Amazing Women in Film Editorials

The Role of Women in Japan’s Anime Industry

Although the industry tried to claim it would enrich women’s life, the actuality of the situation is that women would enrich the life of animation.

Women are, and have always been, crucial to the development of the anime industry in Japan. From the early days of shiage work to directorial roles, women working in anime have shaped the art form into not only what it is today, but also why it exists at all.

Early Japanese animation

In his book, A History of Japanese Animation (2012), Guido Tavassi suggests the genesis of modern Japanese animation can be traced as far back as the end of the Edo period (or Tokugawa period) when artists such as Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849) began to develop works of art that depicted a sequence of movement, such as the Yakko-odori; Happy Dance woodblock print album (1815-1865).

Yakko-odori; Happy Dance (1815-1865) by Hokusai Katsushika

In the mid-18th century, Japan imported a new form of entertainment from Europe, known as Edo Utsushi-e, a magic lantern that would project a moving image. The word utsushi translates literally as “copy”, and refers to any sort of art form that emulates or is inspired by work produced elsewhere. The Japanese magic lantern differed from the European model. In order to make it more practical, lanterns were made from wood instead of metal, which meant they were light enough to handle.  As a result, the projectionists could wear the lantern around the neck, allowing the images to move with the operator. These shows were accompanied by music and narrator, which paved the way for the introduction of cinematography and the introduction of Thomas Edison and William Dickson’s kinetoscope in 1891. This led to the creation of Japan’s first film projector, the wasei eishaki, which was produced between 1901 and 1902. Furthermore, Fukuhōdō, an early Japanese film studio founded in 1910, imported some animated pictures, such as Fantasmagorie (1908) from France.

Kanjinchō performed by Minwa-Za

Today, historians have not met a consensus as to whether Japanese animation evolved autonomously or as the result of some sort of discovery or import. Nevertheless, it is largely speculated that the developments made in Japanese art would have led to animation. In the postwar period, Japan saw a period of expansive economic growth. In the 1970s, changes in government policy would see Japan transition from a country reliant on heavy industry into one which required far less consumption – lightweight technology. This change led to great advances in mechanical and electronic tech, as well as producing pioneering research. 

Shiage work

The term shiage can be translated into meaning finishing touches. In animation, shiage refers to work such as inking and colouring.  The 1970s and 1980s in particular saw a huge number of women take on shiage roles, because that’s the way recruiting studios intended it to be. In fact, shiage work was almost exclusively advertised in women’s magazines, targeting housewives and homemakers. Often, these roles would be advertised as naishoku, or side work, that married women with children could take on at home. The advertisements were enriched by offerings of education and enrichment, which were recommended to be much more valuable than the time women would waste lazing around in-between cooking, housework, and childcare.

In her paper Shiage and Women’s Flexible Labour in the Japanese Animation Industry, Diane Wei Lewis writes that in the 1970s, a large number of the Japanese public saw themselves as middle class and thus aspired to live a consumer lifestyle. This led advertisements for shiage work to develop a new angle, in which they would promise women entrepreneurial roles in which they could make their own money in order to buy coveted consumer goods.  This idea was further expanded on in the 1980s, when the chief editor of Shufu no tomo, a monthly women’s magazine, declared the decade as “the age of women”.

The 1980s also gave rise to the sengyō shufu, or housewife, ideology, which discouraged women from working outside of the domestic home. As a result, work opportunities for Japanese women were restricted to part-time and temporary roles. Even today, Japanese taxation enforces a socially controversial policy known colloquially  as the “wall of 1.03 million yen”. The wall is essentially a tax break policy which offers healthcare and social security benefits to both a husband and wife, so long as the lower-earning party does not earn over ¥1.03m. Furthermore, many companies offer an additional allowance to husbands whose wives do not earn and income over this threshold. As a result, the majority of part-time and temporary work roles are filled by women which means many Japanese women are unable to embark upon a career, thereby evading the prospects of career advancements and professionalism. 

Thus, until very recently, women who worked in the anime industry were restricted to shiage roles. After the introduction of cel technology, drawings made for animations could be produced more quickly than ever before. Cels meant animation could develop a division of labour, as it moved away from an endeavour in craftsmanship. Tōei Dōga (now Toei Animation), the animation studio to produce Japan’s full length Cinemascope animated film, justified paying such low wages to shiage workers by claiming they were more like trainees than employees. Furthermore, because shiage work was short-lived, the studio also justified women’s career’s as uninvestable and therefore unworthy of equal pay. Tōei Dōga also had a contractual obligation that required women to resign in they got married or had children. In sum, women were not able to become animators, whilst their male counterparts were.

Despite the industry labelling shiage work as low skilled and unimportant, this was simply untrue. Firstly, much shiage work was carried out by young art school graduates who were educated in producing animation, and secondly, shiage work comprised the majority of animated works. For example, in Tōei’s Magic Boy (1959) 120 of the 136 animators were women. In other words, without women, these early films would not exist. In his text Anime: A History, Jonathon Clements argues that there is a “general, industry-wide belief, still extant today, held that women were simply better colourists than men, which sharper instincts for differentiation.” (2013). Although the industry tried to claim it would enrich women’s life, the actuality of the situation is that women would enrich the life of animation.

Kyoto Animation

After exploring the role of women in the animation industry’s input, let’s look at the role of women in the industry’s output. In his article Gender Relationships in Manga and Anime (2000), Eri Izawa argues the certain relationship dynamics can be indexed into a number of categories. For Izawa, a pervading theme in Japanese animation is  that “men ought to be stronger than women”, and the evidence for this viewpoint can be found in anime such as GoLion (1981-1982), Voltron (1984-1985), Cyborg 009 (1964-1981), The Ultraman (1979-1980), City Hunter (1987-1988), and Aim for the Ace! (1973-1974). 

Even today, series such as The Seven Deadly Sins, Hunter X Hunter, and Naruto, maintain an outdated gender dynamic. Time and time again, the series portray women as weak, in need of protection from a male character, or as a hyper sexualised object. Contrastingly, male characters are portrayed as strong and ultra cool. Despite the disparaging of the contributions women have made towards Japanese animation, a pioneering animation studio was founded by married couple Yoko Hatta and Hideaki Hatta in 1981 called Kyoto Animation, known as KyoAni. The Japanese Times referred to KyoAni as a “unique force in Japan’s anime industry”.

“Kyoto Animation had developed a culture by the early 1990s that emphasised communication, education and full-time employment. The studio’s in-house KyoAni School spend a large amount of time training young recruits, a significant percentage of whom were women.”

Kyoto Animation

Last summer, in July 2019, the world received the heartbreaking news that the KyoAni studios had been set on fire as the result of an arson attack suspected to be carried out by Shinji Aoba. The Kyoto Animation arson attack killed at least 36 people, 20 of whom were women, and injured a further 33. The attack is considered as one of Japan’s deadliest massacres since the end of the Second World War. KyoAni is beloved across the world for producing beautifully animated films that embrace the roles of women in their narratives.

Japan’s prolific female animators, writers, and performers

Okuyama Reiko (1936-2007)

Okuyama was a skilled female animator who worked at Tōei Dōga for twenty years, during which time she was a key animator for Little Norse Prince (1968). Okuyama also worked as a key animator for Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Across her career, Okuyama worked as an animator from 1958 to 2003, producing a number of films and television episodes.

Futaki Makiko (1958-2016)

Futaki was recruited by Studio Ghibli in 1981 where she worked as an animator on My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Princess Mononoke (1997), and Spirited Away (2001). Futaki also worked as key animator on Akira (1988).

Tanaka Atsuko

Tanaka is a Japanese voice actress and her most notable role is as Motoko Kusanagi in the Ghost in the Shell anime film franchise. She also stays in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Queen’s Blade, Black Bulter, and Utawarerumono. Aside from her acting roles in anime, Tanaka has dubbed numerous films and video games in Japanese.

Nakamura Kazuko (1933-2019)

Like Okuyama, Nakamura also worked at Tōei Dōga for a time, where she worked as an animator on Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), Magic Boy (1959), and The Orphan Brothers (1961). Nakamura was offered a role at Mushi Pro where she worked on Astro Boy (1963). Nakamura also worked at Tezuka Productions, where she worked in directorial roles for Jack and the Beanstalk (1974) and Phoenix 2772 (1980).

Yamamoto Sayo

Yamamoto began her career at Studio Madhouse and had her debut as a director when she was just 25 in 2002. Yamamoto is known for directing Michiko & Hatchin (2008-2009), Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine (2012), and Yuri!!! on Ice (2016). Yamamoto has also worked as a unit director for the opening animation of the 2016 video game Persona 5. Yamamoto also storyboarded Redline (2009).

Okada Mari

Okada is a Japanese screenwriter, director, and manga artist. She is known for writing a number of anime series, including Sasami: Magical Girls Club (2006) and Black Butler (2008). In 2018, Okada wrote and directed Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, and this year she wrote the screenplay for A Whisker Away (2020).

Yoshida Reiko

Yoshida is a screenwriter, and has written for a number of animated series including Dragon Ball Z (1989), Virtua Fighter (1995), Digimon Adventure (1999), and Bakuman (2010-2013). Yoshida also wrote the screenplay for The Cat Returns (2002) and A Silent Voice (2016) alongside Yamada Naoko.

Okudera Satoko

Okudera is a screenwriter known for writing The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006), Summer Wars (2009), and Wolf Children (2012). Okudera’s most recent project is TV adaptation of Akeno Kaeruko’s Watashi, Teiji de Kaerimasu (2019), subtitled No Working After Hours!

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“Edo Utsushi-e Performances in Eastern Europe Reviving the Edo Phantasm” – The Japan Foundation. Available to read here:

Izawa, E. (2000). Gender Relationships in Manga and Anime. Available to read here:

“Kyoto Animation: A unique force in Japan’s anime industry” – The Japanese Times. Available to read here:


Guido Tavassi (2012). A History of Japanese Animation: Authors, Art, Industry, Success from 1917 to Today. Available to read here:

Lewis, Diane Wei. (2018). Shiage and Women’s Flexible Labor in the Japanese Animation Industry. Available to read here:

Tze-Yue G. Hu (2010). Frames of Anime: Culture and Image-building. Available to read here:

Jonathon Clements (2013). Anime: A History. Available to read here: 

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