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The Face of Women in Japanese Animated Films

November 25, 1998

In a rare exception to the rule, women play many of the stronger roles in Neon Genesis Evangelion. (GAINAX Co., Ltd.)

Japanese anime, popularly known as "Japanimation," boasts a tradition spanning several decades. Among the many cultural arts Japan provides to the world, its animated films have attracted a particularly large following. The themes and popular characters of anime are many, but the rendering of female characters is stereotypical, regardless of the film's maker or story line. A book that points this out, Koitten Ron (The Token Female), was published in July 1998 and has become the subject of much debate.

Heroic Boys, Cute Girls
The author, female literary critic Minako Saito, observes that in almost every anime the lineup of heros reflects the values of male society. Usually there is but one female in the group of star figures.

Beginning around the latter half of the 1960s, anime aimed at boys and those created for girls parted ways. The token female among a group of males is primarily a feature of films produced for the male audience. The typical story line is set in a futuristic world, where heroes battle invaders from outer space. The main hero who leads the team of earth protectors is male, and among the members of his team there is always one cute young heroine, or perhaps a few more. Many well-known anime, including Space Cruiser Yamato (Starblazers), follow this pattern to the letter. Even among popular comic books such as Doraemon, and in the live-action Ultraman series, the inclination toward featuring just one or two girls among a group of boys is prevalent. As Saito sees it, this heroine type is a masculine female admitted as a confidante to an otherwise male-only group by special exemption.

Anime films aimed at the female market, on the other hand, tend to feature female characters mainly in daily-life backdrops: at school, in the home, and in the neighborhood. Increasingly popular are anime like Sailor Moon, in which the heroines possess magical powers. They change their body forms, solve the problems that have cropped up around them, and win the heart of their lover. Compared to the valiant heros that dominate male anime, these heroines display a rather mundane range of interests.

Anime Heroines Reflect Present-day Japan
According to Saito, the heroine images projected in anime reflect the values of Japanese society. For women in Japanese society there are only two basic paths to advancement in life. In one, reflected in anime for boys, a woman works as a man's equal in a male-dominated society; in the other, as reflected in anime for girls, women meet and marry handsome men, raise families, and hope to live happily ever after. The stereotypical females in anime seem to be a result of the subconscious introduction of these social values into the works produced.

Due to the relatively small number of female characters appearing in anime, the personalities of heroines are also quite limited in scope. In almost every anime, one can find a wide variety of male types: handsome and heroic, childish, nihilistic, overweight, and so forth. Females, in contrast, vary almost not at all. This kind of character imbalance doubtlessly influences young viewers' perspectives on gender roles in society. This is not to say that all shows are constructed along the same lines, of course. In such recent popular anime as Neon Genesis Evangelion, female and male roles are reversed.

Saito writes primarily as a book reviewer for newspapers and magazines. In 1994 she received high praise for an inspired book titled Ninshin Shosetsu (Pregnancy Novels). Although Saito's second book Koitten Ron is a critical work, bookshops have been stacking it in their anime and comic-book corners. Sales have been exceptional, and the book went into its second printing--a rarity for a critical piece--only two months after its release.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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