Girls On Film – Anime & Feminism

Sometimes I wonder: just how much media do you need to consume to get a good picture of what you’re talking about?

Is there space for the otaku academic? I don’t want to find out on my own…

...a Neviril Scorned

The gender revolution in Japan underlies all of this talk. In the past several decade we’ve seen a lot of changes in the cultural, social, and even in economic and political realms regarding the role of women. Looking at this from the media consumer’s perspective is just one of the many lenses academics use. And when we talk about Japan, we gotta involve the “popular visual culture” or whatever namesake that one can make of from Genshiken.

But I think most people are finding that, for now, the change is modest when viewed from the lens of anime and manga. If anything, my own experience indicate as so.

In Zyl’s column we see that some people think this is so as well. I get the feeling this is so because the way Japanese media works–being as corporate and entrenched by big money as the rest of the industry world-wide (most notably in the US). The point continues in the treatment of the academic literature about women and their reflection in popular media, in manga and anime. The old fogies opining inside their ivory towers? Not at all an unusual thing. Especially when we’re looking at groups where women are rare and few. Even more so when we’re looking at anime that is marketed primarily to men. Most anime are adaptations from shounen and seinen manga, after all, especially the ones that make it across the language divide.

I’m going to spin some of my reactions from Zyl’s column and the subsequent comments out in the remainder of this post.

First: Just what makes a good example for the feminist empowerment concept as a character in anime? Commonly western scholars point to Miyazaki’s heroines–often Chihiro from Spirited Away and San from Mononoke Hime. I guess not enough people have seen Howl’s Sophie but I think she is way better as an example.

Age. Sophie conducts herself as a young adult; San and Chihiro are still notably childish. Being child-like isn’t really anything that is particularly poignant, and that’s the problem with spinning a feminist critique from a child, even if she is a female. It’s not really probative. Perhaps another example along with Sophie is Kiki. I’m not so sure about Nausicaa, and that’s because, well, we’ll get to it in a bit.

Gender-based achievement. One problem that bothered me with Chihiro as an example was that many of the things she did was something that any attention-paying, careful and thorough child could have done. If Gillian Anderson’s Wolf-God in Mononoke adopted a boy instead of a girl, will San remain the same? I think as a movie, no, but as a character and a plot device, probably yes. On the other hand, I just can’t say the same about Sophie, and maybe even for Kiki (but there’s more wiggle space there).

The role of gender in the film. I think Kinsella definitely has pointed out something awesome about Spirited Away and its parallel to the whore houses of days old. I think customarily it would have been odd for a boy to work in the capacity Chihiro has, although it was fancifully ambiguous in the context of the film. I think, however, you can construe that point either way in regards to the cultural significance and the interplay of the female gender in today’s society. The traditional chinese tale that was the original work for Disney’s adaptation of Mulan tells probably a similar message about piety and both celebrates female ingenuity, tenacity, and overcoming dire difficulties. The question is just that–is gender role merely yet another difficulty that both of these heroines overcame? I think my objection with Nausicaa also has to do with this. As to San, I think she acts as a foil for Ashitaka, but again, I didn’t think she was a she for much anything particular, maybe only to highlight that romantic undertone.

But enough Ghibli bashing. I’m sure we can find some wholesome, positive examples (Eboshi Gozen, for instance) outside of the flagship North American Ghibli titles. My point is we shouldn’t just look so superfically and we should apply some healthy dose of context.

Second: The role of men. I think when we talk about women we also have to talk about men. This is particularly a point that shows up when someone raises Major Motoko Kusanagi. She’s a girl in a boy’s world. I think no matter where you look in real life, there are always more male law-enforcement folks than female. Her rag-tag team of ex-military coupled with Aramaki’s politicking says a lot of things about…politics (yet another male-dominant field). The oddity of the Major’s disposition, in a setting that resonant with real life’s tendency to repeat these same sociological makeup, may be making a point. Kinesella says it’s fantasy-fulfillment, it’s a bunch of “phallic girls.” I can’t see how it can be truer for Ghost in the Shell.

But I think there’s also something to be said that in the Ghost in the Shell TV series, we see a slightly different Motoko Kusanagi. What comes to my mind is the motherhood episode, but outside of that it’s really a dog-eat-dog world, and the Major uses her sex appeal and gender positioning as a tool to manipulate.

Still, compare Ghost in the Shell with any of your standard fair, girls-with-guns, it makes you wonder. Maybe oldies like Gun Smith Cats comes closer? Or should we just go straight to Black Lagoon? Or…

Third: Urosukidouji–or alternatively, let’s pick the right show to talk feminism. I think it makes almost no sense to use, say, Aria THE ANIMATION. It makes some sense to use Naruto and One Piece. It makes even more sense to use Paprika, but probably not much sense to use Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. What criterias am I looking at?

Who is going to watch it: Paprika is an arthouse film, but it’s based on a renowned sci-fi author’s work in Japan. It also focuses on, heh, gender roles. One Piece has a HUGE fangirl-base, and Naruto has some. Aria is escapist seinen fantasy. GITS: Innocence is another arthouse film, but it is one that is fully preoccupied in telling/saying one very specific set of things.

What it’s about/what does it say: Paprika is about the story of a woman coming to terms with herself in a maze of dreams, realities, networked dreams, a chain of real-life mysteries involving life and death. Aria is about girls in a fantasy Venice learning to be gondola operators / tour guides. One Piece is about pirates and “getting crew and loot.” Naruto is a teenage self-redemptive story. GITS: Innocence is about a detective learning to cope with a new reality with his good friend and ex-partner who turned into a … computer thing, while solving a criminal mystery.

I think part of the problem, as my first couple paragraphs alluded…is just that the academia seems to just lack that beef with the familiarity of these works. You have to not just tap into the otaku pulse, but actually watch the shows and read the books they tell you about. If we’re going to use this lens seriously, we need not only people who has the academic wherewithal but also someone who has already been looking through the lens in its full glory.

There is probably more to be said on this. Like being able to naturally reassign your sex at 17 is one of the most empowering things that can happen to a girl. Talk about a feminist subtext!

8 Responses to “Girls On Film – Anime & Feminism”

  • jpmeyer

    In the opening to Akira to Princess Mononoke, Susan Napier notes that she really missed with some of her analysis because of not having a background in anime, and points out that they have to REALLY lean on their students for help. I can doubly verify this in my emails about Ph.D. programs where the profs often were like “I personally only have just started with anime and am still learning about things like fansubs and AMVs from my students”.

  • dm

    I can’t wait for the academics who got all excited by Utena to cotton on to Simoun.

    Napier was junior faculty when she wrote Akira to Princess Mononoke, she couldn’t even afford a DVD player (admittedly, they were really expensive then), nor to own a huge library of anime. But it also started as something of a side-line for her, I think?

    “We’re talking about cartoons.”

    One stumbling block for a young academic in tackling anime is the fact that not only do you have to leap the “popular-culture isn’t real culture” barricade (which has been tumbling down for well over a decade), you then have to leap the cartoon barricade (we need a few more years of Buffy-studies before we’re likely to see that one manageable). “As well to be hung for a horse as for a saddle” maybe only works when you’re contemplating the end of your career?

    For older, established academics (who no longer have to worry about their reputations), there’s the problem of familiarity, which you talk about. On the other hand, if you look at Princess Mononoke not as anime, but as film, then you can situate it in a larger cultural context. This may be fair to do — the audience for Mononokehime in Japan was tons larger than the audience for any of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, so which is the more significant cultural artifact?

    I haven’t read Kinsella, but might it be that she is (like Napier) speaking not to the anime-fan culture, but to the academic culture? Might she be saying to that culture: “Hey, this anime field has got tons of stuff to look at” to that academic culture more than she is saying to anime fans “Hey, I have a new way for you to look at what you watch”?

  • omo

    It’s two-prong issue. I can’t speak for academics who put their reputation on the line for everything they publish, but I can speak for fans who find their work interesting. While ultimately in a way they’re not just saying “Hey, I have a new way for you to look at what you watch” to me, but actually putting these insights that many of us have already, bubbling in our head into words and adds some credibility and context to it.

    Because we already know there’s a ton of stuff to look at, and maybe we’re looking at them in such ways already.

  • Ben Applegate

    >> Sometimes I wonder: just how much media do you need to consume to get a good picture of what you’re talking about?

    Well, that’s a big and potentially nerve-wracking question. I’m with the great scholars who remind us that books (and by extension other media) should be aids to thinking. You can read all the books in a field (or see every anime ever made) but if you never take time to think or synthesize interesting ideas you might as well have never seen them. But it’s just as possible to read one book or watch one anime (depending on what it is) and fill a notebook with thoughts.

    What frustrates me is when scholars use new pop culture examples as fodder to “emperically prove” some old argument that’s been around forever. That’s when you get into trouble. If you want to propose interesting ideas one text is enough. If you want to make a systematic statement it’s not enough to watch a few texts or even a lot of texts, you have to start with a convincing methodology, which very few social scientists do.

  • al

    …and I only find this entry now. Grr. Glad to hear these ideas of yours and others. Thank you so much.

    On Motoko as a feminist icon, I have an article I copied recently that made a very nice case. There are so many ways to argue for a character being empowering that it’s a win-win situation, I think.

    (Deleted a short rant about academia; I need to start pop culture studies before making a judgement on that.) But, speaking from a position of some frustration, I must disagree that Simoun could ever be afforded the reputation Utena does for being a text that really begs for analysis. The theoretical elements simply aren’t as obvious or self-conscious, and there are far too many things that get in the way instead, one of them being body parts and the suspicious visual style. I can see one way to get at an interesting topic, but that would involve steering away from the anime itself, because somehow it’s really difficult to compare Simoun to any existing text without the differences becoming glaringly obvious. One would ideally be armed with a working knowledge of the World Wars, Japanese culture, and the Japanese language in order to do such an analysis reasonably well.

    I guess what I’m getting at is my opinion, still coalescing, that a stunning myriad of skills would have to conjunct in order to do anime justice. Something’s always lacking.

  • omo

    I’m just glad you saw Simoun :)

    I think you’re definitely right, if anything, about “things that get in the way.” But it’s such fertile ground for new ideas. In some ways Utena is problematic was its straightforwardness (if one can possibly conceive someone saying this about Utena…) and thus people could just take it and run with it however they wish. Not so with Simoun, so much. Its coherent staging of events and settings necessarily says something with definiteness, and I think no matter if one can cite it for anything, it is a life-enriching experience to enjoy and think about Simoun.

  • cassie andrews

    I would like to know your view on the representation of women in film as i am carrying out research into peoples views on this matter and would be honoured if you would look at my blog and share your views. Thankyou

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