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When we hear the word feminism, what is the first thing we think about? Riots? Protests? The woman in blue with a defiant gesture saying: “We can do it!”? All that political stuff can look confusing, right? It can even seem like a tricky subject if you are a guy.
Fear no more, dear otakus! We are going to give you a brief introduction to feminism here in Honey Anime’s. Remember that an informed otaku is a good otaku. Hopefully, this will help you to advance negotiations with the enemy, I mean, the other sex. We advocate for peace and understanding here 😉
Anyway, let’s go back to the point. Feminism has led to various movements in favor of women’s rights, which go against the discrimination of women based on gender. In other words, feminism pursues fairer organizational systems, where women are perceived as equals and treated as just.
For many centuries, the definition of what is a man and what is a woman was heavily based on biological characteristics. Now it is acknowledged that society and culture also have a deep impact on such definitions. There is also an interplay of power, class and status. We must remember that different societies have different norms and values, even based on gender. That is why in the current era of information, we have been living an authentic revolution of communication and values surrounding the feminist ideas. Feminism also aims to understand the lives, roles and experiences of women across time. Of course that all of this has been reflected in anime, which is influenced by culture in Japan, so be prepared if the values are not the same as your own! Now, let’s make a brief review of the role of women in Japanese culture and how this is expressed through anime. Let’s go!
Antecedents: Women in Ancient Japan
Japan is the land of the Shinto religion, where some of the most important Kami (Gods) are female. There are legends of Empresses and Priestesses abound, but as wars raised over the states, Chinese Confucianism and a variant of Buddhism imported from Korea entered the country. Thus, women were delegated to less public roles. Notice that Japanese society remains a hierarchical one, where the cool, dominant male and the submissive female roles are generally expected.
We definitely have to start talking about the depiction of women in Japanese fiction with a famous tale from no later than the 10th Century: The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (also known as The tale of Princess Kaguya). Its protagonist, Kaguya Hime, is courted by several suitors. It is interesting to note that the astute girl finds an ingenious way of turning them down, by asking them to bring her mythical items. Nevertheless, Kaguya Hime remains a pawn of her unavoidable destiny. Due to an unmentioned crime, she was sent to the Earth for a certain amount of time for expiation. Once purified, Kaguya Hime is carried to her original hometown in the Moon. Not even herself can do something about it.
Perhaps the most diverse and complex examples of women in early Japanese fiction can be found in The tale of Genji (Genji no monogatari), by Murasaki Shikibu. Although the protagonist is the prince Hikaru Genji, the multitude of ladies who surround him and/or that he courts give us a rich insight on the role of women in that period. We meet Empresses and nuns moving the political cords of the country with discretion. We meet vengative women, gracious women, intelligent women, naive women, rebellious women. We also meet desperate mothers and caretakers pushing their protegees towards advantageous marriages or at least alliances. What they have in common is that, although powerful and cultured, these women were excluded from public affairs.
On a side note, you can find both Kaguya Hime and Genji in anime versions. If you are a fan of the old Japan, don’t miss them out 🙂
Fast forward to the Edo period, we find that women are considered valuable pawns in political marriages. In those days, society was divided in four classes: the wealthy landlords and warrior nobles, the Samurai, the peasants and artisans, and the merchants. From the peasants down, we get women joining the labor force. From the Samurai up, women were hidden from plain sight and sometimes educated on the art of war. And how about the Geisha, the art women by excellence, nurtured since childhood to become a symbol of power for wealthy patrons? They were the pin-up (poster) girls of their era. We just have to watch the traditional woodblock prints to find them there.
We also find Shunga throughout the Heian and Edo periods. Shunga are erotic illustrations that overdo the sexual parts of the body. One of their original uses was as sex manual, especially among the upper class. It is said that mothers put them under the pillows of the soon to be wives. We are mentioning them here because they are the precursors of the ecchi and hentai genres, which we will talk about in other sections of the article.
Towards the end of the Edo period, on one fine day of 1853, Commodore Perry arrived to Japan. Christianism, firearms and other modernities started to enter the country. A certain Keiko Okami traveled to US to become the first Japanese female doctor with a foreign degree. Things were slowly starting to change...
Japanese Women and Manga in the Twentieth Century
By the 1920’s, several notable activists like Fusae Ichikawa and Raichou Hiratsuka were demanding the right to vote. Yet, it was during the Second World War that society suffered a radical transformation. Even some Geisha joined the workforce at factories when a massive amount of men were required to join the army. Nevertheless, women still were viewed mainly as moral support or cheerleaders.
Thus began the vital role of Tokyo Rose, a group of Japanese female radio broadcasters. They transmitted information in English to demoralize the Allied forces and spread propaganda. After the war, entertainers like Hibari Misora became the icons of the Japanese identity and resilience on the face of defeat.
Such changes were reflected on the nascent anime industry. Let’s go back to the renowned God of Manga, Osamu Tezuka, who started what he considered his life work in 1967. This collection of stories is called Phoenix (Hi no Tori), and they cover from the very beginnings of human civilization to its demise and eventual rebirth. The era in which he lived marked the way his female characters looked and behaved. That is why we have a compassionate alien Tamami in Future, a selfless astronaut Nana in Universe, and an abnegated mother and queen Romi in Nostalgia, to mention few. He was starting to reconcile the traditional female attributes with the more active and public roles of women, projecting them into imagined futures.
Another important mangaka within this tendency is Leiji Matsumoto, the creator of Galaxy Express 999. Nevertheless, we definitely have to look at the work of women themselves. Machiko Hasegawa published Sazae-san in 1969, which portrays a fiercely independent married woman immersed in the Japanese culture of the epoque. In contrast, Riyoko Ikeda bases her creations on Europe. Her most popular work is Lady Oscar (The Rose of Versailles), where a girl is raised as a boy to become the leader of the the Versailles Palace Guards. Here we can notice the underlying conception that a girl can not be recognized as a boy’s equal. Finally, Kiyoko Mizuki and Yumiko Igarashi offered us Candy Candy in 1975. The story takes place in America and is the classical coming of age history, full with drama and romance. Yet, Candy White becomes a nurse and eventually becomes independent enough to take her own decisions, regardless of the challenges she faces throughout the story.
As for hentai and ecchi, such manga were focused on fetish and lesbian couples targeted to a masculine audience during the 1940’s and 1950’s. It was not until the 1960’s that hentai and ecchi started to be more diverse and focused on a female audience.
The Eighties and Nineties
The last decades of the twentieth century were particularly fruitful for women in Japan. Universities and the industry were flooded with female work force. One of the most recognized activists for the rights of women was Aoki Yayoi, who wrote a book called "Feminism and Imperialism" in the 1980’s. What is interesting about this work is how she conceptualizes the relationship of the Japanese with their Emperor and projects that to the male gender in general. In short, Japanese men are authoritative but blameless, as the system and the society rule over individual interests.
These were also the times of the rise of anime around the world, and with them, a series of top female manga creators. If we had a God of manga before, now we have the birth of the Goddess of Manga: Rumiko Takahashi. Although her work has been published in Shounen magazines, Rumiko’s deep understanding of the Asian human nature, sense of humor, and strong leading female characters deserve a special mention. Akane from Ranma ½ and Kagome from InuYasha remain as memorable heroines with flaws and virtues. This goes in contrast with former decades, where the heroines were too selfless and perfect.
Also from these epoque is the CLAMP quartet, who have created a wide range of work in different artistic styles, targeting different demographics and of course, with very different plots. As a female mangaka group, CLAMP has become top sellers not only in Japan, but also worldwide. Nevertheless, the one who made an authentic revolution was Naoko Takeuchi when she published Sailor Moon in 1991. The distinguishing features of the story were a group of strong female warriors as protagonists and how different each one of them were. The story is great because each one of the girls is a different role model: we get a doctor to be, a cooker to be, an idol to be, a scientist, a musician, a racing pilot... We even have a lesbian couple, which has prompted a more open acceptance of such couples in anime. In sum, the diverse female cast grew so popular that the equally interesting male protagonists were left aside.
The first hentai anime started to be produced as an OAV called Lolita Anime in 1984. It was full of fetishes, gender violence, and directed to a masculine audience. It was viewed negatively even by professional reviewers. Yet, that same year, a series of OAVs called Cream Lemon were also released. Their storytelling was better and it employed a combination of other genres (like fantasy, mystery, comedy and so on), which raised the popularity of hentai anime in Japan. Nevertheless, women depicted in hentai remained mainly passive and their looks were more essential than the guys’.
The new century
So, what does this century have in store? In the first place, we get more communication technologies and globalization. We also get more expression from Japanese women, who have become open about their opposition towards domestic violence, sex trafficking, and several forms of discrimination. Perhaps the greatest example from the newest feminist current is the sociologist Chizuko Ueno, who analyzes how men in Japan believe that feminism is not required in their country, as they are better mannered than their Western counterparts.
This rings a bell… some protagonists in anime from the 21st century are confused with members from the opposite sex. For example, Alto from Macross Frontier or Haruhi from Ouran High-School Host Club. It is just a matter of superficial looks, as they behave as expected from a man and a woman respectively. We also have the opposite case, where the girl behaves manly and the guy is rather weak. A good example is Fate/stay night, where Saber does all the dirty work and Shiro encourages her and loves cooking and cleaning.
We also see how the lines between what is a man and what is a woman tend to blur even more. Of course that there were some antecedents since the Kabuki and the Takarazuka theaters (with all male and all female companies respectively), but it is becoming more pervasive and natural even in mainstream anime. A good example of this is Maria+Holic: the story of a lesbian girl in an all female school.
Finally, we have a more open and normalized acceptance of the hentai and ecchi genres, which are slightly employed among other anime genres sometimes. Although most of the “pure hentai” stories still depict various levels of violence against women, ecchi anime has developed differently with series like Futari ecchi, which was released as an anime in 2014. Futari ecchi is the story of a couple of newlyweds and their neighbors. Its creator, Katsu Aki, aims to give real sex education while he entertains at the same time. In this story and its spin-off (Futari ecchi for ladies), women become central to the plot, viewed as integral individuals. As you can see, women’s roles in even hentai anime have progressed over the years.
We are close to the end of this crash course on feminism and female roles in the world of anime. There is something out there for everyone, right? We have the housewife type characters, the bad-ass fighter characters, the cheerleaders, the nerdy students, the geeks, the men eaters, the sweet moe types… and everything in the middle. Just pick up your favorite and remember to not judge her only by her looks. Maybe you would also like to give a chance to the others 😉
We should also remember that, behind the magical world of anime, there is a whole staff of producers, art directors, music composers, illustrators, animators, seiyuus, distributors… Many of them are female. So, in one way or another, the role of women as cultural creators and replicators goes on. So, it is time to ask some questions. How do you think the female roles in anime will evolve in the near future? Which is your favorite female anime character and why?
See you soon!