Growing up I had always had an interest in Asian culture, specifically anime.
In other words, I am this kid:
Not really, but I understand his enthusiasm.
Just like any child my age I loved watching cartoons and the way each character had its own individual style and personality.
In fact, I remember favouring certain cartoons over others based on their aesthetic quality e.g. ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog‘ > ‘Cow and Chicken‘.
I remember eagerly anticipating Cartoon Cartoon Fridays with my siblings. On a few occasions we spent the whole day in our pyjamas, eyes glued to the TV.
Disgusting, I know.
When I was around 11 I started watching anime that would appear on TV such as Sailor Moon and Mew Mew Power.
Prior to them the only cartoon I had ever watched that was relatively ‘Asian’ was ‘Samurai Jack‘ which is for starters, an American animated television series.
The difference in styles between these animations was pretty distinct; the Japanese animations were beautiful and noticeably more detailed and seemed carefully thought out, where each character had their own unique theme that distinguished them from the others. The animations I was used to were more simplified and were often not depicted in a fantasy world.
One night, when I was 12, Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) came on TV. Immediately I was captivated. Everything from the music to the clothing, the architecture, the way the people were depicted and the food, it was all so unfamiliar to me, and that was why I loved it so much.
For me, they were the most lifelike cartoons I had ever seen. Compared to the anime TV shows I had previously watched, Miyazaki’s characters did not have the typical ‘big-eyed, anime look‘. I remember thinking how mysterious and brooding, yet feminine, the character Haku was (in my 12 year old, pre-pubescent mind I would have probably described him differently). I also really liked the character Lin (Rin) who is cold and unmotherly to the main character, Chihiro, at first but then eventually warms up to her. I thought that was unusual of a female character to be that way to a young girl, but I liked it as it taught Chihiro to be independent and strong.
After viewing these Japanese animations I was intrigued by them.
Looking back on the films I grew up watching as a child, the disparity between Disney films and Studio Ghibli films was noticeable, particularly in relation to the portrayal of femininity.
Out of the studio Ghibli productions I have only watched ‘Princess Mononoke’ (1997), ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) and ‘Howls Moving Castle’ (2004). However, despite my limited exposure to Miyazaki’s films, I noticed the portrayal of strong, powerful female characters whose actions would either result in the demise or triumph of their male counterparts e.g. Chihiro and Haku, No-Face and Chihiro, Sophie and Howl. They are ‘complicated, flawed and independent figures.’ Prior to this, the majority of animated films I watched were quite different, with the male typically rescuing the female from her seemingly doomed existence e.g. Cinderalla, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel etc. I think this is because such films revolve primarily around romance and the prospect of marriage, especially the older Disney films. Studio Ghibli seems to portray the lead male and female characters as equals with a mutual respect for one another.
In Miyazaki’s films, the female leads have separate stories from the male leads, stories that usually highlight their independence, power and intelligence. After recently watching ‘Princess Mononoke’ and reflecting on ‘Spirited Away’ and ‘Howls Moving Castle’, the female villains (Lady Eboshi, Yubaba and Witch of the Waste) are portrayed as powerful and intimidating characters. However, their story lines are explored and, consequently, reveal them as complex characters with understandable reasons behind their actions. So what does this do to traditional notions of femininity? It expands them, and creates characters with more dimension and less stereotypes attached to them.
I am also really interested in the notion of cosplay and I additionally want to explore femininity in cosplay and how participants choose to interpret a character in a certain way through their costumes; does it make them feel empowered and confident? What made them decide to cosplay this particular anime? Do they admire these characters?
I am attending the Sydney Comic Con this year in September so I hope to answer these questions there.
I also want to visit the ‘anime station‘ and ‘artist alley‘ to look at how femininity is represented.
For this reason, I am interested in pursuing an independent research project in the form of an essay based on notions of femininity in anime; from films and art to how these animations are translated to real-life scenarios through cosplay.
Contacting online fan clubs to initiate discussion on this topic would also be beneficial and interesting to my research.
To provide more background on my research I may also look at the historical depictions of females in Japanese styles of art and literature.