrupt or lesser, Oscar was going to be a policeman himself. And I like to think of that open-ended arc, for all the frustration and silencing it reveals in the world’s culture, as a call to arms among those of us who write, to make something that queer youths can look up to rather than feeling resigned to. Because I like to think we’re better than indoctrinating kids with the harmful, toxic ideals of past generations. Or owls.
I’m an optimist like that.