Feminist Anime

Feminist anime is no oxymoron–though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Although most anime viewers, at least in America, are women, anime shows too often reflects a distorted and demeaning picture. You might at first despair of finding strong female characters. Don’t!

There are plenty of intellectually rewarding anime series where the protagonist is neither a wilting flower nor an underdressed nymphet. I’ve compiled a short list of my favorites.

Otogi Zoshi ( )

Used by women’s history teachers
to explain the role of women in Japanese culture, Otogi Zoshi follows
the adventure of Hikaru, younger sister of a samurai, who must rescue
her land from famine in her brother’s place. The first arc, set in the
Heian period, is part martial arts thriller, part historical costume
drama, and part mythical fantasy. If you don’t like pink or the
traditional shoujo color palette, but still want to see strong female
characters and protagonists, Otogi Zoshi might be what you’re looking
for.

The series is not entirely feminist, in part because of the time
period it’s set in, but the main character is strong, loyal and
determined, despite not being as talented as her samurai brother, and
it become clear, through the series, that her role is just as important
as her brother’s.

Princess Knight (??????)

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Created by the legendary Osamu Tezuka, Princess Knight tells the
story of a young woman who must pretend to be male so she can inherit
her father’s throne (which young women are not able to do). Sapphire
has both a boy’s and a girl’s heart (which are, yes, blue and pink) and
refuses to let her sidekick, an “angel in training,” remove the boy’s
heart and “fix things.”

Set in a medeival (by way of Disney) setting, Princess Knight goes
on many exciting adventures. Although the show might seem a little
immature to anyone over the age of 12, it is still a very fun series,
especially if you’re immature at heart.

Revolutionary Girl Utena ( ??????? , )

The premise of Revolutionary Girl Utena is this: a young girl,
orphaned at a young age, is rescued from her despair by a mysterious
prince. This prince gives her a ring with a rose signet, promising that
one day they will meet again. However, instead of becoming a princess,
the girl grows up wanting to be a prince, dressing in a boy’s uniform,
participating in sports, and cultivating a noble, heroic personality,
all the while hoping to find her prince.

The hero, Utena Tenjou, is a strong female protagonist with a
realistic personality. Although she acts with undeniable nobility,
she’s naïve and somewhat gullible–as you would expect for a junior
high student. In an era where so many “strong” female characters are
played up as brittle and bitter, it’s nice to see one who is unbroken,
and who makes no apology–and suffers no punishment–for it.

Utena is perhaps my favorite tv show, animated or otherwise. The series is truly a feminist anime
(and a manga, and a movie) which I found very enjoyable when I first
read/viewed it, at age fourteen…and which I still enjoy watching, for
completely different reasons, almost ten years later.

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The show quickly transcends the traditional shoujo style, and
becomes a psychologically complex, dream-story full of epic, symbolic
struggles between greatness and mediocrity, growth and need, or just
between two people. I’ve already written something of a love letter to the series. And trust me, I do not write many love letters.

If you like anime with deep psychological and philosophical issues,
I recommend Utena. However, the show deals with mature themes, and I
therefore don’t recommend it for kids 12 or under.

Rose of Versailles ( ???????? )

1755, France. Augustin Regnier de Jarjayes wants a son.
Unfortunately for him, his wife’s fifth child is also a daughter. In
frustration and despair, de Jarjayes decides to raise his last daughter
as a boy, calling her “Lady Oscar” and teaching her fencing, horseback
riding, and giving her a career in the military. Lady Oscar is a very
strong heroine, in both senses of the word: she is brave and loyal to a
fault, although, through the series, her growing class consciousness
changes her loyalty from the nobility to the French people.

Many characters in the story, such as Oscar’s father, were real
historical personages, and the events recounted actually happened. It
was originally made in 1979, and marked one of the first “adult” anime
series, with complex psychological themes and an intellectual
background.

Is Rose of Versailles a feminist anime? Lady Oscar is androgynous,
and the other female characters are generally weak, evil or
unintelligent. Lesbian subtext isn’t the same thing as feminism.
However, the viewer is clearly meant to identify with, and look up to
Lady Oscar, rather than the sillier aristocratic females. There is also
no princess narrative, where the female submits and submerges her
identity to the male; though Oscar falls in love, she does not lose
herself in the process.

The Story of Saiunkoku ( ????? )

Set in a fictional Chinese empire called Saiunkoku, the story
focuses on Shurei Hong, a princess who is left destitute as a result of
a recent war. She is very intelligent, industrious and kind. In spite
of this, she constantly runs into obstacles to exercising her skill,
merely because she is a woman. She has to invest much more effort than
her male counterparts, has to be much stronger and more tenacious, and
yet she does not cave in to bitterness or resentment.

The anime is beautifully made. The color palette is almost all light
pastels, making it relaxing to watch, although the characters deal with
serious issues, such as poverty and war.

Also notable:

Howl’s Moving Castle ( ??????? )

Spirited Away ( ???????? )

Simoun ( ???? )

Lady Oscar picture courtesy Acesquad.com . Utena picture courtesy Empty Movement . This post originally appeared, in a slightly different format, on minervana.com .

Join the Conversation

  • ElleStar

    I love anime, so thanks for this list. I’ve only seen an episode of Utena, but really liked it. I’ve also seen some of the other movies.
    I’d add anything else by Miyazaki.
    I have to say that even when the female characters are secondary or a second lead, in anime, they tend to be more fully formed and whole characters than what you see in other animation (Pixar, I’m looking at you).
    Right now, I’m watching Inuyasha that has two strong female leads.
    I also love Azu Manga Diaoh with a fiery passion. It’s just hilarious (problematic in parts) but 90% of the cast is female and all so wonderfully developed that it’s slowly becoming what I consider some of the best anime ever.
    Also problematic in parts, but with wonderful female leads, is The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzamiya. However, the parts that I consider problematic are also very self-aware and almost a wink at and exaggeration of the sexism of other anime.
    I could go on. But this was nice. I’ll have to write some of these down for Netflixing.
    :)

  • 2552

    Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit
    Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex

  • Gular

    Just as a small point of relation:
    Shojou Kakumei Utena is inspired by elements of Rose of Versailles. While not a direct 1:1, the visionary of Utena has said that Rose was one of the inspirations.

  • maidensnowflake

    Omg, i loooooove Azumanga Daioh! Also check out Minami-ke which reminded me of Azumanga when i first saw it :) It’s about three sisters living by themselves and each sister has her own personality, it’s so cute.

  • electrictoaster

    Seconding Moribito! I saw it recommended on another feminist site, and it was well worth checking out. It’s about a traveling bodyguard who’s hired to guard a young prince who’s been ‘cursed’. It’s really neat how they messed around with the typical gender roles in fantasy stories. (Not only is the bodyguard a woman and her charge a boy, but Balsa’s love interest is a healer.) I also love how there is no “bad guy” in the story, just people with inadequate information to make the right choices and nature taking its course. I think it has a lot of the same elements that make Miyazaki movies so wonderful, so if you like his stuff, you might want to give this series a try, too.

  • feckless

    Okay….I can understand a lot of feminist critique on Anime or Japanese culture in general, but there are tons of strong women in Anime….
    Claymore – Full of female warriors
    Black Lagoon – Full of female assasins
    Elfenlied – Very disturbing, very violent – women (or was it aliens looking like women) were pretty much the kick-ass force here
    The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumya – I`ll just say Yuki and that a certain female character is kind of god like
    Oh and someone already mentioned Gits and Moribito..
    I also liked the weelchair bound sister of Code Geass anti-hero. She turns out to be pretty intelligent and strong in the end (I believe she even becomes president of the world)
    Needless to say very often those animes also featured “fan-service” (especially Elfenlied)

  • LexiconLuthor

    RE – Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away
    YES ma’am. I’m increasingly charmed by Hayao Miyazaki and his devotion to his female leads…they are often intelligent, steadfast, passionate and well rounded.
    Thanks for the list too! I love anime, love the style, love the flights of fancy in storytelling, but I’m so bothered by the troubling messages about womanhood buried in many of the themes. Thank you!

  • http://feministing.com/members/natashalutrova/ Natasha

    In Howl’s Moving Castle, I found Sophie to be multi- dimensional until the end. I found her placing true’s love’s kiss upon the prince (turnip head) and only her as the true love was able to place Howl’s heart back. This seems to play into the cliche ‘female strength found in weakness.’ She had palpable, visible strength throughout the rest of the movie. The ending was disappointing in that it played up stereotypical gender roles.