27 Jun

Feminism in Anime, Pt. 1: All Ages

VMartinwrites The Spectrum Council for Diversity in Media

Since the list is longer than I initially thought it would be, I’ve separated it by intended audience. The first part of this series will be anime for ages ten and up, but I think some adults will enjoy it as well. At the end of the list will be honorable mentions: anime that are great but have already been discussed.

To say you’re not a feminist in this day and age is to say a lot of things both political, social, public, and personal. Being feminist has many definitions for many people, and everybody faces their own difficulties within their own social circles about it. I’ve always found it particularly difficult being an anime fan and a feminist due to the intersection of several opposing forces: differing cultures and values clashing with that of my own, producing at best confusion and at worst disgust with some of the anime I’ve seen.

I don’t consider ranting about the sorry state of women in certain anime to be productive, so that is why I’ve compiled this list of anime I consider to have feminist themes. The female characters are just as developed as the male ones, there is more than one of them, and they all have different set skills and stories to tell. 

Spirited Away (2001)

Where would anime be without Mr. Miyazaki? My belief is that it wouldn’t be gone but its impact on animation would be significantly less. When this charming fantasy film won an Oscar, it elevated anime to a new level of appreciation. Gone were the ideas that anime was limited to cheap animation, bad dubbing, nudity, and violence. Anime could now be somber, gorgeous, and mature without the puerile ideas of adulthood attached to it.

Spirited Away is the story of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who enters the spirit world with her parents. After her parents eat food intended for the gods, they are transformed into pigs, leaving frightened Chihiro to survive on her own.

Chihiro is a realistic modern girl. She’s not spoiled rotten as so to be unlikeable, but she is still used to being dependent on her parents and sulking about her problems rather than solving them. She has always had the potential for independence, but wasn’t given the opportunity until now. The female characters she meets along the journey are also interesting. Most noteworthy is Yubaba, who can’t so much be described as the antagonist as just a greedy businesswoman who takes pride in her bathhouse. Another character is Lin, the older woman who helps Chihiro while she works at the bathhouse. Although Lin initially wants nothing to do with Chihiro, they develop a sisterly bond. In any other story, Lin and Yubaba would be jealous villains but here they are just people in Chihiro’s new world.

Discussions for older viewers could be about the nature of the bathhouses, the idea of spiritual cleanliness, the environmentalist themes present, and women in the workforce, as most of the bathhouse workers are women.

Spirited Away is easily available in DVD or digital format. It’s occasional shown on TV.

Cardcaptor Sakura (1998)

While exploring her house, Sakura Kinomoto finds a mysterious book and upon opening it, frees the magical Clow cards. The guardian of the cards, Kereberos, tasks her to retrieve the magical artifacts before their power wreak havoc on the town.

This series had a run on Kids WB! but it was heavily edited to focus more on the action elements, when in reality, the magical events of Cardcaptor Sakura take a backseat. CCS is a romantic series with a focus on relationships, various types of love, loyalty, and betrayal. The same audience that liked Sailor Moon would enjoy CCS.

Older anime fans could discuss themes of various types of love and relationships along with the concept of innocence and optimism. Some question if CCS should be considered a moe anime, or anime that cater to the viewer’s urge to protect something they view as cute and innocent. Moe is often considered a negative feature for anime by Western fans, some arguing that it infantilizes female characters. However, there’s a lack of this infantilization in CCS which can lead to interesting debates. Is Cardcaptor Sakura a moe anime or perhaps a feminist interpretation of moe lacking the subgenre’s most hated tropes? I would like to see more discussion concerning this topic among older anime fans such as myself.

While the CCS manga is easily available, the anime hasn’t been redubbed. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch the dub. Just don’t. However, Geneon has subtitled and unedited versions available on DVD. Try purchasing individual sets as the box sets are rather pricey and difficult to find.

Princess Tutu (2002)

Once upon a time, there was a duck. The duck lived in a pond near a ballet school. Day in day out, the duck watched students dance, including the handsome Mytho. The duck was deeply in love with the ballet prince and longed to become human. Saddened by her misery, an old man rewards her with a magical pendant which will change her into a human girl. Going by the name Ahiru, she attends the ballet school to try and win Mytho’s heart…only to uncover other elements attempting to destroy the prince. Using power of her heart and magical pendant, she transforms into Princess Tutu: a prima ballerina with the power to soothe those in pain.

That is the best to condense the epic and surprisingly long tale of Princess Tutu. Don’t let the title fool you: this anime is wonderful, from its fairytale homages to the use of ballet, music, and opera to convey its story. Older anime fans refer to this series as “Revolutionary Girl Utena for children” and this anime is worthy of that honor. Younger fans who like ballet and Disney will especially enjoy it. Fans of any age will be able to discuss its themes of love, loyalty, wishes, and dreams for hours. I also recommend it to aspiring writers and English majors.

Princess Tutu is easily available in DVD or streaming. Also the soundtrack is worth listening to.

Dennō Coil (2007)

In the not too distant future, augmented reality (AR) is widespread, blending the digital and real worlds. The only way to interact with AR are with virtual reality goggles called denno (‘eyeglasses’ in Japanese). Shy Yasako has just moved to the AR-laden Daikoku with her sister. Here she forms new friendships and explores the mysteries. On the flipside of the story is Isako, the enigmatic expert hacker that seems to be the center of Daikoku’s strangeness.

Most children’s science fiction involve robots or Pokemon-style stories, so Denno Coil is refreshing in its themes but also has technology is used. It is also more subtle than most of these other series and features women in prominent roles.

Tamako was one of my favorite characters. In Denno, she is a consultant who helps manage the AR spaces in Daikoku. Although representing an authority figure and is often at odds with the kids’ desire to explore the city’s mysteries (and often cause several glitches in the system), she is not portrayed as a villain or useless. She just does her job to the best of her abilities.

Denno is also great for technology buffs who question how AR will affect not just our workplaces but our home and culture. This can be a great discussion point for anime fans both old and young.

Denno Coil is sadly, not easily available. It is yet to be dubbed and imported DVDs are obscenely expensive. Subtitles are readily available online, but here’s to hoping it will get a dub and a wider release one day.

Noein: To Your Other Self (2005)

Haruka is a normal girl living her regular life until she becomes the focal point in a war between dystopian La’Cryma and tranquil Shangri’La. This is no ordinary war where countries vie for power and resources but two possibilities. In this science-fiction story, La’Cryma and Shangri’La are potential futures for Earth, with Haruka having the power to decide will be the ‘true’ future.

This story is a head-trip and it can be difficult to determine who the anime is made for. Most of the characters are young enough for it to be for middle schoolers but the concepts may fly over their heads. I recommend this for those who liked Denno Coil.

Older fans can discuss Noein’s themes of destiny or those that know a few things about quantum physics can discuss the different theories and interpretations at play.

Complete sets of DVD or Blu-Rays for Noein are pricy so you’re better off streaming it and considering a purchase if you like it. For DVDs, there are five volumes.

Children who Chase Lost Voices (2012)

Asuna Watase is a regular cheerful girl: she goes to school, explores the countryside of her rural town, and listens to mysterious sounds from her crystal radio. Then her life changes when she’s saved from a strange creature by a boy named Shun. Asuna agrees to journey with Shun into the lush underworld called Agartha, but they’re not alone. Dangerous forces are pursuing after them and seeking Agartha’s greatest treasure: immortality.

Children who Chase Lost Voices is a somber and romantic take on the adventure-centered stories featured in most children’s media, such as Mysteries Cities of Gold. The film’s interests are less with the supernatural and more with coping with loneliness and mourning for loved ones. Like Spirited Away, Children uses its fantastical elements to ease their main character into a journey of self discovery and maturity.

Older fans can discuss Children tying into the mytheme of descending into the underworld for the sake of a loved one, such as the Greek Orpheus and Eurydice or the Japanese Izanagi and Izanami.

Children who Chase Lost Voices is readily available for DVD and stream.

Honorable mentions:

Kiki’s Delivery Service


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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