electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Article 5 in 2011
First published in ejcjs on 30 September 2011

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National Identity (Re)Construction in Japanese and American Animated Film

Self and Other Representation in Pocahontas and Princess Mononoke


Kaori Yoshida

Associate Professor
College of Asia-Pacific Studies
Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University

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Fictional reality created by media significantly contributes to the formation of Self and Other. Animation offers a contested site for identity formation through story-telling, which provides wide audiences with the resources for narrative-creation and imagined communities that can foster collective identities. This article attempts to explicate how the medium of animation articulates the Other within, through the manipulation of national history. For this purpose, it analyzes two animations: Disney's Pocahontas and Princess Mononoke by Miyazaki Hayao's Studio Ghibli, both of which illustrate marginalized groups in national history. These works are examined, particularly by looking at gendered and racialized representations and the effect of power dynamics between dominant and dominated. The two animated folklores articulate otherness in different ways; they can reinforce or problematize preconceived notions of cultural identities. This study will aid in better understanding the complexities of identity politics reflected in popular media.

Key Words

Animation; anime; gender and ethnic representation; national identity; otherness

It [the past] is always constructed through memory, fantasy, narrative and myth. Cultural identities are the points of identification, unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. (Hall, 1990: 226)


History, constructed through fantasy and narratives, is integral to the articulation of national identity as well as public memory. The current media-saturated society, in tandem with the global mobilization of people and cultures that has intensified since the 1980s and 1990s, is characterized in part by an accelerated and extensive dependence on the fictional world for establishing Self/Other configurations. Theorists in various fields have revealed a dialectical process of identity formation through our relations with others, in which one's self is often (mis)recognized through interactions with others, or more specifically, the imaginary Other.1 In these circumstances, the imaginary Other is constructed effectively through fantasy narratives, particularly those tied to the past, and is then infused by storytelling media such as film. Historical narratives reiterated through media often (over)represent some identities as privileged over others, a sign that history is the version of events written by the victors or the social dominant. It is equally important to recognize historical film as a vehicle for at least partly 'constructing a sense of national identity', which deals with history by 'consciously selecting, rejecting, and shaping the materials of a nation's past' (Napier 2005: 158). Similarly, Hiromi Mizuno (2007) stresses the potential of historical film to speak of national desires in specific social contexts, which play a significant part in shaping national identity.

Based on these ideas, this article focuses on animated films, a popular medium which has sometimes been critically overlooked despite its significant role in (mis)recognition of Self and Other. Indeed, animated films have been frequently used for war propaganda, coding the Self as justice and the enemy as the monstrous Other.2 This suggests that animated films are capable of placing audiences in subject positions in favour of specific—socially dominant—intentions.3 By analyzing animated texts that deal with national history, and reflect national narratives, the article deciphers how fictional (imaginary) worlds may contribute to the Self/Other recognition. This study takes up widely known texts—Disney's Pocahontas (1995), its sequel Pocahontas II (1998), and Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke (1997) (hereafter Mononoke)—in order to examine similarities and differences in how they represent and play with history in relation to the politics of Self/Other construction.4

It should be noted that, while the article acknowledges the important role of audiences and members of production teams in (re)creating the meaning of the text,5 the primary focus here is on attaining a better understanding of the mechanism by which animated narratives use history in the process of self and national identity articulation. In this regard, a key aspect of this study is to explicate the impact that filmmakers have on their texts and subsequently on the primary target audience, children, who may not possess a high level of media literacy.

Narrative settings: the link to the production years – clashing of Self and Other

Historical films are not merely stories about the past, but are closely tied to the temporal context of their production. The narratives of Pocahontas and Mononoke, both set in premodern times, were produced in the 1990s, and several diegetic parallels are evident. First, let us consider Pocahontas.

Set in 1607-08, Pocahontas is the first Disney animated film based on a historical record. It features the historic confrontation between English settlers and Native Americans (an Algonquian tribe in what is now Jamestown, Virginia). Captain John Smith leads a band of English sailors and soldiers to the New World to plunder its treasure for England. Convinced that the natives are hiding gold, some of the English settlers, commanded by Governor Ratcliffe, are fervent to find the treasure. Concerned about the intensification of conflict between the natives and the white newcomers, Pocahontas and Smith try to prevent a war from breaking out. Against this backdrop, Thomas, an inexperienced settler, kills Kocoum, the village's greatest warrior and the man chosen by Chief Powhatan to marry Pocahontas. However, Smith lets the natives think he is responsible, and is thus condemned to death. Pocahontas begs her father to spare Smith's life, and bravely places her own life on the line, saying that he must kill her first. Smith reciprocates by saving Powhatan's life when he puts himself in the way of a gunshot from Ratcliffe. 

The story of Mononoke takes place in a turbulent time within Japanese history, the Muromachi period (1392-1573),6 when the medieval social system had collapsed and society was moving towards the modern era. In this tale, animals are fighting against the humans who are invading their forest sanctuary, and consequently the animals, seen as raging gods, are perceived as a threat by the humans. One of the human protagonists is Ashitaka, a descendant of the Royal family of the Emishi people. He is put under a curse of death by a raging boar god, who has become possessed by an evil spirit (tatarigami) out of anger against humans. Ashitaka goes on a journey to Western Japan in an attempt to lift the curse, but is soon dragged into a battle between animals in the forest and humans. There, Ashitaka meets the film's two main female characters. The first is Lady Eboshi, the leader of the Tatara iron-making town. There, she assembles lepers and former prostitutes to work in the industrial commune she has founded. She is intent on claiming the forest land for human use and attempts to destroy the great god of the forest. The other female protagonist is San, Princess Mononoke, a teenage girl who has been raised by wolves in the forest. She fights against the Tatara group and attempts to kill Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka tries to prevent Eboshi and San from fighting, searching instead for a way that they might co-exist. Eventually Ashitaka and San succeed in protecting the forest, and in stemming the devastation of the battle between the animals and humans.

Both films were produced against the backdrop of the end of the Cold War and the global decolonization movement. National boundaries were re-drawn, and nationalistic sentiment and the search for narratives to re-construct national (historical) identity were resurgent. This search also took shape in the field of popular media.7 It is worth noting that while some may take Mononoke as an epic which provokes patriotism or a nostalgic notion of Japaneseness, the Muromachi period setting bears some similarities to the time of the film's production (the mid-1990s), namely an intense clash among people within and outside of the country.

The 1990s is the decade not only of a culmination of globalization accompanied by an influx of otherness (of people and cultures) both in Japan and the U.S., but also of a growing perception of the need to question representations in historical films, and to move away from viewing them as a tool that presents history as a complete story.8  In other words, re-constructing or re-writing national history by means of film is indicative of both critical reflection and nostalgia for the nation's past, as well as criticism or advocacy of the current national direction. For instance, Pocahontas and Mononoke encapsulate the destructive aspects of modernization and industrialization by manifesting developers' schemes of changing nature with guns – this contrasts with the tranquil and grand natural scenery featured in both films.

For the U.S. the 1990s was a critical time in terms of constructing the Other. Prior to Pocahontas, Disney released Aladdin in 1992, which was produced against the backdrop of the Gulf War. Many critics points out that Aladdin constructs the Other by visually and aurally (i.e. accent) representing Arabic people and culture/tradition as enigmatic through the use of eerie scenery and by giving the hero and heroine an American  accent and sense of values. One may assume a continuing sense of fear toward the Other and a subsequent feeling of a need to sustain the nation's sense of Self, carried into the production process of Pocahontas by means of imagination and historical narrative.

According to Miyazaki (1996), Japan in the 1990s had lost its national pride, and was in need of re-constructing a national identity. Incidentally, the quest for a clear national identity saw a resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, the first such movement since the 1950s and 1960s, a period in which Japan worked to recover from defeat in World War II. Japan in the 1990s fluctuated (and still does) between two conflicting movements. On the one hand, the country has been promoting kokusaika (internationalization) intensely since the 1980s. On the other hand, there has been a push to rediscover Japanese roots. In the postwar period, culture and history were stressed over military aspects as the country worked to re-construct a national identity. For instance, in 1992, Japan Railways Group launched a campaign called Santo Monogatari (the story of three cities), to promote the rediscovery of Japaneseness by encouraging travel to the three major historical cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe. Such marketing was intended to draw upon people's re-appreciation of the alleged essence of Japan, and is indicative of a compelling nationalistic trend at the time.

Looking at the narratives of Pocahontas and Mononoke, as well as the socio-political background of the temporal context of their production, both films reveal an attempt to deal with the problematic condition of the clash between Self and Other through narratives of the marginalized in national history. However, there are significant differences in how these films use history for Self/Other articulation.

Ways of representing Self and Other: binary versus multiple Others

The Other envisioned in Disney's Pocahontas (and Pocahontas II) is characterized by typical symbols of difference—backwardness—which is coded largely in the representation of Native Americans. This style of depiction potentially invokes what Rey Chow calls 'a phantom history' (1993: 37), by which Western cultural critics tend to turn the native (intentionally or unintentionally) into an object that is manageable and comforting through the manipulation of history. That is, the static Other remains frozen as a specimen, while the privileged Self keeps developing as time progresses. This concept illustrates a way in which a problematic notion of time lag between civilized whites and backward Native Americans is highlighted to serve white critics' (Self) appetite for consuming the Other. This process of Self/Other demarcation emphasizes that history brought into the present enables white ethnocentrism to re-establish superiority in relation to the imaginary Other. That is, historical setting can provide the perfect site for the dominant power to reinstate what Said calls 'imaginative geography' (Said, 1995: 54), which upholds the myth of the timeless native Other and illuminates the progression of the Anglosphere.

Viewers witness several scenes in Pocahontas, particularly depictions of the natives' behavior and interactions between Smith and Pocahontas, which materialize the problematic notion of the time lag. For instance, the so-called uncivilized nature of the natives is emphasized in the way Pocahontas moves, runs and climbs up trees like a female Tarzan. Her animal-like movements even cause Smith to point his gun at her, mistaking her for an animal the first time he sees her. Moreover, Pocahontas' movements among rocks and trees, shot from a lower angle, accentuate her otherness. Throughout the film, Pocahontas is 'a symptom of the white man'—something that offers the white subject ontological consistency (Chow, 1993: 30)—and thus exists through Smith (a white male).9 The contrast between images of Pocahontas and Smith potentially distances viewers from the natives, accordingly contributing to the way viewers may remember the history of natives and settlers.10 In other words, experiencing Disney's Pocahontas makes it easier for white viewers to identify themselves as a privileged Self in relation to the native Other.

This positioning of the native as the object of curiosity evokes Nancy Armstrong's problematization of the delineation of Subject and Object. She argues that:

[T]o insist on being 'subjects' as opposed to 'objects' is to assume that we must have certain powers of observation, classification, and definition in order to exist; these powers make 'us' human. According to the logic governing such thinking…only certain kinds of subjects are really subjects; to be human, anyone must be one of 'us' (Armstrong, 1990: 33).

This manner of vision is effectively applied for envisioning the natives in Pocahontas. The caricatured representations of the Powhatan tribe members (re)inscribe the discrete division between de-humanized natives and the Anglo-Saxon white subject—a holder of the gaze and the power to inscribe what is human.

In the same line of thought, the narrative of Pocahontas runs the risk of re-inscribing the distinction of good and evil corresponding to the Anglo-Saxon whites and natives respectively. Certainly, one should not overgeneralize the category of whites or ignore the distinction between the English and Americans in the historical narrative.11 Nonetheless, the binary perception of the whites and natives, based on a significantly Euro-centric view, seems to be deeply rooted in the inscription of the historical narrative of Pocahontas. For example, although the narrative demonstrates both good and evil in white characters—Smith and the Governor Ratcliffe, respectively—evilness among the English is 'individualized to one scapegoat, Ratcliffe' (Jhappan and Stasiulis, 2005:159), rather than associating it with the Anglo-Saxon population as a group. This depiction seems as if an evil character happened to be white but that other white characters are generally good. Thus, the King in England is depicted as innocent because he is manipulated by Ratcliffe.

While Pocahontas is inclined to induce interpretations based on dichotomous perspectives, by designating the Powhatan as the Other and the settlers as Self, Mononoke highlights the existence of multiple Others in Japanese society. This representation of otherness challenges the dichotomous concept of Self and Other, as well as subverting the myth of the Japanese as a homogenous nation. In Mononoke, all characters except Lord Asano (who is only mentioned when his samurai briefly appear) and the emperor come from various groups of Others in society. It is these Others that move the narrative forward.

For instance, Ashitaka is from the ethnic group known as the Emishi—a clan that fought against the Yamato regime and was marginalized to the Northeastern parts of the country. From the seventh to the thirteenth century, the central government treated the Emishi as an uncivilized ethnic other, or an abject. The narrative of Mononoke foregrounds this marginalized clan (or the Other) while the Yamato Imperial Court (the central government) —the alleged Self—is hardly involved in the narrative. The central government is mentioned in characters' conversations, but the film's plot predominantly revolves around social Others, including the Emishi, San, the wild woman in the forest, and those whom Lady Eboshi hires in the iron-town—prostitutes and lepers. This evokes the current population of Japan as a composite of differences and conflicting values that includes the Yamato, Ainu, and Okinawan peoples, as well as zainichi Koreans (Korean permanent residents in Japan). It is indeed a historical fact that stretching back several hundreds of years, various races and ethnicities, including Asians and Oceanians, have moved into Japan, and at the time that the Emishi existed, Japan was such a racial melting-pot (Kuji, 1997: 78-80).

Interestingly, multiple foreign influences within the country are drawn upon by the story's setting in Mononoke, which traces back to the late eighth century when the Yamato dynasty prospered predominantly through constant trade with China and the Korean Peninsula (Shosetsu nihonshi, 1985: 32-36). The resulting cultural and political ties bring to light how extensively other Asian nations have been integrated into Japan's national identity over the course of history. In this respect, Napier uses the word 'multiculturalism' (Napier, 2005: 247) referring to the world of Mononoke. Although this concept should not essentially mean that the relationships between all groups involved are equal, it fits well the heterogeneity illustrated in the film—a co-existence of differences.

Relating to the multiplicity of otherness, the interactions between different groups demonstrated in Mononoke are not likely to induce the notion of 'abjection' by which one excludes outsiders/others to secure boundaries separating them from one's own group.12 That is, identity recognition for each group in Mononoke is not accomplished by exclusion or assimilation, but through a dialectical process of blurring the lines that mark differences. The boundary blurring is intensely envisioned in the iron town—a carnivalesque site—where marginalized Others and the 'abject' are empowered.13 In this site, no authority figure is identified, and therefore there is no single power pushing the narrative forward.

This manifestation of the iron town evokes Bhabha's (1994) concept of space 'in-between'; a space that destabilizes dichotomous patterns of identity formation with hybrid identities and allows for a new subject to emerge. This space is specifically exemplified by three main figures: Ashitaka, San, and Eboshi. These three characters signify the ambiguity of identity categorizations: mainly in the blurring of the line between nature (spirits and animals) and culture (humans and civilization). San—a combination of princess and mononoke (a possessing spirit)—symbolizes a liminal space between nature and culture. San is biologically human, despite her wild disguise with a wolf-pelt shawl and spear to perform as an Other—she tells Ashitaka, 'I am a wolf.' Thus, her identity does not conform entirely to humankind or to nature.

Eboshi's characterization is also transgressive. On the one hand, she is a typical industrialist and rationalist; on the other hand, she is also attached to the uncivilized Other, drawn together from several historical character types. Image analyst Kano Seiji describes Eboshi as a daughter of the Shimazu clan who is forced to marry a daimyo (feudal lord) and resists her husband, which then leads her to being sold to become a prostitute (yujo), until finally she is taken by the head of a Japanese pirate group (wako) whom she eventually kills (Kuji, 1997: 73). The depiction of Eboshi as the head of pirates and a murderer underscores her ruthless and cruel persona, which aligns with her other side as the calm and rational leader of the iron-town.

Likewise, Ashitaka is biologically human, but as he becomes possessed by a curse, his body is invaded by a mononoke, symbolic of an abject other. In other words, his identity is a hybrid of his original self and a foreign other. He thus lies somewhere between human/civilization and the forest where mononoke exist. The notion of abject manifested in Ashitaka's body is slightly different from Kristeva's (1982) 'abject' that refers to a part that needs to be rejected for establishing one's identity. Instead, Ashitaka's abjection represents a part that is never completely removed from his self, but lives with him to complete his identity. In this respect, in-between-ness presented through Mononoke disrupts the notion of Self/Other itself, rather than simply inverting positions between Self and Other.

Myth-making and myth-breaking

Romanticism and passive femininity are elements typically used in construction of fantastic and mythic worlds. The myth-making process in Pocahontas is primarily carried out through the sanitization and romanticization of the historical narrative. Examples include omissions of Pocahontas' abduction by the English, her subsequent conversion to Christianity, her name being changed to Lady Rebecca Rolfe because of her marriage to settler John Rolfe, and her death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-one in England. In addition, as Jhappan and Stasiulis (2005) point out, Pocahontas leaves the impression that colonization is suspended when colonizers go back to England.

Re-fashioning of history in Disney's Pocahontas obscures positioning within a historical event. For instance, the white colonizers' assault on Native Americans is presented by the killing of Pocahontas's fiancé Kocoum in Disney's narrative. Yet it is clear that Smith's friend Thomas shoots Kocoum by accident, which diminishes the cruelty of the white perpetrator; the killing is somewhat justified because of Kocoum's attempt to endanger Smith's life. It can be assumed that this accident happens for a reason, namely to set up Smith's subsequent heroic deeds in which he takes the rap for Thomas, and when he is heroically injured as he protects Powhatan from a gunshot. Along with marked scenes of Smith's capture and surrender to the natives for execution, whites are able to be positioned in the role of victim.

In this manner, the characterization of Smith, who has historically been reputed as an unrelenting murderer of Native Americans, is sanitized in the name of Disneyfication—the process of 'rendering the material being worked upon into a standardized format that is almost instantly recognizable as being from the Disney stable' (Bryman, 2004: 5). Thereafter, the narrative highlights the identification of whites, represented by Smith, as rational and moral victims who try to compromise with the barbarian natives, who are in turn depicted as cruel and vulgar, giving little consideration to the possibility of compromise. It is also this process that enables heterosexual romance between Smith, a colonizer, and Pocahontas. Disney's Pocahontas minimizes the extensive pains and struggles among the natives caused by colonial exploitation. Accordingly, the viewers, predominantly children, who would hardly recognize that they are watching the Disneyfied version of the historical narrative, are likely to incorporate it into their understanding of the past, a process that may then lead to perpetuate this particular version as a collective memory inside and outside the United States. 

Along with the sanitization of history, Disney's Pocahontas can be criticized for its representations of gender, alongside a credit for projecting a more independent woman than Disney's previous princesses. Pocahontas is characterized as an adventurous and nature-loving young woman who questions her father's wishes; thus she is a challenge to the myth of femininity to a significant extent. In fact, in one scene, Smith refers to the natives as 'savages,' only to be immediately followed by a scene set to the music of Colors of the Wind, sung by Pocahontas. In a reversal of role, Pocahontas is powerful and confident, taking Smith's hand and singing, teaching him about nature and the wonder of the world. While some critics describe her behavior as 'an adolescent seduction' (Edgerton and Jackson, 1996: 93), even children, who enjoy identifying with Pocahontas, would contrast this strong image of Pocahontas with Smith, a shallow materialist who exhibits a racist attitude toward the native 'savages.' Therefore, although anti-racism messages are possibly overshadowed by the romantic representation and intimate interactions between Pocahontas and Smith, the audience surely witnesses a strong statement of the ugliness of racism and intolerance through the acts of white male characters.

However, the narrative stays rather predictable in its heterosexual romance; Pocahontas and Smith meet, and fall in love. In the end, Smith and Pocahontas part so he can recover from the injury in England, yet romance is followed up by another settler, John Rolfe in Pocahontas II. Pocahontas precludes disturbing and tragic historical elements. What is highlighted instead is the romantic bond between Pocahontas and John Smith, despite the fact that their relationship seems hardly plausible given that she was twelve years old and he was twenty-seven when they met.14 The romantic tone is further emphasized by Disney's quintessential musical-style songs along with a recurring leaf motif—scenes in which colorful leaves swirl around Pocahontas to enhance a mystical mood. It is worth noting that there have been different versions of the Pocahontas story through different forms of media, most of which never fail to embrace a romantic tone.15 This form of fantasy setting allows the audience to have a safe experience of otherness.

To uphold heterosexual romanticism, the stylization of Pocahontas as a Barbie-like supermodel figure plays a significant role. Supervising animator Glen Keane used several models for inspiration in the re-designing of Pocahontas. He started with the idea of a Native American face, then Filipino model Dyna Taylor, and in the end, also used Christy Turlington, a white supermodel (Cochran, 1995). Pocahontas' face looks as though it is made up with mascara and vivid red lipstick, and her supermodel figure is accentuated by her overtly large breasts. Her physical appearance lends credence to Laura Mulvey's (1975) theory of the creation of a fetishized female body by objectifying it in a way that appeals to a male gaze. In this way, Pocahontas is redesigned significantly according to Anglicized standards of beauty, and displayed to be looked at. This process of character development of Pocahontas indicates the domestication of Native Americans, which makes them consumable, while being different enough to create 'imaginative geography' to maintain the myth-making mechanism.

By comparison, Mononoke's narrative functions rather to undermine the myth of femininity, particularly Japanese femininity, by working through the nation's past. As Napier argues, Mononoke defamiliarizes the conventional association of Japanese women with submissive femininity (Napier, 2005: 233). In this sense, female characters in Mononoke—San and Eboshi in particular—subvert not only the image of femininity, but also the gendered image of Japan. This makes for an interesting contrast to the representation of femininity and gender seen in Pocahontas.

San and Pocahontas are both title characters, and both are young, adventurous women associated with nature and otherness. Pocahontas, initially depicted as an independent figure, receives a Cinderella story ending of heterosexual romance in Pocahontas II that reinforces conventional gender roles. By contrast, dominant forms of femininity are challenged in Mononoke by a failure of the heterosexual relationship between San and Ashitaka. They do not consummate a romantic relationship according to a traditional heterosexual code. This is something that even the adventurous heroine Pocahontas fails to achieve. Accordingly, Ashitaka and San remain in separate worlds—he chooses not to abandon the human community, and San does not leave the forest. There is no sequel which allows for their reunion.

In a similar vein, although Pocahontas and San are both represented as versions of a wild princess, Pocahontas is domesticated to an extent through her relationships with Smith and Rolfe. On the other hand, the character of San remains wild—she hardly evokes the conventional notion of a princess or the stereotypical image of Japanese woman. Cuteness associated with Japan usually refers to the concept that 'celebrates sweet, adorable, innocent, pure, simple, genuine, gentle, vulnerable, weak, and inexperienced social behavior and physical appearances' (Kinsella, 1995: 220). This perspective often calls forth a gendering of Japan as feminine, linking it to infancy and helplessness, partly because, as Brian McVeigh (1996) argues, kawaii-ness (cute-ness) is a heavily gendered concept that contributes to the validation of male rationality and patriarchal social systems. Against this backdrop, the storyboard of Mononoke written by Miyazaki illustrates a scene where San sucks poisoned blood from a wound on her foster mother (a wolf named Moro) and spits it out. This act by San is a subversive image that challenges the myth of Japanese passive femininity. Miyazaki illustrates San in this scene with such words as 'devil-like, asura, and kuchisake-onna (split-mouth woman)' (2002: 105-106).16 San defies submissiveness and cuteness (or 'shojo-ness') typically associated with Japanese women.17 In other words, the depiction of San challenges the racialized gender representation of Japanese women, which are often mythologized both in and outside Japan. The female Other is more difficult to identify in Mononoke than Pocahontas.

Gendered conspiracy: beyond race, class and species

Pocahontas is a caricature, a representation particularly evident in the scene in which she dusts too much white cosmetic powder on her face in her eagerness to become white. Similarly, her first showing up only with lingerie and next only with a corset, not knowing what they are, exposes her body to the gaze of (male) viewers and Rolfe. These scenes correspond to Rey Chow's (1993) contention that film by nature functions as a technology of pornography, an apparatus that exposes the images projected on screen as a target of violation—in this case natives and the Powhatan in particular. Chow's idea, in conjunction with Mulvey's notion of the female body on screen as the object of male gaze, is ensured by the mechanism of vision operating in Pocahontas and its sequel. Racial and gender representations intertwine, accelerating the notion of a native female as the (doubly) objectified other. The power dynamic in Disney's Pocahontas makes it hard for the object of the gaze—female Pocahontas—to configure an alternate relationship in which she can assert her own subjectivity, overshadowing the adventurous characteristic of Pocahontas.18

The interlocking of race and gender representations observed in Pocahontas is further elucidated by Gayatri C. Spivak's following account:

White men are saving brown women from brown men.

The women actually wanted to die. (Spivak, 1988: 296-97)

With the first line in her quotation, Spivak describes the imperialist view of India, and with the second, that of the (dominant) native males. These lines shed light on the interdependence between brown and white males, by which they legitimize their actions in order to establish a condition where brown women become objects to be saved and controlled. By the same token, Chow describes this type of conspiratorial scheme as a demonstration of 'a perfect symmetry between the imperialist and anti-imperialist gazes, which cross over the images of native women as silent object' (Chow, 1993: 41) under patriarchal domination.

This co-dependent relationship between brown and white men to subjectivize brown women, as discussed by Spivak, parallels the position of Pocahontas. She is both red and female, thus doubly marginalized in racial and gender power dynamics. In fact, Smith (white) does save Pocahontas (red) from a loveless marriage to Kocoum (red) that her father (red) had arranged. This narrative suggests that a red woman is a commodity for red men, or otherwise as the object of a white male fantasy. Either way, Pocahontas creates a hierarchy—white males on top, red males (and symbolically white females) next, and red females at the bottom. In this respect, Disney's Pocahontas turns out to be another case that illustrates a patriarchal, if not white-oriented, worldview.

Gendered conspiracy is practiced differently in Mononoke. Instead of the patriarchal conspiracy across white and red males as in Pocahontas, Mononoke presents conspiracies plotted by females of different classes, life styles, and species (town women, Eboshi, San, her wolf mother Moro), with the same interest—a female-governed narrative space. For instance, two different classes of women—town women and the leader Eboshi—maintain a commune independent from patriarchal domains such as those of Lord Asano and the Yamato Imperial Court. Pretending to follow the Emperor's order to get the head of the forest god, Eboshi, accompanied by the town women, acts because it is in their best interest as they work to expand the iron town. Moreover, a town woman Toki shouts at her wounded husband, 'You fool! How are you gonna drive the ox now that you're all banged up and mangled? … Don't you "little flower" me.' She runs her family, which are typically masculine attributes. Her husband Koroku has tears in his eyes—the epitome of femininity —in front of Toki, and also when he runs into forest spirits. Toki's masculine attributes accentuate Koroku's femininity.

The narrative of Mononoke plays with history quite well in this respect. Given that the Muromachi period is often considered historically to be a (male) warrior-oriented society; these female representations illuminate the image of women who collaboratively strip off male superiority. It is women who govern public and private domains in town—the iron-making commune and family respectively. Along with San, discussed above, Eboshi and town women coming from different backgrounds together prevent potential patriarchal authority from emerging.

Mononoke, revealing the interrelation between gender and racial/national representations, effectively undermines the myth of submissive Japanese femininity through historical narrative. However, ironically, empowering images of female gender in Mononoke in turn emasculate the national identity of Japan—the myth of feminized Japan, in line with the typical Orientalist view. In this respect, this depiction of feminized Japan can be seen as a form of self-Orientalization. That is, gendered conspiracy in Mononoke succeeds at the expense of gendering the nation.

History for self-identification: self-glorification (self-Orientalizing) and nostalgia

Certainly, self-Orientalization in Mononoke is correlated with the background of the film's production year, which is characterized by a rampant globalization accompanied by an influx of Others in Japan, and of the nation's attempt to preserve Japaneseness. History plays a significant role in illuminating the national essence and reconstructing identity. The features of the forest in the film reflect Miyazaki's image of an ideal Japan as opposed to the actual condition of the country 'which is filled with gutless people who are about to go to wrack and ruin' (Miyazaki, 1996: 16). Aiming to revitalize the country and give hope to those with a bleak outlook,19 the film frames an imaginary Japan by highlighting the beauty of ancient times, projected in serene vistas of the forest. In this respect, Mononoke portrays nostalgia for the past, which may draw out a sense of nationalism among domestic audiences, as it hearkens back to the image of an untainted Japan, a land where kami (gods) reside. This representation, unlike those in Miyazaki's previous works that envision European or Western-inflected worlds, would allow the film to function as a corrective to an Orientalist or Western-oriented view of Japan. At the same time, Mononoke potentially leads to a self-Orientalizing image of Japan, a self-fabricating of idealized Japaneseness.

In addition to the forest motif, the idealized Japan is exhibited in Mononoke through striking depictions of animism. The principle idea of animism is expressed in Ashitaka's remark, 'God is nature itself.' Through various representations, the film criticizes Western notions of human-centrism and technological development, emphasizing that nature is not an object under human control, as much as humans are not objects under God's control. The animistic view is accentuated by the ubiquity of gods in the forest, where they reside in all objects and animals, and are exemplified by the diminutive kodama (tree spirits).20 The view of animals as gods is visually demonstrated by the boar's transformation into a tatarigami—an embodiment of nature's anger towards human civilization. The existence of gods in anything certainly makes a salient contrast to monotheistic Christianity, or the image of Western ways of thinking founded on that belief. 

Contrasting this animistic view is Eboshi's prioritizing of human development at the cost of other beings, even gods. She declares, 'Without that ancient god, the animals in the forest would be nothing but dumb beasts once more,' a statement that conveys her determined pursuit for an ecological hierarchy in favor of human subjects. Eboshi's scheme to destroy the forest chooses violence over peaceful co-existence between nature and humans, replacing ancient Japanese values with modern technology in order to control the primitive others in the forest. This destructive characteristic, symbolizing a dark side of civilization and modernization, challenges the view of the West as moral and rational. At the same time, it may also reinforce the image of Japan as pure—a self-Orientalizing approach—especially when watched by viewers outside Japan. Nevertheless, the historical narrative of Mononoke offers a site that assists in re-articulating Japanese national identity, which is distinguished from any Others. Hence, Mononoke's approach to re-articulating national identity does not necessarily rely on the Western Orientalist representation of Japan, or the Occidentalist view employed in Miyazaki's other works such as Nausicaä, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. Instead, Mononoke practices self-Orientalism, or strategic essentialism, by accentuating an ancient Japaneseness.21

Self-glorification is manifested in Pocahontas through the romanticism of English culture, or what Jhappan and Stasiulis call 'Disney's Anglophilia' (2005: 160). For example, the tendency towards Anglophilia in Pocahontas is displayed by the native's desire to be white, explicitly projected in Pocahontas II in the scene where Pocahontas is invited to a ballroom dance by the King in London so that her degree of civilization is tested. To pass as an appropriate English woman, John Rolfe trains her in dance and proper manners, as well as how to dress in a quintessentially European style and use white cosmetic powder on her face, in effect making her all but indistinguishable from the women around her. Pocahontas' enthusiastic assimilation to English culture while abandoning her original ethnic identity is symbolically depicted when she takes off her mother's necklace—a symbol of her tribe—to put on the English accessory given by Rolfe instead.22

This motif is further stressed through the depiction of the Powhatan bodyguard who accompanies Pocahontas. He is invited for tea by John Rolfe's housekeeper, where he sits awkwardly, sipping English tea and eating sandwiches. This is his first experience of the colonizer's food, and he is soon hooked. Another remarkable scene in this regard shows him arriving at a ballroom dance, swiftly stealing clothes from the master of ceremonies and trying to transform himself into a respectable Englishman. Here the bodyguard is not only a caricature, but a spectacle of laughter for the film's audiences, and for the people in London on the screen.

At the same time, it is worth noting that the native's mimicry of Englishness operates rather intricately in Pocahontas and its sequel. As Frantz Fanon (1967) suggests, natives presumably envy the power of whites and may attempt to take over whites' position. In other words, natives are recognized not only as the object of desire and laughter but also as a threat to white authority through a strategy of 'mimicry' that allows the native Other to take in the culture of the dominant and hybridize it for their own empowerment (Bhabha, 1994: 85-92). Through mimicry, the natives do not become white completely, but rather the double of their white model—almost the same but not quite—because of their dark-skinned bodies. The bodyguard in Pocahontas, in costume as an Englishman on the dance floor in Pocahontas II, is asked to dance by a crowd of women thronging around him, and he quickly sweeps the limelight away from Englishmen on the floor. He is an embodiment of the (imperfect) transformation that, according to Bhabha's notion of 'mimicry,' potentially brings about a threat to the dominant white authority.23

Can the Other speak? Dynamics in the game of re-writing history

All discussions above on the historical narratives of Pocahontas and Mononoke bring to light Chow's question: 'Between a critical desire to subjectivize them with envy (as in Spivak) and a humble gesture to revere them as silent objects (as in Kristeva), is there any alternative for these 'natives'?' (Chow, 1993: 33). Both views indicate that the (imaginary) natives on display are exposed to a Western gaze, which ensures a static condition for identity articulation, whereby 'the construction of the native remains at the level of image-identification, a process in which our own identity is measured in terms of the degrees to which we resemble her and to which she resembles us' (Chow, 1993: 35). In the case of Pocahontas, this image-identification leads to stable identities for both Anglo-Saxon whites and natives. The film meticulously embodies both Spivak's and Kristeva's views of natives through interactions between Pocahontas and John Smith, as well as those between the Powhatan and the English colonists. Smith has a desire to develop the Powhatan's land and its people, a form of subjectivizing, while he regards them as silent objects that cannot speak for themselves, and thus need to be discovered by the colonists.

Pocahontas is Disney's take on the historical confrontation between English settlers and Native Americans. Although Disney's Pocahontas does not necessarily aim for historical accuracy, its historical narrative has sparked controversy. Disney's Official Site on Pocahontas writes:

The look and style of the film were inspired by the filmmakers' numerous visits to Jamestown, Virginia, as well as by extensive research into the Colonial period. At various stages of the production, the creative team consulted with Native American scholars and storytellers to incorporate authentic aspects of the Powhatan culture into the film.24 (emphasis added)

In contrast with this statement, the following remark made by Native American consultant Custalow McGowan illuminates a view in conflict with Disney's claim of transparent historical description.

I was honored to be asked by them… but I wasn't at the studio two hours before I began to make clear my objections to what they were doing… they had said that the film would be historically accurate. I soon found that it wasn't to be… I wish my name wasn't on it. I wish Pocahontas' name wasn't on it. (Vincent, 1995: E5)

It would be naïve to claim that, simply because the production team predominantly consists of white Americans, Disney's narrative of Pocahontas distorts history from an Anglo-American viewpoint. Nonetheless, a lack of integration of Native American perspectives into the narrative, drawn from McGowan's remark above, is analogous to a display of rare objects in museums that excise historical context.25 It is safe to argue that the film runs a risk of de-contextualizing and re-placing Algonquian tribe experiences through the Anglo-Saxon centered view of the Disney's production team. The legendary Pocahontas and her tribe are redesigned and displayed by the production team who 'shape their works according to conventional story forms or forms of emplotment' (Hughes-Warrington, 2007: 9). It is not surprising therefore that Disney's execution of a legendary historical figure caused friction between the Disney production team—the player of re-writing history—and the natives being played.

Can the modern day native Other speak through Pocahontas? Pocahontas' decision to adapt to Smith's (the colonizer's) language and his culture in Pocahontas and its sequel, as well as the Disney production team's inadequate integration of native people's voices into the production process undercut the likelihood of the natives to speak. It follows that the natives are unable to speak, not necessarily because we cannot locate their mode of life, culture, or subjectivity, but because 'speaking' itself belongs to an already well-defined structure and history of domination' (Spivak, 1990: 158). In the case of Pocahontas, it is predominantly the Anglo-American subject who speaks for natives and about their history through the mouths of animated native characters.

According to Chow, successful translation between the first and the third worlds entails not simply the latter's speech, but the justification of that speech, which has been destroyed in its encounter with the imperialist (1993: 38). From this view, in order for Pocahontas' (and the native members') experiences to become translatable, she should be able not only to speak, but more importantly, to justify her speech. While Pocahontas speaks about her experience of being native to Smith in Pocahontas, in its sequel she is distracted by her strong fascination with the Western experience, as well as her romance with two Englishmen. Subsequently, Pocahontas fails to follow through with the justification of her speech. Moreover, the native's experience is considerably dismissed, also because 'the dialogue in English diminishes the self-representation of the Powhatans' (Jhappan and Stasiulis, 2005: 164). Powhatan speakers in the film often do not make sense and thus are not heard; their words sound like mere noises unless they speak English.

These aspects of representations of natives in Disney's Pocahontas, a significant degree of sanitization of historical cruelty, coupled with Disney's claim on its official site cited above, recall Spivak's (1990) apprehension toward white intellectuals in postcolonial studies. She asserts that their studies ironically rehearse neo-colonial imperatives of political domination, economic exploitation, and cultural erasure through their research on historical sources. Through the Disney production team's research on the Powhatan and through the process of re-writing their history, to a certain degree, Pocahontas ironically puts forth neo-colonial needs. In order for the Powhatan (or natives) to speak/narrate their history, the historical narrative of Pocahontas should at least create an 'in-between' space, where the native Other can emerge and be heard. Pocahontas hints at 'in-between-ness' through presenting both evil and good English colonists, which creates a non-binary space and allows non-white characters to be assigned to both evil and good as well. However, it seems that this representation is unable to transgress set patterns or generate hybrid space as we see with the characters of Mononoke.

Similar to the directors of Pocahontas, Miyazaki, who heavily controls his works, is not typically a part of the marginalized Other, represented in the film. He is not the female Other, ethnic (Emishi) Other, or the disabled Other. Thus, Mononoke is in a sense speaking for Others through the film. However, the distinct difference between Mononoke and Pocahontas is that by not depicting specific historical figures or actual events, and instead creating a fantasy narrative, Miyazaki and the production team manage to avoid complications and criticism associated with historical accuracy, or lack thereof. This makes it possible to create multiple Others who are transgressive, inhabiting a space that lets Others speak on equal terms. Likewise, although the central character(s) is assumed to be San or Ashitaka, the focal point of the narrative is de-centered and hard to identify; the plot is distinctively multi-voiced and moved forward by various Others. This makes a good contrast with the plot of Pocahontas, which starts with the onset of Smith's adventure, and is moved forward largely by male characters and their battles.


Instead of simply polarizing Disney and Miyazaki's (Studio Ghibli's) animations based on their differences, the goal of this article is to enrich our understanding of different mechanisms by which imagination (or recognition) plays with history, affecting identity formation—the articulation of Self and Other. It is neither my intention to demonize Disney's animations and their producers at the studio, nor to praise works produced by Studio Ghibli. Nonetheless, the paper is based on the premise that animation, reflecting the creators' intentions to a significant degree, is a powerful medium for conveying ideas and ideologies, which articulate Self and national identities, especially for child audiences.

It is fair to say that playing with history in Mononoke can be as problematic as it can be in Pocahontas. Both texts potentially guide audiences to a specific ideological understanding of national past or cultural identity by highlighting some aspects of history while leaving out others. For example, the production team of Mononoke chose to leave out the cruelty on the part of the Japanese central government (controlled by the Yamato clan) for the way they massacred and enslaved the Emishi and inflected further hardship by making them slaves afterward. In this respect, it can be argued that even if the fantasy narrative of Mononoke may escape issues of authenticity and may even challenge the foundational myths of Japan, it still has the potential to assume the role of a national narrative.

The above discussions explicate different ways in which playing with history in animated fantasy contributes to (re)constructing public memory in Pocahontas and Mononoke, both dealing with the Other within national narratives. Both films reveal that a historical fiction inevitably risks imposing upon the viewer specific perspectives that may be often unfair to marginal groups and cultures. Mononoke effectively demonstrates that animated fantasy can become a powerful tool to challenge myths about the country, as well as offering an 'in-between' space where transgressive identities emerge to subvert dominant discourse, while Pocahontas is more liable to retain binary-based identity articulation.

In this view, Mononoke offers an opportunity to question or re-examine existing presumptions about Japan through historical narrative. Some messages in the film may be lost on non-Japanese audiences, but to Japanese audiences, Mononoke may more directly communicate a thirst for re-establishing national identity amidst dramatic change in the country's position associated with accelerating globalization. In an age of globalization, where 'more persons throughout the world see their lives through the prism of the possible lives offered by mass media in all their forms' (Appadurai, 1996: 53-54), media significantly contributes to constructing the imaginary Other. More and more media products, producers, and ideas flow across national/cultural boundaries. Under these circumstances, identifying specific national identities becomes a complex endeavor, as the phenomenon of boundary-crossing may simultaneously lead towards cultural protectionism. It is my hope that the examination of narrative and visual representations in this article shall contribute to a better understanding of identity articulation in the mediated world.

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[1] Based on the concept of Orientalism and the Lacanian notion of the imaginary (or misconception of) 'self' and 'other,' hereafter I use Other/Self and other/self differently, in the context of gender and racial identity articulations. I use Other/Self to refer to the imaginary or symbolic entities that are conceptualized or stereotyped in the subject's mind, specific images with which the subject mistakenly yet firmly identifies, in order to articulate its own subjectivity. It can be said that after one's experience of the other, he or she establishes the Other.

[2] Related studies include Nobuyuki Tsugata's (2004) Nihon animeshon no chikara (The Power of Japanese Animation); Masami Akiyama's (1998) Maboroshi no senso manga no sekai (The Illusion of the World of War Manga).

[3] Having acknowledged that the messages intended by producers are not necessarily conveyed as is, this article is concerned with the production side of media circulation.

[4] Although Pocahontas II (1998) was a direct-to-video version, it is reasonable to draw examples from this film, because it certainly carries the narrative on the same premises and tones. 

[5] I acknowledge that these animated films are collaborative works of the production teams, rather than being produced solely by the directors as auteur. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Hayao Miyazaki, like Walt Disney, is very particular to the way his team's products are produced and strictly controls the entire production process. Marnie Hughes-Warrington (2007), p. 6.

[6] The Muromachi Period stretches from 1392 to 1573.

[7] For example, in 1992, one of the key members of the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform (Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho o Tsukuru Kai), Kobayashi Yoshinori, released Gomanism Sengen (My Arrogant Declaration), a manga serial that exhibits a strong nationalistic tone. Kobayashi claims Japan's WWII involvement was self-protection, and he justifies Japan's invasion of other Asian countries.

[8] Hughes-Warrington (2007), p. 5

[9] Another song, Savage, sung by Governor Ratchliffe, markedly dramatizes the relationship between the white English male in power and the native as savage.

[10] As Edgerton and Jackson (1996) suggest, Disney's version of the Pocahontas story has significantly permeated into the public realm through a combination of the film itself, and commodity tie-ins.

[11] In fact, Pocahontas stirred up criticisms within Anglophone societies. The Sunday Times reports that the film upset some British viewers with the portrayal of the corrupt English as 'thugs, all greed, gold, and guns,' who 'treat natives like savages,' contrasting the portrayal of natives as 'civilized, peace-loving and eco-conscious' (Adair, 1995: 10). Apparently, British audiences' interpretation of Pocahontas defies the imaginary colonizer that the mainstream American audiences and the production team (as well as native communities) are likely to construct through the film.

[12] This is based on Julia Kristeva's notion of 'abjection.' See Julia Kristeva, Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

[13] The term 'carnivalesque' refers to Bakhtin's notion of 'carnival.' See Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

[14] This is mentioned in Pushpa Naidu Parekh's 'Pocahontas: The Disney Imaginary,' in The Emperor's Old Groove: Decolonizing Disney's Magic Kingdom, ed. Brenda Ayres (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), p. 169. He lists several books that mention Pocahontas' and Smith's ages. More on this subject, see Joseph Bruchac's Pocahontas (New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003). Also see Henry Giroux (1997), p. 60.

[15] The most recent version of the Pocahontas story is the Hollywood made live-action film The New World (2005). In this film, Smith's appearance with dark hair and a beard is rather faithful to what he actually looked like, and love between Smith and Pocahontas is suggestive rather than dramatic, unlike Disney's animated version.

[16] Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke Storyboard, pp. 105-106. 'Kuchisake-onna' refers to a woman from Japanese mythology, who is mutilated by a jealous husband and returned as a malicious spirit bent on committing the same act done to her. In 1979 this tale, turned into an urban legend, sensationally prevailed all over Japan and even to South Korea. Covering her mouth with a surgical mask, she asks people, 'Do you think I am beautiful?' Then she takes off the mask to reveal her mutilated mouth. When victims run, she chases and kills them. It is worth noting that female characters in Mononoke, compared to Miyazaki's female protagonists before Mononoke, who largely maintained conventional feminine attributes (e.g. Nausicaä's cute voice and Kiki's big red ribbon and shy demeanor), exhibit a dramatic difference in gender representations even within the field of Japanese animation.

[17] Another female figure, Moro, also subverts the myth of femininity. She is an angry female wolf, who also embraces a nurturing side, raising San. Moro is also a leader of the forest and bravely lays her life on the line to protect the forest god and other animals. At the same time, Moro's cruelty—presented as a masculine attribute—is exhibited through her determined revenge on Eboshi. She eventually bites off Eboshi's arm. Her merciless action and violence toward Eboshi, as well accentuate an image that opposes presumed Japanese femininity. Likewise, in the iron town, males are gazed upon and judged by female eyes, as in the scene when the town's women size up Ashitaka. A subversive visual relationship is further seen in the contrasting depictions of Jiko-bo (male shaman) and Eboshi. The close-up of the two walking side by side highlights the difference in their heights. Even with his high-heeled wooden clogs, Jiko-bo is much shorter than Eboshi, and therefore he needs to literally look up to a female leader, while Eboshi literally and symbolically looks down on him.

[18] The act of looking interplays between Smith and Pocahontas in the beginning of Pocahontas, which seems to parallel the hierarchical positionality between the natives and the whites. The early part of the film shows Pocahontas often looking up at her father and Smith, a sign of male authority, and only in the later part of the film do Pocahontas and Smith begin to look at each other more on an equal level. Pocahontas' look is overall modest, including peaking at Smith from a distance, in contrast to Smith shot from below which emphasizes his dominant position in relation to her, as well as the condescension held by the white settlers towards the natives, as literally looking down on the natives from their ship.

[19] See Hayao Miyazaki (1996), p. 520.

[20] I acknowledge that the concept of animism is not unique to ancient Japan, but also exists in primitive societies in various countries, including Western societies. Here 'the West' that I use for contrasting with Japan refers specifically to the modern West after technological civilization.

[21] On a related matter, in the world of Mononoke, humans do not rule their other. The depiction of the primitive other—forest and animals—in Mononoke makes a good contrast to Disney animations with a similar theme, such as Tarzan and The Jungle Book, which depict human characters raised by animals. Tarzan and Mowgli end up being tamed and conforming to the human dominant world, whereas San—a primitive other—is never tamed by civilization and human-governing society. Instead, she embraces her life between humanity and animalism.

[22] A similar depiction is taken up in the live-action The New World, too, where Pocahontas is sent to the colonizer's village, and is trained and turned into a Christian. In her transformation, her original clothes are removed, dirt is wiped from her face, and she is fit into a skin-tight Western-style dress, which signifies her becoming Westernized (or domesticated by the West) inside and out. Yet, the live-action film exhibits much less of Pocahontas' enthusiasm and more of her unwilling submission to the white-centric discourse.

[23] In addition, after learning Anglo-oriented aesthetics and rules, Pocahontas gains the power to convince the King in London to stop attacking the natives in Jamestown.

[24] From Disney Official Site, 'Disney Archive "Pocahontas" Movie History': http://disney.go.com/vault/archives/movies/pocahontas/pocahontas.html

[25] This idea derives from Arjun Appadurai's concept of a twin process of 'commoditization by diversion' and 'the aesthetics of decontextualization,' which describes commoditization as a force that does not distinguish between things and people.  See Arjun Appadurai, 'Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value,' in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 28.

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About the Author

Kaori Yoshida is Associate Professor at the College of Asia Pacific Studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. She has a PhD in Asian Studies from the University of British Columbia. Her current research interests include cultural studies, particularly focusing on ethnicity and gender representations through popular visual media in Asia and North America.

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Copyright: Kaori Yoshida.
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