Admit it: anime has made you wish you were a Victorian maid.
Warning: This is kind of uneven because I just typed it up and didn’t bother to proofread/organize my ideas – its finals week, so, uh, yeah, I really should’ve been doing something else anyway.
In anime, the various forms of the Victorian trope are quite common, although not obviously so – shows like the currently running Kuroshitsuji and Hakushaku to Yousei are clear examples of the use of Victorian tropes as a background to a show, but perhaps the most common evidence of this trope is the “traditional” maid clad in long, dark dress with a simple white apron, found in shows as diverse as Hayate no Gotoku and Mahoromatic. However, even shows like Vampire Knight also betray a hint of Victorian influence; in fact, many shows depicting vampires do so.
The way in which the Victorian trope (or tropes) play out in an anime or manga is often informed by occidentalism. Occidentalism can be explained as a reverse version of orientalism; orientalism being the lens through which the British viewed Eastern cultures, perhaps most famously those of South Asia. Thus, occidentalism is how the East views the West, similarly assigning shorthand and stereotypes in order to understand the ways of the Western world. Like orientalism before it, it is necessarily constrained by its use of stereotyping.
In occidentalism in anime, the Victorian era becomes a distinct way of setting a show or explaining characters. Consider the Victorian-esque maid – she is often demure, devoted, strict with herself, and level-headed, the ‘perfect’ maid, if you will. She is also rarely given to emotional outbursts, and can also be deemed the moral center of the show, such as Mahoro’s crusade against pornography in Mahoromatic. On the reverse, though, one often finds naughty maids in hentai titles, or even ecchi ones; here, the sexualized image of the West comes into play, much as how one often finds the trope of the sexy, veiled woman in orientalist-leaning literature (‘pornification of the tropics’) – part of the allure is that, under all that fabric and serious surface demeanor lies a voluptuous and sexually-hungering woman.
But the maid is not the only character so often typified by Victorian tropes – the vampire also finds itself often cast in light of perceived Victorian sensibilities. While the vampire is not a purely European invention, it is Bram Stoker’s Dracula which has had a heavy influence on modern depictions of vampires – prior to this, vampires were generally believed to be and illustrated as mindless beasts, not the sexy vampires we find in vogue since the Victorian era. Perhaps the best example of occidentalism’s Victorian trope influence can be found in Vampire Knight (admittedly, best perhaps because of its relevance as a currently running series); not only are the vampires sexy and stately, but they are dignified, an elite class similar to the aristocracy of Victorian era England.
Which brings us to an interesting point – Victorian era England and modern-day Japan do intersect in some ways. The modern xenophobia of Japan (and it is difficult to argue that Japan doesn’t have a fairly high degree of xenophobia) is reminiscent of the British xenophobia of the Victorian age. But more importantly is the social strictures of the two societies – specifically, the ways in which people are expected to behave in public. In both societies, a premium is placed on being honorable while in public, and, thus, largely unemotional. For example, to publicly weep in both societies was to be shameful, especially if one came from a high-ranking family. One could typify both societies as putting a premium on public repressiveness. There is also the matter that both societies were/are extremely entrenched in hierarchy, forming a vertical social structure in which social custom strictly dictates the manner in which one may act.
To wander a little and return slightly to bit pieces in Victorian tropes, the gothic lolita character is clearly drawn from the Victorian era. The goth loli’s appearance indicates the influence of occidentalism, while her demeanor often reinforces ideas about Victorian era English society, for the goth loli is usually (but certainly not always) a quiet, serious sort of character. Thus, she embodies both the visual and emotional demarcators of the Victorian trope. Consider Shinku of Rozen Maiden fame.
There is also the matter that a Victorian setting or style of clothing immediately indicates an inherent sexiness, ironically enough. Characters such as Sebastian from Kuroshitsuji are good examples of this; Sebastian also has the added dimension of being a demon of sorts, which, while not rendering him a vampire, does relate to that specific trope nonetheless.
However, while occidentalism can often lead to the trivialization of a culture through stereotyping, as demonstrated by goth lolis, maids, and the like, it does not necessarily need to. Victorian Romance Emma can be seen as initially coming from an occidentalist standpoint, but it reaches beyond this for a historical accuracy that is startling in its rarity in the world of anime and manga. Victorian Romance Emma, though, also draws on the tropes utilized by Victorian era England itself – specifically, the romanticism that lead to thousands of lightweight books depicting romance between upper-class men and lower-class women. However, VRE does not rely entirely upon this trope, as it also brings a degree of realism to the table not generally seen in these Harlequin-type romances.
Anyway, while I’d love to gasbag about this some more, unfortunately water is seeping underneath the door to my suite at an alarming rate, and its my turn to take over from my suitemates in sweeping it back out the door… although I’m probably going to venture outside into the gale to see if the drain next to the door is clogged, and then make a pathetic attempt to unclog it. I’ll try not to drown.