electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Discussion Paper 3 in 2005
First published in ejcjs on 31 January 2005

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Female Voices, Male Words

Problems of Communication, Identity and Gendered Social Construction in Contemporary Japanese Cinema


Timothy Iles

Assistant Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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When I speak with my students and friends from Japan, I encounter a fairly uniform opinion that women there enjoy a far narrower range of options and opportunities than men. The consensus is that Japan is a “man’s country,” where tradition has concentrated political, economic, cultural, and educational power into predominantly male hands. Of course, this is such a widely-held view that it really has become a cliché. Nonetheless, in fairly recent times, young women have begun to enjoy a comparative boom in terms of their buying power and visibility within the consumer market. One would expect that with this growth in female buying power would come a growth in presentations of capable, powerful female characters in such popular media as cinema, television, and literature. However, and paradoxically, while this growth has happened to a certain extent, despite an apparent blossoming of feminist issues in some contemporary Japanese cinema—and by this I mean the seeming popularity of relatively strong, vibrant female characters in interesting and compelling situations—there remains a fundamentally conservative assignment of narrative value to male protagonists, even in works which ostensibly champion the idea of progressive women.

There are several ways in which this conservative bias manifests itself, but one of the most profound revolves around the issues of communication and identity. In many well-made, completely realised—that is to say, creatively and artistically successful—films, female characters find their voices co-opted into supporting the male characters’ ambitions and vitality. This is disappointing though hardly surprising, given that in Japan as elsewhere the vast majority of cinematic production is controlled by men, from scriptwriters to producers to directors. Thus female characters not only serve to support the necessities of plot, dramatic tension, and realism, but also serve to give voice to male imaginings of femaleness, reinforcing traditional gendered social constructions that position women as subservient, nurturing, identitiless and essentially silent. There are exceptions to this, of course, but on the whole contemporary social discourse still resists true female-centred activity, identity, and speech.

It is my aim here to explore ways in which current Japanese films present a façade of support for strong female characters, while in fact subverting the notion of a progressive feminism through a very compelling, though insidious metaphor: that of voice. My work here will necessarily be schematic, rather than exhaustive, surveying what I see to be representative examples of the trends I am considering. I will begin by examining some issues in contemporary feminist film theory, and from there move on to consider how recent works of Japanese cinema present ostensibly “complete” female characters, only ultimately to undermine those characters through subtle, though occasionally quite obvious, means. I will conclude by suggesting that, despite the rather gloomy outlook for the emergence of a true feminism in Japanese film, there is room for optimism in anime, specifically in the work of the anime artist best-known outside of Japan, Miyazaki Hayao.

Issues in Contemporary Feminist Film Theory

Cinema itself has traditionally been a male-centric artform, and as Mary Ann Doane argues, one which necessitates a gender division between an active, male viewer, and a passive, female, viewed, “for the cinema, in its alignment with the fantasies of the voyeur, has historically articulated its stories through a conflation of its central axis of seeing/being seen with the opposition male/female” (Doane 1988: 216). This is an extreme interpretation of the function of the cinematic gaze, but in general terms, it is a sound proposition, that the camera’s act of looking favours an actively empathetic response from the spectator of the film, constructing a self-identification of the film’s spectator with the camera’s point of view. Mary Ann Doane argues that “the cinema generates and guarantees pleasure by a corroboration of the spectator’s identity,” but I disagree with her assertion that “because that identity is bound up with that of the voyeur and the fetishist, because it requires for its support… the potential for illusory mastery of the signifier, it is not accessible to the female spectator” (Doane 1988: 216).

While historically, “the massive reading, writing, and filming of the female body… constructs and maintains a hierarchy along the lines of a sexual difference assumed as natural” (Doane 1988: 217), it is precisely the task of feminist film criticism to deconstruct the received notion of what constitutes “nature” and demonstrate the ideological construction of that term, thus demonstrating the potential for a cinema which resists the traditional gender classification assumed by a “male gaze” or “female objectivity.” As we will see, many of the gender issues in Japanese cinema do occur as a result of a fetishising, male gaze, but there are powerful instances of films which use the gaze to create positive, sympathetic bonds between viewer and viewed, bonds which invite and celebrate the female viewer. I would like to suggest, moreover, that beyond the issue of the gaze, contemporary Japanese films utilise a different metaphor, that of communicative ability, to create a gendered division between “proper” male and female social functions.

“Feminism,” of course, is a term which carries considerable baggage. For some, it is a rallying cry; for others, an accusation; for others still, a target, but at root, it is an idea of equality. Feminism, as I see it, is an opportunity: an occasion to approach social organisation and the fulfilment of individual potential from a starting point of support and acceptance, based neither on privilege nor prejudice. It is in fact the most basic of humanisms, suggesting the absolute unimportance of biological sex in any determination of individual ability or suitability for a given social function—it is, in effect, the abolition of gender. As Karen Offen puts it, “feminism emerges as a concept that can encompass both an ideology and a movement for sociopolitical change.… Feminism opposes women’s subordination to men in the family and society, along with men’s claims to define what is best for women without consulting them… Feminism is necessarily pro-woman. However, it does not follow that it must be anti-man” (Offen 1988: 151). Rather, as an ideology based on the equality of all people in terms of their worthiness to benefit from and enjoy the beauties of life, it should be truly blind to any consideration of biological sex. Thus feminism “makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity” (Offen 1988: 151).

This of course is a key point—the common humanity of men and women which serves to unite them and define them as fundamentally important to one another, and to any healthy, functioning society. It is not a question of a society being economically viable—the notion of societal health encompasses security, support for an individual’s needs and dreams, as well the creation of an economically and politically stable sphere in which all of a society’s members are free to pursue their own goals while fulfilling their shared obligations. In many ways, Japan has achieved this, as have most countries around the world—having to greater or lesser extents laws prohibiting in various circumstances the systemic prevention of women’s achievements of their individual goals. However, to a very real extent, it is possible to consider Japan, as well as as elsewhere, as failures at protecting and fostering women’s equal access to the mechanisms of political and economic power. This is apparent in even the briefest consideration of the relative numbers of men and women in positions of political or economic—or even educational or cultural—power throughout the world. In virtually every “modern” country—and in every “premodern” one—men hold by far the preponderance of power.

Thus it is clear that much of the world in general is not “feminist,” and by this I mean that it does not correspond to the three criteria which Karen Offen has suggested are necessary for the applicability of that term. A feminist, according to Offen, is one who can “recognise the validity of women’s own interpretations of their lived experiences… as distinct from an aesthetic ideal of womanhood invented by men;… exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over institutionalised injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group in a given society;… [and] advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging… the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives in that particular culture” (Offen 1988: 152).

Following this, it is apparent that in fact Japan, in the history of its cinema, has known feminist directors—most notably, Mizoguchi Kenji, in both the pre- and postwar periods. His film, Gion no shimai (Sisters of the Gion, 1932) represents a highpoint for feminist cinema from any country, exposing as it does the dehumanising conditions in which geisha lived during Japan’s early modern era. Nonetheless, Mizoguchi stands out as an anomaly—a male director truly sensitive to the aspirations of women around him, and were it not for biographical details in his life—his own sister having worked in a brothel—it is entirely possible that his films would not have presented such a consistently sympathetic outlook. Following Offen’s definition of feminism, however, it is apparent that many attitudes can be considered “feminist,” while many apparently progressive attitudes will reveal themselves to be in fact conservative of gender differences.

It is also apparent that it is not enough to show women in the workforce or participating in the consumer economy for a novel or film to be considered progressive—the method of presentation is more indicative of the underlying ideological orientation of the work than its surface. That there is indeed an underlying ideology at work in popular cinema is beyond question: as the Japanese-Canadian independent filmmaker, Midi Onodera, has observed, “the ultimate power of film… rests in its potential to directly reflect the social morals and climate of our time… Mainstream film can… be seen as a social barometer” (Onodera 1995: 21). Further, “film theory has argued that mass culture can be interpreted symptomatically, and that it functions as a massive screen on which collective fantasy, anxiety, fear, and their effects can be projected. In this sense, [film] speaks to the blind spots of a culture and finds forms that make manifest socially traumatic material through distortion, defense, and disguise” (Mulvey 193: 6). The symptom that we are considering is the widespread resistance to true female participation in the economic, educational, and cultural production of contemporary Japanese society. We are able to deconstruct the forms of popular cinema to expose the cultural blind spots, the gaps in public discourse, which overlook the fundamental exclusion of women from full social participation.

Women's Voices in Contemporary Japanese Cinema

Stereo Future

One film that works very well to illustrate my point is Stereo Future by Nakano Hiroyuki (2001). This work is a comedy which weaves together several stories, the two main ones of which revolve around a struggling young actor, Keisuke, and his relationship with a beautiful young woman, Eri, who has lost her voice through a psychological trauma, and the young woman’s older sister, Kaoru, a TV documentary producer whose current project is about to be cancelled. These two women are extremely interesting from an interpretive point of view. Both are confident, competent, attractive, and technologically aware women. Their use of technology here is significant. As Mary Flanagan wrote in Wide Angle, women and technology form a “threatening relationship… Unlike issues of property ownership, the right to vote, wage discrepancies, and other calculable inequities, the use of technology by women is dangerous because it not only allows for immediate access to information, but because it is also immeasurable” (Flanagan 1999: 77).

In Stereo Future we see both women using technology comfortably, and even—in the case of the documentary producer—more correctly than her older, male colleague. This use of technology comfortably by these women is doubly important when we consider that, very often in Japanese science fiction, women embody technological advances in the forms of cyborgs or subservient robots—as Sato Kumiko has it, “female cyborgs and androids have been safely domesticated and fetishised into maternal and sexual protectors of the male hero, whose function is usually reduced to either maid or a goddess obediently serving her beloved male master” (Sato 2004: 349). Here, however, the female characters are able to use technology to serve their own purposes—the film thus establishes a framework which on the surface appears supportive of feminist progress and empowerment. However, I will argue that this framework is illusory, for at root, the film presents women whose function is ultimately as subservient as the cyborg maids and goddess against whom they seem to stand in opposition.

This becomes apparent when we consider in detail the types of jobs the women have. The documentary which Kaoru is producing concerns the negative effects of industrial pollution on the trees and mountain forests of Japan, and despite the passion she feels for the subject and her determination to make the project a popular success, it is her role in the documentary to serve as an on-screen audience for the male scientists whom she interviews. Here, although she appears as driven, intelligent, and technologically capable, Kaoru is subservient to the ‘authentic’ figures of scientific knowledge—the men whom she presents through her work. This woman becomes in effect a model for the point I wish to make: it is through her voice, through the willing subservience of her independent voice, that the male and authoritative words which form the substance of the message, become audible. Woman, in this model, is but a mouthpiece for a male communication—her function is that of conduit, not interlocutor, not originator of the message, and her comfortable use of technology only serves to facilitate this transmissive function.

Eri, the other central female character in the film, works in a fairly responsible position, as a translator. Here, too, her occupation becomes a persuasive component of the metaphoric theme we are tracing—as a translator, her function is to pass on the contents of a message. She is not to originate that message, nor is she to comment or act upon it—simply to convey it. She does this despite her inability to speak (presumably she functions more as a true translator rather than as an interpreter.) Even her condition of beng mute, we learn, came about as a result of her inabilty to generate an “authentic” message: she lost her voice when Keisuke had told her that he intended to give up his fledgling acting career in order to take a more secure job, and so be able to marry her. The trauma of being put in a position to affect his dreams and his plans, and the pressure of having to respond spontaneously to his demands for an answer, have so overwhelmed her, that her voice has simply disappeared.

Let’s consider the implications of this. If she were to reply to Keisuke, either positively or negatively, she would be engaging him in discourse—she would be an equal participant in his plans, and would be accepting the responsibility to share the creation of their future together. But we’ve seen how the film has established a model for female participation: women are to be conveyors of a message, are to be mere voices for the authentic sources of communication, the men of the film. For Eri to reply would be for her to challenge this role, and so, the film requires her silence. Interestingly, and tellingly, this silence seems to come at considerable cost, as Eri appears to be rebelling against the role thrust upon her. The film engages its own visioning of feminine silence through this character and reveals an ideological schism—it is aware of its own oppression, but, like Eri who cannot break through her own psychological condition, it cannot break through its own resistance to a social progressiveness.

These two female characters, while each intelligent, confident, and competent women who hold important social positions are both nonetheless highly sensitive to the opinions and wishes of the men in their lives. In effect, both women have subjugated their own voices to the messages of the male characters in the film. The film highlights communication as an issue central to these women, but foregrounds their inability to communicate either effectively, in the case of the TV producer, or at all, in the case of the girlfriend. This lack of communicative ability on the part of these women is in effect a male denial of the female voice, a resistance to the legitimacy of the female right to participate in social discourse—it is, in effect, a male withdrawal from the threatening reality of a mature, feminist society. We can see elements of this in the character of Mika, Keisuke’s co-star, who insisted upon his being cast in the leading role (in the “film within the film”) because of her physical attraction to him. This character, while young, vibrant, and successful within her profession as a popular actress, emerges as someone driven by fleeting attractions, vanity, and sexual desire—in short, not as a mature adult capable of participating in an enduring relationship, but as an over-indulged child dependent upon her (male) director and (male) scriptwriter for providing her with the material for her art. This character completes the presentation of “woman” which the film undertakes, and firmly establishes the gender functions which it proposes as legitimate: woman is to be an actress bringing to life the creations of man. Woman is to pass on the male message—preferably willingly—but if not, then at least without protest.

Now, my argument here certainly does not imply that the director, Nakano Hiroyuki, consciously and misogynistically constructed Stereo Future to be an anti-feminist diatribe condemning women to lives of silent servitude—quite the contrary, I believe these issues are so deeply embedded within male perceptions of the social reality in which men live as to be accepted virtually unconsciously. And I by no means want to imply that the male characters in this film appear as sterling role models for a new generation of chauvinistic Japanese men, for on this point, too, the film’s content is contrary to that idea. The men in this film appear uniformly weak, indecisive, technologically backward, or self-centred—far from positive models. The film is a comedy and as such presents caricatures of its subjects, and yet nonetheless, its presentations of the functions of the men and women who make up its cast of characters are uniformly conformist to a conservative, “traditionalist” conception of gender roles, seeing men as positively active, and women as negatively passive. The film has used the issue of communicative ability and function to establish this division.

Freeze Me

We can continue this division between ‘properly’ active men and passive women by considering a film which breaks that pattern, Freeze Me (2000) by Ishii Takashi. The story briefly told is this: Chihiro, an attractive, apparently successful office worker, had been raped by three men five years previously. She now lives in Tokyo where she has a boyfriend whom she will marry, but one evening she is startled to see one of her rapists in her apartment building lobby. The rapist forces his way into her home, where he assaults her and insists that he will live with her. After several days, she kills him, stuffing his body into her refrigerator. Unfortunately for Chihiro, however, the rapist had contacted the other two, who show up in turn—Chihiro kills all of them, stuffing their bodies into freezers which she has had specially delivered to hold them. In the evenings, she drinks heavily, opening the freezer doors and talking with the corpses. Her boyfriend comes to visit her after she has avoided him for a long while—he seduces her, they make love, but then he discovers the corpses in the freezers. She kills him, too, before finally committing suicide.

Now, this is a gruesome little story, but the director brings considerable sensitivity and sympathy to the film. The camerawork, utilising predominantly middle close-ups and interior settings, highlights Chihiro, creating a sincere connection between the viewer and this character. As audience members, we feel great sympathy for her, while we are disgusted by the rapits, who get what they deserve. So, all well and good—except for the nagging issue of Chihiro’s incredible silence on the conditions of her situation, and her suicide. Beneath the sympathy which the narrative calls forth, what is the ideology of the film?

Chihiro leads a life of extreme secrecy and seclusion—she has told no one of her past, not even mentioning the name of her home town to her boyfriend. She is terrified by the prospect of her apartment neighbours discovering the truth about her rape, to the extent of being forced—of forcing herself—to accept the continuing presence of her rapists in her home. Of course the aspect of shame which many Japanese associate with being raped does much to explain Chihiro’s reluctance to have her past known, but the film goes far beyond this, presenting Chihiro as someone who ultimately determines to punish herself for the ‘crimes’ which she has committed—the crime of actively seeking justice and revenge for the brutality which she had experienced. Moreover, the issue of voice and communicative ability forms a central theme here, too, in that we see Chihiro able to open herself and speak freely only to the frozen corpses in her room.

The pattern works this way—woman, in revolt against her role as a sexual object, appropriates for herself the male privilege of active pursuit of justice. Through this activity, transgressive of a traditionally prescribed mode of existence—passivity and silent acceptance of her lot—she becomes communicative, able to speak of her wants openly and directly, but only to the victims of her act of transgression. This communicative ability is a symptom of instability, of insanity in the woman, and it becomes a motivation for her destruction, when she discovers that she cannot communicate openly or ‘normally’ to someone whom she expects to be supportive of her. She has destroyed the ‘normal’ relationships around her, having isolated herself from her former co-workers (changing jobs and changing apartments), and having abandoned her fiancé, and has destroyed the possibility of entering into new ‘normal’ relationships by keeping near her and communicating her innermost thoughts to the victims of her ‘unnatural’ activity. She discovers this through her boyfriend’s reaction at finding the corpses in her room, and so must destroy herself when the extent of her transgression of ‘normal’ social codes becomes clear to her.

Freeze Me presents a seemingly sympathetic portrayal of a woman’s response to a terrible injustice, only finally to destroy that woman. This is particularly disturbing in that that destruction comes at the woman’s own hand—she has so internalised the social code according to which she had been expected to live that her own legitimate desire for justice and revenge has become a condemnation. Camerawork, lighting, and the actors’ performances all create deep connections between the audience and the characters, but the film undermines this connection. It is open to interpretation, of course, as to what is really undermined here, but I want to argue that the destruction of Chihiro through suicide emerges as a male act of judgement, an attempt by a male-dominated society to penalise and remove the threat of an active, openly communicative woman. If it is true that whom the the gods destroy they first make mad, then it appears as if the women whom Japanese men would destroy are first made able to speak.

Anno Hideaki - Neon Genesis Evangelion, Love and Pop and Shikijitsu

A more subtle manipulation of the female voice occurs in some of the films of Anno Hideaki, a director best known for Neon Genesis Evangelion, an extremely popular, critically successful science fiction anime series that deals first and foremost with issues of personal responsibility and a desperate quest for individual identity. In his live action work, Anno has focussed on young female characters who often question the bleak sameness of Japanese daily life, but this social criticism becomes in effect a subterfuge, a mechanism whereby Anno may express his own criticism of young Japanese women. This is apparent in his film from 1997, Love and Pop, which follows Hiromi, a sixteen year old high school girl as she goes from home to shopping to meetings with friends, and to meetings with older men who pay her for her companionship.

Hiromi, in voice-over narration, complains that she has never known great joy or great sorrow, that every day passes as every other, that she can’t imagine how her future will be any different from her present life of shopping and spending time with her friends. The conversations she has with her friends are uniformly shallow; the secrets they share with each other are uniformly not profound; and the time she spends with her older companions is uniformly filled by listening to them speak, virtually non-stop, about their own problems. In fact at one point one older man who has paid the girls to have dinner with him complains explicitly that the problem with these young girls is that they never truly listen—that they never truly communicate with him. We can go beyond this instance to say that the film itself highlights the lack of communication between any of the characters, while visually highlighting (through extremely interesting camera placement and filming techniques) the fetishised bodies of Hiromi and her young friends.

While ostensibly about the lives of its characters, the film’s visual focus, its thoroughly consistent, objectifying gaze, reveals its true fascination with the physicality of the young women whom the camera follows with voyeuristic obsession. In this regard, Love and Pop accepts Mary Ann Doane’s proposition, which we encountered earlier, that the act of filming the female body necessarily reifies that body, stripping it of its subjectivity, and forcing it to perform for the male voyeur. The gaze of Love and Pop is strictly male. It presents the male desire for the female body, and openly presents the female body as valued only as an object of physical desire: this becomes apparent in the number of shots which appear to lurk behind the female characters, or which attempt to peer through, under, and into the recesses of the school uniforms Hiromi and her friends wear, and becomes obvious to the point of pain when Hiromi is almost raped. The camera here superimposes the faces of Hiromi and her attacker, simultaneously presenting their two points of view and forcing the audience into both roles, but the effect is to deepen our sympathy for Hiromi and strengthen our hope that she will find a more substantial mode of existence for herself. That is, our sympathy serves to criticise her for in effect living without having found a strong core of identity.

Love and Pop’s camera reflects a male desire to possess, control, and enjoy the physicality of the female body, but it does so by first fetishising that body, dehumanising it through the process of segmenting it, separating it into its component parts. We see this in the many shots which highlight Hiromi’s hands, legs, feet, or torso—the camera creates objects of all of these body parts, not only for the audience, but for Hiromi, as well, by presenting the body parts often from her own point of view. This process places the viewer within Hiromi and creates a perspectival ambiguity: we are encouraged to identify ourselves with Hiromi while simultaneously objectifying her. The purpose of this, I believe, is to create of Hiromi and the physicality of her friends a fetish, an object endowed with a conceived ability to fulfil the male desire. “Fetishism, broadly speaking, involves the attribution of self-sufficiency and autonomous powers to manifestly ‘man’ derived objects. It is therefore dependent on the ability to disavow what is known, and replace it with belief and the suspension of disbelief. The fetish, however, is always haunted by the fragility of the mechanisms that sustain it” (Mulvey 1993: 7).

This fetish reconstitutes Hiromi as an embodiment of a male-created, feminine ideal: she exists as an object of physical desire, unable to resist satisfying the male gaze, and disavows what both the male viewer and the objectifying camera’s gaze know must be true, that Hiromi is a self-willed subjectivity. This disavowal of Hiromi’s subjectivity, of her potential for feelings, aspirations, and full social participation, is significant, for it speaks to the camera’s occasionally ambiguous portrayal of the various points of view: “through disavowal, the fetish allows access to its own cause. It acknowledges its own traumatic real and may be compared to a red flag, symptomatically signalling a site of psychic pain” (Mulvey 1993: 6). What is painful of course is the clash between an objectifying male gaze, on the one hand, and the implicit male knowledge of the potential resistance of the object of that gaze, of its potential to reassert its subjectivity. This tension gives Love and Pop its visual interest and its thematic richness, even as it ultimately reveals itself to be a film of male fear of the subjectified, modern woman.

Anno Hideaki continues his examination of female identity in his film from 2000, Shikijitsu, known as Ritual in English. This work is about the relationship which develops between a disillusioned film maker (played remarkably well by the director Iwai Shunji, whose own films present compelling, deep female characters) and an emotionally disturbed young woman who tells him constantly that tomorrow is her birthday. The young woman is estranged from her family, and is convinced that she has murdered her sister. Throughout the course of the film, the character of the filmmaker calmly and persistently comes closer to the young woman, till at the end his sincere attentions permit her to have a psychological breakthrough—she no longer spins a tangled web of self-protective fantasies, but accepts the reality of her life and attempts a reconciliation with her mother.

The film itself is visually stunning, containing many shots of sheer beauty and colour, and while the young woman consistently attracts the camera’s gaze, the interplay between her and the filmmaker highlights the male character as emotionally, intellectually, and psychology stronger. It is his strength which is able to guide the woman to her breakthrough, and his persistence which is able to allow the woman to accept her reality-based identity. This may represent a rescue fantasy of elaborate nature, but more plausibly it demonstrates a traditional, conservative understanding of the relative social positions of men and women in Japan, and fulfils the function of a traditional, anti-feminist work in which the man “knows what is best” for the woman, without consulting her. Here, the character of the film maker “knows what is best” and insists upon it—the film justifies this by having the young woman not only accept the man’s guidance, but thank him for it—and by having that guidance prove correct.

Contemporary Japanese Anime

The films we have considered so far have various features in common, but most significantly, they function as indicators of “a pernicious process of marginalisation, where the marginalised subjects are forced by the dominant culture to adopt a self-repressive pattern and even internalise their own reality” (Testaferri 1995, xii). The pattern of repression here concerns the expression of legitimate female desires and opinions, in favour of an imposed, idealised, artificial view of ‘what a woman should be’. This view reflects male fantasies of control—it allows male filmmakers and spectators to think of themselves as protectors, rescuers, or mediators for women, as educators able to guide women to a ‘correct’ form of self-understanding. That is, this pattern of repression and the underlying ideological view which sustains it while supporting a male-centric approach to gender expression, is a self-fulfilling, self-satisfying symptom of a male-dominated cultural industry. In the absence of strong female directors, writers, and producers, Japanese cinema can hardly develop other models of male/female behaviours and interactions, and can hardly hope to influence new generations of Japanese in progressive ways.

As bleak as this outlook may seem, however, there are glimmers of hope within Japanese cinema—even occasionally within the examples we’ve considered here. The female characters we’ve encountered are technologically capable, intelligent, professional, passionate, and dedicated. These are after all very positive personal attributes. That the plots and presentations of the films undermines these characters’ independence is an important problem, but it is representative of a struggle nonetheless, and struggles, as anyone who’s ever been involved in one can attest, may go either way. I want to suggest though that there are other, clearly positive aspects to some of Japan’s most successful contemporary films—these aspects are to be found in many works of anime. I would now like to turn to some recent films from Studio Ghibli, the production company which Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao began, and which is responsible for the creation of some truly beautiful, powerful examples of progressive, feminist cinema.

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi - Spirited Away

I want to start with the internationally acclaimed Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (Spirited Away), from 2001. This film continues Miyazaki’s tradition of presenting young female characters in emotionally traumatic situations, their successful extrication from which gives them self-confidence, courage, and indeed tangible self-respect.

Miyazaki is unusual in that, unlike other male directors, his female characters interact equally with their male companions, both learning from them and also teaching them important lessons. Rather than presenting males who single-handedly inspire the female characters to emulate them, these young men or boys are often dependent upon the young women or girls for their own rescue from peril. Its true that Miyazaki often presents young women as being more in contact with nature or the forces of the spirit world, and so reflective of an essentialising view which sees women as potentially alien to the human, cultural, urban world, here read as fundamentally “male,” but this is an issue which I for one am prepared to overlook in favour of his relatively balanced perspective on the abilities of young women to determine for themselves courses of action in any given situation.

Sen to Chihiro is representative of this, in that its female protagonist, the young Chihiro of the title, is responsible through her own bravery for the successful purification of a polluted river spirit, for saving the life of the young male protagonist, Kohaku, and for returning to him the memory of his true identity, as well as for saving the lives of her own parents. The film even presents us with something very rare in Japan—and in Canada as well, for that matter: a female corporate head (perhaps the visual pun is intentional—her head in the film is vastly oversized…) in the character of Yubaba, the avaricious owner of the spirit bathhouse. Chihiro takes assistance from male characters, but equally gives assitance in return—in fact, so gender-neutral is this film, that were Chihiro to have been a young boy (and it’s worth mentioning here that while this name can be both masculine and feminine, all of the dictionaries which I’ve consulted list it as male), the impact of the plot would have been basically unchanged.

Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi speaks to the close connections between the human and spirit worlds, and the necessity of each for the continued welfare of the other. It speaks to the continued importance of Japan’s traditions to its modern age, but more importantly, it is redemptive of those traditions, removing from them their antifeminist bias and countering what Yoda Tomiko has identified as a “call to restore respect for fatherhood and the paternal principle” in light of the “harmful excess of motherhood and the maternal principle both inside and outside” of the home (Yoda, pp. 865-6).

Miyazaki’s film is arguably feminist in its blindness to gender, and refreshingly so, but this is not the only positive film to come from Studio Ghibli. Other works from Studio Ghibli, by Miyazaki himself but also by other directors who seem to adhere to a shared belief that cinema has the power to transform the world for the better, present young women who accomplish important, emotionally stirring feats, and who through these accomplishments are able to grow in self-esteem. I’ll mention only one final work, Neko no ongaeshi (The Cat Returns the Favour), by Morita Hiroyuki, from 2002.

Neko no ongaeshi - The Cat Returns the Favour

This work tells a very simple story—Haru, an awkward, shy high school student, one day saves a cat from being run over by a truck. That evening, a strange procession of cats comes to present her with a token of thanks, delivered by the Cat Emperor himself. The cats suggest that she should come live with them in their own country—she does so, and finds herself gradually transforming into a cat. The Cat Emperor, however, unbeknownst to Haru, has in effect kidnapped her, to marry his son—a plan which Haru rejects when she learns of it. With the help of the Cat Baron and several other cats, Haru is able to free herself from the Cat Kingdom, and return to her own land—wiser, stronger, and far more self-confident.

Even though the Cat Baron who serves as a central agent in Haru’s rescue is male—and quite dapper, at that!—it is the interplay between these characters which marks them as equal. Haru learns from the Cat Baron and accepts his assistance, but does so in a non-objectified, non-sexualised, in fact, non-gendered way—their relationship is similar to that of a father and child, involving a sharing of experience, rather than a course of instruction—which is what we saw in Anno Hideaki’s Shikijitsu—or a financial transaction, which is what we saw in Love and Pop.

It is important that Haru lives alone with her mother—she in fact lacks a father, a surrogate for whom she finds in the Cat Baron. Here, a father’s influence on the growth of a child emerges as a positive thing, but this indicates too the necessity for fathers to be involved in allowing children to grow into themselves: Haru’s relationship with her surrogate father, the Cat Baron, is a nurturing, supportive one, not one which imposes a received gender function onto her. This relationship leaves Haru open to her own potential, and in fact alters her ability to communicate: while at the beginning of the film she speaks in a hesitant, restrained manner, at the close she is articulate, humorous, and secure. The metaphor of voice which we’ve traced as an indicator of male domination over women here functions as a sign of Haru’s maturation, and thus this film itself becomes a signpost on the way to a mature society, in which women are able to grow into equal participants in their own self-expressions.


Film is able to reflect social attitudes, but also able to change them. The majority of mainstream cinema is complicit in the dominant ideology of the mainstream—it is conservative of a culture’s traditions, seeking to maintain the status quo at the expense of innovative, diverse, creative individuals able to challenge the values of the society. But film does hold tremendous power to champion those diverse individuals who envision a new, non-gendered society. I see this championship in anime, and these films hold the potential to encourage, inspire, and guide young people towards a self-confidence based not on socially-sanctioned gender identities, but their own abilities.


Doane, Mary Ann, “Woman’s Stake: Filming the Female Body, Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley, New York: Routledge, 1988.

Flanagan, Mary, “Mobile Identities, Digital Stars, and Post Cinematic Selves,” Wide Angle, Volume 21, Number 1, 1999.

Mulvey, Laura, “Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture,” October, Vol. 65, Summer, 1993.

Offen, Karen, “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach,” Signs, 14: 1, Autumn, 1988.

Onodera, Midi, “Locating The Displaced View,” Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Sato, Kumiko, “How Information Technology has (not) Changed Feminism and Japanism: Cyberpunk in the Japanese Context,” Comparative Literature Studies, 41: 3, 2004.

Testaferri, Ada, “Introduction,” Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Yoda, Tomiko, “The Rise and Fall of Maternal Society: Gender, Labour, and Capital in Contemporary Japan,” in The South Atlantic Quarterly, 99: 4, Fall, 2000.

About the author

Timothy Iles is Assistant Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000).

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Copyright: Timothy Iles
This page was first created on 31 January 2005. It was last modified on 30 January 2006.

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