Women make anime

The scarcity of women at the highest levels in Japanese animation has traditionally left female characters at the mercy of male preconceptions and fantasies – a state of affairs a new generation is eager to draw to a close.

3 July 2020

By Ren Scateni

Okuyama Reiko with drawings from The Little Norse Prince (1968)
Sight and Sound

 In partnership with JNTO

Let’s play a game. You have five minutes to come up with a list of ten Japanese animators. No Google allowed. Chances are the number of women on it will be few. But female animators do exist, and in fact have always been crucial to the form’s development. Nevertheless, their number in the top echelons of the industry remains slim, and their work is often overshadowed by their male colleagues. It’s not like there has never been a woman to rival the creative genius of a Miyazaki Hayao, or a Tezuka Osamu – most likely she just never had the opportunity to let her talents shine as bright.

In post-war Japanese society, women were expected to get married and care for their household. Pursuing a professional career was an anomaly. That held true for the fledgling anime industry, although Japanese women were given the chance to take on animation in their ‘free’ time. While at home, these women inked, cleaned up and drew – these processes are collectively referred to as shiage (‘finishings’) – but there were others who worked in-house instead. In the late 1950s, the anime industry was dominated by Toei Doga (now Toei Animation), the early playground of Miyazaki, Takahata Isao and Tezuka. But also among their number were prominent female animators, such as Okuyama Reiko and Nakamura Kazuko.

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Before going freelance, Okuyama worked for the company for 20 years, despite the discrimination it showed towards its female employees (lower salaries for one thing). Known for her versatile skills, Okuyama contributed to numerous projects – notably, she was a key animator for Little Norse Prince (aka Horus: Prince of the Sun, 1968) and for Belladonna of Sadness (1973), a Mushi Production feature film, for which she was credited as Kitagawa Reiko.

Founded by Tezuka, Mushi Production brought to the screen anime adaptations of many of his manga – as well as the first two instalments of the ‘Animerama’ trilogy: A Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). Nakamura worked on both those films, and brought her bravura to animating most of the female characters, who were enhanced by her involvement.

Nakamura Kazuko

In 1985, Studio Ghibli was founded and many capable female animators have been involved in its projects behind the scenes. For instance, until her death in 2016, Futaki Makiko worked on all Miyazaki’s films, beginning with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). She was also a key animator for Otomo Katsuhiro’s Akira (1988), and was celebrated for her skill in detailed natural animation.

Also at Ghibli is animator Tanaka Atsuko. Dubbed “the Yubaba specialist” for her work on the character in Spirited Away (2001), she recently collaborated with Shinkai Makoto on Your Name (2016) and Hosoda Mamoru on Mirai (2018).

Today, Yamamoto Sayo and Yamada Naoko are two of the most promising female directors of their generation. Starting at Studio Madhouse, Yamamoto is best known for directing the 2016 anime hit Yuri!!! On Ice and Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012), while Yamada, who is affiliated with Kyoto Animation, made her directorial breakthrough with A Silent Voice (2016).

There have also been a number of important female anime writers, such as the hugely prolific Okada Mari, who moved into directing with the 2018 film Maquia; and Nobumoto Keiko, who was lead writer on Cowboy Bebop (1998); alongside others such as Yoshida Reiko and Okudera Satoko. Meanwhile, at the business end, we must mention Tanaka Eiko, the co-founder and CEO of the acclaimed Studio 4°C, and the credited producer of many of its titles.

Yet while many such key female figures have struggled for full recognition, female characters are routinely at the centre of anime productions, even if they tend to fall into codified types, brought to life via male preconceptions and fantasies. So, there’s the ‘idol’, which leads to the woman seen as a sexual commodity; there’s the ‘strong-willed, empowered woman’; and there’s the ‘schoolgirl’.

In mainstream culture, idols are commonly envied for their looks and popularity. Kon Satoshi brilliantly deconstructed this stereotype in his feature debut, Perfect Blue (1997), by crafting a female character who fights against the exploitative male gaze to make her professional dreams come true.

But while Kon criticises the way men look at and consume the female body, other animators have capitalised on depictions of the abuse of women. Two problematic examples are Yamamoto Eiichi’s Belladonna of Sadness and Takayama Hideki’s Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (1989), in which rape scenes are graphically indulged, and defended with the questionable intent of presenting a reborn and empowered woman.

As if conscious of the obstacles of the real world, in anime true female empowerment is often bestowed upon female characters from imaginary lands. Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell (1995) offers a perfect example: an augmented cybernetic woman whose physical prowess and acute intelligence make her a capable leader. Similarly, Mononoke, in Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), like her precursor Nausicaä, embodies a free-spirited and determined young woman unable to compromise when it comes to protecting whatever she holds dear.

Schools are the setting for many shojo (titles targeted at teenage girls), including Yamada Naoko’s last two features. In them, the dynamics of school are investigated, while bullying (A Silent Voice) and a gentle exploration of the lesbian gaze (Liz and the Blue Bird, 2018) are brought in. Yamada gives her schoolgirls a more mature and nuanced agency, leaving us coveting more female characters seen through women’s eyes.

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Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player

BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.


Kitano Takeshi, 1993

Location: Okinawa

Sonatine (1993)

A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.

Nobody Knows

Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003

Location: Tokyo

Nobody Knows (2003)

A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.

The Mourning Forest

Naomi Kawase, 2007

Location: Nara

The Mourning Forest (Mogari No Mori, 2007)

A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.

The Woodsman and the Rain

Okita Shûichi, 2011

Location: Nagano

The Woodsman and the Rain (2011)

A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.

Journey to the Shore

Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015

Location: Kanagawa

Journey to the Shore (2015)

The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.

Further reading