Anime’s Glass Ceiling: what keeps women out of the director’s chair?

By: Adam Wescott December 18, 20200 Comments
A chicken side-eyeing the camera

One of my favorite current manga is Beastars, by Itagaki Paru. A bizarre mash-up of high school soap opera, murder mystery and obsessive thought experiment on how a world populated by animals might function, it earned itself enough acclaim to garner an anime adaptation produced by Studio Orange.

Orange is the best CG studio in the anime industry, but there was one aspect of their otherwise fantastic adaptation that stood out to me, like a splinter lodged in your hand from an otherwise beautiful coffee table. While Itagaki, the creator of Beastars, is a woman, the director of the anime—Matsumi Shinichi—is a man.

The world of manga is home to many talented and successful female writers and artists. Takeuchi Naoko combined the appeal of tokusatsu drama with magical girl aesthetics to create Sailor Moon, and in doing so created a whole new kind of magical girl story that remains popular to this day. Arakawa Hiromu wrote and drew one of the best shounen comics of the 2000s with Fullmetal Alchemist, and then proved herself equally capable of easy-going slice of life stories with her farming comic Silver Spoon.

Kyoko from Maison Ikkoku

Then you have Takahashi Rumiko, who is a manga industry unto herself, with masterpieces ranging from Urusei Yatsura’s zany comedy to Maison Ikkoku’s relationship drama to Mermaid Forest’s horror; not to mention that her series Ranma ½ played a central role in introducing countless American fans to anime in the 1990s.

The popularity of these authors led to their work being adapted into similarly successful anime. But most of these anime, if not all of them, were directed by men. Sailor Moon made the careers of countless animators and creators at Toei, but the main directors—Sato Junichi, Ikuhara Kunihiko, Igarashi Takuyai—were men. The 2003 anime adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist I watched as a kid was directed by Mizushima Seiji and written by Aikawa Sho, both men. Urusei Yatsura served as the proving ground for one of anime’s most famous auteurs, Oshii Mamoru—a man.

Mei Chang and Xiao Mei from Fullmetal Alchemist

We cannot forget that there were talented women working on each of these projects. Character designer and animator Itoh Ikuko turned in stellar work on Sailor Moon, then went on to leverage those talents on her passion project (and future cult classic) Princess Tutu. Oshima Michiru’s music for Fullmetal Alchemist played as important a role in defining the show’s tone as the animation or staging. Not to mention that one of the Beastars anime’s most memorable scenes—Haru’s dream, a sexually charged sequence wholly original to the TV series—was animated by award-winning manga artist Kuno Yoko.

There are many other talented female directors working in the industry at this moment: Yamamoto Sayo, Matsumoto Rie and Deai Kotomi, among others. Any one of them, when given the opportunity, has turned in excellent work. Yet women are assigned comparatively few assignments as chief directors compared to the sheer number of men serving as directors each year. What is the reason for this imbalance? 

One answer is chauvinism. In an infamous interview published in 2016, Yonebayashi Hiromasa, director of The Secret World of Arrietty and Mary and the Witch’s Flower, claimed that “men are idealistic, women are realistic.” In other words, while women do hard work in the home and educate their children in what is possible, men risk it all to bring the planes from their dreams to life on the screen. Frankly, this is a silly assumption. Just like the world is filled with brave men, stupid men, and obsessive men, there are also brave women, stupid women, and obsessive women. 

Usagi from Sailor Moon passionately playing the violin while onlookers look dismayed

There are as many female artists as male artists, and women can be as passionate about their interests as men are. Yet, there is a running gag in Oda Eichiro’s One Piece, a comic I otherwise love: all the men are impressed by giant robots, while the women are bored by them. People don’t have to like giant robots, but it’s certainly frustrating to imagine that the movers and shakers of anime and manga unabashedly believe gender determines imagination.

Another answer is studio culture. Anime’s history is riddled with sexual harassment and discrimination. Konishi Hiroko was expected to wear a swimsuit along with other female voice actors at a mixed bath and expose herself to male anime staff to further her career. An anonymous former Toei director came forward in 2018 to say she left the studio after “being told that she didn’t have the mindset to be a director.” Men are idealistic, women are realistic, as they say.

In the linked piece, writer Kevin Cirugeda draws a parallel from this anonymous director to Okuyama Reiko, the first woman in the history of Japanese animation to serve as animation supervisor for a feature-length film. The two are separated by decades, yet both faced targeted discrimination by sexist executives at the same studio. Then and now, the struggle is the same.

Noi from Dorohedoro

Of course, problems with studio culture go far beyond sexism. The modern world of anime is an overextended hellscape in which content is generated by overworked, underpaid, and exhausted animators, funded by teams of corporate producers obsessed with risk avoidance yet unwilling to cut their contractors any slack.

It is an industry that honors its most prestigious animators, yet treats its in-betweeners–whose work is less glamorous but just as important to anime as a whole–like garbage. Between low starting wages and the high workload, it’s difficult, if not impossible, for young animators to survive in this industry, with few, if any, veterans to train them—not only is there no time or money to do so, but experienced animators able to pass on necessary skills are either aging into retirement or dying from overwork. As those young and beleaguered animators leave the industry, even more work is dumped upon the shoulders of those who remain.

Succeeding in the anime industry—especially as a director—means making connections. Having the right circle of friends can make the difference between an out-of-nowhere anime hit and a production disaster: the difference between the first season of One Punch Man, whose fight scenes were a means for the buddies of director Natsume Shingo to show off; and the second season, which was produced in a tight time frame by a different team and wasn’t nearly as successful. If you don’t have the time, support or opportunities to make those connections, if you lack the training to take full advantage of them, survival in the industry becomes far more difficult. 

Yoko and Rakushun from Twelve Kingdoms

Add to that the weight of institutional sexism, and it’s a miracle that young female directors have managed to rise to prominence in the anime industry at all. There are exceptions, of course. Kyoto Animation is famous for having more female staff than average for the industry and for its efforts to both train its new employees and treat them decently. But the studio sustained a devastating arson last year that killed several of its employees and put the studio’s future in jeopardy. Kyoto Animation is slowly recovering, but even the possibility of a world without them drives home how good office culture is a rare exception in the industry rather than a rule.

What to do, then? It may be tempting to say, “Give more women directing jobs,” but this doesn’t cover the systemic issues. To meaningfully improve the lives of anime staff, the industry itself needs to change. This means changing the production system, redistributing power and funding from production committees and putting it in the hands of animation staff. It means ensuring that these same conditions aren’t simply recreated in global markets as streaming services such as Crunchyroll, Netflix and Funimation produce their own anime. Unionization could be a useful tool, as it has been—although the fear of alienating employers has scared some anime staff away from it.

And even if the industry were to make those changes and then hire on female directors, it would still not be enough. Not long ago, game designer Nathalie Lawhead pointed out that it is no use to hire and promote female directors if those directors are abandoned or set up to fail after being hired. Michelle Ryan and Alexander Haslam referred to this phenomenon as the glass cliff: that even when women are promoted, they are more likely than men to be promoted into precarious positions during a company downturn. What these directors need is institutional support and constant backup to ensure that they can do their jobs despite unceasing pressure. In fact, let’s extend that: female character designers, female sound designers, female scriptwriters, all deserve the same thing.

What does the future look like? There’s new labels like Blue Lynx, founded to produce BL films. Kyoto Animation continues to rebuild, and great directors like Yamada Naoko continue their work. There are the excellent female animators profiled on websites like Sakugablog. The future of the anime industry is murky, and that’s before factoring in the existential threat of Covid-19. But the female artists I know aren’t going away. The struggle will continue. I’ll hope that one day Matsumoto Rie will return to work. I’ll hope that when the Delicious in Dungeon anime adaptation comes down the line, they’ll give it to a female director. I’ll hope that one day, those women dreaming of planes will be paid to draw them.

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