SOFT POWER HARD TRUTHS / Indie anime opens doors for female creators (Yomiuri, Mar. 16, 2012)

Roland Kelts / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

I was invited to write this column roughly five years ago by an editor who asked for a twice-monthly rumination on the soft power of Japan’s pop culture. One of the first columns I submitted addressed the gap between the images of empowered females in anime and the status of real women in Japan.

Many women in Japan remain mired in a patriarchal culture that limits their career opportunities. Japan continues to rank embarrassingly low on the United Nations index of gender empowerment, beneath several of its less developed Asian neighbors. Overseas fans of Japanese pop culture often see an illusion of female empowerment, delivered via enticing visuals and storylines, and created mostly by men.

But the status of real women in anime production may be evolving through advances in technology and societal shifts accelerated by post-disaster turmoil.

In Tokyo last week, I had dinner with a frustrated male company manager whose views skew conservative. He told me that what Japan needs now is its own “Maggie Thatcher,” a leader who doesn’t owe anyone anything because she’s a female in a male-dominated world. Regardless of Thatcher’s politics, he said, what Japan needs most is power and vision.

I was reminded of Hayao Miyazaki’s remarks when I interviewed him in California a few years ago: “All of our best young artists are women,” he said. “Maybe I need to make films about powerful young men now to give them the strength to compete.”

In the production of anime, Japanese women may also be liberated by changes in the creation of the medium. Just as self-publishing models are enabling writers to reach readers without the third-party involvement of publishers, computer software provides artists in anime the means to craft their art outside of studios, which remain largely male-dominated environs.

Anime auteur Makoto Shinkai, whom I profiled last month, was a pioneer of the new indie anime model in Japan. He created his first anime short, She and Her Cat, entirely on his own, from photographs he took and imagery drafted on the computer tools that were available in 1998. He then wrote, directed and produced his first feature-length anime, Voices from a Distant Star, on his Apple Power Mac G4.

Shinkai told me in New York last year that his goal as an artist was to tell his audience, “You will be OK”–a particularly urgent sentiment in the wake of increasing calamities, he said, not just in Japan, but worldwide.

Hiroshima-based Soubi Yamamato, a 22 year-old female artist from Japan’s new generation of anime auteurs, sees Shinkai as an artistic and spiritual model. “The titles that Mr. Shinkai created on his own opened a door for me to this wonderful culture of indie anime. His creations were were like beacons showing me the way high-quality animation can be made by one committed individual working solo.”

Yamamoto’s first commercial release, This Boy Can Fight Aliens, is a 28-minute story about a trio of young males (one of whom has the power to save the planet) and their fraternal affection and conflicts in the rural home they share. The scenario enables Yamamoto to explore the nuances of human interdependency and camaraderie and the will to survive.

“Although things may be hard now, and you’re struggling and feel like you’re all alone,” she says, “there will always be someone somewhere to help you, and there are definitely some people out there who like you.”

I asked Yamamoto why she was compelled to create anime, a traditional, two-dimensional art form in a world of flashier, more lucrative options.

“It’s true that the problem with the industry is that animators are not paid well. But anime allows me to express the world I have in my imagination in the most complete way. The appeal is that you can use more than just pictures, because in anime, other elements, such as story, voice and music, are interwoven to create the whole.”

“[In Japan] we have had a great manga culture for many years,” she adds. “Those of us who grew up close to manga and anime and aspired to become writers and animators during our childhood are the artists at work now.”

After five years, this will be the last of these columns on soft power and Japanese popular culture. I thank my editors for publishing them, and you for reading. It feels apt to close with a nod to anime’s future and indie artist Yamamoto, who wants us to know through her art that “the world is just a bit kinder than we might think.”

Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” ( and a forthcoming novel, “Access.”