VMartinwrites Spectrum Council for Diversity in Media
Continuing from our list of anime with feminist themes, a good chunk of the anime that gets exported here tends to be for a young adult audience. While most people have a variety of ages to gage as ‘young adult’, my requirement is being 14 and older. Adults and well aged anime fans like myself are welcome to read though.
At the end of the list are honorable mentions: anime that are good but have been so heavily discussed for this very topic that they should already be on your reading list.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Set during a fantastical version of feudal Japan, Prince Ashitaka is cursed by a rampaging spirit and goes on a quest for the cure. His journey brings him to Irontown, where the humans and spirits are in conflict over resources. At the heads of the two facts are Lady Eboshi, leader of the humans, and San, the human leader of the spirits.
For those who liked Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke is a look into a more savage version of the spirit world. The spirits here directly fight humans and have no interest in bathhouses or food, but simply protecting their land. Unlike many environmentally-themed films, it doesn’t fall into the trap of having to portray either side as evil. Both sides just have differing viewpoints.
You can’t help but cheer for one of the story’s antagonist, Lady Eboshi, who emotionally and sometimes physically supports the cast-aside women that make up Irontown. You can’t help but root for her and enjoy her arrogance as she struggles to protect her people from a perceived threat. The film also doesn’t shy away from the blood and brutality of feudal Japan, as well as being a great introduction for those interested in Japanese mythology.
Princess Mononoke is readily available on both DVD and digital. It has the occasional run on TV as well.
Serial Experiments Lain (1998)
In the near future, everyone is connected by a global computer network known as the Wired that is used for everything, from work to videogames. In suburban Japan is Lain, an introverted schoolgirl whose life is upending when a recently dead friend begins emailing people. From out of body experiences to reality and the digital clashing, Lain’s life becomes increasingly strange. Are people downloading their brains into the Wired, or is it a hoax? Is Lain truly merging with technology, or is she paranoid and suffering from a dangerous delusion?
If Denno Coil is the optimistic side of technology, then Lain is the dark side. The narrative is disjointed, surreal, and you can never be sure what is real and what is going on in Lain’s head. Dedicated fans have debates for years about symbolism in Lain and what it wants to say. Lain is an interesting character not because she stands out but because she blends in far too much. Like many heroines, she is quiet and demure as mainstream Japanese culture prefers. As the show progresses, Lain becomes more withdrawn into herself and isolated from the audience. Is Lain our hero or villain? Evolved or disturbed? It’s up to the viewer to decide.
DVDs of Serial Experiments Lain are difficult to obtain, but all 13 episodes are available for streaming on Funimation’s YouTube channel.
Ride Back (2009)
Taking place in 2025, Rin Ogata is a ballerina who retires early due to an injury. She acquires a RideBack, or a motorcycle-like robot, and learns that her ballet skills make her a natural when it comes to controlling the machine. However, the controlling government is opposed to Rin and what she stands for. Equal parts sport anime and social commentary, RideBack has interesting themes of freedom of speech versus the government that will never go out of style.
RideBack brings up an interesting discussion about the state of women in mecha anime. Women are present in the mostly male anime subgenre but only in supportive roles: bridge bunnies, wrench wenches, living horn ornaments, they’re always there to help the hero or provided necessary fanservice as the token female. RideBack features none of these and lacks most tropes common in mecha anime, but still has mecha influences.
RideBack has a good dub, but DVDs are costly. You’re better off streaming it from Funimation’s YouTube channel.
The Twelve Kingdoms (2002)
What would happen if Chihiro was transported into Princess Mononoke? Well, you get The Twelve Kingdoms.
Average high schooler Youko Nakajima has always felt like an outcast. Her red hair makes her stand out and she struggles against the limitations of Japanese society. Things are made worse when she is forcibly taken into a massive fantasy world. Now Youko must fight to survive in the strange world as forces seek her death.
Based off the novels by Fuyuki Ono and Akihiro Yamada, the expansive fantasy world is condensed into a 44 episode anime that does the novel great justice. The setting is based strongly in Chinese and Japanese mythology which keeps this story from being just a regular medieval fantasy with European-based mythological tropes.
The Twelve Kingdoms is readily available for DVD and Blu-Ray but the dub isn’t of the greatest quality. I recommend subtitles for this. Only four of the novels have been officially released in English by now defunct Tokyopop.
Michiko & Hatchin (2008)
Crafty criminal Michiko escapes from one of the most fortified prisons in South America to rescue her daughter Hana from her abusive foster parents. Dubbing the girl ‘Hatchin’, the two go on a cross-country trip in search of the girl’s father all while eluding the police. It’s Thelma and Louise meets Paper Moon as the volatile duo bicker and bond while travelling through the rural and urban splendor that South America has to offer.
Shinichiro Watanabe of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo fame has painted a vivid world and has taken care to make sure that his depiction of Brazilian life isn’t stereotypical. The best part of the series is not just its visuals but the relationship between Michiko and Hatchin. Most notable is the character Atsuko Jackson, a detective who is constantly on the hunt for Michiko and yet shares a close relationship with her as well. The ending of the anime is also very fitting and realistic given the setting and characters.
Michiko and Hatchin is readily available for DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (2007)
Balsa is a warrior woman on a quest to right past wrongs when she is drafted to proper Prince Chagum from his father, the emperor. With giant gaps in age and social class, Balsa and Chagum form a bond of survival as they dodge both imperial and supernatural forces seeking to destroy them both.
Unlike The Twelve Kingdoms, the main character of this story is not a teenage girl but a far older and skilled woman. It shows that even though you reach adulthood, your struggles may never go away. Balsa is maternal toward Prince Chagum but never forgets that she is a warrior and he is just another job. The story is also based off a series of novels, which have not been officially translated yet.
Morbito is widely available for DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming.
The Slayers (1995)
In the age of the webcomic, RPG-related humor is the most popular genre: Looking For Group, Order of the Stick, The Guild…and yet there was an anime that did all of this hilarity before webcomics were even around.
The Slayers follows the escapades of teen sorcerer-for-hire Lina Inverse, along with any companions that happen to tag along during the quest for fame, glory, and most importantly: money! Whether its vaporizing bandits, handling dragons, or genocidal demons, Lina declares that she can handle it all with just some magic words.
Lina is a distinct and fun character to watch interact with others. She’s also greedy, destructive, hot-tempered, petty, but is never shamed or punished for it. Her faults are comedic and no one is bold enough to ever consider forcing Lina into becoming more ladylike…or not unless they want to risk fireball barbequing.
The Slayers has so much merchandise that its harder not to find it. DVDs are easy to find including the TV series and the movies.
Gatchaman CROWDS (2013)
By day, Hajime Ichinose is a regular teen girl who lives in Tachikawa, Japan. By night she’s a Gatchaman—warriors who fight alien creatures determined to destroy the planet. Aided by her team of Gatchaman and their unique abilities, they use the CROWDS system to their advantage.
Being a fan of the Gatchaman/G-Force franchise, I was on the fence about this rehashing of the story but I honestly think it is for the best. It’s rare in action and science fiction related stories for the main character to be female. Hajime is a refreshing change: a female protagonist who enjoys what she does and jumps at the call to action instead of wailing about having a normal life before embracing heroism. Not that such a decision is bad, but it’s become far too commonplace in anime. There’s interesting commentary on social networking, the design of the aliens are interesting, and I prefer this incarnation of Berg Katse to the previous ones.
Gatchaman Crowds is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming.
Azumanga Daioh (2002)
Ten year old genius Chiyo is elevated into high school and immediately surrounded by an assortment of friends, from loudmouthed Tomo to quiet Sakaki, and including the teachers Yukari and Nyamo. Instead of an overarching story, Azumanga is a slice of life, featuring loosely connected stories and events more similar to a sitcom. The series is both absurd and charming.
I was rather attached to the characters Osaka and Sakaki. Osaka is well-known in the anime community for being odd. Her character placed 7th in the Newtype Magazine’s top 100 heroines of 2002, which was higher than any other Azumanga character. Osaka’s character plays not off her cuteness but her naiveté and unique perspectives as she interacts with others.
Another character is Sakaki, whose height and appearance intimidate others. It’s no secret she desire to be perceived as small and cute like Chiyo but nothing can actually change that. Her shyness is mistaken for a laidback ‘cool kid’ attitude, which further isolates her. In Japan’s cute-obsessed culture, this is a legitimate feeling for some women and girls.
Azumanga Daioh is a moe anime done right. In the previous list, I discussed moe anime. For those who haven’t read the previous entry, moe means a character designed to appeal to the audience’s affection and protectiveness. A typical moe character is focused on their cuteness: large eyes, small face, and childlike features despite age. While all anime have elements of moe, it did not become the focal point of shows until the early 00s with media like Azumanga and Lucky Star. I bring this up because many Western anime fans dislike anything associated with moe. Some fans argue that moe is infantilizing of women, along with encouraging a juvenile and one-sided form of love. Some blame Azumanga for popularizing moe and causing anime to shift its focus from story and character development to cuteness with a lazier art style.
I argue that while all views have their points, I think Azumanga is moe done right. Most Westerners have a problem with moe because it focuses too much on the cutesy aesthetic. In Azumanga, Chiyo is not the focus. She is just another character and the world doesn’t revolve around her. Her super intelligence is only made obvious a few times and only for comedy. The characters around her are older and although they’re drawn in a certain way, it’s not to an overtly ‘cute’ design like in Lucky Star. Azumanga is a great anime for fans who dislike moe and like high school based sitcoms.
That’s not to say Azumanga is perfect. Some jokes don’t translate well as they’re based in Japanese puns and culture. A recurring joke is an older male teacher creeping on the girl students. Although nothing comes out of this, I was horrified at first that the anime was joking about this. I later learned that Japan has a relaxed attitude toward this kind of behavior. This joke may or may not bother certain viewers but thankfully, it’s not present too often and can be skipped without changing anything.
Azumanga Daioh is difficult to obtain on DVD since the licensing company went out of business and no one has picked up the rights yet. A complete box set will cost you close to two hundred dollars. I suggest streaming it.
Attack on Titan (2013)
All that prevents humanity’s extinction are the colossal walls surrounding the last city. Outside the walls are the Titans—gigantic, senseless humanoid creatures that eat humans. After a hundred years of peace, the a gigantic Titan destroys one of the walls and allows the creatures to invade. During the ensuing carnage, Eren, Mikasa, and Armin are orphaned and must escape with the survivors. The three bond together to survive in the harsh world and vow to fight the Titans by joining the powerful military that controls everything in the name of preserving what remains of humanity.
The description may be that of a generic military fantasy but unlike most of those, women aren’t placed in the background for supportive roles such as medics or engineers. Women are soldiers on the front lines and often the most skilled. Although most of the story’s conflict is focused around Eren, he is not the strongest soldier. That honor goes to his adopted sister Mikasa, along with the senior soldier Annie. Even passive female characters such as Historia are allowed to show their inner strength and skills, proving that you don’t have to be ‘hard’ to be a useful soldier.
Mikasa is a divisive character in the story and within the anime fandom. People often criticize her loyalty to Eren as being stereotypical of women in anime…ignoring the fact that Mikasa’s loyalty is born out of a platonic love. The efforts of Eren and his father rescued Mikasa from sexual slavery and she was welcomed into their family despite their being prejudices against her race. (A fact that is not immediately revealed in the anime until much later.) In a setting where food and living space is a luxury, this is a heartfelt gesture by Eren’s parents. Because of these circumstances, I think Mikasa’s loyalty to Eren is that of a sibling and not the one-sided obsession that plagues most female characters like Mika from Death Note or Sakura from Naruto.
Rounding out the cast is another interesting character: Zoë Hange, a scientist who studies the Titans. The best characterization of Hange would be a younger Doc Brown, being both hare-brained and high intelligence. Despite being feminine in voice, Hange’s gender is never stated by the author or others. It can be interpreted that Hange is a non-binary character who isn’t just pushed into the back. No one cares or harasses Hange about their gender because it’s not important in their kinship of soldiers and that is great to see.
The anime is available for DVD and digital, but is unfortunately short. The manga is still running however and there is a live-action movie that’s going to be released soon.
Revolutionary Girl Utena
Ouran High School Host Club
Read Or Die (OVA)
Magic Knight Rayearth
Black ★ Rock Shooter (TV)