Haku is one of the first villains introduced in the popular anime and manga series Naruto. One of the reasons the character is so popular is because at first, fans didn’t know whether the feminine looking Haku was a male or female. So what is Haku’s actual gender?
Despite the initial confusion, Haku is actually an androgynous looking male. That came as a shock to even the main character, Naruto, who remarked that Haku looked even prettier than Sakura, his crush at the time.
Androgynous characters, or characters who can pass as both male and female, are actually popular in Japanese pop culture, and are a recurring part of anime and manga. This is rooted in the cultural aesthetic in East Asia known as “bishonen”, used to refer to young men who look very much like women.
The aesthetic of bishonen can be observed in Ancient Japan and Medieval China. Indian aesthetics brought to China by way of the spread of Buddhism also influenced the cultural trait. Eventually, bishonen found its way into modern pop culture.
Continue reading to find out how bishonen evolved into appearing in anime and manga.
Is Haku a Boy or Girl in Naruto?
Haku is a male character who was drawn to look androgynous. However, in Naruto, his true gender reveal was hidden for some time and this kept fans guessing of whether Haku was a he or a she. Once it was revealed that Haku was actually a male, this shocked even the main character, Naruto.
Haku is an example of a character who displays the cultural aesthetic of bishonen, and he definitely is not the only anime persona who has this East Asian cultural aesthetic. There are countless others.
In Japan, the characteristics of bishonen were seen in ancient writings. The concept of bishonen in the country was then influenced by China and to a degree India, which in turn had influenced China with Hindu aesthetics through the spread of Buddhism.
Bishonen are described in the English-speaking world as “a really, really attractive male”, though in Japan it is actually used to refer to the kind of attractiveness adolescents have. Characters are only considered bishonen if they are 20 years old or under, while those above 20 who still possess the same attractive trait are referred to by the terms “biseinen”, “bidanshi”, or “ikemen”. Bishonen and all those other terms are simply referred to by English-speaking fans as “bishies”.
How did Bishonen appear in Anime and Manga?
Bishonen as an aesthetic existed in Japan long before the manga, and its televised counterpart, anime, were born. The incorporation of bishonen in those mediums was only the result of artists wanting to add a Japanese aesthetic to their work. What also inspired many Japanese anime artists to draw androgynous characters was the film Death in Venice, released in 1971, which featured a 16-year old Swedish actor, Björn Andrésen.
The appearance of Andrésen’s character in that film was something that many Japanese artists wanted to replicate, adding to the elements of bishonen. In addition, Andrésen’s character and music icons like David Bowie would influence the aesthetic of Japanese glam rock bands during the 1970s, who would more frequently utilize the androgynous look.
What are the Traits of Bishonen?
So what exactly defines the bishonen look? Well, generally speaking, bishonen are men who are slim (they do not have bulging muscles either), and have no facial or body hair. They also tend to have huge eyes which are drawn expressively.
Bishonen characters are also usually voiced by female voice actors. If they do not have a feminine voice, a common alternative is for them to have a voice that is very deep and sexy.
In anime, it is also a tendency for bishonen to be the main rival of the protagonist. Male protagonists in anime tend to have a very masculine and buffed appearance, making the bishonen a good physical contrast. In anime, bishonen with white hair are almost always villains.
Is there an Equivalent of Bishonen in Western Culture?
Though depictions of bishonen are associated with East Asian and Japanese culture, there are also instances of androgyny being used as an aesthetic in the West. One example is in the artistic representation of angels.
In Western culture, the closest thing to bishonen would be the trope of the Pretty Boy. Characters who embody this depiction are vain and too conscious of their appearance. Bishonen, however, typically couldn’t be bothered by how they look.
The Pretty Boy trope also has certain differences. For one, it does not have an age limit, unlike the bishonen. Also, those regarded as “pretty boys” may exude a very masculine and even rugged demeanor and appearance.
What are the Bishojo?
The bishojo are the counterpart to the bishonen, though they merely are female characters with enhanced beauty and cuteness. The bishojo are marketed towards men, in contrast to the bishonen who are mainly marketed to women. Just like the bishonen, the bishojo are classified as being toddler age to late teens.
The bishojo are identified with their trademark eyes, which are very huge and detailed, as well as their hair, which are also usually very detailed. Their costumes also exuberantly show their youth and bright energy. The bishojo look grew in popularity in the late 1990s.
What is the Historical Context of Androgyny in Japanese Culture?
The precursor to the bishonen is the role of the chigo, or the temple page in Buddhism. Buddhism spread in Japan during the first millenium, and a Japanese priest, Kobo Daishi, introduced the romantic attraction to the chigo. In the process, he introduced attraction between males in Japan, something he also experienced seeing then he visited the Tang dynasty in China.
The chigo were chosen from the bido, or male children who were considered physically attractive. Unlike the monks, they wore makeup, had long hair, and wore elaborate garments. They would be depicted in Buddhist art and medieval literature in Japan.
However, the physical attraction between males in Japan became more pronounced during the samurai era. The samurai were regarded as being a class above the vast majority of the populace, and so had the power to pick a romantic partner of his choosing without scrutiny. Thus the cultural term “nanshoku” began.
Nanshoku was the term used to describe love between males in Japan, though it can also be translated as “male eroticism”. Its counterpart is joshuku or “female eroticism”. However, unlike nanshoku, joshuku describes romantic feelings between men and women, not between two women.
The fact that the samurai could defy social norms and had the option of choosing nanshoku or joshuku when looking for a partner only demonstrates the clear power they had. It also showed the masculinist hierarchy in Japan, where the desires of men prevailed over everything else. The cultural idea of nanshoku would be featured in the Japanese art of the period, including kabuki and noh plays.
Nanshoku and joshuku were both terms that determined male romantic desires, and it was accepted that a man can have both desires if he had the means and status. Both were considered “as natural as the alteration of the seasons”. So with the acceptance of nanshoku as a cultural tradition came the eventual emergence of the bishonen.