Men Creating Women
Andrew Osmond on anime’s gender gap…
Anime is notorious for largely comprising male artists and directors creating girls and women, or more accurately creating ideas of girls and women. You could say the same about live-action media (films, TV, music videos) but it’s most obvious when you’re talking drawings and graphics – computer games, comic books, animation. In those media, the imagined women have no flesh and blood presence, and they’re usually designed and constructed by men.
Paradoxically, about half of the anime workforce is female, but few rise to positions of creative and executive power. Jonathan Clements’ Anime: A History describes how the 1960s Toei studio already tended to keep women in departments such as painting cels, not animation proper; exactly the same was true at the Disney studio.
Of course, there are towering exceptions. Reiko Okuyama became Toei’s head animator, while Atsuko Tanaka is one of the great Ghibli animators, not to be confused with the Kusanagi voice-actress of the same name. In other departments there are the legendary musician Yoko Kanno; Keiko Nobumoto, who wrote Cowboy Bebop and Satoko Okudera, who wrote Mamoru Hosoda’s films; and Eiko Tanaka, the president of Studio 4C. In manga, you just have to mention Rumiko Takahashi or Hiromu Arakawa…
Yet no-one would argue that there’s anything like equal representation at the executive end of the anime and manga industries. Another vexed question is whether even creative women are constrained by a patriarchal ethos and male audiences; or is it just that they express themselves in ways that ‘progressives’ may dislike? If you want to troll an anime argument, tell the next male pundit who criticises K-ON!’s portrait of girls to check his privilege. After all, it has a female director (Naoko Yamada) and writer (Reiko Yoshida)… though it’s also based on a strip by a man.
Meanwhile, Sayo Yamamoto, female director of Michiko and Hatchin and Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mime, might have been doing her own trolling when she told Anifest: “When I was growing up watching Fujiko in the original series of Lupin, I always watched her with anticipation of when she was going to take off her clothes.”
All this is the subject of arguments and flame wars. We don’t especially want to fan the flames; but we do think it’s interesting to note what prominent male anime creators have said about men creating women. The first witness on the stand is Hayao Miyazaki. He made some comments in his book, Starting Point, which haven’t had much attention. Notably, Miyazaki made them before he was famous. Most of the quotes come an 1983 essay, “Having Seen Machi and Purezento [two student animation films],” reproduced on pages 129 to 131 of Starting Point.
1983 was a big year for Miyazaki. He was toiling on his epic manga, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, and being coaxed by his producer Toshio Suzuki to make a film version. Nausicaa would become one of the popular heroines in manga and anime; we’ve looked previously at her conception here.
“At a certain period in life,” wrote the 42 year-old Miyazaki, “that unbalanced time of transformation from boyhood to youth, young males with a certain tendency start to see a sacred symbolism in stories about girls… Their repressed feelings are too deep to be dismissed by insisting that they just have a Lolita complex or that resolving it in role-playing games is perfectly fine. This type of youth begins to feed the girl within himself. The girl is part of him and a projection of himself… who offers him unconditional forgiveness. She is not like his mother, who swallows him up in her womb… Instead, he is able to take action and display his strength for the sake of this girl.”
While Miyazaki has been praised for creating independent female characters, he has many images of males as hero protectors. In his TV serial Future Boy Conan (1978), the title character is a super-strong little boy who frequently rescues the girl he loves (Lana), bearing her in his arms. There are similar images in Castle of Cagliostro (1979), in 1986’s Laputa, and recently in The Wind Rises, where Jiro helps a young girl and her maid to safety during the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Miyazaki said that women “who are striving for their independence” despise such fantasy females. “They feel this ideal is a one-sided attack on the part of men who are trying to fit women into a mold. But we (men) are not really like that; we cry out that men are also crawling on the ground and writhing about. Women who pretend to be cute have two things feeding their rage: they are forced by men to behave a certain way and are masochistically unable to ignore men’s attitudes toward women.”
Miyazaki then discusses some student animated films, claiming the females in them are fundamentally the same. “She is the projection of protection… expressing nostalgia for a self that was free of the detritus of life. The girl is not living outside (the filmmaker); she is the very self that he has nurtured inside himself.”
Miyazaki explicitly applies these reflections to his own work. “The longings and sentiments… are exactly what I felt when I was at the same age as the (university student) filmmakers, and I still haven’t been able to entirely rid myself of those feelings… It may be that even now, as I see women who live in reality, I am still trying to find my own projection rather than seeking to understand the actual essence of women.”
Perhaps Miyazaki would disown these comments now. They’re open to multiple readings, but they can be read as close to the otaku and moe mindset which Miyazaki loudly denounces. And there are more striking comments by Miyazaki elsewhere in Starting Point (page 296), in a discussion of Future Boy Conan. The comments also date from 1983; Conan itself was made in 1978.
Miyazaki says that by parts five and six of Future Boy Conan, he had grown “fonder and fonder” of the show’s young heroine, Lana. “I wouldn’t have able to make the show without feeling this way about her. But I eventually resolved my feelings… In the beginning, I created Lana thinking that she was mine, but as we went along I came to see that she belonged to Conan. My interest in her started to fade.”
The Conan talk highlights a memorable scene in part 8, in which the boy is stuck underwater, drowning, while Lana repeatedly swims down to breathe into his lungs, effectively saving him with her kisses. Miyazaki’s earlier comments might be taken as suggesting he’d really prefer the reverse scenario, with Conan as the rescuer; or perhaps in such fantasies, it doesn’t much matter who saves who. The director mentions the Conan scene originated in a manga he created as a student in the 1960s. He’d later rework the scene, but with blood, in both the Nausicaa manga (volume 3) and in Princess Mononoke. Conan’s ‘drowning’ scene can be glimpsed a minute into the montage below, which focuses on Conan and Lana.
Over to the second witness. The late anime film director Satoshi Kon made Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent and Paprika. All those titles had female characters in leading or prominent roles. In Paranoia Agent, for example, it’s the haggard housewife Misae who’s the most powerful and heroic character in the story, able to face down the demonic Shonen Bat single-handed. Other Kon characters are more controversial, especially the victimised Mima in Perfect Blue – but then Kon gave his own reason for characterising Mima that way.
In 2002, soon after he’d made Millennium Actress, Kon was interviewed by the author Tom Mes for Midnight Eye. Mes asked Kon why he preferred to use female leads. Kon laughed that he liked women, and then continued: “It’s because female characters are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking. Even if he is supposed to be very cool, I can see this bad side of him. That makes it very difficult to create a male character. On the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it’s the opposite sex and I don’t know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe.”
Five years later, in 2007, I interviewed Kon when I was researching my book Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. I mentioned Kon’s remarks in Midnight Eye and he expanded on them, in a direction akin to Miyazaki’s. “I am not really talking about females when I say this. In a way, the females in my work are the essence of my spirit. Any change in them reflects what has changed in me. Mima in Perfect Blue was very passive, and got into trouble because of this, so she had to change into a more active person. That was much the same with me [when Kon made Perfect Blue]. The work came to me and I was in a passive position.”
Perfect Blue was the first feature Kon directed. “I had a hard time making Perfect Blue, I was in trouble, so Mima’s situation matched mine,” Kon said. “When I made Millennium Actress, I was very actively going after something and that was represented in (the heroine) Chiyoko.” In Millennium Actress, Chiyoko is shown chasing the man of her dreams through multiple movies, realities and centuries. In another interview, Kon compared the romantic pursuit in Actress to that between a director and the idealised film in his or her head.
I wrote in my Kon book that the director’s comments “suggest animation is good for Kon’s soul. Mima in Perfect Blue is a terrified, delusional, passive victim. Nine years later, Paprika’s title character is an assured, playful adventuress.” But I added, “Paprika, like Mima (and also Chiyoko in Millennium Actress) is a young woman who performs for men’s pleasure. The only difference is that she’s a dream-therapist-detective, removed from the real-world apparatus of Japan’s idol, TV and film industries into pure fantasy… It’s spurious to argue that Paprika is being alluring on ‘her’ own terms. After all, we’re talking about an imaginary character created (largely) by men, and probably seen mostly by men too, given anime’s demographics.”
Which is where we came in with this article. Interestingly, though, Kon relied on female input for one of his most memorable characters; not a woman like Mima or Paprika, but the male drag queen Hana in Tokyo Godfathers. Kon wrote that film with the woman Keiko Nobumoto (Cowboy Bebop). “There was no model for Hana,” Kon told me. “The story needed someone like him and in creating him, the story was enhanced… Nobumoto’s input was an essential part, especially in the case of Hana. It was only possible to create such a deep, rich character, who had both masculine and feminine characteristics, by having both of us as writers.”
For a last comment from a very different side of the spectrum, let’s bring in the director Kenji Kamiyama, best known for Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex. Kamiyama also directed Moribito Guardian of the Spirit and Eden of the East. Moribito and SAC both featured supremely capable fighting women, but this may not have been Kamiyama’s choice, judging by what he said when I interviewed him in 2010.
“When women advanced in society and took on more leadership roles, and also got more purchasing power, they were pushed more and more as the main characters in fiction,” Kamiyama claimed. “Even in anime, you have more female characters than male. It’s difficult to create likeable and fascinating male characters nowadays.”
Perhaps women have some advice about that?
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