Sometimes it can be a challenge to find detailed information and fanart for Waifu Wednesday articles. I have not had that problem today.
Yes, after discovering the fun that is SNK Heroines, I thought I’d devote today to probably SNK’s most widely recognised heroine, Mai Shiranui.
It turned out that despite her being a very familiar figure to me in terms of visual design, I didn’t know a whole lot about her. So let’s take a little journey together!
Mai first appeared in 1992’s Fatal Fury 2 for arcade and Neo Geo home systems. She was actually the first female character in an SNK fighting game, which may go some way to explaining her enduring popularity, but she nearly wasn’t included at all: her ninjutsu-based fighting style was originally intended for a male character.
The decision to run with Mai rather than the male ninja reportedly came about as a result of the developers’ desire to incorporate an “idol”-style character into Fatal Fury 2’s character roster. In fact, the original idea was for the “ninja” character and the “idol” character to be two different individuals; Mai was the result of an attempt to combine the two.
Japanese magazine Neo Geo Freak claimed that Mai’s distinctive physique was based on two real-world idols. Her famously ample chest was apparently modelled on Fumie Hosokawa, an actress, singer and model who became famous in the 1990s as one of the first successful large-breasted Japanese idols. And her bottom was supposedly a tribute to the late Ai Iijima, who was famous for her adult video performances in the early ’90s before later developing a mainstream television career.
In the Fatal Fury series, Mai is canonically the granddaughter of Hanzo Shiranui, a character who is relatively important to series lore but who never actually made a playable appearance. Mai initially learned the art of ninjutsu from her father and met Andy Bogard — younger brother of Terry Bogard, who appears in genderbent form in SNK Heroines — when he came to train under Hanzo.
Mai fell in love with Andy when he gave her a present on her birthday, and her obsession with him has been a running theme through both the Fatal Fury and King of Fighters series ever since. Throughout the latter in particular, she is typically depicted attempting to form a team with Andy and being rebuffed and subsequently forming an all-female team in frustration. She did briefly get to fight alongside Andy in The King of Fighters ’99, but ended up cast out once again in the following tournament.
The relationship between Mai and Andy developed over time, with Mai very much taking the lead — even going so far as to proclaim herself his fiancee. Andy eventually relented and reciprocated her love, but he tends to prefer to keep quiet about it, while Mai likes to revel in it. In various installments of the King of Fighters series, she can be seen taunting him with wedding dresses and dolls that look like children, and indeed her ending in SNK Heroines shows her continuing to fantasise about marrying Andy — before being rudely interrupted by a vision of the game’s villain Kukri.
Mai is intended to be an example of yamato nadeshiko, a personification of the “ideal Japanese woman” and a representation of the epitome of feminine beauty. With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why her original design was based on two popular idols at the time — or indeed why her personality is depicted as somewhat “princess-like” at times. (Indeed, in SNK Heroines, she even lets out a formidable example of an ojou-sama “Ohohohohoho!” at one point in her story mode cutscenes.)
Her iconic “bounce” (which is explicitly referenced by Kukri in SNK Heroines, what with him being a colossal pervert) is based on the legends of Japanese kunoichi making use of their bodies to distract their enemies through seduction. It was also, according to the development staff of The King of Fighters ’94, added because the team wanted to make her idle animation more interesting and thought they had more available memory than they did.
“When the designer came back with that swaying bosom,” runs an unattributed quote from a member of the development team, “it was so amazing that it left us awestruck, jaws agape.” This animation was toned down or removed in some international releases of several games in both the Fatal Fury and King of Fighters series in the early to mid-’90s, though in many cases it can be restored through the use of a cheat code.
Mai has been popular with both Eastern and Western audiences ever since her first appearance. She was particularly popular with Hong Kong youth in the late 1990s, and is a perennial favourite among cosplayers the world over thanks to her distinctive, immediately recognisable outfit.
Prior to the late 2010s, when, as we all know, the mainstream Western gaming press all became terrified of attractive female characters, Mai made frequent appearances on various “top female characters” or “top sexy characters” lists from publications all around the world, and has even appeared on the front cover of the Chinese incarnation of men’s magazine FHM. Nowadays, the fact she is so well-established both as a cultural icon and SNK’s mascot means it’s hard for much critique to stick, so she seems to be treated with a sort of grudging respect by the more “progressive” parts of the commercial mainstream press — and meanwhile everyone else continues to love her as they always have done.
Having been around since the early to mid ’90s, Mai Shiranui is one of gaming’s most long-serving women, known and beloved to even those who have no familiarity with SNK’s fighting games. So long as there are SNK games, there will be Mai Shiranui, and that’s something we should all give thanks for.
More about SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy
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