At a time of widespread debate over the portrayal of women in film, Japan’s top animators have long created heroines that are more layered and complex than many of their American counterparts. They have flaws and weaknesses and temperaments as well as strengths and talents. They are not properties or franchises; they are characters the filmmakers believe in.
Like many teens, in Mamoru Hosoda’s “Belle” (released here this year and available on major digital platforms), Suzu has an online life that overshadows her day-to-day existence: her alter ego, the title character, is the reigning pop diva of the cyber world of U. In real life, Suzu is an introverted high school student in a flyspeck town — even her best friend calls her “a country bumpkin.” But she still gains sophisticated listeners, as her music reflects the love and pain she has experienced, especially since the death of her mother, who drowned rescuing a child from a flooded river.
Suzu misses her, but she’s also mad at her for sacrificing herself for “a kid whose name she didn’t even know.” Suzu went so far as to abandon her impressive musical gifts because her mother encouraged them. American heroines may express a longing for a missing parent, but not the deep, complicated emotions of this re-imagining of “Beauty and the Beast.” The main character of the Disney version misses her father when she agrees to become the prisoner of Beast, but she never mentions her mother. Neither does Jasmine in ‘Aladdin’.
In a video call, Hosoda said he believed there was a major shift in animation as Disney artists made Belle a more independent, intelligent and contemporary young woman than her predecessors. She wanted a life more exciting than her “poor, provincial town” could offer—a desire Snow White or Cinderella never expressed. “When you think of animation and female protagonists, you always go to the fairytale tropics,” Hosoda said through a translator. “But they really broke that template: it felt very new. What we also tried to do in ‘Belle’ is not build a character, but build a person: someone who is a reflection of the society in which we live.”
The beast Suzu encounters in U isn’t an enchanted prince, but Kei, an abused teenager who struggles to protect his younger brother from their brutal father. To save the boys, Suzu throws away Belle’s glamorous trappings and reveals that she’s the ordinary high school girl she is. When she sings as herself, she touches the boy she wants to help and also her grieving heart.
Because Japanese animation films are made by smaller crews and with smaller budgets than those of major American films, directors can present more personal visions. US studios employ story crews; Hosoda, Hayao Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai and other authors write entire films themselves. Their work is not subject to a test audience gantlet, executive approvals, or advisory committees.
Shinkai broke box office records in Japan in 2016 with “Your Name” (now on digital platforms). It starts out as a body-swapping teen rom-com, but evolves into a meditation on the trauma many Japanese still suffer after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Mitsuha is bored with her life in the rural town of Itomori; Taki, a student in Tokyo, wants to become an architect. One morning they wake up in each other’s bodies and have to navigate everyday life without knowing where to find something or who someone is.
As the body swap returns, they learn about each other through their environment, creating a bond that transcends physical distance and time. Mitsuha enjoys Tokyo’s sophisticated attractions. Taki draws the Itomori he sees through Mitsuha’s eyes, but that leads him to a mind-boggling discovery: the city was destroyed by a devastating meteor impact three years earlier.
Desperate to warn Mitsuha, he reaches for her through Shinto-inflected magic. They meet briefly at dusk, when the boundaries between worlds become permeable in Japanese folklore. Like all awkward teens, they laugh, argue, cry, and promise to be together again. but they also formulate a plan to save the people of Itomori.
When Taki disappears, Mitsuha acts. She is not a princess looking to preserve her realm like Moana or Poppy in ‘Trolls 2’. She is a scared girl who tries to save her family and friends from a deadly threat. Defying her pompous politician father, she uses her intelligence and determination to overcome her fear and save hundreds of lives. But any capable high school girl could do what Mitsuha does: She doesn’t need superpowers to save the day.
“In the end, Mitsuha still loses her hometown; she’s moving to Tokyo,” Shinkai said in an email interview. “Since the 2011 earthquake, Japanese people have lived with the fear that our cities will disappear. But even if that happens, even if we have to move somewhere else, we get on with life. We meet someone special. That’s what I wanted Mitsuha to do, who I wanted her to be.”
The trend towards complex heroines is not new in anime. Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning “Spirited Away” (released in Japan in 2001 and now on HBO Max) grew out of his dissatisfaction with the superficial entertainment offered to teenage girls in Japan. “I wanted the main character to be a typical girl a 10-year-old would recognize themselves in,” he explained in an interview through a translator. “She shouldn’t be an extraordinary person, but an everyday, real person — even though this kind of character is harder to create. It wouldn’t be a story where the character grows up, but a story where she draws on something that’s already inside her that due to the special circumstances.”
The main character, Chihiro, starts out as a surly adolescent: her “skinny legs and sulky face” symbolize her overprotected, underdeveloped personality. The trials and tribulations she faces at Yubaba’s Bathhouse, a spa for nature spirits tainted by human pollution, force Chihiro to develop untapped resources of strength, courage and love. By the end of the film, the petulant girl has been replaced by a more confident, capable young woman who cares about others. Her transformation can be seen in the animation: at the beginning she runs like a fussy child, eyes half closed. Later, when she goes to see a friend, she runs all the way out, knees and elbows pumping.
In Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday”† (1991, now on HBO Max), Taeko has a boring job and a small apartment in 1982, Tokyo. But she’s 27 and single at a time when Japanese women were expected to get married before 25. Bored of her mundane existence, she decides to visit cousins from the countryside where she stayed years earlier.
Taeko is surprised to find that her 5th grade self has accompanied her on the journey. The ghostly presence of the girl she once was brings back a flood of memories: school friendships, fights with her sisters, the onset of puberty. By investigating who she was, Taeko learns who she wants to become in a moving, understated portrait of a woman at a crossroads in her life.
Like Greta Garbo, Chiyoko Fujiwara in Satoshi Kon’s “Millennium Actress” (released here in 2003 and available on the Roku channel) retired from the screen at the height of her fame. After 30 years of seclusion, she grants an interview to a documentary maker, Genya Tachibana. As Chiyoko reminisces, Tachibana and his jaded cameraman find themselves in her confused memories — and movies. As an adolescent, in the 1930s, Chiyoko fell in love with a wounded artist on the run from the dreaded thought police.
Kon effortlessly shifts the story from reality to memory to film. In Japanese-occupied Manchuria, bandits attack the train on which the teenage actress travels. A door in the burning train car opens to a fiery castle in a feudal movie: Chiyoko plays a princess who is determined to accompany her lord in death. As a 19th-century geisha, she protects the artist from the Shogun’s troops in Kyoto; as an astronaut, she goes on a mission to find him, knowing she won’t be able to return. The visual complexity of the film reflects Chiyoko’s personality. Kon describes her as an independent woman who made her own decisions: what profession to pursue, when and who to marry, when to divorce, what roles to play, when to retire.
Although almost all Japanese animation directors are male, in recent years more women have taken on important roles as producers, writers, musicians and more. Their contributions influence the way girls and women are portrayed on screen.
O-Ei, in Keiichi Hara’s “Miss Hokusai” (released here in 2016, and now on digital platforms), is based on a real person, the daughter of the great graphic artist Katsushika Hokusai. Although only a few works can be attributed to her with certainty, O-Ei was an artist in her own right, and many historians believe she helped her father when his abilities faltered in old age.
Rapunzel in ‘Tangled’ covered the walls of her tower room with paintings, but she shows little interest in art once she escapes. By contrast, O-Ei strides confidently through 19th-century Edo, confident in her talent and her place in the vibrant artistic culture. She concentrates on her drawing and is not bothered by the traditional female household chores. “If it gets too dirty, we’ll move,” she says bluntly.
O-Ei reflects the experiences of women in modern Japan escaping the sexism of traditional culture, including the female performers who collaborated on the film. Hara explained via email: “I have no direct experience with O-Ei’s state of mind: I can only guess. But co-producer Keiko Matsushita, actress Anne Watanabe (who provides the voice of O-Ei), and singer-songwriter Ringo Sheena, who are very strong, creative women who pursue their goals with great determination, may have dated O- Egg on a more personal level. The film reflects the love and dedication they put into it.”