The strength of Nier is the friendship between its decidedly odd cast of characters. The western release features a burly and frankly ugly man, a rare choice of protagonist for a JRPG. His principal companion is a pompous talking book that grants him magic powers. Also magical is their young comrade Emil, the sunniest character in the game and the one most constantly dumped on by its world. Then there is the possessed warrior Kainé, whose picture I have tucked beneath the fold because her appearance is arguably NSFW. That design is one of my main reservations about the game.
So here you have it: a character who basically compiles every single sexist trope in JRPG character design into a single body. There’s just no getting around the fact that Kainé goes into battle wearing almost nothing but lingerie. This angle doesn’t even fully show off how bad this outfit is: the nightie is cut out under the breasts to expose skin, and the back side of the underwear is laced together to show off the crack. Notably, I did not spend any extra time researching these angles — the most ludicrous aspects of this outfit are shoved right in your face during cutscenes. The worst thing about it is that I’m not completely sure this getup is the most revealing outfit for a woman in a JRPG ever. However, it’s embarrassingly frank in its literality. Fran (from Final Fantasy XII) might have been wearing something slightly better disguised as armor, but it was just as exposing as this getup, perhaps more so. Throw in the high heels Kainé is wearing here and you have what can only be called the most sexist getup ever thrown on a female character. I can’t really criticize anyone who takes one look at this and throws Nier onto the DO NOT PLAY list.
Despite the atrocious costume, however, Kainé doesn’t really fit the JRPG female stereotype. Women in JRPGs disproportionately inhabit the outer edges of the battlefield, cast as mages, healers, and archers. As the oversized blades she’s holding suggest, however, Kainé’s a close-combat fighter despite the lingerie look, and in several boss battles (especially those involving the critter shown below) she’s depicted as the character who’s doing the real damage. Furthermore, Kainé is all hard edges. Hard-boiled women are much more of a rarity in JRPGs than they are in anime, but in both cases the character often falls into the archetype of a tough shell masking a soft and tender heart that just needs a man’s care to really blossom. In this way even a strong woman character can be transmuted into one who is “appropriately” demure and available. Not so much with Kainé, who is amazingly foul-mouthed and, with the exception of one or two highly ambiguous moments, never seems to indicate any romantic interest in another character.
Even when it comes to the outfit, there’s something else going on. At several points during the first playthrough, Kainé mentions that she loathes her body. It’s also clear that the people of her town, the Aerie, fear and despise her. The natural assumption is that all of this is the result of her possession by a shade, as I discussed in the previous post. However, the new game + playthrough, which is focused around her story, makes it clear that the townsfolk thought of her as a hated freak long before she encountered the shade that took over her arm and leg. Although it’s not explicitly said, the dialogue in her story makes it pretty clear that she’s an intersex character.
In this light the outrageous outfit could be interpreted as an effort to establish a gender identity. Given her harsh life and upbringing, Kainé doesn’t have the personality to fit the traditional view of women. So, to “prove” that she’s a woman she chooses to wear clothing that reveals her feminine physical attributes. That is, at least, an explanation.
An explanation isn’t the same thing as a justification, though. Even if I take the outfit to be the expression of a gender choice by Kainé, the chosen form of expression hinges on design tropes I find irritating or infuriating. If the outfit had been used as a vehicle to genuinely critique existing designs, that too might have rescued the situation. Unfortunately, Kainé’s clothing is just used as the foundation for an ongoing insult battle between her and another character. Surely the developers could have accomplished the same goals without such a ludicrous, objectifying getup.
In the end I feel like Kainé’s depiction has more negative to it than positive. Although she breaks out of the JRPG mold in terms of her personality and battle prowess, her character design goes too far in the other direction, taking design tropes almost to their logical extreme, and probably as far as they could go without getting an AO rating. It’s a shame because I think a less outrageous design could still have done right by the character without making her appearance too embarrassing to allow me to recommend an otherwise excellent game to everyone.