So ever since the I read/watched the Popularity Poll Arc, I had been wanting Sorachi to delve more into Kyuubei and Tsukuyo’s dynamic. I already loved their friendship. He’d place hints of their similarities here and there - whenever there’d be a Gintama ladies-focused chapter, he’d subtly show that Tsukuyo, Sacchan, Tae, Kagura, and Kyuubei often get together and hang out. But I wanted more. And chapters 619-620 finally gave me what I wanted (I still want more since their bonding got unfairly interrupted when that Dakini injured Kyuubei, but I digress).
Kyuubei and Tsukki both have complex relationships with “womanhood” and Japanese notions of classical femininity. Both of them have, in their respective ways, discarded themselves of it. Kyuubei was raised as a man because her wealthy family, that has served the Bakufu for generations, needed a male heir. Tsukuyo was convinced to cast off her femininity because a “traditionally feminine” woman could not protect other women.
They both have physical scarring to show this symbolic separation. When Kyuubei sacrifices her eye to protect Tae, and when Tsukki scars her own face after Jiraia tells her to, they both detach themselves from femininity itself. Kyuubei then becomes the famed and prodigious young master of the Yagyuu household, and Tsukuyo becomes the vaunted, fear-inspiring leader of the Hyakka, the all-female combative force that protects the women of Yoshiwara. What’s interesting is that Tsukyuo also welcomes her subordinates into the Hyakka by scarring their faces - not only to protect them from getting caught, but also as another symbolic gesture, continuing what she began as a child.
Notably, both Kyuubei and Tsukuyo discarded their femininity for two main purposes. The first and more emotional purpose was for the people they love. Kyuubei is in love with Tae, and claims that this is because she has the “heart” of a man, while Tsukuyo, who looks up to and respects Hinowa, wants to protect her from her position as a younger-sister figure. The second purpose, one that points to the self-sacrificing aspects of both of their personalities, was to please the adults in their lives. Now, of course, the circumstances surrounding their traumas are different. Kyuubei was raised in a loving albeit gravely misguided family - while her father and grandfather hurt her by imposing masculinity onto her, they also wanted to protect her. On the other hand, while Jiraia saw his little sister in Tsukuyo, his “love” was obsessive, abusive, and hypocritical. He coerced Tsukuyo into disfiguring her face and discarding her femininity. Though there is a grain of truth in the idea that these two women could not become respective leaders without denying themselves traditional femininity, since intrinsic to misogynistic stereotypes of femininity is the notion that women cannot be protectors, they can only be the protected, they still suffered at the hands of the selfishness of the adults in their lives.
The way their gender manifests is different as well. It is important to keep in mind that the construction of femininity and of gender are context based. How Westerners conceive of as femininity isn’t necessarily the same thing as how the Japanese conceive of it. That is, thinking that Western terminology can automatically apply to Japanese people is unrealistic. So that being said, Sorachi will never use the word “nonbinary” to describe Kyuubei. However, given that Kyuubei herself has reconciled her gender as “neither man nor woman” and that she still dislikes being touched by men and prioritizes women in her life, it is safe to say that a term like “demigirl” could certainly apply to her. On the other hand, Tsukuyo still uses she/her pronouns for herself and calls herself a woman, but she does not think of herself as feminine. What she means is that she does not conform to the philosophical and emotional core of femininity. She smokes, she curses, she’s a protector, not someone who is protected, and she can’t handle her alcohol well. For her, it’s not about “looking” feminine but rather that she refuses to perform and practice femininity.
Romantic love is also an interesting aspect of how Kyuubei and Tsukki try to break away from femininity. Both of them are in love - Kyuubei is in love with Tae, and Tsukki is in love with Gintoki. This presents them with difficulties. Kyuubei, despite being “masculine”, is still perceived as a woman by the most important people in her life, by her friends, and by people who know about the circumstances of her birth and childhood. Same-gender attraction, in the context of a town like Kabuki-Cho which operates on mostly heterosexual attraction to gain capital (sex work, host clubs, cabaret bars, etc), is not far-fetched but it’s still shielded and tends to be secretive. At first she reconciles this by saying that she has the “heart” of a man, but that stops working when she reveals to Tae that she wanted to be like the other girls and when the other main characters find out that she isn’t a man. Tsukki, who was told by Jiraia that she should cast of all notions of femininity, believes that loving a man will make her weak. Part of this is because of Jiraia’s abusive upbringing - Tsukuyo does not think about herself. She prioritizes everyone else above her, so she believes that being near Gintoki or even being friends with him will make her emotional and weak and soft. And in her line of work, it is dangerous to become weak. So she initially reconciles this by tamping her feelings down as much as she can, but that stops working when Hinowa and her friends find out and she actually becomes friends with the Yorozuya.
What’s beautiful is that they both come to terms with their unrequited love. Both of them realize that it’s okay to love someone else and be friends with them. It’s okay to not necessarily get romantic love in return. Kyuubei and Tsukki know that Tae and Gintoki love them. While Kyuubei does not expect Tae to love her back romantically, she will always protect her and be there for her. And while Tsukki knows that Gintoki would not make a good partner, and that he doesn’t want romance in his life (that he is not the type of man who desires such a thing), she will always be his friend and fight by his side. They have made peace with this, and they aren’t ashamed of their feelings anymore, nor are they forcing themselves to hide, warp, or change them. They’ve both been honest with Tae and Gintoki, and their respective relationships have strengthened as a result. Kyuubei knows that it’s okay to be unabashedly herself, and that it’s okay to be a nonbinary woman who loves another woman, and that she doesn’t need to define her gender in a way that conforms to people’s expectations. Tsukki knows that it’s okay to love someone romantically, that it’s okay to rely on others from time to time, and that it’s okay to show weakness and to be the one who’s getting protection rather than doing the protecting for once.
So to see them come together and fight side-by-side, reaffirming their “womanhoods”, is so empowering. Tsukuyo says “I will always be a woman” and Kyuubei says “after seeing you, I think that I’m glad I was born a woman”. This is the first time that both of them have acknowledged their respective positions in relation to womanhood. But they’ve done so in a positive way, instead of trying to discard their connections to womanhood. They have redefined and reconstructed womanhood/femininity to fit themselves. Tsukki can be a woman, but she doesn’t have to be feminine and she doesn’t have to do “feminine” things. Kyuubei can like her prioritization of woman and her inherent, natural comfort with other women, but she doesn’t have to identify as either a man OR a woman and she doesn’t have to be cis. In this way, they have affirmed each other’s womanhood and affirmed that neither of them have to be feminine or cis to be the women they were always meant to be. And that is the pinnacle of a beautiful w/w friendship, grounded in unique yet mutual experiences and understanding.